Tag Archives: smartphones

How To Take Better Selfies

By Tracey Dowdy

Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s my own insecurities, maybe it’s my ineptitude with technology, but I’ve never been big on selfies. I can’t keep a straight face and generally end up looking like I’m confused, smelling something I don’t like, or, like a grumpy old woman, complaining about millennials.

I am most certainly in the minority. Selfies are everywhere – even the First Lady takes them – so I guess it’s time for me to get on board.  Whether you’re a newbie like me or already a seasoned veteran, use these tips to up your selfie game.

  • Compose yourself. Well, your photo at least. Think of the screen as being divided into thirds and place your face along the gridlines – unless of course you’re aiming for that “passport photo-center-of-the-screen” look. You may be surprised at how much more visually appealing the shot is.
  • Lose your double chin in one easy step! Hold the camera up and over your head – just like the First Lady – to get the most flattering angle.
  • Timing is everything. No matter how strong your game, it’s pretty much inevitable to experience camera-shake when you hit that button so take advantage of your camera’s self-timer. Not only will your picture be less blurry, you’ll have time to look at the lens instead of the screen and and remind everyone in the photo to do the same. I’m looking at you Roy.
  • Flash! WOAH-OH-OH! Am I the only one singing the Flash Gordon theme? Probably. Anyway, good lighting is imperative. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule and you can always edit the brightness, highlights and lowlights later, but it’s a whole lot easier if you start with a good photo. If your smartphone doesn’t have a front-facing flash, don’t despair. iOS users can download an app like Lit Mirror – Selfie Flash and Android users can use Selfie Light. You also have the option of buying a rechargeable, self-powered LED fill light that you simply plug into your headphone jack.
  • Get a grip! “Ninja-Loop” “Lazy-Hands”, “Sling Strap”, and “Love Handle”, aren’t just the potential names for my yet-to-be-formed-middle-aged-women-girl-group. They’re all finger grips that adhere to the back of your phone allowing you a better grasp on your phone. It’s easier to position the angle of your device and lessens the chance you’ll drop it.
  • Hang Loose. (Or it hang tight? Hang out?) My point is, instead of trying to twist your arm in ways nature never intended or extend your reach like Stretch Armstrong, prop your phone on your desk, a shelf, the counter…you know what I mean. Better yet, get a NanoHold, a self-adhesive pad for your phone or tablet that sticks to everything from glass and whiteboards to metal, tile and finished wood.
  • “I’m ready for my close up!” Here’s a pro-tip: holding the phone close to your face means your nose will look bigger and your eyes will look smaller? Not the look you were going for? Didn’t think so. Instead, zoom in a little – not too much or the image will reduce detail – while you hold the camera away from your face. Your features will remain in proportion and you’ll eliminate visual clutter from the background.
  • Vogue! I mean vogue like Madonna back in the 90’s, not that weird Vogue cover where she was photoshopped into a shiny, blurry alien version of herself. If you’ve ever had professional photos taken, you know sometimes the photographer asks you to pose in what feels awkward or uncomfortable but looks great in the finished shot. So, angle your shoulders, lift your chin, and extend your neck forward. If you’re taking a full body shot, angle your body toward the camera, and bend one leg a little. Think “red carpet” pose.

The last and most important tip is to have fun. Your best photos are often candid shots when you’re totally relaxed and enjoying yourself. No amount of posing, good lighting or editing can replace genuine happiness.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

‘I’ll Take That To Go’: Rating the Top Fast Food Apps

By Tracey Dowdy

Because we live in a world where a Drive Thru is no longer fast enough, fast food restaurants have taken things to the next level, introducing apps to get you in and out more quickly without compromising customer satisfaction. It’s all about creating and maintaining that customer base, so alongside offering healthier food options and rewards programs, they’ve developed apps designed to save time and money and keep you coming back for more.

