Add amazing new features to your phone and camera

Want to get more mileage out of your Android phone, iPhone or iPad, and digital camera for free?
  • Nate Ralph (PC World (US online))
  • 13 July, 2010 00:29

Your tech gear can do more than you think it can. Perhaps a device manufacturer has a particular user experience in mind. Or maybe you think you need a brand-new camera to get advanced shooting features. Don't worry--with a bit of time and care, you can get a lot mileage out of the goods you own.

Why hack? Well, why not? We spend our hard-earned money on these tools, so let's make the most of them. From performing tasks that the devices' manufacturers never intended them for to finding new ways to spruce up your older gear, hacking your stuff is a great way to unlock quite a bit of hidden potential.

These modifications are painless if you're careful, and they're simple to reverse if you change your mind. But more importantly, the results are fun. And even if you're satisfied with your gear, it never hurts to learn more about the powerful toys you tote around every day.

Do More With Android

Before we dive into the technical details, let's talk benefits. Perhaps you'd like to replace your stock UI with the attractive Sense UI used by the HTC Hero. Or maybe, like me, you are saddled with an Android 1.6 phone and locked out from attractive features like Live Wallpapers, Folders, additional Home screens, and the official Twitter app.

If you just want to get more out of your device--and don't want to wait and see if your device is due for an upgrade--a custom ROM might be the ticket.

First, you'll need unfettered access to your Android phone, which means that you have to "root" it. "Rooting" means enabling the phone's root account so that you have administrator privileges. As they do with a typical Windows desktop, administrators have access to a device's nether regions, where they can tinker with (or break) their devices as they see fit.

Fortunately, a dedicated community with a knack for lengthy documentation has boiled rooting down to a reasonably simple process (most of the time). But a misstep could still brick your phone, so be careful. If you follow the instructions and take your time, things should turn out just fine.

We'll start with a trip to AndroidSPIN, a repository for Android-related information and conversation. Of particular interest here is the site's comprehensive release list. You can search through the database by phone, custom ROM, or developer, and you can read installation instructions or check out the feature sets and screenshots of particular ROMs.

Choose your phone, and then select a custom ROM with features that suit you. You might base your decision on appearance (HTC Hero-based ROMs are popular) or on operating system--up to and including the as-yet-unreleased Android 2.2. Since my MyTouch 3G was hobbled by Android 1.6, I opted for the popular CyanogenMod, which runs on Android 2.1 (Eclair). CyanogenMod is available for the MyTouch 3G, the T-Mobile G1, the Google Nexus One, and the Motorola Droid. The CyanogenMod's wiki offers concise instructions, and will help you determine the route to take for the model you're using.

Rooting the MyTouch 3G involves downgrading from the stock Android 1.6 OS to Android 1.5, to take advantage of a security exploit. You'll also need the FlashRec app, which backs up a recovery image of your phone, and then loads a modified recovery image. Both files are available at the tutorial.

Your first step should be to back up any precious data that your phone contains. You can sync your contacts and your e-mail through Google's cloud; but reacquiring any music or applications you've downloaded is up to you. You'll also need to format your phone's microSD card and drop the Android 1.5 build that you downloaded onto to the card. I used a microSD-card-to-SD-card adapter to access the tiny card; altrnatively, you can plug your phone directly into your PC.

Note: While you're trying to copy files onto your microSD card, you may run into a write-protection error, regardless of whether your card is set to the "lock" position. I got around this problem by covering the notch opposite the lock switch with a small piece of Scotch tape--be careful not to cover the gold contacts.

If the file copying went well, holding the 'Volume Down' and 'Power' buttons will turn your phone back on in fastboot--an Android protocol that lets you overwrite the phone's file system. Follow the on-screen instructions, and once your phone has rebooted, you'll find your phone is now running Android 1.5.

Don't worry, we won't linger here for very long. Your next step is to use an application installer from the Android marketplace to install the FlashRec app that you downloaded earlier. Once the application is installed, run it and follow the onscreen instructions. Congratulations! You've just rooted your phone--and installed a custom ROM. After a final reboot, your MyTouch 3G should be running CyanogenMod. The entire process shouldn't take more than 30 minutes, but set aside a least an hour for the work. You don't want to have to cope with any interruptions while your phone is in a delicate state.

Page Break

Your MyTouch 3G or T-Mobile G1 is now an official Android 2.1 device, but there are a few caveats. Some 2.1 apps, including Google Earth, still won't be available to you. And you may notice sluggish performance in games and apps that were designed for phones with beefier CPUs and a lot more RAM. But CyanogenMod's benefits--such as multitouch support, Wi-Fi tethering, and the ability to install applications to your SD card--are worth the occasional lack of polish.

Take Control of Your iDevice

We've covered Apple's products extensively, and jailbreaking their wundergadgets is never far from the conversation. Stringent controls over the iPhone, iPod, and iPad product lines have yielded streamlined devices and led to a robust Apps marketplace; even so, Apple's business practices have repeatedly come under fire.

