Apps to improve your life
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Guest: Adam Turner
There are more than 7 million apps for mobile devices, and around the world, people download around 250 million each day. In this episode, host Val Quinn is joined by Adam Turner, award-winning Australian technology journalist and long-time columnist for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald to talk about some of the apps that can help make your life more convenient, interesting, and, well, just plain better.
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Adam and Val mentioned the following apps:
Built in apps:
- Google Maps
- Apple Maps
- Apple Health
- Google Fitness
- Google Duo
- Google news
- Apple news
- Sleep Cycle
- Smiling Mind
- Gratitude Happiness Journal
- ABC News
- Rain Parrot
- Flight Radar 24
- The Gibson App
- Essential Anatomy 5
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[Adam] So I only let apps use my location if they need it. If it wants to know where I am, but this is a flashlight app that doesn't need to know where I am, I absolutely say no. If it's an app that's got all low score and it wants to know your location for no apparent reason, I'd stay right away from that.
[Val] Hello and welcome to the Be Connected podcast. I'm Val Quinn, and I'm a technology commentator, broadcaster, publisher, and your host of the Be Connected podcast. Now, most of us have used an app on our smartphone or tablet at some time. You know, they help us keep in touch, they help us stay organised, they help us shop, do our banking, and find our way around. And there are loads of mobile apps to choose from. Between the Apple and Android app stores, there are more than 7 million apps, and around the world, people download around 250 million apps each day. So what are some of the most useful apps? You know, the ones that can make your life more convenient, more interesting, and well, just plain better. So here to talk about apps with us and how they can improve our life, is Adam Turner. Adam's an award-winning Australian technology journalist, he's a writer, podcaster, and longtime columnist for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. Adam also regularly contributes news and opinion stories to a wide range of consumer and business technology publications. It's really great to have you with us, Adam, thanks for joining us.
[Adam] Hi Val. It's great to be here.
[Val] So you know, apps are a great topic, because they're so important to plenty of people's daily lives, including mine. So what are the most useful apps that come pre-installed on our mobile devices already? And that means we don't even have to go to an app store to find them or download them.
[Adam] That's a good point. Most people don't realise that some of the most valuable and useful apps are already there when you take the phone out of the box. I'd say that the calendar apps and the reminder apps are two of the most useful apps for helping you keep your life organised, whether you've got doctor's appointments, or whether it's work or picking up the kids, whatever you've got to do, those two apps that can pop up alerts on your phone are really helpful. One of the nice things about it is that if you're using something like Google's Calendar or Apple's Calendar, it can synchronise those calendar appointments and those alerts between your different devices. When you make a change on one, it's automatically reflected on all the others and kept up to date, so that's really helpful, because it means if you're sitting in front of your computer and you realise, okay, I've got to write down this doctor's appointment, you can write it in the calendar on your computer, and know that it will now be in the calendar on your phone. Or when you're at the doctor and you've got to make the next appointment, you can pull out your phone and make the appointment on your phone, and know that that calendar appointment will now also turn up on your computer.
[Val] Yeah, I think that's so important, and it's something that can be confusing to people as well, because if you have multiple devices and they all have calendars, then you have multiple calendars, and of course, you don't wanna have to keep all of them up to date by entering the same thing over and over again, so using the cloud is a great way of synchronising across all of your different calendars. But let's not forget video chat apps. I think this is a really huge category, and a lot of people are using these. Apple and Android mobile devices, they each come with their own, with Apple, there's FaceTime, and with Android, there's Google Duo, to name a few. And these are great for keeping in touch face to face.
[Adam] Yeah, I think that video apps are some of the real game changes for a smartphone, as you say, because you can sit down and chat to people, but the thing I particularly like about it, is everything you need is built into the phone. In the old days where you might have wanted to sit down in front of your computer to talk to Skype with someone else, you both had to start your computer up, you had to have your webcam running, you had to have the latest version of Skype, and so there was a lot of mucking around before you could get it to work. With video calls on a phone, everything you need is right there in your hand, and as long as you've got the same app installed, it's just a simple question of opening that app, clicking on the person's name, and then they answer the call on the other end.
[Val] Yeah, let's not forget too, that video chat apps have moved on since they first came out, so now you don't even have to use your mobile data, they're happy to work with your Wi-Fi connection.
[Val] So you're not paying for, you know, expensive mobile data or some sort of special fees for video calls, which is something that when they first came out, people were having to pay for. And also, there's all kinds of extra features in these video chat apps, like filters or crazy backgrounds that you can superimpose. I mean, what are a few that you like to use Adam?
