If you’re regularly on the move, modern mobile apps enable you to do real work rather than twiddle your thumbs on a train. We unearth the top 20 apps for those in the industry
Since the original iPad’s release, the device has come under fire from, frankly, died-in-the-wool PC fans, claiming it’s for consumption only. Anyone who’s used an iPad – or, for that matter, a capable smartphone or alternative tablet – knows that’s hogwash. Sure, few designers want to set fire to their PCs or Macs and go mobile-only, but when you are away from your set-up, the current generation of apps enables you to work while on the go. And when you’re surrounded by all your technology, the best apps can still inspire and prove useful. With the help of designers and developers, we unearth 20 of the best.
1. Adobe Ideas
Adobe is widely known for its complex and weighty desktop applications, so it’s great to see the company innovating with user-friendly and straightforward mobile apps. Adobe Ideas in particular appears to be a common part of iOS and Android users’ toolkits, enabling designers to jot down quick ideas that can be later worked on in Illustrator or Photoshop. “It’s awesome for sketching, particularly the iPad version when you’ve got one of the Wacom capacitive-display-friendly pens,” says designer and writer Stephanie Rieger.
2. Adobe Shadow
Price: Free (during beta)
Adobe Shadow seemed to spring from nowhere, but developers love it. The free software enables you to test a website on a Mac or PC and automatically have a number of connected devices mirror the site. “It really makes testing on mobile devices a lot faster,” enthuses frontend web developer Christian Oliff. “Just install the extension in Chrome and your iPad, iPhone and Android devices sync to whatever’s in the Chrome window.” Shadow is expected to be part of Adobe Creative Cloud.
For people in the industry who spend as much time crafting words as they do visuals or code, a decent writing tool is a must. Although many work with some variant of an office suite, plenty of simpler writing apps exist. Blogger, author and speaker Paul Boag is a big fan of Byword: “It’s a great app for writing blog posts, with a clean, uncluttered interface and Markdown support.” The app also boasts iCloud and Dropbox-sync across Mac, iPhone and iPad versions.
Price: Free (requires Dropbox account)
File-sync/share service Dropbox was the second most popular app among the people we spoke to. Developer Andrew Dean calls it revolutionary, but says its potential is only being realised by a select few; he thinks the “next wave in creative and productive apps will be focused around services such as Dropbox”. But beyond being a foundation for other apps, Dropbox is useful for sharing files and bringing documents to the iOS ‘walled garden’. “I use it for transferring mock-ups to present to clients on my iPad,” says Oliff. Elemental director Tim Gibbon uses Dropbox similarly: “It allows me to share files with clients and quickly update devices simultaneously. It’s also compatible with iPad and Mac, so I can access everything everywhere and check files while on the move.”
Price: Free (requires Evernote account)
Platform: iPhone/iPad/Android/BlackBerry/Windows Phone 7
Digital scrapbook and archiving tool Evernote enables you to store all manner of files and thoughts, transporting your information “to the magical cloud of elephants”. With web designers often juggling ideas and inspiration, it’s no surprise this app was the most popular with those we spoke to. “It’s the only mobile app I extensively use,” claims developer Christopher Imrie, who finds it indispensable for organisation and note keeping. “I use it for client project notes, product development roadmaps or ideas, product support queries and meeting notes. For meetings, I use Evernote on my iPad; when on the go, I have the data on my iPhone; and at the office, it’s all there on my Mac.” Student and interaction designer Tash Wong also lives by the app: “I can take notes, jot down ideas, clip articles, and email links all to one place.”
Flipboard takes your favourite feeds and converts them into a digital magazine for iOS. Metakinetic lead designer Daniel Ruffle thinks it’s a great app: “With so many inspirational sites and feeds available, I find Flipboard perfect for collating everything into a manageable, well-presented app to read. Its newspaper-like presentation enables easy skimming, and you can rapidly exclude anything not of interest, but you can also drill down further when unearthing a gem.”
Price: Free (requires Harvest subscription)
Online time-tracking and timesheet software Harvest is well-liked among freelance web designers, and so it follows that the company’s mobile apps are popular. But Harvest’s apps also showcase that you need more than a mere connection to a service – you need something that makes sense on mobile and that enables people to be more productive. Freelance web developer Stephen Fulljames elaborates: “Harvest’s mobile app focusses the UI on the most important tasks – recording time and expenses – and you can take receipt photos and sync them later. When buying train tickets, I can record them immediately, ie before I forget!”
Perhaps the biggest benefit of the iPad is a sense of focus: the device essentially becomes whatever is being run on it. This means no distractions, enabling you to quickly and efficiently get on with tasks. iMockups for iPad is, thinks UX designer Aral Balkan, “great for creating low-fidelity wireframes for designs”. The interface is a simple multitouch drag-and-drop affair, which enables you to concentrate on functionality, rather than visuals. Documents can be emailed in the app’s own format, or exported to PNG and BMML.
Filter-infused iOS photo-sharing app Instagram now has hundreds of millions of users and also arrived for Android in April 2012. Designer Tom Muller tells us it’s “not necessarily a tool used for production of work, but I use it heavily to facilitate broadcasting work-in-progress and other work-related imagery to Twitter and blogs”. Web strategist Jason Pamental reckons it’s his tool of choice for getting in daily creativity: “We can’t always be in love with every project, but I like to kickstart my day with challenging myself to find an interesting photo on my morning dog walks. I’ve been doing this since before Instagram came out, but it’s become something of a ‘thing’ in and of itself. I collect the photos on my own site and use it as an ‘inspiration gallery’.”
