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Introduction to Android phones & tablets

Part 1: Getting to know your phone

by Alan Zisman (c) 2017

Last updated: 2023-08-19
Spanish translation by Laura Mancini ~ Polish translation by Marek Murawsk ~ Slovak translation by Margareta Sliwka
These notes originally accompanied a series of workshops given at Vancouver's Brock House. The Introduction to Android phones and tablets workshop is given in two parts. This is the first part - looking at your Android device and becoming comfortable with the Android operating system and standard apps. The second part will help you learn to customize Android and suggest some worthwhile apps to download and install.

Android is the most popular operating system in the world today. 2023 numbers show that Apple's iPhone represents 57% of the phones in the US market vs 42% for Android, but worldwide Android represents 71% of sales vs iPhone's 28%

It's developed by Google and used by a variety of smartphone and tablet manufacturers for a huge variety of products. That's both a strength and a weakness - it's a strength because it means you can get a phone (or tablet) in a wide range of sizes - small, medium, large, extra-large, styles, price-points, with keyboards and without, etc. It's a weakness because there is a huge range of hardware and software versions - manufacturers and phone companies are free to customize Android as much as they want. This makes it difficult to distribute Android updates - even vital security updates; while a majority of Apple iPhone/iPad users are running either the latest iOS version or the previous one, Android users are running a wide range of versions - and even users of the same Android version will find that it looks and works differently on, say, a Samsung phone from one from HTC.

You might want to take a look at the Wikipedia article discussing Android versions and history. You're probably running an older version of Android - see: Android Oreo’s download numbers are sad, and show Android’s biggest problem

In this tutorial, we'll be (mostly) looking at my Nexus 5X phone currently running Android 8.1 (Oreo) - your phone will almost certainly be different. Nexus and now Pixel phones are sold by Google and run 'pure' Android - without additions from manufacturers or cell phone services. As a result, they are the first to receive security patches and new versions of Android. They are also sold unlocked, and can be used with mobile phone providers world-wide.

Most Android phones and tablets run a version of Android customized by the manufacturer - Samsung, LG, HTC, Motorola, etc. Some - Motorola's phones, for instance - are very close to stock Android and receive updates reasonably quickly. Some - such as the affordably-priced Fire tablets sold by Amazon - are very different from standard Android. Because of this, your phone or tablet may look an act differently from the examples in this workshop - in some cases, very differently! (Don't say you haven't been warned!). See: Android skin blunders that make no sense

As of August 2018, the latest version of Android is Android 9 (Pie), released August 6 2018 and slowly trickling out to different models/manufacturers. In general, Android phone manufacturers release version of the latest version of Android customized for their models slowly - if at all; as of summer 2018, about 12% of Android phones had been updated to the then-current Android 8 - a year after that version's release. Android versions have been given a letter and a 'dessert name' starting with that letter - as of Fall 2019, though, Google (probably unable to find a dessert name starting with 'Q'), that the new version will be referred to as 'Android 10'.

Looking for a phone? See the December 2017 The 10 best smartphones you can buy right now — ranked by price

Before we start, you should be familiar with some standard smartphone actions and gestures:
Take a look at your device -

It will have a power button and a longer volume control - typically pressing the top of the volume control makes the sounds louder, pressing the bottom lowers the sound (some phones may have separate up and down volume buttons). On some phones, these buttons are on opposite edges, on others they are on the same edge. Find where they are located on your device.

Note that when your phone's running a quick press on the power button does not actually turn it off - it just turns off the display. The phone continues running, going online, and using battery power - eventually the battery can run itself completely down if you leave your phone like this. If you want to 'really' shut your phone down - perhaps if you're not going to use it for several days or longer, or if you want to restart it because it's frozen or you're having other problems - hold the power button down until you see a message asking if you want it to shut down.

On the bottom (or top!) of most phones there's a small jack for a cable for charging your phone, connecting it to a computer, and connecting other devices. Most Android devices connect using a micro-USB plug which can only be plugged in one way - if it doesn't want to go in don't try to force it! Turn it 180-degrees and try again. You can use the cable and charger from a different manufacturer without problem. Some recent phones, however, (including my Nexus 5x) use a new style cord and connector called USB-C - these charge faster and are symmetrical - letting them be plugged in more easily - and have other advantages. They're probably going to become increasingly common, but it means I can't use older micro-USB cords (etc) without adaptors.

There's also (again on most phones) a headphone jack - a round hole usually on either the top or bottom edge. You can use standard headphones or ear buds from any manufacturer.

