Appy Holidays! With the holiday season now upon us, your iPad or iPhone is poised to assume new roles as a gift-giving assistant, party planner, restaurant finder, and more. As a present to you, here are tips for nine holiday planning apps that will help to take you through the season easily and enjoyably.
With the right apps installed, you can take your iPad or iPhone with you to stores as you shop for gifts or cooking ingredients, eliminating the need to bring a paper shopping list. When you have any free time while you're travelling or waiting in line you can create invitations, send electronic cards, and even play a holiday game or listen to holiday-themed music to get you into the spirit. Each of the apps below runs on all Apple iOS devices (iPad, iPhone and iPod touch).
Gift List Organization
Holiday shopping gets very organized when you use this app, which lets you enter info about your holiday gift plans and then view the information by gift, person, store or group. The groups feature lets you create categories like "family" and "work," and then makes it easy to get an overview of how much you're spending on each group. A photo feature lets you use pictures to make sure you're buying the right item for someone. You can also add notes. Status flags for each gift help you keep track of whether you've bought it yet or sent it out.
mGifts covers much more than just the winter holiday gifts. It includes birthdays and anniversaries, too, for example. You can enter information such as birthdays with pre-defined templates for spouse, son, daughter, friend and co-worker, etc. The stores category also comes pre-populated with dozens of big chains, such as Target, Office Depot, Sears, Petsmart, etc.
mGifts is currently on version 3.2.0, which is impressive. The only complaints here are very minor. One is that, despite the existence of groups, you can't easily give the same gift to everyone in a group without re-entering the gift info for each member. There's also a free version of this app called "Christmas."
Billing itself as a "digital stationery box," this app provides classy templates for sending out invitations, thank you notes, and business correspondence. These are organized into a file box with tabs for Invitations, Thank You Notes, Business Stationery, Personal Stationery and My Collections.
The app also includes its own address book, with listings for name, company, email and status. You can organize the entries into groups of your own creation, and then send invitations to everyone in a group. The address book automatically displays everyone on the lists in the Contacts utility that comes with the iPad. You can continue to add more names, and you can keep notes. However. only the work email addresses from the iPad Contacts get imported. This can be aggravating if you've already populated the Contacts directory with personal email addresses.
Using this app is straightforward. First, you create the invitation. Next, you select which people in the address book you want to send it to, and then, the program uses your already defined mail account to email out the invitations.
This rich and beautiful app is filled with step-by-step videos and slide shows demonstrating how to prepare a holiday meal. That explains why, at 290-megabytes, it's considerably bigger than any other app here (and why it took me roughly ten minutes to download it).
The holiday meal guide is part of a series from Food52. When you first launch the app, you might get confused as to how to get to the recipes. (They want you to register. I didn't. Perhaps that's why things got confusing). Once you get to the food section a few seconds later, though, the program is a total pleasure to look through.
The dishes are organized in sections, such as Main Courses, Side Dishes, Soups, Breads and Desserts. A Holidays and Special Diets category is where you'll find recommended Christmas dishes as well as vegetarian and vegan fare. Each dish is gorgeously photographed both as a finished preparation and in the step-by-step instructions.
Suppose you know what kind of gift you want to buy -- such as a camera, headphones, or a game console -- but you don't know which particular model? How do you decide which one to buy? There are lots of web sites providing ratings, but who has time to check them all? That's where Decide comes in. This app combines ratings from Amazon and many other sources into a single number on a 0-100 scale. If you purchase products with numbers in the 90s, you're assured that the vast majority of ratings for this model are in the excellent/top-rated 4 to 5 star range.
Covering electronics and appliances, Decide has no advertising. It receives no click-through fees, and it's paid for by subscribers. The basic service is free, and the paid version goes one step further by predicting changes in price. If you're in a rush to buy for the holidays, the price predictor may not be as useful. But if you have the luxury of time to wait, Decide will tell you whether the price will go up or down in the near future.
One weak aspect is that Decide doesn't link to nearly as many merchants as a service like Google Shopping. So you'll probably just use Decide to find the model number and then go somewhere else to find out where to buy it.
