We rounds up the best apps to help you stay in touch with family and friends, from instant messaging to sending old- fashioned cards ( fancy! )
It’s more or less inevitable that, sooner or later, you’ll spend a holiday season apart from someone special to you. Whether it’s a sibling freshly emigrated to sunnier climes or a close friend who has moved cities to take up a new job, we all know the dull ache that comes from missing someone during an important time.
Fortunately, as technology has got clever and clever, it has also become easier and cheaper to stay in touch. With broadband near-ubiquitous in the first world, and gaining a substantial foothold elsewhere, it’s become the norm to fire up Skype in an evening or early friend or relative via a video call, all without spending a penny something that was firmly the preserve of science fiction books and films until recently.
The myriad ways to stay in touch with people – phoning, chatting via text or sending physical reminders through the post have also made it to your iOS device, and sometimes in spectacular ways. You might find yourself sending your gran a postcard while you’re on your way home from work, or calling a friend in New Year for free over your iPhone’s 3G connection, for instance. Alternatively, you might use Blurb to create a completely new take on the traditional family Christmas letter by creating a bespoke ebook to share with friend and relatives. Or, you might make complicated family outings over Christmas easier by getting a few relatives connected to Google’s Latitude service, avoiding the spectre of losing Uncle Roger on the New Year’s Day hike. In this post, we’ve rounded up the apps that will help you to stay in touch, whether your loved once are in the next room or on another continent entirely. Read on to uncover the very best available!
How We Tested….
keeping you connected reliably
For chat applications, we ran several chats with our contacts, assessing the speed with which replies were send and received. If an app supported video, then we ran a vide chat, keeping track of things such as jerkiness and detail destroying compression artefacts. For all apps – including those without the ability to char, such as Cards and Blurb- we made sure we dug well under the skin, trying out every feature and trying to provoke slowdowns and crashes. Finally, we kept a keen eye on usability. An app can offer the greatest feature in the world, but if it’s not intuitive and fun to use, then it’s hard to recommend.
The Biggest Voice over IP (VoIP) network in the world produces equally good apps
Price – Free, subscriptions available
Works with – iPhone, iPad touch, iPad
Skype is closing in on 700 million users and if that alone isn’t enough to prove that it’s one of the most successful technologies of our age, consider the fact that it’s one of only a handful to become a verb. It’s easy to see why, too – its service is efficient, high-quality and surprisingly resilient in the face of low bandwidth connection. If you’ve got a device with a front-facing video camera think the iPhone 4 and 4S, the iPad 2 and the fourth generation iPod touch – then video calling works in much the same way as FaceTime.If you’ve got a device with a rear facing camera, Skype still makes an attempt at video calling, although if you want your friend to see your face you’ll need to find a convenient mirror. It can still be a fun way of streaming a family get together to a distance relative, however. Most impressive is Skype’s ability to withstand a dodgy internet connection. For video purposes, this means even geographically distant relatives a be near-instantaneously chatted with even if both participants are on standard broadband connections. We’ve had some notable successes making surprisingly clear voice calls on patchy wireless signals in far-flung places. The app is a fully featured piece of telephony software: the ability to take part in (but not host) multi-person conferences, put people on hold and mute your device’s mic are all included. Skype can also communicate
“If you’re calling a Skype user, there’s no charge for voice or video calling”
with Bluetooth headsets ideal for iPod touch users, some of whom need to supply their own headset with a microphone. Best of all, Skype is free. If you’re calling a fellow Skype user, there’s no charge for either voice calling or video calling, and unlike FaceTime, Skype is multi-platform. If your interlocutor is on another iOS device, things will work fine-but the same applies if they’re on a desktop PC, a Symbian mobile device or an Android tablet or phone. If you’re trying to get in touch with people who aren’t on Skype , but are on standard landlines, you can use Skype’s apps to get in touch with them as well, for very reasonable price.The apps themselves behave slightly differently depending on whether you’re playing for Skype.If you’ve only got a free account then the apps are ad-supported. You may well find Skype worth playing for.There are some imperfect elements to the apps, however . For one thing, although Skype allows Push notifications, it doesn’t ring unless it’s running in the background on your device, and there are lots of anecdotal evidence suggesting that leaving Skype running all day is a great way to run down your battery. This is particularly true if the only data connection you have is 3G which is much harder on batteries than Wi-Fi. However, as a way to get in touch with people , wherever they are, and whatever kind of internet connection they have, either for free or for very little cost, there’s currently nothing out there to touch Skype.