[Adam] Well, it's fun. If you're having family calls, you can put like crazy moustaches on people and stuff. And because it's smart enough to see what's happening on the screen, you can say one of the people can have a hat on, that's not really there, but when they move their head, the hat moves with them, so it can keep up in real time as if they'd put things on their face, and that's a lot of fun when you're talking to kids.
[Val] It really is. And you can put some really silly faces on, or all kinds of different things. You can learn more about video chat apps because we've got a great Be Connected course, and it's called Connecting to Others. So your mobile device also comes with a mapping app built-in, and that's to help us find places we need to go, and even keep track of other people, so do you have any other mapping apps you like, and what are the extra features of these apps, which you might not know about?
[Adam] Well out of the box, Android phones have Google Maps on them, and Apple phones have Apple Maps on them, and both of them are really useful for a whole lot of things. They can help you find where things are, they can help you figure out how to get there, and plan things, like maybe you might be using public transport, or you might be driving.
[Val] That's true. And it's also with mentioning too, that Google Maps and Apple Maps pull the transport information directly from the different transport bodies, so they know exactly when the trains and the buses are coming and when they're scheduled, so all that information is at your fingertips.
[Adam] Yes. There used to be a lot of driving apps like TomTom apps and other sat nav apps, but you don't see as many of them anymore, now that Google and Apple can do it with their own apps. But there's a few useful apps, there's one called Waze, W-A-Z-E, that's very good at bringing in things like transport timetable information and live traffic information to help you travel easier. But even these days, Google Maps is pretty good at that, I use Google Maps on my iPhone when I'm driving, and I can see the colour of the road ahead to tell me if there's a delay in the traffic, or if, okay, this road's closed and it suggests you go over here. So most of those features now are built into the apps that you get from Google and Apple.
[Val] Yeah they really are useful, and they've come such a long way, and they have taken over the traditional, you know, satellite navigation, or the maps that we have in our cars. Another thing that I think is really great about these map apps is some extra features like street view, so you can actually get a view of what it looks like around your destination. It's almost like a little picture, like someone's taken a camera right on the spot where you're going, and has given you a 360 degree view of where you're going to go, so you can recognise it when you get there.
[Adam] Yeah, I find that's particularly useful if you're looking for something small that's hard to hit, and a great example is if you're driving into the city and you're going to use one of the car parks in the city, the ability to call up street view before you get there and actually look at it and say, "Okay, well, the entrance is actually across the road from this coffee shop, or next door to this burger joint." Makes it a lot easier when you get there to see what you're looking for, and not panic in the middle of traffic, 'cause you can't find the small little entrance that you're looking for.
[Val] That's right. And even if you don't know the address of the place you're going, you can just type in the name of say the coffee shop, you're going to Joe's Coffee, it will actually figure out the address and it'll take you there too. So it just makes things so much easier. You know, on the benefit side, it can tell you where speed cameras are and all of those types of things, but on the drawback side, the question is, how much information do they know about you? So let's look into that. I mean, apps for mapping kind of need to know your location to work properly. So do you think people should be concerned that an app knows where they are?
[Adam] I don't think you need to be too concerned if it's an app that you trust, and it's doing a job that you know what it's supposed to do. I have a general rule that, often when you install an app on your phone, it will ask you for permissions, it wants to know where you are, it wants to use your camera, things like that. So my rule is, if it wants to know where I am, but this is a flashlight app that doesn't need to know where I am, I absolutely say no, it doesn't need to know. So I only let apps use my location if they need it. And just generally, if you're downloading apps from the app store, only use location apps with well known apps that you trust. If it's an app that is something that doesn't have very many reviews, that's got a low score, and it wants to know your location for no apparent reason, I'd stay right away from that.
[Val] Okay, so there's a few things to unpack there. So most importantly, when you install an app, you are then asked during the process about what permissions you wanna give the app, and those are things like you can use my contacts list, or you can use my phone, or the microphone on my device, and that's where you decide whether you think those permissions are appropriate for the app that you're using. So that's really putting you in control of your privacy. And you know, if you wanna keep yourself safe on your mobile device, there's a great course in the Be Connected "All About Apps" course, and you can find out more about this in the show notes. So Adam, a lot of people might think that you need to have a smart watch or a fitness tracker or some other type of equipment to take advantage of health and fitness apps, but there's actually loads of apps that can help you manage your own health and wellbeing, and all you need is your smartphone or tablet. So do you have some examples of these?