But not all apps are created equal. Depending on your priorities and preferences, some are definitely better than others.

burger kingThe Burger King app is straightforward and user friendly with easy to find to find locations, nutrition information and plenty of coupons. Mobile payment is an option via PayPal, BK® Crown Card, or a Virtual Card, so you can order, prepay and pick up your order fuss-free. The downside to the app is that prices are not listed and Value Menu items are scattered throughout their respective categories, so eating on a budget or trying to stay under a specific dollar amount can be tricky.

mcdonaldsThe McDonald’s app lets you view the menu but lacks the option to order online. The biggest draw is the number of coupons. Once you’ve created an account and chosen your local “home base” restaurant, the app will send you offers like BOGO’s or dollar-off coupons which is convenient considering the app doesn’t list prices and, like Burger King, value menu items don’t have their own listing. Because you can’t order online, the app primarily functions as a handheld menu and coupon resource.

taco bellTaco Bell may not be everyone’s top choice but their app is one of the better options in the fast food game. Menu items are presented with prices and with photos, because really who can remember the difference between a gordita and a chalupa? Pre-payment is available via credit or gift cards and nutrition information is easily accessible. Perhaps the best feature is that once you check out, the app asks if you’re picking up in-store or via drive-thru. Once you’re within a specific distance of the location, check in and they then prepare your order. Walk in, wait for your name to be called, and voila! fast fast food.

wendys1Unlike some of the other fast food burger options, Wendy’s doesn’t ask you to create an account or choose a “home base” location but brings up menu options and nutrition information right away. The “Right Size” value menu is easy to find, another option McDonalds and BK fail to offer. One unique feature is the option to donate to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption from within the app. The biggest drawback with the Wendy’s app is that mobile ordering is limited to Phoenix, Portland, Austin and Columbus municipal areas only and mobile payment is limited to those participating locations.

dominoes1Dominoes hands down has the best fast food app out there. Create an account at Dominoes.com and complete your profile with details like your favorite pizza, pick up or delivery, address and credit card information. This information creates your “Easy Order,” which is accessible from whatever digital platform you choose to order from, and that’s an extensive list. Users can order on their smartphone via SMS or by tweeting the pizza emoji to #Easyorder or to @Dominos and then confirming the order by Twitter direct message.

Users also have the option to order through Samsung Smart TVs, Ford Sync, Apple Wear, Android Wear or Pebble smartwatches, and Dominos own native mobile app. The app offers both national and local coupons and payment options include cash, credit, debit or Domino’s gift card.

All the fast food apps listed above are available for iPhone and Android.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Exposing 5 Common Battery Myths

By Tracey Dowdy

There are plenty of hacks for conserving battery power, but not all hacks are created equal. In fact, as technology has advanced from the early days of mobile phones, many of the tips and tricks we’re using to improve battery life are simply not effective any more, if they ever were.

We all know turning down your screen brightness, disabling location services from unnecessarily running in the background and switching to airplane mode to keep your phone from searching for signals will all extend battery life. However, you may have been doing things like letting the battery completely run down before recharging or killing apps to extend that battery life. Does that really help?

Check out these common myths about batteries to find out.

Myth #1 – You need to fully charge the battery before using a device for the first time.

Nope. The idea of charging to 100% before first use goes back to when fully charging the battery helped the battery to calibrate. These days, smartphones, tablets and laptops today are equipped with lithium ion batteries that calibrate themselves.

Myth #2 You can overcharge a battery by leaving it plugged in too long.

Nope again. Lithium ion batteries also recognize when they are fully charged. When your battery reaches 100%, charging automatically stops and the power is cut off. Older batteries weren’t as “smart,” so leaving them plugged in too long could lead to overheating which was bad for long-term battery life. Side note: Overheating is still a possibility if you use a phone case that doesn’t allow the heat to dissipate.

Myth #3 – You should allow the battery to drain completely before recharging.

The truth is allowing your battery to drain completely every day will reduce its effectiveness over time. Batteries have a limited number of charge cycles in their lifetime and allowing the battery to drain to zero counts as a full charge cycle. Older nickel cadmium and nickel-metal hydride batteries would “forget” their capacity, so in order to fully charge, they first had to fully drain. Lithium ion batteries don’t have the same memory issue, but experts do recommend draining to 0% and then fully charging every one to three months to help with calibration.

Myth #4 – You can only use the “official charger” that came with the device.

