For all of the useful apps you can download on your iPhone or Android smartphone, there are plenty more that you should avoid. Whether they don’t work, offer information or advice that isn’t backed up by research, or can do real harm to your smartphone, these apps aren’t worth downloading even if they’re free. And if you’ve already got one on your smartphone, now’s the time to delete it, since there are some apps that you should never use. Curious about what you should look out for the next time you browse the iOS App Store or the Google Play Store? The app types ahead are ones that don’t work and should be avoided.
1. Apps that claim to save battery or charge your phone
Just about every savvy smartphone user knows that an app that claims to charge a smartphone’s battery isn’t going to work. But what about apps that purport to help you save battery life by managing the demands of the many other apps you already have installed on your phone? It’s possible that some of these apps can help, but in many cases, they’re ineffective, and can even do more harm than help.
Some of these apps shut down apps (which, in some cases, can backfire as those apps restart themselves and get shut down again, over and over). Some shut down power-hungry functions, like Wi-Fi or GPS, when you aren’t using them, an approach that can be helpful if the app is programmed correctly. But unless you know what you’re looking for, chances are good that an app that claims to save your battery life will, at best, fail to help, and at worst, either exacerbate the problem or open your phone up to malware. Either way, it’s usually better to save the trouble and learn some battery-saving tips yourself.
2. Apps that purport to defragment your smartphone’s storage
If you’re accustomed to defragmenting your computer’s hard drive, you may assume that that’s a maintenance task you need to perform on your phone, as well. But you don’t need to defragment your smartphone’s memory. As pointed out by Android Police, defragmenting will only decrease the lifetime of your Android phone’s flash memory, and all the defragmentation apps you see in the Play Store “are going to be some sorts of scam in one way or another.” The problem with these sorts of apps isn’t just that they’re claiming to complete a task that’s pointless (and impossible to complete), but also that you’re granting the app permissions that you’ll later regret.
Just as pointless are apps that claim to speed up your RAM (or improve your phone’s performance by inexplicably adding more RAM). Your phone is optimized to make the most of its memory, so it already keeps apps loaded, allocates resources to apps according to their priority, and makes sure that lower priority tasks aren’t consuming too much in the way of resources. An app that claims to optimize the way your phone’s RAM works is pointless and deceptive, and no such app will be able to improve the way your phone performs.
3. Disreputable antivirus apps
If you’re using an Android smartphone, you should know that antivirus apps are no match for the poor security situation of the Android operating system. In other words, if your phone’s manufacturer and your wireless carrier are dragging their feet on issuing critical security updates that can fix vulnerabilities, you can’t make up for that by downloading an app from the app store. (In fact, the best way to end up with malware on your device is to download a suspicious app.) Nonetheless, there are some reputable antivirus apps that may be worth the download. But there are plenty more that have bad reputations as fake antivirus apps that won’t do any favors to your phone, and may even harm it.
There are plenty of mock antivirus apps that exist solely to scam you out of your money. These range from apps that are free to download, and then require an in-app purchase to stay “up to date” or to protect you against a threat, to ones that cost a not-insignificant sum to download in the first place. At best, these apps don’t do anything other than tell you that they’re protecting you. At worst, they can be a way for you to end up with malware or adware on your phone when you were looking to do just the opposite. The upshot? Make sure that you do your research when you’re looking for an antivirus app, and opt for one from a well-established company instead of picking at random from the app store.
4. Third-party apps that add capabilities to a social network
Over the years, there have been plenty of third-party apps that have claimed to offer new capabilities for popular social networks, with varying degrees of success. But most are ineffective, or are destined to be shut down, and are a good category of apps to avoid. Many third-party Instagram apps have been shut down for exposing users to malware and posting unauthorized images to users’ feeds. Many third-party Snapchat apps were locked out after the unauthorized app ecosystem led to a major Snapchat hack. Twitter restricted access for developers of clients for its social network. WhatsApp cracked down on alternative apps offering varied feature sets. And apps that claimed to show you who was checking out your Facebook profile, while not technically mobile apps, were pretty obviously not doing what they claimed.
The best case scenario if you download a third-party app to interact with your favorite social network is that you’ll pay for an app that will later be broken by an update to the social network in question. But even worse, you can end up placing your personal information into the hands of a developer that’s not so careful with how it handles your data, or you can end up exposed to malware or wondering whether your information was involved in a massive data breach. Probably not worth it to stalk your Facebook friends or make it easier to upload photos to Snapchat.
