Smartphone apps to organize your life

Lifestyle, Technology

My first smartphone was the 1st generation iPhone in 2007. Back then, it was just a really cool and beautiful machine that you can use sometimes to browse the web or look up an address via Google maps. Everything was so slow probably because mobile network providers couldn’t really handle the load yet. Apps were still a new concept and app makers came and went so that an app that you liked one day could lose support the next.

Fast forward to today and this is what you get:

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 12.43.02 PM

With all that noise, we sometimes end up downloading apps that we use once or never. Over time, here are the apps that continually occupy my home screen and that I have found the most useful. I use an Android phone these days, the Nexus 6, so functionalities for Google’s suite of apps might be a little ornery on iOS and other mobile OS. But the rest of the apps I’ve outlined here should work just as beautifully and maybe even better on iOS since most of them were developed first for iOS. I hope these apps help you as much as they have helped me over the years. Remember, your smartphone is more than just for calling, it’s your mini-computer. Now, put that awesome and expensive device to work.

  1. Google apps
    • Gmail.This is a no-brainer. Even if you have an iPhone with a Mail app and use GMail extensively, nothing parses through Gmail better than the Gmail app itself. I don’t even have the Mail apps activated in my Macbook Pro and iPad. The last time I used the Mail app on my Macbook was in 2009.
    • Maps. Again, there’s not much to say except that Maps is a game-changer. I don’t mind driving but I really don’t like knowing where to go or how long it will take for me to get there. The longevity of Maps means that you have the best data available (for traffic, new routes, public transit/walking/biking directions). Plus, Maps now has data on major shopping centers and airports as well. Back when I used to have the iPhone, I refused to update my iOS (when Apple replaced Google Maps with its own Maps app) until I was sure that Google Maps was available for the iPhone.
    • Calendar. If you have an Android with the latest OS (Lollipop in this case), Calendar’s integration with other Google apps is amazing. If you received some sort of invitation via Gmail, Calendar automatically adds it as an event with all the details: location, time, date, phone number of organizer. On the day of the appointment (if the event has a location in it), it will appear as a Google Now card which tells you what time to leave for the appointment based on your current location. From what I can understand, a similar feature exists on the iPhone but you have to manually turn the settings on. Here’s a guide on how to do that.
    • Drive. This is probably not well understood by most people because of Google’s iterations over the years. Used to be simply called Docs, it became Drive. Within Drive, files can be opened/edited in 2 apps: Sheets (for spreadsheets) and Docs (similar to Word documents). But you don’t even have to think about that. Opening a file within Drive automatically opens it in those respective apps. If Sheets/Docs are not installed, Drive will simply ask you to install them. I used Drive for any document that I want to share and co-edit. If push comes to shove and I want some fancy formatting, then I simply do the final edits on Word or Excel but I hardly do that. I’ve submitted plenty of my MBA assignments formatted in Docs or Sheets.
    • Translate. If you’re planning to travel to a country where you don’t know the language, this is a must-have. For more on my thoughts about Translate, I talked about it and some of its new features here.
    • Wallet. I know, I know, Apple Pay is the bomb. But for Android users, Google Wallet has been around much longer and it does get handy (at least for online retailers where it’s accepted). I hope that Google’s latest moves of partnering with wireless carriers and acquiring of mobile payments systems Softcard will lead to Wallet’s widespread adoption. For now though, I use Wallet to keep track of my loyalty cards. You know those loyalty cards that you either clutter your wallet with or your key ring? Input or scan the barcode into the app and you can just use your phone to scan it at the store. Wallet can also keep track of gift cards via barcodes as well. For an alternative (before this Wallet feature), I’ve used the Cardstar app over the years as well.
    • Hangouts. There’s a lot of complaints about the replacement of the Voice app with Hangouts but I really can’t complain. I’ve moved 5 times in the past 5 years to different cities/countries. I’ve used numerous SIM cards/phone numbers but my friends/family only has one number to contact me by, which is my Google Voice number. No matter where I am in the world, I can forward phone calls to Hangouts and receive them. For US or Canada-based callers, the call stays free. The road has not been completely smooth on my phone because some network providers block Google from bypassing the default Phone dialer. For example, I want to use my Google voice number to call internationally which bills my Google account (at competitive rates) but my T-Mobile won’t allow it. With the release of Hangouts dialer though, I can now make those international phone calls using my Google Voice account. I would also mainly use the app for messaging but internationally, WhatsApp is still the leader.
