Play guitar, learn a new language, code, save lives — and more!
For the most part, people are comfortable in what they know, and this extends to the iPhone. Apps you download, whether for leisure, productivity or creativity, often centre around things you already enjoy. This article is about doing something new, with recommendations for seven apps we think are great for learning a new skill.
The range is diverse, from mastering an instrument to saving lives, and this showcases just how powerful an iPhone can be. And there’s no barrier to entry with any of these apps, because all of them can be downloaded and tried entirely for free.
Master an instrument with Yousician Guitar
Price: Free (with optional IAP)
Size: 37.4 MB
Developer: Yousician Ltd
Playing music should be pleasurable, but in order to get to the point where you’re reasonably proficient, you must first master an instrument. The problem is, the learning part is usually a bit of a grind, as you follow old-fashioned and unimaginative lessons from people dressed in beige.
Yousician has a totally different take on playing guitar. Essentially, it resembles the Guitar Hero videogame with its interface turned 90 degrees, and gamifies the entire process of learning chords and riffs.
It’s hugely effective. Using either your iPhone’s microphone or a guitar plugged in via the likes of an iRig (we found the former set-up more reliable), you are faced with brief lessons that tackle playing notes and chords, before combining the two.
The upgrade path is subtle, and videos provide further help on how best to hold your guitar. But it’s the manner in which you’re taught that makes Yousician fun. A couple of weeks with the app, and you’ll be well on your way to guitar greatness, but without having felt a hint of drudgery.
The free version of the app only limits the amount of time you can play per day. You can still work your way through the guitar course, and tackle new challenges uploaded by other users. (If you do decide to go premium, it’ll cost you £14.99/$19.99 per month or £89.99/$119.99 per year.)
Learn a language with Duolingo
Size: 18.3 MB
Learning a new language is something that, for most people, becomes a lot harder as they age. There are arguments an adult brain is simply not as well equipped as a child’s for rapidly absorbing new information, but we wonder how much of the problem is down to lacking the time to invest. Duolingo is therefore an excellent solution, providing a bite-sized an entertaining entry point into a range of languages.
Much like Yousician, Duolingo is based around bite-sized gamification. You select the exercise you want to work on, which might be phrases, or related to specific subject matter, such as animals or clothing. You’re then presented with multiple-choice questions, word slides to drag around, spoken words to type, and (optional) voice-input requests. Throughout, there’s plenty of repetition, meaning that even if you miss something the first few times, you’re bound to eventually pick it up. At the end, you get scores, amassing ‘XP’ and also streaks if you use the app over multiple days.
We keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with Duolingo. That it’s free to use and also ad-free is quite astonishing. It also feels more like goofing off than learning, making it ideal for slotting into odd moments where you’d perhaps previously have wasted time on Facebook or crushing some candy.
Try coding with Codecademy: Code Hour
Size: 7.7 MB
Duolingo’s all about learning languages people speak, but probably the most important languages in modern times are the ones computers converse in. Schools are increasingly being urged to provide pupils with access to coding and programming; this will potentially enable them to create rather than purely consume when it comes to the increasingly technology-led society we live in.
If you’re entirely new to coding, it will seem almost as alien to you as a foreign language, and so Codecademy: Code Hour is designed to introduce the basic concepts and structure behind coding.
It’s a very friendly app. Even if you’ve never seen any code before, its plain-English descriptions and simple tap-based and mostly multiple-choice exercises won’t flummox. And if you get something wrong, the app helpfully explains why and lets you have another go.
Once you’ve worked through the entire app, it gives you a chance to apply what you’ve learned by making a little web page that you can then share with friends. The only slight pity is that it’s all over so soon, but if Code Hour makes you hunger for more, a great many hours of free coding tutorials are available online at codecademy.com.
