21 Hidden Smartphone Superpowers

An Android phone or iPhone can help you scan documents, get better sleep, alert loved ones of an emergency, and more. Here's how.

Streams of data flowing from brightly lit smart phone on white shelf Photo: Getty Images

Today’s phones are even smarter than you think. Hidden inside the settings on many models, you’ll find surprising features that can help you stay safe, healthy, and productive. 

You don’t have to download an extra app, either. Most of these superpowers are built into the latest operating systems from Android and Apple, although they may not be apparent when you first set up your phone or even after months of using it.

For Android users, the instructions and capabilities may vary from brand to brand and model to model. But in a pinch you can always use the search function in your phone’s settings to find the features highlighted below.

Health and Safety

Share Emergency Medical Info on Your Phone’s  Screen
In the event of an emergency, your phone can display potentially life-saving medical information, such as allergies and blood type, for first responders. You can opt to make the info accessible even if your phone is locked.
On an Android phone: Go to Settings > About phone > Emergency information. Enter the message you want displayed on your lock screen. For medical info, tap “Edit information.” For emergency contacts, tap “Add contacts.” (Samsung phone owners can find these settings under Settings > Safety and emergency and Settings > Lock screen.)
On an iPhone: Go to the Health app. Enter your basic info, then click Get Started under Set Up Your Medical ID. At the bottom, you can add emergency contacts, who will be notified when you contact emergency services.

Send Out an SOS With One Hand
The latest phones can be set to automatically message your emergency contacts when you press on the hardware buttons. Your phone can also share your current location. iPhones and Samsung phones have this built in. With other Android phones, you can set up an automated response that does the same thing when you invoke Google Assistant with the “Hey, Google” command.
On an Android phone: Say “Hey, Google, open Google Assistant.” Tap Routines, then the plus sign (+) to add a new routine. Choose “Voice command.” Use something like “Code Red Emergency” or “SOS” as the phrase. Then tap “Add action” > Communicate and announce > Send a text. Enter the number to contact and the message you want to send. (Samsung phone owners can just go to Settings > Safety and emergency > Send SOS messages.)
On an iPhone: Go to Settings > Emergency SOS.

More on Smartphones

Lock Down and Erase a Lost or Stolen Phone
If your phone goes missing, you can secure the data on it with a passcode and post a request for help on the screen to assist in the rescue effort. You can also erase the device remotely to further safeguard your personal data. Fire up your computer, visit the following web pages, and follow the directions.
On an iPhone: Go to icloud.com/find.
On an Android phone: Go to android.com/find.

Let People Know Where You Are
This is not only a safety tip, but also a time-saving tip for those weary of explaining to friends how to find a picnic spot or tailgate party. You simply have your phone send a map pinpointing your location.
On an Android phone: Open Google Maps, press and hold your finger on your current location until a card listing the address pops up, then tap Share > Messages.
On an iPhone: Open a text message, tap the profile of the sender at the top of the screen. Then tap Send My Current Location.

Fight Eye Fatigue (and Maybe Insomnia)
Reading text on a bright white screen can tire your eyes and keep you awake. Studies show that the blue tones in the light trigger the nervous system to be more wakeful. But many phones let you reduce the blue light and cut the glare by casting the screen in an amber glow. In some cases, you can even schedule a stretch of time for the feature to automatically activate.
On an Android phone: Go to Settings > Display > Night Light. (Samsung phone owners will find a similar feature called “Eye comfort shield” or “Blue light filter” by swiping down from the top of the screen to get to the quick settings panel.)
On an iPhone: Go to Settings > Display & Brightness > Night Shift.

Get Better Sleep
Your phone can help you get more rest by encouraging you to stick to a consistent sleep schedule. In addition to prompting you to hit the sack and wake up on time, the Bedtime feature in Android and iOS can turn on Do Not Disturb to silence notifications and calls.
On an Android phone: Open the Clock app and tap Bedtime. On the Schedule card, tap the time under Bedtime to set your night time schedule. Then tap the time under “Wake up” to set your morning schedule. 
On an iPhone: Open the Health app. Under “Set Up Sleep,” tap “Get Started” and follow the prompts to set your bedtime and wake up schedule. You can also set sleep goals (i.e., the number of hours you’d like to slumber).

