Christmas is barreling toward us with all the intensity of a herd of stompy reindeer. Fortunately, your iPhone and iPad can help you stay on top of things – if you have the right apps installed.
Part one: making plans
Right, then, we first need apps that enable you to dump your brain somewhere and make sense of the chaos. You need to figure out and track gifts, and what food to buy, and to make notes of important things before they fly out of your ear and into the ether. These apps will help you keep track of your plans this Christmas!
One of the more important things regarding Christmas is tracking how far away it is. Countdowns is a superb way to set up a countdown timer that can be placed on your Home screen as a widget. If you’ve a party or some other festive events/deadlines (such as shipping gifts to family overseas), they can be added too, so these days never sneak up on you as an unexpected nasty surprise.
The current iteration of Apple’s Notes moves far beyond text. You can now use it to create checklists, add photos and scans, build tables (if you’re really organized), and save tappable shortcuts from Safari and Apple Maps. Notes can be shared with friends and family when you need to team up during planning. And when it all gets a bit too much, you can even add really bad sketches of snowmen.
Ah, but what if people you need to share lists with aren’t armed with an Apple device? Horrors! And what if you’re also the kind of person who needs to be a wee bit more organized than just using the odd checklist, and therefore wants lists within lists, reminders, and a view of what you must absolutely be doing right this minute? Well, for that there’s Wunderlist. It even allows commenting on tasks, so you can call someone a dolt for forgetting to buy the turkey. (Sadly, Microsoft’s shuttering this superb app in May 2020, so don’t get too attached. But it’s good for one more festive season.)
If you’re visually oriented when planning but feel Notes doesn’t cut it, try Magpie. The app comes across like an offline Pinterest. Each note is designed to have one or more snaps assigned to it, and you can add a few lines of text, a price, a link, and even a map. Top stuff, then, for your own wish list, and keeping track of everything from gifts you’ve bought for others to cool decoration ideas you fancy trying when you get home.
The Christmas List [$3/£3]
Specifically designed for tracking gifts, The Christmas List enables you to select people from your Contacts list, assign a budget, and then track gifts you’ve bought for them. The app’s interface is a bit weird at first, but once it clicks, you’ll find it easy to filter lists by person or store, and to quickly check which gifts you’ve bought, received and wrapped. There’s even Touch ID/Face ID support to keep the app away from prying eyes.
Although primarily designed as an ongoing expenses tracker, Pennies is useful for one-off runs of spending – like when buying Christmas gifts. Plug in your budget, add your receipts as you go, and Pennies will keep tabs on your running total. Background colors will warn if you’re spending a bit too rapidly when it comes to a daily average, but the big number’s the main thing to keep an eye on. And once the holidays are done, keep using Pennies to spend wisely over the next year.
Part two: shopping for gifts
Buying stuff is such a hassle. You have to leave your house, and mooch around stores so crowded with people that you fear you might all get wedged in and have to be crowbarred out by an angry mall employee dressed as a snowman. But it doesn’t have to be this way if you shop online.
Without further ado, here are our five favorite apps for present (and card) shopping!
Give it a few years and there will be no shops — only Amazon. Help usher in this shoppy dystopia by buying all your gifts from the comfort of your iPhone. The app makes it easy to browse, or to search for specific items. In fact, by the time you’ve checked out, your wallet might argue the app makes everything a bit too easy.
Most people think of eBay as the place they sell their tat and then buy new tat that they subsequently sell on eBay again. But in recent years it’s also become a shopfront for a whole range of outlets, from the smallest indies to the largest stores. It’s often a place to find a great bargain, but do take care to check shipping times before you buy something, lest your sister’s amazing gift not arrive until the middle of January.
Away from the corporate claws of Amazon lies Etsy. It’s also a global marketplace, but one that encourages handmade goods. Here, you can find all kinds of unique items, crafted by creative people from all around the world. Even if someone’s deeply into tech, Etsy’s worth a look — when we browsed, there were some seriously lovely iPhone stands available.
