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Tag Archives: app

How to Improve your Android Experience (Without Rooting)

If you have a new Android phone or tablet, or even if you have an older Android device that you’re looking to get more out of, then you can upgrade your experience in only a few minutes using a collection of free and paid apps. Fortunately, you won’t have to root your phone or risk damaging its software in anyway along the way.

Most of the apps and services described below require at least Android 4.0. Some of them have free versions, but I’ve linked to the paid version when possible, since I want to support these developers and to promote ad-free software.

1. Install a custom launcher

Nova Launcher

Nova Launcher in action.

What’s a custom launcher? In plain English, it’s the service that is triggered whenever you hit the home button on your phone or open up your all apps drawer. Facebook Home is the most famous custom launcher for Android, but it isn’t good, because it does the opposite of what a good launcher should do: enhance the value of your entire suite of apps and services.

Nova Launcher (Prime) is one of my favorite custom launchers. Here’s what it lets you do:

  • Change how your app icons look: see the entry below on icon packs.
  • Hide icons for unused system apps (without disabling them): you won’t have to skim over “Navigation” or “News and Weather” anymore.
  • Control your home screens with custom gestures: for example, double tap to bring up Nova Settings, pinch-out to show multitasking bar, or pinch-in to see all homescreens, for example.
  • Add unread counts to certain app icons: Android doesn’t support these numbered badges by default.
  • Scroll more quickly thru screens: Nova and other launchers allow for rapid, silky smooth animations and screen transitions.
Settings Android

Nova Settings menu, from which you can hide specific apps or customize your gestures, folders, desktop, and dock.

2. Buy an icon pack or use LINE Deco

Icon Pack Android

The Lustre icon pack for Android, running on Nova Launcher Prime.

Icon packs can beautify your Android experience by giving all of your app icons a unified aesthetic (e.g., make them all blue, or make them all square and flat). They only work if you are running a custom launcher. In many cases, the icon pack will radically change how an app’s icon look and how you think about it: Snapchat may become like a Pac-Man ghost, for example:

Icon Pack Android

SMPL Blue icon pack running on Nova Launcher Prime. Note the Snapchat icon the second from left in the dock.

My favorites include: SMPL Blue, Stark, Vintage, and Lustre. LINE Deco is also a great option since it’s free and has a ton of constantly updated with community contributions:

Screenshot (03:14PM, Apr 13, 2014)

A home screen made with LINE Deco

3. Replace the stock Android keyboard

Swype Keyboard for Android

Swype + Dragon in action.

Android’s keyboard took a quantum leap forward with gesture typing in Jelly Bean, but it’s no match for some of the 3rd-party alternatives available (and said alternatives are essential if you’re running a version of Android that doesn’t support gesture typing out of the box).

My favorite is Swype, which is much more accurate, features a good dictation system (called Dragon), lots of custom gestures, and uses an account system to backup your custom dictionaries. It will literally save you minutes each day by cutting down on stupid autocorrect mistakes or miscues from the stock keyboard.

SwiftKey is another popular alternative. Also, if you don’t have Google Keyboard, it’s free to download.

4. Install Dashclock Widget

Dashclock Widget Android

A sample Dashclock Widget running on Android 4.2.2. Extensions for Eye in Sky Weather, Battery Widget Reborn, inQuotes, and Logika Word of the Day have been added.

Dashclock Widget is a must-have for Android 4.2+. It gives you a rich set of information (unread Gmail/SMS, missed calls, weather) right on your lockscreen, plus it’s highly customizable via slew of 3rd-party extensions.

5. Install DuckDuckGo Search and Stories

Screenshot_2014-08-31-15-27-07

The DuckDuckGo search bar and story feed.

DuckDuckGo is an alternative search engine, but it’s not a second-rate Google clone. It gives the same results to every person (no filter bubble), plus it’s the best generic news reader I’ve ever used on Android. It draws upon various subreddits and leading publications (NYT, WSJ, Re/code, Vox) to provide a fast, unique overview of the day’s news. Plus, it’s compatible with Orbot for secure prowling via a Tor proxy.

6. Install Battery Widget Reborn

Battery Widget Reborn Android

Data from Battery Widget Reborn.

Battery Widget Reborn is an efficient way to keep tabs on your battery level, usage, and history. It has a persistent, expandable notification that can give you estimated battery life remaining (or time until the phone is fully charged) and that can also put the phone into “night mode,” disabling all mobile data, background sync, wifi, and bluetooth for as long as you wish. You can also set up automatic “night mode” periods, such as from 12-8am.

7. Tweak your input settings for better battery life

Battery saving Android

Two of the settings (circled) that can disabled for better battery life.

