From smartphones to iPads to netbooks and high-powered laptops, our mobile options have gone through the roof. But not everyone is using the devices to their full advantage. Deb Shinder offers practical advice for getting more from mobile computing.
According to CTIA Wireless Association, over 80% of the U.S. population — more than 250 million — carry mobile phones. Nielsen reports that smartphones accounted for 25% of the mobile phone market in this country for the second quarter of 2010 and that they're expected to account for a majority of phone sales by the end of next year. Morgan Stanley even predicted that smartphones will be outselling PCs by 2012.
And that's just smartphones, which make up only one segment of the mobile technology market. The iPad has thus far sold almost seven and a half million units, with some analysts predicting sales of up to 48 million next year.
A slew of Android- and Windows-based tablets are set to hit the shelves in the first quarter of 2011, as well. And then there are all those netbooks and traditional laptops that are still out there. No wonder "mobile" is one of the hottest market segments in the technology industry right now. But are getting the most out of your mobile devices? In this article, we look at 10 ways to make your mobile computing experience better.
Note: This article, which originally published in TechRepublic's 10 Things blog, is also available as a PDF download.
1: Use the right tool for the job
We now have many options when it comes to mobile devices. We have high-powered laptops with powerful Nehalem processors that are loaded with RAM, sporting big screens larger than the average desktop monitor of 15 years ago and capable of doing just about anything a workstation can do. We have more compact "midsize" notebooks that will still handle a heavy workload and weigh only a few pounds. We have tiny netbooks that give you a usable keyboard for touch typing in a small and light package. We have slates of different sizes —from the 5-inch Dell Streak to the 7-inch Galaxy Tab to the 10-inch iPad (with 12-inch Windows slates reportedly available soon). We have phones that are really handheld computers, with more RAM and storage space than the high-end desktop systems of 1995.
To get the most out of mobile computing, you have to select the right tool for the job you want to get done. If all you need to do is check your email, your smartphone will certainly suffice. You can also use it to check your Facebook news feed, view a Word document, read an ebook, look at pictures or videos, etc. But some of those activities are more suited to a larger screen and may be more comfortably done on a 7- or 10-inch tablet. And if you want to create content rather than just consume it, you may find it far less frustrating to do so on a netbook or, in the case of more complex operations, a full-powered notebook or laptop. Selecting the right tool for the job goes a long way toward making your mobile experience better.
2: Consolidate when it makes sense
Notwithstanding the need to use the right tool for the job, your mobile experience won't be pleasant if you have to carry around half a dozen devices. There are areas where it makes sense to consolidate. For instance, can you give up your dedicated GPS and use the GPS in your phone or tablet? Can you dump the separate MP3 player and use one of your other devices for listening to music? If you're carrying a 3G-enabled tablet everywhere, along with your phone, but you rarely ever make or receive calls, could you use Skype or Whistle for those calls and get rid of the smartphone — or go with a larger phone, such as the Dell Streak and leave the tablet at home?
The key is to analyze all the tasks you do, and decide which ones actually require a dedicated machine and which could be consolidated onto one device.
3: Optimize text input
Text entry is one of the biggest reasons why people carry a laptop or netbook in addition to or instead of a tablet or smartphone. But unless you need the extra processing power and memory, it may not be necessary. You can connect a compact keyboard to your tablet via Bluetooth or USB. You can even get an external keyboard for a few smartphone models.
If you want to be able to do a lot of text entry on your phone, you may want to consider a model that has a physical QWERTY keyboard. Or check out Swype, which comes installed on some Windows Mobile, Nokia, and Android phones and for many people, allows "typing" up to 50 wpm on the phone's virtual keyboard.
You can also install alternative keyboard software in many cases. For example, Better Keyboard is available from the Android Market for $2.99. It provides bigger keys, gesture controls, and increased sensitivity and accuracy.
Another tip is to use bookmarks so you don't have to type in the URLs of Web pages.
4: Get the big picture
A big drawback of using a phone for tasks like watching video is the tiny screen. However, with some modern phones you get an HDMI out port, which will let you connect it to a TV or monitor for viewing videos or pictures where you need to be able to see a lot of detail. Some devices may be limited to only outputting from a particular app — but there are ways to get around that. For the Droid X, check out Real HDMI, which lets you stream content from SlingPlayer on your phone to an HDTV. Note that you'll need a special cable to connect to the phone's HDMI output jack.
5: Optimize navigation
You can tweak the settings of most devices to make it easier to get to the apps that you use, the contacts with whom you communicate, and so forth. Windows Phone 7 has been praised for its hub-oriented approach (as opposed to the app-centric navigation method used by iPhone and Android). You can make any device focus more on what you want to do, rather than what app you use to do it. For example, on your Android phone, you can use widgets to create direct links on the home screen for dialing a specific number, emailing a particular contact, or going directly to a specific location with the GPS or on the map.
You can also download widgets that let you see at a glance weather, stock market information, news, music controls, and so forth.
If you have a physical keyboard, you can use keyboard shortcuts for getting around, as you do with your PC. For example, on the Droid 2 and other Android devices with physical keyboards, you can use the following key combinations:
- Search + B = Browser
- Search + C = Contacts
- Search + E = Email
- Search + G = Gmail
- Search + M = Maps
- Search + S = Messaging
6: Put some thought into organizing your home screens
Widgets and shortcuts are great, but too many people just throw them onto the home screen. Then, when that screen is full, they go on to the next. If you really want to be productive with your device, put some thought into how to organize your home screens.For example, you should have your main screen set up with widgets you use most frequently. On my Samsung Fascinate, that's where I have the widget that lets me quickly turn Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 3G background data, and GPS on and off. I can also adjust screen brightness from there, and I have direct-dial shortcuts on that page to my four most frequently called contacts. In addition, I have shortcuts to apps I use most often, such as Facebook and Twitter, and to apps I need to be able to access quickly when I want to use them, such as the memo app and the voice recorder. And I have a shortcut that will open the GPS with my home as the destination and Advanced Task Killer for quickly shutting down unnecessary apps to preserve battery life. Figure A shows my main home screen.
