10 things you didn't know your smartphone could do
24th Oct 2013 | 13:09
Supercharge your phone in ten easy steps
Smartphones are great, they're basically a computer in your pocket packed full of features to make your life easier. But some of those features are less obvious than others, so to help you get the most out of your phone here are 10 things that you might not have known it could do.
1. You can change the launcher on your Android
Almost every smartphone maker overlays Android with its own interface, be it Samsung's TouchWiz or HTC's Sense. They spend enormous amounts of time making sure they get it just right, trying to improve on stock Android while standing out from the crowd.
But despite their best efforts they can't please everyone. Features are lacking or forced on you and things just don't look or feel right.
Thankfully there's a solution. Smartphone makers aren't the only ones who can develop an interface (or launcher) for Android and many third parties have unleashed their own creations onto Google Play, allowing you to download new launchers and replace whatever one your phone came with.
A quick search for 'launcher' will turn up many, but some are better than others. Nova Launcher is among the best. It closely resembles stock Android but gives you a number of powerful tools to further customise it, from a scrollable dock, to new homescreen transition effects and the ability to add widgets to the dock.
The basic app is free, but a paid for 'Prime' version adds even more features, such as customisable gesture controls.
Another option, particularly if you want a launcher you can show off with, is Next Launcher 3D. As the name suggests, it uses a 3D effect to make icons pop out of the screen.
Fancy effects aside it's also got a robust feature set, including the ability to create custom themes and app icons. At £10.35 it's not cheap, but can you really put a price on the sense of satisfaction you'll get from having the showiest launcher around?
2. Control other devices with your infrared equipped phone
If your phone has one of these then in theory it can control anything that responds to infrared signals. You'll likely find that your phone already has an app that makes use of it hidden away somewhere, for example on the Samsung Galaxy S4 you're looking for 'WatchON', which can be programmed to control your TV or set top box.
But even if your phone doesn't have a built in infrared control, or you just don't get on with the one that is included, you'll find that Google Play has a few available to download.
3. Your phone can identify songs
You might have realised that you could get Shazam or SoundHound for your Android, Apple or BlackBerry phone, either of which can be used to identify a song as it's playing. But did you know that Google and Microsoft have also created their own song identification tools?
Microsoft's is built right in to Windows Phone 8. While a song is playing simply tap the search button on your phone, then tap the music icon and it will get to work.
Google's solution is called 'Sound Search' and if it's not already built into your phone you can download it from Google Play.
It takes the form of a widget which you can simply tap on to identify something without even leaving your homescreen. It can only identify songs which are available on Google Play, but the upshot is they can then be purchased straight from the widget.
4. You can turn your Android into a games console
There are some tremendously powerful Android phones around, but raw power isn't all that's required for a good gaming experience. Sometimes you need a big screen and a proper controller too.
The good news is that both of those things are within your reach. MHL (aka Mobile High-Definition Link) is a way to connect phones and other portable electronics to HD televisions and monitors, using an MHL cable connected to the micro USB port on your phone at one end and your screen's HDMI port at the other.
Not all phones support this but some do, with Samsung and Sony in particular supporting MHL on a number of handsets.
Assuming your phone supports it, you can pick up an MHL cable from around £10 and then you'll be able to experience media from your smartphone on a big screen.
That's great for video, but for games you're still stuck with a touchscreen interface. However there are also a number of Bluetooth smartphone controllers available, including Samsung's own Game Pad. With one of those in hand you can take smartphone gaming to a level that approaches home consoles.
5. You can use your smartphone as a level
Most smartphones include an accelerometer, which is used to identify your phone's orientation, so that for example the screen will know when to auto rotate.
However it can also be used as a spirit level. If you have an Android or BlackBerry phone you can download apps to do this, but if you have an Apple device running iOS 7 the function is built right in.
Having said that, you might be hard pushed to find it, as to get to it you first have to launch the compass app and then swipe across to a second screen. It's not the most obvious location but now you know where it is you can get to work checking your bed/table/sofa/TV/house/cat is level.
6. Use your Galaxy S4 to check temperature and humidity
The Samsung Galaxy S4 is packed full of useful and not so useful features, but one that you might have missed is its temperature and humidity sensors.
The data from these is buried in the S Health app, under the heading 'Comfort Level'. The idea is that the sensors are used to judge whether you're comfortable in your current environment.
