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Introduction to Android phones & tablets

Part 2: customizing your phone or tablet

by Alan Zisman (c) 2017

last updated 2020-12-07
Spanish translation by Laura Mancini ~ Polish translation by Marek Murawski 
 translation by Margareta Sliwka
last updated 2018-05-30

Part 1 introduced Android hardware and software, looking at your phone or tablet's Home Screen, App Drawer, common icons, and keyboard. This section will focus on customizing your device to make it easier to use, personalized, and more safe and secure.

Let's start by taking a look at your device's Home Screen. What's on it? We're going to look at an older HTC Desire 510 phone - a 2014 mid-range model running Android 4.4 running 2013's Android 4.4 (KitKat) with HTC's custom additions. I reinstalled Android on it and set it up with my Google Account giving us a more or less mint phone. We'll be comparing it with my Nexus 5x - a 2015 phone running 2017's Android 8.10 (Oreo) version.

HTC Desire 510 home screenHere's the uncustomized Home Screen of the HTC Desire 510 phone - as we described in Part 1 there's a notifications bar along the top - showing quite a few notifications. There are icons on the top-right showing it's connected to a WiFi network but not a phone network and that the battery is charging.

There's a Google search bar widget, and HTC's default wallpaper image.  Lower down, there's a folder labelled 'Google', filled with various Google apps and an app for Google's Play Store - more on that later.

If I swipe my finger from the right edge of the screen, I get a secondary Home Page, with a couple of more apps and a widget showing online TV shows - all courtesy of Bell, the Canadian mobile phone provider who sold (and customized) the phone. If I swipe from the left, I see a screen labelled This is BlinkFeed - your window to the world from your homescreen. Below, it has news items and calendar items, and a suggestion that I can Connect and share with people from all your social networks - tap here to start. BlinkFeed is proprietary to HTC.

Swiping from the right, I'm back at my Home Screen. Towards the bottom, there's a row of icons that also repeats on the second Home Screen page: a phone icon, an icon for text messaging, a grid of 9 squares that opens the App Drawer, a globe icon for a web browser, and a camera icon.

Below that are 3 virtual buttons - back, Home, and multitasking. All pretty similar to what we looked at in Part 1.

To make this Home Screen more personalized, I might want to replace the HTC default wallpaper with one of my own photos. Perhaps a photo of my grandchildren. Or my dog.

And I might want to take all those icons for Google apps out of that Google folder and decide whether I want any on my Home Screen. I can remove the other ones - removing them from the Home Screen doesn't uninstall them - they're still available from the App Drawer.

I can look through the App Drawer and see if there are any other apps that I'd like to display on the Home Screen. As I get additional apps - from Google's Play Store (see below) I can decide whether to add their icon to the Home Screen (or to a secondary Home Screen page), or just leave them in the App Drawer.
HTC - Google folder
I tapped on the Google folder icon - that opens up the folder and displays the contents. It looks like all the various Google applications installed as part of a standard Android installation. In most cases, you probably have all of these on your phone or tablet. (A few Android devices, most noticeably Amazon's Fire tablets, use a version of Android that doesn't include any of these Google apps - Amazon wants you to use their services instead, and to buy stuff from them - many of the Google apps: Play Music, Play Movies, Play Books for instance are for services competing with Amazon. You can customize an Amazon Fire tablet to get Google services back on them - but it's a do-it-yourself project. See my blog post).

I want to get some of thse off the Home Screen entirely - I don't think I'll be using them that often. To do that, one at a time, hold your finger down on an icon. I did that for the Play Movies icon - when I did that, a Trash Can icon appeared on the top with the word Remove. Dragging the icon up and dropping it on the Trash Can removed it from the folder.

You can do the same with any icon or widget - on any Home Screen, in a folder or not.

Repeat as desired.

Similarly, if you drag an icon and drop it elsewhere on the Home Screen, outside that folder, will place the icon on the Home Screen - and not in the folder.

I'd like to replace the generic web browser on the bottom row of icons with the Chrome browser that's in the Google folder. First, remove the generic web browser icon. That works the same way: hold your finder down on it. A Trash Can icon will appear - drag the icon up and drop it on the Trash Can.