[Adam] Well, again, Apple and Google have their own apps that tend to come built in on the phones, Apple has Apple Health, and Google has Google Fitness. They can do things like track your steps, because it can just tell by way the way you're moving when you've got your phone on you, how many steps you've taken during the day, and you can manually record other things like your weight or your height, if you're trying to keep track of those things. There are a few other apps, I use an app called Sleep Cycle on the iPhone, I'm not sure if it's on Android, but there's probably something similar, that is like an alarm clock, but it could also listen to your sleep patterns during the night, so it knows how well you're sleeping. And you can even tell it, instead of waking me up at 7:30 in the morning, I want you to wake me up sometime between 7 and 7:30, and it follows your sleep patterns to see when you're at the height of a sleep cycle, rather than when you're in a deep sleep, and it tries not to wake you up from a deep sleep, because we all know how terrible it feels to be woken up from a deep sleep. So I find that's really good. There's a meditation app called Smiling Mind that's very useful, and it's been put out by some professionals in Australia who have done a lot of research on mental health. The Red Cross has got a fitness app, so there's a lot of great apps out there that can help with these kind of things, without needing to have a smart watch or a fitness band, or something else.
[Val] Yeah, and I really like some of the food and diet tracking apps, you can record what foods you've eaten, and you can even scan the barcodes on the food packaging and it gets all the details for you straight into the app. So I really like these, 'cause you just sort of set the calorie target that you wanna achieve in a day, and it will just help you keep an eye on that, so you don't think that that extra piece of lasagna is a good idea at the end of the day.
[Adam] They're also very helpful if you've got some kind of medical problem where the doctor says to you, "Okay, I need you to write down everything you eat for a couple of weeks, and how you feel, so we can figure out which foods don't agree with you." And I'm speaking from experience here. So it is very helpful to have your phone on you because it's always in your pocket. So when you're having dinner, you just sit down, and you quickly jot down what you had for dinner, and you don't have to worry about finding a notepad or keeping track of it in other places. And then it's very easy to go back later when the doctor wants to know, "Okay, which foods didn't agree with you?" It's easy to figure it out, because it's all there.
[Val] And there really is some incredibly imaginative types of apps in this space too. Like for example, just a simple app called Gratitude that I use, it's a place where you can record things that you feel grateful about in a day, and just simple things like that can change your mood. And there's also like you mentioned before, meditation type of apps as well.
[Val] That take you through guided meditations, and I even remember an app that could measure your heart rate by using the phones-
[Val] Flash, and it somehow figures out your blood flow by shining a light through your finger and recording that on the phone. But it's really important to caution everybody that generally speaking, these types of apps don't replace professional medical assessments. I mean, you really do still need to go to your doctor. I think they can be used to aid or provide some information, but they certainly are not a replacement for professional medical assessments. So Adam, we touched on this a little bit earlier, so what advice would you give us about how do we get our apps?
[Adam] Well as you say, Apple and Android both have their official apps store apps on your phone, and they are really the only way that you should get apps. Part of the reason why you wanna go through the app store is because Google and Apple do their best to try and keep malicious apps out of the app store that might not do what they claim to do, so it is the safest place to get your apps.
[Val] Okay, so they actually check the apps over-
[Val] To make sure that they're safe, and they're not gonna put any nasty viruses on our phones, or anything like that?
[Adam] Yeah, exactly.
[Val] And what about the cost of apps? I mean, what should we expect there, and how do you pay for them?
[Adam] It varies pretty widely. A lot of apps are free these days, but if there is an app that you need to pay for, if you're on an iPhone, you've probably got an iTunes account or an Apple account with some credit in it, and the same with Android. Or you can connect your credit card to your account, so then when you buy the app, it automatically either spends your credit, or takes it from your credit card.
[Val] And can you try apps before you buy them? Is there any way to trial them?
[Adam] It depends, quite often paid apps will have a free version that you can try first or a limited version that you can try before you decide if you wanna hand over the money. So it varies from app to app, but usually there's some way to get a feel for how it works before you hand over your money.
[Val] Okay, so you can actually have like a subscription, for example, as well, and you'll pay for an app's service every month?
[Adam] Yep. There are fitness apps, they tend to be subscriptions, where other ones like perhaps a meditation app or something like that, even if it's not free, it's probably only a few dollars and a one-off payment, but they will tell you when you're buying it, you know upfront whether it's a one-off purchase, or a recurring subscription.
[Val] And you mentioned too, that as we're talking before, that there's ways of seeing which apps are good, because there's just so many to choose from. So there's things that can help us like star ratings. What other ways can we determine which apps are good using the app stores?
[Adam] Well normally, if I'm looking for an app - we'll say I'm looking for a meditation app - one of the first things I'll do, is go to Google and look for "best meditation app". And you'll find that people have written articles where they've gone and looked at the top half a dozen apps and explained what's good and what's bad about them.
