Since we are basically living in the age of the Jetsons (minus the flying cars), one of my favorite hobbies is trying new smartphone apps and seeing how they might help me accomplish my goals, organize my life or just make things easier.
If you are also an app maven, I highly recommend Product Hunt as a wonderful source for a neverending stream of new applications just waiting to be discovered and downloaded. Receiving their daily newsletter is often one of the best distractions of my workday…and then I find an app that helps me have a more productive workday, so I think it all evens out. Follow me there!
Not all of the apps on this list were discovered via Product Hunt, and I should note that I am not being paid to endorse any of them. I have simply found them to be useful in my daily life, and maybe you will, too.
Exercising is the worst. OK, so maybe it’s not the worst, but it can often be a grind, especially when you’re first trying to make it a part of your routine or trying to get back on the weight-loss wagon. I’ve had a FitBit for a couple years and I like using it, but I prefer Strava’s interface and it syncs with my FitBit anyway. Strava won’t make your actual running any easier, but it will make it a little more social. The feed of friends’ exercise activities shows up as soon as you open the app and adds an inherent level of encouragement, as it feels like we are all in this together.
Fair warning: If you have a lot of athletic friends who are running much farther and faster than you ever will, you might get a little of that social media envy that everyone is talking about these days. Swallow your pride and use it as inspiration!
The ability to give and receive “kudos” is also encouraging, and Strava recently ran a promotion where they would send a physical “kudos” card with a personal message to the friend of your choice on the app. Good stuff.
You can easily manually log exercise or track it in the moment. Strava reports on your average speed, mile splits and even shows a line graph of your speed over the course of your workout, so you can see where you sped up because that dog was chasing you or slowed down to tighten your shoes. By logging into the Web version, you can build “routes” that can be selected in the app when logging repeated workouts, if you have a particular course that you like to run.
Finally, it’s nice to be able to make up a funny name for each workout session. When it comes to making exercise fun, it really is all about the little things. Strava actually makes me slightly more excited about running on my treadmill in the winter, so that’s a big win in my book.
I love podcasts, and they are an essential part of my work commute. When I switched from an iPhone to a Google Pixel, I lamented the loss of Overcast, my podcast-consuming app of choice that somehow still doesn’t have an Android version. My wife is an even bigger podcast fiend than I am, so we paid for Android’s Pocketcasts when we saw it had good reviews. It’s fine, but I really don’t like the inability to download a single episode of a podcast or see episode descriptions without subscribing to it first. A podcast needs to earn my subscription. I have specific tastes and I like to try before I buy.
Enter Castbox. I don’t remember how I found it, but I’m sure glad that I did. Everything about it is intuitive and wonderful. It makes new podcast discovery a breeze (the only thing I like to discover more than new apps are new podcasts!) with notifications of podcasts it thinks I will like based on my listening history. Normally I wouldn’t tolerate these sorts of unbidden daily notifications, but Castbox has actually suggested some pretty good podcasts to me, so I left them enabled.
In addition to all the normal features of a podcast-listening app, it also has a powerful tool for searching by podcast or episode, and even returns results for episodes that contain a certain word or phrase. For example, maybe when you were a kid you were obsessed with the Warren Beatty movie version of Dick Tracy, and maybe more recently you wanted to see if there are any podcast episodes that mention it. Castbox will tell you. Hypothetically, of course.
Of all the types of new apps that I have tried, to-do list apps are probably the most numerous. For a long time, I just wasn’t able to find one that was simple to use and effective for organizing my life. I have tried Wunderlist and ToDoist and Google Keep and Google Assistant and Siri-powered reminders and a bunch of other ones with clever appy names.
To-do lists and organizational systems are a very personal thing and I would never insist that what I do would work for someone else, but this is my method: I have delegated the tasks of listing what I have to do and reminding me to do something into two separate applications.
WeDo is the app that I use as a reminder system. The simple interface and ability to set up “habits” for recurring reminders is working well for me. I currently have habits set up to remind me to do things like “Take a vitamin” or “Play HQ Trivia.” I can also set reminders for specific dates and times — far out in advance — so that if I think of something I have to do at work when I’m falling asleep on Friday night, I will be reminded to actually do it at a specific time on Monday morning.
The Inbox feature is a great way to save random ideas you get in the shower in a place that you can check back later. It also saves all of your unfinished tasks in your inbox, so it can become a to-do list of sorts, if necessary. In my case, it reminds me of what I either need to accomplish immediately or need to relegate to my longer term to-do list.
