Android is rapidly increasing in market share and this certainly isn’t a consequence of the same people constantly upgrading their phones. In addition to the market’s growth, some users are switching (or upgrading) from other platforms for different reasons: Android is open, cheaper, more customizable; it’s on your preferred network; there’s more choice in terms of hardware… whatever your reason for choosing Android, there’s a big chance you’re a new user.
While Android ships with a number of pre-installed apps (in addition to some custom apps and widgets from the phone maker), the Market also houses a number of fundamental apps that every new user should have. If you’re experienced with Android, be sure to check out our absolutely essential app roundup. If you’re not, then check out this newbies’ list to get you started, instead of jumping in at the deep end.
In this special, extended article, we’re going to take a look at the first steps you should take as a new Android user including a tour of some “hidden” UI elements, must-have apps and widgets and to finish off, some tips. It’s a “Beginner’s Guide” in both senses: it’s designed for new Android users, and written by a relatively new Android user
We’ll be using Eclair (Android 2.1) for this article, which is, with Froyo, the most popular version of Android at the moment. We’ve left the old versions behind and Gingerbread is yet to see mass adoption onto mainstream handsets. However, most of the apps and tips we discuss will work on Gingerbread and pre-Eclair models.
Introduction to Android
Firstly, let us discuss what Android is. Android is an open-source mobile operating system that’s in direct competition to Apple’s iOS. Some of the core attractions of Android is it’s open-source background and the freedom away from the integrated, patrolled environment that Apple runs.
Visually, Android is very similar to iOS and you won’t have much to learn if you decide to join the crowd. However, there are a few notable differences unique to Android.
The notifications bar sits at the top near the network and battery status. Notably, these notifications are mainly generated from apps and can build up over time. A popular set of notifications I get are Twitter mentions and new emails, although any app can place messages here. If you’re fast enough, there’s also a text ticker showing the content of the notification.
To access your list of pending notifications, hold your finger off the screen and drag down onto it.
Customizable Home Screens
One very big difference from iOS is the customizable home screens and the ability to not only rearrange app icons, but to add widgets and shortcuts. What’s more is that you can remove app icons but let the apps remain to be installed and customize your home screen in any way you can.
Customizing your home screen is simple. With the HTC Sense skin, you simply have to tap the plus (+) sign at the bottom and select the item you want to add. Everything from there is pretty self explanatory. In terms of widgets, Android supplies a few and your phone manufacturer may also. However, you can also download additional widgets from the Android Marketplace and from installed apps. A lot of the time you’ll get the app and widget in a single package.
Copy & Paste
Copy and Paste is very similar to iOS so it might not be especially new to you, but it does use icons instead of text as options. Simply hold down on the area you want to copy until the magnifier appears. With the green handles, adjust the area to the specific section you want to copy then choose an option from the popup.
The first icon that looks like sheets of paper copies the section to your clipboard, the magnifying glass search Wikipedia for those terms and the last will shorten a URL.
As you’d guess, Google integration is a key aspect of Android and if you’re a new Android owner, without a Google account, you won’t be able to maximize Android’s potential.
Android will sync your mail, contacts and your whole Google way of life to your phone so not only is it accessible there, but also on the web and your othere Google-enabled devices.
You’ll be asked to sign in to your Google account on setup, but if you didn’t, head to Settings > Accounts & Sync and then add an account. From there, Google will sync with some key apps such as Mail and Contacts in both ways. Google also has a bunch of apps on the Marketplace which will also sign in to your account and sync from there.
Not only does Google have direct integration into Android, but (optionally) so do third-parties. You can connect Twitter, Skype, Facebook and other accounts to sync various types of data (the most popular being contacts).
To add third-party accounts for integration, head to Settings > Accounts & Sync and add accounts from there. From here you can also add Exchange ActiveSync accounts.
One thing that will become apparent quite quickly on Android.AppStorm is the use of QR codes (short for Quick Response codes). These images that appear to pay homage to some sort of alien language are actually the equivalent of barcodes. One of the apps we’ll look at in the next section is called Barcode Scanner and this is one of the many apps that reads these codes and translates them into text or links.
Simply download Barcode Scanner or Google Goggles and hold your phone’s camera up to the code. Once it takes a photo and analyses it, it will show a link for you to download any of the apps below. It’s all rather simple!
Now you’ve got your Android phone setup with all your data being synced over, you want some apps. Of course, this is what AppStorm is all about! I don’t want to overflow you with tons of apps because you’re just starting out, but here’s our list of about fourteen apps that we think should have been included on your phone.
Not everyone tweets, but a lot of us do. Twitter put out an official Android app with most of the functionality of the site. You can check your tweets, mentions and messages as you would on any platform, but also check lists and edit your profile.
Twitter integrates quite nicely into the notification bar showing when you have new mentions.
Requirements: Android 2.1 and above
As you’d expect, the Facebook app is on the list purely because there’s a massive chance you’re already on Facebook so why not take the experience with you? Android 2.2+ users can also get push notifications on their device.
