June 10, 2016

How To Get More From Your Smartphone

credit: AFP

Many of us have a smartphone, a device that has the computing power of a desktop computer and a higher quality camera than was available not that long ago. We also have become used to a $200+ bill every month. Unfortunately, these phones don't come with manuals that detail all the things that the phone can do. That is left to the Internet where sites spell out lots of special applications or shortcuts. 

I still use my smartphone to make - phone calls, though I am in the minority. E-mail is falling from favor; it is too slow. Today, texting is the preferred way to contact others with super-short video messages gaining in popularity.

When I began to look at all the things my phone could do I was amazed. Admittedly, at the moment I have no interest in many of these options. But, if nothing else, I have learned that a satisfying retirement journey requires being open to new things, especially in the area of technology. 

Depending on the age, brand, model, and carrier (Verizon, AT&T, etc) you use, not all of these will work on your phone. Some require adding an app, many of which are free. Other functions may already be built into your phone. I don't want to list any particular apps because I can't check them all out personally and vouch for them But, everything on list list appeared on multiple references on the web, so they are well known.

If anything on this list catches your eye, check them out by just typing the name of the function in Google search, preceded by the word smartphone. You will find plenty of apps for both Android and Iphones listed. 

Some of these features require you to turn on that function. Again, the Internet is your friend. Search for what you want to do by typing in the function   followed by your phone model, like direct call samsung galaxy S6.

Manage your thermostat and control your home's lights

Monitor your heart rate

Speak a text, have it translated into words and sent.

Have an e-mail or text read to you.

Identify images

Measure speed, height, or distance of something

Find out why your check engine light is on

Identify song titles 

Visual voicemail

Block spam phone calls

Use camera as a magnifying glass

Snap a picture with the volume button

Use as a universal remote

Create a Wi-Fi hotspot

Barcode and QR code reader

Correct for color blindness

Use Data saver setting (can cut data use by 30%)

Quick launch the camera

Download booster (downloads large files much faster)

Direct call (put the phone to your ear and it dials the contact on the screen)

Split screen (2 windows open at once...sometimes called multi-tasking)

Leveler & compass

Distance finder

Send a mobile fax

Connect to a computer and use phone as an external hard drive

Transfer files wirelessly from phone to computer

I imagine there are all sorts of applications and special tricks you can share that are not listed above. Fabulous! Tell us what you use, or shortcuts you have found that make your day easier and more fulfilling.

If you don't have a smartphone, and don't want one, tell us why. Is it cost, complexity, no real need in your life? There are an estimated 120 million non-smartphones in use in the U.S. out of a total of over 320 million cellphones, so you are definitely not alone!


  1. Love my Apple SE. It is not the huge screen of many of the smart phones, so it is more portable for a small person such as myself.

    I have a home security app through our cable provider that allows us to check and adjust the thermostat while we are doing our snow bird travels. It also provides details of any breech in security of the house. Just amazing, and gives us peace of mind.

    I enjoy the apple pay, which is more secure then swiping or handing over your credit card. The transaction happens with a touch of your finger print on your phone using the apple pay app. Especially a nice option when you do not want to carry around credit cards or cash. Credit card information is stored on your phone and the transaction is wireless, all with the touch of your finger. No one is able to open or use your phone, as it requires the touch of your fingerprint to open.

    When I am out and about, my phone screen displays how far I am from home, the anticipated drive time, weather conditions and expected traffic! It continues to amaze me.

    And Siri is smarter than I am! (thank goodness!)

    1. The ability to control temperature and home security from the phone is something I should look into for my Android. We plan on being gone for 2 months this fall on an RV trip. I'd love to be able to check on my home while away. If a problem appears one of my daughters is less than 5 minutes away.

