How to make your Android phone bigger and better
So you've bought an Android phone. Bully for you. It's all very well to sit there in some smug glow that you've given Steve Jobs the finger, but you're going to come crawling back begging for one of his phones or a BlackBerry or even your trusty old N95 if you don't know how to use it properly. A fart app and some good web browsing will only get you so far.
So, to help you on your way, here are a five areas you want to be looking at to get the most out of your Android experience. Make sure to chip in with your own tips and tricks in the comments.
1) Customise your phone
Don't worry, this isn't anything to do with Union Jack fascias. What we're talking about here are widgets and settings. Make sure you use your homepage. Tap on the screen and hold for a moment and it'll come up with a menu where you can choose wallpapers, widgets, folders and shortcuts.
Wallpapers are all pretty straight forward, the same as you'll find on any phone, and you can crop one of your own images or one from the stock library. Widgets are certainly worth adding too and are, again, pretty standard stuff that you'll get on most smartphones with clocks, calculators and a few ubiquitous brand ones like Facebook, and whatever news feeds you want pulled into the homescreen.
Shortcuts, however, is a classically untapped area where you can set up one touch dialling, one touch texting and links to web pages that you always browse. It's basic stuff, but the kind of customisation you'll only realise how much you love once you don't have it any more. Finally, there's folders for organising everything on your homescreen, but better advice is probably to choose your widgets and shortcuts sparingly and have quick access to a small number of icons rather than tucking them away further from reach.
Beyond the homescreen, make sure to play around with your contacts book too. You can set ringtones specific to each person as well as more useful tools like automatically diverting certain callers. Best of all though, is to combine these kinds of features with the Locale app, which will select handfuls of settings based on where you are. So, when you're at home it will pick a profile which you've already chosen that might include to block work calls and have the ringer on, but when at work it could automatically switch to vibration alert only.
Another excellent app for customisation is the Gesture Search software from Google which allows you to assign a contact, bookmark, application or a specific music track to a letter of the alphabet. All you do is then draw that letter with your finger on the screen and you get instant access to whatever you're after.
Finally, don't forget to turn on auto-complete in Settings > Locale and Text > Android Keyboard > Autocomplete. It's the predictive text of the soft QWERTY world and will save you a whole bunch of finger tapping time. If you want to take it one step further, then add phrases and text snippets that you commonly use to the dictionary as well.
2) Sync, sync and sync again
One of the real joys of using Android is how well it syncs up with just about everything else in your digital life. To really get the most out of it, it's probably best to hand your soul over to Google. That's not going to be up everyone's street but then it's not a must either. The Gmail app is fantastic and offers a pretty much pixel for pixel experience on your mobile. With that comes your Google Calendar, Contacts and your Tasks lists as well.
All the information in these places is stored in the cloud and accessible as easily from your Android phone as from your computer. It's well worth starting using them or even switching over to a Gmail account to reap the benefits. Tasks lists can become shopping lists when on your phone, the calendar is useful anywhere and will itself automatically sync up with whatever changes you might make to "to do" items on your Tasks.
Beyond these, there's also the Google Reader and Listen apps which will automatically sync up your user data between your phone and the Web, such that you can get all your latest RSS feeds and podcasts direct to your device with all the same options you're used to.
Looking at the platform that way, one could argue that the Android garden is very similar to Apple's walled one. Everything you need is inside only this time, the walls are low enough to step over if you fancy having a wonder into the fields beyond. Just to prove it, you can also sync your Outlook calendar and contacts with apps like GoContact Sync and Google Calendar sync - an important addition considering not everyone has access to the cloud at work.
3) Get the right apps
Naturally, there's a world of nonsense available in the Android Market and enjoy as much of that as you like. At the same time though, make sure you get your fill of utility apps as well that'll make your experience all the better. We've already laid out the first five apps you should download, but some other worthy additions include:
chompSMS - A better way of viewing your threaded text messages than the standard default app
FoxyRing - Sets the level of your ringer according to the ambient noise and even turns your phone to silent and disconnects Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when you're asleep
WaveSecure - Backs up all your SMS, videos, photos and contacts into the cloud as well as locking down your phone and helping you find it via GPS and text message triangulation if stolen
Dolphin Browser/Opera Mini 5 - Adds tabbed browsing and other features as well as some extra speed to your mobile web experience
There's plenty more excellent ones out there and more added all the time. Best of all though, if you don't think an app is very good, you can get a refund if you return it to the Android Market within 24 hours.
4) Treat it like a computer
The same could be said of most top-end smartphones, but just make sure you keep that in mind and you'll find a few extra solutions and a more flexible gadget in your hands.
For example, if there's an app that's misbehaving, then you can boot your phone up in Safe Mode by holding down Menu as you turn it on. From there, you can uninstall the pesky software before it's got a grip on your system.
If you've got issues with a process or app that's frozen up you could also try force killing it by going to Settings > Manage Applications> Menu button > Filter by “Running.” > Select application > Force stop. Another way might be to install the Taskiller app which provides a full task manager utility.
The Astro file manager app is another good way of getting more computery with your phone. It provides a standard folder look to all your data, meaning that you can just go into the folder tree and start deleting all the bits and pieces you need without having to spend time locating them elsewhere.
Once you've got that going, turning your handset into an HDD becomes quite useful as well. Plug your phone into your computer, pull down the little menu window, press USB connected and then Mount, and you'll see your phone pop up as an external drive. Then drag and drop away.
5) Follow the forums
Naturally, we're going to be a decent source of Android info, but the Google Mobile OS is by no means our raison d'etre, so join up with the community that you've just bought a membership card for. Read the dedicated Android forums, the blogs, scan the up to date app catalogues, Google Labs and follow them and other Android aficionados on Twitter. They'll be the best place for the latest tips, tricks and apps whenever people dream them up. Some decent ones include...
...and there are many, many more.
Above all, with any gadget, to get the most out of your Android phone, explore it. And make sure you have fun.
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