Yes and no. Obviously the charger supplied by the manufacturer is ideal, but as anyone who has ever owned an iPhone will tell you, those chargers sometimes have the life cycle of county fair goldfish. If you do need a replacement or even a back up charger, it’s not necessary to buy the identical charger as a replacement. Modern USB chargers are standardized and often the only difference you’ll find is in the time it takes for the device to recharge. On the other hand, and it’s a big hand, be very careful of cheap knock-off chargers. You can trust off-brand manufacturers like Belkin or KMS, but if you’ve never heard of the brand and it’s at a price that seems too good to be true, it generally is.

Myth #5 – Closing apps on your phone extends battery life.

Since our phones function as tiny computers it’s natural for you to think that the operating systems would work the same way as our laptops and tablets. And you’d be wrong. When you leave an app, your phone pauses it in its current state, storing it in the phone’s RAM. And though they show up in your task manager, apps aren’t actually draining the battery. So, when you kill an app, you’re actually taking it out of the phone’s memory and forcing it to find and reload when you open and launch the app again.

Keep in mind that with improvements in cell phone contracts, many people don’t hang on to phones more than two years. As a result, the lifecycle of the battery isn’t as critical as it is for devices like tablets and laptops that we tend to own for longer periods of time.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.





Mobile Tech Insurance: Is It Worth It?

By Tracey Dowdy

Here’s a sobering factoid: according to a survey by Plaxo, 1 in 5 people have dropped their mobile phone in the toilet. Whether it fell from the back pocket of a pair of jeans or tumbled out of a hand, 20 percent of cell phones have gone to a watery grave.

Clearly that’s a less likely scenario for your laptop or tablet, but accidents do happen. Should you consider insurance for your mobile tech to help protect you against a loss? Is it worth the peace of mind or is it simply a way for retailers and manufacturers to grab more of your hard earned cash?

Consumer Reports electronics editor Glenn Derene cautions, “Our reader surveys have shown time and again that extended warranties are not a good deal for most consumers…Many products are reliable and don’t break during the period covered, and the plans cost as much as you’d pay for a repair that might never be required.”

Keep in mind that when it came to smartphones, only 15 percent of consumers were given a new phone when the device needed repair. When you factor in an average cost of $10 per device per month and a deductible for as much as $100, the additional coverage really doesn’t work out to be such a bargain.

But what about other devices? Is coverage worth it for bigger ticket items? Again, not necessarily. With regular use, barring dropping or immersion in water, most devices are well made and don’t require a lot of maintenance or repair. It’s a matter of high cost and low risk, so purchasing an extended warranty often isn’t worth the expense.

“Only 15 percent of products in our survey were covered by the manufacturer’s regular warranty when they broke, and about 10 percent were under a service contract or extended warranty,” said Derene.

Courtesy of Plaxo Inc.

Courtesy of Plaxo Inc.


Having insurance is one thing – getting insurers to pay out on your claim is something else. There’s a lot of fine print in those contracts, so make sure you read the terms and conditions carefully before signing. Often the terms and conditions will exclude common accidents like dropping the device. In addition, many insurers reserve the right to choose whether they’ll repair or replace your phone with one of equal value, meaning you’re more likely to get a refurbished device rather than a new phone.

In the end, it’s up to you to determine how likely you are to lose or break your device. If you’re clumsy and know only too well the misery of a cracked screen, it might feel like it’s worth it. But keep in mind the cost to replace an iPhone screen is about $110 out of pocket which is cheaper than the insurance offered by most carriers.

On the other hand, if you’re likely to lose your device or have it stolen, the additional warranty could mean significant savings even with the deductible factored in. Also remember that your existing policies may cover loss or damage. Home owners and renters insurance generally comes with a fairly high deductible but may cover damage or loss of your device. And if you purchased the device with a credit card, the company may offer a less expensive version of the extended warranty that covers device malfunction once the manufacturer’s original warranty expires.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Smartphone Tips and Tricks

By Tracey Dowdy

If you’ve owned a smartphone for more than 5 minutes, you may get the distinct impression that your device is indeed smarter than you are. These tips and trick can help you customize and make the most of your phone and maybe even give you back a little dignity, although we can’t do anything about your behavior at the office Christmas party; you’re on your own there!

