10 must-have free BlackBerry apps

These useful freebies range from an RSS feed reader to speech recognition software to instant messaging

Your BlackBerry might be plenty powerful out of the box, but there are hundreds of third-party applications out there that can make the device even more useful.

Adding the apps to your BlackBerry is a breeze, because they can all be installed "over the air," either by visiting the app's site with your BlackBerry's built-in browser and downloading the file directly, or by having an e-mail sent to your BlackBerry with a direct download link.

[ Read the InfoWorld Test Center's review of the BlackBerry Storm. Or to learn more about which software programs now run on Apple's mobile device, see "iPhone apps get down to business." ]

Even better, some of the best of these apps are totally free. Here are 10 of the best free apps available for your BlackBerry.

Viigo

Viigo is a full-featured RSS feed reader that lets you read your favorite feeds and keep up with important news wherever your day takes you.

You can add your own feeds (Viigo's auto-detect function can discover the feed address for most Web sites), but Viigo also comes well equipped with a variety of tech, politics, sports, weather, and other feeds.

Preconfigured feeds also allow you to easily set up traffic alerts; stay up to date with flight information; and track packages from UPS, the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, and DHL. The new version, now in beta testing, adds support for custom search alerts and even podcasts.

Vlingo

Although recent BlackBerrys support voice dialing, the speech-recognition app Vlingo goes far beyond dialing numbers from your address book.

Using only your voice, you can run Web searches ("Find post offices in Punxsutawney"), launch built-in BlackBerry applications ("Open Calendar"), compose e-mails, and send text messages.

The transcriptions tend to be very good, so you don't have to worry about double-checking before sending. Vlingo takes over the application key on the side of your BlackBerry, making it easy to access even while driving.

Google Mobile

Access the entire suite of Google's mobile-friendly services in one place with Google Mobile. A single interface gives you one-stop access to Google's Gmail and Maps applications (the latter of which can integrate with your built-in GPS tool, if your BlackBerry has one).

It also includes links to Web services including search, Google News, Google Reader, Google Docs (which is read-only on mobile devices), Picasa photos, and your Google Notebook, all of which open in your BlackBerry's built-in Web browser. Google Mobile also includes the Google Sync service, which allows two-way synchronization between your BlackBerry's built-in calendar and the Web-based Google Calendar.

BBNotePad

Packing a little more oomph than your BlackBerry's built-in MemoPad, BBNotePad is a plain text editor that allows you to write full-length documents or even code wherever you might be.

BBNotePad sports three text sizes for tired eyes, and it saves files as .txt files that can be opened directly on any computer, saving to either your BlackBerry's internal memory or on your removable flash card. It's very useful for sending notes and memos over Bluetooth to other handheld devices.

GridMagic Community Edition

Whether you need to run complex calculations or simply need to organize some information into a table, GridMagic Community Edition from the Simprit Free Software Community lets you create spreadsheets on the move.

GridMagic supports a wide range of mathematical functions, and lets you add formatting to keep everything clear and readable. Typical spreadsheet functions like freeze panes, select by row or column, and copy-and-paste are also available. Spreadsheets can be e-mailed as Excel .xls attachments via a new menu item in the BlackBerry's built-in e-mail composition screen.

Opera Mini

Although a Web browser is included with your BlackBerry, the built-in browser's lack of power and features gives you a limited view of the Web at best. Opera Software's Opera Mini browser allows you to surf standard Web pages and renders quickly and accurately.

The secret of Opera Mini's success is that it processes page requests through Opera's servers, offloading much of the page processing away from your BlackBerry. Its caching is especially good, allowing almost instant return to the previous page; that's useful for checking out Web search results, for example.

Opera Mini includes excellent bookmark features, as well as the ability to view pages as they would appear on a full-size computer screen, zooming in and out with a click of the track wheel.

Mobipocket Reader

You'll always have something to read with Mobipocket's e-book reader. Text is easy to read, even on a BlackBerry's small screen, and you can add your own annotations as you go.

Mobipocket offers a wide range of titles for purchase through its store (which can be accessed on your PC or directly from your BlackBerry), but the .mobi format is a standard offered by most e-book sellers.

What's more, you can use the desktop software to convert documents from PDF, HTML and most word processing file formats to load on your BlackBerry, making Mobipocket Reader ideal for reviewing work and personal documents in addition to e-books.

iSkoot

Send and receive Skype calls on your BlackBerry using iSkoot's excellent Skype client. Sound quality is better than you'd expect -- even on slower 2G Internet connections -- and iSkoot's tabbed interface makes navigating your contacts list easy. ISkoot also allows you to chat by text, if you prefer.

It also integrates nicely with your BlackBerry's regular phone settings, using your existing ring tones and the BlackBerry call log.

The program is not only free to download and install, but there's no additional charge for sending and receiving calls to and from non-Skype numbers. (Normal SkypeIn and SkypeOut charges apply.)

TwitterBerry

Don't fall out of the Twitter loop when you're away from the computer. TwitterBerry from Orangatame Software lets you read all the latest tweets from your Twitter friends, plus you can send tweets, read and write direct messages, and view your @ replies.

Menu items let you call up your BlackBerry's spell checker (so you don't embarrass yourself) and insert symbols easily (so you can make the most of your 140 characters). You can also view your friends' timelines individually, as well as the public timeline of all Twitter users.

(Need tips for using Twitter? See "Twitter for business: 5 ways to tap the power of the tweet." )

WebMessenger

CallWave's WebMessenger lets you chat with friends or business contacts on the most popular IM networks.

You'll need to create a single "master" account to log into the software, but once logged in to WebMessenger, you can log in to your existing accounts with AOL, Google, ICQ, Jabber, MSN, Skype, or Yahoo.

WebMessenger downloads your buddy lists so you can see at a glance who's online and start chatting almost instantly. Depending on the abilities of each particular network, you can create chat groups, send messages to multiple recipients, and add or remove contacts, just as you would with a desktop client -- making WebMessenger a solid alternative to desktop chatting.

Have your say:What are your favorite BlackBerry apps? Tell us in the article comments.

Logan Kugler is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has written about technology and business for more than 30 national magazines including MacLife, PC Magazine, Success, and Advertising Age. You can reach him at logankugler@gmail.com.

Computerworld is an InfoWorld affiliate.

This story, "10 must-have free BlackBerry apps" was originally published by Computerworld.

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