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The 26 best new apps of 2020

From providing simple scheduling tools to better breathing exercises, these apps helped make 2020 a bit more bearable.

The 26 best new apps of 2020
[Photo: Dousan_Miao/iStock]
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While 2020 has been brutal on the whole, it’s been an unusually fruitful year for apps. In part, that’s because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended the ways we live and work for the foreseeable future. We’ve seen a glut of new and upgraded tools for working from home, of course, along with more apps to help us preserve our mental well-being.

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To avoid the obvious, this list of 2020’s best apps won’t include the likes of Zoom and Slack—the stuff you already know about. But our mix does include some lesser-known ways to make those apps even better. Here are the best new and significantly upgraded apps of the year:

Scener

Better together

Unpresumptuous scheduling: While there are plenty of tools that promise to simplify event scheduling, Available for Gmail does so without any tacky branded widgets or awkward third-party websites to visit. The free Chrome extension adds a calendar button to Gmail’s compose window, letting you pick times from Google Calendar through a pop-up menu. Once you’ve chosen some meeting slots, the extension inserts them into the email as plain text so recipients can respond with their preferred time. It’s not as slick as other scheduling solutions like Calendly and Boomerang, but that’s the point. [Chrome]

Mmhmm

A cure for Zoom fatigue: Video conferencing already makes you feel like you’re perpetually in the spotlight, so you might as well lean into it. Mmhmm adds a suite of fun visual tools to video chat apps like Zoom, so you can resize yourself, add visual overlays, switch to a secondary camera, or play a video on the background. It beats having to do yet another full-screen PowerPoint share. [Mac]

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Bring back the break: If you’re missing the random face-to-face conversations that come from being in an office, head for Hallway. The Slack add-on tries to restore some of that spontaneity through video chat by setting up periodic breaks that anyone in a channel can join, allowing coworkers to shoot the breeze for a few minutes before getting back to work. Best of all, the interactions are totally optional, whereas running into someone in an actual hallway might not be. [Slack]

Watch with friends: While it may not outlast the pandemic, the “watch together” concept became a bona fide fad this year, with numerous services adding ways to chat with friends alongside synchronized streaming video playback. Scener does the best of them all, supporting voice, audio, or text chat across a wide range of streaming services, including Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and HBO Max. [Chrome]

Raindrop.io

Get organized

No more bland bookmarks: Compared to your browser’s bookmarks bar, Raindrop.io is a better way to keep your links in order across practically any device. The app provides beautiful, customizable views of all your bookmarks, along with inline previews to spare you from opening more browser tabs. A significant update this year also added IFTTT and Zapier integration to let you automatically save links from certain sources, and an optional $28 per year Pro subscription lets you search the full text of any article or PDF file you’ve saved. [iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, web]

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A paper notebook replacement: For years, Notability has been a great way to take handwritten notes on an iPad or iPhone. (Its best trick is synced audio recording, which lets you tap any part of your notes to hear what was being said at the time.) This year brought a major update for the app, adding quicker access to your favorite drawing tools, new brush styles and shapes, and a store with additional themes and paper styles. You can even buy a digital life planner with daily, monthly, weekly, and yearly views. [iOS, Mac]

Track down those tabs: If you’ve got so many browser tabs open that you just end up loading duplicate pages instead of trying to sift through them all, you need Hare. The free extension lets you search through your open tabs: Just press ctrl-shift-space (or command-shift-space on a Mac) to pop open the search menu, type a few characters until your desired tab appears, then press enter to switch over. It’s not the first extension of its kind, but it’s super fast and runs entirely within the browser, with none of your data heading to sketchy remote servers. [Chrome, Firefox, Safari]

Next-level notes: Although Notion has been around since 2016, this year it started allowing unlimited personal notes, so you can finally take full advantage of the acclaimed note-taking tool without worrying about paywalls. Notion is essentially what you make of it—its free-form notes let you arrange text, images, checklists, tables, and more in pretty much any manner—which makes the app as powerful as it is daunting. But once you get into it, it’s easy to see why people are building entire businesses around it. Start by using it as a simple scratchpad, then see where its organizational powers take you. [iOS, Android, web]

