How to make exceptions for your most important callers

Most phones are easy to silence. But what if you want to hear when a VIP calls?

When your name is as closely tied to how-to tech articles as mine is online, you can get some interesting out-of-the-blue emails asking for help. During some post-holiday inbox cleaning, I noticed two emails, both from people who work as volunteer emergency responders, asking for help with one universal quirk of cellphones.

Most phones have become much more sensible when it comes to knowing whether your ringer is on or off. iPhones have a dedicated switch for silencing all notifications sounds on the device, while most modern phones at least provide a very clear, obvious icon to show that, yes, your phone is set only to vibrate or show a screen prompt when somebody calls or texts. But what if there are a handful of people who, if they call, you definitely want your phone to ring? People like fire dispatchers, or a manager who only calls when the servers are really, really hosed at 3 a.m.? There are a few ways to get this done on modern phones.

If you’re touting an Android phone, there are a few apps that allow for contextual ringer volumes, but I recommend two in particular. Locale is a polished if-this-then-that app that has been in development since Android’s earliest days, and won the first-ever Android Developer Challenge. You first create contexts for events, such as a certain person calling, or being in a particular location, times of day, and so on. Then you assign an action to that context, so that if your wife calls, and it’s not within certain hours, it always turns the ringer up and lets you hear it. For $3.99, you will likely find a few other handy uses of Locale to make your phone do what you want it to do, right when it should do it.

Locale Android app in action

Inevitably, though, certain Android users will want to go further than what Locale offers. To have their phones, say, not only ring out loud for certain specific callers, but to also have the LED camera flash go off. Or perhaps to set a certain volume level for callers who always sound like they’re calling from under a pile of blankets. That’s where Tasker comes in. It’s nowhere near as intuitive as Locale, and learning its particular language of actions, profiles, and tasks can be a bit daunting. I wrote up a primer for Lifehacker a while back, and the official tour can help you learn some of the quirks. But it’s hard to hurt anything by simply playing around and fine-tuning your automations, because you can turn Tasker on and off, like an alarm system.

Tasker example

For those with an iPhone, the bad news is that Apple’s App Store doesn’t allow in applications that get such deep control of their device. But you can get the same kind of specific everyone-except-a-few ringtone setups with a quasi-silent ringtone.

If you have a BlackBerry, Windows Phone, or other device, how have you dealt with keeping your phone silent, except for a very few important callers? Tell us your clever schemes in the comments.

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