On the back, there a lens for the camera and (usually) a flash. Don't put your finger over the lens when you're taking a picture! Less obvious - the front 'selfie' camera.

Your mobile phone provider will give (or sell) you a SIM card, needed to connect to their network. Your phone will take one of three different sizes of SIM card - these days, phone companies most often distribute a single SIM than can be made into whatever size you need.

Inside the HTC 510Where to plug the SIM card in varies with different phone models - some (like the HTC Desire 510 in the photo to the left) have a removable back which lets you access the SIM (and in some cases also provides access to a micro-SD memory card slot for adding storage - a very good feature! and maybe also a removable battery). In the photo, I've popped the back off the HTC 510 and removed the large rectangular battery. I've taken out the micro-SD memory card and the SIM card for the Bell network - each is sitting below its socket.

Other models may have a slot on the side where you can pop the SIM card - and maybe a second slot for a memory card. (Don't get the two mixed up!). Typically, you push the card in a bit and it pops out. It will only fit right-side in.

My Nexus 5x doesn't have a memory card slot; for the SIM card, instead, there's a little tray on the side with a tiny hole in it - push in the hole with the end of a paper clip and the tray pops out, allowing access to the SIM card.

You'll only need to access the SIM card if you're switching to a different phone network - for instance when travelling, or changing mobile providers.

Note that most tablets don't use SIM cards - they only connect to local WiFi networks. Some tablets, however, also have a SIM socket - letting you sign up for a data plan with a mobile network provider. That lets them access the Internet even when there's no available WiFi connection.

The option of plugging in a memory card lets you store more photos, videos, music, and apps than might fit in your device's limited built-in storage. Not all phones or tablets support this useful feature, however.

Home screenTake a look at your phone's Home Screen -

Here was my phone's Home Screen. Some things on it are standard and will be similar on your phone - others are customized.

At the top is a row of small icons - the Notification Bar. Icons on the left side are notifications of new information. Perhaps you got an email message or a text message or a Facebook message. Maybe there's a weather report. Or you have a calendar event. Maybe you missed a phone call.

On the right, you have other icons - the date & time, battery, wi-fi, and mobile phone network status.

If you pull down from the top of the screen, you can access the notifications. Clicking on a notification will (generally) take you to the app that lets you access that email, text message, or phone call. There's an option to clear the notifications - in Android 8 (Oreo) it says 'Clear All'. In some versions, it may be an unclear symbol at the bottom. Or an X at the top.

Pull down further (at least on my phone with this version of Android) and there is a set of icons for often-done tasks: Quick Access Settings - adjust the screen brightness, connect to a wi-fi network, turn on Airplane Mode, turn Bluetooth or Location on or off, turn on the flashlight (using the camera's flash and quickly burning through the phone's battery), etc. Near the top, there's an icon of a gear - one of many ways to enter Setup. (More below).

Below the notification bar, there's a Google Search item. Tap on it and you can type a question for Google Search. Click on the microphone icon and you can speak a question.

Below that, I've added the Transparent Clock & Weather widget - a download (with both free and paid version) from Google's Play Store (more on that below). Widgets are apps that can be installed on a Home Screen that automatically run in the background - in this case, showing a clock and auto-updating weather reports. I like the transparency, letting me see the wallpaper image of my grandchildren and dog.

We'll look at customizing the wallpaper and adding apps and widgets in Part 2 of this workshop. We will also learn how to remove apps from the Home Screen and to create folders to store several app icons - or drag icons out of folders.

My screen also has two sets of icons - the lower set of icons (the 'Dock') appears on each Home Screen page (you can have multiple pages and move between them). Above them, I've got 5 icons for apps I access most often. The 3 dots in between these two rows of icons indicates that I've got 3 screens - this one (indicated by the larger dot) is the second of the three. I can move between these different screens by sweeping my finger from the left or right edge of the screen. You can have more that 3 Home Screens if you want to organize a lot of app icons - but (unlike on an iPhone or iPad) there's a better way to deal with a lot of apps.

The icons on the bottom row appear on every Home Screen page - you want to keep icons for the things you use most often here.

3 virtual buttons3 Buttons:

At the very bottom of the screen, my phone has three symbols: a left-pointing triangle, a circle, and a square. (These may be different on your phone!). These are 'virtual buttons' and will appear on other screens besides the Home Screen. If you rotate your device, the buttons will rotate as well, appearing at the button of the now horizontal screen. (This is an advantage of virtual buttons - physical buttons stay in one place no matter how you hold your phone). Samsung devices use physical buttons - a large rounded rectangle Home button in the middle, with a smaller button on either side. They light up when the devices thinks you want them.