That leaves a space in the bottom row of icons. Open up the Google folder, hold your finger on the Chrome icon and drag it down, placing it in the space.

If you drag an icon to the edge of a Home Screen, you can move it to the next screen over.

Doing this, I moved the Chrome icon to the row of icons on the bottom (in place of the Browser icon) and moved Gmail, Maps, and YouTube to the Home Screen (outside of the folder). I removed the other icons and the Google folder.

Already my Home Screen is more usable.
HTC app drawer
Next, I looked in the App Drawer - by tapping on the grid of 9 squares in the middle of the bottom row of icons on the Home Screen (your symbol may look different!). It shows all the apps installed on the device, listed in alphabetical order. I'm looking to see if there are any apps I might use often enough to want an icon on my Home Screen.

I frequently check Facebook on my phone. I could open the app by going to the App Drawer every time - but it would be easier for me to have an icon on the Home Screen.

When I hold my finger down on the Facebook icon, I see what's pictured on the right. Note that up top, there are two choices - Cancel (to call the whole thing off) and a Trash Can labelled Uninstall. If I drag the app up here, it uninstalls the app - not just removing it, as it did from the Home Screen. It's entirely gone from my phone. (I can always install it again if I change my mind).

Note that you can't uninstall all of your apps - many apps from Google, from your phone manufacturer and from your mobile phone provider may not allow you to uninstall them.
HTC Add an icon to the Home Screen

In the middle of the screen, I've got scaled down images of my multiple Home Screens. I can place the Facebook icon where I'd like it be on one or another of those screens. Pick up my finger and there it is.

Again, repeat as desired - adding icons for the apps that you think you'll use regularly. My advice though - don't clutter up your Home Screens

We'll come back to the Home Screen after we install some more apps and widgets, and after we get some of our personal content (photos, music, etc) onto the phone from our computer.

Apps and where to get them -

"Between smartphones and tablets, Americans spend more than half of their digital media consumption time -- 57 percent -- in apps, according to the report. That's about the same as a year ago -- evidence that the dramatic shift to mobile has now leveled out in the U.S. These are the winners, according to comScore, as measured by their penetration of the U.S. mobile app audience: Facebook (81 percent), YouTube (71 percent), Facebook Messenger (68 percent), Google Search (61 percent), Google Maps (57 percent), Instagram (50 percent), Snapchat (50 percent), Google Play (47 percent), Gmail (44 percent), and Pandora (41 percent)." - 2017 U.S. Mobile App Report

Your phone comes with a bunch of apps already installed - Google's set of standard apps, additional apps from your phone manufacturer, other apps from your mobile provider - if you got your phone from them. This may be confusing. You may have Google's Gmail app (which works with other email accounts as well in many cases), Google's Email app (designed for non-Gmail email accounts), and Samsung email app. You can get other email apps as well. Pick one!

Apps can be a security problem, loading malware on your phone to steal identity, charge card, or banking information. This is a real problem in some parts of the world, but not as big a concern (at least not now) in North America. In general, if you limit your app acquisitions to to Google's Play Store, you're pretty safe. You have a Play Store app on your phone already. You can download free apps from the Play Store without giving Google any credit card information - but you will need a credit card to purchase paid apps.

Note that you may see webpages, print ads, and more mentioning that an app is available "At the App Store or Google Play". The 'App Store' is Apple's source for apps for iPhones and iPads - it won't work for Android devices. Android users get apps for their devices at the (poorly named) Google Play Store.

When you think about getting an app, think about the business model. Most of the listed apps will claim to be free, others will have prices - generally a few dollars or so. Some of the 'free' apps are genuinely free, at least to you - PayByPhone, an app to use your phone to pay for Vancouver parking meters is free to you - I suspect it gets money from the City of Vancouver every time you use it to pay for parking. An app to call a cab or Uber will be free. Google's apps are free - paid for by ads of Google search pages. Many free apps, though, are free because they serve up ads, often with a paid, ad-free version. Others are demo-ware - free but wanting you to buy a more complete version. Personally, I try free apps - if I don't care for them I uninstall them. If I want to keep using an app - and it has a paid version - I try to purchase that, getting rid of ads, often getting additional features, and helping to support the app developer.