Maybe you've seen too many legitimately interesting apps rejected. Or perhaps you'd like to take your phone to a carrier whose service is a bit more reliable in your area. Or you have an iPhone 3G, and you want to listen to Pandora on your phone while composing e-mail messages. Or you want to listen to GrooveShark at all. Whatever your reasons may be, a robust hacking community has devoted itself to ensuring that you can use your iDevice however you like.

If you've yet to update your iTunes installation to version 9.2, check out our jailbreaking guide. Though the article is iPad specific, the Spirit jailbreak application will work with any iDevice. If you're running an iPhone 3G or iPhone 3GS, tryPwnage Tool 4.0.1 from the iPhone Dev Team. Everyone else should check out the Dev Team's RedSn0w jailbreak tool. Jailbreaking Apple's gadgets requires significantly less tinkering than does performing the same operation on an Android phone. You'll need to download firmware updates, but otherwise the process is very straightforward and won't take more than 30 minutes to complete.

With your freshly hacked iDevice in tow, it's time to start loading up on goodies with the preinstalled Cydia downloader. There are plenty of apps that Apple never intended to run on their products. You'll have access to tethering, Android-style notification icons for your status bar, or even the ability to download Youtube videos for offline viewing. Bear in mind that this is a full-fledged market, so some apps and games aren't free.

Dabble With Infrared Photography

Infrared photography is a bit of a novelty, but it can lead to some interesting daylight photography. Most cameras have IR filters built in and are optimized for the visible spectrum. To circumvent that, you'll have to block out the visible light. Your results may vary, but the simple hardware hack can definitely spice up your photos.

We'll start by making our own IR filter, using nothing but a floppy disk--the magnetic strip inside a 3.5-inch floppy disk blocks most visible light. Break off the metal tab, and split the disk along the seam to pop it open like a pistachio. Take the circular floppy center out, and cut out a strip large enough to completely cover the iris on your camera's lens.

As luck would have it, one of the halves of the floppy disk sports a hole large enough to cover a digital camera's lens. Using tape, affix the magnetic strip that you cut out to the center of this opening. Our new IR filter is assembled, and we're ready to take some photos.

Glancing through the LCD screen with the filter held in front of the lens, you'll find that everything appears to be bathed in red light. This is the effect of our infrared filter, which blocks out all visible light, except for deep reds and the infrared spectrum. Since solid-red vistas aren't especially interesting, try tweaking your color settings for a more interesting image.

If you set your camera to grayscale mode, objects that tend to reflect infrared light will appear white, while objects that absorb infrared light will appear dark. The effect is especially dramatic on foliage. Alternatively, you can try tweaking your white balance, to lend a striking appearance to your images. Check out the before-and-after shots here.

Try Some DIY Macro Photography

Getting a detailed, close-up shot of a small object requires finding the right focal length between your camera's lens and the object you're trying to photograph. If your digital camera offers a Macro mode, you'll have a general idea of how the process works. Get too close to or too far away from your subject, and your photo will become blurry. Professional photographers might use a macro lens, specifically designed for close-up photography and typically restricted to SLR cameras.

If you're just looking to snap a few neat close-ups, a pricey SLR is probably far more than you need. To approximate the effect,you can use a digital camera that offers a macro mode, plus a cheap magnifying glass. You should be able to pick one up at a hardware store--I found mine for a little less than US$3.

A proper macro lens rests on the end of a barrel built to a specific focal length, but your own lens's barrel will be a bit less refined. You'll want to use something cylindrical. I opted for a can, because I wanted something sturdy enough to be gripped firmly or tossed into a bag, and yet light and (most important) cheap.

Remove the lids from both ends of the can--the magnifying glass and camera will sit on opposite ends. I drilled a hole and mounted my magnifying glass inside the can, for convenience.

A digital camera's lens can shift through a range of focal lengths. Zooming in on an object decreases the focal length. The shorter the focal length, the shallower the depth of field--you'll see your subject in greater detail, but you'll need to be rather close to keep it in focus. When we (or our cameras) look through a magnifying lens, we see an artificial image. Light strikes the glass's convex lens, causing the object we're looking at to appear larger than it really is.

With macro mode enabled, zoom in on an object, and take a look at it with and without your homemade macro lens. Couple that enlarged image with your camera's native focal length, and you'll suddenly decrease the minimum focusing distance, allowing you to get just a bit closer and see even greater detail. The trick works with your phone's camera too. You can try to replicate the effect with your camera's digital zoom, but you'll lose image quality by doing so.

Stabilize Your Photos, for Less

You may have noticed that holding a camera steady while snapping pictures of small objects can be a bit tricky. So let's fashion a cheap tripod to stabilize our camera.

You'll need a container heavy enough to counter the weight of your camera, with a screw-on lid -- I chose a jar for the purpose. You'll also need a 0.25-inch nut and bolt. First, drill a hole into the lid of the container; the hole should be large enough to accommodate the bolt. Push the bolt through the jar's lid from the underside, and fasten it there. Finally, screw the camera on to the end of the bolt, and then attach the lid to your container.

I fashioned my tripod out of materials that were at hand, but a water or soda bottle (filled with liquid) would be easier to transport, and would offer access to the camera's battery and SD card without your having to remove it from the base.