Back to School: The Best Productivity Apps for Any Student

by Reads (5,972)

For you, modern student, technology is both the best and worst thing for getting things done. The tools you can use to bang out class papers and readings at a breakneck pace are the same ones that can suck you into a neverending vortex of YouTube, Binging and Facebook creeping for hours on end.BTS_Article_TG

But while cat videos and Tumblr do their best to keep you procrastinating, there are certain godsends in your tablet, phone and laptop’s app stores that will make doing whatever you need to do as painless as possible. They come in various forms, work on various operating systems, and might take a little while to get used to, but in the end they’ll make you a more productive person.

And that’s good, trust us. So to make you a little more tech savvy this upcoming school year, we’ve rounded up a list of our favorite productivity apps. They’ll help you do work more easily. Download them, play with them, and watch as they let you unleash your inner workhorse.

Evernote (Free)

EvernoteEvernote is basically the ultimate digital notebook. It’s hugely popular, compatible with just about every major platform and, best of all, it’s one of the most versatile apps on the market today. Most people tend to use it as a simple note taker, and for that it works extraordinarily well. You can jot down whatever you’d like into separate notes, whether it’s for regular class scribblings, a to-do list, an assignment outline, or just getting an idea out of your head and onto virtual paper. It isn’t half bad looking either, especially after its latest update on the desktop.

Everything you put down is synced to the cloud, and since Evernote is so ubiquitous across platforms, you can view and edit your notes from any of your devices. Evernote lets you capture and send pictures into your notes, directly send web pages to them from the web, tag them for easier organization, search through them, and share them through email, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn too. You’ll need to buy a premium account ($5/month or $45/year) for offline access, but Evernote’s free version has more than enough features to make it our favorite idea capturing outlet.

Wunderlist (Free)

WunderlistWhile Evernote can serve as a commendable to-do list app on its own, there are a handful of dedicated solutions that make the process much smoother. Our favorite is Wunderlist, a very attractive, very simple and very free lister that is compatible across iOS, Android, Windows and Mac. Like Evernote, its greatest feature is its ubiquity–all of your lists are synced in the cloud, meaning you can add one item through Wunderlist’s web app, check another off on its desktop app, and create another one on its mobile app. It’s your to-do list, everywhere at all times.

Wunderlist is about as approachable as these kind of apps get. You can split up your lists into separate tabs–making one group for work, another for personal stuff, and others for anything else–and add subtasks and additional notes to each one. You can set a due date for any particular list’s completion, and there’s also a nifty ability to have a particular list send reminders to you at a time of your choosing, just in case you forget that you have something that needs to be done. All of this works through a minimalist, customizable interface that you should be able to comprehend within seconds. Again, a premium account (same prices as Evernote) adds additional functionality, but either way Wunderlist is exceptionally useful for anyone looking for some organization.

Kindle (Free)

KindleGoing back to school usually means going back to reading at an abnormal clip, so you’ll be best served using the internet to lighten your workload both physically and mentally. There are tons of largely similar eBook apps out there, but none of them are as widely available as Amazon’s Kindle. Like many of the other apps on this list, Kindle’s greatest benefit is its ability to sync your library and progress through the cloud, and then pick up where you left off on your phone, tablet or laptop. Goodbye, shoulder pain.

Kindle has a library of more than a million books, including many textbooks and just about every novel your teachers will ever assign. Lots of these classics are available for download free of charge, which will save you a few bucks, and even those that aren’t free will usually be cheaper through Amazon than they are in your school bookstore.

Kindle also comes with built-in dictionary and search functions, meaning that you can access more info about a particular word or passage from right within the book itself. You can highlight passages and take notes from within your book and share them with others, and the reading interface itself can be customized with different font sizes, page turning animations (a bigger deal than it sounds), background colors and the like. Unless you love feeling the pages between your hands, jumping on the ebook bandwagon is a wise decision.

Wolfram|Alpha (iOS, Android: $3, Web: Free)

WolframAlphaWolfram|Alpha knows what you don’t. It’s the knowledge engine that powers some of the info iPhone users get from Siri, but more generally it provides instant answers for a staggering amount of mostly math- and science-related queries. Concepts from advanced mathematics to astronomy to life sciences to health and medicine are all covered in here, so just type in something you’re confused about and it’ll give you an explanation right back. It’s massive in scope, but as simple as a search query.

