Can you really get something great for nothing on the App Store?
There are many thousands of free apps on the App Store. And for certain services, there’s an expectation they should be free. We doubt many people are clamoring to pay for maps when Apple Maps comes pre-installed and Google Maps is also available for nothing.
However, there are freebies out there that can surprise you – those that purport to give you something amazing for nothing and that you’d usually expect to pay for. This article delves into several such treats, outlining in each case what the app does, how well it works, and – importantly – if there’s a catch.
From free • 1.1 GB • v10.4 • By iCandi Apps Ltd.
Free astronomy apps do exist elsewhere on the App Store, but they’re mostly limited, ad-ridden, or a bit clunky. Night Sky gets the nod here because, even in its free incarnation, it feels like a premium app and is packed full of features.
The main view lets you explore the heavens with a finger or by using your device’s accelerometer and compass to align virtual on-screen stars with real ones in the sky. The built-in search is fantastic for quickly getting to objects of interest.
Want to dig deeper? Tap an item to access facts and photos. With a planet, you can go further, exploring it in 3D or AR, cracking it open to see what’s inside, and even viewing the stars from its surface. IAP adds more – an orrery; sky tours; planet portals. But for no outlay, Night Sky is excellent for anyone with an interest in astronomy.
Free • 124.6 MB • v5.2.2 • By Sketchbook, Inc
Since the iPhone’s earliest days, Apple’s devices have been a boon for digital artists. Whether you enjoy the odd scribble or create artwork for a living, a toolbox that fits in a pocket can be revolutionary – if you have the right app.
Where Sketchbook excels is in its marriage of elegance and depth. Newcomers should find it simple enough to get to grips with, but pros can happily delve into a varied toolset that includes layers, perspective grids, shapes, curves, and an almost unnecessarily large selection of brushes.
Although once part of the Autodesk line-up, Sketchbook is now a standalone product. Yet it remains free, because the app is funded by the affordable desktop version. If you’ve mobile Apple hardware and are armed with an Apple Pencil or a pointy finger, we suggest taking full advantage of such generosity.
Microsoft Math Solver
Free • 56.1 MB • v1.0.23 • By Microsoft Corporation
If you’re looking for a traditional freebie calculator, this isn’t it. You’re better off with PCalc Lite. What Microsoft’s app does is help you make and understand complex scientific calculations.
To add a problem, you can type it in, draw it on the screen, import an image, or shoot something written on paper. Assuming your handwriting isn’t awful, the app instantly provides an answer. (And if your writing is bad, you can edit the app’s interpretation.)
Scroll and you get to the solutions bit. You can peruse steps to the answer, with full explanations, along with graphs, similar problems, relevant videos, and related concepts. It’s more educational aid than homework cheat, then, and unlike similar fare on the App Store is entirely free from advertising and any demand for payment.
Free • 89 MB • v1.6.4 • By PicsArt, Inc.
No app’s going to help you on the way to becoming the next star animator at Disney. But your iPhone can give you insight into what it takes to make drawings move – at least if you install Picsart Animator.
Given that the app costs nothing, the toolset is surprisingly comprehensive. At its most basic, it’s a flipbook. When drawing a new frame, adjacent ones are faintly visible, helping you line everything up. Brush, shape, and fill tools help you infuse your creation with color and character.
What’s perhaps surprising is the app includes a layers system. This lets you keep elements separated, scribble over an imported photo, or even add sound to your work. Give it enough time and you’ll be fighting for Best Animated Feature Film at the Oscars. Probably.
From free • 158 MB • v22.01.25 • By Adobe Inc.
Scanners are an odd one on iPhone. Time was, there were loads of free apps with one-off premium payments. Today, most demand eye-watering subscription charges for even fairly basic functionality. Adobe Scan has a subscription – but most people won’t need it.
The app works much as you’d expect. Put a document in front of your iPhone and the app figures out where the edges are and shoots a photo of it. You can make some basic adjustments and then save the result. But Adobe’s app also uses OCR so you can export each scan as a PDF with selectable text.