    • Google Plus. G+ might be a joke for some people but it is my main photo storage provider. All my photos are automatically backed up in Google+. Only photos over 2048×2048 pixels and videos longer than 15 minutes count toward my free storage limit of 15GB. Any pictures/videos than these have unlimited storage in G+. When I’m ready, I can easily share them with families and friends via G+ or by sending a private link. As with any photo sharing feature, you can tweak the settings of each photo/album if you wan to make sure that photos/albums can or can’t be re-shared. Furthermore, G+ AutoAwesome automatically enhances some pictures or even transform series of photos into GIFs. Another great feature is “Stories” which automatically sifts through a series of photos, picks the best ones and give you travelogues that you can share or just keep.
  2. Flipboard. I’ve tried to look for alternative reading apps that curate the news for me but so far, this is the one that I keep going back to. It’s simply well-built and beautiful to boot. If you like to follow current events in any field (world news, tech, fashion, etc.), this app delivers in a beautiful format.
  3. Mint by Intuit. Other companies have tried and are trying to topple Mint’s dominance in personal finance but you can’t beat Mint’s integration with other products – most importantly Intuit’s TurboTax. Over the years, Mint has proven its worth – easy to navigate, easily integrated with banks/credit cards, great support.
  4. CamScanner. If you’re like me and don’t own a scanner but find yourself needing to scan something every once in a while all the time, then this app is for you. Via the app, you take a picture of the document, and the app transforms the picture into a PDF or JPG file that you can easily share via mail, upload to any cloud storage app on your phone or even over Bluetooth. On the iPhone, sharing options might be limited to Mail, iCloud and Bluetooth but on the Android, you can send it via messaging apps (doc link only), email, and any storage app you’ve installed on the phone.
  5. Trello. I’ve used other to-do-list apps such as Asana, but have since switched to Trello for its simplicity. You can organize to-dos based on timeline such as: To do this month, this week or Doing today. You can also organize it based on the person responsible if you’re sharing the lists with other people.
  6. Baby Connect. As a new mom, I needed a way to track my daughter’s sleep and feeding times. Even for parents, this may not be something that you will find useful. In fact, my doctor once told me to stop tracking the times and instead pay attention to visual cues from my daughter. Still, I find it fun to have all these data because I’ve learned to predict whether my daughter will be more or less resistant to naps based on the number of her sleep hours from previous days. You can also track milestones (first steps, first smile, etc.) which can also be exciting to do.
  7. SeatGuru. When I first traveled with my daughter, especially on airlines where we didn’t have any status, I wanted to avoid the most uncomfortable seats. I also needed to know where the bassinets can be attached or if they’re available at all. SeatGuru helped me figure this out because airline websites are not always reliable/transparent on seat information. Browsing seating maps also show specific notes for certain seats. Example: “Seat 17F (Economy, Standard, AC Power, Seatback, TV). Seat 17F is a standard Economy seat, however, this seat has extra space around it due to the blocking out of the middle seat… the armrests are still immovable which some may find uncomfortable.”
  8. Uber. You can use the same payment information in different countries, be able to track your driver, know the wait times and pay less compared to taxis. Enough said.
  9. Life360. I used to have Google Latitude to track my husband’s location or allow my husband to track mine. And no, it wasn’t that we wanted to control each other’s movements but every once in a while when I had to pick him up or vice versa, then we knew exactly where to go instead of getting frustrated with trying to describe a place (especially when traveling). Unfortunately, the app was retired in 2013 and I had to find a replacement. Life360 is a great alternative and can be shared with the whole family – especially useful for a growing family like mine.
  10. If this, then that (IFTT). To be honest, I have yet to set this up on my phone because it will require some planning on exactly how I want my activities to be organized. Furthermore, I find Google’s default actions (see Google apps above) to be more than sufficient for my needs. IFFT sets up of corresponding responses to certain actions. An example: if I post a photo on Instagram, upload that photo on a specific file on my Dropbox. If you’re very prolific and a power-power user, then IFFT can be very useful. IFFT users come up with different recipes all the time so you also don’t need to come up with your own recipes if you don’t feel like it.
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