Increasingly, designers and developers are creating projects for mobile, but they’re not creating them on mobile devices. This produces a disconnect, because what you see on your computer’s display won’t necessarily equate to what you eventually see on a device. Web standards guru Oli Studholme recommends checking out LiveView, for “getting instant feedback on how things look when designing graphics for mobile apps and sites”.
11. Nebulous Notes
Earlier, Dean raved about Dropbox being the foundation for a number of highly useful apps, and one of his favourites is Dropbox-centric text editor Nebulous Notes: “It offers Markdown previewing and customisable macro shortcuts, and you can edit files from any Dropbox folder, unlike many other apps, which tie you to just one. It also provides local file storage with synchronisation. It’s the closest thing to a Notational Velocity/nvALT in-your-pocket.” There’s also the option to change the app’s theme and full-screen support for the focus-obsessed.
12. Opera Mini
Platform: iPhone/iPad/Android/BlackBerry/Windows Mobile/Symbian
There have long been arguments about a WebKit monoculture developing on mobile, but as we’ve noted in the past, this isn’t accurate, and web designers and developers on both iPhone and Android could do a lot of good by downloading Opera Mini and testing sites in it. Senior usability engineer Adrian Roselli adds that, where possible, you should go further: “Install Opera Mobile, Firefox, and Dolphin for additional browser testing”.
Designers like to scribble: notes, ideas, sketches, wireframes. They also like to collaborate, which isn’t terribly easy to do if your scrawls are on the back of random envelopes. This is where Penultimate comes in. “It’s my go-to app when I need to take notes or quickly sketch something,” says freelance web designer John Alex Jacob, adding that it’s easy to use, versatile, and has both Dropbox and Evernote support. Oliff adds that plenty of thought has gone into the interface: “It looks beautiful, with a large canvas, and there’s a selection of ‘papers’ with different textures and background patterns.”
14. Remember the Milk
Price: Free (requires Remember the Milk account; ‘pro’ is $25/year)
“I live religiously through Remember the Milk on iPhone,” says Econsultancy news editor Vikki Chowney. “The ability to create lists on-the-fly is invaluable for me, and it’s worth upgrading to ‘pro’ for the ability to sync whenever you like.” The straightforward to-do list manager also caught the eye of UX designer Mark Forscher, but mostly in app form: “I use the iOS version, and I actually prefer the app’s interface to the regular website.”
Although we’ve already mentioned sketching apps, digital creative Michael Heald recommends taking a look at iPad app Sketchshare. “There are plenty of great sketching apps for mobile, but Sketchshare offers something different, in allowing you to share sketches in real-time with other iPad users,” he says. “In situations where a conference call isn’t getting the message across, you can sketch live. And because this is a true sharing tool, a client can draw on the sketch at the same time. It’s allowed me to get to a solution way faster than via chatting and a bout of email tennis.”
Price: £1.99/$2.99 (iPhone)/free (web)
The bare-bones but visually compelling Teux Deux is another to-do app that’s popular with designers. It’s available for free on the web, and there’s also a commercial app for iOS. Student and interaction designer Allison Shaw is a big fan: “It’s dead simple – and therefore kind of hackable – but it also got a lot of usability details right: it’s dated so that you can be realistic about when things are going to happen; unfinished items automatically roll to the next day; and days don’t end until 4 am, meaning insomniacs like myself don’t feel bad for working late into the night!”
Some apps aren’t about building things, and are instead intended to inspire and get you thinking. TED talks are some of the finest brain food imaginable, and the app enables you to access a selection of talks and download them to your device for later playback. “It’s simply addictive,” says Gibbon. “TED brings plenty of content into a classy, simple app I can get lost in for hours. It’s great to flick through, browsing inspirational talks from a variety of interesting and talented people.”
Although many people argue tablets are for productivity and not consumption, it’s also rare anyone creating websites advocates shifting from a desktop to an iPad, but Morgan Adams reckons Textastic makes such a notion seem surprisingly reasonable: “This text editor for iPad makes almost all my non-image work possible, even if my laptop isn’t with me. Textastic connects directly with FTP servers, Dropbox, and local storage for offline work. It’s a great code editor, with syntax colouring, search-and-replace, and a neat strip of extra programming character keys on the on-screen keyboard.”
19. What The Font
When it works, WhatTheFont is like a little slice of magic. You snap a photo or send to it an image from your on-device images and the app attempts to figure out what font is shown within. Muller says it’s one of the few apps he uses when he’s at his office desk, because it works as a useful companion to his Mac: “It enables me to keep my main focus on whatever files I’m working on without having to flip back and forth between browser and file to check a font. It’s also very handy in restaurants to check menu fonts!”
Wunderlist is another task manager that’s snared designers with its ease of use and sleek UI. “It’s changed the way I keep myself organised,” says Flash game developer Iain Lobb. “I can keep a separate list for each project, put to-do items in order, and flag really important ones, meaning I do vital tasks first.” Designer and UX expert D Keith Robinson is also an admirer: “It’s a great service that works well on mobile, helping me stay organised as my back-up brain.”
What are your favourite mobile apps? How much work do you use tablets and smartphones for? Let us know in the comments.