Whether they're running on a PC, a smartphone or tablet, software applications (also known as "apps") can add almost limitless new worlds of fun and functionality to a device, letting you use your hardware for video chat, photo editing, music streaming, office productivity tasks...the list goes on. During a time when many folks are trying hard to beat the recession, software apps can be a great budget-minded holiday gift, or simply something to treat yourself to at any time without putting a big dent in your bank account. Some of the apps are even free!
Here are our choices for seven top apps in each of three device categories: PCs, smartphones, and iPads and other tablets. We've also picked an overall winner. Beneath each of the blurbs below, you can click to read a full review.
NUMBER ONE SOFTWARE APP OF THEM ALL
McAfee All Access
$99.99 (unlimited numbers of Windows PCs, Macs, and Android, Blackberry, and Symbian devices owned by an individual); $149.99 (five-device "family package.)
This year's nod for top product in the software category goes to McAfee All Access, arguably the most comprehensive entry in an emerging breed of cross-device security software for safeguarding devices ranging from Windows and Mac PCs to Android, Blackberry, and Symbian smartphones and tablets. Specific protections vary according to device, however.
SEVEN TOP PC SOFTWARE APPLICATIONS
While software for Windows and Mac PCs can sometimes be pricier than mobile apps, notebook and desktop PCs remain a more robust platform for many computing pursuits, whether it's video editing or full-scale document management. If you're buying a new PC as a holiday gift this year, why not spiff it up with some great software applications? Here, in no particular order of importance, are seven top products in the PC software category. A couple of these -- Single Click Filing and RealDownloader -- are available as downloads only, but the others can be purchased as boxed software, just perfect for under the tree. To view the software picks for mobile devices, too, keep on scrolling.
$149.99. Windows, MacOS.
Adobe Photo Elements and Premier Elements are widely regarded as the best PC software applications available for editing photos and video, respectively. Version 10 of the bundle adds new color correction tools and intriguing new special effects.
Kaspersky Internet Security (KIS) 2012
$64.95 (three licenses). Windows.
Just in time for the holidays, leading software security vendors are rolling out a new generation of "2012" Internet security suites aimed at keeping pace with an increasing barrage of new viruses, spyware, phishing sites, and other PC security threats. Kaspersky remains one of the leaders of the security pack.
Corel's PDF Fusion can also fare well at multi-format document conversion, but the tool truly excels for low-cost creation of personalized documents in PDF, a format easily readable across both PCs and multi-OS smartphones and tablets.
Single Click Filing
Nero 11 Platinum
Nero 11 Platinum is a comprehensive software package for doing just about anything you'd ever want to do in media creation, ranging from disc burning, backup, rescure, and advanced audio and video editing to creating a CD or DVD cover.
PaintShop Pro X4
Easy enough for a novice to use, Corel's PaintShop Pro X4 also offers high-end tools for photo editing pros.
Offered in free and "Plus" ($29.95) versions. Windows.
Online video is all the rage -- and not all of it is of the streaming video kind such as Netflix. Real Networks' RealDownloader software lets you download recorded videos from YouTube and elsewhere to your PC, all in a snap.
Only a few short years ago, nobody would have guessed that, with the right apps aboard, you'd be able to use a phone as a GPS navigation aide, a human language translation engine, or a mobile music jukebox. Here are some apps that will let a smartphone do all of that, and more. (Note: Some of these apps, such as Apple iOS "universal" apps, run on smartphones and tablets alike. Also, some mobile apps have counterparts on the PC side.)
Free to Spotify Premium subscribers, the smartphone app is available for iPhones and Android, BlackBerry, Symbian and Windows Mobile 7.5 phones.
For just about all music buffs who are also smartphone owners, Spotify's mobile app allows just about endless listening to Spotify's streaming music service while either online or offline. Other perks include high sound quality (with rates as high as 320 kbit/sec) and home stereo speaker compatibility.
ThinkFree Mobile Office
$4.99. iPhones and Android OS phones.
While other office suites are also available for smartphones these days, ThinkFree Mobile Office is one of the most reasonably priced around. Very simple to navigate and use, this mobile office suite integrates with both Google Docs and ThinkFree's own Web app for PCs.
Free. iOS (universal) and Android devices.
Look out, Facebook! Google is now offering a mobile app for its competing Google+ social networking service. Slick and clean, the mobile app offers an intriguing "Huddles" messaging feature in place of the PC edition's "Hangout" video chat.
$2.99, iOS (universal).
Priced at merely $2.99, this manifold GPS navigation app for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch gives hikers, runners, skiers, and other outdoor enthusiasts a Swiss Army knife, fork, spoon and spork's worth of tools, functions, features and options.
Free. iOS (universal), Android devices, and Blackberry phones.
The Dropbox mobile app can come in quite handy for Web-enabled back-up, to sync a folder of files with PCs and other mobile devices, or to provide password-protected access to files too large or cumbersome for e-mail. You can also publicly share documents, music, pictures, video, and more.
Free. iPhones and Android phones.
With this app, Google is aiming not just for a pocket phrasebook, but a veritable personal United Nations (UN) translator. Possible uses include teaching yourself a foreign language, communicating in the local lingo while you're traveling, and finding out what the label on an imported product actually says, for instance.
Now that you've taken a bunch of great photos on your iPhone, what do you do with them? Corel's new Slingshot lets you share them easily with others, through either e-mail or Facebook.
iPads and other tablets combine smartphone-like mobility with larger screen displays and easier navigation. Here are seven apps that make fantastic use of this emerging form factor. (Like the smartphone apps above, the tablet apps are available on developers' Web sites, as well as in online app markets such as Apple's App Store, Google's Android Market, and Amazon's Appstore for Android.)
QuickOffice Pro HD
$19.99. iPads and Android tablets.
QuickOffice Pro HD is one product in a new category of office suites expressly designed for iPads and other tablets. When you need to edit, create or share Microsoft Office documents, using nothing more than an tablet, this app brings great value, particularly at the recently reduced price of $19.99.
Netflix apps for tablets
The latest tablet editions of Netflix' mobile streaming video apps can make for a much improved streaming video experience which takes advantage of a tablet's larger screen real estate.
Snapseed for iOS.
Does the world really need another iOS-based photo editing app? Does Nik Software' Snapseed for iOS really bring anything new to the mix? "Yes" is the answer to both of these questions.
Skype for iPad.
Video chat and tablets seem like a match made in heaven. iPad users now have enough option for face-to-face communications over the Web, and this time, it's with Skype, the king of them all.
ArtRage for iPad.
ArtRage for iPad is designed to let you use your tablet much as a real world painting canvas. Although it's a handy tool for advanced artists, this app is also fun for beginners.
$29.99. iPads and Android tablets.
If you're away from your home office, or your office at work, LogMeIn Ignition gives you the best app around for remotely accessing your PC from a tablet.
Apple Numbers for iPad
A fully featured spreadsheet for iPads? That's right. Apple's Numbers app offers everything from charts and tables to a lengthy list of functions and formulas.
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