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Five important rules about your new smartphone

If you're feeling a little dumb about your new smartphone, fear not: these five tips will help you overcome some of the common mistakes.

Did Santa bring you your first smartphone? Awesome! Now for the bad news: it probably didn't come with much in the way of an instruction manual.

You can figure out a lot of the features just by fiddling, but there are a few general concepts that might not seem clear. Have no fear: I'm here to help you learn the important smartphone basics.

JuiceDefender for Android does a good job making the battery last longer.
JuiceDefender for Android does a good job making the battery last longer. Latedroid

1. Battery life will disappoint
The hard truth: You'll be lucky to get a day or two of smartphone runtime before needing to recharge. Want to stretch battery life as far as possible? Start by dropping the screen brightness to around 50 percent. You'll hardly notice the difference.

Next, disable Bluetooth if you're not using it, and think very hard about turning off push e-mail (automated mail retrieval at regular intervals, and a major power-suck).

iPhone users should check out Sharon Vaknin's "How to give your iPhone's battery life a serious boost." I followed her tips, and my iPhone 4S runtime improved dramatically.

If you're an Android user, turn off those cool but battery-draining animated wallpapers, then install an app like JuiceDefender. It's free, and in my experience it works really well.

2. Tap the screen, don't stab it
I always see smartphone novices stabbing at their screens, or holding their finger down much longer than necessary. To launch an app, just lightly tap its icon with the pad of your finger. (A fingernail won't work, as touch screens require a capacitive--i.e. fingertip--touch.)

On an iPhone, tapping and holding on an icon will make all the icons start shaking. That's intentional: you can rearrange your icons (by dragging and dropping them) while in this mode. Press either the Home or Power button to stop the shaking.

On Android phones, you tap, hold, and drag icons to rearrange them; there's no special "mode" like on the iPhone.

But remember: when you want to run an app or swipe the screen, use a quick, light touch.

3. The difference between off and standby
When you're not actually using your phone, it stands to reason it should be off, right? Wrong: "off" means actually powering down the phone, much like you do with your computer. When it's off, you can't make calls, run apps, or do anything else. Because, well, it's off!

Instead, when you're not actually using your phone, you want it to retreat to standby mode--meaning only the screen shuts off. This happens one of two ways: automatically, after a set period of inactivity; or by pressing (but not holding!) the power button. You should get in the habit of doing the latter before sticking the phone back in your pocket or bag, if only to preserve battery life--but also to prevent accidental dialing or app launching.

Don't pay $20 for a basic bumper case when you can get one online for one-tenth the price.
Don't pay $20 for a basic bumper case when you can get one online for one-tenth the price. Meritline

4. Avoid overpriced cases
A "naked" phone is susceptible to scuffs, scratches, and, should it have an untimely meeting with the pavement, shattered screens. That's why most folks wisely choose to wrap their phones in some kind of case.

Just one problem: the cases you find in most stores (especially Apple and carrier stores) cost a small fortune. If all you need is simple protection, look online.

For example, Meritline sells a basic black iPhone 4 bumper case for all of $1.99 shipped. And a quick search of eBay reveals all kinds of cases for all kinds of phones, most of them priced at $10 or less.

I'm not saying there's no place in the world for the $89.95 leather zip wallet, just that there are much more affordable alternatives available online. Worth a look.

5. Apps bring the 'smart'
Apps are what put the "smart" in "smartphone," so hit the app store to stock up. You'll find lots of good freebies, and plenty of other apps that cost only a buck or two.

Android phones come with Google's Android Market (which itself is an app), but you may want to consider installing Amazon's Appstore as well. Why bother? Amazon gives away a different paid app every single day.

If you have an iPhone, your only available source for apps is Apple's App Store. (Well, you can get others by jailbreaking your phone, but that's not a topic for newbies.) Check out my roundup of the 10 must-have apps for iPhone owners.

Best bets for all platforms: Cozi, Evernote, Kindle/Nook, and Pandora. All free, all awesome.

What tips, tricks, and apps would you recommend for new smartphone owners? Let's hear 'em in the comments.