Having a standalone scanning app is more efficient than using Notes, and Adobe Scan’s no-nonsense approach appeals. The subscription lets you combine files and export documents to Microsoft Office formats. But for free, this app does what most people need from an iPhone scanner.
From free • 62.9 MB • v7.3.3 • Firecore, LLC
These days, the idea of a video collection seems quaint – streaming media has made shiny discs almost redundant. And even if you’ve digitized your collection for posterity, you might wonder what to do next.
Infuse 7 is the answer. Put your videos on a shared network drive (on a PC/Mac, a NAS, or a hard drive plugged into a router that supports such things), fire up Infuse 7 and it’ll explore the files, grab cover art and let you start watching.
Of the apps in this space, Infuse is the most elegant. You can quickly access subtitles, organize playlists, and make edits when metadata isn’t right. It’s also great on Apple TV (depicted above). Pay and you get cross-device sync and can optionally stream from files stored on cloud services, but, again, this one does an awful lot for free to keep your eyes glued to the screen.
Nike Training Club
Free • 151.6 MB • v6.30.0 • Nike, Inc
The exercise and fitness industry is huge – and workout apps tend to demand a monthly fee. This is even true for Apple, with its Apple Fitness+ subscription, which integrates with Apple kit. Nike Training Club lacks such deep integration, but has the big advantage of being free.
This wasn’t always the case. Nike’s app used to have paid components, but during COVID the company removed them all. It even later removed the sole nod to money – a Shop tab in the corner. This means the sleek, efficient interface is solely dedicated to making you healthier.
Workouts are provided for a range of skill levels, time spans, and circumstances. Instructions are easy to follow, and videos help make sure you’re moving as you should be. If you want to go the distance, there are multi-week programs, and statistics to check how you’re performing over time. Naturally, your activity can be synced with Apple’s Health app.
Free • 81.4 MB • v2.22.0 • By Google LLC
We’re not going to pretend there are no free photo/image editors on the App Store. In that regard, Snapseed isn’t at all unique. But when you use its rivals, you’ll tend to see the same patterns: watermarks; IAP for high-res image exports; hidden fees for many of the features.
Snapseed has no truck with any of that. On launch, it provides you with immediate access to a range of one-touch filters (‘looks’) that can make your snaps shine. Should you want to dig deeper, you can delve into a whopping number of tools and customizable filters.
The interface is intuitive and touch-first. Edits aren’t baked in and can later be tweaked or removed. Should you fashion an edit stack you love, it can be saved to later apply as one of the aforementioned ‘looks’. In all, Snapseed would be a bargain even for a fee. For free, it’s an unmissable gem.
Free • 270.1 MB • v3.0.1 • By Anxiety Canada Association
There are countless wellbeing apps on the App Store, but although they might make you feel better, the same’s not true for your bank account. MindShift is a rarity, though, in avoiding commonplace subscription demands, instead helping you ground yourself for free.
The app utilizes proven Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) strategies to help relieve stress, anxiety, and panic, making it an ideal app to draw on when you feel the need. You can quickly and easily track your mood and symptoms. There are tips for when you need immediate help, and coping cards aligned with specific types of issue.
Not having to worry about money is of course a part of that, hence us being grateful not only for MindShift’s quality, but also its lack of a price tag. For meditation and mindfulness, check out Smiling Mind as well, which exists in a similar space.
Free • 1.7 GB • v2.3.12 • By Apple
There’s a reasonable chance you might already have GarageBand on your iPhone or iPad. You might have even dipped into it, but found it a bit overwhelming or decided you don’t want to have a crack at chart super-stardom. But if you do have any interest in making a noise, it’s worth breaking down what GarageBand is.
Apple calls GarageBand a “full-featured recording studio,” but explore the individual components and you realize this is in fact several apps in one: a synth; a live loops player; a set of guitar amps and pedals; a drum machine.
Elsewhere on the App Store, any one of these things at this quality level would cost you serious money. That they don’t here makes GarageBand one of the most amazing freebies available for your Apple device – even if you only ever use a fraction of its power and features.
