Mobile Apps

Lumosity vs. Elevate: Battle of the brain-training apps

Apps that claim to exercise your brain are all the rage, but which is best?

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James Martin/CNET

Let's face it, Candy Crush probably isn't doing much to keep your brain sharp. If you can pry yourself away from it and other mindless games, your smartphone might actually be able to help you read better, react quicker, and remember people's names, all with the help of brain-training apps Lumosity and Elevate.

Brain training is hardly new; programs designed to exercise your mental abilities date back to the early 2000s. The idea became more mainstream in 2005, when Nintendo developed the game Brain Age for the Nintendo DS handheld console. Today, Lumosity is one of the top apps to exercise your brain with 50 million members, but it's not alone. Other programs like it are popping up in the app stores, including Fit Brains (which is made by Rosetta Stone), BrainHQ, and Elevate.

I recently reviewed Lumosity , and while I liked the idea behind the app, I felt the execution could be better. At the same time I tested Lumosity, I also played around with Elevate. That app focuses on a different set of skills than Lumosity, with an emphasis on writing, reading, and listening. Both apps have the same premise, but different designs and goals. I'm shining a light on those differences, to help you decide which brain-training app works better for you. In the end, I think Elevate comes out ahead, but I encourage you to make your own judgements.

Lumosity Elevate
Prices Free; $15/month or $80/year for premium membership Free; $5/month or $45/year for premium membership
Included features Daily training sessions with 3 games Daily training sessions with three games
Premium membership perks Three additional games in the app, 40 Web-based games, and progress-monitoring tools Eight extra games, for a total of twenty four total titles that you can play at anytime
App platforms Android, iOS Android, iOS
Online program Yes No

Design

Perhaps the biggest difference between Lumosity and Elevate is in the apps' design. Lumosity is much more minimal and understated, while Elevate is colorful and loud.

The difference can be seen in the app menus, but it's more noticeable in the games. Elevate uses a lot of moving cartoon-like objects, including nesting dolls, a flock of birds, and a spaceship in its games to show your progress. Lumosity, on the other hand, keeps things simple with muted colors and fewer animations. The result is that Lumosity can feel like an educational tool, while Elevate is much more like a mobile game.

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Lumosity (left) has a clean design, while Elevate is more whimsical. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

The games

Though both apps promise to give your brain a workout, that means something different to each company. Lumosity focuses it attention on your "core cognitive abilities," including memory, attention, problem-solving, and pattern recognition. Exercising those mental skills is supposed to help you in your real life, with tasks such as making decisions or remembering names.

Lumosity's games use patterns and shapes to train those skills in subtle ways. For example, in one game, you're asked to complete two simple calculations and determine which numerical answer is higher. The game is meant to test your math skills, sure, but it's also trying to help you make decisions faster. One of the downsides of Lumosity's mobile apps is that you only get three games for free, and that limited selection gets stale quickly. You can unlock three more games with a $15 per month, or $80 per year, premium subscription.

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Lumosity (left) focuses on training your memory and attention, while Elevate seeks to improve your communication skills. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Elevate takes a different approach by helping you hone how you speak, listen, write, and read. The games focus on reading comprehension, looking or listening for grammatical errors, and improving your vocabulary. The idea is to improve your overall communication skills, and help you process information easier.

Every Elevate game relies on either spoken or written text, instead of the shapes and patterns you'll find in Lumosity. In some games, you read a sentence or short paragraph to get rid of errors or improve the grammar, in others you're listening to or reading informative passages, and are tested on key facts from the text. Though the games sound like something you'd do in a high school English class, they are far more fun, challenging, and interesting than anything I was faced with in school. That's part of the magic with Elevate -- the games are short, sweet, and entertaining enough that you don't always feel like you're learning or exercising your brain, even when you are.

Elevate helps keep its training sessions fresh with 16 free games that change daily. You can unlock eight more games, and play all of the games at any time with an $5 per month (or $45 per year) premium subscription.

Do they work?

Brain training is a fun way to entertain your mind for a few minutes every day, but does it actually help improve how you think? Unfortunately, that's tough to say. Though scientists have tested the legitimacy and efficacy of Lumosity and other programs like it, there's still little conclusive evidence that they work.

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Both apps help you track your progress in the programs. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

To their credit, both Elevate and Lumosity track your progress in their apps to help you see if you're improving as you play. Lumosity gives you a score after each game, and aggregates each game's score into the Lumosity Performance Index (LPI). Your LPI grades your overall performance in the program, as well as in individual cognitive skills, such as memory or problem-solving.

Elevate doesn't have an overall score for your daily training sessions, it just shows your performance for each game you play. Admittedly, the scores you get from Elevate aren't very meaningful, but the app helps you to see your progress by ranking your score against past sessions. Elevate also compares your performance to other users, to see how you stack up.

Who they're for

Lumosity and Elevate have different approaches to brain-training, and the two apps ultimately serve different purposes. Lumosity bills itself as a way to work out your core cognitive abilities, and I believe it's a good general-purpose app for working on your more abstract mental skills, such as paying attention to details and making decisions. If you want a way to engage your mind with quick, yet challenging puzzles, Lumosity is the pick for you.

Elevate's program has a more specific focus on communication. With the games, you'll be challenged to broaden your vocabulary, improve your grammar and writing, and shore up your reading comprehension. Elevate also says that through its writing- and reading-based games, you'll also improve your memory and attention. For anyone who doesn't feel confident in their grasp of the English language, or just struggles with spelling and grammar, Elevate might not feel like the right program.

Do you train with either of these apps? What do you think about "brain training"? Let me know in the comments below.

Editor's note, August 21, 2014: This article has been updated with changes from a recent update to Elevate.