Wantful

Wantful

Wantful makes customized gift catalogs that let you curate a list of items your intended recipient might like. The stunning new Wantful iPad app is for browsing things you might want for yourself. It's like a cross between a magazine and a high-end catalog, peppered with intriguing products and eye-popping design touches, such as background images that tastefully blur out to make the accompanying text more legible. Read it for the articles; salivate over the gorgeous products.

Image credit: Wantful

The Orchestra

The Orchestra

The Orchestra, from premium interactive publisher Touch Press, offers a mind-blowing look inside the guts of a symphony orchestra. Multi-camera videos of performances from eight classical works, from Haydn to Stravinsky, are synchronized with auto-scrolling scores and graphics; there's also an informative section on the roles and histories of all the instruments in a modern orchestra. Well worth the premium $13.99 price.

Image credit: Touch Press

Robots for iPad

Robots for iPad

The editors of the award-winning magazine IEEE Spectrum have put together a multimedia compendium of more than 120 of the world's most famous robots, ranging from the incredibly realistic (Geminoid DK) to the irresistibly cute (Furby) to the slightly scary (Boston Dynamics' BigDog). Each entry includes mutlipole photos and videos as well as 360-degree views. A robot geek's paradise.

Image credit: IEEE Spectrum

Madefire

Madefire

Madefire is the most interesting thing to happen to comic books since the invention of digital formats. As I wrote in a June 2012 review, "The Madefire app and the seven [now eight] original graphic novels that come with it have completely altered my sense of what a digital comic can be, and what to expect from this new medium in the future...Madefire’s so-called 'motion books' allow creators to mix words and images in a kinetic way that stops short of true animation, yet still smacks of cinema."

Image credit: Madefire

Paper

Paper

I swear I picked the Paper sketching app for my top-20-apps list before Apple's editors named it their iPad App of the Year. But I fully agree with their assessment that it "set a new standard with its clean design and thoughtful implementation of pen on paper." The app itself is free, and you can upgrade it by paying for individual tools such as a watercolor brush. Creator FiftyThree Studios recently added a Mixer tool ($1.99) that lets you create custom color palettes.

Image credit: FiftyThree

The Room

The Room

This puzzle game challenges you to unlock a series of intricate boxes, each of which contains clues to the disappearance of their mysterious maker. The gorgeous graphics, diabolical puzzles, and chilling mood music bring to mind past masterpieces such as Myst. The only thing wrong with the app is that it leaves you wanting more.

Image credit: Fireproof Games

Zite

Zite

A San Francisco-based division of CNN, Zite completely overhauled its iPad app this fall, and the new version is a gem. It's an ever-changing digital magazine that harvests a personalized mix of news articles from online media based on your interests. That differentiates it from apps like Flipboard, which has great design but is ultimately limited to showing stories that are popular within your social network.

Image credit: Zite

Stitcher

Stitcher

Available for both smartphones and tablets, Stitcher is the single best source for on-demand audio, offering just about every podcast on earth and quite a few live radio shows as well. (It's infinitely better than Apple's pitiful Podcasts app.) My personal Stitcher stations include NPR podcasts like This American Life, Freakonomics Radio, Planet Money, Radio Lab, and Fresh Air.

Image credit: Stitcher

Image credit: Google

Google Search

Why would you need a dedicated Google search app, separate from the search bar in your tablet's regular Web browser? Because it's incredibly fast, and offers some great features like voice search (with extremely accurate speech recognition) and Goggles (which lets you search for things visually by taking a picture). Like Google's main page, the app features daily doodles---this one celebrating Little Red Riding Hood and the 200th anniversary of the first Brothers Grimm book.

Image credit: Google

Path

Path

A mobile-only social network, Path introduced its iPhone app in November 2010, its Android app in June 2011, and finally an iPad version this fall. As I wrote in a feature this week, Path is interesting both for its social model (you're encouraged to limit your network to close friends and family) and its great design. A feature unique to the iPad version of Path is the collage of recent photos available in landscape mode.

