The 10 Strangest Things You Can Do With a Smartphone

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There’s no question that smartphones are practical tools. With apps that let you do everything from transfer money to find directions, they’re fast becoming indispensable to many Americans. And this is just the beginning: According to a survey published last week, so far only 35 percent of us own one.

The survey from the Pew Research Center, called “Americans and Their Cell Phones,” underscores their usefulness: It shows that 40 percent of us have found our phones handy in an emergency, while more than a quarter of those surveyed said they had difficulty with some situation because they didn’t have their phones at hand.

But the research also makes clear we do silly things with our phones. Apparently 13 percent pretend to play with their phones to avoid interacting with people, and 42 percent use them to avoid boredom. (These stats are roughly doubled for those under 30.) Maybe that’s why smartphones have so many dumb apps.

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson takes a look at some of the goofy apps he’s found and tried. On the other side, you’ll find several more, ranging from the quizzical to the quintessential. (Don’t know those words? Dictionary apps here and here.)

There are thousands of apps, making it tough to separate the useful from the silly. Below are 10 in each category, including the ones Stacy mentioned in the video above. We’re sorry if the lists are a little iPhone-heavy – they’re popular among the MTN staff. But we would love to get more great Android app suggestions – leave them on our Facebook page.

Useful apps (arranged by platform)

  1. Evernote. (All major platforms. Free.) This app takes some getting used to, but it can change the way you think of note-taking. You can snap quick photos of business cards or receipts for future reference, clip portions of a web page, email, or map as a reminder, or use a text editor to write your own notes. However you do it, it’s all put in an easily searchable database on your phone that you can tag and sort in several ways.
  2. Trapster. (All major platforms. Free.) Avoid some traffic tickets with this app, which maps out user-submitted speed traps and red-light cameras, even alerting you when you approach one: See our story Where to Find 60,000 Speed Traps Nationwide.
  3. Flixster.(All major platforms. Free.) This app is a quick way to look up movie showtimes at your closest theaters, plus you can skim reviews and watch trailers before committing to a flick.
  4. GasBuddy(iPhone and Android. Free.) Like GasBuddy.com, this app provides user-submitted local gas prices, even factoring in the cost to drive there.
  5. Mint.(iPhone and Android. Free.) You can’t ask for much more value from a free app: This lets you link all your financial accounts in one place, categorize and skim transactions, plan budgets and savings goals, and get notifications when you overspend.
  6. Cloud Print. (iPhone and Android. Free.) Ever wished you could print something out from your phone? You can. The idea is to wirelessly sync a local printer and your phone. Once you set up your home and work printers, you can print something on-the-go and pick it up when you get there.
  7. Square. (iPhone and Android. Free, but swipe fee.) This app turns you into a retail vendor, allowing you to accept credit and debit card payments through your phone – with a free card-reader device the company will mail to you. The app itself is free, but the catch is they take a 2.75-percent cut of every swipe.
  8. Pocket First Aid and CPR. (iPhone and Android. $4.) This app from the American Heart Association can give you quick, clear instructions with illustrations on a number of first aid situations, including CPR, choking, bites, bruises, burns, seizures, and diabetic emergencies. It also allows you to save medical and contact information for members of your family for quick reference.
  9. Photosynth. (iPhone. Free.) Makes visual panoramas up to 360 degrees by taking several photos and stitching them together. Done well, it can create a seamless image of an area – like an apartment you’re considering renting, or a bar you want to recommend to friends. It can also be used for 3D modeling: Check out this Photosynth of the Statue of Liberty.
  10. BillMinder. (iPhone. $2.) A useful complement to Mint if you have trouble tracking your bills. You can plot out the due dates and amounts on a calendar and get reminders, and set up payments through a related app.

Odd apps (for iPhones)

  1. iShake. (Free.) Using your phone’s built-in accelerometer, this app turns your phone into an earthquake sensor. It’s designed by researchers at UC Berkeley to collect data on vibrations, which you can view on a live area map.
  2. Blackout Light Maker. (Free.) One of many “flashlight”-type apps, this lets you brighten your screen to many colors, including bright white. It also has many effects like Morse code flashes, strobe lights, and flames.
  3. Star Wars Lightsaber Duel. ($1.) If plain old lights don’t do it for you, you might as well pretend to be a Jedi. This app emulates a lightsaber (with a color of your choice) using sound effects from the Star Wars music as you swing it in different directions and at various speeds. Two people with the app can have a “duel.”
  4. Designated Dialer. ($1.) This app lets you lock selected contacts (or everyone) from being texted or dialed while you’re out drinking. Unlocking it requires passing a sobriety test mini-game (and steady hands).
  5. Annoy-a-Teen. ($1.) Treat teens like dogs with this app, which plays irritating sounds at frequencies designed to be audible only to younger ears. Since none of us has access to teens, we can’t tell if it works or not.
  6. Blower.($1.) This amazing app emulates the human lung by, yes, blowing a little air. It’s not very effective as a personal fan, but as you saw in the video above, it can blow out a candle.
  7. Pocket Heat. ($1.) Transform your phone into a portable heater! Well, what sort of looks like one. This app used to max out your phone’s power usage to warm it up, but now it’s all light and sound – no heat. They claim Apple wouldn’t allow it. Well, warmth is all in your head anyway, right? (See also: iHeatYourFace.)
  8. The Slurps. ($1.) Everybody with a touch-screen phone knows it gets dirty. This handy app offers some help cleaning it. Depending on the version you get, you can summon one of several cats or other animals including tigers and monkeys to come clean one side of the glass – the inside. You’re on your own for the outside.
  9. iSteam. ($1.) You know how the mirror fogs up after a hot shower? Oddly enough, there’s an app for that. It’s actually a photo editor, where you can blow into the microphone to fog up the screen, and then write (erase) on it with your finger. Dripping droplets, squeaks and all.
  10.  Virtual Zippo Lighter. ($1.) The next time you’re feeling the moment at a concert, you can bust this out. On the bright side, the flame is wind- and childproof and sways with your wave. On the downside, you’ll have to bum a real light.

If all these apps have made you crave a smartphone, check out 3 Dumb Ways to Pick a Smartphone before you buy. And if you’ve got an iPhone, learn How to Get All Your iPhone Apps for Free.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Charles Scharlau

    I think you’ve only scratched the surface of “strange” but fascinating apps. Search for “iSDR” on the App Store… it turns your phone into a ham radio receiver!