While 2021 has been a weird year overall, it’s felt like a return to normalcy on the app front. The endless attempts to reinvent video chat have quieted down. And while remote work tools remain in vast abundance, some of this year’s best apps have nothing to do with being productive.
Table of Contents
As in previous years, this list focuses on apps that either launched in 2021 or saw substantial updates that warrant fresh consideration. It also tries to avoid obvious choices from major tech players in favor of those that could use a little more attention. With those qualifications in mind, here are the best new apps that 2021 had to offer.
A better forecast: What app roundup would be complete without a neat new weather app to try? Weather Strip is brilliant in its simplicity, presenting nothing but a series of line graphs for hour-by-hour temperature, cloudiness, chance of precipitation, and wind speeds. A secondary timeline lets you jump ahead up to seven days, which is really all you need. After a one-month trial, the app costs $2 per month or $9 per year, with no ads or tracking.
Read less, absorb more: Unless you have unlimited free time, you’ll never be able to consume everything that strikes your interest. Uptime provides a workaround, summarizing popular books, courses, and documentaries into five-minute “Knowledge Hacks” in either text or audio form. That way, you can glean the main takeaways and decide whether the full content is worth your precious time. The service costs $80 per year after a three-day trial, or there’s a free version that provides one curated Hack per day.
Discover new podcasts: If you’re not deep into podcasting already, knowing where to start can be intimidating. Moonbeam will get you rolling by chopping podcasts into short samples and presenting them in a personalized feed. Just pick a few genres, then start swiping until you find something that sounds interesting.
ACHIEVE YOUR GOALS
Rip through your reading list: Feeling buried by all the articles you’ve saved in read-it-later apps like Pocket and Instapaper? Alfread will encourage you to block out some reading time with customizable reminders. Just set a weekly reading goal and a preferred reading time, and the app will suggest one article at a time through push notifications. A Tinder-like interface also lets you swipe through your queue, so you can easily archive articles you’ll probably never get to. The basic app is free, with a $5 per month or $40 per year subscription for advanced features such as highlights and habit tracking.
Learn to grow up: Ideally, we’d all learn about the necessities of adulthood—insurance, savings accounts, taxes, and so on—before moving out of our parents’ house or graduating from college. Since that’s not always the case, Realworld can help. The free app serves as an interactive guide to taking care of yourself, with walkthroughs, to-do lists, and connections to services in areas such as health and finance. It beats having to Google everything from scratch.
Do your own handiwork: Home maintenance can feel like a huge undertaking, but Upkept makes it more manageable by breaking everything into small, digestible tasks. Just add a list of your appliances, and the app will set up a schedule of things to do, along with detailed instructions on how to do them. The app costs $5 per month after a 90-day trial—a reasonable price if it helps you avoid expensive maintenance service.
Be a better pal: While it’s not exactly an app, Call Your Friends encourages you to improve your relationships through its system of text message reminders. Just add a few friends through the website, specify how frequently you want to stay in touch, and you’ll getting nudges when it’s time to reach out, only relenting when you’ve confirmed that a call took place. A companion chatbot called Soonly will even help you both schedule a time that works The $2 per month asking price feels reasonable if you need help picking up the phone.
Meditation made personal: If you’ve been overwhelmed by the smorgasbord of exercises in other meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace, Balance is an intriguing alternative. The app, which launched on iOS in 2019 and landed on Android this year, tries to guide you through the process by asking about your meditation experience, goals, and moods. That makes it a lot easier to get started. The app normally costs $70 per year, but is currently offering one year for free, with optional contributions.
Search more than the web: Ever wish you could have a universal search function for all your digital documents? With Slapdash, you can press Ctrl+J or (Cmd+J on a Mac) to search and perform quick commands across Google Drive, Notion, Slack, Dropbox, and more. A complementary Chrome extension also lets you search open tabs and bookmarks. It’s a brilliant way to save time once you get in the habit of using it. (The app is free, with an optional $12 per month subscription for more than five app integrations.)
Simplified file sharing: When you need to send a large file with minimal hassle, Wormhole has you covered. The free web app lets you upload files up to 10 GB in size and share them through unique links, which expire after 24 hours or 100 downloads. You can even send files to yourself over a local Wi-Fi network, and the app will use a peer-to-peer connection to transfer them instantly.
Gmail minus the mess: To give give Gmail’s desktop website a much-needed facelift, check out Simplify Gmail. This browser extension transforms the Gmail website into a more serene experience, with additional white space, cleaner compose menus, and the ability to group emails by date. At the same time, it adds new features such as extra keyboard shortcuts, email tracker blocking, and a “hide inbox” mode to help you focus. A bundling feature reminiscent of Gmail’s Inbox app is coming soon as well. The extension costs $24 per year after a two-week trial.
Write with less clutter: You don’t have to be a Markdown wizard to make use of Typora. This distraction-free writing tool presents a clean space in which to write, along with customizable themes to help you focus. And if you do want to start learning Markdown—a basic markup language for formatting text without taking hands off the keyboard—Typora helps by showing you the syntax for any text you’ve selected. Its formatting options are basic compared to Word and Google Docs, but that’s the point. The app, which launched out of beta this year, costs $15 for use on up to three devices.
