Android is not the most user- or beginner-friendly OS. Yet, it runs on literally billions of devices, so it’s worth becoming at least minimally competent in it. Below I’ve provided 10 basic tips for streamlining your Android experience to the point that it resembles something more polished. Note that I came up with and/or tested most of these techniques on an LG Nexus 5 and Nexus 4, one running stock Android KitKat and the other Jelly Bean.
Change how much memory Chrome can use
As a rule, mobile browsers are not great mobile apps. They cannot match native apps for speed or user experience, and the gap between the two has even led to the fear that the Web is dying. But sometimes you need one, maybe to handle a link someone sent you, for instance.
Chrome isn’t as fast as third-party alternatives such as Dolphin, but that can be remedied. Type this into the URL bar:
Then, select 512. You’re in for some smooth scrolling and page rendering. Not however that the system will become much more aggressive about how it manages and kills apps so that it can free up resources for Chrome.
Open content in native apps rather than Chrome
Remember what I just said about native apps? The best ones are much better than any (slow) mobile Web app.
One of the great perks of Android is being able to pick what app opens certain types of content. So when you click a link to Wikipedia, for example, you may be given the option to open it in the Wikipedia app for Android (if installed) rather than Chrome or your default browser. Your mileage may vary, but the following apps are excellent for viewing links that would otherwise direct you to a tiny Web view:
- Tumblr (use the “Open in Tumblr” button at the top of the page)
- Reddit is Fun Golden Platinum (for reddit links)
- Pocket Casts (really wonky/nerdy podcasting client: mainly for podcast RSS links)
Toggle Bluetooth and other radios from the lockscreen
DashClock Widget is one of your best friends. It provides shortcuts to unread texts, emails, weather data and more from your lockscreen.
If you’re on KitKat, you’ll need to go to Settings -> Security -> Enable Widgets to make sure it can run. After that, you can install tons of extra extensions. One of my favorites is the DashClock Custom Extension, which can do just about anything, including toggle Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Just tap from the lockscreen, and the setting is changed.
Change icons without installing a launcher
Tired of all those low-res icons that look like they were just ported straight from iOS? That’s an easy fix – just install LINE Deco. t. Basically, it lets you pick any of thousands of different icons you want to stand in for your apps, and it doesn’t require you to change your launcher or buy an icon pack.
Enable data compression and bandwidth management in compatible apps
Do you need to watch how much mobile data you’re using? Some apps have settings that can help you out. In Chrome, go to Settings -> Bandwidth Management, where you can adjust when Chrome preloads webpages and toggle its handy Reduce Data Usage feature. Other apps can also compress HTTP requests. Above is an example from the Hacker News 2 client.
Tap and hold Shift and drag over a letter for capitalization
This trick is usually found by accident. If you press and hold on the Shift key on the default Google Keyboard, and then drag your finger from there to a key, you can get a capital letter without having to go through the weird multiple taps on Shift needed to enable caps lock.
Customize Google Now with…a magic wand?
Google Now has a weird interface. What I mean is: there’s a magic wand at the bottom of the screen. What does it do? If you click it, it lets you customize your Google Now settings, adding new card and removing ones that were based on some errant search you did long ago and aren’t helpful anymore.
Set up automatic device sleep times
An easy way to save lots of battery is to turn off Wi-Fi and mobile data at night. Apps such as Battery Widget Reborn can configured to put your device into Night Mode at hours of your choosing, meaning that use almost no battery while you’re sleeping (plus you don’t get annoying notifications out of nowhere at midnight).
Link UCCW to specific apps
Ultimate Custom Clock Widget can do almost anything. I wrote a short guide to it last year. One of the best features is the ability to link certain hotspots – areas on the graphical widget – to apps of your choosing. So you could click the battery meter of a UCCW and be taken straight to Battery Widget Reborn, or click the unread mail count and enter straight into Email/Gmail.
Hide built-in app icons you don’t like/use
If you’re bothered by the icons for seldom used apps such as Google+ or News and Weather, you can get rid of them. Install a launcher such as Nova Launcher Prime and then navigate through the settings to manage the app drawer. Many launchers have an option for hiding any app that you specify from the icon grid.
Vine has been available for Android for a couple of weeks, and my verdict is that it just does not provide a good experience at this time. Sadly, Vine’s shortcomings are not only indicative of the age-old, ongoing quality gap between apps with versions on both iOS and Android, but it explains them, too. Its simultaneous failures of design and massive popularity are a good microcosm for Android itself and its characteristics. To wit, Vine for Android:
- has no limit on caching and as such can occupy 100s of MB of on-device storage
- doesn’t have a push notification system: it notifies you via rich Jelly Bean notification that your video is being uploaded (good), but is mum if someone likes or comments on your post (bad).
- is full of spam and fakes (I guess this is to be expected; even Instagram is overrun by follower-mills and spammers now)
- doesn’t yet support front-facing camera or tags.
