GADGET SHOW LIVE TALKS: How to get the most out of your mobile phone

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Phones aren’t just for making calls, they’re also for having fun. Modern phones have a wealth of options available for keeping yourself entertained on the go. Buses, waiting rooms, and bored weekends at the in-laws’ house can all be enlivened with the help of a few handy applications.

Entertainment

Lets start with stuff you’ll know from your computer. YouTube has a great little mobile app for most Nokia and Sony Ericsson phones, the iPhone and the G1 that’ll have you Rickrolling your friends in no time. I can safely report that ‘Chocolate Rain’ is just as awesome in mobile form too.

There’s also iPlayer for certain Nokia smartphones, the iPhone, the Samsung Omnia, a couple of Sony Ericsson handsets and the HTC Touch HD. Most only allow streaming and unfortunately that’ll only work in Wi-Fi areas but owners of the Nokia N85 or N96 are able to download content to the handset via their PC for playback later on, even when they’re out of range of Wi-Fi.

If you use Sky+ you’ll be pleased to hear that there are applications available that’ll let you schedule your watching habits or set something to record via a mobile application for the iPhone. If you don’t have an iPhone, then you can still set stuff to record via text message.

The music fans among you might be aware of a website called Last.fm. It’s a personalized radio service which intelligently recommends you music based on what you listen to. Guess what – it has a mobile client. iPhone owners and G1 owners can listen to their radio stations via a 3G connection on the go by using the free Last.fm application.

Lastly, don’t forget the world of podcasts. Almost every handset that’s capable of MP3 playback has a podcast application available, and the world of podcasts has never been better. I’d recommend you start with the Tech Digest podcast, but most BBC radio shows are available in podcast form too.

Communications

Whilst a phone is never going to replace a computer in terms of functionality you want it to be able to cope with the majority of your favourite everyday applications, and the most obvious feature is communications. Apart from voice calls and messages there’s so much more you can do with a mobile.

If you amp the functionality up all the way you get the Inq phone from 3 – an astonishing concept, as it’s so integrated into all your networking that its actually scary. It automatically updates Facebook, twitter, MySpace and your address book depending on what people have done to their pages – and you get all of that for free.

Let start with a popular application and the buzzword of today- Twitter. You want to be able to access your account on the go, update and reply to people’a messages, but with so many clients it’s difficult to know where to start.

A great one for the Android platform is TwitDroid. It’s free to download and allow you to read messages, and reply to them as well as update your status, which not all clients allow. Twibble is a popular tool on the Nokia handsets and then you have Twitberry for BlackBerry and Twitterfon for the iPhone.

Windows Mobile users also get a look-in, as you can choose from a variety of apps, my personal favourite being Twoible for Windows Mobile. You get the picture, huh? All these operators want to make it as easy as possible for you to use their service, meaning you’ll stick with them!

Next we come to a more thorny issue, that of free calls on your phone – clearly something that the operators aren’t going to be enamoured with. There are some VOIP clients which work with mobiles but it can be hit or miss whether they’ll work or not. The three main competitors would be Skype, Fring and Truphone. These are all services that allow you to make calls via your phone’s internet connection, with varying levels of ease.

First we’ll look at the big daddy, Skype. Some handsets, such as 3 phones, come with integrated Skype functions whilst others have apps or let you install them. You can make free Skype to Skype calls, and will have to pay a small fee to make calls to landlines and mobiles- but you’ll save a lot when calling abroad. Not all phones support Skype, however, as the operators fear they’ll lose out on call fees. I see Skype as supporter to the phone rather than replacing it.

You can use Skype easily on all Windows Mobile phones or the iPhone, and Android handsets have a beta version available. We can hope that more phones will open up to it, though they do have an impressive line-up of compatible handsets with everything from Sony Ericsson to LG in the mix. They only run Skype lite though as non-smartphones can’t cope with the full Skype functionality.

Next into the fray we have Truphone which works on a very similar basis to Skype- but on a more comprehensive level. In fact it can be compared to Fring, which I’ll also address below. Truphone allows you to make calls via VoIP or GSM, as well as IM people and has integrated Skype so you can call your contacts using this service. It works on the G1, iPhone and BlackBerry as well as the iPod Touch (via wi-fi) and lets you make cheap calls. The company makes money by pushing adverts at you while you’re using the service.

Fring is another social media aggregator that lets you make calls and chat within all your favourite IM clients, and it also integrates low cost calling from your mobile. Which you choose really depends on how you like their interface and what platform you’re using them on, but there’s something for everyone, whether you’re Android or BlackBerry.

Navigation

Getting where you want to go – or even just finding out where you are – can be tricky in an unfamiliar city. You could ask someone, but there’s every chance they’ll laugh in your face, spit in your shoes and mock you for being a scummy tourist. Fear not – you never need for that to happen to you again. Instead, you can let your mobile phone sort it all out.

