20 cool things to do with your iPhone

8th Mar 2009 | 09:00

20 cool things to do with your iPhone

Essential apps to add new functionality to your handset

20 cool things to do with your iPhone: 1-10

Your iPhone can make calls, access the internet, send and receive emails, and even tell you what the weather is like in Kuala Lumpur, but, thanks to the App store, it can do so much more besides.

And so we decided to put together this list, highlighting those apps that can transform your iPhone into a television, a plumb line, an atomic clock and more - showing you the fun and possibly unknown uses for this, the most innovative product in Apple's line-up.

Most will work with the iPod Touch as well - though the lack of camera and always-on internet may mean they become less useful or less convenient – and all are available, either free or for a small fee, from the App Store. You can buy them through iTunes on your Mac (or PC), or download them direct to your iPhone via the App Store application that appears (so long as you're running the 2.0 firmware or later).

So, let's get started. Who knows what your iPhone will become next?

1. Radio & television set

There's a whole bunch of ways of getting good media onto your iPhone. The BBC's iPhone-optimised iPlayer site is genuinely very good – though it requires a WiFi connection, and you must be in the UK to access it. And you can record TV using, say, one of Elgato's TV tuners and then export the content to your iTunes library, ready to be synced to the iPhone. As far as apps go, try downloading Tuner Internet Radio – a centralised service for thousands of streaming radio stations from all over the world. Also Last.fm is a brilliant service that creates music stations tailored to your tastes. When Sling Media finally releases its iPhone client, which will allow live TV to be streamed from your home via one of its hardware encoder boxes – TV will truly have arrived on the iPhone.

2. Dictaphone

We're still puzzled as to why Apple hasn't added the ability to record voice memos to the iPhone – we can only assume that it's down the list of priorities, somewhere underneath adding 'copy and paste'. But thankfully there are some third-party developers stepping in. Our favourite is the iTalk application from Griffin, those clever folk who make rocking iPhone and Mac accessories. There's a free version with ads, or a £2.99 version that's ad-free, but they're functionally identical. You can pick quality levels for new recordings, pause and resume the recording, and append new audio to existing recordings. You can even add text notes, which we've found to be helpful when conducting interviews. Once you're done, transfer recordings to your Mac (or PC; currently in beta) over Wi-Fi using a little helper app.

3. Dictionary & thesaurus

Yes; with the iPhone, you have access to an internet-full of information, and with a few taps, you could track down definitions and synonyms for any word you care to mention. There are a few problems with this, however; it can be sluggish, is rarely optimised for the iPhone's screen, it can lack authority, and is usually focused on American – not British – English. Step forward, then, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary and Thesaurus. It's a proper native app, so once it has launched, it's snappier than a website. The interface could be more elegant, and the quality of the recordings for pronunciation could be better, but it's great to have the authority of the OED in your pocket. Pricey, but no more so than the paper copy, and this is far more convenient. Definitions' words are hyperlinked too for extra mileage.

4. Library of classics

We love Classics, it's such a pretty little application that we wanted the chance to show you the bookshelf view here. It's very polished throughout, with pages that you flip with your finger, chapters, and a bookmark that keeps your place when you switch between different books. Unfortunately you can't add your own books to it – though the developers are committed to adding more classic books to the collection. So, if you're looking for a more extensible reader, try Stanza. This will read many text formats, so you could fill up your iPhone with a library's worth of copyright-free classic texts from the likes of Project Gutenberg. And if you used eReader on a Palm, say, you can access your entire eReader bookshelf through its iPhone app – over the air.

5. Old-fashioned camera

The camera on the iPhone is mediocre at best; we are all agreed on this. But you can at least make its poor quality charming by buying CameraBag. With it, you can apply a bunch of special effects either to pics already saved onto your iPhone, or taken directly with its camera – to make them look a lot more interesting. You can apply a Holga-like supersaturated effect called Helga, go mono, use a fish-eye lens effect, make it look like a Lomo shot, apply a Polaroid effect, or make the shot look like it was taken in 1962 or 1974, if you really wanted to. The effects are actually remarkably convincing, and we like the fact that the app will, if you set the preference, save the original untouched shot from the iPhone's camera as well as the cropped, edited shot, ready to be emailed or downloaded to your Mac.

6. Band

This was one of the apps that was demoed on-stage to show the power of the iPhone Software Development Kit, and it remains a great show-off app for the iPhone. You can think about Band in two ways. It's either just a little tinkering device, which is useful for singer-songwriters on the move, by giving them a pad that they can jam with to try out some ideas or to get some inspiration for new melodies. Or it's a pretty meaty multi-track recorder that you could, in theory at least, use to create a whole track from scratch. There are a range of instruments included – a keyboard, a bass guitar, an interactive appreciative audience, the drum kit shown here, and a fun 12-bar blues creator – and you can layer instruments together and overdub them as you start to build your mini musical masterpiece. It's not perfect; the timings can be tricky to get right, and the export options are, by the nature of the iPhone, a little limited, but it's great fun and is, as we say, a great app to have to show off your iPhone.

