Sep. 30, 2012 at 1:15 PM ET
If you have the same ringtone for calls and alert for messages regardless of what they are, you might want to create your own and assign specific tones to specific contacts. Can you do more with ringtones and alerts so they're actually informative and not just the same annoying sound?
Actually you can do a lot! Ringtone and alert settings, as well as third-party apps and hacks to do even more, have come a long way. Both Android and iOS have plenty of customization options that make your ringtones more useful. Let's take a look at what you do on both mobile operating systems.
Create Custom Ringtones and Alerts
Creating your own custom ringtones and alerts is pretty simple. On Android, all you need is an AAC or MP3 file, which you can create on your computer and transfer over to your phone. If you want to trim an existing song or sound, an app called Ringdroid does that for free. (For detailed usage instructions, read this.) Once you've created your specific ringtone or alert, you can set it as the default in Settings —> Sound —> Phone Ringtone.
iOS requires additional work because Apple would prefer you paid extra money for ringtones and alerts through the iTunes Store. To work around this limitation, simply shorten the sound or song you want as your new ringtone or alert (if desired) and convert it to AAC format. There are plenty of apps that offer this functionality for free, such as Adapter, but iTunes can as well. (For detailed instructions, read this.) Take the converted AAC file and change its extension to .m4r. Add that file to iTunes, which will see it as a ringtone, and sync your iPhone.
Note: If you simply want to set a song or other audio file as an alarm, you don't need to go through this process. iOS 6 alarms let you choose almost any audio in your music library when setting them up.
Individualize for Specific People
Now that you know how to create your own ringtones and alerts for your phone, you can start setting specific ones for individual contacts. You could add songs that relate to the person calling or texting. You could record the person saying their name and use that as an alert so you'd know exactly who's contacting you. You could also create tones and alerts that escalate in urgency and assign them to contacts based on importance. Personally, I opted to just make my alerts more soothing because I found the defaults loud and annoying.
When your tones are individualized, there are many ways to make them more useful and informative. While any of those suggested ideas work, figure out what you want to accomplish with your notifications before you move forward. Chances are you have a lot of contacts and so assigning custom settings for many or all of them takes time. Figure out an approach that provides you with the information you want every time someone calls or texts.
Once you have your approach in mind, setting individual alerts is easy. On Android, simply edit any contact on your phone, tap the menu button, and choose Options. From there you can set a ringtone for that specific person. To do the same for text messages, you'll need a third-party SMS app, and Handcent is the popular choice. From Handcent, simply open a contact, tap Settings —> Icon & Personalization —> Notification Settings. From there you can set an individual tone for that person. If you don't want an entirely new app for SMS, you can download SMS tone customizers like WhoIsIt Lite (Free) Custom SMS Tones ($1) instead. WhoIsIt ($2) can set custom vibration patterns, too.
On iOS, open up the Phone or Contacts app and choose the person who's going to receive the custom ringtone and/or alert sound. Tap Edit, and your options will expand. Toward the end of the page, you'll find two tab: one starts with ringtone and one starts with text tone. Both are likely set to the default. Simply tap either tab to set a new tone. Along with tone options, you'll also find a vibration tab. If you tap that, you can set a custom vibration pattern for each contact. Apple offers a few preset options you can choose from, but scroll down to the bottom and choose Create New Vibration to make your own. From there you'll just tap on the screen rhythmically until you're satisfied. Save the vibration pattern and that's how your iPhone will vibrate when you receive a call or message from that specific person.
Customize Alerts on a Per-App Basis
Customizing alerts for specific apps requires a bit of extra work, but if you like to know which app is bugging you there are actions you can take. On Android, your options vary by app, by device, and by the version of Android you're running. Certain app settings may allow you to set custom notifications, so check there first. Certain devices provide various notification options, so you may also be able to change some app notifications from your Android's Settings app. Neither of these options can override everything, but previously mentioned WhoIsIt ($2) can offer a crazy amount of customization. It'll even let you set specific notification sounds for email contacts.
UPDATE: Reader ShirinDirce suggested Light Flow, an app that can customize notifications to, perhaps, an excess. It goes beyond tones and handles light and vibration notifications as well.
If you want to take this a step further, you can customize your notification system using an app called Pushover. It'll give you more control over what shows up on your phone and when.
That's all you really need to do to customize your ringtones and alerts to make them more useful. Ultimately you'll have to decide on a system that works best for you, but the technical side of things is pretty easy if you know where to look.
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