  2. Hi Bob,
    I've never commented before but I really enjoy your posts.
    One of the most useful items on my phone is an app for tracking what I eat. I need to lose weight and the best way I have found, for me, is to log everything I have eaten so I do not exceed my calorie "budget" for each day. There are many apps that can help with this but the one I have chosen is 'My Fitness Pal'. The food database is huge. The app can scan the barcode on a package to find the food item. And it logs full nutritional information, not just calories. You can check to see how much of each nutrient (fat, carbs, protein, vitamins, minerals, etc) you have consumed. You can also log exercise and the associated calories burned with various types of activities. This app has helped me greatly in losing about 30 lbs so far this year. I still have a long way to go (I was about 70 pounds overweight at the end of last year).
    Also, I use an app called Runkeeper to log my exercise activities. I do cycling, walking, hiking, mountain biking etc. Runkeeper will track any of those activities and more. Using the GPS built into the phone it keeps track of the distance traveled, the time, speed, elevation, calories burned etc.
    Lastly, I will mention that I use a map application called Navigator by Mapfactor. It stores the maps in the phone so you don't need a network connection in order to see a map. I hike sometimes in places where there is no cell service so it is important to me to have a map stored on the phone. I'm sure there are other apps, but this one is free and works well for me.
    Lastly, you mention $200 phone bills. That is a crazy amount of money to me. Admittedly, I am a cheapskate. I researched low cost phone plans and decided on Republic Wireless. In fact, I only pay $10 a month (about $12 with taxes) for a plan with unlimited talk & text, and unlimited data but only on WiFi. I decided that I can wait until I am on a WiFi connection to check email or Facebook. When I am out driving around all I need is to be able make a phone call or text. If I need a map I use Mapfactor. If I need to google something, I stop at a McDonalds or Starbucks or any of the other places that offer free WiFi.
    The downside with Republic is a limited set of phones they support (no iPhones, mostly Motorola) and you must buy the phone outright from them so you do have to fork over a minimum of about $150 for the cheapest phone, but then there is no contract. It works well for me. Not for everyone perhaps, but I like it.

    1. Some great thoughts here. Thanks for participating.

      Yes, $200 is a lot. Because we share a family plan with one of our daughters our share is more like $160 for our part. But, Betty recently upgraded and so did I. We are paying for the phones over 24 months and buying insurance for each until they are paid for. Dropping a phone in the toilet or on concrete might mean a $700 bill to replace that phone. So $11 a month buys peace of mind. But, the price is high.

      Frankly, I have never heard of Republic Wireless but I will take a look.

    2. My husband uses Republic Wireless, too, and loves it. Because I have hearing aids and wanted an iPhone (not available through Republic Wireless) and also wanted to be on the Verizon network, I chose a Verizon MNVO (mobile virtual network operator). It's a little more DIY than just handing over your phone to Verizon and having them transfer everything over, but my husband and I together pay $32.00 a month plus minimal taxes for me for both our plans. New phones would be additional on top of that. My plan does have a data allowance, so we do on-the-go searches via my phone, not his.

  3. Hi Bob,

    Still a 'dumb' phone user here. Ironically, I've been in high tech my entire career and think I'm just tired of always having to learn new technologies, been doing that for 35 years. Plus, I am cheap and a $30/month phone bill and a $15 'burn' flip phone from Walmart allow all the talking & texting I need to do.

    However, I'm sure there will come a day when a get a smartphone. Just not sure when.

    1. I was surprised how many folks are using the older flip phones - 120 million at last count. You are in good company, Scott. If my life weren't so plugged into the Internet and social media because of this blog, I would probably still be a "dumb" phone user.

  4. Quite a list there Bob and the first two comments here added some other valuable ones. I use the speech-to-text often now to know what people say. After I tell them I am deaf and want to use a smartphone app to understand them some are still reluctant but other almost grab the phone from me. This is a big deal for me, kind of like closed captioning for TV now almost 30 years old. I use dragon Natural Speaking as it seems more accurate with more people.

    I would only add a couple of things to your list. I iPhone/iPad are great in helping me get from point A to point B either by driving, walking, or even by bus. I like most males I guess hate asking for directions. GPS closed that door forever. Yeah I am on one of those $100 plans but when that expires soon I am planning to try Consumer Cellular, which by the way is targeted to people in satisfying retirements. I can get more than I use now for about $30/month. That includes using my iPhone as a personal hotspot for my iPad so I don't have to pay additional to connect it to the cellular network.

    Technology has advanced so much in the last decade. I can't imagine what will be coming next...

    1. The speech to text (and text to speech for those visually impaired) are tremendously positive developments. I know they were developed to make money for companies, but the end result is very positive for those with communication issues.

      I see the Consumer Cellular ads in the AARP material every month (along with Jitterbug). The prices are attractive but I have never given them a shot.