7. GPS logger

Trails records your position at regular intervals – and so works better with the GPS-aware iPhone 3G – and then maps the trail you took onto a political, satellite or terrain map, complete with altitude data. The latest version allows you to see your trail live on its map. Export the waypoint data too for use in other apps.

8. Lightsaber

Apologies if you thought this feature was all about useful stuff, because we're happy to recommend fluff as well, and it doesn't get much fluffier than Lightsaber Unleashed. It whums and buzzes convincingly as you move your phone around, and you can create your own custom character with photos from your collection.

9. Spirit level and tape measure

RulerPhone calculates lengths by getting you to take a photo of what you want to measure with a credit card in the scene. It will then calibrate to that, using some on-screen calipers. While it's not wildly accurate, it's perfectly good enough. Meanwhile, iHandy Carpenter packs a ruler, spirit level, protractor and plumb line into a slick, pretty app.

10. Shop

Sure, you can buy stuff on Apple's App Store and iTunes Store – the latter being even more compelling now most music is DRM-free and can be downloaded over the cell network – but that's just the start! Amazon's iPhone-optimised store (go to www.amazon.co.uk with Safari on your iPhone) – is great. As long as you have a mobile signal, you can shop!

20 cool things to do with your iPhone: 11-20

11. Seismometer

Of course, Seismometer is a useless app for serious, um, seismographists – the iPhone isn't calibrated and so there's no scale shown on the display. But it's nevertheless quite fun seeing the iPhone's accelerometer record jolts to the iPhone on the table. It looks the part, too, with an actuator drawing a line on a continuously rolling sheet of graph paper.

12. Games console

There are now dozens of very high-quality games available for the iPhone and iPod touch platform. Super Monkey Ball, one of the first, is still one of the most polished, but with big releases such as SimCity, Brothers In Arms and Spore Origins, it looks like the big boys are here to stay. Jailbroken iPhones can run emulators, too.

13. Number pad

The keyboard on laptops is generally fine, but if you want to punch in loads of numbers, using the horizontal strip of numbers along the top of the keyboard it's a pain. But NumberKey connects to your Mac laptop over your WiFi network. Of course you don't get tactile feedback, but the audible click is good enough.

14. Language tutor

While none of the big names in language tuition has released full apps for the iPhone, we can only imagine it's impending. There are lots of dictionaries and phrasebooks with lastminute.com offering the best. Available in French, German, Greece, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, they tote some handy phrases with good audio read-outs.

15. Ice-breaker

When the conversation lulls, pull out your iPhone. OldBooth is a brilliant app that lets you put the faces of your friends, colleagues and fellow party-goers onto the heads of classic American yearbook-style shots. The implementation is beautiful, and the results, especially if you follow the tips, are genuinely impressive.

16. Remote control

There are many ways to use your iPhone as a remote control that we can barely fit them in. Apple makes two apps. Remote controls your iTunes connection over your Wi-Fi network, and Keynote Remote lets you control presentations running in the version of Keynote that comes with iWork '09. But the developer community has produced some cracking little apps. Air Mouse is one of our favourites; it gives you a virtual keyboard and mouse on your iPhone that you can use to control your Mac – great if you use a Mac as a media server, for example – and you can control the cursor trackpad-style or by waving your iPhone around. LogMeIn Ignition (£17.99) lets you assume full control of Macs and PCs over the internet, and if you liked the sound of Keynote Remote but haven't upgraded to iWork '09, investigate StageHand.

17. External storage device

We still have a soft spot for the slick and well-engineered FileMagnet app, which lets you load docs onto your iPhone – and view many popular file types when you are on the go. But it does, annoyingly, mean you have to have a helper app installed on the computer you want to connect to. If you want to copy some photos, say, to your mum's Mac, it's hardly convenient to have to install the helper app first. Air Sharing gets round this by, effectively, turning your iPhone into a little NAS (Network-Attached Storage) device. Launch it, and it tells you what IP address your phone is on the network. You can then use the Connect to Server command in the Mac to mount it as a network drive. It works on Windows XP and Vista, and Linux too, so it should be possible to connect it to any computer you may come across. Performance is good, and while it struggled a little when asked to view complex documents on the iPhone, it is generally very robust.

18. Atomic clock

The CS2 Atomic Clock app syncs with Apple's European or US time servers to get the precise current time. Yes, it's pointless, but we think it's fun, and the display closely mimics that of the original CS2 atomic clock in Germany. There's a nighttime mode as well so when your baby wakes you up in the night you can be sure exactly how much sleep you're not getting.

19. Make VoIP calls

Guilty: the Truphone app is of less use for iPhone users who already have a phone in their device – though even they could benefit from the cheaper calls from this VoIP service – but for iPod touch users, this is a boon. Pair the second-generation iPod touch with a compatible headset, and it has suddenly become a phone. Some folks are reporting flakiness, however.

20. Settle arguments

If you find yourself without a coin to flip to decide whether you go and see Beverly Hills Chihuahua or Quantum of Solace, try a coin flipper for the iPhone such as iHandy Coin Flip. And the very beautiful physics of MotionX Dice – giving you up to six dice – will dazzle and distract you as you use them to pick from a richer set of options. Free counselling!

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First published in MacFormat, Issue 205

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