Android Phones

Android is by far the most popular OS, with over 3 billion users worldwide and offering considerably more options for customization than iOS (iPhone). From audio settings to accessibility, wallpaper to widgets, Android devices are a lot of fun to play with.

Manage your data. Unless your plan includes unlimited data, you’re going to want to keep track of how much data you’re using each month. Click Settings>Data Usage and an easy-to-read graph is displayed allowing you to keep track over time. You can see which apps use the most data and set a limit so your usage doesn’t exceed your plan.

Customize your lock screen security. Android offers several options for locking and unlocking your phone.  Go to Settings > Security and then choose from None, Slide, Face Unlock, Pattern, PIN, and Password. Samsung Galaxy S5 and S6 smartphones raise the security stakes even higher with fingerprint scanners.

Add widgets to your lock screen. Widgets make it easy to get weather or email updates without ever opening the phone. They’re easy to install directly from the Google Play store and most are free. Once added, simply swipe left from your lock screen to access. (Android 4.2 or later)

Create folders. I love folders. On my desk, on my desktop, on my phone…everything is in its place. Android lets you clean up your screen by dropping apps into folders simply by dragging one app on top of another. This creates a folder you can name and on some devices even color code. Drag and drop additional apps into the folder to clear your Home screen and keep similar apps in one location.

Swipe gesture typing. Many devices include swipe gesture typing but if not you can download the Google Keyboard or a third party alternative like SwiftKey for free from the Play store. It takes getting used to but once you master it you’ll find it’s faster and easier than tapping out letters. Swipe gesture typing works by dragging your finger across the keyboard to the letters without taking your finger off the screen. The device intuitively determines the words you’re attempting to spell and the more you use it, the better it gets.

Opt in to Google Now. Google Now was included in Android 4.1 and is Android’s answer to Siri. To see if you have it but haven’t opted in, simply swipe up from the bottom of the screen. Unlike Siri, Google Now is constantly working in the background, staying one step ahead of you making your smart phone even smarter. It can be accessed via voice control from your home screen to provide alerts, reminders, dictate a text or email, get directions, have it read your schedule or latest message, and search for facts.


The iPhone interface is much less customizable than Android devices but there are plenty of hidden features worth playing around with. You can set custom ringtones for friends or switch your phone to Airplane mode so it charges faster, or take photos in Burst mode to snap several shots in rapid succession.

Make full use of your earbuds. To the uninformed they may appear to be simple headphones, but they also function as a very handy remote control. By using the toggle button your headphones can pause, play, fast forward, rewind or skip music, or even jump back to the previous song. While on the phone, the toggle button allows you to answer calls, hang up or send a call to voice mail, or even toggle between two active calls. Finally, hold the toggle button down to control the shutter release on your camera and the volume up button to snap a photo.

Monitor data usage. As with Android devices, monitoring data usage and which apps use the most data is important. Go to Settings > Cellular to disable cellular data usage for any installed apps. This way you can decide which get to use cellular data, and which apps can load only over Wi-Fi.

Use iMessage while travelling. One of the best features of iMessage (iPhone to iPhone) is that you can still use this feature while travelling overseas even if you don’t have a data plan as long as you’re connected to Wi-Fi. Go to Settings > Messages, make sure Send as SMS is disabled and that iMessage is enabled.

Keyboard Shortcuts. By long-pressing on the keyboard, an entirely new set of characters and symbols appear onscreen. For example, hold down the letter “A” and eight different accented A’s appear, likewise for other vowels. Hold down the “-“ key and em and en dashes appear and holding down the zero key allows you to insert a degree symbol.

Increase battery life. There are two quick ways users can boost battery life. First is by limiting Spotlight search, a great feature for indexing but one that requires constant scanning of data for new information. Go to Settings > General > Spotlight and uncheck the items you don’t necessarily need indexed. This second option also protects your privacy, something we should all be more aware of.  System Services allows Apple to know where your phone is at all times. Go to Settings > Privacy > System Services to switch off the option and give your battery usage a boost at the same time.

