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by Jackson Lynch, AARP Bulletin, November 23, 2009
David Lindeman, 57, recently bought a mobile phone so powerful that it’s really more of a computer than a phone. Now he can’t imagine living without it. Like his wife, two sons and millions of other people, Lindeman has adopted a smartphone, a hand-held computer designed to make mobile telephone calls, exchange e-mail, access the Internet, watch movies, listen to music and run umpteen software applications that can make life easier and more fun.
“Smartphone use is growing exponentially among older adults,” says Lindeman, a gerontologist who is director of the Center for Technology and Aging in Oakland, Calif.
Apple, BlackBerry, HTC, Nokia, Samsung and a number of other manufacturers make smartphones. Many of these mega-multitasking devices have bright, high-resolution touchscreens with large numeric and QWERTY keypads. Smartphones typically range in price from $29 to $300 depending on the features of the device and the discount the service provider offers. The cost of call usage varies by region and plan, and there is typically a $20 to $40 additional monthly service charge.
While smartphones themselves are technical marvels of miniaturization, what make them truly “smart” and useful are the thousands of smartphone software applications, or “apps,” that can be loaded on them. Simply stated, an app is a piece of software that runs on a computer and performs a unique function. The computer it runs on can be a desktop, laptop, netbook or a smartphone.
Most smartphones come preloaded with applications for e-mail, sending and receiving text messages and accessing the Internet, along with maps, an MP3 player, calculator, calendar, address book and some type of photo sorting. You’ll even find a voice-control app on the iPhone 3GS, which enables hands-free calling and song selection on the audio player.
Finding and buying new applications is fairly simple—either connect the device to your home computer and purchase them on the Internet through your provider or do it wirelessly on the smartphone itself. Either way, new applications are ready to use in a few moments.
“Not only have the devices become more powerful and easier to use, but more important, most applications make it easier for people to organize their lives, keep in touch with family, stay informed and active,” Lindeman says.
Indeed, making calls and exchanging e-mail barely touches a smartphone’s capabilities. To do that, tap into the rapidly expanding universe of inexpensive—and often free—applications designed to organize, simplify, remind, educate, entertain and sometimes even tickle your brain.
Where to start? Right here.
Your Guide to Smartphone Applications
Key: Cost; Available for Android (AN), Blackberry (BB), iPhone (IP), Palm Pre (PP), Windows Mobile (WM), Yelp Mobile (YM)
News, Information and Organization
Stay on top of your investments with an array of business news and tracking tools that report on and analyze global markets for stocks, funds, currencies and commodities. Input your holdings and track your own portfolio with real-time updates, after-hours developments and tools to easily view and analyze investment performance.
Free; IP, BB
Whether you’re at home or far from it, find a restaurant, a clean hotel, a reliable plumber or a good haircut with local recommendations. Yelp utilizes GPS technology to filter yellow-pages info enhanced with customer ratings.
Free; IP, BB, PP, YM
• Grocery IQ
Grocery IQ is a simple and comprehensive shopping list application for food, personal items and pet supplies. It helps you plan upcoming shopping and keeps a history of purchases. When you begin typing the first few letters of a list’s item, say “nut,” the database of more than 130,000 items provides products containing those letters: nutmeg, mixed nuts, Nutella, nutritional items. Type in more letters to refine the search or scroll through the list, touch the item you want and the program adds it to the shopping list. Search by type, brand or bar code. Check off items as you walk through the aisle, and when you’re finished, Grocery IQ records a history of your purchases. Or e-mail a list to whomever is doing the shopping this week.
• You Mail
Tired of wading through patchy voice mails or losing them altogether? You Mail transcribes them (almost perfectly) and then e-mails the text to your smartphone. This eliminates the problem of missing calls or not being able to pick up the resulting voice mail when you’re in a situation or place where it’s too loud to hear or inappropriate to use your phone. Forward the text to friends and family and save them indefinitely. And if your phone dies, you can hear, read and manage your voice mail from your home computer at You Mail’s website.
