The Best iPad Utility Apps

How to get more out of your iPad

Woman using iPad on train

Tim Robberts / Taxi / Getty Images

There's more to the iPad than just playing games, watching movies, writing email, and browsing Facebook. There may not be anything quite as fun as using the iPad for those things, but there's certainly a more productive side to the iPad. These apps provide more of a utility than outright productivity, so we'll save the word processors and spreadsheets for our list of office apps. But while it is great that we can get Microsoft Office for the iPad now, the ability to scan documents and put sticky notes on our iPad might be just as important.

Dropbox

What We Like

  • Free Basic account comes with 2GB of cloud storage.

  • Integrates well with Microsoft Office Online.

  • Accommodates music and video playback.

What We Don't Like

  • Many features require a subscription.

  • Expensive monthly fee on paid plans.

  • Provides basic cloud security, not zero-knowledge protection.

Cloud storage is the easiest way to expand the storage on your iPad. Instead of saving files, documents, photos, and videos locally to your iPad where they'll take up valuable real estate, you can save them to Dropbox.

The best part about using services like Dropbox is having the files available on all of your devices, even your laptop. Because the file is saved on a remote server, you can get at it from any device with an internet connection.

Cloud storage also provides value as a way to back up your most precious documents such as your family photos. Even if ​your iPad gets run over by a truck, anything you save on Dropbox will be safe.

Dropbox is just one of many cloud storage options. You can also use Google Drive, Box.net, and Microsoft OneDrive. 

Skype

What We Like

  • Free Skype-to-Skype voice and video calls.

  • Works wherever there is a Wi-Fi connection.

  • Communicates with Android and other platforms, not just iOS.

What We Don't Like

  • Managing contacts is awkward.

  • Video quality can be iffy.

  • Navigating the app is confusing.

It's hard to argue with placing cheap phone calls on your iPad. Skype offers free Skype-to-Skype calls, a pay-as-you-go model with calls as cheap as 2.3 cents a minute, and a subscription model as cheap as $4.49 a month that allows unlimited calls to the U.S. and Canada. (Exact prices may change at Skype's discretion.)

The Skype app will remember your most recent calls and allow you to tag your contact list to make it easy to search. The app works over Wi-Fi, and along with cheap calls, you can do instant messaging and add emoticons to your messages.

Why use Skype over FaceTime? While FaceTime is great for placing calls to iPhone and iPad users, Skype works on any platform so your Android-loving friends aren't left out.

Photon Flash Browser

What We Like

  • Includes privacy mode and pop-up blocker.

  • Operates as a regular browser until it needs to stream Flash content.

  • When it works, it works great.

What We Don't Like

  • Mixed results on iPad, which isn't designed for Flash content.

  • Doesn't work with some gaming websites.

One of the biggest perceived shortcomings of the iPad is the inability to play Flash. Steve Jobs famously wrote a whitepaper explaining the decision not to support Adobe Flash on the iPad or iPhone. Among the reasons were battery power and Flash crashing the device.

But what if you really need Flash support? Whether you need to load a website that runs Flash or you want to play a Flash-based game on the web, you won't be able to do it on the iPad's Safari browser. But you can run Flash using the Photon Browser. 

The Photon Browser loads the website remotely and then streams it to your iPad in a way that the iPad understands. This lets the remote server interpret the Flash and essentially translate it to your iPad. And it not only works with video, but you can also play games using it. 

Scanner Pro

What We Like

  • Generates high-quality scans.

  • Excellent text recognition capability.

  • Easy to understand and operate.

What We Don't Like

  • No auto-save feature.

  • Relatively slow when scanning a multi-page document.

Whether you need a scanner on a regular basis or just on rare occasions, Scanner Pro is a great bargain. There are a bunch of apps that can scan documents, and most of them do the heavy lifting for you by automatically snapping the photo when the document comes into focus and clipping out the non-document region of the image. Scanner Pro is the best of the bunch, utilizing cloud storage services like Dropbox to store your scanned documents, converting scanned documents into text and providing a sign-and-scan capability to your iPad.

Adblock Plus

What We Like

  • Toggles on and off on the fly.

  • Prevents trackers from seeing what you do online.

