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Surprising apps in 2014 you may have missed

These aren't the best apps of the year or even the biggest names, but each of these apps surprised me in certain ways that make them all worthy of note at the end of 2014.

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Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

At the end of every year, CNET gives you top lists for products such as the best cameras, the best phones, and the best televisions, but with smartphone apps it's a little more difficult to make those kinds of selections.

Take photo editors as an example. I've reviewed tons of iOS and Android photo editors over the past few years, but have still barely scratched the surface of all the photo editors in the app stores. Sure, I can tell you the best of the ones I've reviewed, but to determine an overall winner in such a crowded category would mean trying them all. With well over a million apps at the App Store and a very large assortment of photo apps, I think you can see how narrowing it down to one winner is no easy task.

So, instead of trotting out a best apps of 2014 list that's difficult to trust, I'm going to talk about the apps that surprised me over the course of the year. These apps either had a killer feature that everyone should have, were unique and original or just blew me away with cool features and interesting content.

These aren't the best apps of the year or even the biggest names, but they are worthy of checking out if you missed them when they launched earlier this year.


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Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Vainglory

Free, iOS only

While Vainglory is hardly surprising because it was featured at the iPhone 6 Apple event, it did something that no other battle arena game has done so well in the past. Vainglory plainly shows people how to play a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game.

I was no stranger to MOBA games before Vainglory, so I didn't need a lot of training, but the simple way it laid out the rules and objectives of the game made it accessible to everyone. As an example, Vainglory tells you early on that the minions are used like a barrier to absorb damage so your hero stays safe. The game also clearly outlines how killing monsters in the jungle can help your team with better minions and bigger gold output.

These may seem like simple tutorial concepts, but if you've tried to play classic MOBA games such as League of Legends or DoTA 2 for the first time, you know the learning curve is rough and you probably spent a lot of time not knowing what to do next (and hearing it from your teammates).

Vainglory provides an incredibly accessible starting point for anyone who wants to get into battle arena type games by letting you do practice runs with tutorial text so you know how everything works.

Certainly, with all the hype and what I saw of the high-quality graphics at the Apple event, I probably could have guessed Vainglory would be a good game. But the surprise with Vainglory is that it has all the elements you need for experienced gamers, while remaining accessible to beginners in the genre.


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Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Tastemade

Free, iOS , Android

This unique foodie app was introduced to me by CNET's How To expert, Sharon Profis -- who is quite the chef in her own right -- and I quickly understood its potential. What Tastemade does is provide the perfect set of tools for making professional-looking restaurant review videos with your smartphone. Though it first launched in 2013, the nature of the app needed some time to stew because it is completely user driven, but it really hit its stride in 2014.

With Tastemade you start by picking your music and theme, then use the app's placeholders to record an intro, show shots of a restaurant's food and clientele, talk about your favorite entrees, then provide tips on what to get before closing out your "show." You then can edit sections and move them around to give your review the perfect flow.

What's surprising about this little app is how easy it is to make short restaurant review videos, and that it offers enough variations in themes and music to fit the mood of just about any restaurant experience. To sweeten the pot, the social section of the app lets you view a feed of restaurants other people have reviewed so you can find good eats near you.

It's the only app I've come across that focuses on self-made restaurant reviews, and even if you don't like the spotlight, the ability to browse reviews from other people is definitely worth the free download.


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Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

QuickPics Photo Manager

Free, iOS only

QuickPics is not a groundbreaking app by any means, and there are plenty that have similar functions in the App Store. But what it does is something that the iOS Photos app sorely needs, but still doesn't have available in even the latest versions of iOS 8.

What does it do? QuickPics lets you tag your photos. This means you can go through your photo library and add a tag for "dad" every time your father shows up in a picture. Now, when you want to look at all photos with your dad you can simply search for the tag and they're all at your fingertips.

Though photo tagging has been widely requested on Apple forums and other iOS-focused sites, Apple has yet to add the feature to iOS. The default photos app will let you search by location or date, but there is no option to tag a photo.

Perhaps the surprise here -- for me -- is that we still can't tag photos by default on an iOS device in 2014, but at least there are third-party options like QuickPics that handle the job very nicely.

If you want to tag your pics, this app is not to be missed.


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Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Trials Frontier

Free, iOS , Android

The Trials dirt bike racing franchise has been around a long time for desktops and consoles, but the iOS version is so impressive that I'm still amazed at what it offers, months after first downloading it.

Trials Frontier challenges you to race from left to right over obstacles and jumps to get to the finish line. It has unique challenges that let you rise through the ranks, unlocking new bikes and riders while you chase your nemesis through the game world. You'll get tons of quests that have you racing different challengers, performing stunts to please the masses, and unlocking new map points for even more challenges.

What makes this game surprising is just how much there is to do for a mobile game. The map is absolutely enormous, with tons of tracks to choose from. There is a random quest generator that takes the form of a slot machine so you can get fun daily challenges to win prizes. The game boasts more than 50 hours of gameplay and more than 70 unique tracks.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about this game is that it came out early in 2014 and I still keep coming back for more. Developer Ubisoft has not rested on its laurels, either, adding a huge Halloween content update along with new multiplayer challenges.

If you like motorbike games at all, Trials Frontier is shockingly good with so much to do you'll be amazed it's a smartphone game.


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Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Wayward Souls

$6.99, £4.99, AU$8.99, iOS , Android

Throughout my life I've watched games get better and better graphically, going from the early 8-bit days to the hyper-realistic games you see today. For most of my life, graphics were the prime measure of the quality of a game, but with games these days, that's beginning to change.

Sure, you still have graphically intense blockbuster titles such as Real Racing 3 or Modern Combat 5, but a trend I'm seeing is to make games like Wayward Souls that use the old graphics, but give you a modern feel.

Wayward Souls has you pick from a number of character classes before dropping into a dungeon. The object is to last as long as possible against tons of different monsters while roaming the stone corridors for treasure and better items.

What's surprising about this title is just how immersive developers Rocketcat Games made it using an older graphical style, but with excellent lighting, music and other effects to draw you in. What results is a unique gaming experience that is as challenging as it is fun to play. It's also best with headphones.

If you passed up Wayward Souls earlier this year, definitely give it a shot -- you won't be disappointed.


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Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

SmartNews

Free, iOS , Android

There are plenty of news-reading apps for iOS. Flipboard , Circa and LinkedIn Pulse all come to mind as good options, but another app that came out this year in the US is even easier to browse.

SmartNews was already popular in Asia, but only made the jump to the West this year. While it doesn't have the magazine like interface found in Flipboard, nor the big thumbnail headlines of Pulse, it has arguably the easiest way to browse the headlines quickly.

With SmartNews you have categories such as top, entertainment, sports, lifestyle, tech and several others, all as tabs across the top of the screen. You can touch the tabs directly to go to that category, but you also can just swipe on screen to immediately go to the next tab.

What's surprising about SmartNews is how such an easy concept can be so effective. It's not going to dazzle you with its design layout, but you'll be hard-pressed to find an app that lets you browse so quickly. The icing on the cake is that it regularly updates all the stories at specific times, so as long as it updated earlier in the day, you can read full news stories offline.

After discovering it, I found that I started using SmartNews more often than other news apps simply because it was so easy to consume headlines so fast.