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Customizing Your Android Experience

Customizing Your Android Experience

Our smartphones are our lives.  Go ahead and deny it, but deep down you know you get jittery when you aren’t caressing your tiny portable computer that basically hands you the digital world on a tempered glass tray.  As I pointed out in my Must-Have Android and Must-Have iPhone apps articles there are a lot of apps out there that’ll do just about anything.  But there’s lots more that we can do to customize our smartphones and our tablets, especially for Android.  Sorry Apple users, your fantastic apps may bring all the boys to the yard, but Android has you beat fair and square on the customizability front.  Sure, you could jailbreak your iPhone or iPad (Google it if you dare, just know you’ll be put out in the cold if you take a busted jail-broken device to the Apple Genius Bar), but I’m not going to risk going there, so Android users, this one’s for you!


Configure Your Security
As I mentioned in my Android Apps article, installing a security app like Lookout Mobile is a great way to help protect your device.  But you need to go a bit further and dig into the device’s own security settings.  So open your settings, go to Security, and examine the following:

  1. Screen Lock: Android has many options for locking your device.  Please choose one of them so that in the event your precious toy is ever stolen or lost you can rest assured that the average joe will not be able to access your personal files and information:
    • You can go with a four-digit PIN, but that’s about as paper-thin as security gets;
    • A nice complicated password with lots of capital and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters is probably the best protection you can have, but those take extra time to input;  
    • Pattern unlocking is also a great way of keeping people out, but be sure to wipe off your screen after use - your greasy fingers (no offense) could leave the exact pattern in their wake for anyone to follow;
    • And finally, some newer devices have facial recognition unlocking, but don’t use that - it’s unreliable at best, annoying to use, and easy to spoof.   
       
  2. Choose the Automatic Lock Interval: If you’re super-paranoid like me, you’ll set this to lock your device immediately after it goes to sleep, but I know that can be a pain for frequent users, so you can set an interval of something like five minutes, give or take.  
     
  3. Owner Info: Some devices will give you the option to display ownership info on the lock screen.  If you’ve got this feature, take advantage of it so that a lost device can be easily returned to you.  If you DON’T have this feature, you might want to download a neat little free app called Contact Owner that does essentially the same thing.  
     
  4.  Encryption: This can take a while to do, but is well worth it in my opinion.  Basically it locks up your device so that a password is needed when it is powered on for any of the files or apps to be accessible.  How is this different from the normal screen lock method detailed above?  Even with a screen lock, a knowledgeable hacker can make a copy of your phone’s data onto their computers and access it at will, bypassing the screen lock entirely.  But if your phone’s files are encrypted, they won’t be able to break into them at all even after making a transfer to their computers.  This is something I really recommend if you do a lot of banking or business using your Android device and may already be enforced by your employer.  


Configure Android to Accept Apps from non-Google Play Sources:
By default, your Android device will only install apps that were downloaded from its own Google Play store.  This is a security measure designed to minimize the risk of malware infection on your device and might actually make sense if Google did an acceptable job of screening all the apps in its store.  However, Google Play is notorious for being filled with malicious apps, which pretty much debunks that argument.  Additionally there are plenty of worthwhile apps that you can download from third-party sources, most notably the Amazon App Store (more on that later).  To enable these third-party sources:
 

  1. Go to your device’s settings and choose the Security option.  
  2. Once in the security settings, check the box for Unknown Sources.  
  3. If you’re presented with a warning about doing this, tell it to go ahead anyway.  


Install Flash
Adobe Flash, the industry leader in streaming video, animation, and annoyingly interactive web sites, will work seamlessly with Android versions 2.2-4.0.  If you’re running a device with any of these Android versions, almost any browser on Google Play will work with the Flash plug-in.  If you’re running Android 4.1 Jellybean or newer (as of August 2012 there isn’t a newer version, but there will be soon enough), only a couple of browsers will work with Flash.  Either way, if you’re just now coming over to Android, you’re out of luck, because Flash is no longer offered on Google Play.  Maybe you’re lucky enough (in this instance) to get a model old enough to have Flash pre-installed, but if not, read on:
 

  1. Set your device to accept third-party apps as detailed above.
  2. Using your Android device, tap here to download Flash Player 11 for Android.
  3. When the download is complete, tap it from the notification bar to install.  
  4. Now get a browser for Android that still supports Flash.  Again, that’s pretty much any browser if you’ve got Android 4.0 or lower, but we 4.1 users are limited in our selection:
    • If you’re looking for a free solution, the new Firefox for Android beta supports Flash, but very, very badly; instead I recommend:
    • Throwing down $3 for xScope Browser Pro which supports Flash almost flawlessly.
       

