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10 Easy Hacks to Get More Out of Your Devices

Try these free tech tricks to save time, money and stress

spinner image Woman listening to a book on her Iphone
westend61 / getty images

Technology is designed to make our lives easier, and these days just about everyone can count the ways. Smartphones let you make calls, and do a whole lot more, from almost anywhere. With a voice remote, you can tell your TV what you want to watch.

But there are lesser-known ways to squeeze even more utility out of your gadgets, and you don't need to be tech-savvy to pull them off.

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With just a few clicks or swipes, you can unlock hidden keyboard tricks on your iPhone, turn an old tablet into a home surveillance camera or use your voice to “type” long documents on your computer. And humble household items like an ironing board or cassette case can be "MacGyvered" into handy tech accessories.

Here are 10 tips, tricks and shortcuts — all free — to get the most out of your devices.

1. Borrow e-books

You probably know you can buy electronic books to read on an e-reader, tablet or smartphone. But why buy when you can borrow?

With a library card and a free app like Libby or OverDrive, you can borrow e-books and audiobooks from your library's digital collection to enjoy on your smartphone or tablet. On the due date, the book is automatically “returned” (no risk of late fees!), unless you renew it.

OverDrive can be downloaded to Android, Apple and Amazon devices and comes built into many Kobo e-readers. If you have a Kindle device or app, and an Amazon Prime membership, you can take advantage of Prime Reading, the giant retailer's literary lending service.

2. Turn e-books into audiobooks

If you own an iPhone or iPad, you can enable a handy accessibility feature called Speak Screen (go to Settings > Accessibility > Spoken Content > Speak Screen). With this tool turned on, swipe down from the very top of screen with two fingers, on any page, and the device will read the on-screen text to you.

Just like that, you can turn e-books into audiobooks and enjoy them while driving, cleaning the house or taking a walk. Speak Screen also works with any written matter on your device — articles, notes or emails.

3. Float your cursor

Apple devices offer a little-known but super-handy keyboard feature: launching a mouse cursor to easily float around the text on the screen.

Say you spot a word missing from a sentence you previously typed. Press and hold the space bar, swipe your finger or thumb to the right spot on the screen, then let go of the space bar to drop the cursor where you want it. Super convenient.

You don't need to change any settings to try this out. It just works.

Here's another keyboard trick for iPad users: If you find it difficult to hold the tablet and type at the same time, place your thumbs on each side of the virtual keyboard and pull apart to separate the keyboard into two parts. It will be much easier to type on, using your thumbs. Push both sides back when you're done.

4. Stop YELLING in your emails

Some people purposely use ALL CAPS in emails and social media posts to stress a point, but if you're like me it's more likely you inadvertently hit Caps Lock on your keyboard. This might happen more than you think if you don't look at your screen as you type (again, guilty as charged).

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Since ALL CAPS LOOKS LIKE YOU'RE YELLING, you probably don't want to leave this in your message. If you're a Windows PC user, you don't need to delete it all and start typing again. With popular Microsoft apps like Outlook and Word, you can simply highlight the text in question and tap Shift+F3. That changes all UPPERCASE text to lowercase. You're welcome.

5. Talk instead of type

Do you regularly use Google Docs? A new “voice typing” feature might save you time. To try it, open Google Docs in the Chrome browser and create a new document. Click the Tools menu and select Voice typing.

The program might ask for permission to use your device's microphone (connected to your webcam), or you can select an external mic, if you're using one. Once it's on, whatever you say out loud will be typed out on the screen in real time. You can even edit and format using your voice — ask to see a list of commands.

6. Get a free standing desk

If you're working from home and miss your standing desk at the office — the one that promotes blood flow and helps you burn more calories than you would sitting down all day — your ironing board might be the perfect height for working on your laptop.

Seriously, give it a try. It could save you from having to buy an additional piece of home-office furniture.

7. Make a makeshift phone holder

Most people aren't listening to cassettes much anymore, but there's a modern use for those tapes you've still got packed away in a box somewhere. Or rather, for their cases: You can repurpose that old plastic into an effective smartphone stand.

That's right, a cassette-tape case can conveniently prop up your smartphone, making an ideal accessory for video chatting with family and friends. Simply open the case so that it sits on a desk or table, and place your smartphone, vertically, in the well where the tape used to reside (as I demonstrate here).

You'll still have access to your smartphone screen. Plus, the makeshift stand acts as an amplifier: The audio from your phone bounces off the plastic, making it louder. Even a basic smartphone stand bought at retail will run you around $8 to $10, so why not try this instead?

8. Repurpose your old device

Ready to upgrade to a new phone or tablet? Before trading in or, worse, tossing out the old one, look into free apps that can turn it into a different, and useful, household device. For example:

spinner image Presence App finds dog
With the Presence app, you can detect someone in your home, or keep tabs on a pet, using an old tablet or smartphone.
Courtesy of Marc Saltzman

• With the Universal Remote or SURE app, your previous phone or tablet can serve as a universal remote for many smart TVs.

• Apps like Alarm Clock for Me (for Apple devices) or Easy Rise Alarm Clock (for Android) repurpose an old tablet into an alarm clock for your night table.

• The Presence app can turn an old iPhone, iPad or Android device into a Wi-Fi surveillance cam. Sign into Presence on your new phone and you can see what's going on at home when you're not there (including what your pets are up to).

9. Turn your tablet into a second phone

There are times when you might not want to give out your phone number — for example, when selling something over Craigslist, entering a contest or going on a first date. (What if they're a creep?) Or maybe you have a basic wireless plan with limited call minutes.

For situations like these, there's TextNow, an app that lets you set up and use a second phone number, for free. Simply load the app on your tablet or a spare phone, select the city you'd like your alter ego to appear to be from, and choose an available number in that area code.

You'll be able to send and receive calls (and texts) for free over Wi-Fi when doing so over a cellular connection might incur data charges (back when I could travel, I'd use my TextNow-equipped iPad for long-distance calls), or when it would reveal your “real” number to someone or something you'd rather not share it with. You get familiar features, too, like voicemail, three-way calls and custom ringtones.

10. Search better

When looking for information on Google or another online search engine, use a minus (-) sign to exclude words you don't want searched. This refines the results to filter out stuff you don't need. For example, type “recipes -meat” to find vegetarian versions of a particular dish, or “best movies -horror” to omit flicks from that genre.

Another search trick: Put phrases in quotes to help the search engine find exactly what you're looking for. Say you're shopping for tie dye masks. You'll get better results searching for “tie dye masks” — without the quotation marks, the search engine will look for any of those three words, in any order.

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