Certain voice-driven freebies, in particular, have earned a permanent place on my phone’s speed-dial keys. All work alike: you dial an 800 number, speak your request and get the results in seconds, usually in the form of a text message on your phone.
(Yes, the sort of person who uses the phrase “by cracky” may be unfamiliar with the glories of text messaging, and may bristle at having to pay 10 cents a text message, or $5 a month for hundreds. But remember: the services described here don’t require you to master sending such messages — only receiving them, which requires no skill at all.)
800-GOOG-411. Cellphone carriers have plenty to be ashamed of. Case in point: when you dial 411 to look up a phone number, you’ll be billed $1.50 or $2.
If it’s a business or store you’re looking up, for heaven’s sake, dial 800-GOOG-411 instead. It’s a voice-activated, national phone directory run by Google. It’s fast and efficient, and there are no ads or charges.
A typical transcript goes like this. “GOOG411. What city and state?”
You: “New York, New York.”
Google: “New York, New York. What business name or category?”
You: “Empire State Building.”
Google: “Empire State Building! Searching. Top listing: Empire State Building on Fifth Avenue. I’ll connect you.”
And your call is connected, just as though you’d dialed yourself. Or you can interrupt by saying “details” (meaning, “read me the phone number and address”) or “text message” (meaning, “send that info to my cellphone, so I’ll have it in writing”).
For residential listings, you can dial 800-FREE411 (not a Google service), although you have to listen to a 20-second ad. And don’t miss Google’s free SMS service, which offers business phone numbers, weather, sports, flight info, and more (details at tinyurl.com/ymeupk). But neither of those services compares with the spectacular speed, convenience and reliability of GOOG411.
ChaCha. Here’s another voice-activated service (800-2CHACHA) — but this time, you can ask any question at all. “What’s that German word that means, ‘pleasure from other people’s pain’?” Or “Who ran against Abraham Lincoln for president?” Or “What’s on the front page of today’s New York Times?” Or “How do you jump the battery in a Prius?” Or “Where’s the cheapest gas in southeast Connecticut right now?” Or “What’s the last flight to New York out of O’Hare Airport?” Just about anything, in fact, you could find on the Web.
After 30 seconds, you get a text message confirming that ChaCha is working on your question. A minute or two later, you get the answer, typed out in friendly English (“Thanks for asking!”), as though there were a real person on the other end.
That’s because there is a real person. ChaCha employs thousands of amateur researchers across the United States to field your questions, find the answers online and shoot them back, with a link to the Web page where they found the information.
They’re paid $5 to $10 an hour, which may explain the occasional unhelpful replies. (Q: “Why do British and American cars drive on opposite sides of the road?” A: “Because the British have their steering wheels on the other side.” Gee, thanks.)
Even so, ChaCha does a tantalizingly good impersonation of a personal concierge who caters to your whims, and saves the day with amazing frequency. Best of all, there’s no fee, no software, no signup or registration; you can dial it right this instant.
Jott. What do you do when you get an idea you want to remember? A brainstorm, a to-do item, a reminder you want to set for yourself? Writing it down is the only solution — so most of the time, you don’t, because you’re driving, or you have no pen, or you’re away from your computer.
Meet Jott, your personal transcription service. You sign up at Jott.com by providing your cell number and e-mail address.
If you’re a Verizon customer, you must also request that your carrier’s “premium text-message block” be removed from your account. That safeguard is meant to protect people from racking up bills using premium texting services (which Jott is not). Votes to “American Idol” by text, for example, cost $1 a vote. (I found that out by asking ChaCha.)
From now on, Jott is your personal transcription service. Speed-dial 866-JOTT123, and the conversation goes like this:
Jott: “Who do you want to Jott?”
Jott: “Jott yourself.”
You: “Great idea for Act 2! Doing the laundry, Minna finds lipstick on her husband’s collar and sues the detergent company.”
Five minutes later, the transcribed, typed message appears in your e-mail in-box, complete with an audio attachment of the recording — and, if you like, also on your phone as a text message.