(Much of the Android malware is found in hacked versions of paid apps - often games; users search for the app name + the word free and find a link that claims to be a source for a free version of an otherwise-paid app.... in order to save the cost of a cup of coffee or two they expose their phone to malware. Bad choice! Stay safer and limit your apps to downloads from Google's Play Store).

Here are some of the Android apps that I find useful - open this webpage on your phone and click on the link to install them from Google's Play Store:
For a step-by-step introduction to downloading and installing apps, see: Downloading Apps on Android: Everything You Need to Know or How to download and manage apps from the Google Play Store. Every year, PC Magazine publishes a list of The 100 Best Android Apps. And here's a best-of-2017 list: Best Android apps of 2017 for your new phone, tablet, or Chromebook and an Oct 2017 The Best Android Apps. On the contrarian side: Do we really want an app for everything?

To get an app (besides clicking on the above links), start by opening the Play Store app already on your phone or tablet. Search for the title or some descriptive word. Maybe you want to see what apps are available that have something to do with the city of Venice, because you're planning on travelling there. You'll see a list of apps that meet your search query - and their price, if any. Find one that looks interesting and tap on its name. You'll get a description and a button that says "Install" if it's a free app. (Below the button it may mention that it 'Includes ads'). Alternatively, you'll see a button with the price - if you want to buy it for that price, tap the button. If you haven't already given Google credit card information, you'll be prompted to do so. Before a free or paid app installs, you'll be presented with a screen telling you what 'permissions' the app wants - maybe it wants access to your location, your camera, and your contacts. Ask yourself whether you're prepared to share that information with this app's creators. (It's not too late to back out!)

Afterwards, the app will automatically be installed on your device and added to the list in the App Drawer. There may be an icon on one of your Home screens - which you can remove without uninstalling the app.

If you've installed (and/or purchased) an app on one Android device, it's available to you on other Android devices - nice if you own both a phone and a tablet, or replace your device with a new one - as long as you're logged into the same Google account. In the Play Store, if you click on the 'hamburger menu' in the top left, you can go to My Apps & Games and then on Library to see a list of all the apps that have ever been purchased or installed by your account on any Google Device. You'll see Install buttons next to the ones that are not yet installed on your current device. So you only have to pay for an app once even if your device changes.

Some apps can totally change the look and feel of your phone or tablet - Android lets you replace the 'launcher' - the app that controls the Home screen, app drawer, and more and has been customized by your phone's manufacturer: Samsung, HTC, etc. with one by Google, Microsoft, or a third party like the popular Nova Launcher. You can try one or more of these out and see if you like the changes! After installing the new launcher, press the Home button and you'll be prompted to choose whether to use your new launcher 'one time' or 'always' - choose 'one time' and you can always go back by just pressing the Home button again.

You can also replace your device's virtual keyboard - for instance, try Google's Gboard. The installation will walk you through the steps to properly set it up in Preferences.

Transfering media files between your computer and phone

Android File Transfer windowIn order to change your Home Screen wallpaper to a photo of your pet, your grandchildren, or your favourite holiday location, you have to get that photo onto your phone or tablet. If you have photos in the cloud on Google Photo and have Google's Photos app on your phone, you'll be able to access that photo on your phone 'from the cloud' and use it for wallpaper and in other ways.

If the photo is on your laptop or desktop computer, you'll want to connect your Android device to your computer and copy the photo from the computer to your device. You might as well copy a bunch of photos and music while you're at it!

(I've written a blog posting titled: You Can Connect Your Android Device to Your PC or Mac - but be prepared for a few 'gotchas'! You may want to read it!)

Apple devices 'sync' with a desktop or laptop computer using Apple's iTunes app; connect the device to the computer either using a cable or wirelessly and you can transfer music, photos, videos, contacts, calendar and more. Android devices use a different model - contacts and calendar information is stored 'in the cloud' by your Google account, and can be accessed from your phone's Calendar and Contacts (sometimes called 'People') apps.