Keep Tabs on a Child or an Aging Parent
If you have a kid who walks to school or a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, you can use the location-tracking technology embedded in their smartphones to monitor their travels. Google’s Family Link app works on iOS as well as Android and can help set screen time limits and manage apps, too.
On an Android phone: Download and open the free Google Family Link app and follow the instructions for setup.
On an iPhone: Go to Settings > [Your Name] > Family Sharing > Location Sharing. This will allow you to create an account for the child and invite other family members to share their location data.

Track Your Screen Time
Concerned that you or your child doesn’t unplug enough? Here’s how to monitor your digital distraction and set limits or timers to find better balance.
On an Android phone: Go to Settings > Digital Wellbeing and parental controls. 
On an iPhone: Go to Settings > Screen Time.

Ease of Use

Make Text and Icons Easier to Read
With these simple ways to increase the size of fonts and icons, there’s no need to squint to read texts and emails on your phone.
On an Android phone: Go to Settings > Display > Font Size and slide the dot on the bottom of the screen to adjust the text size. To increase the size of everything on the screen, go to Settings > Display > Display Size and slide the dot to adjust both the font and icon size. (Samsung phone owners should look for “Font size and style” and “Screen zoom” under the Display settings.)
On an iPhone: Go to Settings > Display & Brightness > Text Size and drag the slider. To increase the size of icons (and everything on the screen), go to Settings > Accessibility > Zoom.

Choose a Vibration Alert for Specific Contacts
Lots of people choose custom ringtones to identify who’s calling, but you can go one step further and customize vibration alerts to pinpoint who’s texting or calling when your phone is in your pocket.
On an Android phone: Open the Contacts app > Select the contact you want to customize > Tap Edit > Scroll down to More options > Vibration pattern. Select a different vibration pattern than the default. To create a custom vibration pattern, you need to install a third-party app.
On an iPhone: Open the Contacts app > Select the contact you want to customize > Tap Edit Ringtone > Vibration. You can choose a standard pattern or choose Create New Vibration to create a custom vibration pattern.

Shake or Swipe to Undo a Typo
To erase a mistake in an email, a note, or text message, you can just give an iPhone a vigorous shake. Samsung phone owners need to enable an undo gesture to swipe away those last changes. If you erase something in error, give the phone another good shake or swipe in the opposite direction to restore what you deleted.
On an iPhone: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Touch > Shake to Undo.
On a Samsung phone: Go to Settings > General management > Samsung Keyboard settings > Swipe, touch, and feedback > Keyboard swipe controls. Select “No swipe gestures.” When you want to undo what you’ve typed, simply swipe from right to left across the keyboard with two fingers. To redo, swipe from left to right.  

Control Your Cursor
If it’s hard to accurately move the tiny cursor on your phone with your chubby fingers, here’s a foolproof way to do it.
On an Android phone: Press and hold the spacebar and slide your finger left or right.
On an iPhone: Press and hold the spacebar until the keyboard turns gray, then slide your finger to move the cursor within the text.

Schedule Text Messages
How do you say good morning to an early bird? Good night to a night owl? With a well-timed text message, of course. Scheduling a text message is baked into Android and possible in iPhone with a somewhat cumbersome workaround.
On an Android phone: Open the Messages app > Write your text message > Touch and hold Send > Choose from the suggested options > Tap Send.
On an iPhone: Open the Shortcuts app > Go to Automation > Create Personal Automation > Time of Day. Set the time and date you want the message sent > Next > Add Action > Send Message > Enter the message you want to send and the recipient(s). On the next screen, toggle the “Ask Before Running” option off to make this run without requiring your input. Finally, tap Done.

Scroll Through Tabs Quickly
Instead of tapping your phone repeatedly to navigate through web browser tabs, you can get the same results with a simple swipe. The gesture works on Android and Apple phones.
On an Android phone or an iPhone: Swipe from left to right on the address bar to see the previous tab. To see the next tab, swipe from right to left. To open a new tab on an iPhone, swipe all the way to the right.

Productivity

Scan Documents
Want to digitize a receipt, recipe, or public document to make it text-searchable? Your phone has everything you need to serve as a scanner—no third-party app required. The steps below turn photos of documents into sharp PDFs. 
On an Android phone: Open the Google Drive app. Tap the plus (+) sign > Scan > and take a photo of the document. You can also crop the image, change it from black and white to color, rotate it, and add pages if you’d like.
On an iPhone: Open Apple’s Notes app. Tap the new note icon at the bottom > the Camera button > Scan Documents. If your phone is in Auto mode, it will scan the document straight away. If not, tap the shutter button or one of the volume buttons to take the photo. You can then drag the corners to fit the scan to the page, rotate the document, or add pages. To save it as a PDF, press the Share button on the scanned document and choose Create PDF.

