The Best Free & Paid Alternatives to First-Party Apps

My first iOS experience came by way of an iPod Touch that was given to me at Christmas  in 2008.  I remember feverishly setting it up so I could comb the App Store for goodies; making sure to download all the best apps and games available at the time. Now that Christmas is upon us this year, some fortunate few are being introduced to iOS for the first time.

When you find your way into the App Store for the first time, you’ll soon discover that it houses a lot of apps. Like, millions. Many of them bring a unique feature to the iPhone that you don’t get from first-party apps, but then there are the apps that compete with Apple’s offerings. Now, being that Apple owns and operates iOS, its apps often include killer features that you won’t find in third-party alternatives. However, even with this advantage, some third-party apps are capable of offering a superior experience.

With this in mind, I’ve rounded up a list of what I believe to be the best free and paid alternatives to Apple’s first-party iOS apps. Read on and get ready to download!

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Calendar

At best I’ve heard mixed feelings about Calendar.app. It’s certainly a functional app, but it’s not one I’m particularly impressed with. Luckily, there are plenty of great third-party alternatives.

sunrise

Free: Sunrise Calendar

Sunrise Calendar has been my go-to calendar app since my initial review in April. I got a chance to review version 2.0 in October, in which I stated “there’s no other app I would recommend more than Sunrise” if you’re looking for an alternative to Calendar.app. What makes Sunrise so great is its UI and social element, which allows you to connect to most of your social network accounts (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, LinkedIn). In addition, Sunrise supports both Google and iCloud calendars, with Exchange support in the works.

Honorable Mention(s): Cal
Price: Free
Developer: Sunrise Atelier, Inc.
Download: App Store

fantastical

Paid: Fantastical 2

Without a doubt, Fantastical 2 is the most popular and well known third-party calendar app. If you talk to most app enthusiasts, they’ll recommend it above all other calendar apps (Calendars 5 is also a well respected calendar app). It’s popularity and praise isn’t unmerited, as Fantastical 2 offers a really slick and intuitive calendar experience. It also features Reminders implementation, which works extremely well (so much so that Fantastical 2 could easily be my paid alternative for Reminders.app). One thing to note is that the $1.99 price tag is a holiday sale, so you best download Fantastical 2 quickly before it returns to its regular price of $2.99.

Honorable Mention(s): Calendars 5, Agenda Calendar 4
Price: $1.99
Developer: Flexibits Inc.
Download: App Store

Mail

Mail.app is one of a few third-party apps I prefer over third-party alternatives. It supports a wide variety of email clients, is simple to use and its VIP feature allows me to determine when I receive a notification for emails. With that being said, there are many great third-party alternatives available in the App Store.

mailbox

Free: Mailbox

Much like Fantastical 2 and Calendar.app, Mailbox is widely considered to be the best alternative to Mail.app. The app focuses on helping you reach mailbox zero (i.e. a mailbox free of emails) by way of quick swipes that allow you to delete and archive emails, as well as snooze emails for when they need to be addressed or adding emails to a task list. With support for Gmail, iCloud and Yahoo (other platform support “coming soon”), many users can benefit from Mailbox’s unique approach to email management. The only downside to Mailbox, in my opinion, is that it does not allow for selective notifications (i.e. you can either turn notifications for all emails either on or off).

Honorable Mention(s): Boxer, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Molto
Price: Free
Developer: Dropbox, Inc.
Download: App Store

sparrow

Paid: Sparrow

Considered by many to be one of the best mail apps  when it was released (for both iOS and OS X), Sparrow was purchased by Google in Summer 2012. Sparrow remains in the App Store, but has only received a small number of updates (including a new icon) since the buyout. Regardless, the app still features a fantastic user experience that simplifies email management in a more traditional manner (in contrast to Mailbox). It’s worth noting that the app never received push notification support, and probably never will, and only support Gmail accounts. So take those both into consideration before purchasing.

