How to unlock the secrets of your smartphone, and use some amazing apps

Barcode scanners are just the start. There are apps that turn your phone camera into a tool, as well as help you take amazing quality pictures, apps to track stars, planes and the international space station.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 12:11am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 11:55am

It's always with you, day and night, and you can't imagine life without it, but how well do you know your phone? Just as all couples have secrets, you and your phone probably don't know each other as well as you should.

The magic starts with the camera, the smartphone's eye onto the world, and with an underappreciated iOS and Android app from Google called Translate. Simply point the phone at any printed material and the written words at the centre of the screen will change to whatever other language you've chosen. Even if you've mastered a few simple phrases, you're unlikely to be able to read menus in restaurants, road signs and other public signage, so Translate really helps.

Real-time translation like this is little-used, yet something to behold, and it's easy to see why Google was hoping its Glass "smart" spectacles would catch on among tourists. The downside is that Google Translate only works - so far - with 27 languages, almost all of them European (Indonesian being the exception).

Since mathematics is the language of the universe, the PhotoMath app (on iOS, Android, Windows and Amazon) is arguably even more ambitious. It can solve arithmetic, fractions, decimals, roots and more just by being pointed at a written problem. It then shows you how it arrived at the answer; this is a learning tool, not a quick cheat.

Helping you learn the market are multiple barcode scanner apps. The premise is simple: scan any product's QR code or barcode and the app will search the internet for the cheapest price. Is that unfair to the store you're standing in? Perhaps so, but free markets are supposed to operate best when people are well informed. Coming soon are "contextual" apps that use artificial intelligence to recognise products when you point at them, but, for now, apps such as RedLaser, ShopSavvy and ScanLife Barcode can perform a price check using only a barcode.

The smartphone's camera may have some "secret" functions beyond photography, but it's the taking and sharing of images that has made the device such a hit. There are a number of things about smartphone cameras that few people realise. The first is that you don't have to touch the screen to take a photo, something that causes photos to blur; the up/down volume buttons on the side of your phone work just as well, and offer you a much steadier, sharper result.

The camera is also far more advanced than many give it credit for, with some manual controls possible. Apps such as Camera+, ProCamera and Manual Camera will give you many manual controls, but just dragging you finger up and down an iPhone's screen will alter the exposure. The results can be dramatic, and it's possible by touching the screen for a couple of seconds to lock both the autofocus and the exposure (you'll see a the phrase "AE Lock" appear). That's really useful if you're taking a panoramic image or a time-lapse, which is something else few smartphone owners know they can do. Not only can the Lapse It app be set to take a photo at any interval you wish, and for as long as you want, but it deactivates your phone's screen to save battery and automatically produces a tiny video file that's perfect for uploading to social media. Try doing that with a bulky digital SLR camera.

If you really want to make your phone's camera the most versatile around, get hold of a lens case such as Photojojo's iPhone Telephoto Lens (US$35, which offers a 12x super-zoom that screws onto the iPhone case (included); or the Olloclip Active Lens (US$100, which includes a telephoto (2x optical zoom) as well as an ultra-wide angle lens that's perfect for landscapes. However, you will need to place your phone somewhere flat (try a tripod - most selfie sticks have a tripod screw on them somewhere).

Capturing the world is one thing, but a smartphone can analyse the entire globe and beyond, too. Adapted from a professional weather broadcast tool, the MeteoEarth app lets you navigate a 3D globe, swiping between locations and zooming in at a pinch. Google Earth does a similar job for maps, of course, although few people use the nighttime equivalent, Google Sky Map. It turns Android devices into a real-time planetarium that will show you the constellations just by pointing your phone at the stars, although committed stargazers will get a lot more out of polished apps such as The Night Sky, SkySafari and Star Walk.

ISS Finder, ISS Spotter and ISS Locator will tell you when to look for the International Space Station whizzing above Hong Kong - it's a bright sight to behold - while Plane Finder, FlightHero and Flightradar24 turns your phone into an air traffic radar that's huge fun at airports.

That's your smartphone's camera mastered, but how well do you know its microphone? Use it wisely and you can get your idle personal assistant to start doing some work. For example, Siri isn't there just to say "I found this on the web" to your infrequent requests. Tell it to "set timer for five minutes" and it will be done, which is useful in the kitchen, while setting reminders is just as easy. You can even teach Siri how to pronounce words correctly.

Perhaps the most underused function of personal assistants is eyes-free reading. Siri can read aloud to you - a great time-saver if you're multitasking - if you check the "speak selection" in settings/general/accessibility on an iPhone

When Siri gets something very wrong - most probably your name or the name of a loved one - just reply with "that's not how you pronounce" and you'll be asked to speak it properly. Siri will remember next time. Google Now, which is part of Android but comes to iOS via the Google Search app, is even smarter since it collects your user data from all other Google apps and webpages, and hundreds of third-party apps, too. Using all of this data, it produces timely "cards" of information it thinks you might find useful before you even ask for it, such as showing you your e-boarding pass as your flight nears its departure time, telling you about an upcoming event in your Google Calendar, or offering navigation to the location of your next appointment. It can even help you find your parked car.

Perhaps the most underused function of personal assistants is eyes-free reading. Siri can read aloud to you - a great time-saver if you're multitasking - if you check the "speak selection" in settings/general/accessibility on an iPhone. Next time you select a block of text in an email, an SMS or on a webpage you'll see a "speak" option. But it's not as slick as the new Capti Narrator app, which turns almost any text into an audiobook. Webpages, anything on the clipboard, entire documents from Dropbox, Google Drive or One Drive, and any unprotected ebook can easily be added to the playlist in Capti Narrator, which has surprisingly natural-sounding voices.

However, the final thing you didn't know your phone could do is by far the most useful. Battery life is one of the mobile device revolution's biggest roadblocks, with new phones routinely running out after 24 hours. The only way you can change that is to put it on "airplane" mode all day so it doesn't try to contact mobile phone masts. Doing so does double the battery life, but it's far from practical. However, put it into "airplane" mode while charging-up - perhaps while in an airport, in a cafe or at a bar - and it will refuel in half the time.

With fewer recharges, you'll have much more time to unlock more of your smartphone's secrets.