Put the widgets and shortcuts you use most often onto your main home screen.
This is actually the "middle" screen in my group, rather than the first (but I set it so the Home button will take me to it). Now I use the screens on each side of it for those apps and shortcuts I use next most frequently. The home screen to the left of this main screen contains the rest of my oft-called contacts, while the one to the right has my weather widget, news feed, and a few more frequently used apps. With these three screens set up, what I want is rarely more than one swipe away.
7: Cut costs by using your phone as a Wi-Fi access point
If you still have a Windows Mobile phone, you can use an application called WMWifiRouter to turn it into a wireless access point you can use to connect your laptop or tablet to the Internet through its 3G connection. There's no extra charge.If you have a newer Android or iPhone, you won't be able to install an app that does it for free unless you root or jailbreak the phone (which we discuss later in this article). Not quite brave enough to root or jailbreak? Depending on the phone, you can subscribe to a Wi-Fi tethering service through your carrier, which will give you the same ability (but you'll have to pay a monthly fee). Before you dismiss the idea out of hand, do some cost comparisons. If you travel more than a couple of days per month and purchase Wi-Fi from a typical wireless service available at hotels and airports, you probably pay $10 per day or more for that connection. Verizon offers Wi-Fi tethering for $20 per month, and you can connect up to five wireless devices at a time. It's also easy to use; you simply select one check box, as shown in Figure B.
Using a carrier's 3G Mobile Hotspot service is easy and can be cost effective.
8: Sync your data across multiple devices
Don't spend time duplicating the same data on multiple devices — and then more time updating each device. Instead, synchronize your data across all your mobile devices and desktop systems for better efficiency and better reliability of the information.
You can use cloud-based sync services such as the Windows Live Mesh feature of Windows Live Essentials to sync your PC and laptops. If you have all Apple devices, you can use that company's MobileMe service. For more flexibility and compatibility with multiple platforms, Dropbox is a popular service that will sync across Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux computers, as well as iPhone/iPad, Android, and Blackberry.
Cloud services make it easy to synchronize data immediately no matter where you are. But if you aren't comfortable putting your information in the cloud, you can use other tools to sync files between devices. For example, you can use the Windows Mobile Device Center in Vista or Windows 7 to synchronize files on your laptop with your Windows Mobile device. The new Windows Phone 7 devices use the Zune software to sync music, pictures, and videos with your PC in the same way the iPhone uses the iTunes software.
9: Tweak your device for better battery life
Some modern mobile devices, such as the iPad, get really great battery life. The same can't be said for laptops with large displays and powerful Core i7 processors that need a lot of juice to perform desktop-like tasks, nor for smartphones with super vivid AMOLED screens that sacrifice battery capacity to be as thin and light as possible. To get the most out of your mobile computing experience, you need to be able to actually use the device for more than a couple of hours without a recharge. After all, being tied to a power outlet doesn't exactly fit the definition of mobile.
Luckily, you can often tweak the settings of your device to drastically increase the battery life. For instance, out of the box, my Samsung Fascinate was beautiful and elegant but wouldn't last a whole day with normal usage. I turned down the screen brightness, turned off background data, switched my email from "push" to hourly fetch (and used the manual refresh option to get mail in between), turned off the GPS except when I actually wanted to use a location service and turned off WiFi when not using it. As a result, I had the battery lasting all day and well into the next with the same amount of usage. Another tip for Android phones is to download Advanced Task Killer and make it a habit to kill all tasks you aren't using on a regular basis. I routinely kill everything before I put the phone away and that has had a noticeable positive effect on my battery life.
The same principle applies to laptops and tablets as well as phones. The display is a big power hog so reducing the brightness, even a little, can help a lot.
10: Take command with your voice
A big frustration with mobile computing is that we're often trying to do it while engaged in other activities, or when sitting, standing, or even lying down in less than optimum positions. We all know better than to text or otherwise use our devices while driving, but there are other situations where it's difficult to input commands by touch, such as when we're standing in a line with our bags in one hand and our device in the other.
In those cases, learning to use the voice command feature that comes with many mobile devices (or downloading and installing one) can make your mobile experience much better.
11: Get to know your device's capabilities
Different devices are different. Even two Android devices from different vendors may have their own UI elements (for example, HTC's SenseUI vs. Samsung's TouchWiz). So it pays to spend some time getting to know your device and its capabilities. Some of those capabilities might not be obvious from just poking around the interface, so I'm going to go way out on a limb here and advise that you actually read the manual.
Also realize that your device might come with only a basic printed "getting started" pamphlet, but often you'll find that there is a full-fledged manual online that reveals all sorts of secrets about how to get the most out of your device. For example, those new to Android may not realize that many functions can be accessed via the Menu button within an application.
12: Take complete control by jailbreaking or rooting your device
If there are things you want to be able to do that you can't, due to limitations imposed by the device vendor or carrier, you might consider jailbreaking or rooting your device. That refers to taking administrative control back so that you can, for example, install apps that aren't approved or authorized (such as Wi-Fi tethering apps that don't require you to subscribe to a service, apps that let you use Skype or 3G, or apps that make it easier to manage and transfer files). Some phones may require you to root to install applications on the SD card or even to install custom ringtones and notification sounds. Note that jailbreaking or rooting will generally void your warranty. If you're willing to take that risk, read my TechRepublic column about the pros and cons of jailbreaking or rooting your smartphone.