Honorable Mention(s): Triage, Dispatch, Mail Pilot
Price: $2.99
Developer: Google, Inc.
Download: App Store

Maps

Apple Maps received a great deal of criticism upon it release, which has subsided a bit now that it’s improved a great deal. I’ve tried Apple Maps a handful of times, which nearly all ended up bring positive experiences. With that being said, Apple Maps still can’t outshine it competition in a lot of ways.

waze

Free: Waze

Waze has been my to-go navigation app for over a year now, and I couldn’t be happier. Unlike most apps in this category, Waze relies on users to report traffic issues (e.g. accidents, construction, cops). As you’re driving, you’ll be alerted of these issues if they’ve been reported, or you can help out other Wazers by reporting issues yourself. Waze is also great about finding alternative routes so you can avoid traffic jams. Coming from experience, it’s best to trust Waze’s recommended routes as it’ll often get you to where you’re going with fewer headaches.

Honorable Mention(s): Scout, MapQuest
Price: Free
Developer: Waze, Inc.
Download: App Store

googlemaps

Free: Google Maps

Paid alternatives are available in the App Store, such as TomTom, Garmin and NAVIGON, but I see no reason why you should paid $20-40 for a navigation app when Google Maps is also available for free. While Waze is my preferred navigation app, Google Maps is much better at searching for businesses, restaurants and other fun places to visit. Tack on live traffic and incident reports, Street View and transit direction in over 800 cities, and Google Maps has easily become most individuals go-to app for their navigation needs.

Price: Free
Developer: Google, Inc.
Download: App Store

Weather

Weather.app is another first-party app that I quite enjoy. It has a great visual design and offers enough information to be useful. On the flip side, however, the app lacks support of certain features I find indispensable, such as radar and notifications for storm and tornado warnings. Luckily, the App Store is rotten with great alternatives.

yahooweather

Free: Yahoo Weather

Yahoo Weather recently won a Apple Design Award, and it’s not difficult to see why. The app presents weather information in a very clean manner, while also features beautiful photography by way of Flicker. I’ve always considered it to be a pro version of Weather.app, as it presents most of the same information in a very similar manner (Yahoo provides weather information in Weather.app). With the inclusion of wind & pressure, sunrise & sunset, precipitation and radar, Yahoo is a incredibly informative and stylish alternative.

Honorable Mention(s): Solar, Mizzle, Swackett
Price: Free
Developer: Yahoo
Download: App Store

weatherline

Paid: Weather Line

Providing extensive weather data and an intuitive UI isn’t an easy feat, which I’ve only seen accomplished well in Weather Line. It’s currently my de facto weather app, and for good reason. The app displays all information within a single view, which is divided into three sections–weather line graph, current conditions and rain prediction–and each section displays a specific set of information. Specifically, the weather line graph can be sorted by hours, day (up to 7 days) and month (displays monthly averages).

The best part is that rain prediction and weather information is provided by Forecast.io, which is a great weather website that you can save to your homescreen. If you’re interested in Weather Line, you best act fast as the price will return to $2.99 after the holiday sale ends.

Honorable Mention(s): Dark Sky, Haze, Perfect Weather, Blue
Price: $1.99
Developer: Off Coast
Download: App Store

Camera

Camera.app is really one of the best first-party apps available in iOS. It’s fast and offers a very intuitive UI, and is accessible from so many places (tapping the app icon, from the lockscreen and via Control Center). I’ve never been partial to third-party alternatives in this case, but that doesn’t mean great alternatives aren’t available.

vscocam

Free: VSCO Cam

VSCO Cam represents a minor set of free Camera.app alternatives, and does so with flair. As a shooter, the app offers some handy presets that are easy to toggle, and shots typically turn out pretty well. VSCO Cam’s strong suit, however, it is vast number of filters and editing options. It’s also really easy to undo a change you make or start your edits from scratch. Best of all, the app is super stylish and simple to use. It’s worth noting that the app doesn’t shoot video, so you’ll have to use Camera.app in those instances.

Honorable Mention(s): Instagram, Photo Editor by Aviary
Price: Free
Developer: Visual Supply Company
Download: App Store

cameraplus

Paid: Camera+

Camera+–not to be confused with Camera Plus, which is a separate app–has been the number one Camera.app alternative for a number of years now. It’s a powerful shooter and editor with a great deal of features that’s sure to please most mobile photography enthusiasts. However, competition from the likes of Afterlight and Faded, both fantastic alternatives as well, doesn’t make Camera+ a no brainer. With that being said, I still prefer Camera+ at this time, but you won’t go wrong with any of these paid alternatives.

