Utility Apps for Your iPhone's Toolbox
May 30, 2011 5:00 AM PT
This story was originally published on March 14, 2011, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.
I just realized that of all the things I do with my iPhone 4, talking with it is the thing I do the least.
This might not be a revelation to you, but for me, until just this week, I still thought of my iPhone as a phone first. Still.
I spend far more time watching videos, reading books, slogging through email, browsing the Web, taking photos, taking video, editing video, organizing my life, making grocery lists, and occasionally ignoring everything else to play a game. My iPhone 4 is my go-to tool of choice.
And once, while I was waiting for a service team to change the oil in my pickup, I downloaded a Web-based PDF coupon that I applied to the oil change that saved me US$18. The guy at the counter looked at it funny, but he accepted the image on my iPhone as good enough.
Beyond the core entertainment apps that dominate many iOS devices, there are three utilities that I think everyone should have.
The first is a document scanner, the second is a barcode scanner for shopping peace of mind, and the third is a level, ruler, protractor, and yes, of course, a plum bob.
Put It in Writing!
Despite the notion that computing and electronics should reduce the need for paper, paper documents are everywhere. Contracts, forms, petitions for the court, all paper. Just the other day I was dealing with a PDF document where I could use a PC to type into the fields, all neat and tidy, but I couldn't save the PDF, just print it. So that meant I had to a) fax it to the guy who needed it, b) mail or ship it to the guy, or c) scan it and email it. To get the job done as quickly as possible, I turned to Genius Scan, a free app from The Grizzly Labs.
Genius Scan basically lets you use your iPhone's camera to take photos of documents. Then it automatically identifies it, crops it, adjusts the exposure, and somehow modifies the photo's two dimensional plane of existence to more closely reflect that of a real document. So a yellowish and oddly shaped image transforms into a rectangular white and black document.
Let me explain. If you place a sheet of paper on a desk and then snap a photo of it, you'll probably snap the photo at an odd angle. When the desk is cropped out of the photo, the visual reference to how the paper is sitting is gone, leaving you with a photo of a document that has a long section that was nearest the camera lens with the far section being shorter. A trapezoid shape, of sorts. To avoid this, you can take the photo from directly above the document, but since most light comes from above, you'll probably take a photo with shadows. Use the flash, and that might work, or it might hopelessly wash out the image. The answer?
The brains inside of Genius Scan recognize all the vagaries of document photography and rapidly transform your snapshots into passable documents. When you actually put it to work, it all happens fast and intuitively, and only when you think about it do you realize just how cool Genius Scan really is.
I've used it for contracts and forms, of course, and several times when I was out and about without access to a fax machine or traditional flat-bed scanner. I've also used it to snap records of important forms or documents that left my presence, like medical forms I wanted to hang on to.
Once you quickly create a document image, you can email it as a JPG file or save it as a PDF file, which you can also email out.
There's a more powerful Genius Scan+ version available for $2.99, but the free version has worked great for my needs so far. I mean, if you're into corporate espionage, you probably want to use the $2.99 version since it has no ads that might distract you while you're focusing on nefarious behavior.
Scanning the Barcode to Check Pricing
Another free utility app needs to be on your iPhone, and that's RedLaser. This little gem of an app is all about making you feel good about your in-store retail purchases -- or save you from a disaster. Basically, it uses the camera lens on your iPhone (or iPod touch) to "scan" a barcode label on the packaging of a product. The black-and-white barcodes contain information that identifies the exact product, and this means you've got a handy pocket scanner. There is no red laser, however, so temper your disappointment.
Still, here's how it works in action. I was out and about looking for a new coffee maker, and while I could have purchased a great coffee maker online, I would have had to wait several days for it to get shipped to me. What would I do for coffee while the unit was being shipped? I can't be leaving the office every 45 minutes on a Starbucks run, so that meant buying brick-and-mortar retail -- or go without coffee, which wasn't an option.
Under the harsh glare of fluorescent big-box store lighting, I narrowed down my selection to a few possible units. A cheap one, a middle-of-the-road brewer, and a stainless steel unit on sale for what seemed to be a reasonable price. In person, I narrowed it down to the middle option, then remembered RedLaser. I whipped out my iPhone 4, scanned the barcode, smiled at a hovering store clerk, and found that the price was reasonable. That was good.
But what about the reviews? In addition to giving you a list of online stores and the prices therein, RedLaser has a built-in browser that will take you do the item's page in whichever company's online store. I choose Amazon.com, which also has an extensive base of user reviews. Well, turns out that the coffee maker I was about to buy had terrible reviews.
I tried the stainless steel unit next, and it had decidedly mediocre reviews, despite a killer brand. And the cheap unit? Four out of five stars, and some die-hard coffee fans that were willing to gush over it. Sure, it's not the prettiest looking thing, but I'm happy.
Thank you, RedLaser.
Have you ever been up on a ladder, hanging a picture, then lean back just to the near-point of losing your balance to eye-ball it for levelness, only to climb down off the ladder and see that somehow you were horribly far off? Well, there's an app for that.
I've had iHandy Level for months, but I recently replaced it with iHandy Carpenter, which sells for $1.99. Why? More tools, of course! In addition to having a standard level, it features a bubble level, which lets you level a flat surface from all sides at the same time. Plus, it has a ruler, a protractor, and a plum bob.
In the real world, a plum bob is a heavy chunk of pointy metal that you dangle from a string to make sure walls are right with the world. Gravity, you know, pulls the plum bob straight down. If you compare a wall to the string, if it's not parallel, it's not plumb. On the iPhone, the plum bob has an interesting shadow that helps you visualize what's straight up ... or leaning. It's quite cool. The next time you build a fence or a deck, you can make sure your posts are straight up and down.
Of course, you're not really going to be whipping your iPhone around a construction site, but if you do any kind of home improvement or have friends who do, this little app is priceless for its quick handiness. Besides, the level really does work great for hanging pictures.
Oh, one last thing: iHandySoft went beyond creating a basic utility by creating a visually stunning gorgeous app. I appreciate their hard work, and I like to reward those who pay attention to great design. (Which is also why I'm an Apple fan.)
Lighten the Mood
As an honorable mention, check out Flashlight for the iPhone 4. At 99 cents, it's just a flashlight that uses your LED flash. Why is it cool? There are no ads, no big white screen, and it does what it sets out to do -- illuminate. Plus, it loads fast, which is exactly what I want when I hear noises that go bump in the night.