5. Apps that claim to add impossible features
Apps that claim to add X-ray capabilities, add a lie detector, translate what your pet is saying, or enable you to charge your phone by shaking it are a pretty obvious category of apps that don’t work. Apps that claim to offer you a way to make money from your phone are also a pretty great way to waste time. If the claims that an app’s description is making sound too good to be true, then they almost certainly are. Even if an app is clearly marketed as a joke or a prank, you should still stay away.
It may seem like a good idea to download one of these apps just to try it out and have a laugh with friends, but it’s never a good idea to download an app from a developer you don’t trust. (And it doesn’t seem that developers looking to prey, or play a joke, on the less tech-savvy among us are the most trustworthy app creators out there.) You never know what you’re getting when you download a scam app. An app can hurt your phone’s performance by consuming resources unnecessarily, or you can end up installing adware or malware on your phone by trusting an app and granting it all the permissions it requests. Some apps will track your location or share your information with advertisers if you let them.
6. Health apps without any research to back them up
Researchers and clinicians have warned that mental health apps, weight loss apps, and health apps in general are ineffective at solving users’ health problems. Despite the popularity of health and fitness apps in the iOS and Android app stores, it’s difficult to get the same level of help from an app that you’d get from a trained professional. It’s also easy to forget to check in to an app, and simple to ignore an app’s notifications and recommendations.
While specific apps have been demonstrated to lead to statistically significant improvements for people managing chronic diseases, there are many more apps that aren’t useful or do no more than provide information from a mix of sources. Health apps without any research to back them up are ineffective, and are a great category of apps to avoid if you’re looking to make meaningful changes to your health.
7. Smartphone-only sleep-tracking apps
Based on the number of apps in the major app stores, the smartphone-obsessed generation is just as interested in apps that can help with sleep as apps that can help improve their health. But can an app that promises to track and analyze your sleep if you place your phone under your pillow actually be effective? Probably not. Such sleep-tracking and alarm apps purport to track your sleep, help you discover patterns in your sleep (or lack thereof), and even to wake you up at an opportune time.
But the tracking that these apps are able to complete is often inaccurate, simply because you’re relying on a smartphone tucked under a pillow to track how much and how deeply you’re sleeping. They rely on data collected by the accelerometer in your smartphone, which means that all they’re working with is information on your movements, and they can’t monitor what’s going on in your brain. If you really want to know what’s going on when you fall asleep at night, you’re better off buying a device that you can strap to your wrist or attach to your bed. A device that’s able to track your heart rate, body temperature, breathing, or even the sound or ambient light in your bedroom can offer more meaningful insight into your sleep than a smartphone app.
8. Brain-training apps
Another subset of health-related apps to avoid is the growing array of brain-training apps. The FTC recently ordered Lumosity, a big player in the space, to pay $2 million for its deceptive advertising and “unfounded claims” that its games could help users perform better at work or at school, or could reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and health conditions. Games that claim to train specific areas of the brain, apps that purport to help users maximize their potential, and games that are advertised to help improve everyday performance or delay or reduce cognitive impairment are usually unproven.
Researchers found that in general, brain-training apps do nothing more than make you better at the specific game you’re playing. While you might get better at the task at hand, those gains aren’t going to translate to any improvements in your intelligence, memory, or cognition, and you won’t improve your working memory or your problem-solving skills. It’s also been suggested that any improvements you see on the game you’re playing isn’t due to a change in your cognitive ability, but is attributable to your familiarity with the game. If you’re really trying to prevent dementia, recover from a brain trauma, or manage a learning disability, talk to your doctor instead of relying on an app.
9. Education apps that haven’t been professionally evaluated
Education apps that claim to help your kids learn something are just about as prevalent as health apps that claim to help you lose weight or reduce stress — and in many cases, just as ineffective. Educational apps are difficult to test and evaluate, since it takes a long time to accurately determine whether an app actually helps students learn, and it often costs too much to conduct a traditional study to determine an app’s effectiveness. The result is that even the most promising educational apps are often not really tested.
If you really want your child to learn something, handing over an iPad or a smartphone with a bunch of apps loaded on it may or may not be the right way to go. There are certainly educational apps that are useful and entertaining. But as to which ones are effective? You shouldn’t believe everything you read in an app’s description on the app store — especially once you know that the claims it’s making probably haven’t been checked out by a professional educator.