      One thing a few commenters have mentioned is using GPS. Maybe I am paranoid but I keep my location function off. I am not comfortable with someone, or some company) being able to track my every move. It also uses up battery time more quickly.

  5. Although my spouse has a Smart phone, I do not. I'm good sharing his for now in that it cost something like $500 and I'm just not interested in spending that a second time for no significant enhancement in my day to day life. The technology curve isn't the issue, as I'm very comfortable using his Smart phone. The issue for me is twofold, 1) As soon as I change over it becomes a permanent run rate issue in that Smart phones need to be regularly replaced/upgraded just like laptops and e-tablets, and 2) I don't care to be connected 24/7. All evidence points to this being detrimental to our well-being, including the alteration of our brains in a manner that can create ADD, and thats the last thing I need - I'm flighty enough already!

    If the price drops to $200 or less I'd then likely trade in my basic phone, but until then we'll remain a one Smart phone family.

    1. Mike is a generous man.

      Smartphone obsessive use can be a problem. I have to stop myself from reaching for it when I am bored or between things. But, I do love watching a movie or something on Netflix and being able to instantly look up the bio of an actor or find out the filming locations of a movie. It brings an extra level of involvement to the viewing experience, or I am just making excuses for using the phone (ADD?!!!!!)

    2. The later I would think? :-)

      I can do same on my $99 e-tablet, though I do try and resist and instead remain in the moment.

    3. I would like to know what kind of $99 e tablet there is
      out there...??

    4. Madeline, the Kindle Fire's start at $49, then up from there. I have what used to be the $99 model, now discounted to $69 per Amazon today. It seems to do everything but make phone calls.

    5. Madeline,Verizon ha a a small tablet and it sells for 99 now I believe. When I got mine it was 49. I live it. Think past iPad and the hugest size and you'll find lots of affordable pads.

  6. I use my Motorola Droid Turbo2 (the one with the unbreakable, multi-layered screen) for a number of things other than the normal talk and text features. My Vivofit smart watch is synced through it, and I do use call blocking s/w (note to anyone looking at the Turbo2 - for whatever reason Motorola chose to not include call blocking s/w with the phone, but there are many free apps that will do that, such as Mr Number). I do use the flashlight feature in a pinch and other features.

    What I have hesitated to do is coordinate it with things like the alarm system, front doors locks, the vehicles, and so forth. My fear is hackers. Anytime you give them an entry point to exploit, like the locks to your home, they will do it. So until I feel the technology is safe enough to expose things like our house, I will hesitate to implement them.

    1. I can tie by fitbit to my phone but have yet to see a benefit, so I don't.

      Your point about hacking is valid. Recently, I activated the lock screen feature on my phone so a pin is required for use. If I lose it, no one (except a dedicated hacker) can get into it.

      I used Truecaller for a while to block spam calls but found it was dumping calls I hadn't identified as spam. Every single day I get calls from the Orlando and Las Vegas area trying to sell me timeshares or vacation deals. I know what area codes to simply ignore. But, I will take a look at Mr. Number. Dom't these robocallers ever give up?

    2. On my phone there is an i symbol next to each of the phone calls you have received. When I tap on the "i", there is an option (you have to scroll down to see it) to block that caller. Love this feature!

    3. Oh my, Carole, you are the best! If I click "More" on the phone call page I can add that number to my blocked list. Thank you!

  7. For me the greatest advantage of my smart phone is that it takes the place of many other things and all I need to carry with me is it and a wrist wallet. Right now my phone has my grocery list and errands on it. Other than that?

    Heart rate and pedometer and calorie counter, and a list of my meds and dosage

    GPS walking and driving

    Really good camera

    Online banking wherever I am

    Meditation app for wherever I am

    Prayer book, bible and Kindle app with recipes and craft pdfs wherever I am

    Love the voice to text

    Coupon and reward apps for many stores

    Insurance app. Almost every state now allows digital proof of insurance on the phone

    Quicken for mobile

    Travel apps to numerous to mention

    And so much more.

    1. I like your list.

      List of my meds would be a smart addition to my phone. The camera on my phone is as good or better than the Nikon we bought a few years ago. In fact, on our just-completed cruise to Alaska the phone was the primary camera for our very best photos, primarily so we didn't have to carry the bulky camera with us on the ship or on short shore excursions.

      Insurance app is a great idea.

