Friday, January 16, 2015

Android Customization for Beginners


So you have a new phone.
I bet it’s big, most new phones are. I bet it has a massive, great bright screen.


Now! You can use the phone as it is, and most manufacturers make a good job at it. It comes down to personal preference if what they did is useful or pleasant.
But just so you know, you don’t have to stick to it.
You may like the phone because of the screen, or the camera, or the speakers, the colours, etc… but not get excited about the way it looks inside, or how the app drawer moves.
If you don’t get excited about it, there are alternatives.


You can uninstall/disable the apps you don’t want and/or make an app the default over multiples alternatives. Best of all, it is all reversible. All you need to do is go back to the previous app you’re using or uninstall the app you don’t want.


So go ahead, play with it.
I even highlighted the ones I am currently using. I have a Nexus 5 so I like it to keep it close to Google. That is my preference. But I have tried all these.


  1. Launchers


Launchers are the apps that allow you to get to the other apps. When you turn your phone on, the phone will run the lockscreen, also an app you can replace, and once you unlock the phone it shows you the launcher.
It’s your homescreen. It includes the row of apps and widgets, the app drawer, the icons.
A search on Play Store will bring out hundreds. Some very similar to each other, others that completely changes the look and feel of the phone.
I mean, your phone will look like a brand new phone. There are launchers for everything. From making your phone look and act like an iphone or samsung, to whatever you want by giving you themes at a click of a button.


Here’s a small list of the most popular.
  • Google Now - it will make the phone look like a Nexus phone. It’s bright and clean.
  • Nova - It allows you to completely customize your screems. Change the icons, change how many rows/columns of icons, add animations when you change screens, etc… whatever you want, you can do it.
  • Action Launcher - it gets rid of app drawer and adds an app pane on the sides of the phone to access all apps or other shortcuts. One other cool feature it allows you to swipe over an icon and open its widget, ie swipe over Youtube and the widget appears.
  • Go Launcher - these people make everything and the launcher is easy. It provides customization without much fuss. Just go to their store and select a new theme.


  1. Lockscreen


Lockscreens are easier to understand. It’s the first app that shows up when you wake your phone up. It can provide you better security, easy access to certain apps or widgets, notifications, or simply, like the launchers, make your phone more beautiful.
Again, there are tons!
Here’s some of my tried and tested,


  • ACdisplay - One of my favourites. It acts as a notification app. It awakes your screen and show you briefly the message and actions you can take. It’s simple, beautiful and practical. I doesn’t give you access to other apps though.
  • Go Lockscreen - Just like with the launcher, GO team made it easy to change the look of the lockscreen. The slides, the background, the apps it gets access. All at a click of a button.
  • Echo - Takes your notifications further by allowing to snooze them until a certain time or location.


  1. Keyboards


Usually the keyboard that comes with the phone (we call it stock keyboard) it’s not always the best option. This has started to change with Sony and Samsung adding features to the keyboard too. Some of the best keyboards, will not only look great but give you better prediction and swipe functionality, which comes in handy when trying to operate the phone one handed.
There are many options, so a search and trial and error should perhaps be used.
I recommend 2 with my eyes closed. All others it’s up to personal preference.


  • Google Keyboard - Free and easy. This keyboard is the stock keyboard on nexus phones but Google has released it to the play store. Swipe works well and prediction is ok.
  • SwitftKey - Considered to be The Best Keyboard on the market by many, myself included. The only reason I don’t use it has to do with my fanboyism about Google and the fact that Google option is a suited alternative. But It has been my keyboard since I learned that there were alternatives. I tried other (Swype, Kii,...) and Swiftkey has never let me down. It looks great, it feels great. The swipe option works great, the predictions are top notch because it learns from your Facebook, gmail, Google plus, twitter and SMS. So the next word that recommends after you finish typing is usually what you have written before.It’s also free (now) and has different colours to match your preference.

  1. Photo Gallery


I add this here because all phones come with a gallery but as I backup all my photos with Google and often clear all my data, I like to access all my photos from before without the need to download them or copy them to a new phone before factory reseting the phone.
Google Photos is part of Google Plus and will show you all your photos that you shared, and all your backup. You can make it your default gallery if you wish. Plus it works with the Chromecast and has a great edit option.


There are other gallery apps that will log in to your Facebook and other social networks and show you all those photos. It’s great to keep it one place.


  1. Browser


There are faster and cleaner internet browsers then the stock browser. Android is greatly tied into Google ecosystem so Google Chrome is usually a better option. But there others.


  • Google Chrome - If you use Chrome on your desktop/laptop or have a chromebook, Chrome makes a lot of sense as it will sync your passwords, your bookmarks, your open tabs and your history. It’s really a no brainer. It also allows you to send videos to the chromecast.
  • Firefox
  • Dolphin


  1. SMS app


SMS are being used less and less but sometimes are useful. The stock app may be good enough but there are alternatives. Some a lot better. And I have tried tons of them.


