How to pick great apps from a sea of mediocre ones

I'm a special needs parent that put together the Complete Guide to Educational and Special Needs Apps. I learned a lot during my research of over 300,000 apps. The biggest lesson is there are tens of thousands of junk apps out there. By taking a few extra minutes you can save yourself from being fooled into purchasing these duds. Let me pass down this knowledge to you.

by Dawn Villarreal, One Place for Special Needs


appsA picture is worth a 1,000 words
Companies that sell apps are going to put their best graphic up to help sell their app. If all you see is a title or instruction page, chances are that the graphics stink. If the graphics look ho hum, then the app will be a yawner too.  You’ve been warned.

Do your due diligence
Most of the app pages include a link to the company website. Go ahead and check it out. You’ll get a feel if this is a fly-by-night company or one that is dedicated to producing a quality product. 

Check reviews
The better companies will include a You Tube link so you can see how the app works. This is either on the iTunes page or on the company website.  If not, go to and do a search. Many people review apps there and you can see if it is something that would benefit your child. You can also do a general Google search.  An example search would be “ABC handwriting app review.”  Also make sure to read the overall rating and any reviews that are on the app page.

Try it Lite
Quite a few companies offer a Lite or free version of their app.  This may be the first five levels of a 40 level game app. Sometimes the difference is that the paid app shows no ads. Before buying an app, do a search to see if there is a lite version available.

HD and iPad only apps
More companies are making apps specific to the iPad. These apps take full advantage of the iPad's 1,024x768 resolution giving you nice, crisp graphics. If you have an iPad always check to see if there is an HD or iPad only version of the app. iPad users, you can always buy apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch. These show up the same size of that device and you have the option to magnify it to the full size of your iPad device. The image loses some resolution quality but not enough to make a major difference. It has not impacted our enjoyment of playing the apps.

Foreign apps
Many apps are made by companies from other countries. You can tell by the name of the company or the type of graphics on the app. While this is not a problem for simple games, think twice about purchasing an app if there is a language or reading component. I’ve seen quite a few interesting apps that I didn’t include in the complete guide because reviewers have complained that the English translation makes no sense.

High priced apps
I would say that 95% of the apps for purchase are 99 cents. That means that if you find an app for $2.99, chances are there is a 99 cents app that does the same thing.  Special needs specific apps jump in price from $9.99 to over $100.  Before plunking down the money, check the company website in regards to support issues or email the company direct with your questions before making that purchase. In regards to communication devices, check the features of various apps as well as features of regular communication devices. Depending on your need, an app may be just enough for your child or you may find that he needs the full support and features of one of several high end communication devices on the market.

Apps versus online games
For all the talk about apps these days, you would think that you have no alternative but to plunk down your money and purchase an iPhone or iPad. But there are a lot of free online activities available too. If you'd like to see your options, go to the Games and Activities section at One Place for Special Needs where you can find both apps and online games.

iPad versus iPhone or iPod Touch
I like the iPad for my kids.  The resolution is 1,024x768 as opposed to 480x320 with the iPhone so I know I’m getting nice, crisp graphics.  The 9.7-inch screen size makes playing games more fun and interactive. This is especially true for games that work on visual motor skills.  I appreciate that there’s more hand movement and visual scanning than across a smaller iPod Touch or iPhone screen.  The large screen makes it easier to engage with my child about the particular app he is playing and for playing multiplayer games. It's a great tool for one on one work with a support teacher or therapist.

iPad/iPhone apps versus other SmartPhone/Tablet apps
I tried my best to find and add other SmartPhone apps to our complete guide.  But no one has the easy interface of iTunes nor the sheer magnitude of over 300,000 apps to choose from.  It was nearly impossible to view these apps except on the specific smartphone.  I included a few Android apps from a review site.  The official Android site had some apps but didn’t have a specific url that I could add to the One Place for Special Needs site. The bottom line is if you are looking for a device as a learning aide for your child, go with the one that has the most apps to choose from.

Buy apps through iHelp Special Needs
iHelp Special Needs helps raise funds for families with special needs children to acquire iPads and apps. If you click to the iTunes store through their site, you will be making a donation each time you make a purchase. It's a great way to help others get their great learning tool for their child.

Other resources

Complete Guide to Educational and Special Needs Apps

Special Needs Parent: What's on My iPad

7 Things the iPhone has that the iPad doesn’t

9 Things the iPad has that the iPhone doesn’t

Accessing the iPad: Mouthsticks, Head Pointers and Styluses

Apple iPad, iPod Touch might help people with autism take steps toward independence

Apple's iPad Brings Easy Reading to the Blind

ATMac - Empowering Disabled Apple Users

iPad Assistive Technology/Disability Round-Up

iPad opens new world for special needs children

Stories: iPad Users with Disabilities

Using the iPad when you can't pick it up

What's on my iPad?

Dawn VillarrealAbout the writer

Dawn Villarreal runs One Place for Special Needs, a national disability resource that lets you find local and online resources, events and even other families in your neighborhood plus thousands of online disability resources! Stay awhile and check out the site. She is also moderator of Autism Community Connection, a Yahoo group for families of children with autism spectrum disorder. Reprint permission granted by including: Reprinted with permission from One Place for Special Needs