So you've picked out a shiny new laptop, tablet or phone to take with you to school this year. Well, it's nothing without some apps. Your hardware may come with the basics, but there's a whole world of tools for creating things, getting organized, tracking your life and -- in some cases -- just staying sane. (That's easier said than done come finals time.) Our top choices here will help you get your life in order and also exercise those all-important creativity muscles. You may not be going after a degree in music production, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't stay up all night jamming in Ableton Live.
All told, we've got picks for visual art, photo editing, meditating, getting better sleep, making an album in your dorm room, writing the next great novel (or term paper) and much more. We've also tried to cover a variety of price points -- in fact, many of these apps are free, at least to start. But in a lot of cases, stepping up to a premium subscription or full purchase will make them that much more useful, so we've outlined exactly what you get for your money and what you can get before you have to pay.
Ableton Live 10
If you're majoring in music or just have a passion for making it, you'll want a digital audio workstation. We think the best choice is Ableton Live: It's packed with software instruments and effects, and it sports a clean modern design. It's also intuitive to use; the "session" view in particular is ideal for live performance and exploring combinations of loops, riffs and rhythms. And Live 10 adds a handy feature that will "capture" your jams even if you forget to hit record.
That said, even with a hefty 40 percent education discount, Ableton Live isn't cheap. Live Standard costs $269, but if you can afford it (and are serious about your music), consider springing for the $449 Live Suite. It has three times the instruments, more than double the number of presets and samples, and more than 30 additional effects. Perhaps most important, it comes packed with Max for Live. Max is a powerful development tool that can be used to create new instruments and effects, control external instruments, or control almost any knob and button on your screen.
-- Terrence O'Brien, Managing Editor
Adobe Creative Cloud Photography
If you're taking digital art classes or just enjoy snapping pictures in your off-hours, Adobe's Creative Cloud Photography subscription could be vital, not to mention a good deal. Pay $10 per month and you'll get the latest versions of Photoshop for advanced editing, Lightroom for managing your class photo projects and Spark to create your web portfolios and highlight videos. And you should strongly consider the Creative Cloud All Apps plan if you think you'll need tools like Illustrator or Premiere, as students get a huge discount over the usual rate, at $30 per month.
-- Jon Fingas, Contributing Editor
Elf Audio Koala
There are all kinds of beat-making apps out there, and they range from basic to advanced. They can also be expensive if you include synthesizer apps in your search. For less than $5, you can kickstart an audio-production hobby with a piece of software for your iPhone or iPad. The Koala sampler lets you record noises with your device's microphone that you can turn into beats. Your voice, claps, stomps and more become the basis for samples and loops. Beyond being easy to use, you can make something in a matter of minutes -- even if it's your first time using the app.
Koala allows you to track up to 64 samples, tweaking them how you see fit thanks to built-in effects. There's also a keyboard mode so you can play chromatically or use one of nine scales. When you have something you like, there's the ability to save WAV files or export to Ableton Live Set, or you can use a MIDI controller to play them. If you want to use more than the noise you can capture on your phone's mic, Koala also allows importing from the iOS Files app. That's a lot of music-production tools in an easy-to-use app -- let alone one that only costs you $3.99. And when you don't have the space (or money) for a robust setup, apps are your best bet.
-- Billy Steele, Senior News Editor
We love pen and paper as much as the next person, but we highly recommend you transfer your hand-scrawled notes to a digital note-taking app for posterity. And Evernote is still one of our favorites. It works on any platform, has checklists and reminders, and can scan text in photos to make it searchable. It's a must-have for collecting research and organizing your thoughts before sitting down to write a paper or start a project.
Evernote is free, but a premium subscription could be worth it, at $70 per year. That lets you search text inside attached documents like PDFs and Word files. You can even mark up those PDFs to highlight the important material. Plus, as a student, you get a steep 50 percent discount, which makes it almost a no-brainer. -- T.O.
Headspace: Mediation & Sleep
The world is going to hell in a handbasket. And the fact that you waited until the absolute last minute to start cramming for your philosophy midterm isn't helping. In short: Life is stressful. One way to manage that stress and avoid burnout is to meditate. There are tons of apps out there for guided meditation, but we especially like Headspace. It's available on mobile and desktop, and it works with Google Home- and Alexa-powered devices as well.
We dig the simple explanations and cute animations that make meditation feel approachable. And once you're finished with the basics, there are lessons focused on creativity, motivation and improving self-esteem, just in case anxiety isn't the only reason you need to take a breather. There's plenty of free content in the app, though some of it is for subscribers only. Plans cost either $13 monthly or $96 for a year. But students get a pretty incredible discount: $9.99 per year. That's less than that gym membership you never use. -- T.O.
Between class assignments, extracurriculars and campus social life, college can be overwhelming. Now's the time to learn balance, and meditation is an increasingly popular way to build downtime into jam-packed days. The Insight Timer app stands out because you have free access to thousands of guided meditations, whereas most platforms, like Headspace and Calm, only open up a fraction of their library to nonsubscribers. Insight has a premium tier for $5 per month that includes offline listening -- the same price as Calm but less than Headspace, which is $96 per year. Insight also has a simple but effective meditation timer if that's all you need.