An contacts app upgrade: Instead of cluttering your iPhone home screen with Apple’s Phone and Contacts apps, try replacing them both with Cardhop. The free app offers several improvements over Apple’s default apps, most notably a history section that lists recent calls, texts and video chats in one place. It also offers customizable home screen widgets and an action bar for interacting with contacts. An optional $5 per month or $40 per year subscription lets you see relationships between contacts, adds business card scanning, and provides access to Flexibits’ also-great Fantastical calendar app.
Banish photobombers: You don’t need Photoshop’s fancy content-aware fill feature just to remove unwanted elements from a photo. With Cleanup.pictures, you can simply paint over the area you want to remove, and the site’s AI will fill in that space based on the surrounding imagery. It’s free for photos up to 720 pixels wide, or $24 per year for up to 2K resolution.
Simple screen recording: Although Windows, MacOS, and Chrome OS have their own screen recording tools built in, Snipclip gives you more options at no extra charge. You can record just a single window or browser tab, capture system audio from your computer, and include a thumbnail video of yourself at the same time. Use it to create your own tutorials or demonstrate whatever you’re working on.
Edit video like a pro: It’s unclear whether the iPad will ever get full-fledged versions of Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro, but LumaFusion is happy to fill the role in the meantime. This industrial-strength video editor for iOS can handle up to six video tracks (with audio) and up to six more audio tracks, along with powerful effects and transitions. A major update this year added video stabilization, external hard drive support, resizable interface elements, and a slew of new audio tools. The app is $30 one-time purchase that works across iPhones and iPads.
Split songs by instrument: Want a vocal-free version of your favorite song for home videos? How about a guitar-free version so you can jam along yourself? Or do you just wonder what your favorite singer sounds like without a backing track? LALAL.AI can help with all those things, using AI to separate vocals or instruments from any audio track and letting you download the results. You can separate 10 minutes of audio for free, 90 minutes for $10, or 300 minutes for $20. It’s a niche tool, but one that works surprisingly well.
TRACKERS AND POP-UPS BEGONE
Kill cookie warnings: While lots of browser extensions promise to hide annoying cookie consent pop-ups, Super Agent automatically fills them out on your behalf, using preferences you’ve set up in advance. This approach makes websites less likely to break from having their pop-ups hidden, and you can still tell them not to use tracking cookies for ad targeting.
Safari transformed: On the surface, Hyperweb is a mobile Safari extension that hides ads, blocks tracking cookies, and disables Google’s annoying AMP web page format. But it’s also capable of a lot more. You can switch to default search engines that aren’t built into Safari, run quick price checks on CamelCamelCamel for Amazon product listings, enable picture-in-picture for YouTube links, auto-open Twitter and Reddit links in third-party clients, and more. It’s a kitchen sink’s worth of improvements that on the whole make Safari a lot more useful.
Anti-tracking for all: In lieu of stronger built-in privacy protections on Android, the DuckDuckGo app is helping to fill the gap. Its App Tracking Protection feature, now in private beta, runs in the background on your phone and prevents apps from connecting with known tracking servers. DuckDuck’s email anti-tracking tools also launched in beta on both iOS and Android earlier this year, letting you hand out special email addresses that prevent senders from learning your true address and learning about how often you open their messages. While Apple offers similar email masking tools for its iCloud+ subscribers, DuckDuckGo is bringing them to everyone at no cost.
A new private search option: Among the many privacy-centric alternatives to Google Search, Brave Search stands out for being realistic. In building its own independent index of the web, it knows that it can’t always compare to Google, so it occasionally mixes in results from the search giant and includes a link to your query on Google partway down the results page. Beyond that, Brave’s results are generally useful and pleasing to look at, and they helpfully include a publish date for all articles—something rival DuckDuckGo still doesn’t do. Brave’s search engine became the default in the company’s web browser last month, but it’s also available in any other browser as well.
New life for LEGOs: Need a rainy day activity for your family? Dig up an old box of LEGO bricks, spread them on the floor, and scan them with your phone camera using Brickit. This clever use of computer vision will catalog every brick it sees, then suggest entirely new things to build from your inventory.
A better recipe collector: Do you use an iPad or Mac as your cooking companion? Ditch your raggedy collection of recipe bookmarks and check out Mela. This app can extract recipes from webpages when you use the in-app browser or share them from other sources. It can also automatically collect new recipes from your favorite cooking sites, and it includes a scanner for bringing in recipes from books. When it’s time to cook, a full-screen guide lists all the ingredients and walks you through each step in large print. It’s $5 on iOS, and $10 for the Mac version.
Browse the weird web: Instead of wasting more time on social media, explore some new corners of the internet with Stumbled. Developer Kevin Woblick has paid tribute to the classic web service StumbleUpon by curating more than 5,000 weird and wonderful websites, which you can shuffle through by clicking Stumbled’s big blue button. You might land on a 1960s take on Google, a collection of interactive 3D art, or a site for self-destructing notes. It’s a quirky, engaging reminder of what the web used to be like, and a less anxiety-inducing way to kill time than Twitter.
Chart your own course: The next time you’re trying to navigate a walkable city, don’t ruin the fun of exploration with strict turn-by-turn directions. Instead, check out Mapless, which uses a simple arrow to point you in the right direction. A major update this year added Apple Watch support—for an optional $1 per month or $5 per year subscription—along with SharePlay support, so you can talk to a friend while trying to find one another.