Hidden helpers in your phone

Smartphone functionality has zoomed way beyond driving directions

Published: August 27, 2015 09:00 AM

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Smartphones have transformed the way we navigate our world. They combine built-in GPS with a cellular data connection so that they know precisely where we are and can instantly download maps, driving (or walking) directions, and traffic information from the Internet. But your phone can do much more than simply guide you from point A to point B. Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS can use your location and information from your calendar, to-do list, and other sources to warn you to leave early for an appointment if the traffic looks bad, or remind you to pick up a prescription as you pass a drugstore. They can even organize photos based on where you shot them. It’s like having an executive assistant, concierge, and psychic in your pocket.

What smartphone functionality do you rely on?

Tell us in the comments below.

Navigation apps that run on smartphones, such as Google Maps and Waze, put many in-dash units from car manufacturers to shame with their impressive voice control and real-time info on accidents, public transportation, and speed traps. Many carmakers are surrendering part of their in-car interfaces in new vehicles to ones designed by Apple and Google. Those systems can access the Internet and your contacts, making them much smarter than traditional built-in navigation systems. Drivers of older cars routinely mount a phone onto the dash for similar reasons. Read on to learn about how the road ahead is changing.

8 ways to keep your life on track

Google Now (Android, iPhone)

What it is: Google Now works in the background, tracking your travels (even when you’re not using Maps), your calendar appointments, Google searches, and other sources.

Getting it: It’s installed on most Android phones, but you have to activate it. Got an iPhone? Download the Google app.

What it can do for you:

1. Keep you on time. If there’s an accident on the route to your dental appointment, for example, Google Now will warn you to leave early and give you directions for faster routes. You can also get updates for flights, including terminal and gate numbers, and info on delays.

2. Suggest destinations. New in town? Google Now will call your attention to museums, restaurants, and other attractions nearby.

3. Remind you to do errands. Google Now can prompt you to buy milk once you’re at the supermarket—or just driving by­—or to defrost a steak once you get home.

Reminders (iPhone)

What it is: The iPhone Reminders app allows you to schedule tasks that are triggered by location or by time.

Getting it: Open the app to create an event, then click the info button at right to set a time or location. Android users can use Google Now instead.

What it can do for you:

1. Remember your errands. Reminders can alert you to pick up the pinot noir as you pass a liquor store. Use a finger swipe to set how close you need to be to the target address to trigger the alert.

2. Provide an alert when you arrive at or leave a location. Sitting down for lunch on a business trip and want to make sure to call the office before you get back on the road? You can set a Reminders alert for that.

3. Create repeating or one-time reminders. A repeating reminder could be to call the baby sitter when you get to work. A one-time reminder could be that it’s cardio day at the gym.

Photo tagging (Android, iPhone)

What it is: Backing up your smartphone photos to online storage services at Apple or Google can provide peace of mind. But those apps also use geotagging to help you organize albums.

Getting it: Apple’s version, iPhoto, comes loaded on iPhones. (And iPhone users can download the Google Photos app if they wish.) Android users should update the Photos app to get the latest functionality.

What it can do for you:

1. Search by location. On either platform, you can easily look for photos taken on your vacation at the lake or at your grandparents’ summer place in the mountains.

2. Automatically generate scrapbooks. Google Photos can combine location data and other clues to deduce that you were at an event or on a special trip, then create a presentation with maps and a timeline. It will put together video montages and incorporate fade-outs and other transitions, along with a soundtrack, that can be edited. You can also create your own montage.

In the market for a standalone GPS device? Check out our latest take on what's great in GPS so you get the best device for your money.

Apps at your service

Apple Maps (iPhone)

Apple Maps provides an easy-to-read trip overview showing adequate, though sparse, info on tolls, construction, traffic delays, and road closures.We like it for:

3D views of buildings and landmarks in New York and other big cities, including detailed, photo-realistic “flyover tours.”

Easy sharing of maps and directions using messaging, e-mail, and social networks, convenient for meeting family and friends in unfamiliar places.

Mass-transit directions, which were missing from Apple Maps but will be available with iOS 9 this fall. Like Google Maps, the new Apple Maps will let you plan a trip using multiple modes of transportation (bus, car, walking, etc.).

Google Maps (Android, iPhone)

Google Maps is uncluttered yet brimming with details. Street names and points of interest are clearly marked, and you can choose a route that avoids tolls. We like it for:

Continuous traffic and accident updates, along with suggestions for alternate routes.

Directions for pedestrians, cyclists, and mass-transit commuters that are easy to use. (Cycling from Consumer Reports in Yonkers, N.Y., to the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., for example, apparently takes 11 days, 13 hours without sleeping, eating, or bathroom breaks.)Street-level viewsin Google Maps, which can help you get to your destination. You can also take 360-degree photo tours.

Waze (Android, iPhone, Windows)

If you want to avoid being ticketed by aggressive police officers, Waze could be for you. It has strong core navigation with sharing tools. We like it for:

Updates on speed traps, red-light cameras, and other hazards of the road. Much of the data comes from other “Wazers” in the area, and the app allows you to return the favor.

Gas-price reporting for some service stations near your location.

A speedometer showing average speed in comparison to other Waze drivers along your route. One caveat about the app: You may be tempted to share road reports while driving, but that’s dangerous. Pull over first.

Here (Android, iPhone, Windows)

This app works from maps stored on the phone, which means you don’t have to blow your plan’s data allowance on map updates—or risk having no connection when you want directions.We like it for:

Local maps that you can download for an entire country or just for the state where you’re driving.

A simple interface that makes it easy to see maps, street names, directions, and traffic delays.

The onboard speedometer, which glows red when you exceed the local speed limits.

Two Windows-only features,one that warns you about traffic jams without bothering you with directions, and another that remembers where you parked.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the October 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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