2. Google Latitude
Track your friends, and let them track you Price Free works with iPhone, iPod touch
Whether you think Google Latitude is cool or desperately creepy will depend on your perspective. The app harnesses Google’s aptitude for mapping and geolocation, as well as your iOS device’s ability to locate itself, and puts the two together to create an app that not only knows exactly where you are- as the standard Maps app does – but also broadcasts that information.
Crucially, it only broadcasts that information within a strict set of parameters. This isn’t like Facebook, where anyone can add you as a friend. You log in with your Google account (for power users, Google Apps accounts are supported), and then you can invite others to share their locations with you. When someone sends you a request, you can confirm or deny it, and you can also set overriding settings for all the people you’ve already confirmed- setting a location manually, for instance, or not sharing one at all.Given a big enough group of friends it’s a fun app to have, and can certainly come in handy if you’re trying to find someone either in a big crowd( think shopping on space (a festival, perhaps). The app – which isn’t Universal, but can function on all iOS devices(iPod touches can still use geolocations services when they can see some Wi-Fi networks) – woks well, although a curious blind spot occurs when you try to get directions to another Latitude member: it switches to the Mapsapp, despite containing a map itself. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Latitude updates your location even when the app isn’t running – so this is one app definitely worth keeping an eye on once you start using it.
3. Verbs IM
Instant messaging across four different services connects you to hundreds of millions of users, all for a nominal sum Price 0.8$ Works with iPhone, iPad touch, iPad
The good thing about Skype is that it’s got a huge number of users. Annoyingly, though, not everyone uses it, and chances are your friends are spread over a fairly wide range of social networking and instant messaging services. Enter Verbs, which consolidates services with hundreds of millions of users into one tidy, pared back app. Verb covers Google Talk, AOL Instant Messenger, MobileMe and Facebook, and getting started is as simple as supplying your credentials for each service. From the home screen you can either sort your contacts so they’re shown by the service they’re subscribed to, or you can show all of your offline and online contacts at the same time. Each chat with a different contact takes place in its own window, using the same animations and layout as Safari’s multiple windows. Unusually for an instant messenger app, there’s a file sharing option of connecting to either CloudApp or Droplr to share images. Verbs works through the XMPP (Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol), and open standard used by the chat services it supports. That means it’s possible to use other apps to chat with users on multiple services, such as AOL’s AIM for iPad app not covered in-depth here because it’s iPad only. Verbs is imperfect in other ways. For instance, it’s somewhat galling to buy an app (admittedly, for a fairly paltry fee, though ) and then be offered Push notifications in return for spending another £2.99 in an In-App Purchase. (Verbs Pro also offers to save battery life by routing all your logged in accounts through a single connection, which could be valuable.) Still, if you’ve got lots of contacts split across several services, Verbs is likely to cover a lot of them in one fell swoop, even if it can’t claim to do everything.
4. Windows Live Messenger
A neat and tidy option for those with friends on this popular service Price Free Works with
iPhone, iPad touch
We at Tap! can’t find much to recommend windows Live Mail over services such as iCloud or Gmail, but Windows Live Messenger is another kettle of fish. For one thing, it’s estimated to have over 300 million users per month, so it’s likely that someone you’re fond of uses it to stay in touch, making this free app a sensible addition to your device. The app’s headline feature is its ability to connect Windows Live Messenger with data from other services. In this case the big fish is Facebook, but WLW can also dial into Yahoo!’s Y! Messenger, as well as providing connectivity to Flickr and er, MySpace, for those lodge in the previous decade.The app itself works really well: instant messaging text chats run smoothly, and handy notifications pop up if a message appears when the app isn’t at the front and centre of your screen. Slightly disappointingly, the email feature turns out to be merely a wrapper for the mobile version of windows Live Mail, but this app is otherwise a solid option for those wanting to stay connected to people solidly wedded to Microsoft’s social media efforts.