If you connect your Android device to your computer using the cable from your charger (which has a USB plug on the end) ideally your phone or tablet shows up on your computer just like a plug-in flash drive or external hard drive - you should see that your mobile device has folders for photos, videos and music and you can drag and drop the files you want on your phone or from your phone to your computer. That's the way it ought to work. It's rarely so straightforward, however... for instance:

Back to the Home Screen
Customized Home ScreenNow we're ready to do some last touches to personalizing our Home Screens. I'd like to do two things:
  • Change the wallpaper to a photo of your choice.

  • Add a weather widget - I'm assuming you installed Transparent Clock & Weather or some other weather app of your choice (there are lots!)
We start both the same way - on a Home Screen find a blank area and hold your finger down. As always with Android, what you'll see will depend on your Android version, phone manufacturer, etc. But it will give you a few choices, always including changing the wallpaper and adding a widget. If you pick Wallpaper you'll be offered a choice between standard wallpaper that's pre-installed on your phone or your photos. Assuming you've got a photo you want to use - either on the phone or online on Google Photos, you can select it.

If you choose to add a widget you'll be presented with a list of widgets available on your phone. You may be surprised how many apps that you've already got installed include built-in widgets. Pick one - you may have to choose between several different sizes. Then - as with adding an icon to a Home Screen, you'll be prompted to pick with of your (possibly) several Home Screens to use and where on the screen to place it. Don't worry if you don't like the results - you can always remove it from the Home Screen and try again.

Note that when you install a weather app or widget, you may have to fiddle with its settings. Open the app version (even if it's a widget), check the 'hamburger' and '3-dots' menus for settings. Make sure it knows your location and whether you want temperature in degrees F or degrees C, etc.

Then you're done!

(Here's the Home Screen on my Nexus 5x phone - customized with the apps I use most often, the Transparent Weather widget and a wallpaper photo of my grandchildren and my dog).

Explore the Settings App

You can do a lot more to make your Android phone or tablet work for you. A key tool is the Settings app. You can access it several ways. Keep your eye peeled for a 'Gearwheel' icon. You can find the Gear and the name Settings in your App drawer. There may be an icon on one of your Home Pages (though I tend to take it off since it's easily available elsewhere). And the Notifications pull-down (from the top) may show the Gear icon as well.

Yet again, your Settings App will almost certainly look differently from what's illustrated - details depend on your Android version and your phone manufacturer. You may not have everything mentioned - and some items may be there but organized in a different location (and perhaps with a different name). So be prepared to spend some time poking around your device's Settings App.

The settings are organized into more or less logical categories (unlike Apple's iPhone/iPad where many settings are dumped into a single category named 'General'). Google and the various phone manufacturers tend to change their mind on how to set up the categories, however - so your device may have things arranged differently from my Nexus 5x phone (running Android 8.1 Oreo). Here are the Nexus 5x/Oreo settings - notice there are too many categories to show on a single screen. (Moral - be prepared to pull down to see more):
Settings App - screen 1
Settings App screen 2
Notice that each category includes a description, making it reasonably straightforward to find what you're looking for. As well, there is a Search bar on the top, so if you're not sure where to look, give it a try.

Some of these settings may be more easily accessed by pulling down from the top - along with notifications, most phones and tablets include a set of icons for accessing common settings - you can turn WiFi on and off this way, for intance.

In addition, on my phone, a quick tap on a down-arrow below that row of icons opens up a set of quick-access settings for more easy access:

Quick Access settings

We don't have time to look at every setting on my device - and each of your devices will have a different collection of settings, probably arranged in a somewhat different order. Here are some that I find useful:
Settings - network & internetThe first section is labeled Wireless & Networks:
  • The first item in it Wi-Fi lets you turn your Wi-Fi radio off or on and shows a list of nearby Wi-Fi networks. The ones that require a password to connect show a tiny padlock beside the 'fan' icon - the colouring of the 'fan' gives a rough indication of the signal strength. Once you enter a password and connect to a Wi-Fi network, your phone should remember the password for subsequent connections.