Image credit: Path

iPhoto

iPhoto

Apple brought its flagship desktop image editing program to the iPad last spring, and in my opinion the tablet version is way better than the desktop version. It's not Photoshop, but it's got more editing features than any amateur or prosumer photographer will ever need, including some nice touch-driven tools such as the ability to increase color saturation in a specific area of a photo by "painting" that area with your fingertip. I also like the new iPad-only Journal feature, which lets you make cool scrapbook pages and share them on the Web.

Image credit: Apple

Snapseed

Snapseed

Snapseed maker Nik Software was acquired by Google in September, and it's easy to see why the search and mobile giant would have been interested. The company's flagship photo editing app---which was Apple's iPad App of the Year in 2011, and came to Android tablets this year---offers an array of slick filters and effects to make your mobile photos pop. It's less hands-on and more "instant" than Apple's iPhoto, which means it's also a little more fun to use. As Nik puts it, "We’ve made sophisticated photo editing effects---high-powered techniques the pros use---really simple, intuitive, and just a little addictive."

Image credit: Nik Software

HABU Music

HABU Music

HABU music offers an innovative way to explore your music collection. Created by Gracenote subsidiary Gravity Mobile, the app analyzes your tunes and loads them into a two-dimensional array with mood on one axis (from Dark to Positive) and energy level on the other axis (from Calm to Energetic). So if you're feeling like listening to something "euphoric," tap a dot in the upper right and you might get something like Call Me Maybe.

Image credit: Gravity Mobile

Evernote

Evernote

Yes, this is about the 800th time I've mentioned Evernote. But if you need a place to keep track of your receipts, recipes, news clips, links, photos, voice memos, contact lists, and to-do items, Evernote is the solution for you, and the company's tablet app---which was overhauled in November---represents a quantum leap ahead in beauty and usability. Notes you add using the tablet app are instantly synched to your Evernote cloud account, and from there they're copied automatically to the desktop, Web, and smartphone versions.

Image credit: Evernote

NextGuide

NextGuide

NextGuide offers a visually rich, tap- and swipe-friendly way to explore your cable, satellite, live, and on-demand TV viewing options. It's the creation of Dijit Media, whose engineers have been building TV-navigation interfaces long enough to know what they're doing (they're the same people behind Slingbox). Dijit CEO Jeremy Toeman calls NextGuide "the Switzerland of TV guides," since its array of listings is far more complete than what you'll get from individual providers like AT&T, Comcast, or Netflix. Just today, NextGuide added the ability to watch clips from Hulu for shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

Image Credit: Dijit Media

Fayve

Fayve

Fayve is a "what to watch" app that helps you discover on-demand video content from Netflix, Hulu Plus, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Redbox, YouTube, Crackle, and Fandango. It's interesting mainly for its unusual carousel interface, originally developed to help billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen manage his own vast video collection. “Paul has probably one of the world’s largest private digital collections of movies, music and TV shows," Chris Purcell, vice president of technology at Allen's Vulcan Inc., told Geek Wire in November. "He wants to watch and listen to these things at his fingertips."

Image credit: Vulcan Technologies

Google Earth

Google Earth

Google Earth, the free virtual globe package, has been available for desktop computers since 2005, but I much prefer the tablet version, which is easier to use thanks to its intuitive touch interface. Be sure to turn on the "3D Buildings" layer, which includes immersive 3D imagery for selected cities such as Boulder, Boston, Charlotte, Lawrence KS, Long Beach CA, Los Angeles, Portland OR, San Diego, Santa Cruz, Tampa, Tucson, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Rome, Italy.

Image credit: Google

Pocket

Pocket

Pocket, formerly known as Read It Later, is my go-to app for reading any Web article that's longer than a single page. The startup provides a browser bookmarklet that lets you instantly save any article on the Web to Pocket's servers, which then send it on to your tablet or smartphone. From the app, you can read the content at your leisure, then share it with friends or save it to your Evernote account. Pocket CEO Nate Weiner compares the app to TiVo, saying it often provides "a better viewing experience" for Web articles than the sites where the content originally appears.