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Tabliss

Home page enhancers

The personalized home screen: Perhaps more than any other app, Widgetsmith helped kick off the trend of customized iPhone home screens. Taking advantage of iOS 14’s revamped widget support, the app lets you carve out a spot on your home screen with custom background images, text, calendar information, and more. Pairing those widgets with custom app icons can completely transform your phone’s look. Given how often we stare at our home screens, you might as well be proud of what it looks like. [iOS]

Roll your own widgets: Although plenty of apps now offer home screen widgets in iOS 14, Glimpse 2 lets you create your own by taking periodic snapshots of any web page. Use it to peek at the headlines from your favorite website, watch for changes on a specific web page, or just give yourself some oversize home screen bookmarks. You can even stack multiple website widgets on top of one another, then swipe up or down to glance through them all. [iOS]

More than just a tab: Your web browser’s default new tab page is boring, so give Tabliss a try instead. The free replacement for Chrome and Firefox displays beautiful cover art each time you open a new browser tab, and you can further customize the page with widgets for weather, motivational quotes, bookmarks, and more. (Try adding a simple to-do list to make sure you stay on task throughout the day.) With a major update this year, Tabliss is more customizable than ever, and your page will automatically sync between computers. [Chrome, Firefox]

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Photoshop Camera

Audiovisual improvements

Fix your photos: On the surface, Adobe’s Photoshop Camera seems like yet another way to add gimmicky filters—Warhol-style pop art, surreal skylines, and so on—to your photos. Where it really shines, however, is in its ability to automatically improve your photos without wild and crazy effects. Just load any photo from your camera roll, and Photoshop Camera will sharpen the details, improve the colors, and fix any overexposed spots. It’s like an AI version of Photoshop for those who don’t want to do any of the work. [iOS, Android]

Powerful screen recording: Capturing footage of your computer screen is a great way to document what you’re working on or offer tech support, especially when you can narrate with voice or video. While there are plenty of apps that can do this, Screenity is a free alternative that works entirely within Chrome and is loaded with neat features. While recording, you can include picture-in-picture video of yourself, draw on your screen with annotation tools, or use a push-to-talk keyboard shortcut for voice narration. Then, you can edit the resulting footage and export it in the video format of your choice. [Chrome]

A superpowered webcam: Why spend upward of $90 on a webcam when your iPhone can do a better job for free? That’s the idea behind NeuralCam Live, an app that turns your iPhone into a webcam for your Mac. While some other apps can perform the same basic function, NeuralCam’s app stands out for its AI-based lighting enhancements and “head bubble” feature, which darkens the room around your face. An optional Pro subscription adds extra filter and low-light effects, but you can use the basic app at no charge. [iOS]

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A free Photoshop alternative: One of our picks for this year’s best productivity apps, Pixlr Editor provides a suite of layer-based editing tools similar to what you’d get from Adobe Photoshop, including a clone brush, magic-wand selection, and drop shadows. Best of all, it’s free to use and works within any web browser. Although Pixlr’s been around for years, a major update for 2020 eliminated its dependence on Adobe Flash, which will soon be discontinued. [Web]

Take care of yourself

Portals to elsewhere: With most of us spending the vast majority of our time at home, WindowSwap couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The free website lets people around the world share webcam footage from outside their windows, complete with ambient audio of passing cars, rustling trees, and gusting winds. Depending on who’s sharing, you might be staring at a cactus garden in Tucson, a tree-lined cluster of homes in Bucharest, or a group of towers in Hong Kong. Open it up on a secondary computer monitor, press F11 to go full-screen, then enjoy the peaceful views knowing we’re all in this together. [Web]

Dark Noise

Turn up the noise: When paired with a set of earbuds or headphones, a bit of background noise is a great way to tune out whatever else is happening in your home while working remotely. Dark Noise stands out from other ambient noise apps for its simple design, large sound catalog, custom noise mix support, and integration with iOS features such as Siri shortcuts. Best of all, it’s subscription-free, with an up-front price of $6. [iOS]