Better Touch ID results. Sometimes Touch ID seems to struggle to identify your fingers. To improve recognition, go to Settings > Touch ID & Passcode > Add a fingerprint. Add the same fingerprint several times thus allowing Touch ID to have more information about the fingerprint and increasing recognition which results in a faster scan.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

You’ve Bought a New Smartphone, Now What?

By Chantal Bechervaise

It is exciting to get a new smartphone. I love the feeling of unboxing it and holding it in my hands for the first time. It can be overwhelming too, as there are always new features to get used to and learn and I just want to start playing with it right away.

Here are some tips and guidelines to help you set up and learn how to use your new smartphone, so you are up and running as quickly as possible.

Fully Charge Your Phone

This is the hardest part for me. I am impatient, so waiting a couples hours before being able to play with my new phone is torture. It is important to charge your phone first. Your new phone will more than likely have to update its operating system (OS) so it is better to have a full charge.  Plus respecting your battery is the best way to prolong its life.  I recommend never letting it drain completely and topping off the charge whenever you can. If you are out an about and need to prolong your battery life, try turning off the Wi-Fi and GPS locator.

Move Your Data

After installing all the updates, the next step is moving over prior contact lists and data to your new phone.  If you are moving contacts from iOS to iOS or Android to Android, once you sign in with the same account information, all it should take is one sync to get you up and running. (If you are using iOS and you have backed up all your info to iTunes, then just plug your phone into your computer and sync it through the iTunes back up feature.) Another way to transfer contact information is through the SIM card. If you previously saved contact information to your SIM card and the SIM card fits your new phone, then you can save the contact information into your new phone.

Media, Photos and Songs

If you used a microSD card in your previous phone for your photos and videos, then you may be able to simply pop it into your new phone and have immediate access to them.  I highly recommend using cloud storage to back up all of your photos and videos.  That way if you lose your phone or if it gets damaged, you have not lost any of those important memories.  Apple users can backup photos, videos and songs with iTunes or iCloud, Windows users can use OneDrive, and Android users can use Google Drive.

There are many other cloud storage apps and options that are available to use as well. Some of the most popular ones can be found here. Verizon also offers the Verizon Cloud storage service, which allows customers to sync and save important contacts, photos, videos, music, documents, and even text messages.

Watch the How-To Videos on Your Phone

Newer smartphones usually have How-To Videos, a Support Center, or Help app built in to the phone. Take the time to look through this feature (which can be found in the main menu) to learn the ins and outs of your phone. Even experienced smartphone users are bound to discover some new tips or tricks that they were not aware of.

Set Up Shortcuts and Personalise Your Phone

You have finished the initial set up and updating and now the fun begins – personalising your phone and making it your own.  This is my favorite part of setting up a new phone. I always begin with selecting new wallpaper.  You can usually find the place to set up and chose the wallpaper under the settings menu (it may be called appearance or personalization).  Your phone will have some built-in options but you can also download wallpaper to match your personality through your phone’s respective app store.

Next, I start creating shortcuts for my most used apps and place them on my home screen with my favorite widgets. That way they are easy to find and quick to launch. I am an Android user and my widget of choice is the Google Now Launcher which provides me with traffic updates, weather, and updates to the sites I frequent the most.

Don’t be afraid to move apps around until you find a layout that works for you.  Try out new apps that suit your lifestyle. There are so many to choose from: Best Apps for Pet Owners, News Junkies, Keeping Kids Entertained, Streaming Music and much, much more!

Using your smartphone should help to make your life easier and not be a burden.


The last step in personalising your new phone is accessorizing it. I start with a phone case. Besides offering protection from bumps and drops, a case can add personality and style to your phone. Verizon offers many cases to choose from, including an option to create your own personalized photo case.

Accessories don’t stop at just the case; there are many more fun things to help improve the performance and use of your phone, from portable chargers to headphones and Bluetooth speakers. There are many options to turn your smartphone into a mobile entertainment system, and even a mobile office.

Do you have any tips to share about setting up a new phone and personalising it? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.

CBechervaise67Chantal is located in Ottawa, Ontario. She is passionate about everything related to the World of Work: Leadership, HR, Social Media and Technology. You can read more from Chantal at her TakeItPersonelly blog or follow her on Twitter @CBechervaise.

