The Apps That Made the Apple iPad

By Christopher Phin on at

Exactly five years ago, Apple released the iPad, and like the iPod and iPhone before it, it quickly came to define its market. Apple had learnt lessons from the iPhone, so of course the iPad could run third-party applications from day one – but which applications came to define each generation of iPad?

We're going to look at the apps and games that showcased each iPad’s abilities, or the apps that were so simple and addictive that they completely took over the nation’s Apple tablets for a season. Here are our suggestions, but we’d love to hear your suggestions too in the comments below!


At the same event where it unveiled the iPad, Apple also introduced the world to the iWork suite of office apps for iPad too – Pages, Keynote and Numbers. This was smart; for whatever reason, Microsoft Office wasn’t available (indeed, wouldn’t be available for over four years) but Apple could say to its existing fans that the productivity apps they already knew and loved were available on this new, unproven platform, and reassure potential new customers that they’d have at least some way of doing ‘real work’.

The first-gen iPad also brought Flipboard, the app for creating custom ‘newspapers’ from social channels and curated feeds, and about which countless column inches were written, simultaneously hailing it as the death-knell for, and saviour of, magazine journalism.

And who would forget Angry Birds HD? Today many are heartily sick of the merchandise and the endless grind of variants on the original theme, but back in 2010 we sank entire days into flinging aggrieved avians around the iPad’s roomy screen. This was a game made for touch, and we couldn’t keep our hands off it.

iPad 2

Again, it was Apple’s own apps that really shone on this, the second iPad. In fact, even today, one of them is a breathtaking example of ambition – and of ambition met. We’re talking about GarageBand, the iPad version of Apple’s music authoring application.

Like on the Mac you had multiple tracks, loops and software instruments, and you could completely lose yourself in an evening of noodling and making music, even if you had no formal training. It really was a go-anywhere recording studio, and you have to admire Apple’s cleverness in using the accelerometer to make the software instruments velocity-sensitive (even if in the same breath you have to acknowledge that it didn’t work terribly well).

Alongside the iPad 2, Apple also introduced iMovie for the iPad. It had existed before for the iPhone 4, but even though the iPad 2’s cameras were a bit rubbish – and despite anyone caught using an iPad to film being roundly vilified — editing in iMovie on the iPad’s bigger screen was much easier.

Apple didn’t get all the limelight, though. Infinity Blade, the on-rails fighting game, also looked stunning and played astonishingly well on the iPad 2. It arrived just before the iPad 2 did, but the iPad 2’s A5 processor really made it stand out. These days, the original Infinity Blade’s graphics look a bit ropey, but back then they blew us all away – and hinted that it might not be long till mobile gaming would no longer be synonymous with low-res, crappy graphics.

iPad 3

Procreate, the stunning and polished painting and natural media app looked positively glorious on this, the first iPad with a Retina screen. For many, it was the point at which the iPad looked like it might be a legitimate tool for producing actual artwork, not just little preliminary sketches.

Not everyone’s an artist, of course, but everyone could appreciate the BBC’s iPlayer app. Not only could you watch Doctor Who on the iPad's lovely big screen, but by now you could also sling it over AirPlay to an Apple TV to enjoy it on an even bigger one.

Tweetbot, still probably the best and most powerful Twitter client, had made it to the iPad by now too, and it looked stunning on the Retina Display. (It’s just a shame it still looks the same now, and hasn’t been updated to the flat, iOS 7 aesthetic.)

iPad 4

Although the iPad 4 didn’t look much different to its predecessor on the outside, under its skin the new A6X processor was capable of some amazing things. For example, although space combat game Galaxy on Fire 2 HD actually came out before the iPad 4, it was on the iPad 4 that it really came to life; the additional grunt of the A6X processor made everything buttery smooth, and so just a joy to play.

Around this time too we got obsessed with Contre Jour HD, which is about as far from the frenetic real-time pace of GoF as you can get. This was a slow, thoughtful physics puzzle game, and its dreamy, cinematic soundtrack helped lull you into a feeling of peace and contemplation. And again, it only really made sense on a touch screen, where you felt like you were directly manipulating the world.

The iPad 4’s power wasn’t just used for games, though. Propellerhead’s music-creation app Figure was updated to work with the iPad just a month after the iPad 4 was announced, and this was one of those astonishing, enabling apps that let anyone create something from nothing. You could dip into it for five minutes, or lose yourself in it for the entirety of a long-haul flight.

iPad mini

The iPad mini was basically the same size and weight as the second-generation Kindle, so it was a terrific little machine on which to read eBooks. Sure, you could use the Kindle app – and indeed most people did – but alongside the iPad mini’s introduction Apple also updated its own iBooks app, adding continuous scroll, better iCloud integration, sharing, and support for more languages. Whichever app you used, though, the mini was a terrific little eReader.

The mini’s portable, go-anywhere design also made it perfect for sessions on Letterpress during boring meetings. Ditto Hero Academy, a turn-based simple combat game for which the iPad mini’s screen size was perfect.

iPad Air

We had read comics on iPads before, of course, but it was with the iPad Air, with its slim profile and featherweight design, that comic-reading app ComiXology really flourished. Sure, comics fans got up in arms following its acquisition by Amazon, but there is still no bigger, broader platform for reading comics on your iPad; the form-factor and Retina screen of the Air is perfect for it.

The power and portability of the Air also meant that music mixing app djay 2 really shone, and despite IAP concerns, Real Racing 3 looked positively jaw-dropping and was enormous fun to play, especially with its new multiplayer option.

iPad mini 2

The iPad mini was always going to be a great sketchbook, but it was only when it got a Retina screen that it really came alive. Version 1.5 of Paper by FiftyThree especially made sense for the iPad mini 2, since it supported FiftyThree’s deceptively simple Pencil stylus.
The typography of word processor iA Writer Pro looked fabulous on the mini’s high-res screen too, and if you paired an iPad mini 2 with a Bluetooth keyboard you had a highly portable, powerful writing machine.

Of course, the iPad wasn’t just about producing stuff: WWF Together, which worked especially well on the small, intimate iPad mini 2, was a fantastic example of how to use tablets to immerse and engage yourself in important stories.

iPad Air 2

Finally, after the most recent generation of iPad hit, Microsoft introduced Office for iOS, bringing Word, Excel and PowerPoint to the iPad. It’s probably too little, too late for Microsoft: we spent nearly five years realising that we didn’t really need Office on our iPads. But it’s nevertheless true that as Apple makes its next big assault on the enterprise (through its partnership with IBM), having ‘proper Office’ on the iPad Air 2 makes it more appealing to corporates.

Typing a corporate report might be a waste of the Air 2’s power, but happily we have image editor Pixelmator to show that that grunt can be put to spectacular effect.
And if even that sounds too much like hard work, you could use your iPad Air 2 to lose yourself in the bewitching, enchanting, intriguing worlds of Monument Valley, one of the very best games of 2014 – indeed of the iPad’s entire lifetime.

So there are our suggestions for the apps and games that defined and showcased the best of what each generation of iPad could do, but we’ll bet you have you own too – let us have them in the comments!