[Val] And there's also things like "top 100" lists and things, where you can see which apps have been downloaded the most, both for free as well as paid apps. And that's a good way too, to find apps that are really popular with a lot of different people. And also, it's probably worth mentioning too, that free apps generally aren't as free as they seem, because they tend to want to get something in return for giving you the free app. SSo it might be a way of learning a bit of information about you, a way of kind of doing some market research and selling that back to advertising companies and that type of thing.
[Adam] Or just bombarding you with ads. Quite often, apps will regularly want to display ads that take up the whole screen for a couple of seconds and you can't get rid of them, unless you pay a couple of dollars to get the paid version, and then the ads go away. And if you're using the app regularly, you might find you're happy to pay a few dollars to get rid of those intrusive ads.
[Val] You can upgrade to the paid version-
[Val] And get rid of those ads? Okay, that's great advice too. Well, in terms of another favourite topic of mine, and probably yours, being a journalist, is news. So I pretty much get my daily news fix from my apps these days. It's sad, but I don't seem to read the physical newspapers as much as I used to. So I check my phone for the headlines in the morning and I click on stories that I wanna read, so I can start the day informed. What do you think about news apps, and how do you find your news?
[Adam] Personally, I don't use news apps very much. What I do is, on my phone, I open the web browser and I go to Google News. And Google News, it's not like The Age or the Sydney Morning Herald, Google News is an aggregator, which means it looks at all the news sites, pulls in all the news, figures out what's the most popular and what people wanna know about. So I find that's really useful because then I don't have to jump around between a lot of different sites to find what I want. But you'll also find that most of those news outlets also have their own app. Sometimes it's a paid app, sometimes it's a free app. So if you've got a favourite newspaper or a favourite news service, maybe ABC, something like that, then most likely you'll find an app for them that you can get it through there as well.
[Val] Okay, so if you wanna get a specific news outlet on your smartphone, you can download their app, or otherwise you could do something like what you do is and go to a news aggregator site, and that's where it pulls in all kinds of news from all kinds of different news publications.
[Adam] Yeah, I think that's the way to look at it. And like I said, it learns what you're interested in, so if you tend to click on stories about certain topics, it knows you want to know more about that, so then you spend less time trawling through the headlines, and more time going, "Oh actually, that's interesting, I wanna know about that."
[Val] That's right, so you kind of train the aggregator about what you like...
[Val] ..and then it just delivers what you like back to you. I should mention too, that, you know, the news aggregators that you mentioned, I find, 'cause I use an iPhone, that Apple News, which is the name of a news aggregator, is right on my smartphone, it's sort of integrated into the device, so there's no app that I necessarily have to open, I can just swipe over to one particular page and it delivers the news right to me. And I believe you can do the same with an Android phone, is that correct?
[Adam] Oh yeah, Android phones would be taking it from Google News probably, but yes, it's the same thing. So the news is right there on your phone, you don't have to go very far to find it.
[Val] And you know, it doesn't have to be traditional news that we read either these days, I mean, some people like to get their daily news fix as a podcast.
[Adam] Which is particularly handy, let's say if you're in the car and you can play the podcast in the car, just like listening to the radio, to catch up in the news headlines while you're driving.
[Val] Okay, so when it comes to our most favourite apps, Adam, I'm gonna put you on the spot here and find out which ones that you just can't live without in your day to day.
[Adam] I would say Google Maps is one that I use a lot, for all kinds of situations. It's not just how to get there, but it might be okay, I wanna go there, but I wanna go there tomorrow, and I know the traffic's gonna be bad, how long will it take? And so it will tell me the difference between going somewhere in the middle of the day and in the middle of the night, so it's easier for me to plan ahead.
[Val] But what about entertainment? I mean, how do you relax? Are there any apps that you use just to, you know, unwind at the end of the day?
[Adam] Well, like a lot of people, I tend to do that scrolling thing through social media, through Twitter and Facebook, and sometimes I just have to put it down and say, "Okay, it's time to go to bed." I subscribe to a few video services like Netflix, and I've got those apps on my phone, so they're useful sometimes, particularly if, like someone else is watching something on the big TV and I don't wanna disturb them, and I might be off in the corner doing something else, I think, oh, I'll just watch a little thing on my phone.
[Val] I think with that situation, when someone else is watching the TV and you wanna use Netflix and watch something on your app, I think it's called multi-screening...
