There are thousands of smartphone apps that make you more productive, keep you entertained, or make it easy to connect to people on the go. But one of the things I found most surprising after picking up my Google Nexus One earlier this year was just how useful the simple apps that take advantage of the accelerometer, GPS, or backlight can be for everyday tasks. One of the apps I use most often is a simple Flashlight app that makes it easy to navigate through my house with the lights off.
Here are five apps that I’ve found work almost as well as physical tools for performing tasks including hanging pictures, measuring (short) distances, and finding your way. I realize that there are multiple apps in each of these categories, but I’m just going to highlight my favorites. If you have your own, feel free to weigh in with comments.
Bubble (Level app)
Most Android phones have accelerometers which detect when you’ve rotated the phone. This comes in handy if you want to automatically switch from portrait to landscape mode when surfing the web, or if you want to control the car in a racing game by tilting your phone.
But Bubble takes a different approach and uses the accelerometer to turn your phone into a pretty handy level which you can use when hanging shelves, pictures, or performing other tasks around the house.
The level works in landscape or portrait mode. And if you place the phone flat on its back, you’ll get a circular yellow zone for the bubble to float in (or not).
Don’t like the white background? You can change it to black in the settings. You can also tweak the settings so that your phone beeps when you’ve found the level sweep spot, or to show the numeric value of the angle — which could help if you want your pictures to be tiled at 17 degree angles.
This app isn’t going to replace a 12 inch ruler or a 36 inch yardstick anytime soon for one simple reason: I don’t happen to have a phone with a 12 inch display. But if you just need to get a quick measurement of something small, there are a number of ruler apps in the Android Market.
Here’s why I like Advanced Ruler:
The software will automatically recognize a variety of Android smartphones, which lets it figure out exactly how large your screen is and automatically calibrate the ruler correctly. If your phone isn’t automatically recognized you can hit a calibrate button and use an old fashioned measuring tape to identify help the app figure out just how to draw the ruler on your smartphone.
You can also adjust the direction of the ruler and toggle between inches and centimeters. The ruler can be locked, which means you’ll just see 3 or 4 inches or so. Or you can unlock the ruler, allowing you to scroll past the edge of the screen to see the 5th inch or further.
Advanced Ruler also lets you adjust the text size, ruler style, and other settings.
There’s no screenshot to go with this app — because you wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from the web site background. Basically Flashlight does one thing and does it well. It presents you with a white screen and sets your display brightness to 100%.
In other words, it transforms your phone into an LED flashlight.
There are other flashlight apps in the Android Market. Some are designed to work with specific phones, allowing you to use the camera Flash as a flashlight, for instance (although this typically requires you to “root” your phone). But Flashlight should work on most Android phones, and if you’re trying to find your way through a dark room, it should provide you with plenty of light whether you’re looking for your keys or your side of the bed.
There are no settings to figure, and no price to pay. Flashlight is available as a free download.
OK, I admit it. I’m a city guy and I don’t actually need a compass very often. But every now and again when emerging from a subway tunnel in New York I really wished I had one in hand so I could figure out which way I was facing without walking toward midtown when I meant to go uptown.
Snaptic Compass takes advantage of the GPS and accelerometer features in your Android phone to make an old fashioned pocket compass look… well… old fashioned.
You can choose from a variety of compass styles, ranging from almost entirely digital to the rather classic looking design feature in the screenshot. No matter which compass design you go with, you the app should help you figure out which way is north.
Compass also lets you change the background style and toggle the GPS on or off. You can also create notes that are tagged with a specific location using Snaptic’s 3banana Notes app.
There are several other compass apps in the Android Market, but the one from Snaptic is one of the best looking — and it’s free.
This stopwatch by sportstracklive lets you count up or down, record laptops, and change the display colors. Rotate your phone to portrait mode and the stopwatch takes up the whole screen with much larger numbers that are easier to see across a room.
In countdown timer mode, you can set the app to beep and/or vibrate when the time runs down. And you don’t need to leave the app open to time something.
It will run in the background and you can check your progress in the Android Status bar.
There’s an option to keep the screen awake when the stopwatch is running, which can come in handy if you’re trying to time something that requires using both your hands and you don’t want to keep swiping at your phone to keep the screen from going dark.
Have any suggestions for Android Toolbox apps that I missed? Or have other stopwatch, flashlight, compass, ruler, or level apps that you prefer? Sound off in the comments.