Now that I have a useful reminder system, I needed a place to be able to write lists and notes and to dump other text and documents. I needed something that would be accessible and sync-able on mobile, laptop and desktop, and would save my work even when I was offline. I needed something that would be a distraction-free and encouraging platform on which to write longer blog posts while I commuted home on the train.
Once again, I don’t remember how I found it, but Notebook solved all my issues. It has most of the functionality of Evernote, but it’s completely free and I just like the aesthetic more. Content is saved in notebooks (that render as actual notebooks with customizable covers!) and multiple content types are available. You can record audio, save PDFs and other file types, upload photos and make to-do lists with satisfying checkboxes that gray out the line item when checked.
It has everything I need and has never had an issue syncing across platforms or randomly deleting something that I’ve added to it. I can’t quite explain it, but I also like it as a writing platform. I had previously tried Bear, but I like the greater flexibility and WYSIWYG nature of Notebook. If you’re tired of Evernote or don’t want to pay, I highly recommend it.
One of the biggest losses for me when I switched from an iPhone to a Pixel was no longer having the ability to use AirDrop between my phone and my laptop. Working in digital communications, I would frequently take a photo on my phone or a screenshot or something else that I wanted to instantly transfer to my laptop. Well, I recently found Pushbullet on Product Hunt and it’s even better than what I had before.
Through the power of a smartphone app and a related Chrome extension, I am able to not only transfer files between my devices, but also see and interact with notifications from my phone on other devices. This means that if someone texts me while I’m at work, I can respond from my computer. If someone sends me a link via text, I can open it in a browser on my computer. If I copy a link or text on my computer that I need on my phone, I can send it via Pushbullet and collect it in the app on my phone. I only found this solution a couple weeks ago, but I have used it so much that it’s almost hard to remember how annoying some tasks were without it.
When I had an aging iPhone, the greatest daily struggle of my digital life was trying to free up space to download podcasts and take photos.
I regularly employed that trick of attempting to buy a movie in iTunes that was greater than the space you had free on your device, but even that wasn’t enough sometimes. When I got a Pixel with a much bigger hard drive, I was a free man.
Now that I’ve had the Pixel for more than a year, I’m back to living on the edge with a gigabyte or less of free space at any given time. FilesGo, a Product Hunt find, is Google’s tool to help you find ways to free up space. I’m not sure if or how this would work on an iPhone that doesn’t let you see the backend of your files as easily as an Android, but it could be the silver bullet that anyone needs to find and destroy files that are unnecessary. My favorite feature is probably the two clicks that allow me to clear the cache of every app on my phone. I also like the feature that reminds me of apps that I no longer use and can delete.
If you can’t get enough digital media to consume between podcasts, streaming video services and Spotify, perhaps you should consider Hoopla. By logging in with your library card, you can download e-books, audio books, movies, TV shows, graphic novels and more from your local library system. This app has been perfect for longer road trips or other travel, when it’s an ideal time to concentrate on listening to a book. It’s also great for staying caught up with your book club, as you can multitask by “reading” the book while you do something else.
It’s absolutely free — take that, Audible.com! — and I’ve been surprised at how many newer titles are available. I’ve also been frustrated by what isn’t available, by the app’s somewhat glitchy interface and by the usual conundrum of library lending — the item gets returned before I have a chance to finish it. That said, you get plenty of downloads each month and can always just check it out again. The files can be fairly huge though — especially audiobooks — so you might need to have FilesGo at the ready to help free up enough space for you to download a longer book.
As long as we’re talking about Google, there is literally no reason why you shouldn’t be using Google Photos to back up your camera photos and any other digitized photos you have from any other point in your life. I create a lot of digital content in my day job, and I recently started uploading the 100+ videos that I’ve created over the last six years for professional projects. It’s free storage and easily shareable in direct links to a piece of content or galleries of related content. The sharing features are especially crucial for an Android user like me, since I can’t share high-res video clips via SMS. Instead, Google Photos creates a link to the video and I can send that to anyone.
Google already knows almost everything there is to know about me, so I’m not really afraid (though maybe I should be?) of them having access to photos of me in sports goggles on my junior high basketball team. In fact, I’m glad that they are helping me preserve those photos for future generations to laugh at.
I also love the Google Photo Assistant “creations” that grab animated GIFs from videos I upload or automatically populate “then and now” images of my daughter as she grows up. It also produces original compilation videos (with music!) that groups photos based on a theme (year in review, images of smiling people, what you did this weekend).
These can sometimes be really touching — like the “They Grow Up So Fast” video it automatically made of my daughter’s first year of life — or hilariously stupid when it thinks it’s grabbing really important photos that are just…not.