The triangle is the Back Button - a very useful feature that will take you back to what you were doing previously - whether within an app or even from one app to another. For instance, I may receive an email message that includes a link to a web page. Tapping the link opens my phone's web browser, loading the page. When I'm done reading the page, if I tap the Back Button, it takes me back to the email message. A great feature - and one that's not used on Apple's iPhone or iPad. The back button is on the left on most devices, but on the right on Samsung phones and tablets.

The middle button - round on my phone - is the Home Button. Tapping it leaves whatever app is running on-screen and takes you make to your Home Screen. (Note that the app is still running, but this is not a big problem). Most Samsung phones and tablets - like Apple's devices - use a physical button for the Home Button. A long press on the Home Button - on my phone! - opens up Google Now, which lets me ask my phone a question and have Google Now try to answer it. See what a long press on the Home Button does on your device.

App DrawerThe last button - the square on my phone - is the multitasking button or recent apps button. It's on the right on most devices but on the left on Samsung products. Tapping it shows all the apps that are running right now (not all the many, many apps that are installed on the phone). I can scroll between them and switch to any one of them. Or I can close apps that I don't need running right now - either by clicking on the [X] in each app's image or by simply swiping each to the right-hand side. (You won't use this button very often, I predict).

(Sometimes, when an app is running, you won't see the virtual buttons... in that case, tap on the bottom of the screen where they ought to be, and in a moment, they'll appear. This is an advantage of Samsung/Apple-style physical Home Buttons - they're always visible, even if sometimes they're in an awkward location).

The App Drawer:

Some phones and tablets (like Amazon's Fire tablets) mimic Apple's iPhone and iPad by dumping icons for every app installed on the device onto one of multiple Home Screen pages, in random order. I find this confusing, and - where possible - suggest Android users only put frequently-used apps on a Home Screen page. Instead, most Android devices have an easily-accessed place to find all the installed apps: the App Drawer. It's the icon in the middle of the bottom row of icons on my Home Screen - on my phone, a white circle with six dots. It may have a different appearance and location on your phone or tablet.

(A few phones don't have a visible icon for the App Drawer - some Samsung phones/tables have an optional Easy Interface mode that - when enabled in Settings - puts all app icons on multiple Home screens (like Apple iPhone/iPad). Disabling restores a more standard Android interface, complete with App Drawer and icon. Google Pixel phones have an App Drawer but no obvious way to get there - swoop up from the bottom and it appears!)

Tapping on that icon gives me icons for all my apps in alphabetical order (after the top row of most recently accessed apps) - scroll down to see more. This lets me easily start up any app that I want even if it's not on one of the Home Screens.) (On some devices, you may need to access a setting option to put the apps in alphabetical order).

Even if you've never added any apps to your phone or tablet, you probably have more of them than can appear on a single App Drawer screen. Depending on your device, try swiping from the right side or up from the bottom to move to the next page.

Note two additional features of the App Drawer on my device - yours may be similar (or different!).

At the top, there's a Search Apps bar - if I remember part of the name of an app, I can type it here to see if its in the App Drawer.

Below that, there are four icons that aren't in alphabetical order - these are apps that I've often accessed. (Their icons also appear in the alphabetical list).

Take a look at the apps in your device's App Drawer - you probably will find apps you didn't know where there. Tap on them to see if they do anything you care about - you may find that your phone or tablet can be more useful than you knew! Or you may decide that you're never going to use them - we'll see how to uninstall them in Part 2. You won't hurt anything by running an app for a moment or two - remember, you can always return to the Home Screen by pressing the Home Button. And if you want to shut down an app, tap on the right-hand button.

Android 9 (optionally) does away with the 3 buttons (and the App Drawer icon). If you choose, you can enable so-called gesture navigation. If you do this, on the Home Screen, you'll only see a lozenge-shaped Home button - and no icon for the App Drawer. Swiping up gives you the multitasking screen - showing all running apps. Swiping up further (or again) opens the App Drawer. When you've got an app onscreen, you'll see a tiny back button beside the Home button.

If you've installed Android 9 and want to try this out, open Preferences, go to the System section (near the end), then the Gestures sub-section. Enable Swipe Up on Home Button.