  • You may want to turn off Wi-Fi if you're not going to be accessing Wi-Fi networks for some long period - a long flight, a hike in the country, etc. Otherwise, your phone will waste battery power searching - and failing to find - any accessible Wi-Fi.

  • In Mobile Networks (not available on most tablets!) you can see the Cellular Networks item with an option to turn Data Roaming on or off - if it's off you won't accidentally access cellular data while outside your mobile provider's call area, keeping you safer from unexpected charges. (You can still get data using Wi-Fi).

  • You may find Bluetooth here (or in Connected Devices) - another radio, in this case for connecting to nearby Bluetooth gadgets - speakers and headsets, hands-free phone devices, wireless keyboards and mice, and more. If you're not connecting to any Bluetooth devices, turn it off to save battery power.

  • The Data Usage item shows you how many MB (megabytes) or GB (gigabytes) of cellular data your phone has used so far on this billing period. Lower down the page, it shows how much data has been accessed over Wi-Fi for the same period. My phone says I used 151 MB of cellular data between September 5 and today (September 22) - handy if I'm trying to figure out how much data I need to buy when travelling (see below) or whether I'm paying for more data than I need when I'm at home. See: How to monitor and limit your data usage on an Android phone

  • Other items:  Airplane Mode off or on (yes, I can get here quicker by pulling down the Notification Shade) or turning the NFC radio off - you're probably not using this! The HotSpot & Tethering item lets you share your device's cell phone data connection with other computers, tablets, etc over Wi-Fi - I've used that when travelling; I've often had hotel rooms with crappy (or no) Wi-Fi. Setting up a temporary Wi-Fi hotspot let my wife go online on her (Wi-Fi only) iPad, sharing my phone's data connection.

 The Apps & Notifications section lists all the installed apps - I have 75. Mostly, I ignore this section, but it lets you disable or force-stop a misbehaving app, and lets you view information about each app, modify its notifications, and more. The Notifications list is useful if you'd like to turn off notifications from some apps. Do you get interrupted by too many trivial Facebook notifications? Turn them off! See: It's time to rethink how many notifications your phone is showing you

Settings/Screen Saver
Display has a number of useful settings - you may find this as a sub-section of a section named Device:
  • Adaptive Brightness automatically adjusts the screen brightness depending on the amount of outside light
  • Wallpaper lets you set the Home Screen wallpaper
  • Sleep sets the time before your screen automatically turns off
  • (Very good feature): Screen Saver (some times called 'Day Dream') lets you set the phone to display a clock instead of a blank screen - I use it in place of a travel clock. There's a trick though - just choosing the clock doesn't do what I'd expect. Click the three little dots in the top-right corner to get some menu options then pick When to start screen saver. The default it for it to start when your device is 'docked'. (Who does that?) Instead, pick While charging - now if you charge your phone overnight, the clock will display.
The Storage, Battery, and Memory sections are pretty self-explanatory...

(Recommended!) The Sound item lets you set separate volumes for 'Media', 'Alarms', and phone 'Ring' sounds, and whether to turn vibration on or off. You can change the default phone ringtone (or add a musical ringtone using the Ringdroid app, and select different sounds for notifications and alarms. (You can change the default sounds of specific apps in the settings for some of those apps in the following section).

Do this: Also in Sound (at least on my Nexus 5x): Do Not Disturb preferences - enabling this lets you set days/times when you do not want to hear when notifications arrive. If you can't find a similar section on your phone, you can add similar features with the free I'm Sleeping app.

Screen Lock 1
Security - Screen Lock 2
Security includes a must-do item - choose a screen lock! This gives you a lock screen that you need to open when your phone starts up and optionally when it wakes up from sleep. This can seem like a bit of a pain, but I strongly recommend it.

