Smartphones are distraction (and fingerprint) magnets. They feed the regular itches—the need to constantly check our mailboxes, or update our social media accounts. They also create new ones—the relatively recent urge felt by millions of serious, well-meaning adults to help groups of irate birds crash into evil pigs or turn into fruit-slicing ninjas.
Venture beyond the games and entertainment sections of your chosen app store, however, and you’ll find dozens of ways in which smartphones can help you get through life more efficiently. Remember, one of your phone’s greatest advantages is that it is almost always with you. The right set of apps can help transform it into a modern-day super assistant that helps you organize your daily routine (and makes sure you follow it), keeps your important documents at hand (and editable) and even transcribes your voice notes (and sends them as emails). Of course, we wouldn’t want you to waste hours of your potentially productive time transforming your phone into iJeeves. We’ve found the apps for you, and because efficiency starts at home, we’ve split them into different categories.
Help at hand: The right set of apps can help transform your smartphone into a super-assistant. Illustration by Raajan/Mint
Evernote: Elephants never forget. And they can store pretty much anything in their big bodies and trunks. Clunky metaphors aside, Evernote does all that and more, and it takes up a lot less space. You can use it to take different kinds of notes—thoughts, lists and even photos. Evernote’s August 4.4.1 update made an excellent app even better—more stable, easier to use. We love that the home page now has thumbnails which allow you to preview a note’s contents without having to open it. What seals the deal for us is that the app is not limited to just your phone—you can access your Evernote account on pretty much any device with an Internet connection (even a Windows PC). An essential app with jumbo-sized utility value.
Platforms: iOS/Android/BlackBerry/Windows Phone 7
Try these too: Simplenote (iOS), Catch (iOS/Android), Spring Pad (iOS/Android)
A wonder planner
Wunderlist: I would never have finished writing this article on time without Wunderlist. Made by the exciting Berlin-based start-up 6Wunderkinder, Wunderlist stands out from the very long, ahem, list of to-do apps for its ease of use, its general gorgeousness and crucially, its hook-up with the cloud. You can easily add detailed new task lists, and then edit them to include daily reminders, starred items and notifications. What I really like about Wunderlist is the fact that you can configure it so that it’ll send you email reminders of tasks you need to complete, and you can share your lists with friends/colleagues to collaborate. An update this July added support for 16 major languages and added even more options for sharing tasks and reminders with other people. If you’re someone who needs a little help with organizing tasks and a gentle prod from time to time, this is the perfect app. It works cross-platform too.
Try these too: Jorte (Android), Remember the Milk (iOS/Android), Reqall(iOS/Android/BlackBerry)
Dragon dictation: This is a productivity app so nifty that it doubles up as a party trick. Dragon Dictation (DD) does an impressively good job of a very simple task—it records what you say and turns that into notes, which you can then text or email. Like with a lot of voice-based software, it helps to be in a quiet space and pronounce your words clearly (eee-nun-ceee-ate!). DD isn’t 100% accurate, but it’s easy to correct mistakes in the transcribed texts—and an update this August has improved the app’s accuracy with localization options that support different accent types. Way cheaper and a lot more Web 2.0 than hiring an actual assistant.
Platforms: iOS/Android as part of the Nuance FlexT9 app package
Try these too: Jott (iOS)
Documents to go: A good office suite is a non-negotiable addition to your app inventory, especially if your work requires you to be on the move and regularly check or update files from the MS Office family. DocsToGo (DTG) lets you view, edit and create Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. What’s great about this bundle is that it shows you the files in their original formatting, i.e., complete with embedded tables and charts. DTG also supports Google Docs, and allows you to sync changes to your online files. It works with PDF files too, but those are view-only. Swiss army knife, office edition.
Cost: Rs 735 (Android Market) and $9.99, or around Rs 490 (Apple App Store)
Platforms: Android, BlackBerry and iOS
Try these too: Quick Office Pro (Android/iOS/Symbian), iWork (iOS)
Bump/camcard: Sick of carrying a wallet full of cards? If it’s getting to the point where you dread someone handing you their “details”, it’s time for a fix. There are two ways to do this: One is to get Bump, an app that works on both Android and iOS, and lets you wirelessly exchange information with someone whose phone is held close to yours. Bump got better this September—a graphics update was sweetened with an option to search through the list of people you’ve “bumped” to quickly access clickable text links to phone numbers and emails. But since not everyone may have Bump or understand how it works, the alternative is to use a card-scan app like CamCard. It’s cross-platform and stands out from the growing horde of similar apps. Why? Once you’ve taken a photo of a business card, CamCard does an incredibly accurate job of scanning and then storing the information printed on it. You can then view the information in your contacts list or in the app’s custom “cardholder”. The most elegant solution to the fat wallet syndrome yet.
Cost: Bump (free), CamCard (Rs 587 for Android Market and $6.99, or around Rs 340, for Apple App Store)
Try these too: ScanBizCards (iOS)/ WorldCard Mobile (iOS)
Dropbox: This is an essential app for anyone who needs to collaborate online or even use the same file across different machines. If you haven’t used the DropBox service yet, here’s how it works: You upload files (documents, photos, videos, etc) from one device and they’re there on the cloud for you (or your colleagues) to access from any other device. The latest update, in September, added further language support and the option to upload photos and videos in bulk. You can now also upload files directly from your email. A great way to ensure your essential data isn’t trapped on one device, DropBox carries “boxes” of your important stuff everywhere you go.
Platform: iOS, BlackBerry and Android
Try these too: SugarSync (iOS/ Android/ BlackBerry), Wuala (iOS/Android)
Instapaper: Ever sta- rted reading something really interesting at work, but been pulled away midway by a looming deadline or meeting? Well, fear not. Instapaper, the perfect “read it later” app, is here to help. It takes just a tap of the app’s “read later” button (on your PC or iDevice) to store articles, stripped of ads and all the other formatting of a Web page, for offline reading. You could of course bookmark the page and return to it later. But then there are multiple hassles—turning on your browser again and reloading the Web page, which is impossible if you’re travelling by air. Instapaper makes reading on handheld devices more convenient, and easier on the eye, by using up all the on-screen real estate for the actual text and photographs of the article you’re reading.
Platforms: iOS, Kindle
Try these too: InstaFetch (Android), Everpaper (Android), Read It Later (iOS)
All iOS and Android apps should ideally be downloaded from the App Store and the Android Market respectively.
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