Five ways to teach your old phone new tricks

New services that can make your cellphone ‘smart.’

Rich Clabaugh/Staff
These five services will make any old phone act like a "smart phone."

This summer was a big season for smart-phone lovers. Apple unveiled a new iPhone with built-in video camera, compass, and online movie rental store. Palm released a worthy rival, the Pre, which lets busy multitaskers flip between e-mail, spreadsheets, and, of course, phone calls. And several touch-screen and next-gen smart phones are on the way.

That’s great news for gadget geeks ready to spend $90 a month (or more) on their cellphones. But what about the rest of us? Even simple mobile phones are capable of a lot these days, thanks to text messaging and a slew of services designed for the average phone. Here are a few tricks to get your plain ol’ cellphone acting like a smart phone.

Google on the go: A lot of smart phones now come with an Internet browser, but you don’t need one to get a little guidance from Google. The search giant offers a surprisingly simple way to get quick answers through text messages. This free service works as a mobile dictionary, phone book, stock ticker, meteorologist, and currency converter.

If you’re in the mood for a movie, text message the title of the film and a ZIP Code to the number 466-453 (google). In a few seconds, you’ll receive a reply listing show times, addresses, and phone numbers for several nearby theaters. For example, text “District 9 02215” for showings in Boston.

Each of Google’s 22 text-search categories has its own syntax, but they’re pretty easy to remember. (The code words will be in italics.) For dictionary definitions, try “define laconic.” With directions, try “sacramento, ca to 94111.” Unit conversions, use “12 pounds in kilos.” And Google can crack foreign words and phrases if you send it “translate gato to English” – it will figure out what language you started with.

For the entire list of commands, is listed here.

A competing service, ChaCha, specializes in answering bigger questions. Text it anything you want – even subjective questions – and its team of human researchers will whip up a reply. Of course, sometimes their response is “we don’t know.” Try out this ad-supported service by texting your query to 242-242 (chacha).

Read your voice mail: Busy days often lead to a pileup of voice mail. But when you finally hear “you have seven new messages,” it’s hard to tell which will be long-winded fluff and which are actual emergencies.

iPhones help out their owners through “visual voice mail,” which lets users see who left a message and choose to listen or to ignore them in any order. Several companies do the same thing for normal cellphones. Basically, the services intercept your messages and post them on a secure website. Log on, listen to whichever seem most pressing, and leave the rest for later.

Also, since most people can read faster than they listen, many of these services go the extra step of transcribing your messages. Then, like a personal secretary, they will e-mail or text you each voice message so that you can read them during a meeting, search and sort them, and never worry about jotting down important information while you listen.

Each company delivers a slightly different package. YouMail offers inexpensive plans starting at $0. PhoneTag touts very accurate transcription software, but its plans range from $10 to $30 a month. SpinVox’s system also transcribes the other way, letting you dictate text messages, memos, even Twitter posts out loud.

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