Repair vs. Replace: What To Do When Tech Breaks Down

By Tracey Dowdy

Over the past year I’ve had to replace both my laptop and my cell phone. I didn’t drop them, spill a drink or get infected with a virus, but my laptop was a dinosaur and the phone had defective hardware. In both cases I faced the dreaded question: “Repair or replace?”

My phone was still under warranty, so that was an easy fix but that wasn’t the case with my laptop. Like most people, I depend on my laptop for everything from social media to online banking, but more than that, my laptop pays my bills. I depend on it for work as much as play, so being without it for any length of time really wasn’t an option. And like most people, I don’t have stacks of cash cluttering my desk, so repair or replace had to factor in the cost of both. In the end the cost of repairs far outweighed the value of the computer and I decided to replace it.

As a general rule, if the cost of replacing the device is more than twice the cost of repairs, go ahead and fix it. The average cost to repair a cell phone is between $50 and $150, which is a bargain if you consider that a new iPhone 6 costs up to $500. For tablets, if the cost is under $200, it’s likely worth repairing. Technology maintenance company Lexicon Technologies recommends replacing desktops every 3 to 4 years, but is more circumspect when it comes to replacing laptops.

Aside from cost, there are other factors to consider when deciding whether you should pay for repairs or bite the bullet and purchase something new.

Cosmetic vs. Hardware Damage

A cracked screen on your cell phone may be annoying but may not impact the functionality of the device. When I cracked the screen on my iPhone, I had a plastic screen protector in place and although it was inconvenient and I couldn’t see everything as well as before, the phone itself worked perfectly. (As a side note, screen protectors aren’t really necessary anymore as most phone screens are made of scratch resistant Gorilla glass. However that thin film of plastic bought me time and kept the broken glass in place until I get the screen replaced.) It’s usually worth the $30-$50 to replace the glass, especially if you don’t have an “upgrade anytime” plan or your contract has more than a year left before you can get a replacement.

On the other hand, if had dropped my phone into the pool or the ocean, water damage would have been likely and you would be looking at replacing rather than repairing. My husband dove into a pool with his phone in his pocket and we were sure the phone was toast. But after 3 days he could turn the phone on with no apparent damage to the operating system and it served him well for another 2 years. However, that’s the exception, not the rule. SIM cards survive water damage better than phones, so if your phone takes a bath, take the card out, pat it dry, and leave it to air dry further.

How Old Is the Technology?

Sometimes the cost of the repair plus the cost of a new operating system just isn’t worth it and if your phone or computer can’t support the latest upgrades, you are putting yourself at risk. For example, Windows XP and Office 2003 are considered “out of support” by Microsoft, meaning they no longer offer technical support or security updates. Considering how much of your life is accessible online, using outdated software is akin to leaving your house keys in the front door with a Vegas style marquee inviting everyone in.

Time to Combine Devices

Something else to consider is whether it’s time to combine your devices: If your flip phone doesn’t let you text anymore and your clunky desktop takes forever to open a Word document, it’s time to skip the repair and upgrade your devices.

Depending on how you use technology on a daily basis, a smartphone that combines phone, text, camera and access to the Web may be enough. For me, each device plays a different role: I work off my laptop, read and play on my tablet and, ahem, live on my smartphone. My life and lifestyle are fully integrated with technology.

I recognize that for someone who never uses a phone for anything except phone calls, a feature phone may be enough. My mother isn’t Instagramming, checking her bank account or taking selfies; in her situation a basic phone and her tablet are all she needs.

Take stock of your needs and how connected you want or need to be. Consider the cost, the learning curve involved with new devices and the immediacy of the need. But don’t wait until one of your devices dies. Evaluate where you are now, do some research, familiarize yourself with what warranties are still active and where you are in your service contracts. Then, when the inevitable happens and your device breaks down, you won’t feel rushed into making a decision.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Customizing Your Smartphone

By Tracey Dowdy

Smartphones have moved beyond being an accessory to become an extension of ourselves. It’s how we communicate with each other, how we do business, how we capture our memories and keep track of our schedule. Just as you make your home a reflection of your personality and interests, customizing your phone is another way to express yourself. But don’t think of customizing as limited to wallpapers and ringtones; there’s a whole world of customization waiting for you.

