Nearly five years since Apple's first iPod touch hit the market, its core mission remains intact: iPhone without the phone. It's perfect if you don't want the high monthly costs of a cellular voice and data plan, but still want a top-notch pocket-size music and movie machine—that has the ability to run about a half-million third-party apps.
It turns out that's mighty smart for your wallet. Compared with the same-price ($199) iPhone 4S, you don't lose all that much by going with a current-generation iPod touch. The iPhone 4S has a better camera, GPS, sends and receives SMS text and MMS picture messages, and makes calls. That's pretty much it. The iPod touch runs almost all of the aforementioned 500,000+ apps in the App Store, plays music, videos, games, records high-definition video, and handles Web browsing, email, and other Internet-based tasks with aplomb when connected to a Wi-Fi network.
So what are the best apps to get right away? Here's a roundup of 15 great, free programs that we consider must-haves. In this roundup, we'll pay particular attention to things an iPod touch owner might be interested in, such as Wi-Fi calling apps, additional music and video options, and apps with plenty of offline functionality for those moments when you're nowhere near a wireless hotspot.
A few caveats: The iPod touch is a killer mobile gaming machine, but games costs money. Most of the best titles aren't exactly free, although many of them are available in no-cost "lite" versions that either offer just a few levels of game play, or are supported by advertisements. We didn't include games here, but there are tens of thousands of them in Apple's App Store. Finally, to keep this list as useful as possible, we also left out some completely obvious apps that you probably already have, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Apple's iBooks.
Perhaps the ideal iPod touch app for synchronizing your documents and viewing them offline, Dropbox lets you access file versions that are always up to date. You get 2GB of free online storage, which is plenty for just about any recent set of projects short of music and video editing. View, play, or share any of your files with a single button tap, even if you're nowhere near your desktop or laptop PC.
There are many recipe apps available for iOS, but Epicurious is the only really good one that's also free. For instant help in the kitchen, it offers access to over 30,000 recipes from such highly regarded sources as Bon Appetit, Self, and Gourmet, among others. We have trouble just browsing through this app without immediately wanting to run to the kitchen and try something, as the photos alone are enough to set our stomachs rumbling.
Evernote has built up quite a following, thanks to its all-in inclusion of text, audio, photos, and other notes. Anything you think of or find on the Web, you can "jot it down" by adding it to Evernote. The app also lets you configure which notebooks are available offline, upon which they're downloaded right onto your iPod touch. Once you reconnect to the Web, the app will sync any changes you made on the iPod touch back to the online version.
RSS reader fans can be very particular, but if you just need a fast one that syncs smoothly with Google Reader, Feeddler is a great choice. It offers robust offline support, which means it's perfect for iPod touch users; simply power it up, and you'll see all of your news available for offline reading. From there, you can save, share, or star articles, upon which everything is synced the moment you rejoin the Internet.
Sign up for a free Google Voice account, and you can send text messages to U.S. phones, and make VoIP calls with your specially assigned (and, often, area code-relevant) Google Voice number—all for free. You can also access voicemail, including Google Voice's immensely useful (and oftentimes not completely accurate) text transcriptions. It's not always the most reliable app, and there's noticeable latency during audio calls, but its pros far outweigh its cons.—Next: 6-10 >
Now that the iPod touch has a camera, you'll want a camera app that's more fun than the basic shooter built into iOS. Instagram is a perfect choice, thanks to its vast array of cool filters for prematurely aging your photos. You can also make them look like printed Polaroids, or add otherwise interesting and normally difficult-to-achieve effects. It's no accident, incidentally, that most of those filters will help disguise the iPod touch's less-than-stellar camera sensor. You can also share photos just as easily as with the iPhone, and view what other people are snapping pictures of as well.
Amazon continues to improve its popular ebook reading app, and it shines on the iPod touch. You can download any or all of your Kindle books, buy or download new ones straight from the app (with a Wi-Fi connection), and sync your current page, notes, and bookmarks across all apps and devices. As for buying books, don't forget Amazon lets you download dozens of free classics, and thousands more are available via Project Gutenberg and other online sources.
It's about time you dump those aging copies of Quicken or Microsoft Money, and sign up for Mint, the best free service for managing your budget and finances. The Mint app isn't completely full featured—you'll still need to log into the (also free) main site on a desktop browser for certain tasks. But for an at-a-glance view of your complete finances on the go, it's a no-brainer download.
Most iOS apps for streaming video, such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, aren't really free, as they require monthly subscription fees (which are pretty reasonable, but they're fees nonetheless). PBS, on the other hand, offers a completely free app for watching Antiques Roadshow, Frontline, Nova, PBS NewsHour, and the online-only series Nova ScienceNOW's "Secret Life of Scientists," among many other programs.
Let's say you're sitting at home, and a cool song comes on during the TV show you're watching. Fire up Shazam, hold up your iPod to the TV, and within a few seconds, you'll know exactly what it is, who recorded it, and what album it's on. The same goes for listening to music in a bar or cafe. The latest version of Shazam is faster than ever at deciphering each song, and it starts listening the moment the app launches. The free version even allows for unlimited song tagging now, which makes springing for the Encore version ($5.99, or $3.99 for one year) that much more unnecessary.—Next: 11-15 >
Why pay for landlines and office phones when you can use Skype, which is free? Skype's iOS app works perfectly on the iPod touch, and lets you make or receive calls whenever you have a Wi-Fi connection, even in the background as you run other apps—providing you have either a fourth-generation iPod touch, or a compatible headset and microphone for an earlier model. You'll need to pay in order to call landlines or cell phones, but Skype to Skype calls are always free, anywhere in the world. With a fourth-generation iPod touch or later, you can also send and receive video, or receive video only on a third-generation iPod touch.
Still our favorite streaming Internet radio app, Slacker delivers custom radio stations that are great for discovering new music. Slacker lets you create stations around your favorite artists, similar to Pandora. But unlike with Pandora, Slacker lets you download and listen to individual songs. You can also cache stations to listen when you're not connected to the Web.
TripIt is like your personal travel concierge. It lets you check flight times, confirmation numbers, and lots of other travel-related information. The best part is that it saves that information locally. All you have to do is forward confirmation e-mails and related data to TripIt, at which point the app downloads and stores everything you need for offline access. Who needs a cellular connection or wireless hotspot at the airport when you can do this?
The Weather Channel
The iPhone comes with a basic weather forecast app, but The Weather Channel dives much deeper. It offers detailed 'Right Now' weather information, animated radar maps, 10-day forecasts, alerts for severe conditions and pollen, snow accumulation forecasts, and breaking weather news video. You can also post local forecasts to Facebook, and if you're so inclined, send weather-related photos and videos to the meteorologists at The Weather Channel.
You'll definitely need a Wi-Fi connection for this one, but Wikipedia's app is one of the most useful things to have in your pocket. Look up almost anything on the go, and without having to stumble around on a mobile Web site—fire up the app, key in your search term, and get instant results. Think about how much less this weighs than that final, 32-volume, 2010 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica you were eying (only $1,395!).
This article is in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.