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Three Low-Tech Hacks for Phones and Tablets 286

Bennett Haselton writes "Here are three hacks that I adopted in the last few weeks, each of which solved a minor problem that I had lived with for so long that I no longer thought of it as a problem — until a solution came along, which was like a small weight off my shoulders. None of these hacks will help impress anyone with your technical prowess; I'm just putting them here because they made my life easier." Read on for the rest of Bennett's thoughts.
1. Fully charged spare batteries for your smartphone

OK, now before everyone starts shouting "DUH!", I can tell you that I was at a conference right before New Year's, and every day from about 11 a.m. onward, I heard people saying that their phones were about to die, that they would either about to drop off the grid or would have to spend the next half-hour shackled to an outlet via their phone charger, etc. I never once heard anyone mentioning swapping in a spare phone battery, and according to my own survey of my friends, none of them have ever tried it either. But that conference was my first trip after ordering two spare batteries for my Stratosphere from Verizon ($10 each), and it was also the first trip where I never had to waste a second thinking about how to stretch out the phone's battery life or how much time I had left. Just swap in the second battery at around 3 PM, and then swap in the third one at around 10 PM, if there was still anything worth staying out for.

You could instead get "extended life" batteries for certain models of phones as well, but they cost much more than the standard batteries, and some users report that they make the phone noticeably heavier and bulkier. There are also portable phone chargers — which charge themselves from wall outlets, and then carry a charge that can be used to re-charge the phone through the micro-USB connection — but of course they're bigger and heavier than spare batteries, and you have to leave the phone connected to it while the phone is recharging. I didn't see the need for either of those products after picking up two regular spare batteries.

The most inconvenient part of the process was recharging the multiple batteries at the end of the day — since I didn't have a standalone battery charger, I could only recharge the batteries by charging them in the phone itself, swapping each one out after it had spent an hour charging (if I stayed awake that long). To that end, it would be convenient if more phone manufacturers would make battery-only chargers, so that at the end of the day you could plug your depleted spare batteries into their own re-charger at the same time that you're using the normal phone charger to charge the battery currently in the phone, then go to sleep and let everything charge up overnight. There standalone chargers for some phone batteries, like the Blackberry, but they're in the minority. (Meanwhile, iPhones do not have user-serviceable batteries at all; when the battery dies and becomes non-rechargeable, you're supposed to take it to an Apple repair center to be replaced.)

It seems odd to me that phone manufacturers spend millions of dollars figuring out how to extend the battery life of their phones, and here's a solution that works for almost everyone who has a zippered pocket for spare batteries (and a phone other than an iPhone). But I didn't think of it for years, nobody else that I've talked to ever thought of it either, phone manufacturers don't steer people toward this option, and most of them don't make standalone chargers that would make the process easier. Well, now you know.

2. Hacked furniture to hold a tablet PC above your bed

For years I'd occasionally watched movies on my laptop in bed, and I always felt bit of a strain on my back or neck while sitting up and leaning against a pillow, but eventually the movie would distract me if it was any good at all. Then a week ago, in an act laden with heavy-handed but unintentional symbolism, I dumped all of the books out of one of my bookshelves to make it easier to watch TV without getting out of bed:

The protruding shelf is attached to the bookcase with a pair of metal clamps, and then weighed down with some heavy books to counterbalance the weight of the tablet. (You want the clamps tight enough that the shelf can't move at all, relative to the bookcase.) The tablet holder, a Zuwit 360 Degree tablet stand, is attached to the end of the shelf using its own built-in clamp, and then bent into a downward arc to hold the tablet.

In case you're wondering why I didn't just clamp the tablet holder to a nightstand next to the bed, the answer is that none of the tablet holders I looked at had a flexible gooseneck that would extend far enough. (Remember, the gooseneck doesn't just have to reach from the edge of the bed to above your head; it has to arch up and then bend downward to hold the tablet from above, all while giving you enough slack to reposition the tablet in the air if you want to.) I assume there's a practical upper limit on how long the manufacturers want the gooseneck to be; if it's too long, then when it's extended sideways it could bend under its own weight plus the weight of whatever it's holding. Hence the shelf extending out over the mattress.

To make this work, you need a gooseneck tablet holder like the Zuwit that specifically has short teeth protruding over the edge of whatever it's holding, to grip it so that it won't fall when the tablet is held upside-down. (I'd originally tried this with a BESTEK tablet holder, but the tablet gripper didn't have teeth coming down in front of the screen, so the tablet would occasionally fall out and land on my head.)

