Android tips and tricks for beginners

If you're holding your shiny new Android smartphone and are wondering how to get the most from it, then you've come to the right place.

Whether this is your first smartphone, you've just hopped over from an iPhone, or you've had a number of Android handsets, we've pulled together some of the best Android tips and tricks to help you get the most from your phone.

Android is an ever-changing beast with many faces. There are different versions of the software, there are plenty of different manufacturer skins layed over that Android core, like those from Sony, Samsung or HTC, and there's a limitless level of customisation you can apply from Google Play, or other third-party sources.

That means that few Android devices are alike, but all Android devices have the same foundation. So, starting at the beginning, here's how to master your Android phone. 

Sort out your Google account

Android and Google are like peas in a pod. To use Android, you need to use a Google account. That means everything that goes with it - Gmail, calendars, contacts, Google+, YouTube, Google Maps and more.

Getting your account in order is something you can do from your PC before you sign into your new device, letting you use the big screen and keyboard to get things straight.

Google incorporates a contacts system which hides within Gmail on your desktop browser. If you have lots of contacts, import them into Google contacts and manage them there. Managing them on a computer makes it much faster to get everything correct before you get started.

If you have your contacts in another form, there are easy ways to import them to Google, as well as scan for duplicates and so on. As your Android life progresses, it's worth popping back to your core Google contacts list to check that everything is still nice and tidy.

If you're thinking of saving contacts to the SIM card and moving them over, it's probably not worth the effort: better to find the software to import them from your old phone to your PC, to then feed them to Google. It will make your life easier in the future.

Master transfer tools

Some of the move from one phone to a new device can be handled by transfer tools. Major manufacturers like HTC, Motorola or Sony have apps that will do this for you, in many cases taking care of the move from different platforms too.

They're good for getting the job done, but if you can get that information into Google's systems, or other cloud-based systems, it makes the process much more seamless, regardless of whether you're moving to another Android device, or even a BlackBerry, Windows Phone or iPhone, in the future.

Get to your settings faster

Swiping down the notifications bar will often get you access to shortcuts for various hardware toggles: that's the case with Samsung, at least.

However, Android has a grid of quick settings shortcuts that offers the same sort of thing, if you're on one of the recent versions of Android like Jelly Bean or KitKat, which most new devices are. Swipe down with two fingers and it will take you straight to those toggles, which is really handy for things like turning Bluetooth on and off.

Watch your data

Although some contracts give you unlimited data, it's always worth looking out for how much you're consuming, so that you can avoid an unwanted bill by making sure you don't go over your data limit.

Head into the settings menu and in the top section "wireless and networks" you'll find the option for data usage. This is where the phone keeps track of your data use and you can set an alert for your limits so you don't over spend.

You can also see what is consuming data which is a quick way to spot apps that might be using a lot of data when they don't need to be. You can then go to that app and tinker with the settings, perhaps set it to update on Wi-Fi only.

Data not working?

Smartphones are complex beasties and sometimes things just stop working. The bar says you have full reception, but nothing is moving, you can't get that site to load or that tweet to send.

Try flipping the phone into Aeroplane mode and back again. This will sever your connection and re-establish it, and hopefully things will start moving again. You can get to Aeroplane mode via the quick settings grid mentioned above, or with a long press of the standby button.

Managing Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi will keep you connected and saves your data costs, but there's an option in Android to alert you to open networks. When walking down a typical street, it will constantly ping you, asking if you want to connect.

Usually these networks aren't open, they require log-in once you've connected. Head into settings > Wi-Fi > advanced settings and disable the feature to be left alone.

If you're looking for the WPS option on Android, which is really handy to quickly connect to a router, you'll find it in settings > Wi-Fi. It may appear with the WPS arrows, or be hiding in the menu.

Wi-Fi not working?

Just like cellular data, sometimes Wi-Fi goes on the blink. Often, just opening the quick settings and toggling Wi-Fi off and then back on again, will re-establish the connection.

