Best apps: Our experts pick 50 of the most dazzling

Got a new tablet computer or smartphone for Christmas? Don’t be put off by the staggering amount of apps available – our experts have handpicked some of the best.

The web has undergone something of a makeover in the past couple of years. Apps, specialised miniature versions of internet-based services, now allow us to neatly populate our phones and tablet computers with our favourite bits of the web, from train times and painting tools to shopping services and karaoke. Simply packaged and easy to buy, apps have made niche corners of the web more accessible and mainstream.

Software developers and publishers have enthusiastically embraced the app revolution, rising to the challenge of customising their services for smaller screens but also taking advantage of new opportunities. On mobile phones, that includes using GPS technology to provide useful results – whether it’s astronomy, restaurant reviews or live traffic updates that interest you. There is a thriving ecosystem of developers, some in large companies, many operating alone out of their bedrooms.

The alluring 9in touchscreen of Apple’s iPad has inspired several customisable magazine formats (such as Flipboard), and has proved great for gaming, allowing groups of friends to cluster around multi-player Scrabble or the addictive Touch Hockey. Long journeys just don’t seem as long any more. There are also countless anecdotes about how children as young as 18 months have intuitively learned how to use the iPad, and, in moderation, games such as Animals HD and the excellently crafted Spot Goes to School (yes, that Spot) are powerful learning tools.

Since the App Store launched in July 2008, Apple has popularised apps for mobile phones and for tablets and offers the most diverse range of products, with 300,000 apps in its store. (Significantly, Steve Jobs also plans on bringing a Mac App Store to the latest versions of his desktop Macs early next year.) But there are now plenty of rivals, with Google, BlackBerry, Nokia and Microsoft Windows all introducing their own app stores, as well as independent sites such as GetJar that offer apps for multiple devices. Often, apps are free to download; others cost a one?off fee or require a form of subscription.

Google’s sleek phones, which use software called Android, are cheaper than Apple’s devices, and the Android Marketplace already has 130,000 apps on offer. Google is aggressively targeting Apple and aims to win this particular arms race.

BlackBerry’s App World, meanwhile has a little over 15 000 apps, while Microsoft’s new Windows Phone Marketplace has 5 000-plus. There is already a slew of Android-powered tablets to rival the iPad, including Samsung’s Galaxy Tab and the Advent Vega, and 2011 will see many similar devices launched by other companies.

If you’ve been lucky enough to lay your hands on a new tablet computer or smartphone in the past 48 hours, don’t be daunted by the amount of apps available. Just search for what you like, ask your friends what they’ve discovered… and use our handpicked guide to find the most dazzling, useful and novel apps out there.

Fotopedia Heritage
iPad, iPhone, free. The world’s largest coffee-table book featuring more than 25 000 sumptuous photographs and articles about 890 Unesco world heritage sites. It’s continually expanding as well and it’s free.

Google Goggles
Android, iPad, iPhone, free. This visual search tool has a dedicated following among alpha geeks but deserves wider attention. It lets you use pictures, taken on your cellphone, to search the web.

Word Lens
iPad, iPhone, $4,60. Not without some flaws, this augmented-reality translator is still stunning. Point the camera at a foreign language (on a menu, say) and it turns into English on the screen. Spanish-only at the moment; more languages promised.

iPhone, $1,83. This clever camera accessory gives various retro effects and the option to buy lenses, flashes and films to bring back the control of analogue picture taking. Being able to order prints from inside the app is super-smart.

Android, $4,60. Supercharge your Android’s camera with a dizzying array of film effects, from murky Polaroids to eye-popping cross-processing. Integrates seamlessly with your favourite social networking sites too.

Android, iPhone, free. Ambitious, augmented-reality app overlays services on to the view through your phone’s camera. Dozens of free and paid-for “layars” include a property finder and singles looking for dates. This is what the future feels like.

iPad, iPhone, free. Lovely educational app for budding astronauts with lots of news from Nasa. Find out when you’ll be able to see the International Space Station passing. Also videos, images and lots of info on planets and asteroids and comets.

Android, BlackBerry, iPad, iPhone, Palm, Windows Phone, free. Create a searchable, taggable database of all the web-clippings, photos and notes you need to hand wherever you are. Syncs to every device imaginable.

iPad, free. Dubbed the next generation of magazine publishing, Flipboard takes news feeds from various sites, including Twitter and Facebook, and brings them together beautifully. Wonderful lean-back experience.

iPad, $7,70. David Hockney began experimenting with touchscreen digital painting on the iPhone, so was happy as Larry when the iPad extended his canvas to 9,56 x 7,47in. “Van Gogh would’ve loved it,” he once said.