-- Chris Ip, Associate Features Editor
Outlining an essay can quickly devolve into a jumble of notes, research and nixed outlines. Scrivener is an app for writing, but more importantly it's an app for organizing your thoughts and sources in one window. The features get granular: You can break your essay down into tiny pieces to rearrange, storyboard it with virtual index cards and go into a minimalist "composition mode" for actual writing. But just compiling and searching everything you need for that term paper or thesis in one spot is a level up on your standard writing app. With a discount for students, Scrivener costs $38.25 for Windows and $41.65 for macOS. -- C.I.
Pixelmator Photos (iOS) / Pixelmator Pro (Mac)
Back when Adobe's Photoshop cost hundreds of dollars, Pixelmator was an affordable and powerful alternative. Now the company has two excellent apps: Pixelmator Pro for the Mac and Pixelmator Photo for the iPad. Pixelmator Pro has a simple, one-window design that hides its power; the app is equally suited to working with illustration, painting and photo editing, thanks to support for external drawing tablets. Naturally, it has nondestructive editing features, and you can save your favorite set of adjustments as a "recipe" and share it with friends if they're clamoring to bring your vibe to their photos. And if you use Apple's built-in Photos app for organization, you can have it open an image in Pixelmator Pro, make some edits and sync everything back to your main library.
As its name suggests, Pixelmator Photo for the iPad is focused on, well, photos. With support for RAW images, it's good for a lot more than just editing shots from your iPhone. Like its Mac sibling, Pixelmator Photo uses machine learning to help perfect your edits and crops -- it's even smart enough to let you remove unwanted objects in your image, recreating the missing background with startling accuracy. Adobe may have promised Photoshop for the iPad this year, but why wait when you can get Pixelmator Photo for five bucks right now?
-- Nathan Ingraham, Deputy Managing Editor
Procreate / Procreate Pocket
If you're an artist who likes using the Apple Pencil, Procreate should be well worth your $10. It invariably shows up on any list of the best iPad drawing apps, and with good reason. The app skillfully re-creates traditional tools like oil pastels, charcoal, pencil, watercolors and many more. If the built-in tools aren't quite what you're looking for, Procreate lets you built your own, as well. You can draw using all of these with the Apple Pencil, and you can also use the touchscreen to "smudge" or blur your artwork, just like you could in real life.
Procreate has a robust export system, letting you bounce your creation to PSD, TIFF, PDF, web-ready JPG and many more formats. A recent update added a robust text-creation framework, which lets you import your favorite fonts and add typography to your creation quickly. There's also a time-lapse recording of your creations, so if you want to give fans an inside look at how your latest masterpiece came together, the app will do that too. There may be plenty of good, free drawing tools in the App Store, but it's hard to say that Procreate isn't worth the money. -- N.I.
There are tons of apps out there for taking notes, but if you use Apple hardware, Bear is among the best. Whether you're using it on a Mac, iPad or iPhone, it exudes polish and simplicity. The default three-column view gives you a look at all of your tags, notes and whatever you're currently writing, but you can switch to a single window when you want to focus on the words. Beyond this simple writing view, Bear hides a lot of customization.
Instead of organizing notes into folders, you can add as many tags as you want as you type by throwing a hashtag symbol in front of a word. And if you really want to get crazy, you can infinitely nest tags, creating an organizational system as complex as your heart desires. Bear also lets you link notes to one another, so you can click back and forth between a document full of research and one containing the draft of your term paper. There are also a host of different themes, fonts and styles to use in Bear, and you can export your notes to plain text, Markdown, Word docs, PDFs and many more formats. Bear's free version is quite robust on its own, but a $1.50-per-month or $15-per-year subscription unlocks a number of additional features, including syncing between all of your Apple devices.
Better sleep means better mental performance. One of the easiest ways to regulate rest is with a simple tracker like the free app Sleep Cycle. It works like this: You set the time you want to wake up and leave your phone on the nightstand. The app uses the phone's mic (or accelerometer, if you secure the phone to your mattress) to monitor your motion, thus tracking which of the five stages of sleep you're in. It will then gently wake you within a 30-minute window before your desired time, when you're in your lightest phase of sleep. It's a seamless replacement for your alarm app but with plenty more under the hood. -- C.I.
A to-do app is almost a necessity when you have to juggle school, work and a social life. Todoist is one of the best, especially if you rely on Gmail to communicate with classmates and colleagues. You can add tasks from within Gmail on Chrome by clicking the Todoist icon directly above an email -- the entry will consist of the email subject and a link to the email itself, though you can manually type out more details if you wish.
Todoist also has mobile apps you can check while you're out running errands and browser extensions that make it easy to add any webpage as a task. Plus, it has Apple Watch and Wear OS apps, so you don't even have to look at your phone. Additionally, there's a premium version with some nice perks, like setting exact date, time and location reminders and creating automatic backups and your own labels. While you can get by with the free version, the $3-per-month premium option might be worth it if you need the additional features to help manage your hectic schedule.
-- Mariella Moon, Contributing Editor