Must Have Free iPad Apps


Thanks to the generosity of our college’s Instructional Planning Council I have a grant that enables me to purchase a limited number of iPads for faculty members.  (Don’t call, I’ve spent it all for this year).  Faculty members who receive iPads are thrilled, of course, but often ask ‘So what apps should I put on first?’  I say, ‘Free or paid?’  And they always say, ‘Free.’  Therefore, as a long-time iPad users (relatively speaking, for a device that has experienced four generations over 2 years) here is my list of free apps that I actually use and have found useful, beyond the ones that come built-in on the device.  It is really tempting to include some paid apps here, because in some categories the paid apps are far better than the free ones, but for the sake of those who just aren’t sure that paying for an app is a good thing (it can be, it really can) here is the list.  (There is an emphasis on educational apps, because this is an education-related blog, but if they are not of interest, just skip to the next one).

Dropbox leads the list.  It is platform independent, foolproof and fail-proof.  Snapped a picture on your iPad camera?  Want it on your desktop?  Dropbox.  Need to access your school documents from home?  Dropbox.  And so on…  Dropbox comes free with 2GB of storage, but you may rapidly conclude that it is worth paying for more.

Evernote is tied for the lead.  If you do not use a comprehensive note taking program for capturing and organizing the wild variety of daily details you are exposed to in the Internet age, you really should be, and this is the best, by far.  It works in combination with a couple of browser extensions (Web Clipper and Clearly, which are also free) and together they make a powerhouse personal information manager.  You can capture portions of text, full pages, documents, URLs, audio and hand-written notes, pictures, videos, you name it.  Anything you come across that you want to save for future reference.  Evernote has a flexible filing system (stacks of notebooks) and search and recall are instant.  You can even search inside PDF documents, faster if you pony up for the paid version, which gives you more upload space/capacity and a couple of other nice features for only $45 per year.

Kindle.  The Amazon Kindle app for iPad is where I do most of my reading these days.  It works well, and stores annotations that I make in books on the cloud, where I can access them from any other device.  Pricing at Amazon is generally better than anywhere else, though I also do use the Google Play Books app when I purchase books from Google or some other ePub vendor.  That’s the great divide in eBooks.  Amazon awz or kf8 format vs. ePub format, and with these two apps there is almost nothing you cannot store, read and annotate on your iPad, with the exceptions of books from Apples own iBook store, which are too pricy for most people to consider anyway.  The only down-side of these two apps is that you cannot access the Amazon Kindle store or the Google Play store from them, since any in-app sales they generated would go to filling Apple’s coffers.  The eBook market operates on such a slim margin that that is not practical.  Therefore, use the iPad’s built-in Safari browser to access the Google Play store, and Amazon’s Cloud Reader (a Safari implementation of the Kindle app) to access the mobile Kindle book store.

iTunes U.  Want to learn about astrophysics?  Want to attend lectures on the American revolution at Yale?  This is it.  There are a miraculous amount of high-quality, elegantly presented college level materials in iTunes you begging for participants.  You can set a course for life-long learning here and never need another app.

The Khan Academy app.  Not as elegant as iTunes U, but full of that hand-made charm that made Sal Khan’s original videos a hit this app presents the full range of his video tutorials with linked transcripts.  If you know a student struggling with a math or science topic, the Khan videos can undoubtedly help.

Educreations.  If you use your iPad to project in class, Educreations is the simplest way to write on the screen or to display maps, graphs or any picture that you wish to annotate, and you can make a narrated screen recording while you do it.  The feature set is really simple and easy to learn, and the only down side is that you have to store the video at the Educreations web site and then link to it or embed it, rather than storing it directly in Blackboard.  There are better paid screen recording apps, but none so simple to use.

HHMI BioInteractive Click and Learn.  This is one of those life science educational apps I warned about above.  Only those interested in life science topics will care about this one, but its hard to believe that’s not everyone.  This app gives you access to some terrific animations and videos from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute related to all sorts of life science topics.

NASA Viz.  This one is the astronomy/earth science correlative of the biointeractive one mentioned above.  The animations and videos are stunning, and it is updated frequently with the latest research and findings from NASA’s fleet of earth orbiting satellites and space exploration vehicles.   While we are on earth science topics, Merck publishes a terrific Periodic Table of the Elements app, and PBS’s Nova publishes the free Nova Elements which is free and highly entertaining, featuring the NY Times’ David Pogue.

Google Earth.  While not as feature rich as the desktop implementation, it is still amazing and amazingly useful on the iPad.

While I use a paid app (Garageband) to record and edit audio on the iPad, if you are looking for a useful free one try WavePad.  It is not as full featured, but it is free and will get the basic job done.

As far as news apps go, the list could be very long indeed.  My favorite aggregator, however, is Fliboard.  It represents the best in custom-designed media presentation for the iPad in a really cool format.  Honorable mentions should go to Currents from Google and Pulse, which both have a lot to recommend them.  As far as original news sources go, I like AP Mobile for traditional news gathering and The Wider Image, from Reuters, for an alternate take, though from a traditional publisher.

There are some terrific paid PDF annotation tools, which double as document handlers on the iPad, but in order to stick with the free is good theme of this post there is Adobe Reader, which opens PDFs and allows for limited annotation.  Its not the best of class by far, but will get the basic job done.

If you use a lot of PowerPoint presentations in your teaching, and would like to present them from your iPad, you may want to try SlideShark, a cloud storage/PowerPoint presenter which I have used successfully.  You lose the animations, but often this doesn’t matter, and at least you have access to your presentations from anywhere.

For free reference tools, I would recommend Wikipanion, an iPad-centric Wikipedia reader, and Dictionary from  The former is great out of the box, the latter has ads that you would have to pay to remove, but still has a nice voice search feature and other useul lexical tools.

In terms of utilities, Alarmed is a nice alarm/reminder/timer tool, Calculator is a good basic (but ad supported) calculator, Qrafter is the best QR code scanner I know, and Google Search is a terrific entré to the best search engine in the world.

I could go on and on, but that’s enough.  With literally no cost you can fill your iPad with these (and many other free) apps and then use it to revolutionize your life.

2 thoughts on “Must Have Free iPad Apps

  1. Thanks, Terry, for all the reviews you have been doing throughout the year. You are our in-house Consumer Reports guide.

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