While it’s still best at telling you what something like trigonometric substitution is or computing the vapor pressure of ethanol at 300K, over the years Wolfram|Alpha has also expanded to cover more topics like sports, music and culture. It’s a project that’s still growing, which is exciting, but for now it’ll save you many headaches as both a research partner and a learning tool. It’s available on the web for free and as an Android and iOS app for just $3. We’d say that’s a fair price for a good chunk of mankind’s knowledge.

Google Drive (Free)

Google Drive logoYour brain probably jumps to Microsoft Office whenever you hear the words “office suite,” and with good reason–it’s still one of the most fully featured sets of productivity software on the planet. But getting your hands on Word, Excel, PowerPoint and company also comes at a hefty price, one that just isn’t all that accommodating to budget-conscious students or today’s increasingly online world. If you don’t feel like shelling out another $140, and if you’re on the web whenever you write your documents or spreadsheets, we recommend taking your work to Google Drive instead.

That “on the web” bit is significant: Google Drive lets you save and edit files for offline viewing, but it’s designed to be used when you have an internet connection. Unless you’ve saved a document or spreadsheet ahead of time, you can’t use it when you’re offline (if that’s a dealbreaker, we advise you to go with a free alternative like LibreOffice). But that’s not as grave as it sounds these days, and Drive’s cloud-based nature lets you work on your files from your browser or through its Android and iOS apps.

It also makes Drive the best office suite when it comes to collaboration–if you’re working on a big group paper, for instance, the lot of you can share and access the document together, at the same time, making instantly visible edits and comments as you go along. Plus, having all your documents stored online means that you’ll never have to worry about losing them in a heap on desktop files. Admittedly, Drive isn’t as fleshed out as Word, Excel or Powerpoint, but it’s better looking, easier to use, and still equipped with enough features to satisfy the everyday student (or professional)’s needs. Oh yeah, and it’s all free too.

Textmaker ($5)

TextmakerYes, we just said that Google Drive is our preferred office suite for students overall, but we’d be remiss not to mention a few more capable options for word processing on mobile devices. For Android, our favorite is Textmaker, which is the most complete writing tool you’ll find on Google’s mobile OS. That’s not saying much, but this word processor gives you a Word-like feature set–you can bold, italicize, underline, cut, copy, and highlight to your heart’s content, search for particular words within a document, choose from a variety of fonts, and even track changes and make edits and comments on the fly. It types pretty smoothly as well.

It’s all done through a menu- and submenu-based interface that may not look all that pretty but gets the job done efficiently and intuitively. The best part about Textmaker, though, is its compatibility with other software. It lets you save documents directly to Dropbox, Evernote, SkyDrive and Google Drive, it’s compatible with tons of file types, and it loads up Microsoft Word documents, tracked changes and all, without a hitch. Is heavy duty word processing on mobile devices ever going to be an effortless experience? Probably not, but Textmaker is the closest it gets, and it only costs a Lincoln. It’ll make a nice Android counterpart to your Google Drive excursions.

iA Writer (iOS: $1, Mac: $5)

iA WriterWe’re going to go in the opposite direction for our favorite iOS word processor and nominate iA Writer, which is less about stuffing in features and more about providing the smoothest, most distraction-free mobile writing app out there. Contrary to Textmaker, iA Writer provides only the most basic formatting and editing options, instead throwing you directly into a full screen view that puts you one on one with your document. It comes with an iOS keyboard extender that gives you quicker access to characters like colons, semicolons and quotes, but other than that there is zero additional clutter here.

And we think that’s a good thing, because using iA Writer is just as effortless as it seems. It’s fast and smooth, with crisp black text that looks gorgeous against its ultra-minimalist backdrop. It’s tailored for Apple users, with both an iOS and a Mac version available, and it also syncs your files to iCloud and Dropbox so you can make edits across your devices. You should head into iA Writer knowing that it’s the exact opposite of Microsoft Word, but once you accept the simplicity it becomes a much more pleasurable experience.

Dictionary (Free)

DictionaryThis one’s pretty self-explanatory. With the free Dictionary app from Dictionary.com, not only is there no need to search through weighty tomes of words like we did in prehistoric times, but there’s also no reason to waste seconds wading through Google searches.