Whether someone’s said “just get me something nice to wear,” or you fancy something yourself but have no idea what to ask for, Lyst is ready and waiting to aid you. Outline the style of whoever you’re shopping for, select brands you think they might like, and you’ll be served up a bunch of options that can be sorted, filtered by price (sorry, granddad, but you’re not getting those $200 jeans), and hurled at a wish list for later perusal.
This app’s name gives you an idea of what you’re going to find. It’s about heading off the beaten track, to find something a bit different from the norm. So whether you fancy getting dad that urban beekeeping experience he’s always dreamed of, or your kid a world map pillowcase they can color in, you won’t be disappointed with this app’s gift selection.
There’s something deeply impersonal about many cards you can buy in stores. Pre-packaged, canned verses and generic imagery don’t get across your wishes in a sincere manner. So try Moonpig, which enables you to personalize cards with your own images and messages. It’s also handy for sending cards to other countries when you’ve missed the last post from your own.
Part three: the best travel and weather apps
There’s extra stress when traveling during the holidays. The last thing you want is to be going precisely the wrong way down a very long road when you were due to meet the in-laws for Christmas drinks an hour ago. So get some apps to ensure you know where you’re going – and what it’ll be like when you get there.
There are a ton of travel and weather apps out there, but for our money, these are the ones you should definitely install before yo-ho-ho becomes yo-oh-no.
Google Maps (free)
There’s no longer anything inherently wrong with Apple Maps, and we quite often use it for driving directions. However, it’s pretty poor at enabling you to search for locations, terrible with public transport, and also doesn’t allow you to save chunks of a map for offline use. Fortunately, Google Maps ably deals with all those things, and is entirely free. Utterly essential, then, when heading into the wilds for a party (as in, anywhere without a strong cellular signal).
We’ve already mentioned Google Maps as your best companion for getting where you need to go, but you might need a second opinion, especially when traveling by car. Waze is also worth having installed, because it’s packed full of to-the-second data crowdsourced from loads of users. And so when you’re on the way to the in-laws, with a car loaded down with gifts, you’ll get a heads-up about any traffic incidents on your route, and can take action accordingly.
Hello Weather (free or $2/£2 per month)
Too many free weather apps are packed full of adverts rather than weather forecasts. Hello Weather merely urges you to upgrade with a banner. All other available space is used to present a clear, vibrant overview of whatever weather’s coming your way. The presentation isn’t unlike iOS favorite Dark Sky, but Hello Weather is a lot more fun and colorful. It also happens to have an excellent Home screen widget, for when you want the quickest possible at-a-glance forecast view.
CARROT Weather ($5/£5)
This weather app also provides a forecast for the coming week, but adds immediate conditions – and plenty of snark. If you fancy attempting to burn off a bit of your Christmas dinner with an evening constitutional, use CARROT to see whether it’s going to pour down over the next hour first. And if a downpour is imminent, CARROT will, in seasonal fashion, cheerily note something like: “At least it’s not acid rain”. It’s like Santa’s right there in the room with you!
Weather on the Way ($1/£1 per month)
If you’re traveling a short distance during the festive season, a standard weather forecast app will do. But as you head into road trip territory, it can be tricky and time-consuming to plan for all eventualities along your route. Until now, because feed Weather on the Way two locations and it smartly plots your journey between them and predicts what the weather’s going to do in each place as you get there. This can be viewed on a map or as a timeline that provides more detailed conditions.
Part four: Christmas food and drink
Whether it’s your turn to cook, or you just fancy offering a helping hand, there are some superb apps for use in the kitchen. Here’s our pick of the best ones to have installed this Christmas. It’s like having a little gaggle of chefs in your pocket. If only they could do the actual cooking, too!