- feels gummy and unresponsive when navigating to some users’ profiles, to the extent that it won’t even show their posts sometimes.
Many of these issues, like front-facing camera support, are likely to be addressed in updates. However, the overall sloppiness of the design makes Vine’s arrival on Android a pyrrhic victory of sorts. Yes, we got a hot app, but its developers treat us as if we don’t respect quality or good design. They treat Android users this way because for now a unified, huge, design-conscious Android audience sadly doesn’t really exist.
The best Android apps, other than the ones Google makes, are often either exclusive to the platform, like Falcon Pro, Eye in Sky, or Friday, or they exploit something unique about Android, like UCCW, Dashclock, or other widgets, or they capitalize upon some odd platform disparity between iOS and Android, like Pocket Casts, which takes advantage of less competition on Android and lack of a Google-made podcasting client. Whether they achieved success via exclusivity, astute platform exploitation, luck, or all of the above, Android’s best apps (a category that includes all of the apps listed above, sans Vine) are often targeted at such a niche audience that they aren’t so much “Android apps” as “Nexus/power-user apps.” They often require at least ICS or even Jelly Bean to even run, but more importantly, they require a user who cares about Android and who didn’t just pick up her/his device because AT&T said so or because it was so cheap.
Accordingly, it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about “Android” as a monolithic platform. Many Android users are on an older OS version or don’t even know that they’re running Android: their phone is just a phone that can do email and Facebook and maybe a few other things. Android’s fragmentation certainly exists, but it’s fragmentation of intent more so that fragmentation of OS version, the latter of which I think is just a product of the former, since not enough users care enough (or need) to seek the latest version of Android. Android isn’t “good” yet (if by “good” we mean “characterized by predominantly active, non-incidental, Android-first users) because of this disparity.
A year and a half ago, someone told me that Android was “the new Mac,” that is, that it was a trendy alternative to iOS, which had become so widespread that it could be regarded as the OS for normals. This struck me as an odd statement at the time: how could Android, with its huge user numbers, possibly be compared to the Mac back when it struggled to keep up with the PC? Isn’t Android the PC equivalent in the smartphone wars, the equivalent of a commoditized beige box? Well, no, depending on what specific “Android” demographic you’re talking about, and she did seem to be talking about the niche Nexus user demographic.
First of all, the best Android hardware and the latest Android software both have an elegance and sophistication – likely driven by Google’s own design chops – that Windows has never had. But more to the point: the number of users who actually know that they are “Android users” and not “Droid users” (i.e., users who only have a superficial connection to the brand via Verizon’s massively successful 2009 campaign) or “Samsung users” or “phone-that-emails-and-Facebooks users,” is almost certainly small. There have been roughly 3 million Nexus 4s sold all-time, next to nothing compared to even the Galaxy S4’s haul for May alone: and that’s considered a blockbuster by “stock Android” standards!
Nexus users like me comprise a hugely active and outspoken (especially on Google+) part of what the world sees as the “Android community.” We are just the tip of the iceberg, and interpreting their power-user, anti-Apple, customization-crazy intents as the modus operandi for the hundreds of millions of incidental and accidental Android users is misguided. Like the unseen part of an iceberg, those users elevate the power-users to greater visibility, since the media cares about Android seemingly because: 1) it’s not iOS; 2) it’s popular. Those users are perhaps like 1990s PC users, but the ones on the tip, the Nexus types, are perhaps more like Mac users: outnumbered (by their very different “Android” brethren and, if one grants this differentiation of populations within “Android,” then by iOS users, too) and outspoken.
So the Nexus users will complain about Vine’s shortcomings, while everyone else on Android – the incidental customers or users on older versions – won’t care and will download and use it anyway. The latter group is the reason why Vine for Android even exists (you don’t see Vine for Windows Phone, do you?) but also the reason why its design isn’t on par with the iOS design. “Android” doesn’t have just one addressable demographic, since its different user groups may as well be using (and being conscious of) different platforms altogether, and because of this, we get the only-on-Android odd scenario of a massively popular app that, given the chance to do so much, does only the bare minimum and gets away with it, despite protests from the minority.
Ultimate Custom Clock Widget (UCCW) is one of the most powerful and versatile Android widgets. It’s free with ads in Google Play, although you can make a $5 in-app purchase to remove them.
Despite its name, UCCW can be configured to support almost any Android app or activity, not just clocks. It has two basic features:
- a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor for designing your own UCCW widget.
- integration with a wide range of UCCW skins and themes from Google Play.
Most likely, you’re here to find out how to implement someone else’s UCCW skin or theme through the UCCW app (i.e., feature #2). A successful implementation may look like these examples:
Whether you’re setting up the perfect clock widget or just trying to impress others with your fancy home screen, UCCW is worth playing around with. Here’s how to set it up in less than five minutes:
1. Download UCCW from Google Play
UCCW is free to download here. Consider a $5 donation to remove the ads.
