2012 was one heck of a year for me — I released my first iPhone app, went to Europe for the first time, spoke at the 360iDev convention in Denver, and spent most of the latter half of the year traveling around the country talking to iOS developers about the App Store, the company that runs it, and where both are headed. I’ve played with hundreds (if not thousands) of apps this year, and covered almost one every day for our daily app feature. So I’ve used plenty of great Apple and Apple-related products this year, and here are my picks of the best.
Puzzle Craft (Free for iPhone and iPad)
I’ve played (and loved) a whole lot of games from the App Store this year, but Puzzle Craft stands above them all as my favorite of the bunch. It’s extremely well-designed, beautifully polished, and it has both a very simple and accessible game mechanic (similar to, if not borrowed from, iOS’ great Dungeon Raid) and a very complex and deeply addictive progression system behind it. The story is mostly nonexistent, and I am a little disappointed the developers haven’t followed up the app’s success with any more content just yet. But especially for what is now a free game, there isn’t a title that I loved more or played as much of on the App Store this year. I don’t beat iOS games often, just because there are so many of them to play, but I leveled up to the max in Puzzle Craft, and then kept on playing.
Puzzlejuice ($1.99 for iPhone and iPad)
All right, so I’ve got a type — you can tell by the word “puzzle” in two of my favorite games this year. But it’s true: There’s nothing I love more than an endlessly intriguing puzzle game, and Puzzlejuice gets this nod because in a year of less-than-special word games, it’s the only one that really brought me back to keep spelling, over and over again. I do love the game’s bro-ish voice (you don’t just quit a session, you “rage quit”), and seeing behind the scenes of development in the Puzzlejuice emails was fascinating for me. But this is just a great, wonderful game, from design to gameplay to the various powerups and everything in between. Among word games (a genre which I’m tiring of, at this point), it’s the B-E-S-T.
Fairway Solitaire ($.99 for iPhone, $2.99 for iPad)
I didn’t think that Fairway Solitaire rolled onto the App Store this year, but I’m told that it did, and 2012 was definitely the year in which I played the most of it. Developer Big Fish Games made its name by cranking out casual titles on PC, and this has been its first big hit on the App Store (which it’s followed up with a solid set of updates and content releases since around May). Like the other games on my list, Fairway Solitaire takes a fairly mindless mechanic (card solitaire), and makes it much more interesting with various other power-ups and game tricks. And a huge amount of unlocked content (not to mention the hilariously absurd golf commentary jokes) has kept this one popping up on my iPad’s screen again and again.
Kingdom Rush (free for iPhone and iPad)
Like word games, tower defense is a genre that’s overdone on the App Store at this point — there are a billion tower defense games out there, and there are only a few that do anything really interesting with the genre. The just-released Anomaly Korea is a great example of really switching tower defense up, but Kingdom Rush is the best traditional example that I’ve come across this year. The combination of colorful graphics and deep strategy (complete with a fully unlockable talent tree) hit the target perfectly, and elevate a much-traveled genre to reveal the reason why it’s so popular in the first place. I’m not a big tower defense fan, but I love Kingdom Rush (especially on the iPad), and that right there is enough reason to recommend it.
Runmeter 5k ($4.99 on the iPhone)
It’s hard to describe just how helpful this app has been for me — I used it every day for about three months earlier this year, training up to my very first half marathon. Runmeter was already a great app, but the 5k variant (which included actual 5k, half marathon, and full marathon training plans in the app itself) served as the perfect coach for me, providing direction, feedback, and even some motivation as I worked my way through a running plan. The GPS is so well implemented, the app tracks so many things effortlessly, and little fun bits like changing the app’s alert voice or tweeting from the app (and reading you back replies as you run) make it clear that if you exercise with an iPhone or iPod touch, you should really have this app with you. The amount of features Abvio has crammed into this app is really staggering when you start to explore them, and for my money, there’s no better running app or fitness system out there.
Slacker Radio (free with ads, extra charge for subscription)
There are obviously a number of cloud music services out there at this point, but Slacker Radio has muscled its way past the others in my view, to the point where I listen to it almost more than any podcasts or even my own music collection. Especially with a subscription, Slacker can seem like magic all too often: Just type in a song or artist, hit play, and you get to listen to exactly what you want. The curated stations are well-designed by professional music pickers, and there are even non-music stations that talk sports, news, or comedy when you’re in the mood for that. There are a few holes in the library (mostly obscure songs that I really want to hear but aren’t available due to royalty issues), and of course you need to be connected to the Internet to listen (which made this a no-go during most of my trip to Europe, unfortunately). But in the car, out running, or just sitting at my desk, Slacker’s been an almost constant companion this year, and I’ve been glad to have it.
iCade Mobile gamepad ($80, available now)
Steve Jobs famously told us that we didn’t need more than one button on his iOS devices, but we gamers know that sometimes, buttons come in handy. The flat glass of the touchscreen just doesn’t fly in terms of precision or responsiveness in some games. And while there are a lot of bad Bluetooth-based game controllers out there, my favorite this year was the iCade mobile, a huge contraption modeled after the Sony PSP, which you can clip your iPhone into and then button away to your heart’s content. It’s not stylish or tiny by any account, and it probably won’t fit into your pocket along with your iPhone (the ThinkGeek 8-bitty is probably more your style, if that’s what you’re looking for, though get ready for muscle cramps after just a few minutes). But it is durable and dependable, and it feels more like a controller than anything else I tried this year. Yes, $80 is expensive, but if you’re going to bypass Steve’s wishes for your own gaming enjoyment, you’ll have to pay the price.
iPad (from $499)
I bought my iPad back at the end of 2011, but 2012 was the year of the tablet for me for sure. Before I bought my iPad, I was one of those who believed I just didn’t need it — my iPhone 5 is awesome, and I have a MacBook for all of my portable computing needs. Why would I need another computer in between those two? But over the course of this year, my iPad has become more and more helpful, and not necessarily in the places I’ve expected it.
In truth, it’s not a portable computer for me. I can move it around, but it’s been much more of a homebody than I ever expected: I still probably take my laptop out of the house more often than I take my iPad. But it has definitely become my device of choice for more than a few of my favorite pastimes, including browsing the Internet, gaming, and reading. I’ve never been more productive while in bed: Every night I read a few chapters of my book of choice (I’ve read so many books this year!), and every morning, I grab it off the nightstand to check email and preload the day’s news. And it’s a second screen for me while watching TV or movies on the couch for sure — I look up game hints while playing Xbox, browse IMDb when I want to know who that actor is that I recognize from that movie, and play great games on it, brilliantly made for a bigger touchscreen.
In short, my iPad has carved a way bigger place than I expected into both my workflow and my free time this past year. I don’t know that I couldn’t live without it (although I wouldn’t want to go back to reading without it), so it’s still a supplementary device, aside from the great iPad-only game experiences. But 2012 was definitely the year of the iPad for me, the turning point at which I realized just how important and useful the tablet form factor could be.