Kitchen Stories [Free]
This is our favorite cookbook app, mostly because it’s so elegant and well thought out. Not only does the app tempt with gorgeous photography, but recipes provide step-by-step photo instructions, so you know what everything should look like at each point. How-to videos give you basic tips, too, if you’re caught on the hop and asked to assist in getting Christmas dinner ready.
To some extent, Tasty comes across like Kitchen Stories for people with low attention spans. In place of minimalism, there are splashes of vibrant color. And rather than tastefully shot photography (although Tasty does have some of that), you get super-fast videos of each dish being made alongside step-by-step instructions. The videos are certainly a useful way to nail a technique, though, even if they do look like a close-up of a TV chef’s efforts being played back in fast-forward.
The idea behind Yummly is to put every recipe in the world in your pocket. It roams popular foodie websites and enables you to quickly search for food by cuisine, taste, diet, technique, and all kinds of other keywords. You can save ingredients lists, along with storing favorite recipes for next time around.
Another option for when you need to unleash your inner chef during the holidays, Paprika is a full-fledged kitchen organizational tool like no other. It lets you roam your favorite foodie websites and pilfer interesting recipes. These can then be stored, edited, and later referred to when you get cooking. Timers, meal plans, and schedules top off the tastiest cooking app on iOS for anyone who wants to feel more in control of recipes they save – and what they cook.
Unit Converter [Free]
If you’re an American looking quizzically at a recipe in metric, or someone elsewhere wondering what on earth a ‘cup’ is, you need a unit converter. Some recipes apps and websites have them built in. If you find one that doesn’t, use Unit Converter instead. This isn’t by any stretch a pretty app, but it’s effective, making it a cinch to quickly convert volumes, weights, temperatures, length and anything else you fancy.
Cocktail Flow [Free + IAP]
Turkey? Fine. Potatoes? Whatever. If your idea of food and drink tends towards the latter during the holidays, grab a copy of Cocktail Flow. This free app provides hundreds of recipes, including a Christmas collection (such as Chocolatini, Jingle Juice, and, er, Russian Santa). And if you’re feeling contrary – or just freezing cold – head to the poolside options, don some earbuds, blast summer music into your ears, and pretend you’re on a beach somewhere.
Part five: keeping kids happy
You can tell it’s no longer summer when your kids start demanding to know how long it is until Christmas – every single hour of the day. As the big day draws near, keep them distracted with games and apps!
Toca Hair Salon – Christmas Gift [Free]
If we’re honest, Santa’s look’s getting a bit old, and it’s time for something a bit different. In Toca Hair Salon, you can restyle his beard and hair, adding some vibrant color and entirely unnecessary Christmas decorations. And because it’s Christmas, you can do precisely the same to Topzy, an oddly sentient and grumpy Christmas tree. (Or perhaps he only got grumpy because we painted him orange.)
A Charlie Brown Christmas [$5/£5]
For many people, the holidays aren’t complete without checking in on the Peanuts gang. This interactive book reimagines the 1960s classic cartoon for the touchscreen, enabling you to interact with animations, play small games, and read along with the narrative. It’s really sweet and even the odd bug on current versions of iOS (sometimes sound loops from previous scenes) doesn’t really spoil the fun.
Bogga Christmas Tree [$4/£4]
You might balk at spending a few bucks on a virtual Christmas tree, but it’s a good bet for kids. First, it might stop them wrecking your real tree through regularly ‘redesigning’ it. Secondly, a premium app means no hideous adverts interrupting things every eight seconds as per most of Bogga’s rivals. And finally, you can make custom baubles from photos of anything in front of your iPhone’s camera, including your own gurning face. Perfect!
Dr Panda AR Christmas Tree [Free]
This app reasons you don’t need a real Christmas tree cluttering up the place when you can have a virtual one. Here, you decorate in AR and place your tree anywhere you please. Sort of. The floor-scanning bit is, in fact, a touch flaky. But when it works, this is a fun take on decorating, with new ornaments provided daily from a built-in advent calendar. Neatly, the app also caters for multiple kids, since several different trees can be stored.