Honorable Mention(s): Afterlight, Faded
Price: $1.99
Developer: tap tap tap
Download: App Store

Reminders

Due to its integration into iOS, and its accessibility OS X and the iCloud website, Reminders.app became my preferred to-do/list app earlier this year. I love being able to quickly add a reminder via Siri, and it’s great being able to share lists with my fiance. However, the App Store is full of great third-party GTD, to-do and list apps if Reminders.app isn’t your thing.

any.do

Free: Any.DO

This option is really a toss-up between Any.DO and Wunderlist. Both are excellent to-do/list apps that offer cross platform functionality and are easy to use. However, the style of each app is quite different. I prefer Any.DO because of its minimalist design, powerful feature set (e.g. location based reminders, voice entry, monthly agenda planning, auto suggestions). If you opt for Any.DO you might consider checking out Cal, which is a calendar app developed by the same developer and works harmoniously with Any.DO.

Honorable Mention(s): Wunderlist, Listacular, Todoist
Price: Free
Developer: Any.DO
Download: App Store

things

Paid: Things

The amount of quality paid to-do/list apps is tremendous. As you can see from the honorable mentions, you have a number of great options available for your choosing, and each offers a unique approach that makes it easy for you to find the right app for your needs. Things gets my pick because it’s and app I used above all the others for over a year (before transitioning to Reminders). It’s a powerful GTD app that offers a great deal of features and tools to help track everything you need to accomplish, and it great for individuals that need a bit more than what Reminders has to offer. Things also has an iPad and OS X app, so you can manage all of your tasks from multiple devices.

The downside to Thing is its barrier to entry, with the iPhone app costing $10, iPad app $20 and OS X $50. In contrast OmniFocus will cost $140 for all three apps, where as Clear will cost $15 ($12 if you act now thanks to a holiday sale). All other honorable mentions are restricted to iPhone only (except for This Week, which uses Reminders integration).

Honorable Mention(s): OmniFocus, Clear, Gneo, Tick, 2 Days, This Week, ListBook, CARROT To-Do
Price: $9.99
Developer: Cultured Code
Download: App Store

Notes

Notes.app is great if you just want a place to write a few notes here and there. The fact that notes are saved to iCloud, which means they can be accessed on another iOS device, OS X computer and the iCloud website, is a added benefit. My main gripe with Notes.app, however, is that it’s a bit too simple.

simplenote

Free: Simplenote

Simplenote may be a surprising choice considering Evernote is easily the more popular choice, but I find it to be best alternative to Notes.app for a few reasons. First, as the name would imply, the app is rather simple to use; just give notes a title and begin writing away. You can even add tags and pins to help sort your notes. Simplenote is also available on OS X and the Simplenote website, so you can access notes from almost anywhere. Evernote is a great option as well, but it’s more cumbersome to use as it offers a great deal more features (great for those that need it).

Honorable Mention(s): Evernote, ScatterBrain, Springpad, Squarespace Note
Price: Free
Developer: Codality
Download: App Store

drafts

Paid: Drafts

If there’s an app that’s in perfect contrast to Simplenote, it’s Drafts. A beautiful and feature packed note app, Drafts is a great option for individuals that need support for markdown and actions (e.g. email, message, URL, Dropbox/Evernote), or care about fonts and themes. You can also use Draft to create messages that can then be sent to Twitter, Facebook, email and text messages. It’s a bit much for my needs, but I’ve never heard a bad thing about Drafts from it’s large base of users.

Honorable Mention(s): Write, Scratch
Price: $1.99
Developer: Agile Tortoise
Download: App Store

Safari

Choosing an alternative to Safari is difficult. Not because quality third-party alternatives aren’t available, but mostly because of how inconvenient it is to use a third-party browser. Any time you tap a link in a message, email or other app, Safari is the default app that will open said link and there’s nothing you can do to change that (short of Jailbreaking, but that’s another discussion). So, if you’re thinking about making a switch to one of the following suggestions, keep in mind that you’ll probably need to copy all links, manually open the third-party browser and paste the link in the address bar.

dolphin

Free: Dolphin Browser

Let me just say that Chrome is a good option for those that use Chrome as their desktop browser, but for me it’s by no means the best alternative browser on iOS. That title belongs to Dolphin browser, which is chock-full of great features that’s sure to please most users. For starters, you can sync tabs and bookmarks, and send webpages directly to your phone by way of a Safari, Chrome or Firefox extension. Dolphin also makes it easy to share web pages to your social feeds or via email, or save them to your Evernote or Box accounts. I’m also fond of the gesture controls and sonar (i.e. voice) feature (sonar is a $0.99 in-app purchase).