  • Exempts certain sites with a whitelist.

  • Provides a detailed tutorial.

What We Don't Like

  • Does not block ads in apps.

  • Requires maintenance to keep the settings fine-tuned.

Did you know the iPad can now block unwanted advertisements on web pages? This can actually work to speed up your Safari browser. When the page bypasses loading all of the extra advertisements, it pops up lightning quick. Adblock Plus is one of the better ad blockers available for the iPad. And best of all, it is one of the few free ones.

You will need to tweak your iPad's settings to install ad-blocking software, but it is an easy fix.

Kalkulilo Scientific Calculator

What We Like

  • Modes include scientific, integer, statistics, trigonometry, and others.

  • Full-featured calculator can handle anything you throw at it.

  • Colorized keys distinguish different categories of functions and operations.

What We Don't Like

  • Free app displays ads. In-app purchase is necessary to remove ads.

  • No instructions come with the app.

There are a lot of calculator apps on the app store. On a scale of 1 to 10, this one goes to 11. It'll not only do your standard multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction, but you can use it for scientific functions, statistical functions like variance and standard evaluation, and even some programming functions like calculating logical operators. Truly a calculator fit for Nigel Tufnel.

Sticky

What We Like

  • Easily customizable with many beautiful backgrounds.

  • Accommodates drag-and-drop organization.

  • Print, share, save to Photos, or email from within app.

What We Don't Like

  • Doesn't sync with other devices.

  • Must open the app to see the sticky notes.

  • Unlimited notebooks requires an in-app purchase.

Sticky is a must-have download. Sticky isn't the fanciest app on the app store. In some respects, it's actually rather plain. Which is why it is great. We don't need a lot of bells and whistles to go along with our sticky note. That's the entire point of the sticky note!

Sticky allows you to create a quick note out of text, stick a photograph to your digital notepad or even pin a web page. This makes it a good all-around solution without going over the top. Best of all, because it doesn't bombard you with bells and whistles, it is very easy to use.

Air Display 3

What We Like

  • iPad second screen is lag free when tethered.

  • Use an iPad pressure-sensitive pen on a Mac when tethered.

  • Serves as an extension of the desktop or as a mirror.

What We Don't Like

  • The USB connection is not sufficiently fast for video editing.

  • Some stuttering when playing video at high resolution.

  • Requires the installation of a free Mac app on the computer.

Have you ever wanted to add a second display to your iMac or MacBook but didn't want to shell out over $200? Now you can get one for just $10. AirDisplay acts as a second monitor for your Mac, allowing you to extend the desktop to your iPad's display.

But the cool part is that the iPad doesn't lose its touch controls. You can use the touch-screen controls to manipulate the applications running on your Mac, like punching in the numbers for a calculator or drawing inside of a photo editing app.​

AirDisplay may not be the best solution for playing a game or watching a video, but most normal apps will work great with it.

Wi-Fi Map

What We Like

  • Displays Wi-Fi locations on map along with distance and address.

  • Saves on roaming fees during domestic and international travel.

  • Scans networks and displays speed.

What We Don't Like

  • Free app is ad supported. In-app purchase removes ads.

  • Free version reveals nearby hotspots. Pro version covers every location.

Another great utility, the Wi-Fi Map will find the closest Wi-Fi hotspots to your location. This makes it a great utility for vacations or work trips, allowing you to scan near your hotel to find a coffee spot or internet cafe where you can park for a while and go for a nice stroll on the information superhighway. Wi-Fi Map also tracks passwords, so you don't need to check with the shop to get the password when you need a quick connection.

PrintCentral

What We Like

  • Next best thing to having an AirPrint-capable printer.

  • Printing process is seamless.

What We Don't Like

  • Could benefit from clearer set-up instructions.

  • Interface looks dated.

If you are planning to use your iPad for work, you'll probably want the ability to print from it. Most newer printers support AirPrint, but if you have a wireless printer that doesn't happen to support AirPrint, PrintCentral may be able to save you the cost of a new AirPrint-capable printer.

PrintCentral can also print to wired printers and non-compatible wireless printers by using your PC or Mac as a go-between. It can also convert files like spreadsheets and web pages to PDF format for easier printing and print from cloud storage.