Take smartphones, for example, which have quickly evolved into digital “Swiss Army Knives,” of sorts. These pocket-sized gadgets let you pick up email, browse the web, take pictures, shoot video, listen to music, watch TV shows, play games, get directions, count calories and download apps. Oh, and they make phone calls, too.
It’s no wonder we’re only scratching the surface of what our consumer electronics can do. Like our brains, it's estimated we only use about 10 percent of what our tech toys are capable of.
And then we go ahead and buy the next great gadget, yet stick with the same 10 percent of what we know.
And so we thought we’d share a few lesser-known features of your favorite gadgets and gear, to help you get more out of your investment. And hey, if you have a gem of a tip yourself, be sure to post it below in the Comments section to get credit where credit’s due.
Use it as a nanny cam: Have an old smartphone lying around? Turn it into a wireless surveillance camera with the help of a free app called Presence by People Power. Once downloaded and installed, simply launch the app and place the rear-facing camera somewhere in your home – perhaps serving as a baby monitor, nanny cam or a way to keep an eye on your pets while away at work. Now, wherever life takes you, open the same app on your main phone or tablet to see what’s happening in real-time at home. Alternatively, you can set up Presence to send you video alerts whenever it senses movement. Or have face-to-face 2-way audio and video conversations with whoever is at home when you’re not.
It’s a scanner, too: Naturally, you don't carry around a flatbed scanner with you to digitize documents, receipts, business cards or hand-written notes and sketches. But many apps for all major smartphone platforms can turn your device into a powerful – and portable – scanner to accomplish these kinds of tasks. Some apps, such as Prizmo (for iOS) or Handy Scanner (Android), have “OCR,” or “optical character recognition,” so it’ll make the text editable and searchable with very good accuracy (though not perfect). Prizmo can detect words in more than 40 languages (ten are built-in), plus with optional in-app purchases you can have the app speak the text to you in one of many languages.
Control your home theater: Many smartphones today have an integrated IR (infrared) sensor, therefore you’re able to use your device to control your television, cable or satellite box, DVD or Blu-ray player, and more. Most phones or tablets that offer this convenient feature have an integrated “TV Remote” app to launch, but there are also many third-party applications, many of which are free, that do the same thing. Most require a one-time setup process that walks you through each component, to ensure it can communicate with them. Now you can get rid of all the clutter on your coffee table by putting all the remotes away and using a phone or tablet to control the action as a universal remote.
Make a mobile hotspot: You might know this one, but your mom doesn’t. Regardless of the phone you have and the carrier you’re with, you can enable the “personal hotspot” feature of your phone and use it to help other Wi-Fi-enabled devices get online, virtually anywhere. For example, if you have a laptop, tablet or ebook reader with you, and you want online connectivity, simply enable your phone’s hotspot feature and wirelessly connect your second device. No need to hunt for a Wi-Fi network at a coffee shop. Just be aware this counts toward your phone’s monthly’s data allowance.Square let you accept credit card payments on your Android or iPhone. Once you sign up, you get a small, white and free dongle that attaches to your phone to accept credit card swipes. The app is also free, but you’ll pay 2.75 percent per swipe, with no additional fees and next day deposits. As a user, you’ll receive an email immediately after each swipe should you want to print out the receipt for your records.
Access your home computer: All Internet-connected tablets are capable of logging into your home computer and letting you control the experience as if you were sitting in front of your PC or Mac. Whether you left an important document on your desktop before you left on a business trip or want to stream a movie residing on your hard drive, you can use free apps to log in securely and move the mouse via your fingertips. Personally, I’m a fan of Splashtop Remote Desktop for iPad and Android devices, which also lets you access your computer's web browser to surf to sites with Flash – something that's not as easy on iOS devices.
Use it as a second monitor: Ever wish you had more real estate on your computer monitor? There's an app for that. Avatron Software's Air Display turns your iPad or Android tablet into a wireless display for your Windows PC or Mac, allowing you to extend or mirror your computer screen. Simply prop up your tablet to the right or left of a computer monitor – be it a desktop or laptop -- and your mouse smoothly scrolls between the two screens as if it were a dual-monitor setup. For example, you might open up your Outlook email and drag the window over the iPad so you can surf the web full-screen on your computer while keeping an eye on your inbox. Or in Adobe's Photoshop, you might have your computer screen as the canvas and the tablet screen reserved for your palette.
Use it as a phone: While you might carry your smartphone with you, it might be cheaper to use a free VoIP service on your tablet to make long-distance calls. Yes, you can use your tablet to make phone calls with free apps like magicJack, ePhone, NetTalk, Viber, Groove and Zenitalk. On a recent trip to New Zealand, I had my iPad connected to the hotel’s free Wi-Fi by the pool, and was able to make free calls to any North American landline or mobile number (Skype, on the other hand, only makes free calls to other Skype accounts). Using a tablet to make calls might also make more sense than your phone when engaging in a conference call, so you can see all the names and faces of people on the line.
Print wirelessly to non-wireless printers: There are two problems with printing wirelessly from an iPad: you need an AirPrint-compatible printer and you don’t have any print preview options. A new app called Printer Pro from Readdle addresses both of these issues. The app lets you print attachments, documents, web pages, and more – right from your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch – to any Wi-Fi or USB printer connected to your PC or Mac. So, even if your printer isn’t a wireless one, you can still print wirelessly to it. If you don’t have a compatible wireless printer you’ll be prompted to install a small and free application on your personal computer.
