Free home improvement apps

Consumer Reports News: May 04, 2011 05:02 PM

Your power goes out and you need to find the circuit breaker in a dark basement. There’s an app for that. That shelf in the kitchen is crooked and needs to be straightened. There’s an app for that. You have to find a stud in the wall to hang a picture. There’s an app for that. Unfortunately, there’s no app for pounding the nail in the wall—for that you’ll need an actual hammer.

That’s right, flashlights, levels, stud finders and tape measures are as close as the mobile device in your pocket. Many are good enough for light duty or until you can get to your toolbox. And because most are free they’re fun to try even though you may have to double check your work with a real tool. Here’s a sampling of some of the apps we found for Android and Apple-based devices. (They’re free unless otherwise indicated.)

Flashlights. Droid Light turns an Android phone’s camera flash into a flashlight, while Flashlight for iPhone4 does the same with iPhone’s main LED display. They may come in handy if you’re fishing in your bag for your house key at night.

Levels, plumb bobs and protractors. The free iHandy Level—long a favorite among iPhone users—is now available for Android users. And the iHandy Carpenter app that adds a plumb bob, ruler and steel protractor to the package is available for both Android and iPhone for $1.99.

Rulers and tape measures. To measure a small item like a nail or bolt, Smart Ruler for Android and Caliper for iPhone (99 cents) lets you place an object on the phone’s screen and move slider bars to get an exact measurement. For measuring things like the width of a door, try Millimeters for Android ($2.06) or AccelaRuler for iPhone (99 cents). They let you place the phone at a set point, tap the screen, move it and then tap it again to get a reading. For the app to work properly, you have to slide your device along a flat surface and AccelaRuler says it's only 98 percent accurate—so don’t toss your tape measure just yet.

To measure the height of a building or width of a yard, try Smart Measure for Android, which turns a phone into a rangefinder that measures distances by triangulating the height at which you hold the phone with the distance of an object you point to. TapeMeasure for iPhone (99 cents) uses GPS readings to measure the distance when you walk from one object to another. Smart Measure makes no specific claims to accuracy, but TapeMeasure warns that it’s only accurate to within several yards.

Stud finders. These apps monitor disruptions in compass readings to identify metallic screws and nails and find the studs in a wall. Android users can try Magnetic Stud Finder or Stud Finder (99 cents), while StudFinder Professional is available to iPhone users for $3.99. Be sure to read the disclaimers and instructions on each so you don’t swipe along walls (especially plaster ones) in vain.

More homeowner apps. See our recent report on paint-matching apps from Sherwin-Williams, Benjamin Moore, Behr and Olympic. You can also get our Ratings on the go with Consumer Reports’ mobile site, free to subscribers. Our Mobile Shopper (available on iTunes for $9.99) features our Ratings and also allows you to scan barcodes for more information.

Gian Trotta

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