Magnify Small Type
Need a little help reading that tiny type on the prescription label? Your phone’s camera can serve as a magnifying glass.
On an Android phone: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Magnification > and turn on the Magnification shortcut. (Samsung phone owners will find this under Settings > Accessibility > Visibility enhancements > Magnification.) To activate, open the camera app, tap the accessibility button, and drag with two fingers to zoom. 
On an iPhone: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut > Magnifier. To activate, click the Side button three times. Then drag the slider to zoom in or out. 

Have Your Phone Read to You
Many phones can read the content on your screen out loud, whether that’s a text message, email, or newspaper article. This text-to-speak feature is great for hands-free “reading” or if you have difficulty seeing the screen.
On an Android phone: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Select to Speak. Depending on your version of Android, a small icon of a person or a speech bubble will appear on the screen in any app; tap it and the phone begins reading. (For Samsung phones, there’s a similar featured called TalkBack, but it is always on and it reads everything you tap or select on the screen.)
On an iPhone: Go to Settings > Accessibility > Spoken Content > Speak Selection. Once enabled, you can highlight text and click the Speak button to have the selection read. If you have Speak Screen enabled, you can hear the content of the whole screen by swiping down with two fingers. Alternatively, you can ask Siri to “speak screen.”

Listen Remotely
Turn your phone into a microphone that links to your headset or a hearing aid so you can better hear people from across the room. You can also use this feature to monitor for a baby’s cry in another room, listen to a TV or speaker at a higher volume than others around you might prefer, or any other remote microphone uses you can imagine. 
On an Android phone: This feature is built into Google Pixel phones, but other Android users can download Google’s Sound Amplifier app from Google Play. To use it, open Sound Amplifier, accept the permissions, connect your wired or Bluetooth headphones to your device, and either tap the accessibility button, which looks like a person or swipe up with two fingers.
On an iPhone: Apple’s Live Listen is compatible with AirPods, Powerbeats Pro, and Beats Fit Pro. First, add Live Listen to Control Center by going to Settings > Control Center. Then tap the plus (+) sign next to the Hearing button. Then use, open Control Center, tap the Hearing button, and tap Live Listen.

Turn Your Phone Into a Toolbox
Taking measurements and making sure you hang photo frames straight has never been easier, since your phone can serve as a measuring tape and a carpenter’s level. The iPhone’s Measure app can even provide the height of a person fully in the camera frame.
On an Android phone: Google retired its augmented reality Measure app in mid-2021 and it doesn’t offer a bubble level, either, so you need to use a third-party app for both features.
On an iPhone: Open the Measure app and follow the directions to move your phone around. Move the dot over the starting point of the measurement and tap the plus (+) sign, then tap it again after you’ve moved the dot to the end point. The Level function lets you straighten pictures using a digital interface on the phone.

Create and Send a Screenshot
Need to send a shot of an error message to tech support? Share what’s on your screen in an instant with these shortcuts.
On an Android phone: Press and hold the Power and Volume Down buttons at the same time. Tap on the image to edit or share it.
On an iPhone: Press the Side and Volume Up buttons at the same time. Tap the thumbnail that appears at the bottom left-hand corner of the screen to open and share it.

Record a How-To Video
You can share any of these hidden tricks by creating a step-by-step video of what’s on your phone’s screen, along with your voice-over tutorial.
On an Android phone: Swipe down from the top of the screen, then tap the Screen Recorder icon (you might need to swipe right to find it) > Start Recording and a countdown will begin. To pause, annotate, or stop recording, use the toolbar that appears on your screen. You’ll find the recording in Google Photos.
On an iPhone: Go to Settings > Control Center > and tap the plus (+) sign next to Screen Recording. Then open Control Center and tap the circle recording icon. To stop recording, tap the red status bar at the top of the screen.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the February 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine. It has been updated with new tips.


Headshot of CR author Melanie Pinola

Melanie Pinola

I've loved gadgets for as long as I can remember. In fact, my first smartphone was the Nokia 9000, a marvel in the late '90s for having the world's first graphical web browser on a mobile device. I'm still enchanted with technology, and as a tech writer, it's my goal to help people get the most out of it. When I'm not researching or writing, I'm playing video games with my family, testing new recipes, or trying to get my puppy to stop eating sticks. Feel free to reach me on Twitter (@melaniepinola).