The buzz around "brain-training" apps like Elevate, Lumosity, Peak, and others recently came into question after a 2014 study by the Stanford Center on Longevity doubted the effectiveness of brain games to improve your cognitive abilities.
The study concluded that "cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles," as opposed to quick games played over a concentrated period. So we tested 13 apps that'll actually fill your brain with good stuff, like new vocabulary and inspiring ideas.
1. Blinkist ($4.17/month, iOS and Android) provides summaries for over 1,000 influential nonfiction books.
This app provides 15-minute written and audio takeaways from books on psychology, history, health, current affairs, and more. Titles like Thinking Fast and Slow, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and Walter Isaacson's Einstein are condensed into manageable written and audio insights, so you can learn more in less time. The audio feature is an awesome way to dive into a book while folding laundry or cooking a meal.
The app is also a great book discovery tool. If something intrigues you, go deeper and download the entire book!
Blinkist's subscriptions are pretty pricey ($50 per year for Plus and $80 per year for Premium), so take advantage of the three-day free trial period to decide if it's worth it.
2. Health IQ (Free, iOS) tests your health knowledge and teaches you a lot along the way.
Instead of tracking meals or counting steps, this app is focused on health education so consumers can make more informed decisions about what they eat and how much they need to exercise.
Did you know, for example, that out of all types of carrots, purple ones have the most antioxidants? You'll learn that fact and much more by taking Health IQ's many quizzes. All of the questions and their answers have been approved by doctors, dietitians, trainers, and other health experts.
3. TradeHero (Free, iOS and Android) is a stock exchange game that teaches you how to invest in a virtual environment.
The app is a virtual finance community where people trade virtual stocks with a fake $100K stock portfolio. You can compete with friends and other TradeHero members, while learning about the increasingly complex world of markets, investing, and trading.
Quotes are available for 22 exchanges around the world, including the NYSE and NASDAQ. You can opt for stock alerts or follow TradeHero's most successful users. The app will ping you when a "Hero" you're following makes a trade, so you can learn from the best.
4. Duolingo (Free, iOS, Android, and Windows Phone) is a visual, interactive way to learn the basics of a new language.
Whether you're preparing for a vacation abroad or want to refresh an old high school skill, this app is a great way to get acquainted with a new language, fast. Duolingo uses pictures, speech, and writing in short, digestable lessons. Learned vocabulary and phrases are reintroduced throughout the course to improve memorization.
An independent study discovered that 34 hours of Duolingo is equivalent to 11 weeks, or 1 semester, of a university course. If you're in the market to learn Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Irish, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, or English, this app is the best way to get your feet wet with a foreign language.
Both of these apps aim to speed up your reading by showing just one word at a time in quick succession. It's called RSVP, or rapid serial visual presentation. It'll help you read long articles in less time.
The beauty of Velocity for iOS is that it's not limited to articles from Instapaper or Pocket. You can read articles from the web or even email. The interface is simple, elegant, and very easy to use.
With A Faster Reader for Android, you can import e-books (.epub or .txt, with an experimental PDF feature), articles from Pocket, or text from your RSS subscriptions. One neat feature is the ability to slow the text down with a single tap on the right side of the word.
TED is a 30-year-old organization dedicated to spreading ideas that offer a deeper understanding of the world around us. The official app gives users access to the entire TED video library, available with subtitles in over 90 languages. Discover new talks by watching playlists curated by topic or build a new playlist by selecting what type of content you want to see (funny, informative, persuasive, jaw-dropping, etc.).
7. Elementary Minute ($1, iOS) or Trivia Crack (Free, iOS and Android) is a quick way to boost your trivia knowledge.
These quiz apps are great for killing time while you're standing in line for coffee or waiting for a bus to arrive.
Elementary Minute is a simple game that presents you with a statement or math equation, and you must decide whether it's true or false. The topics range from geography, famous people, and mathematics.
Trivia Crack is similar in that you answer questions related to science, entertainment, art, geography, sports, and history, but the difference is that you can challenge friends and chat with them in the app.
9. HowStuffWorks (Free, iOS and Android) unlocks all of the site's informative articles, videos, and podcasts on various subjects.
Who invented the internet? Why is your car vibrating? Who is Charles IX of France? Learn the answers to all of these questions with How Stuff Works's comprehensive app, which covers topics that range from culture to science and tech.
You can play quizzes, listen to podcasts like Stuff You Missed in History Class, watch shows like Stuff Mom Never Told You, browse different topics, and save articles for later.
10. StarWalk ($3, iOS, Android, and Windows Phone) uses augmented reality to show you interesting things about the night sky.
This online community of avid readers is a great source for book recommendations. In the app, you can set a reading goal and mark off your progress as you finish books. If you don't know where to start, follow your favorite famous authors on Goodreads (like Neil Gaiman and John Green) and see which books they shelved or gave five stars.
12. The NYTimes Crossword's (Free, iOS) "Monday Mini" puzzle is a short, sweet way to get your crossword fix.
The daily Mini Monday puzzle is available without a subscription. The daily official puzzle, past puzzles, and puzzle packs require a $40 per year annual or $7 per month subscription. You'll be challenged with new, random trivia every day! Users can track how many puzzles they've solved and challenge themselves to complete "streaks."
13. Vocabulary Builder (Free, iOS and Android) teaches you new words, then challenges you with harder ones.
This app is based on the "1,200 most important words" as picked by GRE tutor/YouTuber Chris Lele. Every level you beat unlocks more advanced vocabulary. Words you miss will be repeated using spaced repetition, so you can commit them to memory.
Spaced repetition is the concept of reviewing previously learned items in increasing intervals of time. So the app will show definitions you got wrong after one week, then after two weeks, then after three weeks, and so on.