A few more standards -

Not on the Home Screen or App Drawer, but there are a few more standard interface items that will appear in lots of places:

Menu icons
The 'Hamburger Menu' icon looks like a stack of three horizontal lines - think of the two pieces of a hamburger bun with a patty in between - often appearing in the top-left of an app's window. Tap it to open up a set of options. For instance, the Gmail app has a hamburger menu beside the word Inbox on the list of mail messages. Tapping it opens up a list of different mailboxes - Sent Messages, Spam, Trash, etc.

Three vertical dots - typically at the top-right - indicates a different list of menu items. In the image - a screen capture from the Photos app - we see a hamburger menu on the left and a three-dot menu on the right. Tapping the three dots offers items to create a new album, collage and more within this photo album app.

Send ToThe center icon (looking like a < ) in the blue screen capture (also from the Photos app) is the Send-To icon. It will also appear in lots of apps. It lets you send something - in this case a photo - to your choice of a variety of places. If I tap it in the Photo app, I see:

Send To items
I can, for instance, tap on the Gmail icon which will open that app, create a new message, and insert my photo in the body of the message. I just have to enter the name or email address of my intended recipient, type a subject and maybe a few words of text and tap 'Send'. Or I could tap an icon to send my photo via Facebook Messenger or in the mail Facebook program - the Send To options will vary depending on what apps are installed on your phon. Very handy!

(Sometimes, you'll need to tap the 3 vertical dots icon and pick Send To from the pop-up menu).

There are other frequently-used icons  - the trash can icon (also visible in the blue screen-capture image), for instance may be self-explanatory. In the Photos app, for instance, tapping it will ask if you want to delete the photo. In the Gmail app - or other email  app, it will appear when a message is open or selected - tapping it will delete the message. A trash can will appear when you're uninstalling an app.

The keyboard - Smartphones and tablets have 'virtual keyboards' that pop up when the device thinks you want to type some text. As is often the case with Android, different device models feature different keyboards - and you can install replacement keyboard apps, so your keyboard may look different. See: Best Keyboards for Android - the images below are of Google's Gboard keyboard, installable from the Google Play Store. (As well, you can connect a physical keyboard using a Bluetooth wireless connection or even a USB cable and an adaptor).

Some things to note:

If you rotate your phone 90 degrees - to 'landscape' orientation - the keyboard will become wider which may make it easier to type - but you'll see less of the screen.

Long-press for alternate charactersAlternate characters: Looking for 'alternate' characters - accented letters, punctuation, etc? Try a long-press on a key - alternates may come up! Then tap on your choice. Note the small numbers and characters above many of the keys - they're only some of what I can get with a long-press. Here's what I got by long-pressing the 'period' key:

Similarly, long-pressing on the letter 'e' (for instance) offers a choice of various accented e's. Tap on the one you want and it will appear.

Auto-correctAuto-correct: As you type, above the keyboard characters you may see auto-correct suggestions. If an option is in boldface, it will be inserted by default as soon as you tap a space. Pay attention to the bold auto-correct suggestions - they may replace something you meant to type with something very wrong! At the same time, if it guesses the right word before you finish typing, you can tap it to insert it, speeding up your typing.
Notice below that auto-correct guessed the word I meant to type ('Keyboard') before I finished typing it, but wasn't sure enough to put its guess in boldface. I could tap on its correct guess to insert the word or finish typing with my mistake - by then, it would be surer of its guess and when I pressed space, it would correct my typing. If it makes a wrong auto-correction, pressing the 'backspace' key (the arrow with the [x] on it above the Enter key) will undo the auto-correction.

Skating with your finger: Some keyboards, including Gboard, Swiftkey, and Swype offer an option of 'swiping' or 'glide keyboard' instead of tapping to type. To do that, you use your finger to sort of 'ice-skate' over the letters that spell out your word - when you lift your finger, the keyboard inserts what it things is the whole word. Some people find that faster and more efficient - and a fun way to type.

More - 9 typing tips every Android and iOS user should know

Google account features and services you may not be using

By setting up an Android phone you set up a Google account whether you realized it or not - even if you don't use Google's Gmail for your email. These give you a large amount of storage for free that you might as well be making use of - and they can be used to access files, photos, music, and more on your phone or tablet, your computer (Windows or Mac) at home, work, or travelling, and to share files, photos (etc) with colleagues, friends, and family (including on Facebook or other social networks).

You can use the Gmail app with a Google Gmail account but also with email accounts from other providers. It connects with email addresses stored in Google's Contacts app - and phone numbers stored in Contacts are available to the Phone and Messages apps. If you use Google's Chrome web browser on your computer - and log into your Google account in Chrome - bookmarks, search results, and saved passwords are available if you Chrome on your phone or tablet. The Photos app and Play Music app on your phone and tablet combine photos and music store on your device with photos and music files saved in your online Google cloud storage. All of this is optional, but they make your Android device easier to use and more productive - as long as you're prepared to share your files, passwords, and other information with Google.