It was a bit of work to put together, but I've never felt rested in a more comfortable position while watching a 2-hour movie. All cheaper than installing a flatscreen in your ceiling, and better, actually, since you can reach up and rotate the tablet whenever you change position.

But as a proof-of-concept only, this is a pretty ugly piece of furniture, and while I'm able to get in and out of bed easily without hitting the protruding shelf, it gets more complicated if you're ever have "company." In my case, there's enough space behind the bookcase that I can tilt it backward, moving the protruding shelf and the tablet holder so that they're no longer over the bed. This solves the problem of how to get it out of the way, but not the fact that it's still a pretty ugly conversation piece. You can un-clamp the protruding shelf from the bookcase and hide it away, but you're still left with a bulky, empty bookcase oddly perched at the end of your bed, and that's too much of a pain to lift and move some place every time you want to assemble the tablet holder or disassemble it when you have company coming over. I want to take another go at it using a shelf attached to a stack of milk cartons — which would be even uglier, but much lighter and easier to disassemble and move out of the way.

Speaking of milk cartons and ideas that make my chiropractor happy:

3. Hacked furniture to hold a tablet in front of an exercise machine

So that's what I did with the BESTEK tablet holder that didn't work for holding the tablet upside-down in bed; it works perfectly well attached to a stack of milk cartons, where the tablet only has to be held sideways. Again, ugly. But again, easy to disassemble and hide if I know company's coming over.

Of course there's a space on the elliptical trainer (underneath the control panel) for holding books, tablets, and other reading/viewing material, but it requires you to crane your neck downward to focus on that space, and I always felt uncomfortable looking in that direction for more than a few minutes while exercising. The obvious idea was to hold up the tablet by attaching the gooseneck tablet holder to the control panel of the elliptical itself, but (a) the body around the control panel is mostly hollow plastic, which has too much "give" for the clamp to attach to it securely; (b) if the tablet is attached to the machine directly, then it jiggles while the machine is moving, making it hard to watch the screen; and (c) the gooseneck still doesn't reach far enough to hold the tablet higher than eye level, which is best for your posture if you're looking at it while exercising.

Hence, the tower of milk cartons. Now when I first went to the local Container Store and was told that a stack of five milk cartons would cost $60, I assumed I was being subjected to the usual downtown Bellevue yuppie price-gouging that also gave us $500 "minimalist" bookshelves available in the same store, but, no, that is actually what non-stolen milk crates actually cost. (They're so easy to walk off with, and useful as "modular furniture," that the International Dairy Foods Association as launched a campaign to get people to stop stealing them.) With a bit of experimenting, you can find the right height for the gooseneck tablet holder, and position the tablet so that it's far enough from your face for comfortable viewing, while still close enough that you can touch the screen. (The stack of books in the topmost crate keeps it from tipping over from the weight of the tablet.)

Of course if you work out on an elliptical at a gym, it's a bit less convenient to carry a stack of milk crates in with you. Maybe a tablet accessories company should come out with a portable, collapsible tripod that rests securely on the ground while extending upward to provide a thick, flat surface about 5 feet above the floor — where a gooseneck tablet holder could be clamped onto the flat surface and then hold the tablet itself in front of the user's face at the right altitude.

Then if you start watching a movie on the tablet while working out and you don't make it all the way through, you can finish the movie on the tablet while it's suspended above your head in bed. Gives you something to do while swapping out the batteries in your phone and waiting for them to recharge.

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Three Low-Tech Hacks for Phones and Tablets

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  • USB Battery (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jason Levine ( 196982 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @01:37PM (#42658667) Homepage

    I use a USB external battery. I'll charge it at night right alongside my phone and then I carry it along with me. It connects to my phone using a standard USB->microUSB connection. (Apple users could use a USB->Apple cable, but I have an Android phone.) I get two "30%->100%" charges out of this battery. (I'll rarely let it dip below 30%. Given that, with heavy use, it usually will take about 4 hours to deplete my phone's battery this much, I can wind up going for 12 hours before needing a recharge. (Since I bought mine, other models came out which would give me 3 or more phone charges.)

    The poster says that USB external batteries are bulky, but how much bulk would keeping 2 batteries on you be? Not to mention the inconvenience of having to open your phone's case, shut down your phone, open the phone itself, replace the battery (making sure to remember which is the charged and which is the depleted), put everything back together, and boot your phone back up.

    This is the one I bought [amazon.com] ($30 on Amazon) in case anyone's interested.

Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed. -- Neil Armstrong