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April 16, 2011 11:59 AM   Subscribe

I just got a smartphone. What are some great ways you've found to use your phone? I've got a good array of basic apps, so I'm not so much looking for recommendations, but instead for your ideas about how to integrate the phone and its combinations of apps into a productive and creative way of life.

I'm not sure how to express what I'm after, but it's amazing how many things I can suddenly do on the fly - record sound, take and upload photos, check in places, post to various sites, detect things. All those are neat on their own, but what do you actually do with these abilities that makes life better or easier? What am I doing in an analog way that I could be doing better or more richly using the phone?

For instance, I had to make an event flyer the other featuring six thumbnails of artworks in a museum, along with info from the labels. I was transcribing this all in a notebook until I suddenly thought DUH and snapped a set of pictures of the works, and their labels, and emailed them all to myself for layout.

I'd appreciate examples like that that will help me get more out of phone ownership. Things like "I record myself practicing the presentation I'm going to make while driving to the meeting" or "I take videos of my kids and send them to my mom and archive them in a folder to save as they grow up".
posted by Miko to Technology (37 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
I used runkeeper this morning for the first time ever.

It makes a world of difference.
posted by bilabial at 12:01 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have an iPod Touch but not a smartphone, and here are things I sometimes wish I had a smartphone so I could do:

Check the bus/train schedule when I am out, using a great tripfinder/transit schedule app I have. Right now I only have a connection through wifi, which I don't often have when I want to find a bus near me.

Driving: look up directions when I'm going someplace new or if I get lost.

When I'm at dinner and want to go to a movie, etc: check listings.

And really sometimes all I want to do is take photos of silly things I see and not have to think about downloading, transferring, emailing, etc.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:04 PM on April 16, 2011

Some people check reviews or prices of products when they are at the store, along the lines of which, "Which of these blenders is better? And can I get a better price elsewhere?" Though understandably some retailers really don't like this.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:05 PM on April 16, 2011

I downloaded FMC, and it's been very helpful! Nice to have a heads-up on when my period is probably going to come.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:05 PM on April 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

What bluedaisy said. I use Redline, a barcode scanner app, all the time. If I'm looking at buying something in a store, I can scan the barcode and do a quick lookup of prices at other stores nearby, or see how much it would cost online. It's saved me bundles already.
When I'm driving long distances, I use my iPhone and google maps as a GPS (kept plugged in to the car stereo for power). The best part is having the traffic overlay active, so you can see if there are delays ahead or not. Even without spoken directions (which you can get if you are on Android), it's very useful.
posted by gemmy at 12:35 PM on April 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Every time I read about an event I might want to go to, I throw it in google calendar,which syncs to my phone. Really useful when I want to figure out what to do next when I have free time and I'm already out and about.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:37 PM on April 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

- I take photographs of where my car is when I'm likely to have trouble remembering the precise location.

- When I need to record a serial number and model number on a piece of equipment, I take a photograph of the backplate and load it up into evernote (along with some tags describing it), so I can google for info on it later if needed.

- I use the "gobee" application to find fun local activities for the kiddos in the area of wherever I happen to be right then.

- I use one of the free wifi databases to find free wifi when I travel to strange cities

- If you are anywhere near a major city, having the commuter train schedules is really handy- most cities have apps for this now that also tell you about cancellations and delays.

- The app I use more than any other is GoodReader, which lets me put PDFs and a bunch of other docs on my phone for reference / reading. Depending on your profession, having access to reference books at all times is great.
posted by jenkinsEar at 12:45 PM on April 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Taking photos of wine labels I want to remember. Taking photos of where I left my car in the parking structure (started that trick years before GPS). All the little things I tend never to remember. Shazam has been awesome to remember music I hear on the radio or in bars to hear later. I like how I can program my DVR with my phone. I like having wikipedia and the whole internets there. Shopping is great. The Google Shopping or Redline Apps make it easy to comparison shop in the store. Things dropbox are helpful to keep files synced between my computer and phone. I can view a key spreadsheet or word doc info from anywhere.
posted by birdherder at 12:48 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Google's recently introduced (if controversial) Latitude History is mind-blowingly awesome. It keeps track of where you are during the day, but the really cool thing is that you can play back your week's locations via Google Maps. It's fascinating.