Android, iPhone, Palm, free. Only for premium subscribers to the Spotify music download service, but this app will quickly replace your iPod. Offers painless syncing with the desktop app and a recent update eradicates slow loading problems.

Tunein Radio
Android, iPad, iPhone, 90 US cents. Frustrated by the lack of FM radios in Apple products? This app gives easy access to more than 40 000 stations. You can save favourites and record. Works brilliantly over Wi-Fi, but can stumble if 3G reception is patchy.

Android, BlackBerry, iPad, iPhone, Symbian, free. Wi-Fi calls to millions of Skype users are free on this simple app – though you may need to pay for use on 3G. Sadly, you’ll have to use a computer or Apple’s facetime for video calling.

Android, iPad, iPhone, free. It has the official Twitter app beat hands down, and is one of the best clients available. It organises salient information into separate columns and can sync settings across phones and desktops.

Angry Birds Seasons
Android free, iPad $4,60. iPhone 90 US cents. Special edition of the game that everyone’s been talking about. Don’t ask why the birds are angry, they just are, and they want revenge by destroying forts built by the evil green pigs. Brilliant.

Cut the Rope
iPad, iPhone, 90 US cents. Meet Om Nom, the ever-hungry, green, gobbling monster. Your quest is to feed him candy as quickly as possible by catapulting, swinging or floating it into his mouth. A simple, value-for-money game.

Doodle Jump
Android, BlackBerry, iPad, iPhone, Nokia, 90 US cents. An addictive classic. Simply tilt your phone from side to side to direct the Doodler as it bounces higher and higher on a series of disappearing platforms while avoiding killer aliens and other pitfalls.

Pocket Empires
Android, free. Epic gaming on a miniature scale: this is an MMO-strategy number along the lines of Civilization, allowing you to build an empire, conquer others, capture creatures and expand your domain. Nice graphics, seriously addictive.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition
iPad, iPhone, 90 US cents. An all-time classic with a new lick of paint The point-and-click genre is perfect for the touchscreen, updated graphics shine in hi-def and the tricky yet witty puzzles retain their allure.

Plants vs Zombies
iPhone, $2,70. Zombies dominate the cellphone game market, but this undead spin on the tower defence genre is no mere cash-in. It’s one of the best of its type – constructing floral defences from the brain-eating foe is endlessly entertaining.

Doctor Who: The Mazes of Time
iPad $4,60, iPhone $3,60. Engaging puzzler that’s hard enough to keep you playing but not so difficult you’ll give up. Graphics are a bit clunky and there’s no voice acting from either Matt Smith (the Doctor) or Karen Gillan (Amy).

Android, BlackBerry, iPad, iPhone, Windows Phone, free. Pain-free cellphone shopping app that allows you to buy as well as list items super-fast using a barcode scanner and your device’s camera. Making and spending money has never been easier.

iA Writer
iPad, $4,60. A beautiful and simple design lets you concentrate on writing with no clutter, no fussy font options and no distractions. It’s word-processing stripped back and fans swear their productivity has improved as a result.

iPad, iPhone, free. One of an emerging number of apps that encourage charity work; aimed at 16-25 year-olds in the UK, this lets you search and apply for thousands of volunteering opportunities and record the experience.

Android, BlackBerry (from 2011), iPad, iPhone, Windows Phone, all phones via SMS, free. Discount vouchers for shops, restaurants, cinemas, leisure outlets and garden centres. Geo-location allows you to search for offers near you — but few work at weekends.

Which? Your Rights
iPad, iPhone, free. Not the sexiest of apps, but this mobile guide to consumer rights will arm you with all you need to know in your fight against nasty high street conglomerates, from dealing with faulty goods to returning unwanted Christmas gifts.

Real Tools
iPhone, $1,80. Leave the weighty toolbox behind, with 18 tools crammed into one little app — everything from a ruler to a spirit level, and all surprisingly accurate. The measuring scale is a particularly impressive use for a phone.

iPad, iPhone, free. Most high street chains have their own apps but Hennes deserves a mention for the app-only discounts that appear when you shake the phone. It also offers a style guide, online shopping and lots of pretty fashion pictures.

Malcolm Tucker
iPhone, $6,15. There’s a premium on this app from The Thick of It writing team — but it’s worth every penny. The incoming mail and missed call notifications make owning Tucker’s missing phone a near-reality.

iPad, iPhone, $2,70. This reverse karaoke app will turn anything you sing or grunt into a song. Especially popular after a few brandies, LaDiDa will tune your voice, add reverb and a tempo and set your effort to music.

iPad, iPhone, $12,30. Stephen Fry owned what was possibly the first Apple Mac in Britain, so it’s fitting that this app isn’t simply his latest book, The Fry Chronicles, in digital form but a beautifully designed interactive version. Pricey but groundbreaking.

