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USA Today's 'secret' crossword-puzzle app for iPad

The iPad's big screen makes it an ideal home for crosswords, and USA Today's app serves up all the puzzles you can play--no extra charge.

The iPad's best free crossword puzzles can be found inside the USA Today app.
The iPad's best free crossword puzzles can be found inside the USA Today app. Screenshot by Rick Broida

Like crossword puzzles? Put down that archaic newspaper and pencil and pick up your iPad. As I discovered recently, there's no better platform for crossword play.

Think of it: tons of puzzles on demand, zero trees sacrificed, hints and clues when you need them, and solutions on the spot (no need to wait for tomorrow's paper).

I also discovered that one of the best crossword apps--definitely the best free one--is hidden inside an app that has nothing to do with puzzles: USA Today for iPad.

Granted, the print version of the paper runs a daily crossword, but its counterpart's App Store description mentions nothing about them (even though the puzzles were added two updates ago, back in August). What's more, it's easy to miss them even when you're in the app--especially if you tend to bypass the Life section, which is where they're kept.

Indeed, though you might expect to find a Crossword button on the app's "front page," perhaps in the column with the weather, scores, and pictures badges, it sits unobtrusively beneath the Life section banner. Tap it, and it's like you're in a whole different app.

And a terrific one at that. USA Today Crossword automatically downloads the current day's puzzle and keeps a library of them for at least a few weeks (I haven't had it long enough to know exactly how far back it retains them). You can view all the available puzzles or just those that are in-progress or completed.

Thankfully, puzzles are stored in memory, so you can play them offline--like when you're on a flight. If you get stuck, the app has two hint options: "check letter for error" and "reveal letter." (These options are also available for words.) There's also a timer option for those who like to challenge the clock.

As for the puzzles themselves, I find they offer the perfect level of challenge: not too easy, not too hard. Sometimes I solve them, sometimes I need a clue or two.

There are other crossword-puzzle apps for the iPad, but most of them cost at least a few bucks. (Stand Alone's top-rated Crosswords is $9.99.) USA Today remains free, and its built-in crosswords are icing on the cake. Definitely a must-have for puzzle fans.