CardioTrainer is amazing too, if you've got an Android device. It's got a built-in calorie counter (which is actually really easy to use) as well as the standard GPS-powered activity tracking. It's certainly got me out on my bike more. The best thing is that it tots up your mileage and shows you how far you've gone on a map. Right now - after burning 26,000 calories - I'm somewhere in north France.
posted by hnnrs at 12:51 PM on April 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not super into smartphoneland but a few things that I find really useful that you might not get if you weren't used to them.

- I have a terrible sense of direction so my phone will not only tell me how to get places [often on foot] but will tell me where I am walking - i.e. which direction] so I don't wander off the wrong way. Seeing a little blue dot that moves as you move is magical [also in foreign cities it can tell you when to get off the bus, super helpful]
- the checking in is sort of a fun thing until you go to a conference and then it's AMAZING. You can figure out which panels your friends are at and even whether they're any good. Following a twitter tag at a big conference [I was at TXLA recently and I could view the TXLA11 tweets via a saved search on my phone and figure out what panels my friends were at and whether they were any good in real time]
- I'm not a good phone typer so I like some of the voice apps to do stuff like sending short "on my way" texts while I am driving. You can open the app and have it send a text all via voice commands. Super useful [varies by phone but I think the one my friend has is by vlingo]
- relatedly, while I am often traveling my SO often isn't. Sometimes when I'm super busy I don't have a lot of time to send long emails but sending a lot of "hey here I took a photo of something that made me think of you" and emailing them off is a nice way to stay in touch and let him know what I am up to.

I'll often ask my friends with similar phones "Hey what are your favorite 1 or 2 apps on that?" just to see what other people find valuable. Good timewasters are often a pretty big deal for me too when I'm stuck waiting somewhere.
posted by jessamyn at 12:56 PM on April 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I too take pictures of lots of stuff that I want to remember later but would forget without having a record.

My shopping efficiency increased by a lot when I got an app (ListKeeper) that lets me make lists nested within lists. Now I have a standing shopping list organized by store and by grocery-store section, and can cross things off as I buy them and uncross them as I run out of them. This has seriously cut down on racking my brain trying to remember what the thing was that I ran out of, and I do a lot less doubling back through the store when I am out shopping. (I have a mobility impairment so cutting down on steps taken can be a big deal for me, ymmv.)
posted by bewilderbeast at 1:02 PM on April 16, 2011

I've just realised I've completely failed to answer your question, really.

Anyway, I find Latitude perverse but invaluable. It's great when you're in a big city and meeting someone - rather than phoning up and saying "I'm near that big pointy building that looks like a Mexican hat on steroids", you can just go straight into Latitude and see exactly where your friend is, and even get directions to them. It's great for group activities like walking and bike rides, too - you no longer have to worry about absent co-exercisers because you can see exactly where they are.
posted by hnnrs at 1:05 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Unclutter your keychain. Use Key Ring or a similar app to scan the barcodes from all your "loyalty programs" cards. Whether you can scan the barcode that is then generated on your screen seems to be up to the phone display technology. Usually though, store clerks can just as easily type in the number that is displayed along with the barcode.

I use it for my library and gym cards too.
posted by metroidhunter at 1:25 PM on April 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you live in an area that tends to have storms, a weather tracking app is nice.

I have Weatherbug on my iPhone and I can keep track of weather alerts and even see doppler radar overlaid on a map of my area.
posted by Fleebnork at 1:44 PM on April 16, 2011

This is probably pretty basic, but I keep a running shopping list in the Notes app on the iPhone. What I really love, though, is that there's an email function, so if my husband has a chance to stop by the store, I can just email the list to him.

I have a toothbrush timer and now I brush my teeth for two minutes a day. It even beeps every thirty seconds so I can change quadrants. Also it applauds when I'm done.

