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En español | Smartphones are “smart” for all the remarkable things they can help you accomplish.
Learn a language, catch up on the weather, find a hiking trail, gaze at the starry sky, play a game or plan your next meal or vacation. You often gain these insights not from the built-in features of the phone but rather from the numerous apps you decide to add on, many free. More than 90 percent of the 7.2 million apps in the Apple and Google stores are free to download.
To help you discover these free apps, AARP selected 50 that can help save you money, entertain you, safeguard your health, reach your fitness goals, learn more about the world around you or make daily activities more efficient. We chose apps based on a combination of the following: ones that we’ve used ourselves, that reviewers or app stores rated highly, and that a variety of experts recommended. The apps must be offered on both the iPhone and Android operating systems. And we’ve focused on apps that you might not know about rather than popular ones that you may already have on your phone.
A word about free: We picked worthy apps where you don’t have to spend a penny to take advantage of their basic features. We did not reject apps that included options to purchase more content when you’re in the app — called a “freemium” app — but we made sure that enough valuable material was available before you might be asked to pay for additional features.
It’s important to remember that free apps do have some drawbacks. You may have to click past frequent and intrusive advertising to get to the basic features. You may receive persistent notices to upgrade to a paid tier that provides extra or more advanced features, or that lets you enjoy a more challenging game. Some users might find the notices distracting, while others might find the offers attractive — such as those who want help to advance more quickly to the next level of a game.
Privacy is always important when downloading anything to your device because you’ll be revealing information about yourself and your online behavior. App owners use this data to target ads to you, and they might sell these details to other companies. You can take some precautionary measures, such as keeping your contact list private and downloading apps only from companies you trust.
Though you can make purchases for upgrades in free apps, we shied away from apps strictly focused on shopping or e-commerce. However, some free apps do encourage shopping along with the services you get gratis. The Vivino wine-rating app, for example, is also an online wine store.
Try a few, or a slew, of the following apps to explore your phone’s unlimited potential.
This language learning app provides self-paced, bite-size lessons and mini games for about three dozen languages, including Chinese, French, German, Italian and Spanish. PC Magazine awarded Duolingo an Editor’s Choice designation in July 2020: “It’s easily the best free language app you can find. … Even measured against paid programs, the content is so good that Duolingo still ranks among the best software for learning a language.”
If it’s been years since you attended school, you might want to tap into the 2,000 courses offered on the Kahn Academy app. It’s a convenient way to help your kids or grandkids with their lessons or to brush up on your own lapsed skills. You can take courses in subjects from math, science and art history to grammar, economics and computer programming. Thousands of interactive exercises and downloadable videos are included, letting you learn even when you aren’t connected to the internet.
Libby is the gateway to checking out free audiobooks and ebooks from your public library. More than 90 percent of the public libraries in North America buy at least some of their digital collection from OverDrive, the company behind Libby, and your library chooses which titles to make available inside Libby. Don’t have a library card? In some cases, you can apply for one directly through the app. “I get books delivered to my Kindle and phone for free from my local library. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars this year alone,” says Roger Matus, a marketing consultant in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Reserve tables at more than 52,000 restaurants worldwide, filtering your search by cuisine, neighborhood, price, rating, the time you want to eat and the number of people in your party. You can peek at the menu and even indicate if you’d like to sit outdoors, at a counter or at the bar. You can also order takeout in some cases.
Both oenophiles and folks seeking a cheap but decent bottle of wine can rely on this digital sommelier app — “Netflix for wine,” as Fortune characterized it. Take a photo of a wine label or restaurant wine list to see its price, recommended food pairings, reviews and tasting notes. Vivino says it has data on 13 million wines from more than 231,000 wineries. “I find the Vivino reviews helpful in deciding what wines to buy and what the fair price is to pay for it,” says Rick Popowitz of North Potomac, Maryland, a regular user of Vivino. “At restaurants, it helps me navigate a wine list I may be unfamiliar with.”