There are a couple of homegrown options that might well be available on your handset already, especially if you’ve got a GPS-equipped BlackBerry or a fairly modern Nokia phone. Both of those companies have developed their own map software. But I don’t like them that much. Far better is Google’s offering – Google Maps. Google Maps works on most mobile phones – BlackBerry, Nokia, Windows Mobile, and PalmOS, and it comes pre-installed on the T-Mobile G1 and on iPhones.

First-up, location. Within a couple of seconds of starting the program up, a blue dot appears marking your location. It’s surrounded by a light blue circle which represents uncertainty. If your phone can get a GPS lock, that circle will be very small, but if it’s working out your location from nearby cell towers then it might not get your location exactly right.

Then you might want to find out what’s nearby. Go to ‘search’, and type something in. I’m hungry, so let’s find a sandwich shop. Type in ‘sandwich’, and you’ll get a list of all the sandwich shops in the area complete with phone numbers, addresses, website links and even user reviews.

There’s the option to get your phone to navigate you to the shop, but most of the time you’ll want to get somewhere further afield. Hit ‘get directions’, and you can choose from car, public transport or walking. At each point on the way, we can see Street View for the route, so you know exactly where you’re going. If you’re driving you can also add traffic information, or get a satellite view.

Lastly, what if one of your friends was eating at a different sandwich shop? You’d want to know, surely, so that you could meet up. Google’s got you covered here too, with a relatively new service called ‘Latitude’. Latitude keeps track of you, and then lets people – only people you specify – see where you are at any given time. You can choose how specific it is – and you can even lie if you like – but it can be quite handy for people who want to increase the odds that they’ll bump into friends.

Fitness and wellbeing

We all want to be fit and in shape but as we’re lazy we’re prone to procrastination and excuses, from “I can’t get to the gym” to “I thought that chocolate cake was low fat!” Well, now there are a wide variety of fitness applications that work on most handsets that’ll prevent you from getting away with that kind of denial.

Let’s start with Samsung’s fitness “Micoach” phone which gives you music tracks for different workouts, as well as letting you hook up your results to their website to monitor progress. It will even give you motivational phrases like “Speed up!” whilst you’re working out, though I think promising you chocolate might work better.

If that’s too much hassle, there are a variety of other phone apps you can try. As long as you have a compatible phone there a fitness tool for you – it’s not all limited to iPhone applications.

Let’s take a look at the Android phone – the T-Mobile G1. This platform has many, many options, and my favourites so far are “Calorie Counter” and “Buddy Trainer”. The former lets you record what you eat every day, update your weight and fitness goals, and even includes a barcode scanner so it can work out the calories of what you’ve eaten. The Buddy Trainer gives you support when you’re working out and has a variety of GPS maps to let you choose outdoor running trails.

BlackBerry handsets have some similar options, such as Sendo Calories which lets you calculate your daily calorie consumption with ease and Nokia’s phones feature the Sports Tracker app which gives you the time and distance of your workout and lets you upload your route and connect to other exercisers online. The iPhone has a zillion applications to choose from, from iFitness and Fitphone which both provide you with detailed exercises to target different muscles in the body.

Gaming

Lastly, let’s talk about games. Which mobile OS has the best games? Well, ‘best’ is mostly in the eye of the beholder, but I can tell you straight off the bat which platform has the best choice – it’s the iPhone. The user-friendliness of the device, combined with its specs and the success of the app store, has meant that developers have flooded to the platform.

As a result, everything from SimCity to Quake and the wonderful and insane Katamari Damacy is available on the platform. It’s got great quality standards, too, unlike the vast majority of mobile phone games which are crappy clones of old titles that just feature the characters of the latest awful Dreamworks summer blockbuster.

But the iPhone doesn’t have the monopoly on good games. Android’s proving fertile, with some interesting strategy titles like Archipelago cropping up, alongside old favourites like Doom and Breakout. Windows Mobile isn’t bad either, though because it lacks a central app store, it can be hard to track down the games you want.

Symbian is represented by N-Gage which, although ahead of its time when it was released, is now aging poorly. There’s very few big titles, and those that exist are just uninspired continuations of existing games franchises like Need for Speed or FIFA. There’s little innovation.

Which leaves us with BlackBerry. RIM’s devices are built for email, not gaming, and they’re not very appealing to hackers. As a result, the BlackBerry games ecosystem is limited to basic puzzle games and arcade classics, but with the introduction of App world, a bunch of brain-training games have recently started appearing.

Conclusions

So, that’s a run-down of all the applications available on each device. All of them can be found by searching either the application store for the device – in the case of BlackBerry, the iPhone and the G1, or by searching Google in the case of Windows Mobile, Nokia and Sony Ericsson handsets.

Duncan Geere