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The 8 best iPhone apps of 2021

Apps have changed the way we communicate, stream TV and play games.

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Angela Lang/CNET

Apps have become a staple in our lives over the past decade. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that struck in 2020, many apps saw an install spike as people readjusted to a more digital method of communication, learning, travel, watching TV and playing. In addition, the introduction of Apple's iPhone 13 and new iOS 15 software made our favorite apps perform better and is paving the way for developers to think bigger when building new apps. 

These iPhone apps were either introduced in the past year, got a major update or gained a cultural currency that we hadn't seen previously (even The Washington Post has a TikTok channel with hundreds of thousands of followers now), and the CNET staff believed they deserved recognition. Without further ado, here are the seven best iPhone apps of the year. 

Read more: 25 apps that defined the decade

Spectre Camera

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Spectre

The AI photography app Spectre Camera uses machine learning to take simulated long-exposure photos on your iPhone -- an effect that previously required a DSLR or mirrorless camera. So far, the app includes support for the ultrawide camera on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, but no word yet on support for the iPhone 13 Pro or 13 Pro Max. You can download Spectre in the App Store on iOS 13 or later for $4. 

Read also: iPhone app of the year Spectre Camera uses AI to take photos that usually require a DSLR 

TikTok 

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James Martin/CNET

TikTok is a social video app that lets you create videos lip-syncing, dancing to songs or creating short videos on something you're excited about. The app's popularity surged during the early months of the pandemic in 2020, amassing more than 2 billion downloads globally across the App Store and Google Play. In the first quarter of 2020, TikTok generated 315 million installs -- the most downloads for any app ever in a quarter, according to Sensor Tower data.

It should be noted that TikTok has been investigated by the US government for potential security risks and its questionable privacy practices. Most recently, the app had a hearing with the US Senate regarding younger users' safety. That hearing could lead to additional legislation to protect younger users.

You can download TikTok free in the App store. It is also available for Android. 

Read more: TikTok: What it is and how to use it to possibly achieve internet fame

Apple Arcade games

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Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

We're listing Apple Arcade as one app because Apple's gaming subscription service houses more than 200 games in one subscription. The games are available as downloadable apps for most iOS devices from the service in the App Store. Titles are organized in categories like original and exclusive games, as well as remastered favorites and classics already available in the App Store. You can check out nostalgic favorites like Pac-Man, Party Royale and Frogger in Toy Town or puzzle games, mystery games and kid-friendly games

You can subscribe to Apple Arcade for $5 a month or $50 annually in the App Store, and download games from there. 

Read more: Apple Arcade updated: The full list of games

Disney Plus 

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Angela Lang/CNET

Disney Plus has shaken up streaming services, and its app earned the Editors' Choice Award in the App Store. The platform has an impressive catalog of movies and TV shows, including Disney classics, as well as Star WarsMarvelPixar, and the Simpsons. Disney has already made some changes to improve the streaming experience, including adding a resume button

You can subscribe to Disney Plus for $8 per month or $80 annually. You can also bundle Disney Plus, Hulu with Ads and ESPN Plus for $14 per month, or $20 per month for Hulu without Ads. You can download the app on iOS and Android. 

Read more: Disney Plus: Everything to know about Disney's new streaming service 

Apple TV 

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Angela Lang/CNET

Apple TV Plus is Apple's $5-a-month TV streaming service. The streaming platform is home to the Emmy-winning Ted Lasso and a number of other original shows, all accessible through the Apple TV app, which offers a clean, easy-to-navigate interface. 

You can subscribe to Apple TV Plus for $5 a month online or in Apple's TV app in the App Store. 

Read more: Apple TV Plus: How to sign up and everything else to know

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

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WB Games/Niantic

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite pits players against dark wizards and magical beasts to save characters from the Harry Potter books. You play by walking around the real world, following the game's map through the app on your phone. Though it had some security flaws, Wizards Unite showed us that Pokemon Go wasn't just a fluke, and AR games are here to stay. It also brought in $1.1 million on its launch weekend, according to Sensor Tower.  

You can download Harry Potter: Wizards Unite for free in the App Store, though it does include in-app purchases. 

Read more: How to play Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Craigslist 

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Craigslist

Online classified ads site Craigslist has been around since 1995, but weirdly, it didn't get an iOS app until December 2019. The app has a simple, non-fussy interface that's reminiscent of the website version, where you can search for everything from jobs to furniture to cars to purchase. The app currently has a 4.8 out of 5 star rating and almost 150,000 reviews in the App Store.

You can download Craigslist free in the App Store. 

Read more: Nerdy Craigslist founder wants to change the world -- starting with your news

Duolingo

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Duolingo

Duolingo is a fun way to learn a language, whether it's Italian to make your nonna proud, or Klingon so you can ask where the bathroom is at the next Comic-Con without breaking character. The app offers 39 languages, and lessons include reading, writing, speaking and listening in your chosen language. The lessons get increasingly more difficult, but if you feel like you're rusty you can always go back and retake a lesson before you advance.

You can download Duolingo for free in the App Store, or you can subscribe to Duolingo Plus for $13 a month or $84 annually.

Read more: Learn an indigenous or endangered language with this app

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Originally published last year. Updated periodically with new recommendations.