iPad apps: utilities you need

Utilities are the vegetables of the software world -- not fun, rarely pretty, but gosh darnit, they're good for you. Whether they're checking that your new TV has been mounted square on the wall, crunching your numbers, getting you up in the morning, or keeping track of your mad ramblings in the middle of the night, these little bundles of binary joy can save your job (or your marriage) every time an iPad game almost destroys it. We've taken a close look at a few of the utilities available to iPad owners in the first volley of native, high-resolution apps for the platform and come away with a few winners -- and even better, some of these suckers come at absolutely no cost to you. Follow the break for the full rundown -- and don't forget to check the rest of our app roundups after you're done!

Calculator ($0.99) - Among the notably missing apps on the iPad out of the box is a proper calculator app, a glaring deficiency that third-party devs have been more than happy to patch up in time for launch day. The aptly-named Calculator is little more than your basic four-function ordeal, but they've seriously turned up the style dial -- set the iPad on your desk with the app open, and it looks like you've got an Apple-designed calculator resting in the middle of a typical cluttered work area. You might say that 99 cents is 99 cents too much to pay for a four-function calculator, but have faith: the developer says that it's almost done with a major update that'll add scientific functions and some sort of freehand doodling capability. [See in iTunes]

Clinometer HD (free for a limited time) - Anyone who's shelled out a buck for Clinometer on the iPhone will feel right at home with Clinometer HD, which is being promoted for free until the developer gets around to releasing a universal version capable of working on both platforms. This kind of app probably isn't quite as handy in a device this size as it is in an iPhone, but for what it's worth, Clinometer HD is very pretty and offers considerably more configurability than you'll find in your average store-bought bubble level -- you can change the color of both the dial and the bubble (more on this in a second), set up custom calibration, and choose from no fewer than five units of measurement. Holding the iPad on its edge (either landscape or portrait) shows the slope dial, while setting it flat converts the app into a three-axis bubble level. Our only real complaint is that the dial switches orientations by default, so as you move past 45 degrees it sort of blindsides you by changing orientations and the scale of the dial -- but that's what the iPad's orientation lock is for, right? [See in iTunes]

Compass HD (free for a limited time) - Did you know there's a magnetic compass inside the iPad? From the same company as Clinometer HD comes Compass HD, which -- you guessed it -- offers up magnetic compass functionality, but it also integrates the iPad's accelerometers to double as a g-meter (you can change modes using the tabs at the bottom of the app). We'd argue that this one isn't quite as pretty (nor as useful) as Clinometer HD, but it offers array of options for changing between relative and absolute modes, viewing acceleration values from individual axes, and toggling compass types, which should make it a must-grab for... you know, compass nerds. It's free until the developer updates the app to an iPad / iPhone universal binary. [See in iTunes]

PCalc Lite (free) - This calculator may not be quite as pretty as Calculator (which we discussed earlier) -- but what it lacks in fashion, it makes up in raw utility. PCCalc Lite is scientific out of the gate, offers a variety of themes, supports RPN (if you're into that sort of thing) and can even be toggled between a segmented display and a more traditional screen font. It also has built-in unit conversions and offers a variety of in-app purchases -- this is how these guys want to make their money -- if you need more obscure conversions, more themes, multi-line support, programming and engineering modes, and more. You can buy all the upgrade packs for $9.99, but the Lite version works just fine for basic day-to-day use. [See in iTunes]

SketchPad HD ($0.99) - Look at this one as the iPad's built-in Notes app on steroids; it's not a full-fledged sketch app, nor a full-featured word processor, it's just a slightly better version of Notes -- the application that Apple really should've included in the box. You can toggle between text and doodling modes, change the color of the doodles, and choose between four paper types -- white ruled, yellow ruled, graphing paper, and blank white. It's a tad buggy right now -- the mail button at the top doesn't do anything, and we'd love if you could change fonts or font color -- but at 99 cents, we'd still gladly take this over Notes as-is. [See in iTunes]

Update: The developer wrote us to let us know that you only get a weird message after hitting the email button if you don't have email configured on your iPad -- makes sense (we'd been using the Gmail web app exclusively). They plan on replacing it with a friendlier error message in a future version.