Some people might be driven batty by all of that holiday "Muzak" in stores, elevators, and offices, but others just can't get enough. If you're in the latter category (or even if you take guilty pleasure in indulging in audio kitsch only now and then), Christmas Radio is the app for you. Here, you can easily tune in to any of dozens of different radio stations and web broadcasters, all presenting holiday theme music.
The streaming services have names like Santa's Station, Christmas Vinyl, Happy Christmas Radio, Holiday Favorites 101, Jazz Radio Christmas, Kristmas Kountry and Xmas in Frisko.
Since this app is simply a guide and a streaming audio player that tunes in these music stations, there's nothing very complicated here. But if you enjoy this type of music, or if you want to quickly get some playing for a party or dinner, Christmas RADIO does it elegantly.
If you're travelling over the holidays and you need to find a restaurant, or if you're spending some time as a tourist, this completely free app (there's no upgrade option) is worth checking out. There are other, more specialized apps for flights, hotels, restaurants and sight-seeing, but what makes Trip Advisor outstanding is that it pulls all of these elements together into a single, easy-to-navigate app.
Trip Advisor uses a map (from Microsoft's Bing) to locate attractions, hotels and restaurants. The user-generated reviews of restaurants and attractions can be very helpful, and they include photos posted by users, as well. There are also forums where you can ask travel-related questions.
On the down side, the flight listings tool may not be the best for finding the absolute lowest price. You might want to try Kayak, Kayak Pro, or CheapOair Flight Search for that purpose.
This simple photo application is great for adding a holiday or winter theme to any picture, with its snowflake images, wreaths, and so forth.
There's very little religious imagery here, by the way. So despite the name, this app should appeal to people of all faiths who want to add a winter holiday touch.
You can use Christmas Booth with photos that are already in your iPad library, or as an overlay while shooting photos or video with the built-in iPad cameras.
The app comes with a "main" snowflake-themed border and an overlay with animated falling snow, as well as a a few dozen static overlay images, including borders with wreaths, a Santa hat you can place on top of someone?s head, and a beard or antlers you can also add. Other images include bells, sock, wings, a magic wand, Christmas presents, and candles.
Christmas music accompanies the app while you work. When you've finished processing your image or video, you can post it to Facebook, send it as an email, or print it from within the app. This is a rather simple app, but it adds a dose of holiday flair quite effectively.
Family Holiday Entertainment
This Christmas-themed game, developed to promote DreamWorks' new film "Rise of the Guardians," is fun in its own right. The goal is to collect presents and deliver them around the world using the Guardians' magical sleigh. You dash to locations across the globe as you progress through the levels.
Operation is quite simple. The sleigh moves on its own, and you simply tell it (by swiping) when to go up or down. The more gift boxes you drive the sleigh through, the better.
What's great about this app is the animation. As you'd expect. it's excellent, since the app comes from Dreamworks.
What's bad about the app is that it's a commercial for the feature film, and that you've got to pay for the download to boot! But for a buck it?s a fun game, and something different for the holidays.
Also, there are numerous upsells, in the form of coin packs which cost from $0.99 to $19.99, each providing additional special powers. However, they're not at all obtrusive. Just be forewarned that after playing this game, your kids will probably want to see the movie.
New Year's App
There are plenty of apps that count down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to New Year's 2013, most of which are free. This one features a dropping ball -- like your own Times Square -- and fireworks which you can set off yourself.
The free app is ad-supported. By paying 99 cents, you get rid of the ads. There's also an upsell to better fireworks, called "Crazy Fireworks," for 99 cents more.
If you set off fireworks for more than a minute, you'll see the upsell messages, which get annoying.
This app is really intended for use on New Year's Eve, You'll probably find it rather boring prior to the big night. As of the time we were going to press with this article, the ball had not yet dropped, and so the app appeared to be mainly a countdown.
Presumably, as you get to the final seconds of the countdown, you'll see the ball drop and then a fireworks show for 2013. At least, that's how other users have described last year's version.
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