The best mobile apps and games of 2016
For all kinds of reasons, 2016 is going to stick in the memory for a long, long time. In the midst of everything else that happened, we saw some fantastic apps for iOS and Android appear – and these are our favorites from the last 12 months, each worthy of a slot on your phone or tablet.
Prisma wowed the world after launching in June. It followed the same template for success laid down by Instagram by offering a fun way of enhancing your mobile snaps that was both eye-catching and easy enough for anyone to master quickly.
Photo filtering is nothing new, but Prisma's use of artistic overlays powered by artificial intelligence means its image processing is still a cut above its rivals, and it now works with videos too. Meanwhile everything is wrapped in a clean, intuitive interface.
Google Allo might not have set the world on fire so far but the Duo video calling app that launched around the same time – basically FaceTime for Android – has been faring much better, perhaps because it's focused around doing one particular task and doing it well.
There's no need to sign up for another account, because the app works instantly with your existing phone number, and there are plenty of neat touches throughout – like the live video that pops up before you answer the call, and the smart way it manages bandwidth.
Having given third-party developers the run of the land in the past, 2016 was the year that Reddit got its act together and finally decided to release an official mobile app of its own, and you can immediately see the benefits of that official backing once you start using it.
Seamless interaction with the Reddit backend, for example, access to voting and filtering, plus simple and intuitive formatting for posts and comments. The option to reskin the app interface with themes is a welcome one and the whole app is simple and lightweight.
Not a completely new app for 2016, Dark Sky arrived on Android in May and earns a spot in our list. The app made its name on iOS for its high-precision, stylish take on weather forecasting, which gives you accurate indications of what's going to happen next.
You also get a professional weather map that scrolls past in real time, weather alerts, and lots of other meteorological goodies. There is a free version on Android, but to get the best features you need to subscribe; on iOS, there's just a one-off payment at the beginning.
Quik (previously called Replay) is one of the best ways to get started with video editing on your phone or tablet, and this year it was acquired and rebranded by GoPro, which means it counts as a new app. You don't need a GoPro action camera to make use of it, though.
The emphasis is very much on making video editing as easy as possible, and there are templates and automatic features aplenty – perfect if you want to make something that looks good in just a couple of taps – plus a bunch of saving and sharing options at the end.
Another new entry for Google in 2016, which has never been shy about launching an app or seven. Google Trips is exactly what it sounds like: a travel companion that gives you everything you need to find your way around your destination like a seasoned local.
The app can work out where you're heading automatically by scanning your Gmail, or you can search manually, and you're then treated to sights, restaurants, bars, events and more for you to check out. Everything can be synced offline too, if you're heading abroad.
Stash is based around the idea of intelligent bookmarking: you can think of it as like Instapaper or Pocket, but the app makes some effort to automatically organize your clippings for you, giving you more time to catch up with your read-it-later list.
In practice it works very well, with just the right number of manual options, so you'll soon be stashing all kinds of stuff (there are browser extensions available too). It hasn't fully launched yet, though, so if you want to give it a go you need to sign up for the waiting list.
We live in a GIF-filled world, so embrace the trend for old image formats with a dedicated app on your phone. Like the website of the same name, the Giphy app gives you access to a wealth of animated pictures, ready to slide into any of your instant messaging threads.
Once you've found a GIF that suits your needs you can share it to a multitude of apps with a single tap. Giphy has been available as a standalone app on iOS since October 2015 but makes it into our list because of the Android version, which came out a few months later.
Having been wowing Mac users for years, Airmail made the jump to iOS this year and it's definitely worth a try for iPhone and iPad users looking to break away from the rather humdrum email client that Apple includes as part of iOS.
The app is clean and intuitive, and comes with a bunch of options for taking control of your inbox, including the ability to snooze messages, quick filters and plenty of customization options. It works with all the email account types Apple Mail does too.
Overnight is what you get if you cross a last-minute hotel booking service with Airbnb. It lets you find somewhere to rest your weary head at short notice, with options picked from local hosts who are happy to let you stay in one of their rooms or their whole house.
The emphasis is on quick, easy booking, to try and outflank Airbnb. As this is an up-and-coming tech startup app, you need to be in a big US city to see any results for your searches, but it's an app worth keeping an eye on in the future.
Robust file-sharing service Dropbox continues to expand into other areas and Paper is its latest offering outside the core apps, a kind of Google Docs competitor that's intended for teams of people working on documents together. Officially, the apps are still in beta.
Paper (which is on the web too) is essentially a lightweight word processor with plenty of emphasis on sharing and collaboration. Leaving notes on a document is easy, as is sharing created documents with other people, as you would expect from a Dropbox app.
Opera Free VPN
Notable browser-maker Opera has released this VPN (Virtual Private Network) so everyone can stay safer on their mobiles, free of charge. It adds extra security protections to your web connection while letting you spoof your location at the same time.
That means it's harder for websites and ad networks to track you, and more difficult for someone sitting in the same coffee shop or at the same hotel to spy on your browsing. If you want some extra anonymity while you're online, then this is a great tool to use.
Fast Speed Test
Netflix buffering a little too often for your liking? Not getting the download speeds your Internet Service Provider promised? Well now there's an official Netflix-approved app you can use to find out just how quick (or otherwise) your internet connection actually is.
