Time for a confession. I grew up with Mac OS X. I’ve owned just about every Apple machine and mobile device the Cupertino-based company has produced since 2000. I learned to type on an eMac in elementary school. In my teens I made homemade skateboard films on iMovie. My best friends all owned Macs and my first girlfriend even emailed me using iMail before breaking up with me two weeks later. Predictably, I made playlists of sad songs on iTunes.
Even though Apple is baked into my past, I can’t help but think that writing an Android guide is a little like writing a guide to the future. Every operating system aspires to create a universal experience, yet Android may do the best job of actualizing and implementing it for a consumer market. The Google OS offers unprecedented compatibility thanks to its line of next-gen wearable technology, including the experiment-gone-mainstream, Google Glass, and a slew of recently-announced smartwatches. Everything seems to be going Android’s way.
While Apple reported its first year-on-year profit decline in nearly 10 years in 2013, Google chairman Eric Schmidt announced that a staggering 1.5 million new Android phones are activated daily, accounting for nearly 80 percent of the mobile OS market. The activation numbers represent a significant increase from just two years ago, enough to make a die-hard Apple fanatic like myself even consider purchasing an Android smartphone, tablet, or smartwatch in the near future. Still, what exactly is Android and how will the platform make my life better?
For readers like me who’ve been living in a beautiful Apple landscape for the past six years since Android’s debut, getting started can be a challenge, especially given the release of Android OS Lollipop. So, here’s our comprehensive guide on using the platform and its various functions.
The navigation buttons
Unlike the iOS home button, manufacturers typically equip Android devices with three touch-sensitive buttons at the bottom of the screen. Various manufacturers have received flack in the past for deviating from Google’s vision, however, the most recent versions of the OS are relatively devoid of inconsistencies. Pretty much every essential action starts and ends with the three buttons, all of which are conveniently featured below.
Back Button: The back button, on the left, will take you back to the last thing you did in an app, or revert to the last page in your mobile browser. Additionally, holding the button down when using your browser will automatically bring up a screen that makes it easy to access your favorite bookmarks, browsing history, and your most visited websites.
Home Button: The home button, in the middle, will simply take you back to your home screen, the fundamental location for accessing all aspects of your device.
Multi-Tasking Drawer: The multi-tasking drawer, on the right, essentially works in a similar vein to the multi-tasking function in iOS. Pressing the button will reveal a vertical list of every open and active app on your mobile device, thus allowing you to quickly navigate and jump between various apps with a mere touch of the screen.
Much like the iPhone, Android devices allow you to manage multiple home screens — up to five in earlier versions of Android, and as many as you like if you have Android 4.4 KitKat or above. However, unlike iOS, Android centers your primary home screen with the option to access other screens by swiping left and right. Android’s reputation for personalization begins here. Users can create shortcuts and group apps together within folders, but the platform doesn’t force users to store apps on the home screen the way iOS does. Instead, you can install and store apps in the App Drawer located within the dock. Android also allows users to create, resize, and arrange various widgets on the home screen. Widgets display real-time information from apps right there on the home screen, and some of them are interactive.
At first, Android’s terminology may seem foreign. Launcher refers to different variations of your home screen arrangement. Different launchers change the look and functionality of your home screens and your app drawer. Although you’re always welcome to install a third-party launcher, the default launchers, created by Google or phone manufacturers like Samsung, do a pretty good job of arranging and conveniently displaying your data and content in an attractive way. Nonetheless, installing a new launcher will allow you to cram more into your dock while utilizing a more distinct theme and interface. For instance, the Nova Launcher and Nokia’s new Z Launcher provide two vastly different ways of using the platform, each adorned with its own display aesthetics and navigation components.
Aside from the default launcher, Android also allows you to customize nearly every component of the OS, right down to the wallpaper, and the virtual keyboard you use for texting and browsing the Web. Keyboard customization might seem like a small feature on the surface, and possibly a novel one, but choosing a proper Android keyboard from Google Play is crucial to efficiently composing emails and entering any sort of text. Below are just a few examples of the level of variation. Additionally, check out our picks for the best free live wallpaper for Android.