The amazon app will probably put me in the poorhouse. I'm going to look into the barcode scanners listed above, but the amazon app is great for on the fly price checking if you have a prime account and can wait a day or two for whatever it is.
posted by sugarfish at 1:51 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Being able to write down notes/lists from my work computer, home laptop, or phone, which sync with each other so I can get to the info anywhere is kind of my favorite thing.

Basically, if I could marry Simplenote I would.
posted by grapesaresour at 2:10 PM on April 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

I use Keeper to store my passwords for websites. Probably unwise but it's been massively helpful.

Any app that periodically tracks/nudges you on a practice/activity can potentially be huge. Meditation Helper has been a really big help for me.
posted by selfnoise at 2:32 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was showing the first issue of MeFi Mag to friends using the Dropbox App. After saving the PDF from Indesign, I put it on Dropbox and was able to pull out the iDevice and show the pages from the PDF. Great way to put the grocery list on smartthingie without buying another App
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:45 PM on April 16, 2011

The biggest difference my recent phones have made in my life is dealing with delays. Waiting in drug stores, or to meet someone when you get there early, or for an event to begin, being stuck in traffic stoppages (not slow downs), etc. don't bother me as much anymore. I check on my e-mail, then jump right into news in various categories (USA, World, Technology, Entertainment, etc.) Invariably I think of things and can then either make notes in Evernote or send messages or emails to others.

I use an Android app. called Chime Time because I have always liked the idea of a clock chiming on the hour and half-hour, but my family isn't so fond of it.

Evernote not only lets me sync my phone and desktop PC, but also my notebook PC, so anywhere I want to make a reminder it syncs to the others.

SoundHound lets me find out what that song playing is, which may not seem important but it sometimes took me a while to discover that, especially if there weren't many (intelligible) lyrics.

My phone also tracks my exercise and walking. It tracks my agenda with reminders hours or days ahead of time as I decide. Pandora also pushes music out to me similar to songs I already have told it I like.

I use Motorola S9 bluetooth headphones so I can listen to music but not be constrained by a cord. I can pick up documents from the printer at work with my phone still on my desk. They also are not harmed by sweat so I use them when exercising.
posted by forthright at 2:48 PM on April 16, 2011

Any travelling nerd with an iphone needs this. It's for libraries and bookstores but you can consider it a wifi finder and/or a clean bathroom finder when you are traveling. Also since I happen to know you live in Massachusetts, you need this. It will validate you within the app if your IP address is in MA and you can look stuff up in a not-super-easy but okay way.
posted by jessamyn at 3:44 PM on April 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

Echoing what Jessamyn said, I really like emailing photos. It's so simple with my iphone to just take a photo of something, add a line or two, and click send. My mother particularly liked knowing about the mundane little details that made up my life when I lived in Paris, and it was so easy to take a minute out of my day to snap a vase at a flea market I thought she'd like, or a view from a bridge over the Seine, or an old man on the metro, or the Pantheon in the snow, and email it off (this also ended up giving me a way to remember these mundane details now that I'm no longer in Paris). There are myriad other apps that allow you to collect photos in one place if you're not emailing them to one person (wordpress, tumblr, flickr, etc.). Also I'm certain that this made me a better photographer, even just using the camera on the phone.
posted by tractorfeed at 3:48 PM on April 16, 2011

I recently realized that you can also email short (relatively low-quality) videos to people - my parents have been getting a lot of those lately, along with the usual dose of photos.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:25 PM on April 16, 2011

The biggest thing for me has been mounting my phone so it's easy to use. In the car, I have a mount attached to one of the air vents. GPS navigation is easy to see! I also connect my phone to this thing, my music, navigation, and phone calls all go through my car speakers and are easier to hear.

When I'm at home, I have a mount on a clip which goes on the table or on my bed rail or wherever I am. I mostly use this for reading, it means I'm never trying to hold a book at an awkward angle.
posted by anaelith at 5:05 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I leave my phone on the sink and listen to Pandora in the shower. I have a password keeper on there that saves me a lot of time and frustration w/r/t remembering my usernames/passwords to various websites. I check the air quality and pollen count on the go using the phone's internet browser. I use the Amazon app a lot for shopping when I'm not near a computer and can't make it to the store and need that one certain thing by Saturday... this works only if you have Amazon Prime, of course. I take pictures of anything cute or special or interesting, and sometimes upload those pictures to facebook from my phone. I also sometimes send them to my friends. I use my phone's memo pad to make little notes on gift ideas, bands/movies/books I want to check out at a later time, to-do lists occasionally, and noteworthy quotes that I like. I manually input every new moon and full moon of 2011 into the calendar so I can remain aware of the lunar cycle - wish there was an app for that!