Glorious displays ... eat battery

The wonderful display on your Android devices is also the thing that's going to eat the battery. Although it often looks the best at full brightness, that's not very beneficial to your battery. Opting for auto brightness will often give you the best balance of brightness and the visual impact you're after.

Some devices will then let you tailor auto brightness so you can increase or decrease within that scale. Bumping it down a notch on long days will help prolong your battery.

If you're just not happy with the auto brightness, then try the app Lux Lite. This will take over the display brightness control, as well as letting you bump it up or down from the notifications area.

Also look at your display sleep settings. There's no need for it to stay on longer than you need it, so head into settings > display > and look for "sleep" or "display timeout" and pick something shorter.

How do I take a screenshot?

Simply hold standby and volume down at the same time and you'll get a screenshot of whatever you're looking at. Not everything can be captured, however. Some protected content, such as video playing in some apps, won't appear in your screenshot.

Screenshots are stored in the gallery in their own folder, but if you're looking to share, you can do straight from the notifications bar once it's saved.

The best Android keyboard is...

...the one that works for you. You don't have to put up with the keyboard your device comes with. There are loads of options for the keyboard, from the manufacturer's version that Samsung or HTC bundle in, through to the stock Android keyboard, or paid-for third party keyboards like SwiftKey or Skype.

First up, you might want to turn off the vibration feedback on keypress, which you'll find in settings > language & input (or language & keyboard) where all the keyboard settings lie. Sometimes the vibrations get backed up and once your fingers start flying, they can't always keep up, which is annoying. The buzzing of the vibration may also be really annoying to those around you.

Although some of the manufacturer keyboards are pretty good, the stock Android keyboard (available on Google Play) is also good, but we're fans of the advanced features of SwiftKey (pictured above), which is well worth a try too, because of the strength of its predictive suggestions.

Get some apps

Phones used to be for making calls. Now they're for doing everything. No matter what you're after, there's bound to be an app perfect for the job, from shopping to banking, to reading to dating.

Apps are found in the Google Play store. From here you can download a world of free or paid-for applications. However you don't have to do it through your phone. Once signed in with your Google account, you can do it from a browser, pushing the required app through to your handset. Just head to Google Play in your browser to get started.

It's worth noting that apps update regularly on Android. That's not necessarily because there's something wrong, but because there's constant changes to bring in refinements, optimisations or new features.

However, you'll want to make sure you're only updating those apps when connected to Wi-Fi. In Google Play, head to settings and you'll find the option to control how your apps get updates.

You're also free to install apps that aren't on Google Play. This may include beta software, or apps that aren't available in your region for whatever reason. If you want to do this, you'll have to enable that option. Go to settings > security and you'll find the option to enable apps from "unknown sources". Be warned, however, that you may expose your device to risks if you choose to do so.

Which is the best Android browser?

There are lots of browsers available for Android, with each offering a range of different options. The stock browser is slowly moving towards Chrome, which isn't surpising because it's Google's own browser.

However, when you're looking at a new device, you might find that you have another browser, either the stock Android browser or one that has been tinkered with by the device manufacturer. More often than not, you can ignore both and go straight for Chrome.

If your device doesn't have it, Chrome is on Google Play, and if you're a Chrome desktop user, you'll find plenty of syncing through your Google account, including browser and search history, bookmarks and autofill details, which are really handy on the move.

Changing default apps

With such an abundance of apps on offer, you'll often have more than one option presented when you want to open a file. Here you can select the app you want and then specify "just once" or "always". If you want to always use that app - like Chrome rather than another browser - select always and you'll find it's the default option for links and so on.

If you want to undo those preferences, you have to head into settings > apps and in the menu is the option to "reset app preferences". Unfortunately, this resets the preferences for all apps.

You might find it easier, if you want to change your preference on one type of app (browsers for example), to download another browser to trigger the preferences question then uninstall the additional unwanted app. This leaves all your preferences in place for your other apps.

Customise your home pages

The homepage is front of the queue when it comes to customisation. Your new phone will probably come with a range of shortcuts and widgets spread across a number of pages.