Free • 58.6 MB • v7.4.0 • By Khan Academy
Saying you can ‘learn anything’ with an app is quite the claim, but one Khan Academy largely makes good on. It’s available in a range of languages and makes few assumptions about abilities. For example, with math, you can delve into ‘early math’, which starts with the basics of counting and addition. At the other end of the scale, you can immerse yourself in complex multivariable calculus!
Lessons are delivered as videos, interactive exercises, and articles. Videos have live transcripts. Bookmarks enable you to flag interesting/favorite lessons – or even download a lesson for offline playback.
For those in education, it’s worth being mindful of methodologies as what’s provided in-app may differ from the course you’re on. But, ultimately, knowledge is knowledge, and Khan Academy has plenty of that to share. Perhaps the best praise we can offer is that during use you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, such as abruptly being asked to pay to complete a course. But that moment never comes. There’s a lot here, and it’s all completely free.
Note: for younger learners in the age range 2–6, there’s Khan Academy Kids.
Free • 17.1 MB • v6.0.2 • By Brent Simmons
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the news. But also, social networks have a tendency to prize interaction over balance. Too often, they’ll display what’s likely to garner the most clicks, not what’s best for you. NetNewsWire is different, because it’s all about focus.
The app has you subscribe to favorite websites, whereupon recent headlines are downloaded. Select one and you’ll see an article synopsis or an entire article. In the latter case, a button forces the entire piece to load inside NetNewsWire, or you can opt to instead read it in a browser view.
Stay within NetNewsWire and what you read is devoid of junk – only the article’s text and images are displayed. Old hands might note RSS readers of this sort aren’t rare on iPhone and iPad. But NetNewsWire serves up a stellar and ad-free user experience, including iCloud sync and Home Screen widgets, entirely for free – and that is rare.
From free • 165.2 MB • v13.1.3 • By Momenta B.V.
Quite a lot of iPhone users tend to live in Notes. But Apple’s app – although much better than the bare-bones version you used to get – still isn’t a full-fledged tool for managing your life. By contrast, Agenda takes the basics of a note-taking app and adds the key component of time. Your notes exist in a timeline, providing added context, insight into their evolution, and the means to incorporate planning and scheduling.
This is the kind of app that has loads going on, but only surfaces what you need. So if you want to work with groups and categories, styled text, lists, attachments, images, and tags, you can. If not, they can be ignored.
All this power is yours for free. Agenda makes its money from premium payments that buy you extra features for a one-off fee of $14.99/£12.99. Currently, these include annotations, deep Reminders integration, pinned notes, saving notes as templates, and more. All nice-to-haves, but if you don’t find them necessary, Agenda deserves its billing as an ‘ultimate freebie’.
From free • 136.1 MB • v2.1.63 • By AISense Inc.
You might narrow your eyes on us including a live transcription service in a round-up of amazing things you’d want on your iPhone. After all, this might seem a bit niche. But if you attend meetings or lectures, or just like getting your thoughts down by talking, you’ll recognize how useful it is to have an app automatically convert spoken word into text.
Otter is the best example of such a service we’ve yet seen. It of course tends to work best with clear, loud input, but can still fare well with slightly muddy and distant audio. Transcriptions will also attempt to separate voices out, to which you can later add identifying names.
For free, there are big limitations – notably the inability to import existing audio. However, Otter remains a must for live transcription and offers a generous free monthly allocation of 600 minutes. If you want more, premium costs $12.99/£12.99 per month in-app, or less if you buy on the Otter website.
From free • 211.6 MB • v4.46.0 • By Yousician Ltd
Learning a new instrument isn’t easy, and music tutors cost a fortune. So can Yousician turn you into the next Hendrix for free? That might be a riff too far, but if you’re aware of the restrictions of the system itself – and the limits of the free version – there’s a lot to like here.
Yousician resembles videogame Guitar Hero turned 90 degrees. The app teaches you chords and notes, which during lessons march across the screen, challenging you to match them. It’s a fun, accessible way to get started with guitar, although the method lacks depth in the long term.
For free, the main thing Yousician restricts is time. Depending on the current lesson, you may max out at ten minutes or fewer, and that can feel miserly when you get into the groove. But as a bite-sized way to get your axe on daily, it’s at the very least a good starting point – and the game-like interface really is fun.