Skip to main content

Apps of the week: Celebrate the holidays with your smartphone

By John D. Sutter, CNN
The HolidayBells app lets you play sleigh bells by shaking your smartphone and create melodies by tapping hand bells.
The HolidayBells app lets you play sleigh bells by shaking your smartphone and create melodies by tapping hand bells.
  • This week we look at five smartphone apps for the holidays
  • The "Christmas with Weezer" game debuted last year but remains popular this season
  • "HolidayBells" lends help to the tone-deaf caroler
  • An advent calendar app counts down to Christmas with a classic story each day

(CNN) -- Nothing says "happy holidays, America," like smartphone apps you can stare at instead of talking to those pesky family members in the living room.

Here are a few of our favorites. Buy them for yourself, or, if you've got that warm and cheery holiday feeling, give some out as gifts to friends and relatives. You won't have to reach far into your pocket. Each of these apps costs less than $5.

Just make sure your relatives buy the phone first. Those things are expensive.

HolidayBells ($0.99, iPhone) -- Love the idea of holiday caroling but can't carry a tune? The HolidayBells app may help. This musical app lets you play sleigh bells by shaking your smartphone and create melodies by tapping hand bells that are pre-tuned to specific notes. If you plan on taking this app to the streets, though, you may need a speaker to pump up the volume.

Pros: Unlike many of its competitors, HolidayBells tunes to specific notes, making it possible to play in a group of hand-bellers or carolers, as long as your friends aren't tone deaf.

Cons: You have to shake your phone pretty hard to get a sound out of the sleigh bells. Accidentally flinging your phone in the snow during "Jingle Bells" is a distinct possibility -- especially after a few spiked eggnogs.

Festive Holiday Baking, ($0.99, iPhone) -- This cookbook app is exactly what it sounds like -- a compilation of a few dozen classic holiday recipes. At only $0.99, the app is quite a bit cheaper than any holiday cookbook, so it's good if you're in a pinch and need some cookie recipes before the aunts and uncles arrive at your door.

Pros: The app features a range of recipes, from "Old Fashioned Sugar Cookies" to "Pistachio and Cherry Mexican Wedding Cakes." Plus, in the event of a kitchen accident, your iPhone is probably less likely to catch fire than a traditional paper cookbook. Safety first.

Cons: Clunky controls make this app difficult to use. When you try to use your fingers to enlarge a recipe, the app simply flips to the next page in the book. By tapping the bottom of the screen, app users can navigate back to the book's cover. But while flipping through the recipes, that function is completely hidden. Many recipes are available for free online, so if you have a laptop or a printer, the app may end up being a waste of a buck.

Christmas with Weezer ($4.99, iPhone) -- For the same price as Weezer's Christmas album, iPhone owners can purchase this Guitar-Hero-esque game, where players help recreate the alternative band's versions of "Silent Night," "The First Noel" and other Christmas favorites. The app comes from the makers of the addictively popular "Tap Tap Revenge" games.

Pros: Four difficulty levels -- from "kids" to "hard" -- let anyone rock out with this game. It's also fun for Rivers Cuomo fans to hear the Weezer frontman sing a bunch of religious tunes. It seems incongruous, but he pulls it off, and the music alone is worth the buy.

Cons: The price seems related to the fact that the app comes with nine Weezer songs (once you unlock all of the levels), but it's still steep for the iPhone app store. The graphics are also a little goofy: The goal of the game is to tap bright-colored presents that are flying out of a cartoon moon and across a snow-covered town. People who see you playing the game on the subway, and who can't hear the music, may wonder if you do things like collect stuffed animals in your spare time.

Mobile Menorah (iPhone, $0.99) -- You missed the start of Hanukkah this year (it was December 11), but it's not too late to have some digital holiday fun with this Menorah app. The application lets users light candles for each of Hanukkah's nights. And, if you mess up and light too many, you can always put them out and start over.

Pros: No matches required. The app also knows what day it is and adds candles to the Menorah accordingly. Also, when you leave the app and come back the next day, all of the candles remain lit. Unless your phone battery dies, there's little chance the digital oil on these candles is burning out anytime soon. Settings on the app also let you control how long your candles will burn.

Cons: Lighting the candles is tricky. Touch the middle candle to get things going and then drag that initial flame to the other candles to light the eight others.

A Story a Day Advent Calendar, Christmas 2009 (iPhone, $1.99) -- Good for the reader in the family, this app is a digital riff on the traditional countdown-to-Christmas calendar. Each day in December, users can click the calendar to view and read a classic short story by notable authors like Charles Dickens.

Pros: Soothing Christmas music plays with the app, giving it a festive feel. The stories are well-selected classics, and the app is simple to use. The program is aware of the current date and blocks all calendar squares from the future to prevent peeking. But a "cheat" function still lets nosy readers look ahead if they really want.

Cons: The short stories are long -- some upward of 30 pages. That doesn't mean they're not worth the read, but this is hardly an adequate substitute for the instant gratification of those advent calendars with chocolate or toys inside.