Infinity Blade
iPad, iPhone, $5,30. Fairly pricey, but stunning visuals and moreish sword and sorcery gameplay. The combat is impressively layered, with blocks, parries and dodges needed before embarking on a finger-swiping sword attack.

Marvel Comics
iPad, iPhone, free. Comics and graphic novels work great on the iPad, and Marvel’s offering leads the way. The app is free, with a whole universe of comics available for $1,80. Zoom in and out as you please, or tap to be guided from panel to panel.

The Elements
iPad, $12,30. The periodic table, but not as you might still visualise it from distant schooldays, as a daunting wallchart. Rather, 3D images that you can rotate by touch make — yes — learning fun. Is bismuth the prettiest element?

Spot Goes to School
iPad, $4,60. Outstanding interactive book redesigned for the iPad, with interactive flaps, animal noises and a game. Perfect for toddlers and for some parent-child bonding, though clean those sticky fingers first.

Jamie’s Recipes
iPad, iPhone, free. Jamie Oliver’s apps are even easier to follow than his books and more fun — although not that “recipe packs” such as “comfort food”, “10-minute meals” and a timely “festive feasts” cost $1,80 each for 10 recipes.

NHS Drinks Tracker
iPhone, free. Essentially a calculator, this app has the alcohol content of all manner of drinks, letting you measure your consumption. It even provides a slightly worrying graph of your drinking over time and a personalised lecture.

Nike + GPS
iPhone, $1,80. Plot out a run to the exact metre on the maps, then head out using GPS and your phone’s accelerometer to track speed and distance travelled. The app even provides a vocal kick up the backside when you start to flag.

Carbon Tracker
iPad, iPhone, free. For the green-thinking. Using GPS, plug in the distance of travel, then the method of transport, and it will spit out an exact carbon footprint for all your festive journeys, providing a surplus of guilt with which to begin the year.

iPad, iPhone, $7,70. The navigation is confusing and it’s a touch overpriced but here’s your chance to recreate the BBC’s oddball quiz show by browsing a plethora of little-known facts and famous sayings and adding your own.

iPad, monthly updates $6,10. The slickest fashion app yet? Vogue went the extra mile to reimagine the magazine with exclusive video and an imaginative interactive design. iPad owners who liked this also bought Vanity Fair and PopSci’s apps.

Android, BlackBerry, iPad, iPhone, free. Buy and read ebooks from Amazon on this great app. The great Whispersync feature automatically keeps your page across different devices, such as the Kindle e-reader, iPad or mobile.

iPad, iPhone, free. The ultimate save-now, read-later app for news junkies. Instapaper strips out ads and design clutter for more leisurely reading. Save stories throughout the day by emailing them to your Instapaper account.

The Economist
iPad, iPhone, free. Free, with a few free articles, but chiefly of interest to existing Economist subscribers, who see the magazine drop magically on to their device once a week. Leaving the print version unread…

iPad, free. A showcase for the best photography featured in the Observer and the Guardian, it downloads the latest 100 images. The pro tip, a note on how the photographer achieved the shot, is a nice touch.

iPad, iPhone, free. A brilliant accompaniment on journeys when you’re not in the mood for reading. A bevy of inspirational talks, all around 15 minutes long and available to download for offline viewing (iPad only). Great clean interface.

Weather HD
iPad, iPhone, 90 US cents. Gorgeous app that provides hourly or three-day forecasts, illustrated by soothing videos. That’s it, really, but it looks beautiful and is surprisingly useful. A Christmas edition is also available.

Own Voice for Ovi Maps
Nokia, free. Ovi Maps provides free. satnav, an enticing proposition given that a TomTom will come in at over $154, and there’s the bonus of uploading any voice as your guide around town for a less annoying driving experience.

Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, Nokia, free. Using the GPS on the phone, this app lets you check into your location — acting not simply as a stalker’s charter, but a chance to earn loyalty bonuses in various shops, bars and restaurants.

BlackBerry, iPad, iPhone, free. A social networking app with a difference. First, it’s wholly mobile, using GPS or Wi-Fi technology to determine your location and connect you with others looking for love. Second, as of now, it’s really just for gay men.

  • Apps chosen by Dugald Baird, Kate Bevan, Adam Boult, Josh Halliday, Mark King, Jemima Kiss, Tom Lamont, Toby Moses and Michael Whitaker –
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    Jemima Kiss
    Jemima Kiss works from San Francisco, CA. Writer-editor-journalist // Then: @Guardian Now: @Medium and others // Also trying to live #plasticfree Jemima Kiss has over 60514 followers on Twitter.

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