      Betty's phone has several apps for the stores she tends to frequent the most: Michaels, JoAnn Fabrics, Bed Bath & Beyond. It saves printing out coupons.

      I have never tried the voice to text app, but maybe I'll give it a shot.

  8. My husband and I have iPhones for four reasons 1 Daughter, 2 Son in law, 3 Grandson, 4 replaced the big box of maps in the car and I now know where I am going. Great post

    1. The large GPS that goes on RV trips has been supplemented by the phone, though I do like the bigger screen on the dash-mounted Garmin unit.

      I like being able to share articles or photos with other family members directly from the phone. That is a well used feature.

  9. I'm a Samsung devotee. I have continually refused to drink the apple kool-aid. The camera on my Galaxy 6 is better than my DSLR camera. That makes photographing anything and everything so much easier. I also create my own phone case from my art work. It makes it really easy to spot my phone in a crowd. Anyone can do that on the FineArtAmerica site. You can choose from many different artist. It's always a conversation starter!

    1. I begin most mornings looking at the pictures you post of something pretty in your neighborhood or home. I assume those are taken by your S6, which is the model I have, too.

      I have never had an Apple product, except an Ipod to replace several large CD jukebox players. I know Mac users and Apple phone users swear by the products but I have never felt the price premium is worth it.

  10. While I agree that your list is quite nifty. I opine that none of them (or all of them) is worth $200 a month. I use a TracFone for a few calls and texts and pay all of ~$6.66 a month. For that extra $193 a month ($200 less $6.66) I can find much better uses for the money than what you post.

    1. You are not alone in your position. I use the phone a lot for all sorts of things and it simplifies my life. But, to buy smartphone just because others do is not a wise choice. If your Tracfone meets your needs, then the $6.66 investment is perfect.

      If my budget had to be cut back significantly, the $200 phone bill would be one of the first things to go. I readily admit it is a luxury, not a need.

    2. We've used a TracFone for many years and buy a year's time for $106 (including tax), which works out to $8.83 per month. We have a GPS paid for years ago that plugs into our car's lighter outlet. Cost is zero, except for pennies needed to charge the unit when not in use. Sandy has a smartphone received as a gift last year, but hasn't had many occasions to use it. We may get higher tech when she gains interest in smartphone uses. I think the whole thing is the classic "needs vs. wants" situation. I read your list and all the comments listing more capabilities and didn't see anything to get excited about.

    3. It really is an individual decision based on what any piece of technology will do for you. A samartphone is usually a want. I would argue that if one's budget can handle the expense and it makes that person happy, then go for it. On the other hand, if it isn't used enough to justify the cost, that want" isn't worth it.

    4. Dick Klade:

      If you don't use many minutes (like me). Buying the $20 TracFone card gives you 3 months of service. That works out to $6.67/month. Also like you I have an older GPS that works just fine if I need navigation.

  11. I switched to an iPhone just before I retired. I could text and email on my old phone but I love the technology that the iPhone affords me. The GPS is wonderful and I love being able to find the closest restaurants when I'm out with the grandkids, or when I'm traveling. I live alone and I don't talk to my family every day. There are many apps that can locate my phone if my family is concerned about my whereabouts. My neighbors aren't always home if my family wanted to check on me. Shopping apps that let me access store coupons are a treat and the list continues. I am on a family plan with my kids so my monthly bill was $50 until I bought a new phone and now it is $85. It is the only phone I have - it is connected via Bluetooth to my house phones so I don't have to carry it around with me. And then there's the camera. Need I say more? I do have to use the 'FindiPhone' app on my iPad occasionally when I set the iPhone down in the cat tree or it ends up under something so, again, I love the technology. Wouldn't be without it. The only reason I upgraded was because the speakerphone died, otherwise I would still have my iPhone 5. I only get the new technology when the old technology 'dies'.

    1. Either Betty or I have to call the other's phone a few times a week when we set it down somewhere unexpected!

      After these Samsungs are paid for we are likely to keep them for another year or two after that, so the monthly costs will drop by $68. Also, I pay for extra data so I can use the phone as a mobile hotspot when we are RVing. That is another $20 a month that will go away when we stop long distance RV trips.

      But, like you, I find so many uses and flexibility for the phones that I am content to pay the cost.

    2. Cat lady that find your phone app is brilliant. My mom who is in her early 80s lives alone also and we are not in the same state. That would give me a lot of peace of mind if she had a phone I could locate when I can't reach her. I do have an app that I can check her security cameras from my phone.