Yummly stands out among similar apps for its more than 2 million recipes, many culled from other recipe sites and food blogs, including Allrecipes, Epicurious, Food52 and Smitten Kitchen. You can indicate all your favorite cuisines — Asian, French, Southern & Soul Food — and list any wheat, dairy, peanut or other food allergies. You can also list diet preferences, such as vegan or pescatarian, and any ingredients you’d like to avoid.
Last year’s popular Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit sparked a renewed interest in chess. If you are new to the game, a more advanced player or in between, Chess.com’s Chess Play & Learn lets you compete against a computer or players from around the world at your level.
The brainchild of talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, Psych! is a party game in which you try to bluff other players into choosing wrong answers to trivia or other questions while trying to guess the right answers yourself. In one section of the game called It’s the Law, you win points by picking which surprising but real law is the right one while making up your own fake law that other players might choose instead.
This popular Scrabble-like word game lets you challenge friends on their mobile devices or PCs. A Smart Match feature pairs you with players at a skill level similar to yours. The game can be addictive, and you can easily have three or four games going at once. But if you’re used to bluffing with words that aren’t real on Scrabble, be warned: Only words that appear in the dictionary are acceptable.
Browse the app to find trails for many activities, including backpacking, bird-watching, camping, horseback riding, mountain biking, rock climbing and snowshoeing. You can even search for trails with waterfalls and ones that are dog friendly, kid friendly and, for the grandkids perhaps, stroller friendly. AllTrails says it has more than 200,000 hand-curated trail maps along with reviews of those trails.
Turn your calisthenics into currency for charity. This app tracks the miles you bike, dance, run or walk and makes a donation to one of more than 50 charities, including the Alzheimer’s Association, ALS Association, Susan G. Komen breast cancer organization and Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s disease research. The donations come from corporate sponsors, and you also have the option to request pledges from family and friends.
“I wish that people would [fill in the blank].” Or, “Give yourself a compliment: I am [fill in the blank].” Daily Haloha delivers a similar thought-provoking prompt, or Haloha, each day. Your Haloha answer is randomly whisked off to another user. You can respond to that person, and you also can look at a wall of responses to the same question. You can share Halohas that inspire you and save them to a scrapbook.
The app offers more than 100,000 free guided meditations with music and ambient sounds to help you deal with anxiety, reduce stress and sleep better. You can follow any of 10,500 meditation teachers around the globe and be notified when they produce fresh content. The app streams live events, and you can join circles of people as part of group meditations.
This app alerts you to take your medication with clever messaging such as a shaking pillbox or Austin Powers, Darth Vader or a “nagging mom” reminding you in their own special ways to take your pills. (Says Powers: “Yeah, baby, it’s time to take your groovy meds.”) It also helps prevent you from taking a potentially dangerous extra dose, and if you add a medication that has a known interaction with another drug you’ve listed, you’ll be alerted to talk to your doctor. You can add refill reminders, doctors’ appointments and notes, and you can also designate a “Medfriend” buddy to receive a missed medication notification, which can be useful for caregivers, too.
If you want to lose weight, stay in shape or get in better shape, MyFitnessPal can help you count calories with its searchable database of millions of foods. You can monitor your weight and your workouts and join a community of others facing the same challenges. You also can link the app with some fitness trackers.
To help you create more polished photographs, Adobe, the company behind Photoshop, provides a suite of tools in Lightroom. You can edit photos and adjust an image’s exposure, luminance, saturation, shadows and texture. “This is just the best overall app for shooting, organizing and editing,” says instructor Erik Kuna of KelbyOne.com, which offers photography courses. “It’s definitely an app you can grow into.” That means buying Lightroom Premium, which adds shortcuts, handy tools and special effects.
If you use the same passwords across numerous devices or choose passwords that are easy to guess — both no-nos — getting a password manager to create and store secure passwords makes sense. While many of them cost money, Bitwarden’s free tier “handles all expected password manager tasks with surprisingly few limitations,” notes PC Magazine. As a free user, you can synchronize passwords across all your devices, store them in a digital vault and automatically generate passwords.