  • Hangouts - Many people complained to Google about having too many apps to send messages. So Google combined them. You can now use hangouts as an SMS app. Which is handy if you use hangouts on a daily basis as it keeps all your chat together, plus you can move to a video call or voice call. Hangouts will also allow you to call over the internet for free to other Hangouts users or to add credit (like in Skype). Obviously you can also call using your network.
  • Hello - This app is a minimalistic option. It’s good looking and lightweight.
  • GO SMS  - Similar to other GO products, this keyboard is highly customizable.
  • Evolve SMS - Evolve promises to be a better app and in many ways it accomplishes that. It looks similar to Hello with its round photos of your contacts but you can swipe to sides to move from message to message.
  • Messenger by Google - When Google responded to the request of combining messages into one app, other people complained that they didn’t like that either. So Google created an app just for SMS, while leaving Hangouts as an alternative. I keep switching between Hangouts and Messenger.
  • Textra - Another alternative, highly praised by its users.
  • Handcent - Similar to GO Pro and has been here for ever and a day.


  1. Other


One of the strengths of Android is the ability to have the phone just like you want it. The options above are not as present on iOS. Sure you can have Chrome, and Swiftkey is available on the new version of the operating system. But its integration is clunky due to Apple imposing restrictions in what third party apps can do.


Also, there are other apps available that aim to make your experience better, adding functionality rather than replacing existing core ones. Some may even available on iOS too, although not many.
The following list is an example of apps you can try to add some more fun stuff or move on to a more expert level.


  • IFTTT - It stands for If This Then That. And it’s a great little app to make your phone do certain things automatically. It so simple anyone can do it. You can for example: If you post a status on Facebook, post that same status on Twitter. Or if someone tags you on a picture on Facebook, download that picture to a folder on your Google Drive.
  • Agent - Agent follows the same principle as IFTTT but it is for 5 main things or agents. Battery, Sleep, Parking, Meetings and Drive. It allows to instruct your phone on what to do when these are triggered.
  • Tasker - This app requires some expertise as it has a steeper learning curve. It’s an Android only and has so many addons apps on the playstore. That shows the love the developers have for it. It can basically do anything on your phone. If the phone meets a state, sees an event, location, etc, then perform the tasks you want them to do. It links with other apps to for better results. I use it in the car. It recognises when the phone connects to the car’s bluetooth and then runs a rotation app to set the screen in landscape mode and reverts back to normal when I switch the car off.
  • Macrodroid - It’s a simpler version of Tasker.  It sits in between Agent, IFTTT and Tasker.
  • Gravity Screen - This apps makes use of the sensors of your phone to wake the phone when you want to. Like when taking the phone out of your pocket, or switching it off when turning it down.
  • Rotation - Orientation Manager - It allows you to rotate your screen however you want. It also lets you set preferences by apps so that certain apps just work in the orientation you want.
  • Pushbullet - Allows to push notification to other devices or friends. There’s an extension for Chrome and other browsers on the laptop. It lets you push a site to open on your phone and vice versa. It also sends your notifications to your computer screen, letting you reply to SMS from your laptop, or dismissing it.
  • Zooper - It’s a widget maker. Making widgets is for experts only but you can download or purchase already made ones from Google Play Store. With Zooper alone you can add functionality to your home screen while making it look the way you want it.
  • UCCW - It’s similar to Zooper. It’s the one I use. Just like Zooper, not only  I can have, for example a widget the way I
  • Buzz Launcher - It’s a launcher but with access to a community that customises their home screens to the maximum. Buzz allows you to share your homescreen and import others.
  • Themer - Similar to Buzz. It allows you share and download themes other people have made, giving you a list of apps they used to achieve that look.


  1. Rooting


One last thing.


Android is based on Linux. An open source operating system created to be free and rival Microsoft Windows  And just like Windows can have administrator rights, usually set on by default to the main user of the machine, Linux has root. And to get root access is to get access to core system settings.
As a security measure, mainly imposed by carriers, Android does not give it’s user root access.
But it’s fairly easy to obtain with a laptop and a little research. XDA website is a community dedicated to hacking and heavy tweaking.

I was a flashaholic with previous phones, always squeezing every inch of power from the device in my search for the latest and greatest. I am happy with the current phone and Android version so I feel no need to root anymore.


Rooting used to be the only way for users to get extra functionality on their phones.
It allows you to flash (install) ROMs. ROMS are builds of the operating system tweaked in whatever way the developer wished. Some can make your device save battery, run faster.


You can also flash kernels. Kernels are the core system that controls things like memory, battery, etc..


Nowadays, rooting is not required for half of the stuff it used to. Many apps have found workarounds to customize the look and feel of the phone.
For most users rooting is not recommended. Apps, like banking and TV don’t work as well and not all ROMs are good. Some may break your phone or slow it down.
This is to due with the underlying threat that if you have root access so do other apps and as such the security of your device is compromised. There are many that disagree, and many that are sensible enough to know what they are doing. But for the average user, with no knowledge of systems and coding, it poses a risk of letting someone control your device.


So bottom line, do your homework before you venture these waters and bear in mind that you may not need to if all you want can be obtained by the above.