  12. I am rethinking whether we need two smartphones.I absoultely do not use hardly anny apps on my iphone. I will check my facebook too often while in line at the grocery, or waiting for gas, or..whenever.And before phones,I was happy just waiting and daydreaming! I use my phone as a music player a lot..I send music form google music to my bluetooth speakers,I make playlists,etc.. but I can do that form the same google music app on my laptop.I pretty much don't need a phone other than to actually make a call or text. Gonna go look at our contract and see if I get a Track phone or something simpler, how much we might save.. my iphone is getting older and I will have to "upgrade" it soon.. why bother? I don't even take many pictures!!Can use Ken's phone for that..

    1. Madeline, check out earlier comments by Anonymous and me to see TracPhone costs.

  13. I believe I'm one of the last 10 people in America who doesn't even have a dumb cell phone -- just a landline. I think it makes a difference here that I don't have children. I live in the woods in rural Maine, where digital signals are unreliable, so coverage isn't great. (The next time you are looking at your cell phone carrier's coverage map, take a look at all that white space without coverage in the upper right hand side of the map.) I'm not generally a Luddite, but I only embrace technologies that I think will improve the quality of my life. Right now, I'm resistant to the idea of having to be plugged in and available all the time as something that would reduce my quality of life. But I'm definitely feeling the pressure to conform, so a dumb TracFone may be in my future. -Jean

    1. Maybe not one of the last 10, but one of the last 10%. 9 out of 10 Americans own at least one cell phone. Northern and eastern Maine are cell challenged with spotty coverage being a kind description. Even so, you probably would have basic service (not 3 or 4G) that would allow you to be in contact in an emergency while you are driving to and from the towns you frequent to shop.

      I would consider one for safety, not just to conform!

  14. We have never been heavy cellphone users and switched to Ting from Tracfone two years ago when my wife retired. We have been very pleased with Ting - inexpensive, pay as you go, ~$6 per device per month. So with our account we pay $6/month for my phone and $6/month for my wife, and $3 increments for voice, text or data . If you don’t use a category across the account (e.g., my wife and I make no calls or no texts or no data), your monthly fee for that category is $0. We typically use wifi for data but we have it available if we need it. We average ~$23/month for service, more during months when we are travelling. You can buy phones from Ting or use a compatible unlocked phone.

    I didn’t realize how much we used our phones until I made this list, so here is how we use our phones (besides email/text/voice):
    Offline reading while waiting:
    - Kindle - books
    - PressReader - Newspaper
    - Google Play - magazine subscriptions
    - Pocket
    - Evernote/Dropbox - save travel reservations, maps and guides for offline access and sharing (spouse, fellow travellers)
    - TripIt
    Google Sheets - grocery store shopping list to share with spouse (a lot of work compared to a handwritten list)
    Home automation
    - Control on/off times for 2 lights with Neo wifi enabled timers when travelling
    - Check Nest smoke detector batteries and status
    Clock - alarm, timer and stopwatch
    Fitbit connect to get steps

    1. That is quite an impressive list, esp. considering what you are paying. I have never heard of Ting - thanks for bringing it to our attention.

      I do have an app that come in handy on trips: sleep sounds. I need something to cover night time noises. I use one that creates different sounds of fans. It can run all night and uses only about 5% of the battery and no data since it is downloaded on the phone.

  15. Hi Bob I enjoy your blog very much. After reading all these comments about smart phones I thought I would add my little bit. I use most of the apps that people have already listed so I will just add that I use straight talk for my provider and $45 a month unlimited text talk and data. I have bought my last several phones which goes back many years even before I got a smart phone from eBay. I only buy refurbished phones from what I call eBay companies and only ones with at least 30 day return policy. I never buy iPhone or electronic from an individual. Then I buy eBay's Square trade insurance for the phone which costs about $25-$35 one time. It works well for me as I like to upgrade my phone every year or two. Right now I'm using the iPhone 5 I bought for about $250 I've had for almost a year so I'm itching for a new iPhone 6. My phone is still excellent condition so I will probably pass it onto a grandchild when I spring for the new phone.

    This might not appeal to a lot of people as not all people are comfortable with eBay but it's worked very well for me as I hate to pay full price for a brand-new phone.