Choose Your Case

Considering the cost of the device in your hands, you’re likely going to want to protect your phone with a case. But before you splurge at the dollar store on a case that looks good but offers little protection, or you choose a case that offers industrial strength protection, take the time to consider your needs.

Durability: If you lead an active lifestyle or work in an area that puts your phone at higher risk of damage, you may want to choose a case that provides serious protection such as those made by companies like Otterbox or Griffin. If like most of us the risk isn’t that high and the biggest danger is dropping your phone, the options are endless. You can choose a high-end case from designers like Kate Spade or Marc Jacobs, buy a Star Wars themed case from a kiosk at the mall, or even design your own through sites like SkinIt or DecalGirl.

Design is important not only in the style but the functionality of the case. Before making your choice, consider things like whether you’ll be able to charge with the case on, how easy it will be to clean, how it feels in your hand, and whether it’s waterproof. The material the case is constructed of will give you an idea of its durability and the protection it will offer a dropped phone.

Remember, as in most areas of life, price doesn’t always reflect quality. Cases made of poor quality materials are at both ends of the pricing spectrum and there are a lot of reasonably priced options that fall somewhere in the middle. Look at it this way, a good quality case is definitely cheaper than a new phone.

Choose Your Accessories

Because our phones are so integrated into our lives and lifestyle, there’s a wealth of smartphone accessories available.

Headsets and headphones – Whether you’re listening to your 80’s playlist to keep you calm in traffic or using your Bluetooth to call your mother because it’s been way too long – now you know how I spend my drive time – you’ll want a good headset or headphones. Verizon Wireless offers a huge selection of in-ear, over-the-ear, wireless, and hands-free options.

Camera and Photography – Whether you’re an amateur or a pro, there are a multitude of camera accessories available. With choices like selfie sticks, GoPro cameras, an AudioVox ShutterBall that lets you take selfies from up to 60 ft. away, or a HTC RE Camera that shoots underwater and streams live to your YouTube account, you’ll be able to take your photography game to the next level.

Make Yours a Smart House – Take smartphone integration one step further by pairing your smartphone with products like the Nest Home thermostat that allows you to change the thermostat even when you’re away from home, a Tagg Pet Tracker that lets you know your pet’s location at any time and tracks them if they wander off, or Bose SoundLink Bluetooth speakers that bring theater sound into your home.

Get Organized

From your Home Screen to storage, you can rule your world from your phone. Although the iPhone user interface isn’t customizable to the extent an Android or Windows phone is, you can still make it your own.

Home Screen – Organize your apps by pinning the most used apps to your home screen and organize apps you don’t use as often into folders. Further customize your screen with wallpapers, fonts, and widgets (Android) to make your phone even more a reflection of your personality.

Storage – Smartphones can’t really deliver the storage that’s promised on the box. For example, a 16GB iPhone 5c only has about 12.6GB of storage available once you account for the space the OS takes up. Once you start adding apps, music, photos and video, storage fills up fast. So take stock of what you need and go from there. Move photos and videos off your phone and store them on an external hard drive or choose a cloud option like Amazon Cloud. Review your apps and decide which ones you’re using and which ones are just taking up space. Movies, music and podcasts take up a lot of storage. Be selective of what you’ll need to entertain yourself on-the-go and get rid of the rest.

Choose Your Apps

Since both iTunes and Google Play offer well over one million apps in their store, chances are no matter what you’re looking for, there’s an app for that.

Consider storage – Before downloading, consider how much storage space it will require. Games generally eat up a lot of storage, so consider how often you’ll play before committing.

Consider Price – There are thousands of free apps and just as many if not more available for purchase. Beware many apps – games in particular – offer in-app purchases which could end up costing a lot if not managed.

Consider Battery use – Some apps will drain your battery faster than others. For example, if you’re using Google maps for turn-by-turn directions, your battery will run down more quickly as your phone is constantly pulling in data to give you accurate instructions. Editing your photos won’t impact your battery life in the same way, as you are working with content already downloaded to your phone.