Free; IP, BB, AN
Keep all the important birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and dates that you’d like to remember in a central calendar. If you use a calendar and contact program from Apple’s Mobile Me, Google, Microsoft Exchange or Facebook on your home computer, you can import that information to your iPhone. Or you can set up custom entries from scratch. Events are clearly listed by month so you can scroll through what’s coming up. And when you get a pop-up reminder for an event, you can call, text or e-mail anyone in your Occasions database, which makes it easy to stay in touch.
• BillMinder Push
This application alerts you when bills are due and tracks what you owe and what you’ve spent. Enter one-time and recurring bills and account information, along with their due dates, and BillMinder prompts you when they’re due with an icon on your screen and by “pushing” notifications to your smartphone. You can set up recurring payments of variable amounts. Set a password to protect your account information.
$2 for the app and $1/year for the push notifications; IP
• AppBox Pro
This virtual toolbox is an app full of apps—21 in all. Some of the best include the tip and sale-price calculator, ruler, holidays for the next hundred or so years, foreign language translator and unit converter.
Turn your iPhone into an impromptu hearing aid that’s easy to use. Plug your headphones into the audio jack and the iPhone’s high-sensitivity microphone does the rest. $10; IP
Health and Fitness
• Calorie Tracker by Livestrong
Set calorie and fitness goals, and then log what you’ve done. Type in the name of a food or activity and Livestrong’s databases of foods, restaurant menu items and exercise activities help pull it up, then lists all the key nutritional information for that dish or how many calories you’ve burned. The program works together with Livestrong’s website, which includes more information about meal planning, exercise regimes and a community of like-minded users.
$3; IP, BB
• Health n Family
Health n Family streamlines and organizes your personal and family medical information safely and securely, cutting down on the onerous task of filling out the same info over and over again. Protected by a password you choose, it consolidates a huge array of information about your doctors, pharmacies and prescriptions, emergency contacts, insurance, health conditions, allergies, lab reports, surgical procedures, advance directives and immunization records. Once you’ve input the key data, it’s easy to e-mail it to whomever requests it.
• Diamedic Diabetes Logbook
Record and monitor your entire diet plus factors such as medication, insulin and physical activity. Customize the format for glucose readings and lab results along with refill calculators. E-mail your doctors or family members vital stats straight from the app.
• The Athlete’s Diary
This app allows you to track progress on a mobile device and the Web for numerous sports. Graphs illustrate your progress by week, month and year including any time, distance or quantity you choose to record. Each entry accommodates a description of the event, including course details, how you felt and any other info you might want to analyze later.
$20 (plus a free trial version); IP, PP
• GreenFinder Golf GPS
Thanks to your phone’s built-in GPS, this pricey app pinpoints exactly how far you are from the hole—give or take three yards. GreenFinder’s library includes well over 10,000 golf courses in North America and overseas, and new ones are added constantly. Users can also submit info on new courses and course changes, which typically finds it way into updates within a week. If you’re ready to play but don’t know where to go, the search function will find courses within a 20-mile radius. The Blackberry version even includes voice prompts for the yardage.
$35/year; IP, BB, AN, WM
Brain Exercise and Entertainment
• Brain Challenge
This tests and trains you in five categories—logic, math, memory, visual and focus—with multilevel games that genuinely challenge your ability to reason and solve problems.
• Word Fu
Give your iPhone a shake to roll the lettered dice and then tap the screen to construct as many words as possible before the countdown timer cuts you off. Longer, more complex words accumulate more points. Scrabble lovers will enjoy playing against family and friends in real time over a WiFi connection.
Choose a song, singer, musician or musical genre. Pandora identifies similar music and streams a personalized “radio station” directly to your smartphone. It learns what you like and further customizes your stations when you give songs a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Free; IP, BB, PP, AN, WM
Ever heard a song in a store, restaurant, café and racked your brain to remember who sings it? With the touch of a button, Shazam’s electronic ears identify the name of the song and the artist, even at a distance or with background noise.
Free; AN, IP, BB
Jackson Lynch lives in New York.
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