Cellphone makers launched a staggering 200 new phones last year — and, of course, each one boasts it can do something cool. Most consumers' budgets are shouting: "iNough already!"
Here's the secret about that phone in your pocket: It probably already has enough processing power to act very much like a smart phone. All it takes are a few tips and some applications, many of which you can add to your phone for free.
Start with making free — or nearly free — calls.
There are several options for making calls at rates far more affordable than those offered by your existing mobile carriers. These apps can transform your handset into a Voice Over IP device — effectively beaming your phone calls over the Internet at rates comparable with making a call via your computer's VOIP connection.
The devil lurks in the details: Some applications and handsets may require you make your calls while in a wi-fi hot spot. That may mean you have to plan to make such calls either when you're around a wi-fi connection at your (or a friend's) house, or say, in a local Starbucks or Panera Bread restaurant.
The good news, however, is that many handsets already now offer seamless wi-fi calling, with an option to switch to the traditional cells so you can still roam. That's a good choice if you're calling domestically. If you want to chat with overseas friends, you might as well buy a "for here" coffee and plunk yourself down in a chair. Some of these services require that you sign up for a data service plan — but again, if you make frequent international calls, the savings can be significant.
For instance, Fring.com, is a free application that will let you make free calls to other Fring users and lower-cost calls to non-Fring landlines and mobile phones. (It also allows instant messaging with services such as Skype, MSN, ICQ, GoogleTalk, SIP, Twitter, AIM and Yahoo!.)
Frequent international callers might also want to consider Yackie Mobile, which provides VOIP on a SIM card (which functions like a pre-paid calling card). With the SIM, you call a Yackie number, then Yackie calls you back and connects the call. The good news: The SIM card means you don't have to stay in a wi-fi hot spot.
Mobile phones are hardly just for talking these days. Many of the best applications take advantage of the nonvoice features packed into phones —some of which you may have forgotten about.
That built-in camera, for instance, is pretty handy. Services such as ShoZu turn your phone into a blogging and updating machine by letting you send your pictures and videos to social networking sites (including Facebook) with just one click.
The Qipit service transforms a camera phone into a portable scanner, which means you can snap a photo and print it out later using the Qipit website.
Other services will also help you turn your phone into a scanner. You can send a picture of a document to the scanR.com service, which will digitize the image and fax it to a number where you can pick up the document or display the image back on your phone. (The service has a $3 monthly subscription fee for faxing back up to 100 documents.)
Don't overlook the basics, either. You don't need an iPhone to get directions on the go. Most phones will let you surf the mobile Web with a monthly data plan, but bringing the online world to your hands is priceless.
For instance, call services such as TellMe let you speak what you need to find. Download the service from the mobile Web site and next time you need to find something you have your own personal mobile concierge.
If you're traveling, don't forget that your phone already likely includes applications such as an alarm clock. It may well have a built-in calendar as well.
Bottom line: The smartest phone users don't pay up for a "smart" phone. They're just smarter about using what they already have.