Do More with Your Tech

You’re undoubtedly missing out on cool features that can help make life easier, safer and even more fun

By Chris Hoffman Published Jul 8, 2024 13:07:58 IST
2024-07-08T13:07:58+05:30
1970-01-01T05:30:00+05:30
Do More with Your Tech photographs by Emiko Franzen

While the tech industry is always hyping the next hot gadget, the reality is that you already own a lot of awesome gear. And you can certainly do much more with all the devices you already own. Here’s how to use them to live a better life today—no purchase necessary!

Tell Your TV What to Do

Many modern smart TVs and streaming devices have remotes with built-in microphones. Just hold down the mic button and speak to change the volume, say what you want to watch, launch streaming channels and more. On menus where you have to spell out your choices using an on-screen keypad, you may also be able to press and hold the mic button and speak to type with your voice instead of using the cursor to slowly choose each letter individually.

Get Free eBooks

Your library (all those books!) is just a few taps or clicks away. Download the Libby app on your phone or tablet, then sign in with your library to borrow e-books—free, just like the books you borrow from the building. The Libby app even lets you send borrowed e-books to your e-reader. Prefer to listen to your books? Good news: Libby provides free access to audiobooks too.

Find Emojis on Your Computer

Smiley faces and party poppers aren’t just for text messages on your phone. You can use emojis in many programmes on your Mac or PC, too, with an emoji keyboard just a quick keyboard shortcut away. On a Windows PC, press the Windows key and the period key at the same time. On a Mac, press command, control and the space bar at the same time to reveal the emojis.

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Run Multiple Apps on Your Phone ...

On an Android phone, you can use the picture-in-picture feature to run Google Maps while using another app at the same time. Just open the Google Maps app and choose your destination, then switch to another app. The map will stay open as a thumbnail on your screen, navigating you on your way, while you use other apps.

You can’t do that on an iPhone, but on both iPhone and Android, you can use picture-in-picture mode for video calls in apps like FaceTime and Zoom. While you’re chatting, you’ll see the other person’s face while you simultaneously use other apps—for example, to look up what time a restaurant opens so you can decide what time to meet.

… and Your iPad

Newer iPads let you see two apps in action at once. To do this, first open one app, then swipe up from the bottom of the screen with one finger until the dock pops up showing all the apps. Touch and hold the icon for the next app you want to use, then drag it to one edge of your screen to use both apps side by side.

Get Your Smart Speaker Talking

If you have a smart speaker such as an Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod or Google Nest, you’re probably asking Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant to set timers, play music, turn lights on and off and maybe even control smart home devices like the thermostat. But these speakers are a lot smarter than that. For one thing, you can use them as a convenient translation device. With an Alexa speaker, say “Alexa, translate Spanish” (or your language of choice) to get started. With a Google speaker, say “Hey Google, interpret French” (or your language of choice). Then just speak to hear your words translated. Apple’s Home Pod, aka Siri, will translate what you say from English, or whatever language it’s set to.If you have multiple speakers, you can use them to broadcast announcements. For example, say to your speaker, “Alexa, announce dinner is ready.” The other connected speakers will relay your message to family members scattered around your home.

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Use Your Phone in Your Car, Hands-Free

Depending on your car, you connect your phone via a USB cable or possibly wirelessly, then either press and hold a voice-control button on your steering wheel or say “Hey Google” (on Android) or “Hey Siri” (on iPhone), then speak voice commands. Those commands can help you navigate to a location, choose a song to play, or listen and respond to incoming text messages—all while you keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.

Watch Videos on a Big Screen

On most modern TVs, ‘casting’ content from a phone app to a bigger screen is “almost shockingly easy,” says JR Raphael, who writes the Android Intelligence newsletter. “In the YouTube app, for instance, if you tap on any actively playing video, you’ll see a rectangular icon with a Wi-Fi symbol in its corner. That’s the Cast icon, and tapping it will let you play whatever video you’re watching on any compatible TV or display around you,” says Raphael. A menu of devices will pop up; just select the one you want. You’ll see the same Cast icon in other apps that play video. It works the same on iPhone and Android. In some iPhone apps, you will also find an AirPlay icon that looks like a rectangle with an up arrow below it. Tap that and you can cast videos to a selected device using Apple’s AirPlay.

 

Watch Videos While Multitasking

Speaking of doing more than one thing at once: “Picture-in-picture is an incredibly useful multitasking option most folks tend to overlook,” says Raphael. It lets you do things, like read a text message or pay a bill on your banking app, while a video plays on your iPhone or Android phone.

On an iPhone, just start playing a video in the Netflix app (or another video app) and then swipe up from the bottom of the screen to switch to another app. The video will keep ­playing in a small player thumbnail. 

On Android, once you’ve enabled picture-in-picture in Settings, you can open Netflix (or another video app), start watching a video and then switch to another app. The video will keep playing in picture-in-picture mode.

 

Play Music on Your TV

You can play music through your smart TV’s sound system as you do on a portable Bluetooth speaker. Start by going into your phone’s settings and choosing Bluetooth, then put your sound bar in pairing mode (by pressing a button on the speaker or remote—it varies) and choose it from the list of devices on the Bluetooth settings screen. You’ll be hearing your playlist in seconds.

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Save Money on Office Software

You don’t have to pay for Microsoft Office to get powerful office software. On a Mac, iPad or iPhone, you can use Apple’s free iWork suite, with Pages (word processing, like Microsoft Word), Numbers (spreadsheets, like Excel) and Keynote (presentation software, like PowerPoint). These apps may come preloaded on your device, or you can download them free from the App Store.

