Saturday, January 8, 2011

14 tips for Android beginners

Googles Android mobile operating system has surpassed Apples iOS in Q3 of 2010 to become the second most popular smartphone operating system behind Research In Motions Blackberry, and it was the top selling mobile OS in the 2010 holiday shopping season. Even before holiday shopping an average of 300,000 new Android phones and tablets were being activated each day and there is no sign of it slowing down as it was the star of the Consumer Electronics Show 2011(CES) this week where no fewer than two dozen new Android smartphones, tablets and media players were announced. Android is expected to surpass Blackberry in 2011 to take the #1 spot and Microsofts new Windows Phone 7 does not appear to be of any threat.

Did you get a new Android phone or tablet as a gift this holiday season or for your birthday? Did you purchase one yourself because you were intrigued by the exclusive combination of hardware such as big screens, hardware keyboards, 4G connectivity, high resolution cameras and HD video recording or software like Adobe Flash, high quality YouTube videos and free turn-by-turn GPS voice navigation that you can't get on other mobile phones? Or perhaps you were surprised to find you could get todays top smartphones on sale for only $0.01 or in a buy one get one free deal on your mobile carrier of choice and bought them for the whole family?

Whatever the case may be, if you are new to Android, these tips will help get you running up to speed quickly and easily with all of Androids power packed features, many of which are exclusive to Android that adopters from iPhone, Blackberry, Palm or Windows Mobile may not be aware of. You don't have to be a geek or have a masters in computer science to start using Android like a pro and customize it to your liking.

1) Installing apps and games
The number of applications and games in the Android Marketplace are estimated at over 200,000 and growing by thousands each day. Most "apps" and games are free or low cost, and can give your new phone or tablet added functionality, personalize it to your liking or just kill some time with a fun game. If you don't know what to download, check out my Top 10 Apps for Android to get you started. If you are interested in purchasing an application, review the description, screen shots, comments and product website (if it has one) closely and see if there is a free "lite" or "demo" version available to test before making your purchase. If you do decide to purchase, and are not totally satisfied, you have 15 minutes to return your purchase for a full refund by uninstalling the application or game. This refund period may be short, but other popular app stores have no such refund period at all. Also, do not be afraid to use your credit card to purchase apps and games from the market. Google Checkout is not only used for the Android Market, it is the second largest integrated merchant solution, and is used by millions of people everyday to pay for products and services from from millions of merchants all over the world. Your credit card data is most definitely kept private and secure.

2) Rating downloaded apps and games
Please leave a rating and comment on the apps and games you download, especially for paid apps. This lets the developers and potential downloaders know what you like or don't like about their apps and games. It's important to only rate based on what the application claims to do in its market description. If the application does exactly what it says, but isn't quite what you expected, or is missing a feature you want, you can say so in your comments, but only base your rating on how well it performs the actual features advertised. If you do have a question or feature request, or you found a bug in the software, try to contact the developers via email or their website before you leave negative feedback. The solution could be very simple and already supported or maybe the developer is not aware of the problem yet. You can find links to their email and website (if they have one) at the bottom of the applications page in the Android Market.

3) Menu button and the Options Menu
In order to make the best use of the limited screen space on mobile phones, most Android applications use an "Options Menu", which is similar to the menu bar found on desktop PC and Mac applications. Many users new to Android often are not aware of the options menu, and as a result may be missing out on most of an applications features. This is especially true of people who have used Apples iPhone, iPod or iPad in the past, as iOS has no such menu and forces everything to be displayed on the screen at once, a horrible waste of space. To open the options menu, press the Menu button on your phone or tablet. This is the most vital button on Android and is used in many of the other tips below. You should get into the habit of pressing the Menu button the first time you use a new application to familiarize yourself with its options.

4) Long press and the Context Menu
Another vital action on Android is the "Long Press". To perform a long press, press and hold on an item on the screen until the screen vibrates below your finger. A long press is similar to right clicking on a desktop PC or Mac and will often either bring up a "Context Menu" or allow you to manipulate the item in some other fashion. The long press gesture is important to learn will also be used in many of the following tips.

A "Context Menu" is a menu that lets you perform specific actions on a selected item on the screen. A context menu may not be used everywhere, in every application, but when they are used, they usually contain time-saving shortcuts that can make using the application easier and faster. Just like with the options menu, the context menu is not known to most using Android for the first time, and especially if they are coming from iOS which doesn't support them, or from a Mac, which usually has only a one button mouse and limited right-click functionality support in applications.

