5 iPhone Apps to Help You Keep Your New Year's Resolutions

As we welcome another year, many of our readers are making resolutions to improve themselves. We've rounded up five iPhone apps (plus bonus apps, many of them free) to help you keep your New Year's Resolutions. Read on, if you dare....

1. Get In Shape

So you're a couch potato. 2008 was full of so much awesome TV and other passive entertainment that you packed on the pounds and really let your muscle tone go. Abs? What are those? You just have fabs, the squishy, huggable ab substitute. You need to get fit!

Well, iFitness ($1.99) is here to rescue you. The most popular fitness app on the iPhone, iFitness boasts over a hundred illustrated exercises, with visual aids as well as text descriptions; a log for keeping track of reps and weight; and the ability to create workouts that combine exercises. It's actually kind of a neat way to do exercise, reminiscent of Wii Fit -- by adding a layer of nerdily obsessive goal-tracking, you just might make exercise fun!

Other best bets: Lose It! (free), an app for tracking calories; iWorkout Lite (free), a video-based workout app that includes a basic pedometer function; Yoga STRETCH ($1.99), a beautifully designed yoga instruction app, and iMapMyRun (free), a tool to map your run route using GPS.

2. Reduce Your Spending

Credits cards have just one flaw: that pesky bill that comes at the end of the month. When the Global Economic Downturn hit, many of us tightened our belts just a bit. But it can be hard to track whether you're succeeding in cutting spending. Why not nerd out with an awesome free iPhone app that'll track your budget and automatically import your spending habits via online banking features?

Mint (free) is a pretty remarkable app for tracking your spending...until the next bill comes. Unlike other apps (like Quicken, the app I've tried five times to start using, and failed each time because it seemed like too much work), Mint does not require you to input your transactions. Instead, it pulls them from your online banking sites and then displays them in an iPhone-friendly view. You can view budgets, spending at individual merchants (I'm looking at you, Amazon), investments, and even retirement savings. It's really worth a look.

Mint screenshot

Other personal finance apps: Bloomberg Mobile (free) for tracking stocks; Trip Cubby - Mileage Log ($9.99) for tracking mileage for tax deductions; and Bank of America Mobile Banking (free) for BoA customers (...except those in Washington and Idaho, for some reason).

3. Educate Yourself With Awesome Lectures

If you read the mental_floss blog, you've seen me linking to lots of TED Talks over the years. TED stands for Technology, Education, and Design; it's a slightly fancy-pants conference in which smart people give smart talks to a smart audience. But maybe you haven't spent enough time with TED to really enrich your life. Wouldn't it be nice to have TED in your pocket at all times? (Note: statement does not apply to Ted, the pocket-sized hamster who eats your keys.)

TED Talks are available online and as podcasts. But there's another way to get them when you're on the go: the TED App (free). You can watch video or just listen to the audio, search for topics, and even save favorites. There are tons of great TED Talks out there: I recommend searching for Nicholas Negroponte (the visionary behind One Laptop Per Child), a talk about the Bonobo (see an ape build a fire, write, and understand spoken English), and Will Wright (for a great demo of Spore).

TED Screenshot

Other best bets in the educational arena: GRE Word Lite (free), an app with a small set of GRE study words (there's also a paid version with lots more); NPR Mobile (free), an app for tuning into virtually any NPR program segment (!!!); Stars (free), an app that displays constellations; and iSign Lite (free), an app that shows you some basic ASL (American Sign Language).

4. Read a Great Book

Admit it: you haven't been reading as much as you'd like to. You might also cop to never having read the classics...or actually, you just haven't read any books at all. In fact, you're probably not reading this blog right now. So let's get reading!

There are many great book-reading apps for the iPhone. While the iPhone's reading experience isn't as good as either a real book or an Amazon Kindle, it's still surprisingly decent, especially if you're crammed into an airplane, bus, or other unpleasant public transit experience. By combining a book reading application with the built-in iPod playing in the background, you can easily get lost in a book.

The best Book-reading app for the iPhone is Stanza (free). It offers a wide variety of free content, including "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" -- which is also a paid app elsewhere in the iTunes Store, but is in Stanza for free. Many classic works by Poe, Shakespeare, Wilde, Carroll, Wodehouse, and more are available -- so you can get started with free, high-quality books. There are also paid books available, should you desire to read Twilight or Blink on your phone.

Stanza screenshot

More best bets in Books: Classics ($4.99), a beautifully rendered book-reader for a limited set of classic books; The King James Bible (free), just what it says it is; and iPhone: The Missing Manual ($4.99), a surprisingly good reference to the iPhone's functions written by New York Times columnist David Pogue.

5. Eat Better

I'm blessed with an abundance of awesome restaurants in my neighborhood. I've even got a late-night food cart area right around the block -- and we're talking fancy gourmet carts, not crappy ones. But when I'm traveling, I like to find good food, rather than resorting to chains. Here's where Zagat To Go '09 ($9.99) comes in.

The Zagat app offers, of course, restaurant reviews. But it adds restaurant photos, GPS support (to find nearby restaurants), an easy way to make reservations, and "best of" lists in many cities. You can even search and sort by type of food, average cost, or quality of service. While there are several user interface problems (for example, scrolling is slow, and the "email a restaurant" function crashed for me), the core content is useful, and probably worth the ten bucks if you're a foodie.

Zagat To Go screenshot

Other best bets in Food: Restaurant Nutrition (free), an app with nutrition information from many chains; and Weightbot ($0.99), a weight tracking robot.

What Did We Miss?

This roundup only covered a few of the New Year's Resolutions you might have made this year...what did we miss? Suggest more apps (or resolutions) in the comments. We're also curious what apps you use on the Blackberry or Android to achieve similar goals!


These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years

Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.


Rosé Wine Glass

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon


Nerf SurgeFire

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop



Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon


Doughnut float

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon


American flag spatula

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon


MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon


metal fire pit

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon


Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon


Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon


Vintage Snow Cone Maker

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon


Dog Corn Holders

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon


Ice Cream Sandwich Maker

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon


Bluetooth speaker

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon


Rollors Backyard Game

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174


Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon


Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon


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