How would you like to buy dozens of gadgets and other useful equipment totaling over $1,000 for only $30?What’s the catch? There is no catch. It is simply the tremendous inherent value in today’s smart phones. Because of their built-in sensors, clever developers have created a large collection of apps, that replace a whole slew of equipment. Best of all, the controls and displays of all this equipment is far superior, often includes data logging and is completely self-contained in a small gadget that fits into your pocket.
I have wanted a tablet computer for over twenty years. Now that they have finally arrived I have been viewing them with a keen interest, but high-end tablets are too expensive for me. The Kindle Fire looked really attractive, but I recently discovered an app that I couldn’t live without that requires bluetooth (more on this app later), which the Kindle Fire lacks. Mulling it over, I had an idea – what if I put the tablet on hold for a while, and instead see if I could buy a cheap, used Android phone.
I have heard about all the amazing things people could do with iPhones and Android phones, but I have never wanted to pay the high fees to purchase one or, even worse, the high cell phone contract cost. I am not a phone or text person, so I only carry a simple cell phone that I use when I am out to stay in contact back home. My needs, then, were not for a cell phone but for this wonderful portable computing device I had heard so much about.
When I searched on e-bay for used phones, I immediately hit paydirt – the Samsung Acclaim. It is an Android phone tied to US Cellular and, either because it has a “bad” ESN number or for some other reason, can no longer be used as a cell phone. A lot of them had already sold as this minor limitation makes them super cheap. I bought one in “poor” condition for $30 including shipping. I used a seller that provided real photos so, despite the condition, it has a perfect screen and really nothing wrong with it – the finish is just dinged and worn a little. One thing to consider when it comes to selecting a used Android phone for these purposes – make sure it has Wi-Fi. Without it, you will be severely limited.
Having found and purchased an Android cell phone (with WiFi), I now headed to the Android market (Google’s app store) to see these wonderful apps everyone keeps raving about. Well, I didn’t find much. Games fill over 95% of the lists (at least). I wanted amazing apps, not more Angry Birds.
So I continued my search for top lists on the Internet, and I started searching, keying in on the various sensors and other terms that came to mind. These searches were fruitful, and provided ideas for more possible applications to search for. The result was fantastic.Not just fantastic – but rather it left me flabbergasted.
Now if limited my findings to productivity/office apps, widgets and such, this would not be an interesting article for ProvideYourOwn.com readers. No, what so impressed me were the innovative uses that developers were able to make use of the various sensors and outputs. For example, one of the first apps I found was a full chromatic instrument tuner. I have been wanting to buy one myself, and these things sell for at $20 or more, even on E-bay. In contrast, this app is free and provides a tuner rivaling some of the higher end tuners for sale. Best of all – it actually works – flawlessly. With just this single application my Android computer is now free. You can now see where I am headed. If I can find other such equipment simulator apps, what other equipment can I replace? When you learn what I did, I think you will be as astounded as I was. Are you starting to get more interested now?
PossibilitiesAs of this writing, I have identified around $1,000 worth of equipment that I can use my portable Linux computer for, and I believe I am being conservative in my estimate. It may be much, much higher. Before I reveal my list of applications and their associated apps, I first want to enumerate and Android phone’s typical sensors and outputs. That will give us a sense of what is possible and perhaps even more unique applications can be discovered.
Sensors and Inputs
- Visual, high-resolution – both still and continuous
- Acceleration in 3 dimensions – can sense gravity, other acceleration, movement and vibration
- Magnetic fields in 3 dimensions – earth’s magnetic field, perturbances from metals, direction in 3-space
- 3-D location & time (GPS)
- Light sensor (only some cell phones – not on the Samsung Acclaim)
- Visual – video & photos
- Light (both white and color)
- 3G and/or 4G (for actual working cell phones with service)
ApplicationsHere is just a partial list of applications I have found that have apps (usually free or just a few dollars). With each application, I provide my estimate of the cost for the piece of equipment it replaces. While most of these apps replace some sort of equipment, I have also included a few apps that implement very valuable software-only resources such as specialized reference material or software. For these applications, I have also tried to place a small monetary value on them which I consider appropriate. You may dispute some of my prices, but on the whole I consider them quite conservative. You may also not find all of these apps useful or appropriate to your situation. Fair enough, but I am sure you might find at least a few hundred dollars worth of value.
