Tag Archives: texting

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.

What’s the Matter with Facebook?

The recent Snapchat vs Facebook Poke snafu is one of the great under the radar tech stories of the year. After witnessing an entire generation of teenagers sext text each other via Snapchat, without in turn having to sign over any information or data to the folks at Menlo Park, Facebook responded by proudly boasting of its carbon-copying of the app, which took only twelve days and featured some very hands on (and mouth on, apparently) contributions from Mark Zuckerberg himself. The app’s name even made reference to “poking,” the hipsterest, old schoolest, most useless feature of the platform.

Yet after only a few days, Poke has plummeted. Like the company’s similarly panic-induced Facebook Camera app (that panic having been induced by eventual Facebook subsidiary Instagram), its initial popularity seems to have worn off as users realized that it did not deviate much from the app(s) it copied and is basically just leveraging the massive Facebook user base. There obviously is nothing wrong with copying a competitor’s features. On one end of the spectrum, there’s early-80s Apple xeroxing the plans for a mouse-driven interface from…Xerox, and there’s Canonical forking the Debian Linux distribution to make the massively popular and intuitive Ubuntu. On the other end, there’s Microsoft trying to paper over the fatal flaws of Windows Vista by imitating the translucency of early OS X, and there’s Facebook trying to protect its turf from its rival social networks.

Social networks are odd. A successful social network often succeeds due to being an early mover or having a critical mass of users, not because it has the best software or coolest features. Myspace, an unsightly and self-described cesspool, bewilderingly overtook Google as the most visited webpage in 2006, and the similarly sloppy Friendster actually pioneered the entire craze. Facebook itself, with its seemingly unchanging blue/white interface, me-too ads, and buggy pre-Googlesque search engine, feels like a relic of the desktop computing era. Its Android app only recently got an influx of native code that brought its performance up to a reasonable speed, and its iPad app was only released this year. No one uses Facebook because of its zippy performance, clean UI, or beauty – they use it because everyone else uses it. If aesthetics and/or innovation mattered, for example, Google+ would be the epicenter of the Internet (although it is worth noting that well-designed networks like Path and Instagram have succeeded in part due to their aesthetics).

Accordingly, Facebook has never had much to fear from the likes of G+ et al unveiling a single killer new feature or design that would allegedly make Facebook seem instantly dated (it already is dated, and no one seems to care). For example, Facebook even copied the nifty way that G+ displays photos and likely burnished its popularity in the process. Rather, the real threat would be creating a new platform, no matter how inane or poorly designed, which could draw (young) users’ eyes away from their News Feed and in turn make Facebook feel in comparison to this new app like a desktop now feels in comparison to an iPad or a Chromebook. Early Instagram did this and now Snapchat has done it, too, by creating a new walled garden that doesn’t play well with Facebook. It should have been disconcerting to Facebook investors when Facebook’s only real response to the Instagram surge was to simply buy out the company, a maneuver which it unsuccessfully tried to repeat with Snapchat.

Facebook has sometimes been likened to the next Google, an assessment which never seemed to make much sense, even if one leaves aside the massive disparity in revenue at similiar stages of company maturity. Google succeeded in large part because it opened up the Web to discovery and then transformed that success into imaginative reinventions of email, cloud storage, and mobile software. By contrast, Facebook has succeeded by combating the open Web, by luring you into a highly regulated, controlled site in which it makes the rules. The advent of the App Store, with its sandboxed discrete apps, aided Facebook’s ascent, too, by cultivating its analogous walled garden approach. But walled gardens have their risks, risks not shared by the creation of something open-ended like Google Search or Linux-based Android. Chief among them is the obvious possibility of another walled garden stealing your users – and when it comes to social networks, user acquisition really is a zero-sum game most of the time (I’m excepting Twitter, which, by virtue of its sheer brevity, is really a different bird, one that doesn’t really compete with any other), with every photo, message and status update migrating from one platform to another. Friendster gave way to Myspace, Myspace to Facebook, and Facebook to nothing, at least not yet.

So is Snapchat the network that finally begins Facebook’s decline? It’s unlikely. Snapchat is not a broad social experience and is more akin to flirting at a bar or mixer. But the waves it has created in the social network community should remove any doubt that social networking is a fickle, volatile sector driven less by software ingenuity than by the whims of young users. It should also be worrying that Facebook, despite its massive cash reserves and abundance of engineering talent, cannot find time to do anything more exciting that clone a sexting app, when the likes of Apple and Google (companies often mentioned in the same breath as Facebook) are pushing us into new computing paradigms. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg has something else up his sleeve. For the sake of high-profile tech innovation, I hope he does.

-The ScreenGrab Team