On a Windows PC, you can use web-based versions of Microsoft Office (now called Microsoft 365) applications in a web browser. You get surprisingly full-featured versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Just head to office.com or microsoft365.com and sign in with a Microsoft account to get started.

Watch Your Show in Every Room

Jared Newman, who writes the Cord Cutter Weekly newsletter, recommends using the same streaming platform on all your TVs. For example, if you have a Roku in one room, use Roku in your other rooms too. That way, you can quickly resume whatever you were last watching and get the same recommendations, all from your streaming device’s dashboard.

Stream Your Shows in a Hotel

At some hotels, you can sign in to smart TVs for access to streaming services like Netflix, but it depends on the hotel and what services it supports. So why not travel with your own device and plug it into the hotel TV? Newman recommends Roku for this, as Roku devices have a Hotel and Dorm Connect mode for getting on hotel Wi-Fi connections. “The Roku Streaming Stick 4K is ideal for travel as it doesn’t require any external HDMI cables,” he says.

Tap into Your Wi-Fi Network’s Superpowers

Wireless routers are packed with great ­features. For example, you might see a Quality of Service or Traffic Prioritization feature that lets you prioritize specific devices. So even if your kid fires up the Xbox and starts downloading a huge game, your computer work won’t be slowed down. Other useful features include parental controls and guest access to set up a temporary guest Wi-Fi hot spot.

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Your router’s manual will tell you all about these features and how to access them, possibly through an app or web browser. If you don’t have a manual, you can probably find one on your router manufacturer’s website, or by doing a web search for the model of your router and ‘manual’.

Go Back in (Browser) Time

Browser tabs you just closed aren’t gone forever. In Chrome and Firefox, just right-click in the empty space at the right end of your browser’s tab bar and select Reopen Closed Tab. On a PC, you can also press the control, shift and T keys at the same time to do this. On a Mac, press shift, command and T at the same time. To find a tab you recently visited, look under the History tab at the top of the screen and click the page you want to reopen.

Declutter Webpages

On web browsers, Reader Mode removes ads and clutter from webpages, making them easier to read, especially on phones’ small screens. In Safari for iPhone, tap the “AA” button on the bar at the top or bottom of the screen. (If you don’t see it, swipe down to scroll up and it should appear.) and tap Show Reader. This option will be grayed out if it isn’t available.

In Google Chrome on an Android phone, you can open the Google Play Store and install the Reading Mode app made by Google to get this feature. In Safari on a Mac, click the Reader Mode icon, which looks like a piece of paper and appears to the left of the web address on the toolbar. (It will only appear while you’re reading an online article, and it will be hidden if Reader Mode isn’t available for the page.) In Google Chrome on a computer, right-click a webpage and select Open in Reading Mode.

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Navigate Faster Using Your Laptop’s Touchpad

Touchpads on modern Windows laptops and MacBooks respond to a lot of smartphone-style gestures. For example, you can place two fingers on the touchpad and move them apart to zoom in, or move them closer together to zoom out. On Windows laptops, you can place three fingers on the touchpad and move them around to switch between applications. (Set this up in the Settings app, which you access from the Start menu. On Windows 10, it’s in Settings under Devices > Touchpad. In Windows 11, it’s under Bluetooth & devices > Touchpad.) On a Mac, swipe up on the touchpad with four fingers to open Mission Control and see all your open windows. (Set this up in System Settings, on the Trackpad screen.)

Try a Touchscreen

Many modern PC laptops come with touchscreens, so you can operate your computer by navigating around the screen with your fingers as you do on a phone or tablet. Apple users can simulate the experience by docking an iPad into a case with a built-in keyboard.

 

Banish Ads on the Web

Instead of using Reader Mode, you can install an ad blocker to remove ads as you browse on your computer. I recommend uBlock Origin, available free at ublockorigin.com. Note that an ad blocker can cause problems with some websites, so if something doesn’t work right, try disabling it for the site you’re on. For example, click the uBlock Origin icon and then click the big power button in the pop-up to disable it. But ad blockers can cut down on distractions and speed up all webpages, so if that appeals to you, they’re worth a try.

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Enlist AI Assistance

Have you tried ChatGPT or other AI chatbots yet? Benj Edwards, AI reporter for the technology website Ars Technica, says AI can be a helpful assistant. He describes ChatGPT as “a good conversational mirror that can help you develop your ideas through discussion.” So it can be useful for figuring out what you want to say in an email or letter, or outlining steps for a project, for example.

“It can help you fix logical mistakes and tone down heated language you might miss,” says Edwards. Don’t rely on any AI chatbot for facts, though, as they can inject false information into your project.

ChatGPT is free; you can sign up at chat.openai.com. Edwards recommends subscribing to ChatGPT Plus to access the more powerful GPT-4 model, which will better understand your prompts and give you more accurate responses. But you don’t have to pay $20 (Rs 1,663) per month for access to this software. That more powerful GPT-4 AI chat experience is also free through Microsoft’s Copilot AI tool, which is available on Mac and Windows PCs, via Copilot apps for iPhone and Android, and at copilot.microsoft.com.

“But don’t let it speak for you in an unnatural way—using words that you wouldn’t use, for example—or people will know that AI wrote it,” Edwards cautions.

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