Friday, March 30, 2012

Android Tips

Cory recently asked me what must-have apps he should get for his new Android SkyRocket.  That got me thinking not just about apps, but about what Android tips in general I've found useful.  This long-winded post is my answer.

First, a few Android tips:

Stop the beeping!

Android syncs to your Google account so all of your emails, contacts, calendars, books, and everything else under the Google sun stays up-to-date on your phone.  This is cool, but I remember the day after I got my Android, I was driving home when my phone suddenly started beeping and buzzing like crazy because I’d just gotten the perfect storm of notifications: new emails, new text messages, new instant messages, and new voicemail notifications.  I was trying to sort through all of those, while driving, and all I wanted to know was: “Am I getting a phone call?”.  The answer, it turned out, was no.

To help cut down on all the notification noise, I disabled automatic sign-in for the Google Talk app, thus eliminating instant messages.  Any time I want to use instant messaging, I start Google Talk and sign-in manually.  I also configured the Gmail app to not use ringtones or vibrate when an email arrives.  I still get an alert in the notification bar along the top, just no audio or buzzing.  This setting took a while to locate; on my phone it’s under a “Labels to Notify” section in the Gmail app settings.

It’s also possible to completely turn off all Google syncing completely.  I did this for a while, but eventually turned it back on; it’s much more convenient.

View recently opened apps

Press and hold the Home button to pull up a list of recently-opened apps.  This is handy, especially when I want to jump back and forth between several apps.

Use widgets

Normally when you see an icon on your phone’s home screen, you press it and an app starts up.  Widgets are like icons, but with functionality.  When you press a widget, the app doesn’t start up, but instead performs an action.  For example, Android comes with a “Power Control” widget that lets you turn features on or off from your home screen (features like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, Screen Brightness, and Syncing).

Not all apps have widgets.  You can see what widgets are available and add them to your home screen by long pressing on an empty area of the home screen and selecting “Widgets” from the popup menu.  To delete a widget, press and hold a widget.  A trash can will appear which you can drag the widget into.

Extend battery life

The more you use your phone’s various features (GPS, Bluetooth, data), the faster your battery will drain.  Ideally, a smartphone battery should last for a day under normal usage.  If yours isn’t, keep an eye on how often GPS, Bluetooth, and data are being used.  Use the Power Control widget to disable them when not needed.


Below are some of my favorite apps.  There’s a link to each app on the web version of Google Play (formerly called Android Market).  If you sign in to the web version, you can remotely install the apps to your phone.  Just click the Install button, and within a few minutes the app will be installed on your phone, provided your phone has internet access.  Most of these are free, but a few are paid apps.

Lookout Security & Anti-Virus
This is the first app you should install on your phone.  It scans every app on your phone for viruses and will help you find your phone if you lose it.  The last part is what makes it so cool.  If you lose your phone, you can log in to the website and pinpoint your phone.  Their company blog is full of stories from people who used the app to find their lost phone.

Handcent SMS
A text messaging app.  When I got my Android phone, the built-in text messaging app was too basic for many people, and this app is what everyone recommended to use instead.  I’ve always used it and enjoyed it, to the point that I’ve never bothered trying any other app for text messaging.

If you have a monthly data limit, Onavo will track your data usage and turn off your data if you start to exceed your limit.  It has many other features, including showing which apps are using the most data, and determining if you should switch data plans.  If you have Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich), many of these features are built-in to Android, so this app may not be as useful.

Google Sky Map
I’ve written about this before here and here.  It’s an interactive star map, and the #1 reason why I got an Android phone.

Just like Google Sky Map, but with much more detail.  And, if you have a computerized telescope, you can hook your phone up to it and use this app to control your telescope.

Star Odyssey
A super-cool guide to over 60 of the brightest stars.  More here.

Tesla LED
A simple, but very useful app: it turns on your camera’s flash to serve as a flashlight.  I’m always surprised at how bright the camera flash is.  And, it has a widget letting you turn the flash on directly from your home screen.

Movies, reviews, showtimes, buy tickets, watch trailers, manage Netflix queue. 'Nuff said.

