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11 Useful Things You Didn’t Know Your Smartphone Could Do

Date: September 1, 2015      Publication: Bottom Line Personal      Source: Edward C. Baig      Print:

Some people build their entire lives around their smartphones. Others use them just to make calls. But no matter where you fall on the spectrum of tech users, there are new apps as well as hidden features built into the phones that can make your life easier and more enjoyable…

Smartphone Apps

1. Monitor your heart. Many people check their heart rates often for signs of a medical problem or to help determine fitness levels. The app ­Instant Heart Rate has more than 5 million ­users. You place your fingertip over your phone camera lens for 10 seconds. Using the camera sensor and flash, the app detects a color change in your finger from blood flow each time your heart beats and then calculates your pulse rate. Instant Heart Rate keeps a ­record of your tests so that you can share them with medical professionals and/or monitor the effects of your physical workouts. 

Available for iPhone, Android and Windows Phone for $1.99. (Note: Some ­Android phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5, come with a built-in heart-rate sensor on the back of the phone.)

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2. Find dropped screws and other metal objects. These apps use the phone’s built-in magnetic sensor to detect metals such as steel and iron. The apps are effective only within a few feet of the object, but that may be enough to avoid stepping on a nail that you dropped.

Free for iPhone (Metal Detector) and Android (Metal Detector)…99 cents for Windows Phone (Magnetic Field Detector).

3. Measure height and distance. These apps are useful if you need to check the dimensions of a room or the distance across your yard…or determine whether a piece of furniture will fit through your door.

Free for iPhone (Dot Measure) …$1.50 for Android (Smart Measure Pro)…99 cents for Windows Phone (Measure Tools 8).

4. Translate foreign languages. Point your phone’s video camera at any printed material such as a road sign. The app replaces the words in the live picture on your screen with its English translation. It covers major languages including French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. The Android and Windows versions even work without an Internet connection.

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This is a free feature in the Google Translate app for Android and iPhone. Windows Phone users can download a similar visual translator that is part of the free Bing Translator app.

5. Mail a postcard. Now your phone gives you a way to easily create your own custom paper postcard and have it mailed. The Postcard on the Run app allows you to take a snapshot and ­personalize it with a message and your signature. You send it via text message to the company, which prints and mails your card for you to anywhere in the world.

The app is free for the three major phone operating systems. Postcards cost $2.49 to $2.89 each, including postage, depending on the destination.

6.  Digitize documents. ­CamScanner ­allows you to take a picture of any document, receipt or photo and instantly convert it to a high-quality PDF or JPG file format. The ability to “scan” on the go without a cumbersome office scanner can be very useful. Features allow you to enhance scanned images, adjusting for low lighting and for documents with light print or handwriting. Free for all three major phone operating systems.

Built-In Features

Here are other things your phone can do for you without your having to download any apps…

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7. Allow you to create a high-security password. Instead of using a simple four-digit code to unlock your phone, you can create a more complex password with a mix of letters, numbers and special characters.

iPhone: In the Settings menu, tap Touch ID and Passcode (or just Passcode on older phones), then Turn Passcode On. Turn off the switch that reads “Simple Passcode.”

Android: In Settings, tap Screen Security, then Screen Lock. Select Password, then type in the password you want.

Windows: In Settings, tap Lock Screen, then Password. Type your password.

8. Take a screenshot. There may be times when you want your phone to capture a picture of what appears on your screen and save it—for example, detailed ­information on a web page that has constantly changing content.

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iPhone: Press and hold the Home button, along with the Sleep/Wake button. The screenshot will appear in your Camera Roll section. If you have an operating system earlier than iOS 6, consult Apple.com for directions.

Android: Hold down the Power and Volume buttons at the same time. The image is saved to the Screenshots folder in your Gallery app. Note: This works only for Android OS 4 or later. If you have an earlier version, you’ll need to download the free app, AirDroid.

Windows: In Windows Phone 8.1, press the Power and Volume Up buttons at the same time. The screenshot is stored in the Screenshots album in ­Photos Hub. For Windows Phone 8, press and hold the Start button and Power button at the same time. The shot also is stored in your Screenshots album. Earlier Windows Phone versions do not have screenshot capability.

9. Enable you to see text more easily. If you’re having a difficult time reading from your phone’s small screen, you can change the size of the text.

iPhone: In the Settings menu, tap General, then Accessibility, then Larger Text and/or Bold Text.

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Android: In Settings, tap Display, then Font Size.

Windows: In Settings, type Ease of Access. Under Text Size, move the slider to change the size of the text. This works only in Windows Phone 8 or later. Earlier versions do not allow you to change the text size.

10. Let you customize vibration mode patterns. With iPhones and Android phones, you can set your phone to vibrate in a different pattern depending on who is calling you—so you can tell, say, that your spouse is trying to reach you, even if your phone is not set to ring.

iPhone: Go to Contacts. Tap on a contact name. Tap Edit, then Vibration to choose or create a pattern.

Android: Go to Contacts, and tap on a contact name. Under Vibration Pattern, tap Default and choose a preset pattern.

11. Turn off music automatically. Many people like to fall asleep listening to ­music. You can set your phone to turn off the music automatically after a certain period of time in order to avoid draining the battery.

iPhone: Go to the Clock feature, and tap Timer. Set the desired length of time you want the music to play. Tap the phrase When Timer Ends. Scroll to the bottom of the screen, and select Stop Playing.

Android: Open the music player, tap Menu, then Settings. Tap the phrase Music Auto Off, and set it to however long you want the music to play.

Windows: There is no built-in feature to turn off music automatically. Instead, you can download and install the free app Stop Music. It works with Windows Phone 7.5 and later.

Source: Edward C. Baig, ­personal-tech columnist for USA Today, who reviews new devices and writes about consumer technology trends. He is coauthor of iPhone for Dummies.

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  • Gary Cohn

    Good information. I would like to see Blackberry included as well.

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  • FJ

    For Android the screen capture can be done much easier with “gestures”. Just swipe your hand from left to right over the screen and a screen capture is put into your pictures…