Thanks to the popularity of the iPhone, iPad and various Android devices, as well as their associated app stores, there's no shortage of free apps to download on-demand in 2012. But of the multitude of software programs that can be beamed down to your handset virtually anytime, anywhere, few offer true practical everyday upsides. Below, you'll find five great apps in a variety of categories (shopping, entertainment, security, etc.) - and one special bonus - that are worth adding to your wish list, however.
Find My iPhone - Lost cell phones and tablets are a common and soul-crushing problem, even before factoring in the actual dollar value wasted if your precious investment goes AWOL. Capitalizing on Apple's iCloud, this free device-tracking app provides some much-needed insurance. Sign in with your Apple ID on another iOS device, and you can locate your missing gadget (including Mac computers) on a map, so long as they're wirelessly connected to the Internet. Once tracked, you can sound an alarm, lock the device, wipe your data remotely and even send prospective thieves' on-screen warning notes. At zero dollars, downloading and installing it is a small price to pay indeed for a little piece of mind.
Yelp - Looking for a good Chinese restaurant at 1AM on a Tuesday night? Stuck in a strange city and wondering where to turn for entertainment while you've got a few hours to kill one evening? From coffee shops to bars, drugstores and even gas stations, local business review guide Yelp (among today's most popular free apps) can steer you in the right direction. Helping you find and quickly assess the quality of small businesses in your area, it's as handy an everyday tool as it is travel accessory. A lifesaver on extended layovers, you'll find it most productive in major metropolitan areas, but always handy place to turn, regardless of location, if you're just looking to try somewhere new in town for lunch.
Kindle for iPhone - Numerous free apps such as Apple's own iBooks and Barnes and Noble's dedicated Nook application let you read digital books on iOS devices without owning a dedicated eReader. But it's hard to beat the sheer size of Kindle creator Amazon's catalogue, which spans millions of books (many priced under $10), and hundreds of newspapers and magazines, all downloadable on-demand. Letting you cram both bestselling novels and favorite periodicals onto a device that fits in your pocket or carry-on, realize. A mobile library to go, it can easily save you the trouble of carting a hernia-inducing stack of hardbacks along on your next vacation.
RedLaser - Bargain hunters concerned with getting the lowest prices needn't worry much when shopping anymore, as this free barcode (and QR code) scanner quickly calls up a list of prices at nearby and online merchants. Using it, you can compare asking costs, track down deals at both neighborhood retailers and big box stores, and see just how badly you're getting gouged at your local mall. Available for both Apple and Android handsets, it's among the more practical everyday solutions offered to users and no charge, and one that would quickly pay for itself, if it cost anything to begin with.
Slacker Radio - Dozens of streaming music services are available on smartphones, from MOG to Rdio, Spotify, Grooveshark and Last.fm. But while many rivals are better-known (i.e. Pandora) or more well-funded (e.g. Clear Channel's iHeartRadio app), Slacker Radio consistently scores well with critics and audiophiles alike. Credit its strong selection, solid sound quality and user-friendly interface, which make it a viable solution even for those for whom technology isn't second nature. Note that subscription plans starting at $3.99/month are available for those who'd like to save music to their handset and listen while offline, but remain strictly optional.
Special Mention: HBO Go - As creator Home Box Office succinctly puts it: "It's HBO - anywhere." A "free" streaming media app (provided you're a subscriber... sadly, there's no digital-only plan, a la fellow gratis download Netflix), this application allows access to movies and TV shows alike. While film offerings can be anemic, make no mistake: The depth of original television programming is unmatched. Available on the iPhone, iPad, Android smartphones, Roku set-top boxes, Samsung Smart TVs, laptop/desktop PCs and the Xbox 360 gaming system, once you've become enthralled with Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire, there's no going back. Having recently watched several episodes over a 3G wireless cell phone connection with no noticeable lag or outages when a hotel WiFi connection failed our laptop, we're believers.