Pad Mouse ($3.99) - Being big fans of RPA's Mobile Air Mouse, we were fairly stoked to see that it's gotten an iPad-centric big brother in the form of Pad Mouse. If you're not familiar with the concept, MAM (and Pad Mouse) turn your device into a trackpad, keyboard, and app-specific remote for a desktop (in our case, an HTPC setup). Mobile Air Mouse works nearly flawlessly in most scenarios, so we expected the same from Pad Mouse. In most cases, this was true. As a trackpad it was fairly accurate for most tasks, giving you a large surface area to work on, scroll bars on either side of the screen, and allowing for left- and right-click actions via multitouch. The app also adds an additional mirror of your Mac's dock along the bottom of the iPad, so you can launch or switch apps with ease. Its app-specific controls (like a remote for VLC) are also excellent -- turning that big surface into a clear and simple remote for a handful of programs you know and love. We did have an issue with the command (Apple) key not functioning properly in tandem with the keyboard, but RPA is usually quick to update. Overall Pad Mouse is fantastic if you're trading up from your iPhone or iPod touch to the iPad for remote activities. [See in iTunes]

Synotes Slate ($1.99) - The theory of Synotes is sound -- sync your notes with maker Syncode's servers so that you can see them across devices and never worry about data loss -- but in practice, the iPad implementation is a little buggy and a little light on features. There's no doodling capability (despite the presence of a pen-shaped icon that you tap to enter edit mode), you can't change font styles or paper types, and the app crashes every time we hit the email button, but the note management capabilities are pretty robust; you can assign different icons from a big library to each of your notes and view edit histories, and of course, your notes are whisked away to the cloud. If you could combine SketchPad HD's editing capabilities with Synote's back end, you'd be in business. [See in iTunes]

Voice Memos (free) - Along with the calculator, the voice recorder is another major app glaringly missing from the iPad's stock load, but the good news is that Voice Memos is absolutely free and closely approximates the iPhone experience (right down to the giant old-school mic in the middle of the screen). It's super basic -- it just takes recordings and files them into a drop-down accessed from the upper left of the screen -- but it works great, and you can tag individual recordings as podcasts, interviews, lectures, and so on. On a related note: the iPad's mic has stellar fidelity, it turns out. Super usable for an app like this. [See in iTunes]

Night Stand HD ($2.99) - As long as you've got a safe, solid way to prop it up, the iPad makes a stellar alarm clock... only problem is, there's no full-screen clock built in. There's where Night Stand HD comes into play. It's not the only full-screen clock for the iPad in the App Store -- far from it -- but it's best-looking, most solid one we've tested, including seven skins (yes, binary and analog choices are in there) and a great alarm option that forced you to correctly answer a simple math question before killing the buzzer. There's not a lot to this app, but if you plan on doing a lot of traveling with your iPad -- and you distrust those hotel alarm clocks as much as we do -- something like this is a must. [See in iTunes]

Ruler App XL ($0.99) - It's exactly what you think it is. Useless? On a smaller device, maybe, but the iPad's big enough to make measuring everyday objects totally doable (don't get any crazy ideas). Ruler App XL's got a full-screen mode that's available in both orientations, can be configured with one of four color schemes, has metric and imperial settings, and can optionally show a highlighted line at a demarcation of your choosing. Not bad, but considering how basic the app really is and the fact that it's not free, we're hoping to see some updates -- we'd like more color choices and an option for as many highlighted lines as we want. Oh, and we'd love to see the tacky in-app button to the developer's website go away. [See in iTunes]

Delivery Status Touch ($4.99) - We can say, on no uncertain terms, that this $5 purchase is an absolute must if you manage a lot of shipments, regardless of whether you're on the sending or receiving end. Basically, you've got a configurable list of shipments on the left -- Delivery Status supports a dizzying array of account number types, including all the major shipping lines and a host of retailers -- and tapping on each added entry will show you the shipment's current status on the right with a map and textual information underneath. It's overkill if you order a book from Amazon every couple months, but if you've got a constant stream of parcels coming into and out of your facility, this bad boy represents the prettiest way to keep track of it all. You can also sync your data with developer Junecloud's servers so it's safe -- and so that you can keep tabs from a number of devices at once. [See in iTunes]