You can save a ton of battery life on Android by simply tweaking some settings like haptic feedback, lock/unlock sounds, and 2g/3g network usage. I’ve written a more comprehensive entry about battery life here.

8. Install MX Player Pro

MX Player Pro video player Android

MX Player Pro’s default screen.

Android isn’t good at video playback. Luckily, MX Player Pro solves that problem by giving you a clean, hardware-accelerated player with lots of simple gestures.

9. Use top-shelf alternatives to official/stock social network apps

Flipster Pro for Facebook

Flipster Pro for Facebook showing a sample NewsFeed.

The official Facebook app is a battery-drainer and remarkably unstable, too. Twitter has been getting better, but I still prefer a 3rd-party client. Many of these clients, whether they are for Twitter or another network, often have better design and are more battery-efficient (in the case of Facebook and Twitter clients, they refresh less often). Here are some good clients to use:

10. Maximize your widgets

BW Pro / Beautiful Widgets

Beautiful Widgets Pro screensaver/Daydream, with windshield wiper animation to indicate rain.

Many apps have widgets that can display useful information and act as your launcher icon for that app (so that you don’t have to stick its icon in your dock or on your homescreen. There are a lot of good widgets, as well as some good standalone widgets apps like the peerless Beautiful Widgets Pro, which I used to display the current date and weather.

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HTC One: The Software/Hardware Divide, and the Birth of the Non-Android Android Flagship

HTC unveiled their new flagship smartphone today. The HTC One (not to be confused with the One X, One V, or One VX – good luck on that) appears to raise the bar yet again for Android phones. With a 1080p display, all-metal encasing, and an entirely re-skinned HTC Sense on top of Android Jelly Bean, the One looks set to battle with Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S4 for dominance of the non-Nexus, highly commoditized Android market.

The One’s industrial design is sleek if uninspired, if such a thing is even possible. With chamfered edges and a preference for metal over glass and/or plastic, the One draws more than a few lessons from the iPhone 5. The Beats Audio branding and new speaker setup give it some cool hardware flair.

But I’m more concerned about how HTC has approached software with the One, more specifically how it has integrated Jelly Bean with its new hardware. If the iPhonesque body weren’t enough of a hint, then the software experience evines that HTC is really trying to create a non-Android Android flagship device. The word “Android” itself wasn’t mentioned, and instead HTC trumpeted the “New Sense,” the fifth version of its Android skin. Particular attention was given to New Sense features like a new hub/live feed called BlinkFeed and a default dock of Gingerbread-esque icons backed up by two capacitive buttons: home and back, with the multitasking key strangely axed.

The tiles in BlinkFeed may recall Windows 8 or Flipboard, but they’re really closest in spirit to the Android 4.2x Google Currents Daydream – a “Daydream” is the screensaver-like feature that is by default activated when you charge your Nexus device without firsts hitting the power button. The Currents Daydream creates a beautiful cascade of stories from your Currents subscriptions, and lets you tap stories as they go by to open them individually in the Currents app. My take is that this feature is cool, but not the type of huge “wow” innovation that market stragglers really need in order to overtake their betters. 

But let’s get back to that business about capacitive buttons in particular. The lack of a multitasking key is baffling – if there’s one thing that Android unequivocally does better than iOS or Windows Phone, it’s multitasking. HTC has opted to hide multitasking behind a double-tap of the home button. Meanwhile, Google Now, one of the hallmark features of Jelly Bean, is buried beneath a long-tap of the home button. John Gruber astutely notes that both long-tap-for-voice and double-tap-to-multitask are iPhone hallmarks, and I think that they feed the narrative of HTC trying to make a non-Android Android blockbuster. But I think that they are depriving users of some of the best features of Jelly Bean.

During a Twitter exchange with The Verge’s Chris Ziegler, another person and I agreed that we basically had forsworn most non-Nexus Android devices. But I think it’s not just because we want timely updates (something that HTC has struggled with, as evinced by the HTC Thunderbolt only now getting ICS); it’s because Google has gotten astonishingly good at design, such that the stock Android experience has far outstripped what any OEM can do with their custom skins.

HTC thrived back when Sense filled in the gaping holes in Android 1.x and even 2.x, when it was barely a proper OS and need real character. We may be getting to the point at which Google is so confident in its design chops, and so intent on selling things directly to customers via a long-touch retail experience, that its stock Holo vision of Android becomes more and more distanced from whatever the likes of HTC and Samsung want to do with their flagships. They’ll either have to diverge from Google’s brand to keep their own brands alive, or adopt Google’s Nexus-like take on Android for the sake of unity (the latter doesn’t seem commercially viable at this point, however).

-The ScreenGrab Team