It's an odd use for an unusual feature, but it can be interesting to see the temperature and humidity of your surroundings and whether you're likely to be comfortable in them, particularly if you use it to judge a good time and location to start a workout.
7. You can give your phone visual voicemail
You might have visual voicemail already and if not you're missing out. Smartphone users can get access to it by downloading an app, such as 'HulloMail', which is available for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry.
It displays your voicemail as a menu, allowing you to tap a message to play it rather than having to listen to every message in order. You can also pause, fast forward and rewind messages and the app even allows you to view voicemails as text, though that latter function isn't free.
8. You can use the volume buttons to skip songs
Using a phone as an MP3 player is great, but when the screen's off and the phone's in your pocket it can be a chore to skip past that Haddaway song you drunkenly added to your playlist. However with a little bit of setup you can make your volume buttons double as a way to skip track.
On BlackBerry 10 this is easy, just head to 'System Volume' in the settings screen and turn 'Music Shortcuts' on. Once you've done that you'll be able to skip to the next track by holding the volume up button and skip to the previous one by holding the volume down button. A tap on either of them will change the volume as usual.
On Android something similar can be achieved with the help of a third party app such as 'Pocket Skip Track', which allows you to change track with a double tap of the volume buttons.
Unfortunately on iOS this is only possible with a jailbreak, while Windows Phone 8 has no way of doing it without first turning the screen on.
9. You can get Nokia apps on any Windows Phone 8 handset
One of the great things about Nokia's Lumia range of phones is the selection of Nokia apps that come with them. HERE Maps and HERE Drive+ in particular are impressive mapping and sat-nav applications.
However even if you don't have a Nokia handset there's nothing to stop you making use of some of them, as HERE Maps, HERE Drive+ and HERE Transit are all available to download from the Windows Phone 8 store.
10. You can block numbers
No longer do you have to suffer PPI claims lines and other nuisance callers, as most smartphones offer the ability to block numbers.
Now that iOS 7 has arrived this is a breeze from an iPhone. There are several ways to do it but the easiest is usually just to go into your call log, tap the 'i' next to the number you want to block and then tap 'block this caller'.
On Android things can be a bit more convoluted as how you do it depends in part on what phone you have. It may be that you can do it in a similar way to iOS 7, as for example on the HTC One you can simply tap and hold a number in your call history and then tap 'Block contact'.
Many other smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S4, feature an auto reject list, which is generally found in the settings menu and allows you to manually add numbers to a list of rejected callers.
However if all else fails there are also apps to do the job, such as 'Truecaller' and 'Mr. Number'.
Sadly it's not currently possible to natively block a number on BlackBerry 10, nor can Windows Phone 8 do it natively, however there are apps available from BlackBerry World that do the job, while Nokia has implemented a blocked numbers list on Lumia phones, which you can access from the 'extras + info' section of the settings screen.
And a few more for luck…
Rocking a Windows Phone 8 handset and wish there was an easier way to access your Internet Explorer tabs? You're in luck! The browser defaults to having a stop/refresh button to the left of the address bar, but you can switch this for a tabs or favourites button in the internet settings menu.
Loving your HTC One but wishing BlinkFeed would blink off? Well, while there's no way to fully disable it you can make it a whole lot less intrusive.
First off you can sort-of hide it by changing your default homescreen to something other than BlinkFeed and putting BlinkFeed on your far left or far right homescreen, so that you never need to see it.
Both of these can be done by tapping the three dots at the top of BlinkFeed, then selecting 'customize home screen'. From there you can move homescreens around and set your default one (the one that the phone always starts on) to something else.
If you're worried about BlinkFeed draining your battery and really never plan to use it, you can turn off all the feeds from the 'Topics and services' section of the menu and if you want to totally hide it you can always use a different launcher.
And finally…You can automate Android with the help of a third party app, such as 'Tasker'. What do we mean by automate? Well for example you can tell your music player of choice to launch whenever you plug headphones in, tell your Wi-Fi to automatically turn on when you get home or turn off between midnight and 8am (or whichever period you plan to be asleep during) and a whole lot more.
Tasker in particular has an incredible number of options and variables that you can tweak. It can be a little daunting but if you put the time in now to get your Android phone automated to your liking, it will save you a lot of time and hassle in the future.
Your phones battery is likely to thank you too since it can ensure that data connections are never on when they don't need to be.
- Looking for a fancy new phone to go with your new-found knowledge? Check out our top list.