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16 Best Reference Apps

They save you time and money accessing the info you need -- and make you look like a genius!

By Mark Harris

What’s the point of a smartphone if it doesn’t make you smarter? While apps alone can’t boost your IQ, knowing how to put your finger on any piece of information in the world will give you an air of omniscience — and save precious time and energy in your daily life.
There are tens of thousands of reference apps, covering every sphere of human knowledge. Like the Internet itself, some are more dependable than others, and a few are downright misleading. As a journalist who researches things for a living, I’ve used hundreds of the reference apps out there, and through trial and error, I’ve come to learn which are the most clear, concise and trustworthy.
For this article, I’ve organized the categories into four basic subsets, and selected 16 excellent ones, all of which get their information from credible, reliable and (usually) up-to-date sources.
Additionally, you’ll find these apps very reasonably priced, especially compared to glossy hardcover books, and some are free. Still, the companies have to make money, so most of these are supported by advertising. If you find that annoying, there’s often a “premium” (i.e., more expensive) version that strips out ads and adds extra features or data.
It’s always worth trying the free version first to see if the app is right for you. Reviews from other users on your phone’s app store (click on Reviews and Ratings, or User Reviews, on the app’s download page) can also be very informative when choosing among apps.

(MORE: 5 Best Apps for Getting and Staying Organized)
The World Around You
1. Google Search
Platform: Apple, Android, Windows (free)
Newer iPhones have voice recognition (Siri) built-in, which lets users search for information by simply pressing a button and speaking. This app extends that functionality to older Apple devices and other brands, letting you launch a Google search by stating what you’re looking for. It can also use your phone’s camera to help you identify unfamiliar products or landmarks — or even to solve newspaper Sudoku puzzles.
(MORE: Phone and Tablet Games for Grown-Ups)
2. White Pages
Platform: Apple, Windows (free)
This excellent search app is a handy alternative to its back-breaking, forest-destroying paper cousin. You can “reverse look-up” phone numbers to identify callers or view menus and price lists for thousands of businesses. A cheap ($1.99) upgrade for Apple devices lets you search for cell numbers, too.
3. Encyclopedia Britannica
Platform: Apple iPhone or iPad ($1.99 per month), Windows ($4.99 per year)

Wikipedia is great for everyday references, but when you need expertly written and thoroughly checked articles, Britannica remains the gold standard. The subscription-based iPad app is particularly attractive, because it offers more real estate to view the photos, graphs and illustrations. The better value, though, is the Windows Phone version, which gives you all 80,000 articles for a low annual fee.
4. Charts & Tides
Platform: Apple ($19.99 each for West and East coasts)
Think of this comprehensive app as Google Maps for the ocean. Sailors, anglers and surfers will appreciate the high-resolution charts and year-round currents, tide and weather information for an entire U.S. coastline. And you only have to buy it once — the same program works on your iPhone and iPad.
Words and Pictures
1. Google Translate
Platform: Apple, Android (free)
Like the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this borderline-miraculous app allows you to speak words in English and hear a translation into one of dozens of languages, in seconds. The Android version is especially impressive, letting you handwrite words or take a photo for translation. It can also work offline (without an Internet connection) if you download a language pack before you travel to foreign countries.
(MORE: 10 Travel Apps to Make Your Trip Easier, Safer and More Fun)
2. Merriam-Webster Dictionaries
Platform: Apple, Android, Windows, BlackBerry (free to $60)
Merriam-Webster’s digital dictionaries are great for the casual user and the dedicated bibliophile. The free version (for Apple and Android, with ads) is packed with handy features, like voice search, audio pronunciations and sample sentences. There are also specialized Advanced, Collegiate and Medical dictionaries, and the huge (if pricey) Unabridged tome carries 700,000 definitions, 143,000 etymologies and more than 100,000 quotations.
3. Thesaurus Rex
Platform: Apple ($2.99)
Loaded with more than half a million synonyms and antonyms, this app insures that you’ll never be stuck for a word again. Its word-recommendation system is clear and surprisingly intelligent, and there are also detailed definitions and explanations of words’ origins and histories. A $1.99 upgrade even provides rhymes.
4. Art Authority
Platform: Apple (iPhone, $4.99, iPad, $9.99)
Browse the world’s most famous collections from the comfort of your living room with this virtual museum. It can guide you through themed tours and retrospectives of more than 60,000 artworks from well over 1,000 artists from ancient times to today. You can even purchase high-quality reproductions to hang on your wall. One downside for eclectic art fans: The app is focused on Western fine art.
Business and Politics
1. Congress (Android, Windows) aka Real Time Congress (Apple)
Platform: Apple, Android, Windows (free)
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation has produced this superb guide to the legislative process. Live updates from the House and Senate floors, hearings and key documents make it a great way to keep up with governmental goings-on.
2. Settle It!
Platform: Apple (free)
Be warned: This app could cause fights (or end them). Using the Pulitzer Prize–winning PolitiFact database, Settle It! sorts truth from speculation and innuendo, whether in campaign ads or everyday conversations. Search facts by name, keyword or subject, then test your knowledge with a Truth-O-Meter challenge.
3. Sitegeist
Platform: Apple, Android (free)
This beautifully designed app breaks down into easily digested chunks local data as diverse as demographics, home values, weather trends, household income, political donations, popular restaurants and tourist sights.
Platform: Apple, Android, BlackBerry (free)
Between earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, fires, floods and blizzards, few regions of the country are immune from natural disasters. This is a useful app to have on your phone should the worst happen — or just to prepare your family before it does. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has gathered a checklist for emergency kits and information on how to stay safe, and will include directions to safe shelters and meeting places nationwide should danger strike.
Math, Science and Nature
1. Leafsnap
Platform: Apple (free)
This simple app turns your smartphone into a park ranger. Take a photo of a leaf and use its visual-recognition software to identify what species of tree it came from. The database is currently limited to northeastern species, but it should soon expand to include all trees in the continental United States.
2. The Night Sky
Platform: Apple, Android ($.99)
Expand your familiarity with the constellations beyond the Big Dipper. This app (and others like it) use your phone’s GPS and compass to present a detailed star chart. Just hold your phone up to the sky to observe the stars, planets, comets and even satellites above you. Cleverly, the app shifts into a “red screen” mode, which doesn’t dilate your pupils the way a bright display would and helps you see at night.
3. Audubon Birds
Platform: Apple ($2.99), Android ($14.99)
The National Audubon Society has a range of apps covering mammals, flowers, mushrooms, insects and more. This one has spotters’ guides for some 800 American birds, thousands of images and more than eight hours of bird-call audio. An “eBird” locator even draws on university databases to report the latest avian sightings in your area.
4. Wolfram Alpha
Platform: Apple, Android, Kindle Fire, Nook ($2.99)
Anyone interested in science should download this app immediately. It’s a math machine, an interactive physics textbook and a science computer all in one. You can convert units and currencies, track unemployment figures, explore DNA or even compare dinosaurs in a flash. It’s arguably the single best reference smartphone app available, and I find some reason to use it almost every day.
Mark E. Harris is an award-winning British science, technology and lifestyle journalist based in Seattle. He also writes for The Economist, The Sunday Times and Wired UK. He tweets from @meharris.

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