5) Notifications menu
One of the most useful features on Android is the Notifications menu. It is a simple, convenient and elegant way for Android to notify you of events without disrupting what you are currently doing, unlike the dialogs on other mobile operating systems that demand immediate attention. Missed calls, text messages, downloads, application push notifications and other such events will go to this menu. To open the notifications menu, slide your finger downwards from the top of the screen. Tapping on a notification in the list will open the respective application and clear the item from the list. You can clear all notifications by tapping the Clear button. Depending on the phone, this menu may also have options to enable and disable power thirsty options such as WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, 3G/4G, and the LCD backlight.

6) Using home screens, your Android desktop
Your Android desktop consists of multiple customizable "Home Screens". You can customize your home screens however you want with widgets, wallpapers, folders, and shortcuts to applications, bookmarks, contacts and more. To switch between different home screens, slide your finger left or right across the screen. To place something on your home screen, press the Menu button and then press Add. To remove an item, Long press on it and drag it to the trash can which appears. You can move items between your home screens by long pressing on the item to move, then dragging it to the edge of the screen and hold it for a second until the home screen changes. The Android Market has thousands of new wallpapers, widgets and applications in the Personalization, Live Wallpapers and Widgets categories you can download.

7) Using Home Screen Widgets
A great personalization and time-saving feature that you will only find on Android is "Home Screen Widgets". Widgets act as an extension to the applications installed. They allow you to customize your home screen with small applets designed to be informative and useful. Sometimes widgets are self-contained applications and do not add an icon to your app drawer. To install a widget to your home screen, press Home, then press Menu > Add > Widgets, and select a widget from the list available. Some widgets will be placed immediately on the active home screen and others will need to be configured first. If the widget needs to be configured you will get a settings screen after selecting the widget.

Most home screen widgets update infrequently and are easy on your battery, but if you add too many that update frequently or rely on data services, you may see reduced battery life.

8) Using Wallpapers and Live Wallpapers
Static wallpapers are so 2007, which makes you wonder why it took until 2010 for other smartphones to get them. In addition to Wallpapers, which has existed since the first release of Android, another great personalization feature you will only find on Android are "Live Wallpapers" which were added in Android 2.0 (Eclair). Live wallpapers are home screen backgrounds that are animated and interactive. They play behind your icons, widgets and menus and can respond to user input such as tapping or double tapping the screen, swiping your finger or adding and removing shortcuts and widgets. Live Wallpapers can be as simple as animated snow falling across your screen to full on games you can play directly on your home screen.

You can download new live wallpapers from the Android Market in the Live Wallpapers category. Most Live Wallpapers will not add an icon to your app drawer when installed. To set one as your wallpaper, press Home, then Press Menu > Wallpaper > Live Wallpapers and select one from the list. Many live wallpapers are configurable, so look for a Settings button at the bottom of the screen. When you are done configuring the wallpaper settings press back to return to the preview, then press the Set wallpaper button to activate it. You can make changes to the settings any time by returning to this screen, some phones may also have a Configure wallpaper option when you long press on the home screen.

Live Wallpapers will only animate while the screen is on and the home screen is visible, so most will have little effect on your battery, but a really active live wallpaper can cause delays when switching home screens and reduce battery life.

9) Using Folders and Live folders
To help keep your home screens simple and organized, you can place folders on your home screen like you would with other shortcuts. Folders can contain anything that you can place on the home screen, except widgets and other folders. There is no limit to the number of items a folder can contain. To add a folder to your home screen press Home, then press Menu > Add > Folders > New Folder.

Items cannot be added directly to a folder (a slight oversight?), you must first place it on your home screen, then long press it and drag it to the folder. To remove an item, long press it and drag it to the trash can which appears. Folders can be renamed by first opening the folder and then long pressing on the title bar.

Just like Live Wallpapers, while other smartphones are just starting to figure out static folders, Android has had "Live Folders" since the first release. Live Folders are folders whose contents are automatically updated in real-time by application data such as contacts, bookmarks, email, news or music playlists. Some applications will add new Live Folders, such as Pandora, which adds a My Stations live folder. Clicking a station in this folder will open Pandora and tune in to the selected station from a single tap on your home screen.