Image credit: Pocket

ShowYou

ShowYou

If NextGuide and Fayve are for finding cable and on-demand TV content, ShowYou is all about finding fun and interesting Internet videos from places like YouTube and Vimeo. Once you connect the app to your Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, and Tumblr accounts, the app will collect the videos your friends are watching and sharing and line them up in a giant grid for you to browse. It can also pull in videos from curated sources like The Atlantic Wire, Khan Academy, Wired Magazine, and TED.

Image credit: ShowYou

123D Catch

123D Catch

Autodesk's amazing 123D Catch app turns 2D images into 3D models. You start by picking a stationary subject (like the gingerbread house shown here) and capturing 20 to 40 photographs from different angles. The app uploads the images to Autodesk's servers, which use fancy math to compare the data pixel-by-pixel and derive 3D shapes, which are then sent back to your tablet for you to examine and explore. That's fun in itself, but you can also export the digital files to 3D printers or laser cutters to make brand-new objects or to animation programs to make movies or video games.

Image by Wade Roush

It’s time for the third annual version of “iStocking Stuffers,” the holiday apps edition of my weekly column World Wide Wade. The slide show above covers 20 of my favorite apps from 2012, which makes it my longest list yet: the 2010 edition of this guide had just 10 apps, and the 2011 version had 15.

The premise this year, as before, is that a lot of people are going to be receiving tablets as gifts this season—whether they’re iPads, iPad minis, or Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 or Amazon’s Kindle Fire—and they’re going to need help figuring out what apps to put on them. The apps I’m recommending here aren’t all truly “must have” apps in the sense of being essential utilities—I’m leaving out a bunch of those, from weather apps to e-book apps to social networking apps. Rather, these are apps that show off the capabilities of today’s tablets and will help you get the most out of your new device in areas like games, news, shopping, video discovery, and photo editing.

Here’s an alphabetical list of the apps featured above, with price information, links to app store pages where you can download the apps, and links to past Xconomy coverage of these apps or app makers. There’s a bit of a bias here toward iPad apps, since that’s the tablet I have, but I’ve included links to Android versions of the apps where available. As for Microsoft Surface / Windows tablet apps? Maybe next year.

123D Catch | free | iOS | Autodesk Labs Builds Tools for Capturing Reality

Evernote | free | iOS | Android | Evernote Wants to Make Your Memories More Magical

Fayve | free | iOS

Google Earth | free | iOS | Android | The Case of the Tilted Clubhouse: A Geographical Detective Story

Google Search | free | iOS | Android | Inside Google’s Age of Augmented Humanity, Part 3

Habu Music | $0.99 | iOS | Android

iPhoto | $4.99 | iOS

Madefire | free | iOS | Madefire’s Comics Bring a New Visual Grammar to the iPad

NextGuide | free | iOS | With NextGuide, Dijit Continues the Search for Perfect TV App

The Orchestra | $13.99 | iOS | Touch Press, the iPad, and the New Golden Age of Multimedia

The Room | $1.99 | iOS

Paper by FiftyThree | free | iOS | Notepaper App Showdown: Bamboo, FiftyThree, and Noteshelf

Path | free | iOS | Android | Why the World Will Beat a Path to Path

Pocket | free | iOS | Android | Can Pocket Become the TiVo of the Web?

Robots for iPad | $1.99 | iOS

Showyou | free | iOS | Android | ShowYou—The Social Browser That’s Taking on TV

Snapseed | free | iOS | Android

Stitcher Radio | free | iOS | Android

Wantful | free | iOS | Wantful’s Customized Catalogs Aim to Bring Back Thoughtful Gift Giving

Zite | free | iOS | Android | How Zite’s News App Altered the Zeitgeist in Personalized Publishing

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

  • http://twitter.com/jeffjaner jeffjaner

    Just launched our Board for Android tablets for those who like to organize visually: http://springpad.com/blog/2012/12/android-board-announcement/ (already available for iPad)

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      This looks really cool, Jeff. I’ll check it out.

  • appstoked

    Wonderful article; I’m going to end up with most of them on the family iPad (I think my son will love the robots app).
    So refreshing to see this old format (you know, the X best whatevers) done so nicely.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Thanks appstoked! Glad this roundup was useful.