Welcome to another weekly dose of mobile apps, everyone. You might have noticed that this week's post looks a little bit different to usual, as we've decided to go with a new format to try and make things more interesting.
Instead I'm going to take an in-depth look at a single app on the usual four platforms, rather than just a quick overview of many. I'm also including some extra recommendations too so that you've got some other things to browse, just without the the usual descriptions. The plan is, you'll now know truly what the very best apps are each week, rather than just a list of latest releases.
We are interested in what you, the Giz UK readers, have to say about the revamped format. Love it? Hate it? Couldn't care less? Drop a comment and let us know.
Android: Swytch (Free)
These days it's not uncommon to have multiple phone numbers for different things, and while it's possible to have more than on phone (or a mobile with multiple SIM cards) it's an awkward solution. But what if you could add an extra five numbers without having to constantly swap SIMs or making sure you have several devices fully charged? You can do that now, and Swytch is the app that makes it happen.
In addition to your standard number that lives on your SIM card, Swytch lets you add an extra five numbers to your phone while functioning just like a regular phone number. You can send and receive calls and texts as you would with any other pay-as-you-go phone number, but it just happens to come through the app itself rather than to your phone's default apps. Thankfully you can use your original number in Swytch as well, so you're not going to have to keep swapping between different apps to use your many different numbers.
One clear advantage is that everything is done over the internet, so you are still reachable on a UK line even if you're out of the country.
One thing that is interesting (and slightly annoying) is that using a Swytch number will apparently use up your usual minutes and texts allowance given to you by your mobile network while adding a small charge on for using the services. It's worth mentioning that this is just if you're sending the calls and texts, receiving them is still (sort of) free. According to the app's creators: "Using a Swytch number will not use up your usual minutes and texts allowance given to you by your mobile network. It will add a small charge on for outgoing calls and texts" but, "Swytch doesn’t charge a penny for receiving calls".
Using it is exactly the same as you would use any VoIP service, but before you can get in touch with someone it asks you which number you'd like to use. So it should be rather difficult to accidentally rack up a huge bill ringing people from the wrong number.
Using it is nice and simple. Calls pop up as they would with any phone app, and you're informed of texts by a push notification. According to someone I spoke to using the app, the line quality coming to them from my end wasn't great. This is likely down to the fact that I only had single bar of signal at the time; quality on my end was absolutely fine.
Here comes the topic nobody wants to hear about: money. At the moment every person who registers with Swytch will get six months free, but after that you will have to subscribe to continue using the service. The cost is £5 if you pay month by month, but Android users also have the option of paying in bulk. Six months will cost £15, and 12 months will cost £24. Plus, as I mentioned before, Swytch does charge you to send calls and texts at what it describes as 'local rates'. The app will show you the cost when you enter in a country code, and at the moment texts cost 6p to send and calls cost 4.7p a minute.
Swytch is also available on iOS.
iPhone: Betternet (Free)
There are an awful lot of advantages to using a virtual private network (VPN), such as extra privacy, security, or just to get around pesky geoblockers. The problem is that they all tend to cost money for extended use, which is hardly ideal. Not Betternet, though. Betternet is a VPN that's 100 per cent free.
It's also very simple to use. All you have to do once you've installed it is tap the big button on the screen and it'll get you connected. That said, the first time does need some set up. Fortunately everything is mostly done automatically, the only extra step you need to take is an extra tap when the app opens your iPhone's VPN menu.
But as we've learnt in the past, free VPNs can be a little bit sketchy *cough* Hola *cough*. So how does Betternet earn its money? In short, advertising. But it's not advertising that collects your personal information and sells it on, instead Betternet's money comes from adverts that offer free apps for you to download. It seems they get some money every time you install one of those apps.
At the moment Betternet is rather basic, and the one-touch service doesn't allow for any customisation. Essentially it means that by connecting to the VPN you are able to add a bit of extra security to your browsing habits and unblock certain websites that your network or ISP might not let you access (like torrent sites, for instance). What you can't do is choose or see where your host server is located, which makes it an inconsistent tool for accessing geolocked content. It's worth pointing out that if you luck out and manage to connect to a server in the country you wanted, it works perfectly. Thankfully, Betternet has confirmed that the option to choose server location is on its way.
It's a nice tool, it's completely free, and most importantly it doesn't go down the same road as other mobile VPNs by limiting how much data you access each month without signing up for a hefty subscription.
iPad: Shut Up: Comments Blocker (Free)
One of the big new features to arrive with Apple's iOS 9 was its content blocking tech, a feature which masks ads that would otherwise slow down loading times or unnecessarily use up data. But it isn't solely good for blocking adverts. One thing that you might not want to see, for whatever reason, is the comments section. A lot of websites have them, and they're not always good places to be.
So Shut Up: Comments Blocker use iOS 9's new feature to get rid of them all. Just load up the app and it will instigate a blanket ban on comments sections in Safari webpages. That means no YouTube flame wars, none of that pesky Disqus spam popping up everywhere you go, and no PS4TW.
Wait, no PS4TW? Don't we like PS4TW? Won't a blanket ban on all internet comments cause us to miss out on all sorts of hilarity and riveting debates? Yes it does, so it's a good thing Shut Up has a whitelist that ensures your favourite commenting communities will load unscathed. You just have to find the Whitelist section of the settings, and you can enter in the URL of sites you like to keep the comments on. Whether it's Facebook, Reddit, or Giz UK, we can't let all the toxic commenting communities that you have no interest in deprive you of the joy of complaining about how rubbish the iPhone 6S is.
Windows Phone: Lead Story (Free)
Getting a fix of news on mobile apps has been growing in popularity since the start of the age of the smartphone, and plenty of services have arrived to try and become people's go to app. Lead Story is the latest, and it brings in a very minimalistic no-nonsense approach.
The first thing I noticed about Lead Story was that, aside from asking your location for its 'local news' section, there isn't any sort of system to try and personalise the stories you see. That's slightly odd in this day and age, but that means it'll appeal to those of you who don't want your news content to be determined by a faceless algorithm.
The actual news content comes from a great many news outlets, all pulled in from Google News, and trims it down into a formatted text-based article for easy reading. This doesn't always work out too well, especially in the case of image captions that are left in place despite the fact that there are no images. They are, however, easily ignorable. The real issue comes from some of the articles that aren't pulled across from certain publications, specifically those locked behind paywalls. Not many of those come up, but you may come across one or two of them throughout your browsing.
The final point to mention is that you're not restricted to the topics that Lead Story has set by default. You can stick with those if you want, but there is a search function that lets you search for more specific topics. Topics that you can then bookmark for easy access later on. There's also a way to bookmark individual stories by long-pressing each one (un-favouriting them is done the same way).