Requirements: Android 2.0 and above
Zxing’s Barcode Scanner not only scans QR codes (particularly useful for easily accessing websites or app links on a computer) but also regular barcodes.
Requirements: Android 1.5 and above (upcoming 4.0 version will require Eclair minimum)
Chome to Phone was the product of a Google I/O demo during the unveiling of Froyo. Basically, it communicates with a browser on your desktop and send a webpage to the phone. Similarly, you can open YouTube videos in the YouTube app or directions in Google Maps. This is a lot less cumbersome than manually writing the link in the phone or emailing it to yourself.
Android2Cloud is the “other half” of the relationship between the browser and the phone. It instead allows you to send webpages from your phone via the Share menu.
Requirements: Android 2.2 and above, Chrome/Firefox extension
Ever hear a song but can’t match it with a title? Shazam is here to fix that. It listens to a short clip of a playing song and identifies it, then allows you to buy on Amazon, share it, view it on YouTube, or view the lyrics.
Like the iPhone app, there is a risk it won’t find your song so don’t expect 100% accuracy. Whilst a free, five-tag version is available, there’s also a premium version with unlimited tags.
Price: Free (premium Encore version is $4.99)
Requirements: Android 1.6 or above
I use a range of RSS readers across platforms, but one thing that unites them is that they’re all powered by Google Reader. Reader has an official, and free, Android app that works seamlessly and is a must for any Google Reader user.
Just like the website, you can view all your new items and browse by site. However, I can’t see any obvious way to view read items again, unfortunately.
Requirements: Android 1.6 or above
Whilst I unfortunately can’t experience Flash on my HTC Wildfire, if your phone can run it, you should get it. Flash allows you to browse what some describe as the “full internet” including streaming video sites that use Flash as their standard.
Flash isn’t much of an app, it’s more of a plugin — but it should still make the list.
Requirements: Phone-by-phone basis
In conjunction with the desktop app, you can sync your media library to your phone — including tracks from iTunes! The desktop app is an sickening example of UI, but the functionality makes up for it.
Requirements: WinAmp desktop app
Phonalyzr takes your usage data and displays it in an alternative set of views. For example, you can view more in-depth details of your calling usage and take some data (for example, number of minutes per time) into graph view.
If you’re a heavy, intensive user who often goes over their allowance, Phonalyzr provides a slick way of identifying the biggest culprits.
The app requires the accompanying desktop app for Mac or PC, at an additional cost from $39.95.
Price: Free (required desktop app from $39.95)
Requirements: Android 1.5 or above (more features at 2.0 and later)
Google Goggles’s main aim is to search by photo. Take a photo of something and Google can (sometimes) identify it and search. It’s a novelty at best, and it wouldn’t recognise anything on my desk (I tried a Magic Mouse, an Angry Birds plushie and screens of various websites).
However, it does have a somewhat higher success rate with paintings and translating foreign text, and can also work as an alternative QR reader to Barcode Scanner (above).
The Opera Mini and Mobile web browsers are alternatives to Android’s built-in browser. Not only do they provide a better interface with more options, but they sync with the Opera browser on your computer.
Opera Mini relies on Opera’s servers too, which compress web pages apparently speeding up loading times and therefore, also reducing your data usage.
Both Mini and Mobile do pretty much the same thing but with different uses of Opera’s rendering engines. Faster phones should opt for Mobile whilst slower ones should opt for Mini.
WordPress has an offering for iOS, BlackBerry and, of course, Android users on the relevant app markets. Android’s version offers us a visual editor, in addition to the HTML version, which is a feature over iOS.
If you run a blog, then it’s probably powered by WordPress. In fact, WordPress is Envato’s blogging tool of choice. And the app will communicate with both WordPress.com and self-hosted packages.
Requirements: Android 1.5 or above
I’m on a pay-as-you-go plan for my phone. For a £10 topup, I get a fairly generous 500mb of internet and 3000 texts, but only 100 minutes. Therefore, my calling ability is limited. However, I can (kind-of) convert my data allowance to minutes via Skype.
Skype’s Android app acts just like any other on rival platforms. They have confirmed plans to bring front-facing video calling to devices.
Requirements: Android 2.1 or above
Your Android phone is set up and you’ve got some must-have apps installed, now what? Android is a very easy-to-use operating system but there are several features that might not be apparent straight away.
Change System Sounds
One thing I do with all of my new mobile devices is adjust the sounds. To change things like notification sound or haptic feedback, go to Settings and then Sounds & display.
Switch Between Applications
Android employs its own multitasking system, and an easy way to switch between recently open applications is to hold down the HOME button and select the app from the switcher.
Share Apps with Friends
Some HTC phones have built in App Sharing in the apps drawer. Select the App Sharing app and then the app you want to share. You can then share the app via standard portals such as mail and messages, or through third-party apps such as Facebook or WordPress. This will then send the free app’s download to your friend (or to yourself, if you’re doing this to keep a note of the app’s name).
