Tablets are the hottest tech product of the year for good reason: They are portable, powerful and versatile computers with easy-to-use touch-screen displays. There's no waiting to boot up a tablet, and battery life is easily three to four times longer than what your laptop can muster.
And finding, downloading and installing software — referred to as "apps" (short for "applications") — is a cinch compared with conventional computers. Apps are highly affordable. In fact, tens of thousands of them are free to use.
If you're looking for something to download from your favourite online app store — for Apple iPad, BlackBerry PlayBook or an Android device — here are 10 must-have apps you'll want to consider.
Are you a Netflix subscriber? The free app for iPad and Android (and soon, BlackBerry PlayBook) gives you access to thousands of movies and TV shows. Look for something to watch in the search window or peruse the lists divided into New Arrivals, Genres or Recently Watched (with how many minutes you're at for each movie or TV show). You can read a synopsis of each piece of content before watching, as well as checking out Netflix user ratings for each one (and you can vote, too). While the app is free, a $7.99-a-month Netflix subscription is required.
The Skype download lets iPad 2 users video-chat for free with friends and family anywhere in the world — as long as they're using a Skype-enabled device, such as a tablet, smartphone, computer or television. Using a Wi-Fi network or cellular connectivity (if the tablet has it), you can see who you're talking to and they can see you; you also can tap to change to the rear-facing camera for them to see what you're looking at (such as a home renovation as you walk around the house). Another great video-calling app for iPad 2 is Apple's FaceTime; Android and BlackBerry tablet owners who want free videoconferencing can use Google Talk and Video Chat, respectively.
Be prepared to be blown away with the incredible size, scope and graphics of Google Earth, a free virtual rendering of the entire planet — including the ability to zoom in down to street level using 3-D satellite imagery — that's available for Android and iPad tablets. You can also tap and flick through historical data and informative articles, find directions between two places, locate nearby businesses, see where you are via the tablet's GPS information and much more.
Whether you need a more effective way to stay organized or simply want to jot down ideas wherever life takes you, a free app like Evernote is a great tool for iPad, Android and BlackBerry PlayBook users. The app lets you create, view, organize, search and share your ideas — sort of like a digital version of yellow sticky notes, if you will — but also with the option to include voice notes, photos and videos, too, if desired. An auto-sync feature means your notes are automatically saved and accessible on other Evernote platforms, such as the Web or your personal computer.
Apple's free iBooks app is an excellent electronic book (e-book) reading application for bookworms. You can preview and buy books right from within the app — and the book covers show up on a virtual bookshelf, ready for reading. When you tap to read the book, you can adjust the font size and type and page colour before "flipping" through the pages with your fingertip. Not sure what a word means? Double-tap it and select "Dictionary" for an instant definition. If you love your Kobo or Kindle, you can also download free apps to read on your tablet, too.
As strangely addictive as the TV network it's based on, The Weather Network's WeatherEye HD app for iPad, Android and BlackBerry PlayBook delivers real-time weather updates, large and customizable maps, and high-quality videos that cover local, regional and national forecasts. The first Canadian weather-specific app for iPad also offers a few unique features not found in most other apps, such as interactive hourly charts (covering temperature, precipitation and wind speed), location-specific forecasts (such as provincial parks and airports) and health reports (including the Air Quality Health Index, Pollen Report and UV Report).
Tablets make for extraordinary gaming solutions, and it won't take long to find something you like — be it word games, fantasy role-playing adventures or racing simulations, to name a few genres. Chillingo's mega-popular Angry Birds, for example, is an easy-to-pick-up-but-impossible-to-put-down game for Android and iPad users. (Note: Only the Android version is free.) The endearing physics-based strategy game challenges you to use a giant slingshot to launch birds toward reinforced forts built by scheming green pigs. iPad owners in search of free gaming goodies should download Clickgamer Solitaire HD, while BlackBerry PlayBook fans can play the classic puzzler Tetris.
Written about previous in this blog, music lovers can access more than 50,000 radio stations from around the world (and online stations) with the free TuneIn Radio app for iPad, Android and BlackBerry PlayBook. Whether you want to tune in to a jazz station from New Orleans or an Internet-based classical site, you can listen as much as you like. Search for music by country or genre, plus there are thousands of stations featuring news, talk, comedy, sports and old-time radio dramas. A $1 "Pro" version of TuneIn Radio lets you record audio to listen to at a later time and includes a timer you can set like a personal video recorder (PVR).
A must-have iPad app is the free Flipboard, dubbed your "personalized, social magazine." Flipboard fuses updates from your friend's Facebook and Twitter profiles, including text and photos, as well as folding in your favourite feeds from blogs and websites — then you can flip through it all as if it were a glossy, colourful magazine (with video, too). Like something you read or saw? Share it with your social network with a tap (or send it via email). With its slick user interface, image-heavy design and crisp text, Flipboard is indeed your own personalized digital magazine that's constantly refreshed with the latest content.
Other news networks, including Canadian ones, could learn from CNN how to create a rich, informative and easy-to-use app for news junkies. iPad and Android users can swipe through all the top headlines, watch countless videos (including live streams of breaking news) and read in-depth interviews ripped from today's headlines. Save your favourite stories for offline viewing, comment on articles or video features, engage in conversations with other app readers, and share your favourite stories on Facebook, Twitter or via email.