My Tracks
Use GPS to track your outdoor exercise.  I use this every time I go bike riding.  It shows where you are and where you’ve been using Google Maps, and tracks all kind of stats, like your total time, distance, speed, elevation, etc.  I’ve written about it before here.

If you’ve ever wondered what song is playing on the radio, this app is for you.  Start it up, press the Listen button, and it records a few seconds of audio, and then tells you the name and artist of the song.  And, for some songs, it can even pinpoint the exact part of the song that’s playing and scroll lyrics in time with it.  Really, really cool.  There's a free and a paid version.

I use this for taking notes.  It syncs your notes to the website.  There are tons of note-taking apps; this is just the one I use.

Paper Camera
A camera app that lets you apply different photo effects in real time.  While it’s very cool, I’ve never really used it for anything other than showing people how very cool it is.

Android is extremely customizable.  If you don’t like something, there’s probably a way to customize it, and that goes for the keyboard.  Of the many different keyboard alternatives, Swype is my favorite so far because it’s much faster to type.  Instead of pressing each individual key, you slide your finger across the keyboard to each letter, only lifting your finger at the end of each word.  Swype is not available in Google Play, but it does come pre-installed in some phones.  If you have it preinstalled, you may need to activate it; If you don’t, you can still download it directly from  In either case, you can get more info here.

Settings Profiles Lite
There are a number of apps that let you configure your phone’s settings based on a set of rules; this is one of them.  I use it to keep my phone on vibrate while I’m at work.  It works like this:  I set a repeating event on my Google calendar for the hours I’m usually at work, Monday - Friday.  The calendar then syncs to the phone.  When this app sees the work event start in the morning, it sets my phone to vibrate.  When the work event ends in the evening, it turns the ringer back on.  There are many different combinations of settings and rules an app like this is capable of.  I’ve only barely scratched the surface.  I’m using the free version of this app, which is limited to 1 rule.  The paid version has no restrictions.

WiFi File Explorer
Wirelessly transfer files between your phone and computer.  When you open this app, it starts up a small web server on your phone and gives you its address.  Go to your computer, type that address into your web browser, and you’re presented with an interface that lets you upload or download files from your phone.  Very handy.

Mobile Metronome
Just what it says: a metronome.  Wendy uses it when practicing the piano.

Bonsai Blast
Cut the Rope
Temple Run
These are some of the games I’ve enjoyed playing.

Papa Johns
Thin-crust garden fresh pizza with a side of cheesesticks.  Delicious.

Amazon App Store + Free App of the Day

Amazon has released their own Android market.  You can use both it and Google Play on your Android phone.  Since Amazon’s market directly competes with Google Play, you can’t download it from there; you have to get it directly from Amazon here.  It’s a bit complicated to install, but the steps are well documented.  For the most part, apps in Amazon’s App Store are also in Google Play.  The one advantage of using Amazon’s version is that they offer a free paid app every day.  I’ve gotten some good apps this way, but they’re few and far between.  For the most part I don’t download their free daily app.

Find More Apps

How do you find new apps?  How do you know if they’re good?

Here are my tips:

  • Search Google Play for topics you’re interested in.  If you find an app that looks promising, read the reviews and check the app’s ratings.  See how many people have installed it.  Look at the list of related apps and compare reviews/ratings/install numbers.
  • Check out Amazon’s free app of the day
  • Try  It shows recently popular apps, and has its own Android app which will analyze your installed apps and provide recommendations.  It also has social features that let you see what apps your friends have installed.
  • Read Android news sites.  They often have articles exploring apps.  For example, the site has a weekly feature listing the Top 10 most updated apps for the week.


When you find an app you like, rate it!  Leave a comment!  Mention what you like and/or don’t like.  Developers are always happy to get feedback.

1 comment:

Andy Lester said...

Thumbs up on sharing the sensible view of power management. Sales people at phone stores are still telling people they need to download Advanced Task Killer to shut down any running apps, as if it was now the phone owner's responsibility to constantly monitor apps running in background.

I've had two friends in the past few months with new phones lean in conspiratorially to tell me that the clerk said you had to manually shut down apps. They were both surprised when I said that was untrue, unless the apps you run have settings to hit the network a lot. If your Words With Friends goes and checks the net once a minute, yes, that will kill battery. But just because an app is running doesn't mean it's using juice.