Dictionary’s name is actually a little misleading, as it provides a full thesaurus alongside its stellar dictionary functions. The app provides every definition, synonym or antonym you’ll ever need, as well as voice search capabilities, word origins, listings for abbreviations, idioms and slang words, pronunciations, and the ability to favorite certain words. It’s not the only good dictionary app out there, but it’s attractive, convenient, deeper than it looks, and free. It’s hard to beat that.

Dropbox (Free)

Dropbox logoCloud storage services are a dime a dozen these days and, truth be told, we can’t say you’d be wrong to use Box, Google Drive, SkyDrive, SugarSync or any of Dropbox’s many other competitors. But we’re going to go with the most popular of the cloud saving bunch simply because it’s everywhere. If you have a “smart” device of any kind today, you can save your documents, photos, videos, or any other kind of file to Dropbox’s cloud servers, and then access them anywhere else with an internet connection.

And because it’s so ubiquitous (a word you’re seeing a lot in this article for a reason), developers of countless apps have built Dropbox saving directly into their own platforms. The company has ambitions to replace your regular old hard drive entirely, and it’s that level of support that could get it there one day. The fact that it’s completely painless to set up and use helps too, of course. Yes, Dropbox’s competitors offer more free space than its 2 GB allocation, but it’ll still take plenty of files to fill all that up, and the company offers various promotions and premium plans to increase that amount. Either way, you’re getting reliability with Dropbox, which is just what you need when you’re storing all your schoolwork away.

Fantastical (iOS: $5, Mac: $20)

FantasticalSometimes to-do lists or note taking apps aren’t going to be enough for all your important young school person needs, and you’ll have to turn to your calendar to ensure that your life is a little less hectic. If you’re on Android, we think the default Google Calendar will serve you just fine. But iOS users would do well drop the $5 necessary for Fantastical, a…wait for it…fantastic stock calendar replacement that makes adding appointments much less of a hassle. Its standout feature is its “natural language” event creation, which allows you to pencil in upcoming events without having to enter them in formulaic writing.

So, simply writing down “big test next Wednesday at 10” will lead Fantastical to automatically mark down next week’s exam at the right spot and time. Simple as that, and it can be done through voice commands as well. The app’s list-based interface will take a minute to get used to, but it always looks good and quickly becomes easy to navigate. Getting both the iOS and Mac versions is a pricey proposition, but doing so lets you sync your calendars between devices too. If you’re finding yourself displeased with Apple’s planners, we think Fantastical should be your top alternative.

Graphing Calculator (iOS: Free) and Graphing Calculator (Android: Free)

Mathlab Graphing Calculator AndroidConsidering how widespread smartphones have become in today’s society, it’s something of a wonder that old school graphing calculators still exist at all. While we appreciate the lasting power of such old tech, we think it’s time for you to put the old number crunchers to bed with these two fully featured calculator apps.

William Jockusch’s free Graphing Calculator on iOS and Mathlab’s also free Graphing Calculator for Android share the same name, yes, but they also come with all the features you’d expect from their non-digital counterparts. If you’ve used a graphing calculator before, you know exactly what you’re getting here–quadratic equations and square roots will be solved just as easily, and on Android you can save images for later studies. Basically, they do everything your TI-86 can do, but more, and minus the weight and cost of lugging around your old machine. It’s time to make the upgrade.

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2 Comments

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  1. pologreg6

    As a student I would have to disagree with a few big ones on this list. I know price was mentioned in reference to getting an office suite but the $140 reference was incorrect. A student can get Office 365 University edition for $70 and lasts 4 years (for 2 licenses). This includes Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Access, Outlook, Publisher, and OneNote.

    Office University comes with 20GBs of Skydrive in addition to the 7 GBs that come free. This version of Office can be used offline and will backup to Skydrive so all the files can be accessed from any computer using office or even using Microsoft WebApps if the full suite isn’t available. The files can be shared with anyone and can edited simultaneously by others.

    Skydrive is available on Windows, Mac, and Android.

    Office University covers most of the major programs listed above and works better in my opinion.

    Since this is for students, it costs $70 for 4 years which should fit into most budgets.

  2. Jeff Dunn

    @pologreg6 Fair point, and I regret not mentioning the student discount in the article. Forgive me.

    I still stand by my Drive recommendation up there due to its mobile support, ease of use on any device, and collaboration capabilities. Also, free is still cheaper than $70. I think, for students, it’s more than enough.

    But I would agree that it’s not exactly cut and dried, and that those willing to pay for Office will be just fine picking up Microsoft’s student package. Thanks for reading!