There's not much to the app: Fire it up and run it. Just remember you need to blame your ISP (or perhaps some of the devices on your network) rather than the app itself, if the results aren't what you expected. You can compare your speeds with other users too.
Another app that qualifies for our list because the Android launch fell in 2016 (it's been out on iOS for much longer), Noisli pipes wonderfully ambient background noises to your phone, from the clatter of a coffee shop to the sounds of wind and rain in the woods.
It's perfect for anyone looking to chill out or wind down, and can also provide background noise for working without the distraction that actual music has. Sounds mixes can be customized, and you can save combos, as well as set timers for your productivity sessions.
Undoubtedly the game and the mobile app of 2016, breaking through into the public consciousness like nothing else this year, and responsible for getting millions of users out of their homes and offices to search for strange creatures through augmented reality.
User numbers might have dropped off, but for a couple of weeks everyone with a smartphone was talking about Pokémon Go. The game continues to get significant updates, so if you've not tried it out yet, get it installed and see if you can catch them all.
Batman - The Telltale Series
Telltale Games continues to churn out more of its episodic adventures, but the quality rarely dips, with Batman being this year's case-in-point. The game covers the Dark Knight's early years of crime-fighting and you get to play as both Batman and Bruce Wayne at various points.
As with past titles, the Telltale style works well on mobile, with just enough control over characters to make the game feel engaging without making you wish you had a gamepad, and as usual the voice acting, storyline, and visual design are all of an impressively high standard.
One of those addictive games that's easy to pick up but very hard to master, the fast-paced Color Switch has you guiding colored balls through a series of increasingly challenging fences and loops. It's addictive, fun and perfect when you've got five or ten minutes spare.
Color Switch came out near the start of the year and has proved hugely popular since then: Users are finding plenty to like about it, even if the mechanics aren't the most original. The game gets plenty of regular updates as well, which keeps it feeling fresh.
If you're old enough to remember the classic Snake mobile game then you'll understand why Slither.io is so much fun to play: Mix a simple concept with some addictive gameplay and you've got an app that's difficult to walk away from and log out of.
You can play against other people online or take on the app's AI (handy for those times you've got a dodgy data connection). There's a choice of game modes to pick from and the game gets increasingly challenging at just the right rate to keep everything interesting.
Burly Men At Sea
It's not been out for long, but Burly Men At Sea is one of the most absorbing, well-designed and memorable games of the year. Its folksy, slow-paced atmosphere won't suit everyone, and it may not make a lot of 'end of year' lists, but if you like it then you'll really like it.
The story (and this is as much of a story as a game) revolves around three Scandinavian fishermen who venture out on the seas in search of adventure, and there's something new to discover each time you play, as well as secrets hidden in a lot of the game's scenes.
Microsoft Solitaire Collection
Time-wasters of the world, rejoice! Microsoft has seen fit to release its iconic, unforgettable, addictive, incredibly simple card game on iOS and Android, which means you don't have to fire up your desktop computer to waste a bit of time slapping cards.
There are five modes to choose from – Klondike, Spider, FreeCell, Pyramid and TriPeaks – as well as a statistics screen for you to pore over and new challenges that pop up every day. Themes are coming soon, Microsoft says, but it's already a very polished game.
Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Lego Star Wars games are already familiar to many mobile gamers, but this year we had a new movie tie-in to play through, and once again the Lego-plus-Star-Wars formula worked – even if it's something we've seen plenty of times before.
If you've yet to jump on board the Lego games train, this is a good chance to get involved: The games are perfect for mobile devices because they combine just enough control over your toy characters without the input mechanisms becoming too intricate or baffling.
Bully: Anniversary Edition
Bully blazed onto PlayStation 2 screens ten years ago and now officially makes the jump to mobile. You can think of it as a little bit like Grand Theft Auto set in a high school (it's made by the same developer) and a lot of the gameplay and controls are reminiscent of GTA.
Your goal is to rise through the ranks of the bullies, nerds, preppies, greasers and jocks at your school, scoring as highly as you can with both teachers and your peers, and the open-world format means you can explore the local town as well as the interior of your school.
Dawn of Titans
One of the more high-profile releases of the year, Dawn of Titans challenges your real-time strategy skills in some gorgeous-looking fantasy landscapes. The scope is epic, but the game is set up so you can still dip in and out of it when you've got the time.
Imagine the big battle set-pieces in Lord of the Rings and you're getting close, but here you're the one in charge of the armies, and there's just the right level of depth. As your successes grow so does your kingdom, giving you more soldiers to take command of.
For those who prefer their games contemplative and slow, The Trail has you exploring a new world through the eponymous path, discovering new skills and tribes along the way, and gradually getting more involved as you go further on your journey.
As the name of the game might suggest, you don't get to make too many choices in terms of your route, but there's still plenty of interactivity to be had. On top of that The Trail has some stunning graphics, and is worth installing just to look at the low-poly landscapes.
A medieval RPG mixed with Tinder-esque swiping may not sound like the best combination on paper but it works here – Reigns is light and fun to play, and doesn't get bogged down in complex strategy and tactics (which you can find in many other games if that's what you want).
With such a straightforward way of playing, the writing, gameplay and graphics all need to be top notch, and thankfully Reigns delivers in every department. Even though you're just flipping through cards you still manage to feel like a powerful medieval ruler.