Swiss Army smartphone: 9 tools your phone can replace

With the right apps, cases, and add-ons, your smartphone can tackle a wide and wacky range of tasks

Be a hammer

Just like "when all you've got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" (or "when your problem is a nail, every tool you've got looks like a hammer"), when you have a smartphone there's a good chance there's a smartphone app, case, or accessory for whatever you want to do.

And not just the easy or obvious things, like turning your smartphone into a GPS, mirror, or mini-periscope or providing damage protection. I'm talking about a wide, even seriously wacky range of tasks.

Here are 9 ways to turn your smartphone into the hammer for your nail.

iHandy Carpenter

Handyman's toolkit

Thanks to its built-in sensors -- typically including GPS, gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, and microphone -- your smartphone can easily serve as a variety of tools for carpenters and other handypersons. Some examples include a level (bubble level bar, surface level, or plumb-bob) and compass. And a smartphone doesn't even need sensors to be a display-based tool like a ruler or a protractor.

iHandy Carpenter ($1.99) is available for iOS and Android.



Some tasks call for a microscope, like looking for clues or checking watermarks on paper money.

Sure, you could pack a USB microscope that uses your tablet or notebook as a display. But for seriously mobile microscope users, there are magnifying attachments for your iPhone, Android phone, or other mobile devices. (Most of these comprise the actual microscope plus a device-specific case.)

Prices range from roughly $20 to $60. Differences include magnification range (e.g. 60x-100x, 60x-200x) and other features, such as an LED light or a stand.


Thermal imaging system

Thermal imaging -- looking for "hot spots" or other temperature differences -- has many uses. Home energy auditors do this to see where you need more insulation, better windows, etc. Industrial sites use them to spot anomalies before problems develop. They're popular for security monitoring, gas leak detection, and with firefighters. But traditional thermal imaging systems haven't been cheap.

FLIR One's case will let a smartphone act as a thermal imaging system, showing infrared and even merging it with regular camera views and other data.

FLIR One for iPhone 5/5s is currently expected to be available spring 2014 for under $350, and a model for selected Android smartphones will be available later in 2014.

Geiger counter

Geiger counter

Standalone Geiger counters can be had for $100-$300 -- or you can Geiger-accessorize your smartphone.

Radiation Watch's Pocket Geiger peripheral offers a sub-$100 solution for iOS and Android users. (Note: This detects only X-Rays and Gamma rays -- not Alpha or Beta radiation.)

You'll also need their smartphone app: the iOS free Pocket Geiger Counter Lite or $6.99 Pro, or the free Android Pocket Geiger app.

For an even cheaper, although not quite as accurate, radiation-sensing iPhone 4 solution, consider the WikiSensor Dosimeter App (iOS, $0.99). (You'll also need something that can cover the camera to block out visible light, such as an inch of black electrical tape or your thumb.)


Tremor recorder

Medical professionals are finding a growing number of ways to turn smartphones into inexpensive, portable alternatives to traditionally costlier, bulkier tools.

Lift Lab's LiftPulse (Free, iOS) app gives doctors an easy, affordable way to measure and quantify "tremor," a common symptom of medical issues like Parkinson's Disease, using the accelerometers in an iPhone.

Eye tester

Developed in the MIT Media Lab's Camera Culture research group, the NETRA (Near-Eye Tool for Refractive Assessment) is an inexpensive clip-on that turns a smartphone into a portable eye tester with average accuracy as good as and sometimes better than much larger, more expensive diagnostic tools.  

NETRA will let medical staff -- or even the patient -- diagnose common "refractive eye disorders" like near- and far-sightedness, astigmatism, and presbyopia, which affect nearly two billion people globally.


Self-defense device

Unless you're one of Edgar Rice Burroughs' four-armed Green Martians or an octopus, juggling a phone and protective pepper spray when walking through unsafe areas can be difficult.

Problem solved: Spraytect's Self-Defense iPhone Case (for iPhone 4/4s, $39.95) includes a detachable pepper-spray cartridge holding a proprietary blend of habanero and other peppers. According to Spraytect, the range of a spray is 3 to 7 feet. (Note: The cartridges meet TSA checkable-luggage guidelines.)

Yellow Jacket

Stun gun

To protect yourself at closer-than-pepper-spraying distance, consider a Yellow Jacket stun gun case.

According to Yellow Jacket's website, the shock delivered is more of a "sting" than a "stun." And the case also provides up to a full battery recharge for your smartphone.

(iPhone 4/4s $99.00; iPhone 5/5s with detachable Stun Gun pack, $149.00, available March 2014)

Carbon monoxide detector, weather station, breath analyzer, and more

Sensorcon's SensorDrone hardware ($199) lets you use your smartphone (or other device, like an Arduino) along with built-in or add-on sensors and Android and iOS apps for a growing variety of tasks.

For example, SensorDrone can be used to measure/sense temperature; light (like color intensity); carbon monoxide; CO2-reducing gases like propane, methane, or butane; oxidizing gases like nitrogen dioxide, chlorine, or ozone; air quality; water quality; humidity; color; and infrared.

Uses can include monitoring air quality, checking for gas leaks, and monitoring temperatures -- even simply keeping track of the humidity in your refrigerator's vegetable/fruit crisper bin.

If I had a hammer

While I haven't yet found a an actual hammer case for a smartphone, here is a video of a Nokia Lumia 900 being used -- successfully, and without damaging the phone -- as a hammer.