20 quick ways to use your smartphone better

Give your device a minute of your time.

person holding an iphone x
Can your phone be even better? Yes, yes it can.Yura Fresh via Unsplash

While we might pull out and check our smartphones dozens (or hundreds) of times a day, we're more likely to be checking social media feeds than tweaking settings that might improve our experience.

Take the time to make your life better and easier with these handy hints for Android and iOS. Each will only take about a minute, and you can do them while waiting for your train, during some downtime at lunch, or whenever you've got a spare moment.

By the time you've worked through them all, you'll find your phone more personalized, more efficient, and more fun to use.

1. Clear out old photos

If you're using Google Photos (on Android or iOS) or iCloud Photo Library (on iOS) to back up your pictures and videos to the cloud, you can clear the local copies off your phone and free up some serious storage space.

In Google Photos, tap the menu button (three lines, top left), then choose Free up space. If you're using iCloud Photo Library, open up Settings and pick Photos then Optimize iPhone Storage. Your phone will only delete local copies if it knows you've already got backups in the cloud.

2. Tidy up your home screens

Android and iOS manage home screen icons quite differently, with iOS sticking to regimented rows and columns, and Android giving you much more freedom. However, you can tidy up your sprawl of icons on both operating systems by dragging them into folders.

Just tap and hold on an icon, then drag it on top of another to create a folder (on iOS, you need to wait for the icons to start jiggling after tapping and holding before you move them). Tap to open the folder and you can rename it—Social, Productivity, Games, or whatever you like. Your home screens should then be easier to navigate.

3. Prioritize your widgets

Widgets give you helpful at-a-glance information and instant access to different apps—you can get the weather forecast, traffic conditions, or the search bar for a specific app, for example. On Android, you can tap and hold on a blank part of the home screen then choose Widgets to see the widgets available from your apps.

It's slightly different in iOS, where widgets are restricted to the Today View (one swipe right from the home screen), but the idea is the same—tap Edit at the bottom of the widget list to choose the shortcuts and panels that you've got access to.

4. Access key features faster

Both Android and iOS feature panels you can pull up that are packed with icons for phone features you might use regularly, like the flashlight or airplane mode. On Android this panel is called Quick Settings, and on iOS it is called Control Center.

These shortcuts can be really handy, but you don't have to settle for the default selection and layout. On Android, pull down the Quick Settings drawer with a two-finger drag down from the top of the screen, then tap the pencil icon (bottom left) to start customizing. On iOS, open Settings then go to Control Center and Customize Controls to make edits.

5. Type to your digital assistant

If you're in a library or at a bus stop, then you don't necessarily want to ask questions out loud to Siri and the Google Assistant, but you can opt to type them instead. This is actually pretty simple on Android—with the Assistant on screen, tap the colored dots at the bottom, then the keyboard icon. If you type out something to the Google Assistant, it will automatically respond quietly.

Siri requires a bit more configuration. From Settings go to General, Accessibility, Siri, and then turn on Type to Siri. If you don't want Siri to audibly speak back, change the option below to Hands-Free Only, and every time you type a question or command, Siri will respond in written form.

screenshot of iphone settings
Type to Siri and ask whatever you want on the DL.David Nield

6. Quieten noisy notifications

If an app is distracting you more than you'd like, you don't have to put up with it. If you know where to look for them, both Android and iOS have evolved to have some fairly advanced notification management features,

Those of you on Android need to head to Settings, choose Apps & notifications and tap on a particular app to adjust its notification settings. Those of you who are iOS users, head to Settings, then touch Notifications. Pick an app from the list to change the way it notifies you, or to turn alerts off for it altogether.

7. Get some peace at night

Speaking of muting notifications, you can set up a Do Not Disturb window for your bedtime, which means you no vibrating phones or loud alerts will wake you up in the middle of the night. Notifications still come through, but they come through silently.

On Android, head to Settings then Sound and Do Not Disturb. On iOS, from Settings pick Do Not Disturb. In both cases you can set specific times for Do Not Disturb to enable and disable itself. You can also allow calls and notifications from specific contacts if you think they might need to reach you in an emergency.

8. Use your smartphone responsibly

Android and iOS now let you set timers on specific apps to help you use them responsibly and get some kind of balance between your phone and your real life. Of course these timers are easy to override, but you might find them a helpful aid to your (often weak) willpower.

If you're using Android, pick Digital Wellbeing & parental controls from Settings, then tap Dashboard, and choose an app to set a daily limit on it. If you're on iOS, open up Settings and select Screen Time, then tap the name of your iPhone, and pick an app to put a restriction on it.

9. Recognize people by their ringtone

Think quickly—your phone is ringing from the other side of the room; do you get up from that amazingly comfortable position on your couch and make the effort to know who is, it or do you let it ring? You won’t have to leave the comfort of your couch ever again. It's possible to assign specific ringtones and text alerts to specific contacts on your phone, so you know without even looking whether the person trying to reach you is someone you want to speak to or not.

On Android you can manage this from the Contacts app by tapping on a contact, then tapping the menu button (three dots, top right), and choosing Set ringtone. To set custom SMS sounds, you actually need to go to the Messages SMS app, open a conversation, then tap the menu button, Details, and Notifications. On iOS, open Contacts, then choose a contact and select Edit—scroll down to Ringtone and Text Tone to make changes.