[Val] ...where you might be in a room where the TV's on but you're not watching the TV, you're watching your own personalised version of the things you wanna watch. You know, I have to say for me, I like to know what the weather is, and there are plenty of weather apps, and some of them pull information right from the BOM, the Bureau of Meteorology But there's one I love called Rain Parrot, and what this does is it figures out where I am, and then it figures out the weather report, and then it calculates when it's gonna start raining, and how heavy, and when it's gonna stop, and it just keeps on updating me all the time. So it just amalgamates this information into a really useful report. So it says it's gonna rain moderately in 10 minutes for 8 minutes, and then it's gonna stop. So if I have to think about taking the umbrella with me on a walk when I wanna go out and go to the cafe, I know that I'm not gonna get rained on, and it's frighteningly accurate. But another one that I use generally is I like YouTube, because it delivers lots of interesting videos which are aligned with some of the hobbies and topics that I like to learn about. And apps are great too, just to indulge your hobbies. I also quite like aeroplanes, I'm a bit of a plane buff, so I use something called Flight Radar 24, and what this does is that it shows me all the planes in the sky, what the flight numbers, where they're coming from, where they're going, but it's a great app too. But I mean, are there any sort of hobby-related apps that you like, Adam?
[Adam] Sadly, my hobby is technology, which is also my job, which is not very good in terms of hobbies. Actually, that's not true now I think about it, another one of my hobbies is music, I play guitar, and a few ago I was the best guitarist in my house. Now I'm the worst guitarist in my house, 'cause everyone else has had lessons and got better than me, but there's a few apps that they have used to get better than me. There are apps that you can use to tune your guitar, but there are also apps that you can use to download the music and the notes so you can learn new songs, and it will scroll it through as you're playing, lots of libraries you can access.
[Val] That's a great one. I've seen some amazing ways of learning things through your phones...
[Val] ...and through your apps. There's an anatomy app, which is a great one, just out of another personal interest of mine, where you can see 3D models of anatomy. Well, I think there's some great examples there, but before we wrap up, what would you say your final advice is about using apps?
[Adam] Well, the big one that we touched on earlier is, always use the official app stores, and always check that the app you're downloading is the official one, and the best way to do that is to check the ratings and the number of people who have reviewed it. Some other good advice is to make sure you regularly go back and check for updates for your apps, and your phone probably lets you turn on automatic updates. And that's very useful because sometimes apps will get new features, but also they can get security updates as well, so it's important to make sure that you regularly update your apps. And the other thing you might find is that sometimes apps can chew up a lot of battery life, especially if they're running in the background, so it's good to know how to actually close apps on your phone, because if you're using one app and then you switch to another app, you haven't actually closed that app, you've just put it in the background, and it might be still running and still chewing up power. So there's different ways to do it, depending on whether you're using a Apple phone or an Android phone, but learning how to do that extra step of opening up the list of all the apps that are running right now, and flicking away the one that you want to close so it stops running, can make a big difference. Especially apps that use your location, like maps, that chews up a lot of battery, so any location app, once you've finished using it, actually kill it, rather than just putting it in the background, will help with your battery life.
[Val] Well, that's some great advice, Adam. I guess keys to remember, definitely use legitimate app stores, make sure that you update your apps as well, make sure that you are downloading the legitimate app by checking the star ratings, and to try to close apps that are running in the background. And of course, there are plenty of great podcast apps out there as well. And Adam, I understand you also do your own podcast. Do you wanna just tell us a little about that?
[Adam] Sure. I have a technology news podcast that comes out every week. It's called Vertical Hold: Behind The Tech News, and myself and another journalist talk about what's been happening during the week and we chat with other technology journalists. So as we were saying before, it's a good example of, if you're interested in a specific area, you'll often find a podcast with news about that area. So if you're interested in technology news, then Vertical Hold might be a good podcast for you.
[Val] That's great advice too, Adam, and thanks for helping us explore the wonderful world of apps, and for joining us on this episode of the Be Connected podcast.
[Adam] No worries, glad to be here.
[Val] And if you like what you've heard, please subscribe to receive all of the latest episodes, or even leave a review to help others find us if you're listening via a podcast platform. And remember to visit the show notes where we've got plenty of great information on pretty much everything that we've covered here today, including links, and other useful material. And for more about today's subject and to discover other great topics, go to www.beconnected.esafety.gov.au. That's www.beconnected.esafety.gov.au. I'm Val Quinn, and I look forward to your company next time.
[Announcer] Be Connected is an Australian Government initiative developed by the Department of Social Services, the eSafety Commissioner, and Good Things Foundation Australia. Be Connected builds the digital skills, confidence, and online safety of all Australians, with engaging online learning resources, and a network of over 3,500 community organisations to support them to thrive in a digital world.