But good news! One annoyance — terrible-sounding smartphone calls — is improving. Today’s Tech Friend recommends voice-quality improvements and other simple, overlooked or plain old boring technologies that make your life better.
Most of these technologies are not new or fancy. They’re not promising flying cars. And that’s what makes them marvelous.
Six simple and actually useful technologies
1. Clearer-sounding phone calls: Apple (and Google, sort of) is applying digital smarts to improve mobile calls that generally have worse voice quality than landline calls from a generation ago.
Buried in the latest iPhone software is a feature to drown out background noise such as howling dogs or honking buses. My colleague Chris Velazco tried it out, and it makes a big difference in noisy places.
Read more from Chris. (And follow the instructions at the bottom of this story to turn on this iPhone feature.)
2. One-tap peace of mind for car rides: Geoffrey A. Fowler, the Washington Post’s technology columnist, said he loves the feature in Uber and other apps that lets you tap a button to share details of your ride with loved ones.
They can keep tabs on you and estimate how long until you arrive at your destination. (There are privacy-invasion risks from this, too.)
3. Signal: This app is best known for its ironclad encryption technology that stops anyone from snooping on your messages. But the real marvel of Signal is how an app run by a nonprofit is more delightful to use than many technologies from trillion-dollar corporations.
Audio calls sound great on Signal. Texting is easy. If you lose your phone or buy a new one, I’ve found that Signal is among the easiest apps to transfer to a new device. (Download Signal for your iPhone or on Google’s app store for Android.)
4. QR codes (and voice speakers) that make digital payments cheap and easy. You might have used your phone camera to scan these black-and-white barcode-looking things to open a link. Sometimes QR codes are annoying and pointless.
But in some countries such as China and India, QR codes are a low-tech foundation for hundreds of millions of people to pay for items with their phones.
A merchant or a street performer doesn’t have to buy a special cash register or another pricey doodad to take money that isn’t cash. He just needs a QR code printed on a piece of paper.
In India, basic voice speakers also blare how much money was just transferred from a shopper’s phone. It’s a no-fuss way for merchants to immediately confirm they were paid.
I wonder whether we in the United States have gone down the wrong path with smartphone payment systems that involve complicated, pricey technologies that are a tax on all of us.
(Try pointing your phone’s camera at the QR code in the illustration of this article!)
5. Wordle: I am not personally into word games. But you gotta appreciate a website with a narrow mission: You play a game once a day for a few minutes. No nudges to spend as much time as possible. Just one fun task and you’re out.
(What’s your favorite simple technology? Tell me. We might feature your faves in a future edition of The Tech Friend.)
6. Government websites that just work. Remember that day last year when it seemed everyone was talking about ordering coronavirus test kits from the government? They were free! But those virus tests also went viral because of the novelty of using a government website that made a useful chore easy to do.
Government technology has a terrible reputation, and it’s mostly deserved. But you might be pleasantly surprised by some online government services. (Even at the IRS.) About a year ago, I renewed my Global Entry membership through login.gov, a one-stop website for several federal government services. It was easy, and my renewal was processed in a day or so.
And this one isn’t simple so it’s a bonus. Dall-E: This is one of the AI technologies that lets you describe a figment of your imagination — “a stained-glass window depicting cats riding horses” for example — and have computers generate images at your command.
Technologies like Dall-E that “learn” from what we post online are legal and ethical minefields. Technology like Dall-E puts you at risk of falling for fiction that looks real. But it’s also cool to see your imagination come to life. (You can try Dall-E after creating a free account.)
Finding your ‘aha’ moment
There’s magic in that snap judgment of understanding how a technology could make your day better.
When I first tried Uber, I immediately saw the value in skipping the stress and time hunting for a cab. The first time I used an iPhone, what hooked me was the convenience of tapping on a person’s email address to open a blank message addressed to them. (I realize that sounds very dorky.)
I haven’t found that “aha” moment yet with many newer technologies, including Dall-E. They seem promising, but I can’t imagine a place for them in my life. Yet.
Here is how to turn on the iPhone audio-improvement feature that Chris wrote about:
- Make sure you have the latest iPhone software. From the Settings app → General → Software Update. If you see iOS 16.4, tap Download and Install. If you don’t see this option, you’re good.
- While on a phone call, swipe down from the top-right corner of the screen to open the Control Center.
- Find the option for “Mic mode” in the top right corner. Tap it.
- Select “Voice isolation.”
This feature makes you sound clearer to the person on the other end, not the other way around. (That is, unless they enable the feature on their end too.)
Watch (and listen to) Chris break down the voice clarity feature. You can really hear the difference.