No offline mode for the videos but otherwise this app is genius Price Free Works with iPhone, iPod touch, iPad
The world’s biggest social-networking site is glorious in its iOs incarnation, with big, easy to use icons, plenty of detail and lightning performance, even on older devices like the iPhone 3G. There’s plenty of use made of Push notifications, so relevant activity such as someone commenting on your status or tagging you in a photo appears instantly, allowing you to take immediate action. Privacy advocates can take some comfort in the fact that the full range of account actions including removing your details from Facebook entirely can be done from the app, For those signed up to sharing their lives, this is an effective, free way of staying in touch, and its unwinding popularity only bolsters its appeal.
Amazingly obvious, but exceptionally well implemented Price Free Works with iPhone, iPod touch
Bump is an ingenious free app that detects nearby Bump-enabled phones and lets you quickly send images, contacts, calendar entries and plenty more by ‘ bumping’ your phones with the person in questions. Once two phones become aware they’ve been bumped, your image (for instance ) is sent over the web, so this isn’t a potentially handy peer-to-peer connection: you need to be online. You can also send data to people further afield by adding friend from your address book. when Bump has a connection it works sensationally well, and it’s worth recommending whenever you need to send things to anyone. Perhaps our favourite feature is the social networking aspect, which connects to Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Choose the appropriate network and bump phones, and your request will show up immediately, saving your new friend the hassle of searching for you online . Nice!
A powerful, clever, intuitive way to the most out of Twitter Price £1.99 works with iPhone, iPad touch
For communicating with your wider network of friends and colleagues, we wouldn’t be without Twitter. The trick is finding an app that distils the data into a manageable trickle, and Tweetbot fits the bill. At its heart it’s a Twitter client not like the free official version, giving you the ability to quickly manage tweets from others, as well as being able to view retweets, track conversation threads and contribute your own voice to the conversation. Along the way, there are plenty of gestures. For instance, a swipe right gives you the conversation history between two people useful for getting to the bottom of what’s caused the latest spat. The app is extremely fast, and supports Twitter add ons such s the bit.ly URL shortener, various image and video hosts, and adding to your read-later pile via the superb Instapaper, along with a few others, If only it were available for the iPad.
8. WhatsApp Messenger
A genuine competitor to iMessage, this is text messaging, but better Price 69p works with iPhone
iMessage is one of our favourite iOS 5 features, but the limitation of only being able to communicate with other iOS users is grinding WhatApp is effectively a cheap way of bringing multi-platform text messaging to your device. You don’t send messages to particular phone number, but to other WhatsApp app is available on iOS, Android, various flavours of Symbian, Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry, so there’s plenty of scope for your friends to join in with the fun (and you can invite them from with in the app). You can create group conversations, send images and videos, share your location and even record audio notes, though Skype remains our firm favourite for voice chatting . But with plenty of Push notifications, WhatsApp is a clean, very well-featured way of messaging anyone on a compatible device.
Apple brings its Midas photographic touch to the humble greeting cards Price Free Works with iPhone, iPod touch
Apple has a good reputation when it comes to designing and producing many printed goods, as anyone who’s bought a photo book through iPhoto or Aperture will attest. Cards is an app that brings Apple’s attention to detail to bear on the humble art of printing greetings cards. And if you’re quota, CArds given you a great chance to send cards out while you’re on the go.
The app is classic Apple. It’s simple and gracefully animated, giving you a clear impression of where you’ve com from and where you’re going. It’s also iPhone only, though, which seems like rather a waste. Creating a card the finished versions of which are printed on heavy cotton paper- is simple. You can add an image from your own camera roll or, better still, an image side loaded to your phone through iPhoto. positioning and sizing a shot is simple, as is adding text to the interior. Once done, tap in an address on the envelope ( Americans, the lucky souls, can even add bespoke stamps) and tap in the price. Cards cost £3.99 to the UK, and this price includes the postage.
10. Blurb Moble
Crete your own unique range of simple yet elegant ebooks that can be accessed by anyone with a web browser Price Free works with iPhone, iPod touch, iPad
Those interested in photography are likely to know what Blurb is already. For everyone else, it’s a company that creates beautifully bound and printed photobooks. Blurb Mobile is the company’s attempt to bring that self publishing magic to the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. The idea is simple pick a number of photos( the free version gets you up to eight; purchase the Plus version for £1.49 through an in-App Purchase to bump that up to 15), and have them either placed independently or in a layout. Next choose a theme, then publish your mini ebook to Blurb, where you can either have it accessible to anyone with the right URL, or the world in general. You can write captions. or even include audio clips. It’s an ingenious way of putting a modern spin on the round robin family letter.