Replacing physical tools with free smartphone apps

Find out how to pack even more capability into your iPhone or Android with these handy tools.

Apple iPhones
Image: CNET

If you have a smartphone I'm sure you're already well acquainted with many of the ways it replaces other technology and/or materials. There's no need to haul around maps, music players, cameras, tape recorders, calculators, day planners and other bric-a-brac when you've got a handy iPhone or Android to do all that stuff for you.

The best part is that there are always more electronic gadgets out there, many of which are free. Sometimes I think I would need to spend some quality time on the island in "LOST" to discover all the capabilities of my Samsung Android smartphone... but it would also be the perfect thing to take there (there's no smoke monster detection app but there IS a fake smoke alarm app for Android).

I recently spent some time hunting the Android and iTunes stores looking for free apps to replace physical tools or devices. I came up with an impressive list including a scanner, compass, level, flashlight, sound meter, measuring tool, metal detector, and universal remote. All are free, but some have paid upgraded versions with extra features or ad-free interfaces. Let's take a look.

1. Genius Scan PDF Scanner


This app uses your smartphone camera to take multiple pictures and assembles them into a PDF (or you can email them as JPG files). I used this on a National Geographic article which I needed to capture to prepare for an upcoming trip and it worked beautifully.

Install link for Android

Install link for iOS

2. Compass for Android by gabenative


Not much needs to be said about a compass app - it works as expected. The free version has ads at the bottom; the paid version doesn't show ads.

3. Compass for iOs by Tim O's Studios


As you can see, bare bones functionality is provided but works great for those hiking trips.

4. Level for Android by Antoine Vianey


This comes in handy since my wife and I are constantly hanging, moving and rehanging pictures in our house. It also works to show angles and inclinations.

5. Level for iOs by iHandy Inc


As is often the case with iOs apps, this looks a bit more elegant, but a bubble is a bubble either way.

6. Flashlight for Android by Surpax Technology, Inc


One could argue your smartphone is itself a flashlight thanks to its screen; certainly many of us who keep it handy on a 24x7x365 basis have used it to illuminate our front door at night when fishing for the lock with the key. However, this app provides an intensely bright light and can also be used in strobe or blink mode. Just watch your battery level, however.

7. Flashlight for iOs by IHandy, Inc


Same concept as the Android flashlight, but this one even comes with a compass.

8. Sound Meter for Android by Sound Meter


This sound meter uses the microphone on your smartphone to measure decibels. This can come in handy for sound engineers, concert technicians and so forth.

9. Sound Meter for iOs by Patrick Guidicelli


10. Smart Measure for Android by Smart Tools Co


This is basically a distance/height rangefinder that can tell you how far away or how high something is.

11. EasyMeasure by Caramba App Development


12. Metal Detector for Android by Smart Tools Co


According to the app page, "This app measures magnetic field value using the built-in magnetic sensor that is built into your device. The magnetic field level(EMF) in nature is about 49μT(micro tesla) or 490mG(milli gauss); 1μT = 10mG. If there is any metal in the area, the strength of the magnetic field should increase. Sometimes, this app used to find electrical wires in walls (like a stud finder) and iron pipes in the ground." I can't guarantee it will make you rich finding coins at the beach, but you never know.

13. Metal Detector for iOs by Patrick Giudicelli


One interesting review for the above app stated "We're helping my FIL pack and move. He confessed that he hid several of his pistols in boxes of books. We had to find them. I used this app on my iPhone and found all of them." There's a handy smartphone function you don't come across every day.

14. Universal TV Remote for Android by Sandpiper


I presently have eight remote controls in my house, so a universal remote app can save time, batteries and sanity. The app page description says that "the following TVs are supported without modification:

  • TVs from 2010 with Internet TV feature: Models greater or equal to LCD 650, LED 6500, PDP 6500

  • TVs from 2011 with AllShare feature: Models greater or equal to LCD 550, LED 5500, PDP 5500
  • TVs from 2012 with AllShare feature: Models greater or equal to LCD 550, LED 5500, PDP 5500

  • Blue ray Disc Player released in 2011 with Smart Hub feature"

Sadly, I couldn't really find a free universal remote for iOs; the closest thing was the Dijit Remote App which provides this functionality only when paired with Griffin Technology's Beacon.

Free tool kits for Android

If you are interested in more tools (or bundles which include some of the ones I've reviewed), I've found several free packages for Android, some of which include tools already featured:

Swiss Army Knife for Android

Includes "a flashlight, a unit converter, a timer, a stopwatch, a compass a bubble level, a calculator, a magnifying glass (Android 2.2+ required), a mirror (Android 2.3+ and front camera required) and a ruler."

Smart Tools for Android

Consists of flashlight, compass, protractor, and ruler.

Advanced Toolkit for Android

Offers a height/distance measurer, sound meter, flashlight, magnifier, mirror and flashlight.

Tools Box Smart Free 100%

This is the granddaddy of them all. It provides a weather app, compass, level, ruler, sound recorder, flashlight, magnifier, mirror, stopwatch, timer, calculator, unit converter a clothing size utility, battery/device/build info, and settings for screen, sound and timer.

Say goodbye to your toolbox?

I hope you find these apps useful and they get the job done. I wouldn't necessarily put my toolbox up on Craig's List just yet since some things like screwdrivers, wrenches and blowtorches aren't likely to be virtualized as smartphone apps. However, if someone could figure out how to invent an app that would do my painting or snowblowing for me I'd be willing to pay big bucks for that.