Founded in 1995, Craigslist is the online classified pioneer. But the company didn’t add an app until more than two decades later. You can post furniture and household goods to sell or give away, find roommates, hire contractors or upload your résumé. While most listings are free, sellers of some big-ticket items such as cars and employers posting jobs must pay a fee. (The Android app is here.)
Get inspiration from architects, contractors and interior designers for your own remodeling dreams, from your kitchen and bathroom to your living room and outdoor deck. Houzz lets you pore through some 20 million photos, filtering by room, style and location. Through a sketch feature, you can draw and annotate on those photos. A 3D feature lets you envision what a sofa would look like in your living room.
PhotoScan by Google Photos lets you scan and capture printed photographs or artwork that you would like to add to your digital collection. The photos can be on a wall, in a photo frame or on a book or magazine cover. PhotoScan typically eliminates most if not all of that pesky glare
Knowing how much to charge for an item you hope to sell on eBay or elsewhere can be difficult. This app shows you the average prices of items sold on eBay during prior weeks, including buy-it-now and auction prices. This is a handy tool for potential buyers to see if they’re being charged a fair price or even getting a bargain. (The app is called What’s it worth on eBay FREE on Google Play.)
Buying or selling a home? Zillow lists millions of houses and apartments that buyers can easily pore through room by room and check out facts about the neighborhood. Zillow’s real estate agent profiles can help you choose an agent. “It is important that home sellers and buyers learn more about an agent, especially their recent experience selling homes and customer comments, before employing that agent,” says Stephen Brobeck, senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America. In a 2020 study, the nonprofit organization concluded that Zillow agent profiles represented the most useful source of such information.
The former Radio.com lets you tune into more than 900 live and local music, news, sports, talk and comedy AM and FM stations and podcasts. You can “rewind” live radio from up to 24 hours in the past. Audacy also has its own themed music stations, such as Pop for the Patio, Rock n’ Road and Acoustic Sunrise, and podcasts such as Game Time With Boomer Esiason and the Podsauce podcast discovery show, available only on the app.
Ever watched a movie or TV show and wondered about an intriguing actor’s other films? Amazon-owned IMDb — short for Internet Movie Database — is an online repository of celebrity, movie and television facts, including awards, box office data, cast info, famous quotes, plot summaries, reviews, showtimes, trailers and trivia. You also can watch some movies and TV on demand for free but with commercials.
From Brussels to Bangkok, Amsterdam-based Radio Garden lets you access live radio stations from all over the world that broadcast 24 hours a day. You can spin a 3D globe and tap on a green dot representing a city or town and the stations broadcasting from that region or enter a specific country, city or station in a search box. Among other places, we stumbled on stations playing music in Cosenza, Italy; Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; and Takasaki, Japan. (The Android app is here.)
Shazam can tell you the title or performer of a song in seconds. It can identify most songs on the radio, a musical performance on TV or even recordings at a noisy party or tavern. You can then open the songs directly in Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube Music. You can ask your phone’s digital voice assistant to recognize a song, but the Shazam app allows you to ask quietly and privately.
If you have the urge to hear your favorite artist or song, Spotify can start playing it in an instant. It has more than 70 million tracks, including nearly 3 million podcasts. It also curates recommended playlists, and you can create your own. A free Spotify account includes advertisements every few tracks, and users cannot download songs to listen to offline.
Having trouble hearing the TV or want to listen without disturbing others? Tunity lets you hear what’s on a TV with muted sound through your phone. You point your camera at the TV screen, click Scan, and start to hear the audio when it recognizes the station. We tested it recently in a crowded — and noisy — restaurant in Boston, and the sound came through loud and clear. For now, Tunity supports only live TV, not streaming, and it doesn’t work with every channel.
Choosing a favorite weather app often boils down to how you like your information presented. “The quality of the forecasts you are going to get doesn’t shift much between the apps, whereas the quality of the interface and the usability per se of the app is where you are going to make the biggest differences,” says Kevin Bowley, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science at Penn State University. He likes AccuWeather, a forecasting service that a Penn State graduate student founded almost 60 years ago, because its forecasts are “pretty straightforward to understand what’s going on.” AccuWeather recently added a hurricane tracker feature. Eric Floehr, founder and CEO of Columbus, Ohio-based ForecastWatch, which gauges forecast accuracy, puts AccuWeather “in the top tier for weather forecast providers around the world.”