10. Get your phone to flash

If your phone tends to get lost in the dark depths of your bag or backpack, it can be useful to have its rear camera flash light up when you get a call or a text. This is quite easy to do on iOS. From Settings pick General, Accessibility, and LED Flash for Alerts.

It's a bit more complicated on Android, though. Some Android phones, like Samsung and LG handsets, have the option in Settings—go to the Accessibility and Hearing to find it. Other Android phones don't, but a free app such as Flash Alerts will do the job for you.

11. Speed up your typing

If there are phrases you always find yourself saying and typing—"see you soon" or "I’m on my way!"—then you can settext macros on your phone. You type in just two or three letters, and your phone will expand them to a complete full phrase.

If you're an Android user, open up Settings and select System, Languages & input, Advanced and Personal dictionary. If you're using iOS, you need to go to Settings and pick General, Keyboard, and Text Replacement.

android screnshot showing how to register macros
Why type a complete sentence when your smartphone can do it for you?David Nield

12. Use the keyboard with one hand

On the topic of keyboards, you can use your phone more easily with one hand by switching to the aptly named one-handed mode. This is particularly helpful if you're trying to wrestle with a phone with a large screen.

With the Android keyboard on screen, tap and hold on the comma, then drag up and to the right to the one-handed mode icon. Use the arrow icon to switch sides, and the expand icon to return the keyboard to normal. With the iOS keyboard, tap and hold on the globe icon and then pick the left or right option. When you're done, the arrow icon takes you back to the normal mode.

13. Take photos while you're filming video

Have you ever wanted to take a snapshot of a moment while you're recording a video? Maybe you want a thumbnail to illustrate the video later when you upload to the web, or you just see something framed in a cool way and want to capture it.

Both Android and iOS actually let you do this very easily. While you're recording video in the default camera app for Android or iOS, you'll see a pale shutter button alongside the big red video recording one—just tap it to take a picture.

14. Link to websites from the home screen

If there are websites you're always opening up (maybe your favorite news or sports site), then you can pin shortcuts to these websites to your phone's home screen. Opening the site will then be just as simple as launching an app.

In Chrome for Android, you can do this by tapping the menu button (three dots, bottom right) and choosing Add to Home screen. In Safari on iOS, you need to tap the share button (an arrow coming out of a box), then pick Add to Home Screen.

15. Mirror your phone screen

Sometimes it can be handy to get your phone screen up on a big screen. Both Android and iOS can do this, but they use different platforms.

On Android, open up Quick Settings with a two-finger drag down from the top of the screen, then swipe left and choose Screen Cast—you can then mirror the display to any Chromecast device. On iOS, open Control Center by dragging down from the top of the screen and tapping Screen Mirroring—in this case you can use any AirPlay-enabled device, such as an Apple TV.

screenshot of iphone control center
What an even bigger screen? Have your phone screen displayed on your Apple TV.David Nield

16. Switch to a dark theme

The latest versions of Android (Android 10) and iOS (iOS 13) include system-wide dark modes you can use if you want to give your eyes a rest, or if you think the darker mode looks cooler than the lighter one.

If you're on Android 10, go to Settings then tab on Accessibility and Dark theme. Meanwhile, on iOS 13, you need to head to Display & Brightness in Settings and then select Dark.

17. Get your battery to last longer

Both Android and iOS have battery management modes that kick in when the battery is low.They restrict the number of apps that can run in the background, reduce the number of times apps can check for updates, and apply various other tweaks that’ll make your battery last longer. What you might not know is that you don’t have to wait until your phone is dying on you—can activate these modes manually.

You can start limiting battery use whenever you like, even if your battery is at 75 percent, or 50 percent. On Android, head to Settings then Battery and Battery Saver. On iOS, open up Settings then choose Battery and Low Power Mode.

18. Make text easier to read

If you're struggling to read the text that shows up on your phone screen, don’t worry—your phone includes a setting to boost the text size across all of your apps and the mobile operating system itself.

If you're an Android user, open Settings then head to Display, Advanced and Font size. If you're on iOS, on the other hand, you need to go to Settings, then pick General, Accessibility, and Larger Text. As you make adjustments, they'll be previewed on screen.

19. Don't let your phone disrupt your sleep

Both Android and iOS now include options to reduce the amount of blue light your phone display emits. Blue light has been associated with blocking the melatonin chemical that helps regulate our sleep, so the more you expose yourself to it, the worse you'll sleep.

It's a good idea to turn your screen a warmer shade late at night to prevent this. On Android, drag down with two fingers from the top of the screen, then tap the Night Light button on the Quick Settings panel. On iOS, open Settings then tap Display & Brightness and Night Shift.

20. In case of emergency

Finally, make sure your phone's emergency details are up to date—this could come in handy in the unfortunate event you’re in an accident and someone needs to know who to call. These details include information such as your name, your blood type, food allergies, age, emergency contacts, and whether you’re an organ donor or not.

With Android, open up Settings then pick About phone and Emergency information. On iOS, you need to open up the Health app, then tap Medical ID. This data is accessible from the lock screen of your phone, so anyone can see it.