Smartphones are the obvious must-have tech gadget in 2023. More than 85% of us have one. We use it for several hours a day for just about everything from texting, talking, and taking photos or videos — to shopping, working, social media-ing, and so much more.
Still, are we getting the most out of our magical little do-everything devices? Probably not.
Gadget-makers add handy new tricks all the time. For instance, did you know that many smartphones now come with a built-in white noise machine? I didn’t, until I happened upon the feature buried in my accessibility settings a few days ago.
Take a look at that little bit of genius, plus a handful of other fun and useful tips to help you save time, money, and sanity.
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How do I turn on auto translate on my phone?
On an iPhone:
As long as you’re using the latest operating system with your iPhone, both the camera and photo apps have a Live Text feature that can work wonders in a whole host of scenarios.
Live Text recognizes text and information within the image and lets you do all kinds of things, such as select text to copy, share, look up, or translate. You can even use quick actions to perform tasks like making a phone call or converting currencies.
Here’s a great example that I ran into recently when I was at a restaurant, and the menu was in another language.
Point your camera at the menu, tap the little page icon, then touch and hold the selected text.
Use the little yellow grab points to select specific text and then tap “Translate.”
If you want to translate text from a photo or video in your Photo app, open that image, or pause a video that contains text then:
Tap that little page icon again, and then touch and hold the selected text.
Apple says you may need to tap Continue, then choose a language to translate in, or tap Change Language.
If you have any issues doing either of the moves above, make sure that Live Text is turned “On” for all supported languages. (There are 34 supported languages at the time I’m writing this.)
Go to Settings General, Language & Region.
Turn on Live Text (green is on).
On an Android device:
The process is similar on most Android phones throughout Google Lens. Both newer model Android phones that I tried this with— a Google Pixel 6 and Samsung Galaxy Z Flip — come with it already installed. Since many handsets running on the Android OS are slightly different, you might have to download the free Google Lens app from the Play Store.
Take a photo, or choose a photo from your Photo library, tap the Lens icon, and choose “translate.”
How can I use my phone to identify a plant?
Use your camera or photos to identify plants, landmarks, wine, and more.
Just last year, I paid a pretty penny to identify plants in my own backyard with a special app. Now, my phone does it for free.
For iPhones, this feature is called Visual Look Up. For Androids, you can keep using Google Lens.
On an iPhone:
Go to your Camera app, snap the photo, then look for the small “i” icon at the bottom, in the middle of a circle. As long as it has two small stars at its top-left corner — — you’re in luck. Visual Look Up information is available for that photo.
You can also go back through your Photo app and find this on an older photo. You’re good to go as long as the small “i” icon with the two stars is there.
Swipe up on the photo or tap that icon to see more of what the AI ”sees” in the photo.
Either tap Look Up in the middle of your screen or tap that little “pin” icon to see what Siri can figure out about it.
Usually, it takes you to a Wikipedia page and shows other similar photos.
On most Androids:
I usually use Google Lens for this as well. Bixby Vision is easy for Samsung devices too — and it’s all super similar to how it works for iPhones.
Open the Google Lens Camera app, tap the shutter button, and it automatically searches.
If you’re looking through a photo or video you already took — tap that photo and tap the little eye icon for Bixby Vision.
What is ambient sound on my phone?
Sure, you can spend $100 or more for a specific white noise device to drown out sirens, honking horns, loud gum-chewers, or peacocks (seriously, have you heard them screech?). Or you can use what’s already loaded up on your phone.
On an iPhone:
Apple calls this feature “Background Sounds”
Go to Settings > Accessibility > Audio/Visual > Background Sounds.
Toggle “on” background sounds to help you sleep, focus, or cover up the loud-breather in the cubicle next to yours.
You can choose from a range of sounds: rain, stream, ocean, balanced noise, bright noise, and dark noise. You can also adjust the volume.
It automatically turns off when you lock your screen and/or you can set your screen to lock after a certain amount of inactivity.
Playing white noise on an Android device takes just a few seconds too.
The easiest way is through Google Assistant.
Say “Hey Google, play ambient noise.”
This also works with Alexa, Siri, and many other smart speaker assistants too.
Magically remove backgrounds from images.
This was one of my favorite updates when Apple first released iOS 16 last fall.
Apple’s cutout tool magically isolates subjects and removes backgrounds from images. Until that update, you had to use a separate app like Canvas now Picsart to isolate a subject in a photo (I use this a lot with my dog)!
On an iPhone:
Open a photo in the Photos app or in apps like Messages, Quick Look, or Safari.
Touch and hold the subject of the photo. A shimmering white outline should appear.
Let’s go to reveal options like Copy and Share in the Photos app or Copy Subject in Safari.
Once you copy the subject of a photo, you can share it through apps like Messages, Mail, or use AirDrop.
You can also copy and paste it into other apps like Notes.
You’ll have to download an app to do this on an Android device. I typically use PhotoRoomwhich is free from the Google Play Store.
Open the PhotoRoom app and tap through the quick tutorial.
In the Create tab, tap Start from Photo.
Select your photo.
Once you choose a photo, the app works automatically.
You can make further tweaks, choose a background color, and hit the share button to save to the gallery.
Use Amazon lens as a shopping hack
Here’s one I found about when I was shopping for furniture last year. I discovered my dream bookshelf for my living room, but it was way over my budget.
I can’t remember who told me about this or when, but I remembered the hack to screenshot the item, open the Amazon app on my smartphone, then use the little camera icon in the search bar — it’s called Amazon lens — to find much less expensive lookalikes. Bingo — I found a similar bookshelf for a fraction of the price.
Since then, I’ve used it for clothes, lamps, dressers, and a whole bunch of other great stuff.
Here’s how to do it on any smartphone:
Screenshot the item. Open your Amazon shopping app.
Tap the little photo icon in the search bar and tap the yellow Upload a photo bar.
The app shows you all the shoppable links of items like your screenshot.
You can also upload a photo of pretty much anything, like a lamp you saw at your friends’ house, or a screengrab from a TV show.
You can also use Google Lens to do this across devices too:
right-click any image in your web browser and tap Google Lens.
You’ll then see a shopping tab, which shows similar items it finds across the internet — not just on Amazon.
This is especially good for when you really love something, like a specific article of clothing or a pair of shoes, but it’s sold out where you normally shop.
What are some tips and tricks you’ve discovered on your devices? Please share in the comments section here or in our social feeds.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.