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Better bedtimes: While you might think it’s just for setting alarms, the Google Clock app can also help you establish better sleep habits. With the new “Bedtime Mode” feature that launched this year, you can set a regular sleep time, get a reminder when it’s time to wind down, and automatically play relaxing sounds. The app can also help you wake up in the morning by lighting up your phone’s screen before your alarm goes off. [Android]

Calmaria

Just breathe: As an app for breathing exercises, Calmaria doesn’t try to do too much, but that’s why it’s great. Just tap the big sun icon in the middle of the screen to start a session of four seconds inhaling, seven seconds holding your breath, and eight seconds exhaling, repeated four times. There are no ads, in-app purchases, or other distractions, and the sole setting is an optional “’80s theme” that adds a gradient effect to the sun icon. The app seems to exist solely to make folks feel better. [iOS, Android, web]

Upsell-free meditation: If you want to give meditation a try and are intimated by the subscription-based offerings of Calm and Headspace, Medito provides a low-hassle point of entry. The free app offers more than a dozen “packs” of mindfulness exercises around themes like Stress & Anxiety, Work Life, and, of course, Pandemic, along with beginner and intermediate courses on meditation’s finer points. The nonprofit foundation behind Medito says the app relies on donations and volunteers for support, and will always be free. That in itself is invigorating. [iOS, Android]

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Savings incentivized: Inspired by the U.K.’s Premium Bond program, Yotta Savings provides some motivation to sock away money by giving users a chance to win extra cash every week. For every $25 stored in Yotta’s FDIC-insured savings accounts, you get one ticket toward a weekly lottery-style drawing, with prizes for matching numbers and a $10 million jackpot. Accounts also get an interest rate of 0.2% in addition to any rewards from the drawings. Even if it’s not your main way to save money, it’s a clever way of getting you to set aside more than you otherwise might. [iOS, Android]

Poolside.fm

Relax a little

Relive internet classics: Steve Jobs may have been happy to help kill off Adobe Flash, but its contributions to the web live on thanks to the Internet Archive. The Flash Software Library preserves thousands of classic games, animations, and interactive creations that Adobe’s plug-in made possible in the late 1990s to early 2000s, using emulation technology instead of Flash itself. That means you’ll still be able to play the Helicopter Game or watch the Badger song in their original formats, even after Adobe retires Flash for good at the end of this year. [Web]

The sounds of summer: Speaking of throwbacks, Poolside FM will take you back to warmer, simpler times by combining curated synthwave music playlists with the aesthetics of an early Macintosh (or—on your mobile device—a PalmPilot-style look). While the music plays, you can soak in ’80s B-roll video, create a playlist of your favorites, or sign the app’s Guestbook. It’s the kind of sunny vibe you’ll never get from Spotify or Apple Music, and might be just what you need right now. [iOS, Mac, web]

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A smarter approach to streaming: Whether you consider NBC’s Peacock to be must-see TV or not, you’ve got to respect its entry into the streaming wars. Instead of demanding yet another subscription, NBC made thousands of movies and shows available for free (with ads, of course), with only a subset of content behind the $5 per month “Premium” paywall. Even better, it launched with a set of linear streaming channels for all those times when you don’t know what to watch. The SNL channel is pure comfort food. [iOS, Android, web, and more]

Plexamp

An ode to album nerds: Tired of having your music selection ruled by algorithms? Plexamp is a delightful antidote that puts an emphasis on building up your own album collection, either through a self-hosted Plex server or through integration with Tidal. Recent additions to your library appear front and center in the app, and you can easily rediscover your collection through features like Time Travel Radio or Random Album Radio. The app’s color scheme also adapts to whatever album is playing, and you can switch from album art to more than a dozen visualizations during playback. [iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, and Linux]

The universal DVR: For cord-cutters, retaining everything they had with cable can often mean bouncing between multiple apps, each with their own interfaces and channel lineups. Channels is attempting to consolidate those options, providing a single DVR for over-the-air broadcasts, cable channels, and even some linear streaming services such as Pluto TV. Setup is a bit of a hassle—you need a bunch of extra hardware beyond just your streaming device to use the service—but the simplicity you get in the end is worth the effort. [iOS, Android, Android TV, Apple TV, Fire TV]

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