Android is the most popular mobile operating system in the world. While Apple’s iOS (iPhone and iPad) receives lavish attention and has a devout following, Android continues to rack up impressive numbers. In fact, according to figures released as recently as January 2014, Android had an astounding 79 percent worldwide market share in 2013!
Part of the reason for this is that Android faces little competition. iOS continues to be its only viable foe, particularly in the United States with about a 41 percent market share. Windows Phone and the ever-fading Blackberry continue to be also-rans.
All this really means is that a whole lot of people use Android and, time after time, we see people struggling to master it. It’s not that Android is hard to use, in fact, it’s very easy, but earlier versions are often slow and clunky while newer ones have a lot of features you need to learn to make the most of it. Also, people may simply not know or realize many of the ways you can better manage your device rather than it managing you.
That’s what we’re going to teach you this week.
Android has seen nearly 20 versions since version 1.0 was released in 2008. Since 2009 they have been named after deserts or sweets, for example, version 2.3 was known as “Gingerbread.” The most recent version is version 4.4 or “Kitkat.”
Previous to that was Jelly Bean or version 4.3. Google has labored mightily to improve adoption rates for Android 4.x, but amazingly, over 20 percent of Android devices still run some form of Gingerbread! Contrast that with iOS 7, Apple’s latest mobile operating system, which 87 percent of iPhone and iPad users have installed.
Therefore, it’s difficult to write with one single Android version in mind, but we believe in always having the latest version of any operating system installed. Not simply to take advantage of the latest features, but also because Kitkat represents a long effort by Google to hone its operating system so that it works on much older hardware than previous Android versions.
If you cannot upgrade to Kitkat, or even Jelly Bean, then it probably means you’re stuck with the version you have until you can buy a new phone or tablet. Don’t worry, most of the information we cover here can still be applied in some way and, if it cannot, you still have this series as a resource when you do finally upgrade!
What’s the Difference Between “Pure” Android and Other Distributions?
Handset makers go through a vast array of tricks to make Android more user friendly. What you often end up with is a convoluted mess of UI eye candy and unneeded apps that add more bloat than their worth. So, we have many manufacturers creating their own “skins” for Android to make it behave the way that they want it, like HTC “Sense” and Samsung “TouchWiz.” While they each have their own dedicated fans, this problem splinters the Android community and gives everybody a different interface to learn.
Starting with Jelly Bean, there’s been a concerted effort from Google to really refine Android and make it more fast and fluid, as well as compatible on older devices. With Kitkat, there’s been even more refinement to the point now where Google has attracted its own hardcore, almost cult-like, following of users who prefer and swear by stock, or “pure” Android. This is Android with none of the skinning and extra features that handset makers add.
The result of this is an Android distribution as Google intended. For the purposes of this series, we will refer to, and include, screenshots from Android Kitkat and, where necessary, Samsung Touchwiz. We include Samsung simply because it is used by 27 percent of US Android users and worldwide, the company accounted for 32 percent of all smartphone shipments in 2013.
Getting a Lay of the Land
Android is super easy to use. It employs a few consistent UI features and elements that can be found across nearly all Android devices. We’ll go on a little tour of these before diving a bit further into many of the settings you will encounter throughout this series.
The Home Screen
Turn on, unlock your device, and you see your home screen. We can think of this as a desktop of sorts, but unlike a traditional desktop PC device, you can have as many home screens as you want, which you simply swipe left/right to access. You can place a whole variety of app shortcuts (we’ll cover this in Lesson 2), app groups, and widgets on your home screen(s).
Here below we see vanilla Android pictured left and Samsung Touchwiz on the right.
Note, your home screen will vary according to how your handset manufacturer lays it out or however you customize it.
The Status Bar
At the very top, ever-present, is the status bar. The status bar is persistent in that it rarely leaves the display, except in some full-screen applications. The status bar displays important information including time, signal (Wi-Fi/mobile data), notifications such as texts and e-mails.
Again, your status bar will display differently depending on your phone manufacturer and any customization’s you may have made or apps you’ve installed.
Quick Settings Panel
In recent Android versions, Google introduced the “Quick Settings” panel which allows you to pull push and pull the status bar down on the right side of the status bar to access a whole array of device features. This feature isn’t available on the Samsung Touchwiz interface.
Note again, this may appear differently on your device.
Notifications have always been one of Android’s strong points. With notifications, the system and apps can notify you when something needs attention, such as an e-mail, text message, or something app-specific such as a Facebook alert. Pull down on the status bar’s left side to see all your notifications, which you can then attend to or clear out.
Simply swipe each notification to clear it or tap the clear notifications icon at the very top to take care of all of them at once. Again, Samsung doesn’t divide the status bar into two halves, so no matter where you pull down, you will always get the notifications screen.
The so-called Favorites Tray allows you to pin certain apps such as your contacts and phone dialer so no matter what home screen you are on, you can always access them. Further, you can stack apps in groups or if the whim strikes you, remove them altogether.
We’ll cover how to create app groups in the next lesson.
At the bottom of your device is the “Action bar,” which like the status bar, never goes away, even when it seems as though it has. The status bar almost always displays three symbols (left to right) back, home, and recent apps. It may also display three small dots when an app has extra options you can access.
Regardless, you should always see these three navigation elements wherever you are on your device. On Samsung models, the S4 Galaxy in particular, these are physical buttons, not onscreen elements.
Finally, there’s the app drawer. This is the center icon on the app tray that opens up the place where all your apps shortcuts hang out.
From here you can open them, uninstall, or pin shortcuts to the home screen.
Get to know your settings, this is how you will achieve maximum control over your device. By mastering them, you will be able to use the system with a great deal more finesse and efficiency. There are two ways to access settings, you can either open the app tray and tap the “Settings” shortcut or you can pull down the “Quick Settings” panel and choose “Settings” from the choices.
On the Samsung interface, you simply touch the “menu” button and then “Settings.” You’re then given four tabs.
Note that the Android “Quick Settings” gives you access to many oft-used functions while on the Samsung, the closest analogue is the “My device” tab.
The “Accounts” tab is more quickly accessible whereas on standard Android, it is including among all the other settings.
And then finally, the “More” button where you can access everything else. This is somewhat similar to what you will find in standard Android.