You may interested in using these optional Google cloud storage features:
Note that it's valid to have privacy concerns about storing documents, photos, etc in Google's online storage services - or in any cloud service.

If you're concerned about Google having access to your personal information and data, you might take a look at: A Guide to Using Android Without Selling Your Soul to Google

Are you getting the most out of your Android phone or tablet?

Your Android phone can be used as a camera and photo and video viewer, as a music player, and even as a flashlight in a pinch. And yes, it can be used as a phone and to send text messages. You can go online to view webpages, read and send emails, go on Facebook and more. See: What would the stuff your smartphone can do cost in 1985?

But you can also be using it on the go for maps and directions, to check when your bus is due to arrive, and even to pay at a parking meter (at least in Vancouver). To do these things, though, you need an Internet connection on the go - but many of us assume that we either don't need or can't afford to have 'data' on our plan with our mobile provider. Certainly there was life before smartphones - and you can use your smartphone in many useful ways without a data plan and only going online when you're connected to a WiFi network.

But having mobile data available makes your smartphone much more useful. You can catch up on your email on the bus! Get directions when lost. Refresh your parking meter when time runs out while you're in the mall. And lots more!

As long as you're not watching online video on the go, you don't need much mobile data - a relatively small (and relatively inexpensive) amount of data will not be an expensive addition to your monthly cell phone bill. Give it a try!

Quick access to frequently used settings

HTC Quick Access
Most Android devices offer easy access to commonly-used settings - things you might want to get to quickly, like turning Airplane Mode on or off, connecting to a WiFi network, or more.

To get to the Quick Settings options, pull down from the top. You'll see notifications. On my older HTC Desire 510 phone, there's an icon in the top right above the notifications list - tap on it and you'll see the Quick Settings as shown to the left.

On my newer Nexus 5x phone, pull down from the top to show the notifications - then pull down again. This time you'll see the Quick Settings as shown to the right. (There are a couple of other options on a second page if I swipe from the right).

In both cases, you'll see options to adjust the screen brightness for more visibility in bringht sunlight or to save battery power. You can quickly turn WiFi on or off or connect to a different WiFi network. Turn the Bluetooth radio off - and leave it off unless you need it - it's just wasting battery power otherwise. Turn 'airplane mode' on when you board a plane and turn it off again when you land (maybe!). Disable auto-rotate if you find it annoying.

(For all these plus lots more settings, the Settings app offers lots of options - we'll look at that in detail in Part 2.)
Nexus 5x Oreo Quick Access

Optimizing Battery Life -

Hopefully your smartphone battery lasts you through a whole day or more. If that's the case, you're probably okay and can just recharge your phone every night while you sleep. (Yes, it's okay to charge your phone before the battery is fully discharged - modern batteries no longer suffer from a 'memory effect' where charging a partially dis-charged battery will affect the battery's life).

The biggest drain on your battery is the screen - that's part of the reason why modern smartphones, with big bright screens, tend to have shorter battery life than older feature phones with small screens. (As well, we're more likely to use a smartphone more and in more different ways than we used older, less capable styles of phones). So what can make the biggest difference in battery life is turning down your screen brightness. That's a trade-off though - a dimmer screen is harder to view. Find a balance - not too bright, not too dim. Your phone may want to automatically make your screen brighter or dimmer depending on the level of outside light. Experiment with having this setting on or off - see if you notice a difference in battery life.

Turn off radios that you aren't using - no Bluetooth devices? Turn off Bluetooth (there may be a Quick Settings icon for that - see above). Not using location? Turn it off. Going a while without connecting to Wi-Fi? You get the picture.

See:  Tips and myths about extending smartphone battery life and How to see which apps are draining your battery and 6 common battery myths and This Is How You Can Boost Your Smartphone Battery Life!![Guide For all Phone 2021]

One more thing - the standard Facebook and Facebook Messenger apps are real battery wasters. Instead, I recommend you use Facebook alternatives Swipe for Facebook or Friendly).

Note that over time, your battery will no longer hold as much charge or last as long - this is normal (though unfortunate!) and is one the major reasons people decide to get a new phone. If your battery used to last all day but no longer does, maybe it's time for an upgrade. See: 5 signs that you’re ready to upgrade your smartphone.

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