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Finding the fun side of software updates for the iPhone and Android

Written by J.D. Biersdorfer

As the year winds to a close, many frenzied smartphone users haven’t had the chance to explore major updates to the Google and iPhone operating systems that arrived this fall. As you finally get a breather — or maybe even a new phone in your gift haul — why not start with some of the more personally engaging features that can help you ease into Android 14 or iOS 17? Here are some highlights.

Express Yourself

Google’s release of Android 14 was focused largely on improving security and accessibility features. But Google has also added fresh ways to customize phone screens with new wallpaper, app widgets and shortcuts. To get started, open the Settings app, select Wallpaper & Style and make your choices to personalize your device.

Apple has plenty of options in its iOS 17 Wallpaper settings, but with the recent iOS 17.2 update, users can get deeply personal in a different way with the new Journal app included with the software; it’s also in the App Store. Journal is a free digital diary for recording thoughts and feelings through text, images and topic suggestions. You can back up your encrypted entries to your iCloud account, where you get five gigabytes of free online storage before Apple starts charging.

Apple’s multimedia Journal is similar to third-party apps like Day One and Journey, which have free and paid premium versions. While Google has not yet added its own dedicated diary app to Android, some people use the company’s free Keep and Docs apps for their pensive moments.

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Search Your World

Image-based search adds another dimension to activities like shopping, museum-going, travel or just walking around town. Apple’s existing Visual Look Up feature for identifying objects in photos got a boost in iOS 17 and now works on videos as well. To use it, just open a photo or pause a video on your phone and tap the In()fo icon (the third from the left) at the bottom of the screen. If more information is available about the image subject, tap Look Up to see the search results.

(Another trick with Visual Look Up: When you see a glowing white outline around the main object in a photo, tap it to open a pop-up menu. Select Add Sticker to save a silhouetted copy of the object that you can send in a message or insert from the iPhone’s emoji keyboard.)

Google Lens, introduced in 2017, has steadily become more accurate with its pairing of object identification and relevant internet search results. Say you’re in a museum and want more information on the artwork you’re looking at through your phone’s camera. Tap the adjacent Google Lens icon to see the articles Google Search rounds up.

Google Lens works on objects in still photos and exported frames from video clips. It is available as an Android app but is integrated elsewhere, including in the stand-alone Google app for Android and iOS.

Both Apple’s Visual Look Up and Google Lens can recognize, copy and translate text in images you see through the camera. Check each company’s privacy policy if you have data-collection concerns.

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Blast Off

Android’s developers have been sneaking little surprises into the system’s code for years, and this year’s update brings a hidden game. To uncover it, open the Settings app and scroll down to About Phone. Tap it and then tap Android Version.

On the next screen, quickly tap Android Version three times to start the game. On the game screen, press and hold the Android 14 logo until the phone begins to vibrate and a tiny spaceship appears. Press your finger on the screen to get steering controls and use the position information in the corner to fly to different stars.

Slip Into Standby

Apple’s iOS 17 includes a Standby feature that turns the iPhone lock screen into a smart display for showing off the time, temperature, photos, music, recipes and other apps. When enabled in iPhone Settings, the Standby mode kicks on when the phone is charging and sitting stable in the horizontal screen orientation.

If you don’t care for the default widgets, press and hold your finger on either side of the screen to choose new ones from the list of Standby-compatible options. The Night Mode option in the settings gives the screen a red tint if you decide to use the phone as a bedside clock.

Third-party apps such as Zetabit Tecnologia’s Standby Mode Pro give Android-based phones a similar function, as does the “always on display” setting for lock screens on recent Samsung Galaxy phones and tablets.

These hands-free options also serve as a reminder that it’s good to put the phone down occasionally and enjoy the holidays.

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