The team at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology has created an app that can identify more than 8,000 bird species from around the world. You can upload a picture you’ve snapped of the bird, answer some questions about its attributes or location or use Merlin Bird’s coolest feature, Sound ID. It can recognize more than 450 birds in the U.S. and Canada when you hold your phone near the bird and record its song. “I’ve been studying all these apps that do bird ID through sound for a couple of years. Most of them don’t work really well. [Merlin] works quite well,” says Anders Gyllenhaal, who with his wife, Beverly, runs a website devoted to birds called FlyingLessons.us.
The official app of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration includes news and stunning images of the sky — from Pluto in enhanced color to Perseus and the Lost Meteors. Watch videos on topics that include a tribute to the late astronaut John Glenn and NASA’s return to Venus. You’ll also get a direct link to live NASA TV, plus an augmented reality feature that helps you find and view the International Space Station. “The NASA app is like having your own personal space scientist,” says Richard Tresch Fienberg, press officer for the American Astronomical Society and a senior contributing editor at Sky & Telescope magazine.
You can’t differentiate a petunia from a Peruvian lily but wish you could. The app, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, uses image recognition technology and your phone’s camera to help identify wildlife, plants and fungi. It offers various challenges, such as trying to spot five species of arthropods. In recent tests in northern New Jersey and New England, Seek pinpointed several plants and fungi, including the American trumpet vine, Chinese arborvitae, whorled milkweed and hemlock varnish shelf mushrooms. A separate iNaturalist app is built around an online community for naturalists.
Don’t know a constellation from a comet? Star Walk 2 Ads+ can help you discover more about meteor showers, nebulae and star clusters. (The app is called Star Walk 2 Free on Google Play.) Hold your phone up to the night sky, and it can tell you what you are seeing with the naked eye. Using augmented reality, the app can overlay a map of celestial objects on the screen.
If you boat, fish, search for shells, surf or merely want to lounge on the sand, knowing the tide times, currents and weather forecast can help you plan your day. This app also shows times the sun and moon rise and set. Data comes from more than 5,500 tidal stations in the United States and overseas. (In Google Play, the free version is Tides Near Me — Free.)
You might also like: Tide Charts
Clubhouse lets you listen and talk in real time with people from all over the world, turning voice into a new kind of social media outlet. Participants can create dedicated audio chat rooms and clubs around topics of interest. Clubhouse started out as invitation only but is now open to all, and celebrities have been known to take part. “There’s this emotional quality to live audio you can’t get on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram or whatever,” B.J. Fogg, author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything and a Stanford University researcher, told AARP.
Meetup lets you mingle with people who share your interests and can match you with more than 300,000 local and online groups and 100,000 weekly events. You can find, for example, a nearby book club, hiking group, dance party or someone you want to spend more time with. “This is a great place to meet like minds outside the explicit context of dating,” says CEO Mark Brooks of Courtland Brooks, who consults with dating services. “Then count on serendipity and put some effort into meeting new friends through the friends you just met by inviting them out to your own group events.” (You will pay a fee to run a group.)
Nextdoor is all about your own community, whether you need a dog walker or landscaper, want the skinny on block parties and garage sales, or need to find a lost pet. If you are new to an area, Nextdoor can make it easy to introduce yourself to your neighbors.
Slowly provides a modern take on letters from pen pals, matching you with friends around the world who have similar interests. After you write your email, delivery time depends on the distance between you and your pen pal to recreate the anticipation of receiving a letter through traditional mail. “It’s a great way to connect with folks with whom you may have common interests or to respectfully learn more about those who may not and who live in other countries,” says principal analyst Ross Rubin at Reticle Research in New York, who specializes in consumer technology.