2. Search for “UCCW” in Google Play and download a UCCW skin or theme that you like
The search should return a variety of UCCW-compatible skins and themes. They’ll appear in Google Play as apps, but they’re essentially just plugins for UCCW. For example, the PlayBar theme in the first screenshot above requires UCCW.
3. Create a widget anywhere on your screen
Select Widgets -> UCCW in your launcher to get started. After that, select a widget size (unlike widgets associated with apps like Google+, UCCW can be implemented in many default sizes), and then select a skin or theme. Any UCCW skins and themes you download should appear in the UCCW app. You may have to scroll down to see them all:
4. Create and lock hotspots
Depending on what UCCW skin or theme you use, you may have the option to edit the widget’s hotspots. A hotspot is simply a part of the widget that can be configured to open an Android app when tapped.
For example, the widgets from the very first screenshot in this post all redirect to their titular apps (“Chrome” opens Chrome, and so on). You can edit the hotspot and link it to any app that you want. Afterward, you’ll need to go to the settings menu inside the UCCW app and enable Hotspot Mode so that tapping the widget does what you want it to do instead of sending you back to the UCCW editor.
5. Finish Up
Simply tap the screen as per the instructions to add the finished widget.
Android and Me has a post up about the need for Google to build its own Nexus hardware. The argument goes: since the company’s complete control over the Chromebook Pixel, Nexus Q, and Google Glass resulted in outstanding products, the company should just go all-in on hardware.
I don’t think I agree. Of the three products cited, I would only really be proud of the Pixel, which, while expensive, has top-class features and could spearhead more disruption for the Windows PC market in particular. But body-wise, it’s still something that couldn’t have existed without the MacBook Pro as an antecedent, and its touchscreen, like the touchscreen in any Win8 ultrabook, suffers from odd performance but more broadly from a “what’s this good for?” syndrome, whereby touch is applied to ancient desktop metaphors rather than to touch-first/touch-only ones. The Nexus Q didn’t even make it to sale. And Google Glass? Well, I think it’s mostly hype, driven by a tech press that has yet to realize that categorical disruptions like the iPhone and the iPad and even the Android OS itself are the exception rather than the rule, and are usually organic and unpredictable rather than forced like Glass is. And then there’s the myriad privacy issues that Glass will only exacerbate.
Google’s current slew of Nexus hardware – the 4, 7, and 10 – are OEM products that are by and large fantastic. Perhaps they’re not ground-shaking innovations (although the Nexus 4 is arguably the first Android phone whose full experience is on par with the iPhone’s), but they’re beautiful and functional. So where does this desire for Google-branded Nexus hardware come from?
As much as it pains me to say it: Apple envy. But Google cannot easily be like Apple (this is not a normative statement, but a simple descriptive one). Apple makes its money in transparent, conventional ways: it sells products to end-users. For all of the bluster about Apple representing everything that’s closed and proprietary, Apple is straightforward when it comes to sales numbers, because that’s what Apple does: sell items to anyone would will buy them. Google, on the other hand, makes money in ways that most people on the street probably don’t understand, such as taking money from advertisers and promoters. Whereas Apple users have almost always directly paid Apple for their devices and services, someone could go about using most Google services without ever paying Google anything and instead paying hidden fees in the terms of opening themselves up to advertisers and data collection
Why does this difference matter? It means that, as currently constituted, hardware and integrated user experiences are not central to Google’s DNA, because Google doesn’t care that much about the end-user. The end-user is not Google’s customer; the advertiser is. This could change, sure. But I doubt it will change that soon, given that Google has gone all-in on making top-shelf iOS apps in order to monetize (via ads and data collection) what it must realize is the much more monetizable iOS user base. Google just wants its services (Maps, Gmail, YouTube, etc.) to be used by as many people on as many platforms as possible. Accordingly, it doesn’t have any existential drive or need to create a completely vertically integrated experience like Apple has done. Even when it has tried, such as with the Chromebook Pixel, the result is still a low-selling niche device whose capabilities likely won’t please the same broad range of persons who are sated by any iOS/OS X device.
The weak assumed sales numbers for the Nexus 10 in particular reinforce all of these points. Google is more than happy to use Chrome, or Maps, or Gmail to create trojan horses on other platforms so that it can keep its ad money flowing in, so why does it have to focus on device manufacturing, design, and sale? If it wanted to make real block-blusters that pushed the envelope for design and innovation, it would have to change its fundamental corporate DNA, and I just don’t see that happening for a while yet, if ever.
The tone-deafness of Glass and Sergey Brin’s justification for it are exhibit one in how far Google has to go on the hardware front. Or, just look at Microsoft: it, too, is struggling to get into the hardware business, because the Microsoft of late is a company that makes money not so much from selling to end-users as to businesses and OEMs. Since Apple cares almost exclusively about end-users, it still occupies a position in hardware that both Microsoft and Google will struggle to duplicate.
-The ScreenGrab Team