The year 2020 saw most of us spending more time at home than ever before. Fortunately, there were plenty of new apps to help pass the days couped up inside. From exciting new tools for creatives to VR workouts and surreal AR fun that hit the mark during global lockdowns, the past 12 months left us with some fantastic new gems on our devices. But which were the apps that most impressed us?
We’ve selected eight apps that made a memorable impression over the past year be it for mobile, desktop, tablet or VR headsets. There are apps that helped us to work, apps that helped us play, and others that were simply well-made and stunning to look at.
For more of our favourite app picks, see our top drawing apps, best iPad apps for designers as well as our favourite iOS app icons.
- Price: Free. From $5.99 per month/$59.99 one-off purchase
- Platform: iPhone
Just when it seemed there couldn’t possibly be space for yet another photo editing app, along came Artleap from Lightricks (opens in new tab), the developer behind Facetune. Initially named Quickart when it launched in July, this impressive app managed to stand out in a crowded market by offering something more than the usual image touch-ups.
The adventurous filter options include some with impressive 3D effects. The one that really made us go “wow” was the dispersion filter, which allows the creation of powerful creative effects with no knowledge of editing.
A free mobile app isn’t going to offer the versatility or subtleties of a programme like Photoshop, but Artleap really was a leap forward for what can be achieved with a mere tap on an iPhone screen, granting novices and social media users new possibilities for artistic expression.
02. Illustrator on iPad
- Price: From £19.99 per month
- Platform: iPad
Another app that made us say wow is one that kept us waiting. Designers’ favourite vectors tool finally arrived for the iPad in October 2020 and it didn’t disappoint. Illustrator for the iPad reimagines the original software's core design capabilities for the iPad and the Apple Pencil. While there are some omissions in the range of tools available at the moment, the app is clean, powerful and intuitive.
The app can sync with the main Illustrator software, so sending files between Illustrator on the iPad (opens in new tab) and your desktop is effortless. Best of all, the Apple Pencil integration works wonderfully and the app offers perhaps the best granular typography control for working on the move. There’s more to come with more brushes and effects, and Sensei features on the way.
03. Universe in a Nutshell
- Price: £2.99
- Platform: Android/iPhone
Inspired by Stephen Hawking’s book of the same name, Universe in a Nutshell (opens in new tab) is a beautifully executed educational game that offers fascinating insights into the universe’s scale and sophistication by comparing the sizes of different natural and man-made objects.
Opening the app, you meet a cartoonish animated giraffe, an elephant, a human and other animals. The app lists their size and you can tap on them to bring up a range of interesting facts. But pinch the screen to zoom in or out and it gets truly epic as you discover layers of larger or smaller objects, from microscopic particles to machines, countries, planets, stars and beyond. Zoom out as far as you go and you reach the entire known universe on the screen of your smartphone. The colourful cartoon style makes this look like an app for children, but with the level of detail, adults can also lose themselves for hours in the app.
04. Super You
- Price: Free
- Platform: iPhone
Virtual reality and augmented reality-based apps multiplied in 2020. Many have aimed to push the envelope with increasingly convincing realism, but it was refreshing to find a proposition that aims for the surreal instead. Super You (opens in new tab), described by its developer Universal Everything as a "costume arts experiment", employs Apple ARKit 3 body tracking technology to let you film your mates in a range of bizarre costumes.
Open the app, aim your phone’s camera at a friend, swipe to choose a costume of abstract shapes (blobs, spikes, flowers, leaves, etc.) then film your target move around as they’re transformed into a fantasy creature. The result is a fresh, slightly bonkers app that made socialising at a distance that little bit more fun. Who knows? Maybe some of the costumes will influence fashion trends for 2021.
05. Adobe Fresco for iPhone
- Price: Free. Premium from $9.99 per month
- Platform: iPhone
Less than a year after it was launched for the iPad, the popular painting and drawing app Adobe Fresco (opens in new tab) made it to the iPhone, making it even more portable. Artists were delighted to discover the app hadn't been watered down for the smaller device. Instead, we got the same engine, cloud libraries, UI and array of brushes as on the iPad version reconfigured for the smaller screen.
On top of that, Fresco introduced new features such as Smudge brushes, which can be used to soften strokes, blend edges and blur linework, and Ribbon brushes, which allow the user to paint with textures and materials by turning photos into organic brushes. It’s also possible to change how the stylus responds under different degrees of pressure, making it feel even more like real drawing.
Having such a powerful app on the one device we're rarely without offered the potential to transform the creative process. Rather than draw in a sketchbook when inspiration strikes and then copy the idea into a digital form, ideas can now be begun directly in the iPhone app and then filled in on the iPad. It makes for a much quicker and easier workflow.
06. Google Look to Speak
- Price: Free
- Platform: Android
Look to Speak is an app that shows how technological advances can be truly life-changing for people with disabilities. For people who have both speech and motor impairments, the ability to communicate is severely limited without special hardware or software, but Google’s experimental app released in December allows communication using only an Android smartphone and a phone stand or arm to hold it in place.
Using the phone’s front-facing camera to track eye movements, the app allows the user to communicate by selecting preset words and phrases from two lists by looking at them. The number of words and phrases is narrowed down after each selection and the final word is read out loud. That sounds like a long, laborious process, but it’s surprising how quickly the desired phrase can be reached. Similar technology already existed on specialist devices, but Look to Speak (opens in new tab) is a breakthrough in terms of cost and practicality, allowing communication in situations where more cumbersome devices would be difficult to use.
- Price: $19 per month
- Platform: Oculus Quest, with Android and iPhone companion apps
Home fitness regimes were big during global lockdowns, and Apple recognised this by choosing Wakeout as its iPhone App of the Year. However, Supernatural (opens in new tab) from Within solved not one, but two consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic: increased sedentarism due to working from home and the closure of gyms and the scuppering of travel plans.
While exercising in the same room every day following Instagram tutorials can soon get boring, Supernatural uses virtual reality to turn home workouts into adventures visiting some of the world’s most stunning isolated places. You put on the headset, choose from a range of locations such as the Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu or Ethiopia’s Erta Ale volcano, then swing at attacking objects and duck under others as the tempo of the music picks up. Released in April, Supernatural seemed to be an app designed specifically for 2020. Just make sure you’re not too near any furniture.
- Price: Free, subscription $39.99 per year
- Platform: Android and iPhone
Another app that tapped into the mood of 2020, Loóna (opens in new tab) aimed to take care of our mental wellbeing. It was initially billed as a sleep aid, of which there are plenty out there, but Loóna does things a bit differently. Instead of offering guided meditation to listen to, eyes closed, as we try to sleep, it provides nightly “sleepscapes” that are designed to be watched and interacted with to help us wind down.
Loóna says its stories and colouring activities offer a mood-altering experience that promotes relaxation and allows us to cast off negative emotions. Some have questioned the price tag and the content is still in development, but the design of function of the app is undeniably beautiful.
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