Timehop is all about digital reminiscing. You connect your Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts to explore your history on social media, and you tap into your Dropbox, Flickr and Google Photos accounts to take a photographic trip down memory lane. Timehop then shows you all your posts from a particular calendar day through the years, and you can share what you like in texts or on social media. A “Then & Now” feature lets you compare the old you to your present self. (The Android app is here.)
Travelers longing to live like a local can stay in neighborhoods off the beaten path, and those with wanderlust might get some inspiration through exploring listings on Airbnb. The app can help you find, book and pay for lodging in a host’s entire house or spare room — or an apartment, cabin or cottage — all over the world. You can find places by “experiences,” from a desire to sail a charter boat to playing with baby goats. You also can list a place to rent, which might generate some extra income. Airbnb typically charges fees for both hosts and people booking a place to stay.
You also might like: Vrbo
Flush can help you take care of business if you are out and about when nature calls. Search for more than 200,000 public loos all over the world and summon a map to help you get there quickly. Flush encourages users to notify the app of public toilets not in the database, rate them from great to unacceptable and indicate whether any of them require a fee or key or offer disabled access. (The free Google Play version is titled Flush — Find Public Toilets/Restrooms.)
Who doesn’t want to save money when fueling up? GasBuddy allows you to comparison shop for gas without driving around the neighborhood. When traveling, you can consult the app to find prices on or near your route. If you become a registered user, GasBuddy can send you deal alerts to help you save up to 25 cents a gallon at select stations. If you report prices, you can get points, and those or any other points you earn in the app can be used to enter drawings for free gas cards.
Google Translate makes toting a foreign language dictionary while traveling passé in numerous ways. Instantly see and hear on your phone a conversation in dozens of languages. Translate text among 108 languages, 59 of them even when you are offline. If you see a sign you don’t understand, point your phone’s camera at it and receive an instant translation. It also can help you learn how to pronounce a word.
Finding coins for a parking meter can be a hassle. ParkMobile lets you pay for parking from your phone at more than 3,000 locations in more than 350 cities. These may be spots on the street or in a parking lot or garage. The app has a countdown clock to remind you when the time you paid for will expire. In some instances, you can extend that time. You are charged for the parking spot through the app by linking your credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay account and might end up with an additional transaction fee.
From Acadia to Zion, Recreation.gov can help you plan trips to national parks, monuments, forests and other federal lands. Through partnerships with a dozen federal agencies, among them the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service, it has listings for more than 4,200 facilities and 113,000 individual sites. The app is geared toward folks who want to camp, hike and raft as well as people hitting the road in their RVs. Arrange for entry tickets, permits, site passes and tours through the app. Filter searches by amenities, price and site types as well as check the availability of campsites.
SpotHero lets you find and reserve parking spots at select garages in major U.S. cities, often at a lower rate than if you didn’t book in advance. You tell the app where, when and for how long you want to park, and SpotHero will show participating parking garages and their prices plotted on a map. The app can indicate whether a garage is covered, offers self-parking or valet, and has electric vehicle charging stations. In some cases, you can pay for your reserved spot through the app. You may be charged a transaction fee on top of the parking fee.
Public transportation is often the best way to navigate many big cities. The Transit app helps you find routes on buses, trains and other modes of transportation, including bikes, ride-hailing services, even walking. The app includes commuting information for some 300 cities in 10 countries, helping you determine when the next train or bus will reach your location. In some cities you can buy transit tickets through the app.
The Google-owned, crowdsourced navigation app can help you plan trips and avoid traffic, assisted via all the other “Wazers” on the road. You, or people in your vehicle, can report crashes, hazards and heavy congestion along your route. “I use Waze all the time and regularly compare its recommendations to Google Maps and the navigation system in my BMW. Waze is consistently better. The traffic information is more up to date, and it is more aggressive about taking side roads,” says Christopher Herot, chief executive of SBR Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Waze was the most cited app among respondents to an informal AARP social media outreach asking people for their favorite free apps.
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Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is author of Macs for Dummies and coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.
Ed Waldman is a contributing editor and writer who covers technology. He previously was an editor at The Baltimore Sun, taught journalism at the University of Maryland and launched a statewide high school sports website.