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In the EV3 manual, it says you can create custom apps, in the same page as the IR control and Port View. How do you make a new app? I found a button under tools which says "Download as app", however this is pretty much the same as a usual project - is there a way to make apps special, or are they just the same?

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As you guessed, the only real difference between an app and a project is which menu they appear in on the EV3.

Going a bit deeper though (and taking the title question literally), the LEGO "apps" that come pre-installed on the EV3 are not written using the LabView-based software. They are written in the LSMASM programming language, which is a language created specifically for the EV3. The source code for these can be found here.

You can modify these or create your own and compile them with the lmsasm compiler to create your own more advanced apps that can make use of all available EV3 bytecodes that allow you to do things you can't do in the other block programming languages.

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