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A Toolbox in a Smartphone

Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Havana—The Insider's Guide, November/December 2011

At my skill level the most sensible home improvement use of my smartphone is to keep the speed dial loaded with the number of a good contractor, but if you just can’t resist doing it yourself, the app world offers plenty of help for the handy.

Several paint companies, including Behr, Olympic, Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams, have free downloadable apps that automatically identify a paint color that matches a hue in a photo. Most people will simply grab a camera phone snapshot, but there’s no reason you can’t upload an existing picture as a color sample, whether it’s the yellow of a Van Gogh sunflower or the shade of blue in your wife’s wedding bouquet. (Huge brownie points!)

They all function roughly the same: you just run your finger over a reference photo to the exact spot where the color that you want to match lies. ColorSmart from Behr offers useful extras, including the ability to virtually paint several sample room images with the colors you choose. However, you should probably pick the brand of paint you want first and let that determine your choice of app.

A phone’s built-in motion sensors can also drive an interesting toolbox addition. Turns out these devices are sensitive enough to provide accurate angular measurements, whether you’re trying to hang a picture straight, level an appliance or cut a piece of lumber at a 45-degree angle. The iHandy Carpenter app ($1.99) includes on-screen versions of a plumb bob, a surface level, a bubble level, a steel protractor and a steel ruler. If all you need is a level, you can download that module for free.

Finally, you can turn your phone into a makeshift flashlight. There are two approaches: illuminate the screen itself with a bright, solid white image, or use the LED camera flash (if your phone has one) for a much brighter light source (albeit one that also drains the battery quickly). The free myLite Flashlight app does the job for Apple users, offering an additional strobe mode if you’re in a disco mood.

For Android, TeslaLED (also free) provides basic flashlight functionality, a flashing police mode for attracting attention at night, and a feature straight out of “MacGyver.” Type in a phrase and the app translates it into Morse code, then flashes it. Laugh if you like, but if you’re trapped by an evildoer in an area with poor cell phone reception, that app could save your life!

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