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Ten fun and mostly-free iPhone apps

Here are ten apps that won't annoy you (OK, Alarm Free might) and are either clever diversions or simply fun toys. All links take you to the App Store. Check out the gallery for a preview of everything I've mentioned. All of these were free when I first downloaded them, as I'm a terrible cheapskate, but several now cost between $.99 and $1.99, which isn't bad.

Ancient Wisdom
Basically just a database of quotes from three philosophers: Lao Tzu, Miyamoto Musashi and Sun Tzu. To make it a little more fun the developers make the quotes come from cute cartoon monkeys. Not exactly genius, but fun and the quotes are, of course, pure gold. Better than a Magic 8-Ball, I think.

Newtonica Player
This simple app has you spin a mesh ball to generate a "beat" that times the pace of the electronica music. There is a surprising amount of depth to the song, simple as it is. I was able to modify the tune a bit depending on my spinning, direction and how long I kept spinning. Terribly simple but fun because of those little tonal surprises.

Fireworks
Wherever you tap your finger a firework is launched to that spot and explodes. Nice little animations, plus it works in landscape mode and offers several backgrounds. The sounds could go further, and the fireworks aren't all that varied, but again, kids love it. Put it in "fireworks show" mode and keep it in your dock for a little fun. Note: at the time I originally wrote this Fireworks was free, but it is only $.99 now, which isn't too much to ask, I think.

xCube
This is just a Rubik's cube in iPhone/iPod touch form. But it is really easy to use, provides several customization options and has an undo feature. If you've ever wanted to learn how to solve the cube but didn't want a big cubic bulge in your back pocket, here's your answer. Note: again, here's an app that was free for a while, but is now $1.99 -- still cheaper than a new Rubik's cube, but more expensive than one at a garage sale. You make the call.


Sketchy (link goes to YouTube video)
An Etch-a-Sketch in your pocket! It is surprisingly rewarding to fiddle with the knobs and try to make something useful, just like the real thing. And unlike those Lite-Brite imitators you don't have to have bird claws to manipulate it. That said, if you find the real deal frustrating, you're not going to find this any easier. It sometimes has issues and the controls will flip around a bit. Apps like this make me wish the iPhone had haptic feedback. Note: well, it was too good to last, I guess. Currently Sketchy is missing from the App Store. There's an app called Etch A Sketch, but it is nothing like the real thing.

Radio Monte Carlo
There are several radio apps out there (with more being added every day), but RMC's channels are compelling for the simple fact that when I hear the DJ, I can pretend I'm lounging by the pool like James Bond while he investigates a plot to blow up the world -- in Monte Carlo, of course. All the world's supervillians live in Monte Carlo. Oh, there's an RMC2 app available now as well, but I haven't tried it.

Alarm Free
At first I hated this app. Possibly because it will never be a real alarm. Since you can't background applications, you'd have to keep this running through the day-- it triggers a claxon when the accelerometer detects movement or a fall. So this is another "kid time waster" and mine love to make it go off to the profound annoyance of all adults in the room. The other upside: take a picture of the app and use it as your wallpaper.

Truth or Dare
This is a simple spin the bottle app with a variety of objects to spin and a slew of truth/dare question/dares you can edit. While I wish there was an easier way to type in all that data, the simple spinning of a gecko can really brighten your day. It also makes the eternal question of "who's buying lunch" a little more fun to randomize. Bonus points for the truth/dare section, but my kids just keep spinning all the different items -- a baby bottle, a message in a bottle and a severed hand. Note: went from free to $1.99 since this post was written.

Poptiq
Is the guy (Buck Hollywood, seriously?) in the intro video annoyingly over enthusiastic? Sure, why not. But I've found Poptiq to be a welcome diversion when, as most TV viewers are wont to do, I'd like to turn my brain off for a bit. Poptiq walks you through a process of elimination for video categories, then delivers new video inside the app based on your preferences. Like Pandora for video, except a lot dumber. There's no real algorithm, just the broad filtering of categories. Still, you can share your videos on Facebook, but I haven't bothered. By the time I've watched a couple of silly vids my brain has been successfully shut down and I can't think of being social.

LifeGame
If you're not familiar with John Conway's Game of Life you might have never studied game theory, or statistics or even computer science. That's OK, because the "game" doesn't require any of that knowledge. Instead, this app has been around for a very long time, and made its way to nearly as many platforms as Doom. In LifeGame there are little dots on the screen that live or die based on their proximity to empty spaces and other dots. It's a simple equation that makes for a nice light show, plus a nifty time-waster on the train.

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