- Alarm clock – special night-time display with multiple alarms. This device would easily sell for $40 if it existed. Value: $10
- MP3 player – its quality easily equals that of the other high-end MP3 players. I’ll be modest in my assessment. Value: $40
- Stopwatch/Timer – while not as handy as your watch, it is a lot easier to see and use. Value: $10
- Voice recorder – not only discretely records, but will upload to the cloud. You never know when you might need it. Its value far exceeds physical hardware versions. Value: $25
- Financial calculator – Ever since my HP 12-C died, I have wanted one of these. Value: $15
- Camera – built-in. Not a DSLR, but try buying a low-end digital camera that works as well. Does video too. Value: $30
- Metal Detector – detect wires in the wall and more. Lots of uses. How do you price such a thing? Value: $15
- Light meter – only some phones have a light sensor. This instrument can cost at least $15. The Samsung Acclaim does not have a light sensor, but how could I not include such an awesome app? Value: $15
- Portable Gaming Device – with 98% of the apps being games, you don’t need my help in finding any. Value: $80
- Flashlight Gadget – The swiss army knife of flashlights. You would spend at least $25 at Sharper Image for something like it. Value: $10
- Swiss Army Knife – No real knife – sorry, but this free app does include a bubble level, ruler, magnifying glass, compass and more. The magnifying glass is almost a microscope! This app has real potential. Value: $10
- Pedometer – there are lots of pedometer apps to choose from. The one I linked is actually a complete fitness tracker. Easily worth $40. Value: $10
- Offroad GPS – the app is free with online maps. You can buy offline maps for only $3. Value: $60
- Cycling Computer – far superior to the ones you attach to your bike, the only thing it won’t do is monitor your cadence. Value: $25
- Marine Navigation – You can pay hundreds for marine equipment that does less than this app does. I’ll just pick a modest amount. Value: $50
- Compass – you can not only use it when hiking, boating or in the car, but it is accurate enough for backwoods survey work. You probably need to spend $50 to buy one better. Value: $20
- Cardiograph – not only shows your pulse, but shows an actual cardiograph (of sorts). Value: $10
- Artificial Horizon – I am not assigning a price since I don’t need this app, but any ultralight pilots or builders of airplanes would. An instrument like this probably costs hundreds of dollars.
- Chromatic Tuner – I mentioned this one earlier; a must have for any musician. Value: $20
- Metronome – this app surpasses any hardware out there – worth at least $50. Value: $10
- Ear training – an application that helps to recognize notes and intervals upon hearing them. I have wanted something like this all my life. Value: $15
- Sound meter – measure harmful sound levels. I bought one in the 80’s, and Radio Shack just started selling it again. The price has not changed in all those years – $20 or so. Value: $20
- Spectrum Analyzer – audio equipment like this probably costs hundreds. Value: $50
- Noise generator – not only generates various noise profiles, but many other test audio signals as well. The equivalent equipment is probably costly, and how long would it take to find it? Value: $50
- Seismograph – measure your own earthquake tremors. Okay, not quite as sensitive as the real instrument, but really impressive nonetheless. Value: $50
- HP-48 calculator – This is the ultimate programmable calculator. I have wanted one for a long time, but can’t justify it for the occasional use I have. Now I have it for free! There are lots of other scientific calculator apps available as well. Value: $80
- Arduino Interface – this application deserves an entire article. The Amarino project is designed to get you up and going. You basically add a Bluetooth module to your Arduino and you can then use the Android device for an interface. There is even a new book on the subject. Compare this application to the price of small 2.5″ color touchscreen, and you still lack the computing power available; easily worth a lot more than the amount I am giving. Value: $50
- Eng. Pocket Ref – This app is called EletroDroid, and I would have gladly paid a hundred bucks for it several years ago. Yes, you can find the information it has on the Internet, but this has it all in one easy spot. Decipher resistor color codes, design 555 timer circuits, with many, many other electronics calculators and diagrams built-in. I am being really conservative here in what I think it is worth. Value: $15
- Truss Designer – I have wanted software to design trusses for buildings for years, but the only available software was professional packages costing hundreds of dollars. This app is free, but I would gladly pay $20 for it.
- Pachube – Monitor remote systems like home security, greenhouse parameters, environmental and industrial sensors and more. This kind of system used to (and still does) cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. You still need to hook an Arduino up to the Internet to do the reporting. I’ll let you assign the dollar value.
- Language Training – I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks really promising. Value: $50
- Pocket PC/E-Reader – lots of RSS feed reader apps, when combined with Instapaper and such, you can read a lot of stuff without having to sit in front of a computer. It even does a decent job with PDF files (a tablet would be nicer though). Web surfing is also fast (I use Opera mini), and you can read E-books with the Kindle Reader app. You can even watch embedded u-tube videos. This thing is easily worth $100 just for reading & surfing. Value: $50
- Google Sky Map – This stunning star-gazing app puts all other guidebooks to shame. You actually hold it to the sky – its like a viewport. You have to see it to believe it. Value: $25
- Lots more education related apps are available – too many to list here.
- Trip Computer – Shows and graphs your speed. Easy to set speed limit alerts. If you drive thru speed traps, it could save hundreds. Value: $20
- Tire Calculator – Help figure compatible tire size when buying new or used tires. The app is free; I figure its worth is at least $5.
- Auto Maintenance – How much would you pay for a planner that records all auto repairs, expenses, service reminders and more? Value: $10
ConclusionOne last thing – that app I mentioned in the beginning? It is an app that reads the OBDII data from your car’s computer and displays real-time data such as speed, RPM, fuel usage and transmission temperatures. It will also download and clear your diagnostic codes. The app is only $5 and requires an OBDII Bluetooth adapter that costs another $20. Considering the cheapest OBDII readers are $65, this makes the value of this equipment about $40. There is also a free fuel mileage app that uses the same hardware. What is our grand total? I come up with slightly over $1,000 all together. Most of the apps listed are free. Those that aren’t usually cost only a few dollars. Not bad for a $30 piece of equipment that fits in a shirt pocket – eh? If you want to actually use it as a cell phone, you can now pick up new models with pre-paid service (no contracts) for only about $100 give or take $20. There are even more amazing applications available once you have 3G service.
Please share any novel applications you have found in the comments. (NOTE: Non-relevant promotions will be deleted.)