Fold paper like a pro with How to Make Origami Animals
Size: 41.0 MB
Developer: Sergey Burlakov
We admit to having quite a soft spot for origami. There’s likely more than a hint of childhood nostalgia about this, but there’s nonetheless something quite magical about starting out with a square of paper and then ending up with a perfectly recognisable (if admittedly angular) dinosaur, or a little jumping frog.
For this feature, we tried out an inordinate number of apps for teaching you origami, but most of the free ones were awful, with iffy interfaces, confusing diagrams, and a very limited number of models until you paid up. How to Make Origami Animals proved to be an exception. The app’s background imagery might be a bit iOS 6, but you get 16 varied models to try, which cover a range of difficulty levels. Also, each step is animated, showing precisely how the fold is supposed to work.
Once you have a little paper zoo dotted about the place, check out the same developer’s How to Make Origami Birds, also free. And he’s also released a free-plus-IAP origami app with a much larger selection and variety of models. Just keep your paper dinosaur away from the paper elephant, or there’s going to be an almighty ruckus.
Learn about CPR with First Aid
Size: 46.0 MB (US) | 38.3 MB (UK)
Version: 2.1.1 | 2.1.0
Developer: American Red Cross | 3 Sided Cube
We’ve covered First Aid before, saying it was a handy app to have installed when camping. If someone comes a cropper, you could refer to the app and potentially help them out while waiting for medical assistance to arrive.
However, the app also has a distinctly educational bent. Tabs are included for learning and testing yourself on various aspects of healthcare, such as what to do when someone is bleeding, and how to deal with a person who’s having an allergic reaction.
Perhaps the most important part of the app is a section that details treating someone who is unconscious and not breathing, explaining how to try and keep them alive until an ambulance arrives. There’s a video included right inside the app, along with step-by-step instructions, and a fairly extensive section answering common questions about the subject.
We’ve provided links to the US and UK versions of this app, but it’s also available in other App Stores. Note that the information you get is likely specific to the country you download the app from, and so advice and instructions may vary.
Find out how to do anything with Instructables
Size: 10.9 MB
Developer: Autodesk Inc.
Sometimes you really don’t want to be hemmed in when wanting to try something new. At other times, you might want to be extremely specific, needing insight into creating a custom skateboard deck, or cooking a totally amazing peach cobbler. If that’s the case, downloading Instructables is a pretty smart idea.
The app’s home screen is a browsable list of projects, with temptingly tappable images, and you can switch between recent and featured items. Alternatively, use the Categories button to filter the kind of project you want to work on, or use the sidebar menu’s search to find something specific.
In any case, tapping on a project will load instructions — a user-submitted overview of how to achieve a task or build something. For the most part, the instructions tend to be pretty good, with a generous amount of imagery. At the time of writing, we were sorely tempted to start working on ’a ‘Jurassic Pull’, an epic woodland toy that combined a ferocious dinosaur on a wheeled base, a gyrosphere, and a motorbike with raptors running alongside.
Create an account and you can immerse yourself further in the Instructables experience, bookmarking projects, following creators, and then even uploading your own ideas for others to try.
Discover new ways of thinking with TED
Size: 20.4 MB
Developer: TED Conferences
Our final entry in this round-up is TED. Unlike everything else we’ve covered, TED isn’t about making something or learning a new skill; instead, it’s about ‘thinking different’.
The app provides access to many dozens of talks by people who come from a range of backgrounds, but all of whom share something in common: a desire to share bold and frequently fascinating new ideas.
You can browse by subject or work your way through whatever’s currently featured on the app. Otherwise, tap on ‘Surprise Me’, choose the kind of video you want to see (courageous, funny, beautiful, and so on), and say how much time you’ve got to spare. TED will then suggest something suitable for you to check out, which you can watch immediately or stash for later.
If you get really into TED, there’s the means to create playlists, download talks for offline usage, and share favorites with your friends. And perhaps on experiencing some of the talks you’ll be inspired to do something amazing yourself, be that with your iPhone or in the world beyond.