Whatever your device, whatever the operating system and whatever the service provider, customizing your phone is limited only by your own imagination.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Should You Switch Wireless Plans?

Read the fine print before you jump to another network.

By Paul O’Reilly

In a sure sign that the US mobile market is rapidly maturing, it appears that some wireless carriers are less concerned about attracting new customers to the wonderful world of smartphones and tablets and are instead concentrating more on luring existing customers away from the competition. This has led to a jumble of early upgrade offers, termination fee payments, and other incentives, as the emphasis switches to the cost of wireless plans rather than the ever-improving excellence of the devices themselves.

While this may sound like good news for wireless subscribers, it has mostly led to more confusion in a marketplace that wasn’t exactly a model of clarity in the first place. If you thought it was hard to choose the right wireless plan before, try figuring it out when data allowances change every month, extra gigabytes are thrown in on a seemingly random basis, and one carrier is even offering to cut your existing bill in half.

This last promotion comes courtesy of Sprint and, perhaps more than any other offer, it highlights the complexities facing consumers as they try to save a few bucks on their monthly wireless payments. Taking a page out of T-Mobile’s playbook, Sprint specifically targets customers of the two biggest carriers and asks them: “Wanna cut your monthly Verizon or AT&T bill in half?” Of course, like many of these offers, the details are in the fine print – in this case over 550 words of fine print.

Sprint’s offer starts out looking reasonable enough. You have to turn in your old phone (or multiple phones if you are on a family plan) and sign up for a brand new one with a two-year contract, but you would have to do that with your existing carrier eventually anyway. Sprint will even pay up to $350 per line in termination fees, although you might have to wait up to 12 weeks for the money to arrive in the form of a Visa Prepaid Card.

However, there is one thing to note about turning in your old phone under the Sprint deal: you get nothing for it, even if it’s a phone with good second-hand value like an iPhone 5 and you have paid it off in full. But again, this is probably not a deal-breaker. That phone was most likely destined for the kitchen drawer anyway.

However, as you keep going with the fine print things start to get a little murkier. You eventually discover that Sprint is not offering to cut your whole bill in half but only the amount you pay for talk, text and data. As most people pay nothing for talk and text, that’s half off what you now pay for data. Depending on how much data you use, that could be a little or a lot, but again, you’re only saving half of one line of your monthly statement rather than the whole bill.

But if you’re a heavy data user – heavy enough to make a 50 percent saving worthwhile – there’s one big problem with switching to Sprint: according to a recent RootMetrics report, it’s got the worst network of all the top wireless carriers.

Not only is Sprint’s inferior network likely to result in slower download speeds and less reliable performance, it could also have real unforeseen consequences for your new Sprint deal. Again buried in the fine print, there is language suggesting that other plans (i.e. plans that pay the full data rate) might receive “prioritized bandwidth availability.” In other words, in times of heavy data traffic, half-price ex-Verizon and AT&T customers will have to wait.

Even worse, there is also a clause that allows Sprint to terminate your plan if more than 100MB of data usage each month is “off-network,” i.e. data consumed while the user is outside of the Sprint network. Considering that my family gets through 300MB a day and Sprint has the smallest network in the country, this is definitely not a deal for anyone that uses more than a few hundred megabytes of data a month.

And there’s the rub. The “cut your bill in half” promotion from Sprint is really only designed for low data users. But if you are a low data user, you aren’t going to see much in the way of savings anyway. And if you are a Verizon or AT&T customer, you are going to exchange those meager savings for a markedly inferior network.

As it continues to mature, the wireless space is starting to look more like the rental car industry, where Hertz and Avis charge premium prices based on service, reliability and network, while the competition carves out a variety of lower-priced alternatives. Of course, a maturing marketplace also results in more knowledgeable consumers, who are better equipped to make sense of the myriad of choices they now face. If you’re a wireless customer, you might want to remember the old adage that has guided savvy shoppers for countless generations: You get what you pay for.

You can follow Paul on Twitter.

The Online Mom LLC receives a fee for participating in certain promotional programs for Verizon Wireless.