Honorable Mention(s): Chrome
Price: Free
Developer: MoboTap
Download: App Store

mercury

Free: Mercury Web Browser

Similar to navigation apps, paid third-party browser apps are available in the App Store but aren’t nearly as good as the free alternatives. Case in point is Mercury Web Browser, which matches most of Dolphin Browser’s feature set and then piles more on top. Browser syncing (Chrome and Firefox only), gestures, and private browser a few features found in both apps. Mercury Web Browser, however, also offers plugins, a reader mode (similar to Safari), Dropbox integration, full screen browsing, ad block, autofill and desktop mode (a really cool feature that tricks the webpage into thinking that you’re using a desktop browser).
Price: Free
Developer: iLegendSoft
Download: App Store

Music

There are some fantastic alternative methods to listen to music on your iPhone. Rdio is my preferred method, but Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio are all great options. However, for the purposes of this list, I’m going to focus on alternative apps that allow you to play music already saved to your phone or are available in your iTunes Match library.

listen

Free: Listen

MacPaw is known for developing some great OS X apps (CleanMyMac, Gemini, MacHider), but earlier this month they released their first iOS and it’s a doozy. Billed as “the gesture music player,” Listen is a uniquely designed music player app that can be used with a few swipes. Using the app feels a bit alien at first, but becomes familiarly quite quickly. I opted to skip the tutorial to see if I could figure out the controls myself, and after a few minutes I had everything down pat. Listen is so distinctly different than Music.app, but it’s a fantastic alternative for those looking for something fun to use.

Honorable Mention(s): Pumbble
Price: Free
Developer: MacPaw
Download: App Store

ecoute

Paid: Ecoute

In contrast to Listen, Ecoute is more of a “traditional” music player that will feel familiar for Music.app users. Having recently received an iOS 7 inspired makeover, the app is beautifully simplistic that allows album art to take center stage. Navigating in and out of the player view is a fun experience, as is accessing the filters. If you’re a fan of the Modern UI featured in Windows Phone 8, Track 8 is really nice option that’s a pleasure to use.

Honorable Mention(s): Track 8, CarTunes
Price: $2.99
Developer: PixiApps
Download: App Store

Podcasts

Unlike the other first-party apps listed previously, Podcasts isn’t automatically installed on iPhones and must be installed via the App Store. It’s a free and serviceable app that I’ve reviewed not once, but twice (you can check out the most recent review here). However, it is by no means the best podcast app available. Not even close.

podwrangler

Free: Pod Wrangler

Pod Wrangler is the default winner in the free category, as most great podcast app alternatives aren’t free. It’s definitely worth mentioning that the app is ad supported, which can be removed via an in-app purchase (so, put an asterisk next to the free price tag). Regardless, Pod Wrangler is an excellent podcast app that simplifies the approach Apple took with Podcasts. Lists and individuals podcasts are accessible via the main view, and adding new podcasts is a simple enough process. If you like podcasts, but don’t want to “splurge” for a paid alternative, then Pod Wrangler is a no brainer.

Price: Free
Developer: Developing Perspective
Download: App Store

pocketcasts

Paid: Pocket Casts 4

Anyone that’s followed my writing here on AppStorm knows I’m an avid fan of Pocket Casts. It’s been my go-to podcast app for over two years, and for good reason. It’s beautifully designed and offers a great hands-on experience. I especially love the podcasts directory, which is where you can browse and add podcasts–it ultimately feels like a separate store than just another part of the app.

Another great aspect of Pocket Casts is dynamic episode filters, which you can create to auto-populate episodes of pre-determined podcasts. If you’re interested in a more simplified podcast app experience, then Castro may just be the thing you’re looking for.

Honorable Mention(s): Downcast, Castro, Instacast 4
Price: $3.99
Developer: ShiftyJelly
Download: App Store

Wrapping Up

That’s all for my recommendations, and I hope you found at least one or two great new apps to download. If I missed an alternative option that you love, make sure to let everyone know in the comments!