So yeah, it's a pretty handy lil guy.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 5:16 PM on April 16, 2011

jitterbug perfume, if you can see google calendars on your phone, it's very easy to tap into a shared calendar which shows phases of the moon. It's called -- drum roll -- Phases of the Moon, easy to find under "Interesting Calendars" on their calendar page. You can easy add it to your own gcal, and/or if you don't use them for your calendar app it appears you can easily import it into your iphone.
posted by dancestoblue at 6:34 PM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I use an app called What's On as a tv guide, which is great for obvious reasons, but even better when you travel because you just punch in your city and presto, no more couch surfing in the hotel room!

I also listen to the radio a lot, chances are you can find a streaming version of your favorite station, but the really cool thing is the speaker on your phone is loud enough That you can keep it in your pocket as you complete chores around the house.

I use the GPS functionality while walking repetitive routes not for location but to find out which routes are faster/shorter.
posted by furtive at 6:49 PM on April 16, 2011

Our family notes groceries we need on a whiteboard at the back door. When I'm going there, sometimes I just snap a picture on my way out the door and shop from that.

I like setting up text message reminders for important calendar items. Or even everyday stuff, like a reminder to take a daily medicine.

I like Read It Later for noting things I don't have time to read at my desk but would like to have available while waiting in a line, etc.
posted by lakeroon at 6:53 PM on April 16, 2011

I was never really into electronic calendars, but I use my iPhone's calendar (synced with Google cal and my work's Outlook) a lot now, mostly for reminders. Now I never forget to give the dog her flea and heartworm meds, for example.
posted by radioamy at 10:18 PM on April 16, 2011

You don't mention what sort of phone you have, but if you have an iPhone and a Mac, you can sync your Address Book and iCal with your phone automatically. Never again will you find yourself out and about thinking, "Oh, I left Jenny's number on my computer" or "What's the name of that vet again?" Similarly, I find the calendar stuff incredibly handy, way more than I expected before I got a smartphone.

Dropbox, as previously mentioned, is great for accessing documents on the go. I also use it as a basic To Do app, as I found all the existing To Do apps really fiddly. I have a text file on my laptop set up to automatically sync to Dropbox when I save it, and in that I put shopping lists, notes on errands, books I want to borrow from the library, etc.

Speaking of books, my local library uses BookMyne, which lets me look up titles when I'm on the go and see if they're available before I stop by. I also find it handy when I'm in the library itself, because they only have computers on one of the three floors and I'm just that lazy.

In my city (Sydney), there's an incredible public transport timetable app that lets you plan and organise complex routes. It makes such a difference to getting around that it's generally the first app I recommend to new iPhone buyers. If you live in a major city, I'm sure you can find something similar there.
posted by Georgina at 11:00 PM on April 16, 2011

I have a toothbrush timer and now I brush my teeth for two minutes a day. It even beeps every thirty seconds so I can change quadrants. Also it applauds when I'm done.

I have this too. Otherwise, I'd brush for maybe 30 seconds.

I picked up a multi-timer app that can run multiple countdown timers at once. I use it to keep track of the washing machine and dryer, so that I don't forget when they're going.

And there are self-hypnosis apps. They play recordings, but they're semi customizable - some parts can be repeated.
posted by ZeusHumms at 11:56 PM on April 16, 2011

Well you don't mention which sort of smartphone you have. Android? iOS? Windows 7? I have an iPhone 4.

If you have an iPhone, double check on any app you purchase that you are getting the iPhone version and not the iPad version. Apple will refund you if you make a mistake, once. (Thanks Apple!)