Pick one of the options other than None. Try them all. I tend to pick PIN - entering a 4-digit number of your choice. From then on, you'll have to enter that number to log into your phone, protecting it from casual strangers. Go back to the Settings/Security page - you may see a little Gear icon beside the words Screen Lock - if you tap on it, you'll get some options for the screen lock page. For instance, on my phone, it's set to automatically lock 5 seconds after the phone goes to sleep - leaving me a tiny bit of time to change my mind and wake up the phone without needing to enter my PIN. The option that pressing the power button instantly locks the phone is turned on. The third option lets me enter a custom Lock Screen Message. Tap that and you're able to type a line that will appear on your lock screen. I've added my email address and my drivers licence number. You might prefer to add a different phone number that someone finding the phone could call - it's up to you!

I've found four cell phones over the past few years - typically, the owner tries to call their phone (which of course will only work if the phone's battery is charged). Hopefully if you lose your phone, someone will answer it and let you get it back. If you've installed Google's Device Manager app, you can try to locate your phone, or remotely ring it (handy if the phone is under the couch), lock it, or even erase it. See instructions.

Much further down the Securities list: Unknown Sources allows or disables the installation of apps from sources other than the Google Play Store. By default, it's turned off - it's a good idea to leave it that way unless you have a really good reason to install something from another source - and know it's safe and secure. (On an Amazon Fire tablet, you need to turn this on to allow you to install Google Play Services and get apps from the Google Play Store, for instance).

On my phone, the Security section includes Location - whether you have it turned on (which uses the GPS radio) or off, and which apps have recently made use of your location information. There are valid reasons for turning location off if you aren't needing mapping information and you don't want apps (Facebook, for instance) to be tracking you. (You may find Location included in a section labelled Personal).

More - see: The Android privacy and security settings you need to know about

The Users section lets you add a user - useful if multiple people are using your phone and you want each to have their own set of apps, contacts, email, etc. You have an option to switch between users when you shut down the phone.

On my phone, the System area includes the Backup & Reset item - you may have these as a separate area - I think it's worthwhile to enable backing up data to my Google account and setting the phone to automatically restore - Google gives free storage for each installed app on its cloud servers. If you get a new phone, when you log into the same Google account, you'll get the option to restore apps and settings, which can be a real time saver in setting up the new phone. The Network Settings Reset can be helpful if you're having persisten trouble connecting to Wi-Fi or cellular networks, but not that it will erase all your saved network passwords. Finally, using the Factory Data Reset item erases everything you've added to your phone - apps, photos, music, email, etc. Use it if you're selling or passing on your phone to another user - they get a phone that acts like it's just been taken out of the box.

Other than the Backup and Reset options, System doesn't have much that you need to bother with. The final About Phone item can be used to check for updates, though unless you have a Nexus phone, you probably won't get updates regularly.

Travelling with your phone

Smartphones can be very useful when travelling - see: 30 ways to use your smartphone while travelling. Lots of us now take our phone with us on trips. Note that you cell phone charger can be used in foreign countries though you may need a cheap adaptor (not an expensive voltage converter) to plug into a foreign electric outlet.

If you have an older phone sitting in a drawer, you may want to take it instead, so that if it gets lost or damaged it's not as big a deal - however, while most current models can connect to international phone networks, that may not be the case with your older model.

There are a number of ways to use a phone when you're outside your mobile provider's coverage area without getting surprised by a huge phone bill when you get home. There's no single best answer for everyone. Some things you could do:
Google offers a number of apps that can be useful when travelling. The new Google Trips helps plan trips and offers restaurant and site-seeing advice for your location. Google Translate can be helpful for translating words, phrases and more - it can even use your phone's camera... point it at a sign and watch the sign magically reappear in English. Very cool! (If you'll be using it where you won't have Wi-Fi or mobile connectivity you can download the foreign language data to it before leaving home). Google Maps can be very useful for providing maps and directions - you can also download maps in advance so that you can use it even if you have no connectivity. (See How to download Google Maps). Popular travel author Rick Steves has a series of free audio guides to European cities and attractions (including a number of museums) - you might want to install his app and download the guides for the places you plan to visit.

You may be interested in my TravelTech workshop - focussing specifically on travelling with technology.

More Links:

Comparing Apple's iOS and Android - Switching from iOS to Android and from Android to iOS:
What to do when you get a new phone:
What to do with your old phone:
Security & Privacy
Recommended apps:
OK Google - speaking to your phone:
Other links: