Android phones can do more than just answer calls and take pictures. Like digital Swiss army knives, they concentrate a lot of utilities into a compact, pocket-size device. Straight out of the box, your Android phone is a still and video camera, an address book, a GPS navigator, and even a phone.
But with the right apps, you can also turn it into a flashlight, a remote control, a barcode scanner, and a compass. Musicians will find that it makes an excellent tuner and metronome. And though it's already an alarm clock and a music player, it can get better at these tasks with the right software.
Here are 12 apps -- all of them available from the Android Market and most of them free -- that can turn your phone into an even better multipurpose device.
But not a perfect one. I'm still looking for the right Phillips screwdriver app.
Have you ever watched someone trying to read in the dark by the blue glow of their cellphone's screen? Have you ever been that person?
With Motorola's DroidLight, those days are over. Launch this app, and your phone's camera LED will come on and light the way. DroidLight's user interface is transcendently simple: An illustration of an old-fashioned, incandescent light bulb. Touch the bulb to turn the light on or off.
One caveat: Make sure that you go to another program or return to the Home Screen before putting away your phone. Otherwise, you might accidentally turn the beam back on, and it will light up the inside of your pocket until the phone's battery dies.
The DroidLight requires a camera with flash, of course; and it doesn't work on all such phones. It's most dependable on Motorola phones, but it does work on some others, as well. And since it's free, there's no risk in trying it.
Your phone has a microphone and a memory. Why shouldn't you be able to use it to record verbal reminders, conversations, and even live music?
Though there are plenty of recording apps for Android, I recommend the free RecForge Lite and its US$6 big sibling, RecForge. (Until very recently, both versions went by the name AudioRecorder.) The lite version is fine if you're making recordings of less than 3 minutes each.
Either app gives you a host of options for handling the recording you want to make. At its default setting it saves recordings as .mp3 files, but you can choose instead to record .wav or .ogg files. Available sample rates range from low-fi but understandable 8KHz to CD-quality 44KHz, and you can choose to record in mono or in two-track stereo.
Once you've recorded something, you can attach an additional recording to the end, convert it to another format, or share it via e-mail, Gmail, Bluetooth, or text message. Don't get too excited about the Edit option on the menu, however: That's just for file manipulation; you can't edit the audio in RecForge.
Bear in mind, too, that in most places, recording conversations or performances without permission is illegal.
TV Remote Control
I wish I could recommend an app that would turn your Android phone into a universal remote control. But that won't happen any time soon. The problem is that phones don't emit infrared signals -- the preferred interface between remotes and the devices they control.
There are a few of exceptions, all of them involving controls for devices that plug into your home network as well as into your TV. By turning on your phone's Wi-Fi connection, you can control the device over the LAN.
I gave the free Boxee Wifi Remote a whirl. If you've attached a computer to your television so that you can watch movies and TV shows via your Boxee account, this program will permit your phone to function passably as a remote control. It's reasonably straightforward and it works, navigating through the menus with simple on-screen controls, and it even uses your phone's volume control for Boxee.
Running Boxee involves entering text occasionally -- for instance, if you want to search for a title or an actor. If you've ever tried to enter text with a conventional remote control, you know how much easier it is to use your phone's keyboard instead. And that's despite the fact that the Boxee Web remote got confused when I tried using Swype with it.
The developer told me that he has not yet tested this app with DLink's upcoming Boxee Box, but he thinks that it should work.
Since I don't own a TiVo, I wasn't able to test Tim Hoeck's TivoRemote. The app costs $1 and is supposed to work with Tivo Series3, HD, or Premiere DVRs.
Remote Keyboard and Mouse
You can control your computer from your Android phone, even if you aren't watching Boxee.
The free, open-source RemoteDroid uses your network and Java to ast as another keyboard and mouse for your Windows PC. Preliminarily, you'll have to install the Java SE runtime environment on your the computer and then run the RemoteDroid Server software. And of course, you'll have to turn on your phone's Wi-Fi and get it onto the network.
Once you've taken care of those steps, you'll find the user interface minimal but intuitive: You use the big rectangle as a touchpad; the two smaller rectangles are buttons; and (as you'd expect) the keyboard icon brings up the keyboard.
RemoteDroid doesn't support Swype, unfortunately. But it does let you lean back and control your computer without having to touch it. And if you hook up your computer to your TV, the app works with Windows Media Center.
Your phone comes with an alarm clock app already loaded.
But I know a much better one. Alarm Clock Plus is, quite simply, the best alarm clock I've ever used -- including physical alarm clocks of the digital, analog, and wind-up varieties.
What does Alarm Clock Plus do that the others can't? Plenty. It lets you select not just a song but a playlist, from which it will play songs at random. That means you can select 40 or 400 songs that seem right for starting the day, and be pleasantly surprised every morning. You can have it start the alarm softly and slowly increase the volume. And if you have a really hard time getting up, you can preset it not to shut up until you've solved a math problem. That should get your brain working.
You can set alarms to play once, to play every day, or to play only the days of your choice (such as on weekdays).
With all these of options, Alarm Clock Plus can be a little daunting to set up. So when you create an alarm, work through it slowly, and then use the option for testing it. The requirement to proceed methodically may explain why Brent Rose had such a different experience with it than I did.
The full version of Alarm Clock Plus costs $1.79; but if you're willing to put up with some advertising, the free version works just fine.
If you're in a location where you can recharge your phone and get on a 3G network, you probably don't need a compass. But a compass is still a cool thing to have around.
Catch.com's free Compass displays a working compass on your Android phone's screen, complete with an arrow that always points north. And unlike a real compass, this one can point to due north as well as to magnetic north.
You get a choice of seven compass designs, from antique to GPS, and you can select from among various backgrounds.
The app has some cool tricks up its sleeve. For instance, you can save your current longitude and latitude as a place, and later you can bring up the place in Google Maps for directions back to it. If you're the sort of person who forgets where you parked your car -- or who gets blindfolded and taken to secret hideouts a lot -- this feature can come in handy.
Compass's accuracy is only as good as your phone's direction- and location-finding abilities. You may also have to move your phone in odd ways (such as in a figure 8 pattern) before you can get an accurate reading.
Notepad, Post-its, and Refrigerator Door
We all scribble things on pieces of paper -- reminders, ideas, shopping lists. Then we leave them places where we'll find them or, more likely, never see them again.
You'll find plenty of note-taking apps in the Android Market, but the free AK Notepad won my heart. In the first place, it looks great on a phone's screen -- mimicking yellow, lined paper. The sans serif font looks slightly handwritten while remaining highly legible. You can edit the title of each note separately from the note itself.
After creating a note, you can do much more with it than just leave it in AK Notepad. You can set a reminder to go off in 5 minutes, in a day, or on the day and time of your choice. You can pin an icon for the note (but not, unfortunately, a widget) to your Home Screen. You can save the note as a text file, or send it to someone via e-mail, Gmail, or text messaging.
Almost every commercially packaged product has a barcode, which can tell you more than just the price of the product in that particular store -- especially if you've installed Barcode Scanner on your Android device.
With the app running, point your phone's camera at a bar code, and it will decode it and offer you information about the product. You may find reviews, and you'll certainly learn where else you can buy it and whether you can get a better deal.
Barcode Scanner gives you three ways to look up each product that it identifies. Its own Product Search tends to find local and online stores that offer the same item. The Web Search looks up the code in Google, thereby finding a wider variety of information. And if you have the Google Shopper app installed, Barcode Scanner can use that -- though in my experience, the results are identical to those from the Product Search.
The app saves all of your scans in a history, which is good, but it doesn't do much with that history. For one thing, it merely lists numbers, without descriptions, which is not very useful. Also, as near as I can tell, you can't delete anything from the history.
Weight Watcher's Diary
If you're trying to lose weight, or to maintain your weight after slimming down, you've probably considered either joining Weight Watchers or trying to follow its point system without joining. Either way, Canofsleep's free WWDiary is worth considerably more than you don't have pay for it.
Here you track the foods you've eaten in the course of a day, the exercise you've done, and the effect these have on your daily and weekly allotment of points. (In the Weight Watcher system, every food serving has points, from 1 point for a carrot to 19 points for a banana split. Based on your age, weight, and gender, you should accumulate no more than a specified maximum number points per day and per week -- or you'll start accumulating unwanted reserves of cushiony lipids.) When you add a new food or a new exercise to your diary, you have the option of adding it to your Favorites list too, which simplifies adding the same things in future entries.
Specialized calculators help you determine the points associated with a food item or an exercise routine, as well as how many points you're allowed that day. You can also keep a log of your weight changes.
But don't bother with the widget -- at least not at first. It simply tells you how much weight you've lost since you started using the app.
WWDiary is not officially affiliated with Weight Watchers, and it carries this disclaimer: "By using this program you agree that I am not responsible for any of your problems."
Portable Music Player
Android phones come with software for playing MP3s and other music files. But the preloaded player is pretty basic, and lots of better alternatives exist. My favorite is Maxim Petrov's PowerAMP.
As I write this, PowerAMP is a free beta. But the final version will be out very soon and will cost $5. That's a lot to pay for a program that competes with a bunch of freebies, but consider what you get for the money.
First, PowerAMP provides some awesome audio settings: a ten-band equalizer; preamp control; and separate dials for controlling bass, treble, and volume. All of these adjustments come up on a separate, highly graphical window, but you can turn any of them off or on from the main screen.
As on most other players, the main screen displays album artwork. But PowerAMP is sensitive to what you do with your fingers over that art. Flick left and it takes you to the next song. Flick right and you go to the previous one.
PowerAMP is intelligent about headphones, too. Unplug your headphones and the music stops. Plug them in again, and it restarts.
You also get your choice of three different widgets for viewing and controlling your music from the Home Screen.
Country Joe McDonald once gave me his analysis of the difference between '60s rock and '70s rock: In the 70s, everybody's instruments were properly tuned. He credited this triumph of euphony to the invention of small, electronic devices that took the guesswork out of instrument tuning.
Cohortor.org's gStrings can turn your Android phone into just such a chromatic tuner. Using the microphone, it determines whether a plucked string or a note blown through a mouthpiece has produced the correct wavelength. You can optimize the program for a specific instrument, or you can shift its results to match the tuning practices of a particular orchestra.
The free version should work just fine for most people, but for a single Euro (the equivalent of $1.41, as I write this) you can get gStrings+, which provides more-precise results and -- thanks to its relatively compact code -- demands less power from your phone's battery.
My wife, a professional musician and music teacher, described gStrings as "Clearly a professional tuner for many instruments."
By supplying a regular but adjustable pulse both visually and audibly, a metronome helps musicians keep a steady beat while they practice. You can set the beat to match the piece and your comfort level with it before you start playing. Sophisticated metronomes can accent downbeats to mark the beginning of each measure.
The full version of Zealy Technology's Metronome ($1) does all of this.The free demo is just that -- a demo. You can't even change the tempo on it.
With the real program, you can do that and more. You can set the app to count out anywhere from 40 to 208 beats per minute, and to add a measure-marking ping on the downbeats.
You can play the beat audibly, display it as a blinking series of lights, and receive tactile feedback via vibration. Its vibrating ability means that you can operate this metronome while it's tucked in your pocket.
In fact, by turning off the light and sound, keeping the vibration on, and parking the phone in a pocket, a musician could use it during a performance and no one else would ever know.
Lincoln Spector writes PCWorld's daily Answer Line blog. Madeline Prager provided expert opinion and analysis on the Tuner and Metronome sections.