Essential iPhone tips and apps: My 2011 update

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My wife and I have been running our lives off iPhones since they came out.

I even roll out custom, native-looking apps in HTML, CSS and JavaScript to fill in for apps that don't exist yet.

About a year and a half after we got our iPhones, I put together this list: the tips and apps that help us run our lives and our family efficiently.

This is the June 2011 update of my essential iPhone apps and tips.

(Most of these tips apply to the iPad too.)

Contents include calendar syncing, productivity, remote control, ripping DVDs to iPhone, weather, programming, streaming media, free calling, real-time analytics, RSS reading, travel, grocery list syncing, file syncing, and contact syncing.

Unlimited calling

Thanks to the Skype app, for $5/month, my wife and I have effectively unlimited calling over 3G data. [I also have a page with more details on how to switch to Skype for your home phone service.]


OmniFocus for Mac OS X finally cured my overflowing inbox.

It's a personal todo/task management system on steroids.

Its required companion is OmniFocus for iPhone, which wirelessly syncs its database with the OS X version.

OmniFocus is meant to play nicely with the "GTD" productivity methodology, althought OmniFocus works well without it too.

David Allen's Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is the essential GTD text.

Remote control

For iTunes, there's the Apple Remote app.

For ssh, I use iSSH. It supports preset connection configurations, passwordless public-key-based authentication, VNC and it has an X server. I use this for emergency maintenance on the linode that runs, and to connect to my TV at home through an ssh tunnel.

I have the Keynote Remote app as a backup in case my Kensington ever runs out of batteries on the road.

The Linode Manager app has saved my linode-hosted sites from disaster while I'm on the road twice now.

Streaming media

We used to subscribe to Hulu Plus, but have since found that a Netflix subscription is a better option for streaming media to iOS devices. (Netflix doesn't have the latest titles, but its catalog of shows is substantial.)

The Netflix app is robust and remarkably performant.

I've been using it to clear out a backlog of scifi series while I exercise.

Transferring DVDs to iOS devices

Elmo is one of the few things that makes our son happy on demand.

So, I ripped our catalog of Elmo DVDs to the iPhone and his iPad using the (freely available) Handbrake software.

Now we've got Elmo anytime, anywhere.


I used to use Weather Channel and Weather Bug.

But, I've been rained on enough times on my walk home to realize that (a) weather can be an extremely local phenomenon, and (b) it's best to learn how to read the weather radar yourself.

If you're a weather nerd, check out RadarScope.


We use to aggregate and analyze our finances. Mint can access the data from any kind of financial account: bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, mortgage loans, etc.

The iPhone app even triggers alerts in real-time.

To keep track of my sites on the go, I use the Analytics app to monitor my Google Analytics account.


The iPhone isn't my preferred device for programming. But, it's useful to have a Turing Machine in your pocket when you need to do sophisticated calculations while away from a computer.

The Gambit REPL app lets you program in the Gambit REPL and create, store and execute Scheme scripts right on your iPhone.

It's probably only a matter of time before Apple realizes that this is a violation of their developers terms and yanks this app.

Synchronized grocery lists

My wife and I have only been using Grocery iQ for about a week, but it's already been a lifestyle improvement.

Grocery iQ allows multiple stores and it syncs wirelessly between multiple iPhones and computers.

File sharing

I love DropBox.

The Dropbox app is the easiest way to get photos and videos off the iPhone.

It's also the easiest way to get to useful files from an iPhone or iPad.

Sync and share contacts over multiple computers/phones

My wife and I like to keep a shared address book (synced through Google) on our computers and our phones. Keeping them all synced is straightforward:

  1. Create a shared gmail account.
  2. For each iPhone, set it to sync contacts with that gmail account. [You have to do this through iTunes while the iPhone is plugged in.]

Each time each iPhone connects to iTunes, it syncs changes between GMail contacts, the local address book and the iPhone.

RSS reader

Google Reader is the best mobile RSS reader.

Just click the "+" and "Add to Home Screen" to get their web app.


Trapster uses GPS to warn you when you're entering an area likely to get you a speeding ticket. It's essential for road trips.

Most airlines have an app these days; be sure to get the app for the airlines you use most frequently. I use the Delta app all the time when I'm flying.

Synchronize email across multiple devices

If you want your email to stay in sync on multiple devices, use the IMAP protocol (instead of POP). Most providers (including gmail) support IMAP. With IMAP, your iPhone and your local mail client (and any online email service you use) will remain in sync.

To enable IMAP in gmail, log in, choose "Settings" and then use the "Forwarding and POP/IMAP" tab.

Sync and share calendars across multiple computers/phones

My wife and I depend heavily on our iPhones and our shared Google calendars to keep the family organized and synchronized. It's been a life-saver having instant access to each other's schedules. (To share a Google calender with another person, click the arrow next to the calendar's name, and then select "Share this calendar.")

If you're an iCal user, Google Calendar supports CalDAV for two-way syncing. This doesn't do over-the-air syncing for the iPhone, but it allows iCal calendar sharing, and you can use iCal's very clean, slick interface for calendar management.

Fortunately, Google now supports direct calendar and contact syncing for iPhones. Now, when people ask if I can do something, I can tell them my availability on the spot. This works if you only want to have one unified calendar for all sync'd iPhones.

If you want to share multiple calendars, I recommend NuevaSync's service.

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