2022 was a year packed with huge tech news, from the collapse of crypto and NFTs to the announcement of the still-far-away Metaverse to the rise of AI artwork.
But all those dramatic stakes can get a little overwhelming, particularly for those of us trying to weather an assortment of pandemics and recessions. Sometimes you just want to pull out your phone for a simple activity that won't knock over the first domino leading to Tesla stock tanking or the destablization of El Salvador.
The Tech.co team put their heads together to come up with a handful of the best apps that you may not have known about or simply haven't taken the time to check out amid an endless torrent of news.
Most of them are free, but none of them will cost you more than a few bucks. And if you find one or two that you like, you'll be entering the new year with a renewed love for the types of technology that won't actually inspire any existential dread. That's a win in our book.
What it is: Old-school animated pixel artwork
Who's behind it: Mark Ferrari and Ian Gilman
What it costs: $1.99
Where to find it: iOS, Android
“Possibly my favorite app I discovered this year was Living Worlds, which does nothing but feature 12 different nature scenes, all depicted with nostalgic, gently-animated early '90s digital art from master craftsman Mark Ferrari. There's one for each month, because the original use was for a personal organizer software. The best part: You can't do anything else with your phone while you're running it, so I turn it on in the background when I have work to do and need to keep myself off Twitter.” -Adam Rowe
The pixel scenery in the Living Worlds app is the real deal, and stands apart from any modern attempts to capture this blocky, era-specific art style. Plus, each artwork has a lot more going on than you might think: The sun rises and sets in real time for each one, and some will evolve depending on the time of the month, with an autumn tree's leaves turning from green to orange to red, or a winter scene growing more snowy before finally adding a Christmas tree on the 25th.
January through April sounds are now in the app… Update to get the latest 😁 pic.twitter.com/9BfJzXkFTS
— Living Worlds (@LivingWorldsArt) April 1, 2022
If you want to try cutting down on your screen time, you ought to replace it with something, and any '90s lovers could do a lot worse than the rainy forests, sunny beaches, or jungle waterfalls in this app.
What it is: A puzzle game in which you guess a new five-letter word each day
Who's behind it: Josh Wardle (get it?) and the New York Times
What it costs: Free
Where to find it: The web, iOS, Android
“As an Editor, I love a word challenge anyway, but Wordle is especially addictive as it's so simple and satisfying, while being nicely time boxed at just one puzzle/6 guesses per day. It's a mindful activity for me — a little win I can (almost) guarantee and a few minutes I can look forward to taking for myself, no matter what else is going on. Plus, it's slightly competitive to compare results with friends and family, which adds to the fun. Yes, I still have a Wordle group chat where we compare scores! The simple pleasures in life are often the best, so while the hype may have died down now, I will continue to play this little gem of an app.” -Jen McIlveen, Tech.co Editor
If you were on the internet at all for the first couple months of 2022, you probably don't need an explainer about Wordle. The guessing game was a quick sensation, thanks in part to the incredibly sharable grid of emoji circles that could be used to hint at how someone else had managed to guess the day's word.
First created by Welsh software engineer Josh Wardle, Wordle was snapped up by the New York Times for a seven-figure sum soon after it became a hit, and was folded into their roster of puzzle games like the Spelling Bee and the paper's official crossword. You can play online, or you can download either the standalone Wordle app for Android or find Wordle inside the NYT Crossword app if you have an Apple device.
What it is: Local library ebook delivery system
Who's behind it: OverDrive, Inc.
What it costs: Free
Where to find it: iOS, Android
“Libby's a quick and easy way to get a library book within minutes, rather than waiting for a hold that could take a week or longer. You do have to like ebooks and your library has to have the one you want, but the app is easy on the eyes and offers a lot of options, from text sizes to type of lighting (sepia's the best) and general design (including OpenDyslexic, a typeface designed to mitigate common affects of dyslexia).” -Adam Rowe
Once you download Libby, you'll be guided through how to pick your local library branch and enter your library card details.
Your library system will need to be paying for Libby, however, so it's not available to everyone. But it's a great resource for plenty of free books that you don't even have to leave home to access, and it even lets users highlight favorite phrases or set a virtual bookmark to save their place.
What it is: Productivity app
Who's behind it: Seekrtech, LTD.
What it costs: $3.99
Where to find it: iOS, Android, Chrome extension
“An app I've really leaned on this year is Forest. Productivity apps are a dime a dozen, but I appreciate this ones simple, stripped back approach. At its core the app is a countdown, which you set to a time limit of your choosing, so you can focus on a task. As time passes, a tree slowly grows on the screen. However, if you give into the temptation to switch to your emails or stick on Netflix, the app will remind you that you're supposed to be focusing. Ignore it, and your tree dies. That's it. I find the incentive of seeing my tree through to full growth is enough to stop me poking at my phone while I focus on the task at hand, whether it's work, reading a chapter of a book, or just about anything I might get easily distracted during.” – Jack Turner, Tech.co Deputy Editor
Forest offers additional perks like a collaboration mode that lets you join other users of the app and all focus together: If one of you strays, everyone's tree dies. Users earn currency while using the app, which can be used to unlock other types of trees. Virtual coins can also be used to pay for real trees to be planted, with the app creators claiming almost 1,500,000 being planted to date.
“I stuck it on while I was writing this,” Jack says, “and not only did I not feel tempted to break off to gawk at the latest Musk/Twitter headlines, I stayed 100% focused, and am now the proud owner of a digital Christmas tree, complete with presents.”
What it is: Music app
Who's behind it: Vacation, Inc.
What it costs: Free
Where to find it: The web, iOS
“Poolsuite.FM is nothing but vibes. The music player is designed with an agressively retro aesthetic that embraces the excess, wealth, and swimsuit lycra of a sun-drenched Miami beach in 1997. Users can shuffle through six different radio station playlists with names like Indie Summer, Hangover Club, and Balearic Sundown. The music itself is always chill and feel-good, though the genres cover everything from 1980s dance to Japanese city pop.” -Adam Rowe
The Poolsuite.FM app is a lesson in fully committing to the bit, with an interface that recreates and remixes the long-abandoned typographic styles of old VHS logos, Nokia 3310 mobile devices, or the 8-bit Commodore 64 computer. It's ultimately a simple music player, but it radiates enough personality that you can practically smell the tanning oil. Check out the website, where you can play a feed of on-theme YouTube clips and sign the guestbook. Well, after you wait for it to boot up.
Plus, One Anti-Recommendation: Lensa
“Sure, it's AI, hence the buzz, but how good is it really? Especially in a world where photo sharing on apps such as Instagram is already causing a plethora of body image issues and insecurities, particularly for younger users, do we need more fake photo tools?” -Jen McIlveen
AI selfie editing app Lensa has been dinged for dubious security practices in the recent past, which is not a fault that we tend to look past here at Tech.co. And you'll have to pay for it as well, despite the product simply delivering photo filters: Premium subscriptions cost $7.99/month or $29.99/year. But the core concern here is that it promotes the unrealistically flawless body expectations that were bad enough when reserved them for photoshopped celebrity magazine covers.
In 2023, we recommend freeing yourself from body image fears and kicking back with a game of Wordle while vibing to some city pop.