If you don't want them, delete them with a long press and drag them to the trash can. You can also usually delete the pages they're sitting on: there's no need to have seven home pages if they're all empty.

Different versions of Android and different manufacturers have slightly different approaches to home page customisation. Normally a long press on the background wallpaper, or a pinch on the background will get you started, but it differs from device to device.

Use folders

Folders are a great way to organise your apps on your home page. To be extra efficient, you can also place folders on the shortcut bar at the bottom of the display.

This means you can have lots of your core apps to hand without them cluttering up your home page, so that lovely wallpaper of your cat remains visible.

To create a folder, just drag one app shortcut over another and a folder will be automatically created.

Some devices will also let you make folders in the apps tray (menu) which is a great way to organise everything in there and make it easier to find your app.

Look at your launcher

If you're new to Android, the term launcher might be confusing. The launcher is basically the home pages, the apps tray and the shortcut bar at the bottom.

Your device will come with a stock launcher in place, that of the manufacturer. If you don't like it and want a different look to your phone, it's really easy to switch to an alternative and there are loads in Google Play. Android 4.4 KitKat even lets you easily manage the different launchers you have installed for easy switching.

When you install a new launcher, the original stays on the phone so you're not losing it, you're just telling the phone to use a different launcher instead, meaning you can escape from the looks of HTC Sense or Samsung TouchWiz if you don't like it and have something a little more unique.

Backup your photos

To address the age-old problem of how to make sure your photos travel with you, no matter what device you're using, there are lots of options. You could install the Dropbox app and use its automatic backup feature, for example.

Alternatively, you can use the option in Google+, syncing your photos to the cloud (in private). Although some might not like Google+ as a social network, there are some neat photo options, like auto awesome, that are worth sticking with.

SD card or not?

If you're lucky enough to have a microSD card slot on your device, there are a few things you should know about it. Firstly, it's no longer a place where you deposit the apps you download. Those apps will go onto the internal memory, so if your device only has 4GB of internal memory, you might find it won't accomodate all the apps you want.

However, microSD is perfect for storing photos, video or music, saving the device's internal memory just for those apps and their data.

Managing music

Google's own music service (Play Music) will let you upload your music to the cloud from your Mac or PC, effectively backing it up on Google's server. You'll then be able to stream or download this to your device. You get space for 20,000 songs as standard.

If you've been an iTunes customer, that's no problem. The Music Manager you download for PC or Mac can find your iTunes music and upload it, but beware, it will take some time and will possibly be quite a lot of data.

But once done, it's all available to your Android device(s), or through any browser. Note, however, that music you download to your Android device through Play Music can only be listened to with the Play Music app.

If you've bought music from Amazon MP3 in the past, the Android app will let you stream or play songs from that service too and there are plenty of other options for players and streaming services.

Alternatively you can just load all your content onto your phone's memory, and as we mentioned, using microSD for this job is likely to be the best option, if you can.

Moving files to and from your phone

Android is great in that it gives you so much flexibility for carrying and using all sorts of files. Embracing the cloud is preferable to using wire and you have plenty of options to get access to those PDFs or whatever else you want. You can use Google Drive to move files easily and you can then access these through any browser, or on any Android device.

Google's Quickoffice will let you edit them easily and it's a free application, ideal for working on your documents on the move.

Alternatively, Dropbox will do much the same thing. Install the app and you'll be able to move files through the cloud over to your device.

If you do want to use wire - and that's sometimes better for larger files like video - then you have several options. Many manufacturers bundle software with devices, although this tends to focus on photo and music syncing and is often more trouble than it's worth. Instead, you can just access the device through Windows once plugged in via USB, so you can just drag and drop files. 

On a Mac, you'll need to install an application called Android File Transfer. Once in place, you can again drag and drop directly to your device's memory.

Note however, that there are various settings on your phone to handle USB connections. You'll be given the choice of what you want to do.

Need more?

There's plenty more to know about Android. If you have any questions, or any more tips you'd like to share, feel free to add them to the comments below.