**Let me note that the more Android gets updated, the less stable Flash will be on it.  Flash is very, very slowly being phased out on the web in favor of HTML 5 video solutions, but there will be many sites (most notably for myself: Amazon Instant Video) that will rely on Flash for years to come, so get the most out of it while you can.  Also, since Flash on Android will no longer be updated, any security concerns specific to Flash that crop up from now on will not be addressed, so be sure it’s worth it to you.**

Set Your Device to Auto-Rotate . . . Or Not
Something funny I noticed when using my Nexus 7 for the first time was that it was not set to rotate the screen when I turned the device on its side.  That wouldn’t do for me - reading web pages in portrait mode is abysmal!  If you have a similar experience, or you’d like, for some reason, to turn auto-rotation off, go to Settings, then Accessibility, and check or uncheck the box next to Auto-rotate screen.  

Get a Better Launcher
The launcher is the visible interface of Android that affects how you can interact with your device.  The default Android 4.0 and 4.1 launcher that came with my lovely new Nexus 7 is almost perfect (well, good enough) except for one little thing: a stupid search bar at the top of the home screen - I don’t want it there! It’s just taking up space; if I want to do a search, I’ll launch Chrome, but annoyingly, you cannot remove that search bar with the default launcher.  You might have different gripes about your device’s launcher, but take heart, there’re a lot of them on Google Play to try.  If you’re running Android 4.0 or higher,  go get yourself the Nova Launcher, no question - you can customize it to do pretty much anything. If you’re running an older version of Android, play around with ADW.Launcher, GO Launcher, or Launcher Pro.  Note that when you use a new launcher for the first time, you will have to rebuild your home screens, but if you decide you hate that particular launcher, go to Settings, then Apps to uninstall it and your old launcher will appear just as it was before.   

Create Folders
A lot of you probably know this tip, but when viewing your apps drawer (the collection of all the apps installed on your device), press and hold an app to bring it to the home screen, then position it where you want and release your finger. Once you’ve got a group of similarly-themed apps on your home screen, press and hold one of them, then drag it on top of another and release.  Tah-dah: you just made a folder.  Use folders to condense multiple home screens worth of apps onto just one screen.  The librarian in me loves it!

Get the Amazon App Store
Although the Amazon App Store and Google Play share very similar catalogs, each one has a few gems the other doesn’t and Amazon gives away a paid app every day so it’s always worth checking out.  To get the Amazon app store go to https://www.amazon.com/app-email using your Android device and run the installer from the notification bar once the download is completed.  You’ll need to make sure that your device is set to accept third-party apps, as detailed above.

It probably needs to be said, I’m not in Amazon’s pocket.  

Get the Amazon MP3 Store
Google is still building its music offerings to match that of Amazon and Apple, but even if it weren’t, Amazon has some serious deals on music.  If you’re a frequent music shopper, go get the official Amazon MP3 app right now!

Honestly, no relationship between me and Amazon!

Upload Your Music to Google
Here! Here's proof that I'm not an Amazon toady - I'm a Google toady! Seriously though, there are three main cloud music services out there right now: Amazon Cloud Player, Apple iCloud, and Google Music.  Each have the merits (well, the latter two have their merits - I think Amazon Cloud Player is a mess despite the excellent selection of its store) but Google lets you store up to 20,000 songs for streaming purposes and each song file can be up to 250MB.  For free.  Just go to https://play.google.com/music/, sign in with the Google account you use with your Android device, click the link to Upload Music and download the Google Music Manager, which, once installed on your computer, will begin the process of uploading your collection.  Please note that depending on the size of your collection and the speed of your connection, this could literally take days. It took two and a half for me. 

