If you own a smart phone or a tablet computer, you know it's all about the apps.
Applications, or apps, are little programs that take information from regular websites and reformat them into a form you can actually read on smaller screens.
They first appeared with the first iPhones, probably as an afterthought. But if most people are honest, they will admit the apps are at least as important as the phone itself - and in many cases are far more useful.
The problem is, there are tens of thousands of these things. And that can make it very hard to sort the good from the bad. Of course, usefulness varies with the individual, since many apps are highly specialized. But there are some apps that are universal - useful to virtually everyone.
In this week's column, I'm going to run down those I think almost everyone with a smart phone or tablet should download. Even better, every one of them is free and available for both Apple and Android ecosystems.
Let's start with Yelp, one of dozens of apps designed to help you find a restaurant, business, service - or simply something to do - no matter where you are in the United States. The great thing about the app is that it ties into your phone's (or tablet's) ability to determine its location. So when you launch Yelp, it immediately knows where you are and tells you the closest anything you need, be it restaurant, theater, nightclub, shopping center, etc. This is especially useful when you are traveling and unfamiliar with the area you may be in at the time.
To make it even more useful, there are user reviews attached to most businesses to give you an idea of what to expect. Sometimes you have to take these reviews with a grain of salt, but over time, you learn to cull out the chronic complainers and the planted reviews (from business owners and friends) that gush about how wonderful everything is. What's left can help you decide if the business deserves your business.
Yelp also provides maps to help you find your way once you have decided where it is you want to go.
Another great app to have while traveling is Gas Buddy. This handy little program is pretty no nonsense and can quickly tell you where to find to the closest cheapest gas, no matter where you are. (Prices are reported regularly by a small army of users.) You have the option of sorting by closest station or lowest price but all the stations shown are going to be close to your current location.
To get even more bang from Gas Buddy, consider going to the regular website using a full size PC before leaving on your trip. A handy "heat map" allows you to see gas prices across the entire United States in a glance. It's color coded so you can quickly zoom in on the location along your journey with the lowest gas prices and plan stops there ahead of time.
Want to keep up on the latest news? There are lots of apps to choose from but USAToday is arguably the best. No annoying pay walls or registration requirements here. It's all free and perhaps the easiest to navigate among the myriad of news sites. There is not a lot of depth here and the focus is national by design. But most folks are in a hurry these days and this is quick way to keep up with what's happening. Unlike the print edition, it is updated constantly so you can keep up with breaking news as well. And it you have a tablet, USAToday's tablet edition is first-rate - reformatted to take advantage of bigger screens.
It seems almost everyone has investments these days and there's no better way to keep up with the roller coaster markets than the excellent CNBC app. Although it's available for both Apple and Android platforms, the Apple version is vastly superior for some reason. In my opinion, this is perhaps the best designed app I have ever seen for the iPhone. Every screen provides multiple options for accessing more information, through hot links, tabs, screen scrolls and sliding menus. It's a remarkably well thought-out design.
You can easily keep tabs on US and foreign markets in real time (no 15 minute delays here), as well as the status of your own stocks and even do research on stocks you may want to own. Better yet, you can create a portfolio or all your stocks, mutual funds and ETFs and quickly check on them at a glance throughout the day.
There's also news and video from the CNBC financial channel, constantly updated throughout the day.
Much of the functionality of the iPhone version of the app has been left out of the Android version but you still get a quick overview of the markets on Android and can create your own portfolio.
Finally, I had to choose a game. And no surprise here, I'm going with the wildly popular Angry Birds. There are many incarnations of this game and you have to pay for the ones with advanced levels. But the free versions provide plenty of fun too.
The premise here is pretty odd: Birds become slingshot ammo in an assault against pigs in fortresses made up of blocks of wood, ice, stone and other materials. Take them all out with the limited bird ammo at hand and you move to the next level. It's whimsical and funny and suitable for all ages.
The fact that the developers of these game are now mega-millionaires should give you an idea of how addictive this game can be.
Check it out.
Tony Briggs has been a technology columnist in the Daytona Beach area for more than 20 years.