Access Microsoft Office files: One competitive advantage to Windows 8-powered tablets is support for Microsoft Office files, such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. If you have an Android tablet or iPad, you still can view and edit these documents, though, with apps like Kingsoft Office, Files App or Documents Free. These assorted apps support dozens of business and entertainment files – from .avi to .zip, if you will -- and their graphical interface makes it easy to find what you’re looking for. Popular files include the aforementioned Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as well as Apple files (Pages, Numbers and Keynote), .txt and .rtf, and Adobe’s PDF documents. There’s also support for a wide range of photos (jpg, png, gif, tiff, bmp, ico, cur and xmb), music (mp3, wav, aac, m4a, ima4, caf, air, aifc, aa) and videos (mov, mp4, 3gp, avi, m4v). You can also open up saved websites (e.g. html), compressed .zip packages, .csv files and more.
They’re Skype-enabled: Why video chat with friends and family around a small laptop when you can sit comfortably on your favorite couch? Many of today’s “Smart TVs” – Internet-connected televisions that give you online apps and services – often ship with a camera or support an external webcam (plugged into an available USB port). These cameras also offer a wider view than a computer’s cam, and a more sensitive microphone, therefore you can fit more people in the same video chat. Especially as we approach the holidays, Skype is a very popular, affordable and enriching way to stay in touch with those who matter around the globe.
They’re more energy-conscious: While Halloween has come and gone, you might still have vampires lurking about your home – especially if you love your gadgets. That is, with many of our consumer electronics products plugged into electrical sockets -- with an average of 40 items per household connected at any one time -- they're "sucking" electricity, even when not in use. Televisions can still consume more than 30 percent of its full power when switched off. Some of today’s models have a “zero watt” kill-switch so it won’t consume electricity when not used (keep your DVR plugged in, though, so it can record your favorite shows). Other TVs, like the Samsung F8000, will know when it’s not being viewed – via its built-in camera -- and will ask you in a human-like voice if you’d like to shut to down; simply yell “yes” from the kitchen and it’ll power down.
Phone, tablet mirroring: A good number of Smart TVs today can display content you’ve got on your smartphone or tablet. In many cases you can push media from your device to the big-screen in real-time, utilizing technology like DLNA or Intel’s WiDi (“Wireless Display”), while some televisions support screen mirroring, therefore whatever you do with your fingers on a compatible phone or tablet – even web browsing, ebook reading or games – is shown on the television screen. An add-on product like Apple TV also lets you do this with iOS devices including iPads, iPhones and iPod touches. Samsung’s new OLED TV goes one step further with “Multi View” technology: two people can watch two different things on the same TV screen at the same time, while wearing 3D glasses with built-in earbuds.
They’re becoming smarter, connected: While not commonplace just yet, a few of the refrigerators available from LG and Samsung have online connectivity and touch-enabled screens -- to help organize the family calendar, read recipes, view photos or do a Google search – and a few models can send an email or text to your mobile device to give you information about what products need replacing.
Fridges can make soda: Water and ice? That’s so 20th century. Samsung has recently introduced SodaStream to make sparkling water drinks from the outside of your fridge. Customers can customize the Co2 amount, too, in case they want something softer, like a Perrier, or a more carbonated drink, such as a San Pellegrino. In early June, GE unveiled the first-ever refrigerator with a hot water dispenser – so you can make a hot cup of tea or coffee without having to wait for a kettle to boil.
Smarter diagnosis: LG has implemented some smarts to a few of its newest refrigerators. Previously, a customer calling to discuss a problem over the phone had to read off an error code or call a technician to come over, who must have the right part, which can be aggravating. Today, some of LG’s newer fridges have “smart diagnosis,” therefore a user simply presses the button, 24/7, and it transmits info over the phone to LG, so they can determine what’s required – such as changing a filter. LG says it’s looking forward to the evolution of “think technology,” which extends its smart diagnosis to a home’s smart utility meter, to help with energy management and control.
Induction is here to stay: Whether it’s cooktops built into a counter or island or freestanding ranges, “induction” is proving to be one of the hottest trends in cooking. These flat-top products use induction heating, which rely on a micromagnetic field, to directly heat a pot or pan, as opposed to using heat transfer from electric coils or burning gas as with a conventional stove. Induction cooktops are very fast to heat, like gas over electric coils, but unlike gas there’s no radiant heat off the sides of the pot or pan. As a result, induction is extremely energy efficient as you don’t waste heat. There’s a safety factor because there’s no heat unless a pot is present – plus, it’s intelligent enough to know a metal ladle is not a pot and therefore won’t heat up. You can set an ultra-low setting for things like melting chocolate or cream without burning it, and induction cooktops and ranges are easy to clean. Companies like Bosch also offers zone-less induction, which lets you put a pot or pan down anywhere on the flat surface – instead of having a dedicated burner. And you can move the pot around to make room for another one.
Hey, Yahoo Digital Crave readers, have any little-known tips and tricks of your own? Post your favorites below and share the knowledge.
- Technology & Electronics
- Handheld & Connected Devices