10) Searching
Google is best known for its wonderful search engine, so it goes without saying that it wouldn't be a Google operating system if some of this awesome search technology didn't make it on to Android devices. Most Android handsets and tablets have a Search button on the front of the device or on its slide-out hardware keyboard. If you do not have a hardware search button, press the Menu button, and the press Search from the options menu. Search allows you to simultaneously search the Internet, Emails, Contacts, Market Applications, Music, and more. It can even search inside applications you have downloaded from the Android Market for applications that support it. To configure which applications are searched by the Search button, press Home, then press Menu > Settings > Search > Searchable items. Many applications also support using the search button to search within the application, press the search button while inside your favorite apps to see if it is supported.

11) Voice Actions
With Android, Google has taken mobile searching to a whole new level with "Voice Actions", another Android exclusive feature. You can use voice actions to perform many common tasks such as calling contacts, sending a text message, getting directions or searching online. To do a voice search, Long press the Search button, or press the microphone icon on your on-screen keyboard, then speak your query.

Try actions like "Call John Smith" to call a contact named John Smith; "Send text to John Smith, I will be there in 10 minutes" to send John a text message that you are on your way; "Play The Doors Greatest Hits" to listen to your favorite music album; or "Navigate to Starbucks" to get turn-by-turn GPS voice navigation to the nearest Starbucks using Google Maps, included free with your Android device.

For a list of other voice actions see Voice actions are adaptive and will improve over time as it learns your voice and speech patterns.

12) Multi-tasking
Android was built from the ground up with its best in class multi-tasking, it was not added as an afterthought years later and it is the only smartphone operating system to offer true multi-tasking. Instead of pausing and resuming applications or limiting applications to a very small subset of background functionality, applications can continue running in the background just as if they were visible on the screen.

It's so simple. Every time you use your Android device, you are using its advance multi-tasking system without even realizing it. There are no confusing button combinations to learn, no pop-up dialogs, and no jiggling close buttons. Simply press the Home button to get back to your home screen and start another application. The next time you return to your old application, it will have finished its work and you will be brought back to the application in the exact state you left it.

Android will automatically manage your applications in the background and close them down when they are finished and no longer needed, or will pause them when more memory is needed for the operating system or other foreground applications.

13) Conserving battery
With lots of memory; a fast processor; a big, bright LCD screen; 4G; WiFi; Bluetooth; turn-by-turn GPS navigation; high resolution cameras and HD video recording; streaming internet music and videos; downloadable apps multi-tasking in the background; multiple customized home screens with widgets, live wallpapers, live folders; push notifications and more all going on at the same time its a wonder an Android device can even last 5 minutes on a full charge, nonetheless a few days.

The the more the screen is on and you are actively using the device, the quicker the battery will drain. The good thing is, Android takes care of most battery management for you. It will turn the screen, CPU, storage and WiFi off when not in use, it only uses battery for GPS and Bluetooth when those services are being used. 3G/4G data is only used when not connected to WiFi, etc. Most users are able to get a full day of use out of their device with moderate usage without changing any settings, but there are a few you can change to maximize time between charges. For a comprehensive guide, see my Battery Tips.

14) Task killers
With multi-tasking and batteries, there is always the discussion of "Task Killer" applications. These are even installed by some shops when activating the phone or when taking it in for service. A task killer will run as a service in the background, automatically killing applications with the claim that it will improve battery life. The constant polling done by a task killer uses up a lot of battery than it saves and it prevents the phone from sleeping where it will conserve the most battery. In short, a task killer duplicates the functionality that Android already does better and will drain your battery faster in the process.

The real problem with task killers comes from their tendency to prematurely kill applications. If your Android device is having frequent lockups, application timeouts and crashes or reboots randomly, at least 9 out of 10 times this is caused by running a task killer as a background service instead of a problem with your hardware or software. So don't do it, even if the service representative at your wireless shop recommend it, nothing good will come of it.

The End... for now
I hope that this has helped you learn more about your new Android phone, tablet or media player. These 14 tips are the bare essentials every Android user needs to know and only scratch the surface of the power and customization that Android offers you as a user. Look for a follow up soon that will go further into customizing and extending your Android devices with 3rd-party apps.

If you have any other useful tips, please share them with others in the comments below.