Edit your Search Button Items
When you’re on the homescreen, you can hit your search button to search various directories of your phone. To edit which specific areas of your phone to search, go to Settings and then to Search.
If you download an app but you’re unhappy for some reason, you have 15 minutes to request a refund. Open the Marketplace app, tap on My Apps/Downloads, choose the app to refund and then select Uninstall & Refund.
End Calls with the Power Button
Froyo users can end one of my biggest annoyances with Android, and that’s calls continuing through lock. Normally when you hit the power button, your call will continue but those coming from non-smartphones may appreciate being able to end calls with the power button. Navigate to Settings and then to Accessibility and check Power Button Ends Call.
This feature is available only in Android 2.2 and above.
View all your Homescreens at Once
The “helicopter” view allows you to see all your homescreens in a thumbnail view to pick which one you want to access without manually scrolling to it. Press the HOME button whilst on your homescreen to access this or pinch in on said screen.
Turn Off Flash
There is various reasons why you might want to turn off Flash (battery life, performance, etc). If your phone supports it but you decide to turn it off, once again go to your browser settings and disable plugins.
Enable Automatic Updates of Apps
Apps regularly update but there’s no easy way of tracking these inside of Android. However, to automatically download and install updates, view the app in the Android marketplace and tick the box next to Allow Automatic Updating.
Route Callers to Voicemail
Keep annoying callers from speaking to you by routing them direct to voicemail. Locate the person in question’s contact card, press your MENU button and the navigate to Options.
Install the Android Power Control Widget
This is a great widget that allows you to turn off features like Bluetooth, GPS and WiFi or turn down display brightness. We’ll discuss this in the widgets section below, but to install it simply add it to your customized home screen in the usual way.
Use Facebook Photos as Contact Icons
Some of my friends don’t like me holding a camera to their face in order to take a photo of them for their display picture. Luckily, there’s a big resource of photos of them in the way of Facebook. Open the official app and locate the photo you want and then choose the Set As option in the photo’s overlay to create a contact icon picture. (HTC users may find that their phones do this automatically.)
Unmount your SD Card for Safe Removal
Most Android phones and tablets support SD cards for expansion and you can do all the formatting and mounting you want in Settings > SD & phone storage.
Five Fundamental Widgets
Now we’ve pretty much covered the vital aspects of getting your Android experience off the ground, but there’s one more thing. We already talked about customizable home screens, and one important feature on these are widgets. Just like apps, there’s too many to talk about in this article, but here’s just five (both pre-installed and available via the Android Market) we think you should have.
These widgets are available either on your phone out-of-the-box or from the Widgets category of the Android Market. Be sure to check out this category for more or subscribe to Android.AppStorm for more widget reviews and roundups.
Android Power ControlAndroid’s power control widget is built into the OS and available when you customize your home screen. It adds five toggle buttons (WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS/Location, Sync and Brightness) which allow for easier ways to turn off the aforementioned feature for any reason (most of the time this will be to save battery life).
ShazamShazam is the app you pull out on-the-fly to tag currently playing music and the integrated widget just adds to the convenience. Simply tap the Shazam logo on the widget to jump into recording.
There are two rival services in the music ID world: Shazam and SoundHound. Both ship with widgets, but SoundHound has the advantage of unlimited taggings.
Price: Free; £2.99 for Encore
Facebook and TwitterTwitter and Facebook’s free apps both have bundled widgets which act with their own functionality and also as a shortcut into apps. The Twitter widget shows the most recent tweet in your stream and allows you to update too.
These are nice apps, but if your phone runs the HTC Sense UI, check out the FriendStream widget below.
Sky NewsSky News’s official app comes with their homescreen widget, an elegant way to get the latest and breaking news to your phone without having to launch the app. There are some design issues when you have long headlines with the breaking overlay (as pictured) but no other issues.
If you don’t get Sky News or prefer to use another provider, consider the various other offerings on the marketplace including the New York Times or (for HTC owners) the integrated news widget.
HTC FriendStreamHTC’s FriendStream feature is a smooth integration of Facebook and Twitter. You simply add your social media accounts and then view a combined stream from both sites or send updates. This a much more streamlined option over the official apps we mentioned before.
The widget comes in two varieties. The first is a small one that allows you to update your status; the larger allows you to not only update your status but view your stream on the widget instead of launching the app.
Three-and-a-half thousand words later and you’ve finished my “Beginner’s Guide to Android”. Hopefully now you realize the major differences from this and a certain other mobile operating system. The aim of this article was not an effort to bombard you with tons of apps to download, but rather an introduction to the fundamental add-ons available for Android. From the ones we’ve mentioned today, there’s a world of apps and widgets available on the Android Marketplace and we’ll be covering a lot of them here.
Got any other tips or recommended apps for Android? Or any topics you want covered in future articles? Let us know in the comments!