Now, you'll notice I wrote "for streaming purposes."  That means that you can upload your entire music library to Google and listen to it anywhere you've got an Internet connection, but unless that music was purchased from Google itself, you cannot re-download it, so don't use Google Music as a backup solution - if your local digital music collection is damaged, Google won't let you re-download it off their servers.  Use a service like MP3Tunes for backup purposes.  


Get a Better Wallpaper
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and this beholder doesn’t think much of the stock Android wallpapers.  They’re colorful and pleasing at first, but grow old and garish quickly.  You may certainly download your own, but the process of setting an image as a wallpaper in Android can be quite frustrating, especially on phones running Android 3 and lower.  My favorite solution, so far, is a free app called Wallpaper Wizardrii.  Get yourself a stunning wallpaper from a site like Interfacelift.com and use the above app to position the picture exactly the way you like with far more fine-tuned controls than Android by itself provides.  I recommend looking for pictures at least twice the resolution of your device’s screen for the optimal experience.

Get a Better Video Player
The stock Android video player is ok, but it doesn’t play some of the more commonly used video file types, like WMV.  As I mentioned in my Best Android Apps article, the solution to this is the MX Player - it can handle almost any video format. What I didn’t tell you is how to get the most out of it.  

First of all, if you’ve got a dual- or quad-core device, you’ll want to go into the settings, choose Decoder and choose the maximum number of cores available from the CPU core limit option.  

Second, you’ll want to see if there is a codec package designed for your CPU that will smooth playback, especially if you’re running a device with a nvidia Tegra 2 or 3.  I’ve read that MX Player will automatically tell you if there is a codec package that will work with your device when you first run it, but that’s never been my experience.  That is unfortunate, because determining what type of CPU you have is tough if you’re not a phone geek.  Here’s my strategy: go to Wikipedia and search for your exact phone model and number if applicable.  On the right side of the phone’s page there should be a link to the type of CPU it uses; click on that link and you will be told the exact specs of the CPU and be able to match it to one of the codecs linked to above, though if you’re using a lower-end phone, there is a good chance that no codec is available.  

Play with Your Widgets
Widgets are simple programs that live on your device’s home screen and serve only one or two functions, such as show the weather, display your upcoming appointments, control your music and much more. They are one of the great distinguishing traits between Android and iOS, in that iOS has none.  Press and hold on your device’s home screen to bring up the personalization options menu and choose widgets.  Play around, see what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t overcrowd your home screens with them, that’ll slow things down a bit, but find what you really need.  If you’re looking for more than what came with your device, go to Google Play’s widgets store - you’ll find something for every need.  

Get some Games
Ok, so this last bit isn’t really about customization and I know not everyone’s a gamer, but there are some wonderfully fun and creative games on Google Play good for wasting a few minutes in line at the grocery store and I want to share the joy. So there.  Here are some of my favorite freebies; while some of them will give you the option to spend money to “enhance” the gameplay (what in my day was referred to as "cheating"), you don’t need to spend a dime to enjoy them:
           

  • Whale Trail Frenzy:  You’re a whale named Willow, flying through the skies trying to escape an ever-looming evil.  Tap the screen to control your flight path, collect energy, avoid storm clouds, and enjoy the wackiness and colors!
  • Temple Run: Run away from the evil guardians of the ancient temple you just robbed. Dodge, jump, slide, collect coins, and power up - it just gets faster as you go, so try to keep up!
  • Cordy Sky: Little robot Cordy is bouncing through the sky collecting parts for his broken spaceship.  Don’t fall!
  • Burn the Rope: A neat little puzzle game where you try to burn different patterns of rope, but the fire only burns up relative to your device’s tilt so you’ll end up having to twist all around to keep the fire burning!
  • Tiny Tower: Build a city skyscraper, customize each level, and keep your occupants happy.
  • Triple Town: A combination of match-three games and city builders, this is one of the most addictive and fun little games you can get.  
  • Super Sudoku: I hear some of you like Sudoku.  Here you go.

Buy a Case . . . Online
Again, not really about customizing Android, but still very important.  One of these days you’ll drop your device.  And when you do, you’ll be glad you bought that case because the alternative will simply make you whimper.  But brick ‘n’ mortar stores, especially cell phone carriers, charge an arm and a leg for a few inches of rubber and plastic.  Go online to Amazon or NewEgg for some amazing discounts on smartphone cases and get user reviews to boot.