I replaced OnStar with the app MotionX GPS Drive and a $19.99/year subscription for voice directions, + a $50/year AAA subscription. OnStar would have cost me $300 for the year (up front) or $360 paid monthly.

There's a neat new app called MealSnap (I bought it but haven't tried it yet) that says it can tell you how many calories are in your meal just by taking a picture of it.

There are always games and, if you can stand reading on a small screen, ebooks/ibooks to keep you entertained while you're in a waiting room, and sometimes make the time fly by.

I love to stream Netflix to my iPhone. Right now I'm watching a 6-minute episode or two of The Pink Panther every night before bed.

Recently I went shopping for a new stove and refrigerator... using a barcode/QR scanning app let me instantly save the info to my phone so I could review the specs at home later. And yes, price checking apps as someone already mentioned.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:13 AM on April 17, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the ideas, everyone - these are just the kind of things I was hoping for.

Today I went hiking, and found that the trail maps were all gone from their little storage box. So I just took a pic of the map posted on the bulletin board and off I went.

Lots of great possibilities...much appreciated!
posted by Miko at 2:24 PM on April 17, 2011

I have reams of recipes to try on pages I ripped out of magazines. I've been systematically finding all those recipes online and uploading them to Evernote. When I'm at the store and find an ingredient on sale, I can search Evernote on my iPhone and find all the recipes that use that ingredient, then buy whatever else I might need. Works for leftovers, too. And I've shared my Evernote recipe "notebook" with my husband, so when it's his turn to cook he has access to all those recipes, too.
posted by Joleta at 6:59 PM on April 17, 2011

One of the apps I most often use is IMDB (Internet Movie Database). I can't tell you how many times friends are talking about, you know, that movie with whats-her-name in the lead role - I think she was in Heroes, too - do you know who I mean?

Tap on the IMDB icon, put "Heroes" in the search box and get a complete list of the cast, with photos and links to their other works.

I also saved shortcuts to my local library catalog and to my Meetup groups. Now I can see the upcoming books for the Meetup bookclub and I can see which branch of my library has a copy.
posted by CathyG at 8:19 PM on April 21, 2011

One big difference is that I almost never call anyone anymore. That was what my old cell phones were for, but with my iPhone instead I email people from wherever I am. I usually get questions answered just as quickly (or faster), without the telephone anxiety I've always suffered from, and I have a written record of whatever conversation I just had.
posted by kostia at 11:20 PM on April 22, 2011

Alarm Clock. This is obvious, but phones are much better than normal clocks. What I love about it is that I can program alarms for the workday and sleep in on the weekends without a vague anxiety that I forgot to turn the alarm back on. Of course, this has been replaced by the anxiety that I forgot to plug my phone in within earshot...

Baking Timer. Those oven beeps are never loud enough when you've wandered off. Portable timers solve this problem, but phone apps don't make ticking noise and you've already got a habit.

remote control. There's an app for my phone called blueMaemo. It lets my phone pretend to be bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Useful for media PCs, and for presentations.

pocket reference. If there's a document on the web I need to refer to while away from the desk (usually video game FAQs), I put a link to it on my desktop. Err, phonetop? Home screen.

record meetings & lectures. I'm a terrible note taker, so I set the phone to record and focus on participating fully and reviewing later.

emergency unix terminal As a huge linux nerd, I sometimes need / want this. I've also got screen + irssi running on a server to check on.

GPS MP3-player Camera Phone PDA USB-drive. These are all devices people can mostly do without now. There's an argument that specialized devices can do better, by not compromising, but realistically, how many cameras can upload to gallery2 sites? Or GPS tag photos. The networking effects of all these available features on one device that make it a tradeoff (other than price).
posted by pwnguin at 8:18 AM on April 23, 2011's app lets me price check from anywhere.

Google Maps/Navigation let me throw out my Garmin.

Kindle lets me read anytime I have a minute free.

Clock replaced my alarm clock.

Several apps get me NPR in the car when I'm in a city without a full NPR station.

Zillow shows me nearby real estate prices.

Search finds me nearby restaurants.
posted by talldean at 2:33 PM on April 28, 2011

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