LEGO Duplo World [free + $5/£5]
There are three distinct scenes in the “Winter Holiday” section of this app. The first finds a Duplo Santa and reindeer in front of what’s presumably Santa’s house. Lob gifts off of the screen and elves helpfully bring new ones. Next door, an ice skating rink has little figures sliding about. The best bit, though, is a virtual Duplo set you can use to build a festive snow figure – all without later painfully treading on one of the bricks.
Christmas Countdown (2020) [Free]
Fed up with your youngling asking you every eleven seconds how many sleeps there are until Christmas? Load up this app for them instead. You can choose from various Christmas scenes and countdown types, and there’s an advent calendar with backgrounds and treats to unlock. Go premium for $2/£2 and you get a Home screen widget and extra background tunes so your little darling can belt out Jingle Bells until everyone demands they stop.
Part six: having fun
The wrapping paper’s been torn off in strips, some of which still linger in the air. You’ve eaten more potatoes and turkey than you thought possible to fit inside yourself. And now you just want to melt into the sofa to the point that you may very well fuse with the fabric. Have your iPhone or iPad help you unwind with these apps and games.
Christmas Radio [Free]
There are of course loads of radio apps for the iPhone. But imagine the horror on Christmas Day if you were to accidentally stray from a relentless stream of carols and classic Christmas hits! Even the family dog, now sporting a natty jumper with an oddly knitted reindeer, might turn against you. So check out Christmas Radio, which only plays Christmas stations, every day, all year!
Heads Up! [$1/£1]
If you’ve fewer devices, this only requires one. It’s an iPhone version of that old party game where you hold to your head a card with a famous name written on it, and try to guess their identity from clues yelled your way. The difference here is it’s played at speed, with you zooming through a deck of cards in double-quick time. And if you feel like an idiot holding an iPhone to your forehead, get your own back by using the app to record the people giving you clues, and upload their hopeless efforts to Facebook.
The Jackbox Party Pack [From $25/£24]
If everyone’s armed with their own device and spending too much time gawping at it, put that to use by playing a Jackbox Party Pack game. It uses an iPad or Apple TV as a hub of sorts, and other devices as remotes. The challenges are varied fare, with the entire production coming across like an unhinged game show where you guess at weird trivia questions and pair T-shirt designs and slogans for everyone to vote on.
Pic Collage [Free]
Oh no – you’ve forgotten to send any cards! Don’t worry – pretend you were being eco-conscious and instead use Pic Collage to send digital ones. The app’s pretty great for fashioning customized efforts, whether you want to use card templates, or compile a bunch of photos into a framed collage. For free, you can export your handiwork, but a watermark is burned in; if you can’t stand watermarks, banish them by grabbing a month of premium ($5/£5).
When you’ve decided someone you know needs some kind of festive greeting that’s simultaneously personalized and terrifying, reach for JibJab. Shoot your face, and it’s then automatically inserted into the app’s selection of occasionally risqué cards and videos. (Some options require you to “cast” multiple people – although you can always have several yous to properly freak friends out.) Some cards will require you to splash out on a $3/£2 monthly IAP, but, hey, that’s a small price to pay for art, right?
Elf Yourself [Free + IAP]
We’re in broadly similar territory to JibJab with ElfYourself, which demands you snap a picture of your glorious face, and then watch as it’s magically applied to a deranged dancing elf. Suffice to say that this is probably the kind of app to use once you’ve had a few Christmas sherries – but also remember you’ve done so to later avoid eye contact with whoever you sent the resulting movie files to.
A Good Snowman [$5/£5]
If you want a bit of solo gaming downtime, and have a desire to keep your brain engaged while the TV’s doing its best to fill your head with vacuous rubbish, try A Good Snowman. A wintry variant on Soko-Ban, it finds an adorable monster rolling snow around a maze-like garden, in order to create balls large enough to make some icy friends. If that concept doesn’t melt your heart, you’re probably the monster.