Google Now integration
Android’s virtual assistant, Google Now, has one major advantage over other mobile operating systems: the search engine. In many cases — though not all — Google Now is a more comprehensive resource than Siri. For example, if you opt in, Google Now will use your search history to display relevant news stories and sports scores. It will also analyze your travel habits to bring up relevant travel information, while additionally providing you with a time estimate and the best directions for driving to your next location. It will even tell you when to leave so you don’t miss that appointment. It may not be able to walk your dog, but as you can see in our guide on getting the most out of Google Now, the service can handle a good deal more than you might imagine.
Rooting, an opportunity for more customization
Innate Android customization is robust, but that doesn’t mean you’re strictly limited to Android’s set of features and customization options. As evident from our Android rooting guide, rooting your Android device will give you even greater control and allow you to remove some of that bloatware that comes pre-installed on your device. Moreover, there’s an entire catalog of useful apps exclusively available for rooted Android phones and tablets, allowing you to perform automatic backups, block advertisements, set up Wi-Fi tethering, and tweak CPU settings, among other things. Keep in mind you’ll also run the risk of bricking your device and rooting will likely void your warranty, but the process isn’t overly cumbersome as long as you follow the proper tutorial.
Google Wallet and Play
Google Play and Google Wallet only further the unified experience Android offers. The latter functions as a digital wallet, allowing you to store your physical gift cards online, use various loyalty cards, and instantly send money to friends within the United States, as long as they have a valid email address (all with 24-hour fraud monitoring).
Google Play — the Android equivalent to Apple’s iTunes and App stores — operates as Google’s official digital store, allowing you to purchase apps, books, movies, music, and more with a few simple taps. The service even lets you install apps remotely, meaning you can download an app on your tablet when you’re at work and it’ll be there when you arrive home.
A unified Android experience across platforms
No other operating system offers the same level of diversity as Android. The Android OS has expanded beyond smartphones into the realm of tablets and wearable devices, including a swath of smartwatches and Google Glass. What’s more, you can download files on your Android device, open them when you’re offline, and share them with other Android users at a moment’s notice. Google even takes it one step further, allowing seamless integration between recent Android devices and Google’s Web-based OS for computers, Chrome OS. You can also use your Google log-in to share bookmarks and browsing history across devices through the Chrome browser.
Alas, no OS is created perfect and there are a few notable issues with Android devices. Despite all the convenience and the modular features, Android is an open platform and there are inevitably inconsistencies given the plethora of manufacturers making devices for it. A budget Android smartphone running an older version of the platform is a completely different prospect from the latest Samsung flagship. But, no device is without its issues. Thankfully, most problems have a pretty easy solution, whether we’re talking about problems with the Galaxy S5 or the Nexus 5.
- Battery Life: A common complaint for mobile devices, long-battery life has never been Android’s strong suit. Many devices including the HTC One M8 and the Samsung Galaxy S5 come with power-saving modes. What’s more, most Androids charge using a simple Micro USB cable, the kind you can find nearly anywhere. Android 5.0 Lollipop also has a battery saver option built-in and Google Play’s collection of battery saving apps offers even more solutions for making the most of your power.
- Inconsistent Updates: Since many manufacturers design devices that run on Android OS, every Android user is at the mercy of their phone manufacturer when it comes to getting the latest Android updates. Consider a stock Android device, like the four-star Nexus 5, if you want to make sure you get the latest Android flavor as soon as it’s released. The Nexus line is Google’s official smartphone and tablet range, which guarantees consistent and reliable updates.
Android is more customizable and versatile than iOS, which makes it pretty darn irresistible if you can forgo Apple’s ecosystem. Though it may be difficult for someone like me who owns a fleet of Mac products at home to make the switch, it can be done with a little patience and perseverance. We even have a comprehensive tutorial on switching for the iPhone to Android for you, complete with instructions for moving your music, photos, and contacts.