So, You’ve Just Gotten Your First Android Phone…

Since two of my friends have bought new Android phones in the past two weeks, I think it’d be helpful if I wrote up a quick guide and some app recommendations for those entering the Android world.

Quick Tips

Android version numbers went: 1.5, 1.6, then 2.0, 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3, and now the latest 3.0 release. Starting with 1.5, releases get code-names that start with successive letters of the alphabet, and which are based on “sweet things” or desserts. 1.5 was Cupcake, then 1.6 was Donut. The “Eclair” code-name is applied to both 2.0 and 2.1.

Most modern Android phones should (hopefully) be using at least version 2.2, “Froyo” — or 2.3, “Gingerbread” if they’re nice and up-to-date. The 3.0 “Honeycomb” release is currently intended only for tablets.

Since there’s no way to right-click on things with a touchscreen, Android uses the long-tap, or tap-and-hold, method. This is probably familiar to Mac users already. Try long-tapping on things; you’ll find a lot of features that way.

The home screen is not just one screen; it’s anywhere from 3 to 7 of them, depending on what particular model of phone you’ve got. Just swipe left and right to access the other home screens.

You can long-tap anywhere on any home screen to get a context menu that allows you to add folders, widgets, and so on. Long-tap any home screen icon to move it around from place to place. If you drag it to the edge of the screen and wait a moment or two, the screen will slide over to the next home screen.

Widgets are pretty much like “apps that are always showing on your home screen”. You can drag them around from place to place and screen to screen like any other icon.

You can also drag apps onto the home screen, or into a home screen folder, by long-tapping the app itself in the Apps menu. This makes a shortcut (or alias or symlink) to the app in the new location; the real app is still in the apps menu. Deleting the shortcut won’t uninstall the app; to do that, use Menu > Settings > Applications > Manage Applications. Note that deleting a folder (by long-tapping it, then dragging it down to the trash can that appears at the bottom of the screen while you’re in drag mode) will make the folder and all its contents vanish, without even prompting for confirmation.

If you want to rename a folder, open it and then long-tap the folder’s title bar.

You can access the notifications menu by “pulling” the menu down from the top of screen. It may help to start your stroke off the actual touch-sensitive portion of the screen. The notifications menu also has controls to let you easily toggle your wifi, Bluetooth, GPS, and/or 4G network on and off.

USB Connection

You can connect an Android phone up to your computer using a USB cable. When you connect the phone, it should prompt you to ask if you’d like to enter “Mass Storage” mode, which lets the phone act like a USB drive. The computer can browse and edit the contents of your phone’s SD card.

If you don’t get that prompt — or if you said you just wanted to charge the phone, but then you change your mind later — just pull down the notifications menu and tap the “USB connected” item. Then choose “Mount” in the confirmation dialog that pops up.

Input Methods

Android allows multiple “input methods”. Pretty much every phone has a standard on-screen keyboard as its default input method, but you can download and install others if you don’t like the standard. You can have multiple input methods installed on your phone, and switch between them quite easily. Input methods include everything from an emulation of the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard to Graffiti (the input method from PalmOS, dating back to the late ’90s!) to Nick Zhang’s “Cellular” keyboard with hexagonal keys (which he claims provides better surface-area ratio, so the keys are easier to hit) to Dasher, the continuous-motion, predictive-text entry system developed Cambridge University. There are also a variety of systems to enter text in other languages and alphabets, such as Japanese, Russian, and Greek.

You can get input methods from the Android Market‘s “Tools” section (try searching for “input method” or “keyboard“). There are also a few in the “Productivity” section. Once you install an input method, you’ll need to go to Settings > Language & Keyboard. Look under “Select Input Method” to find the new input method, and toggle the checkbox on. That will add it to the list of enabled input methods.

Then, switching between enabled methods is easy as pie: Just do a long-tap in any text entry field, and a context menu will appear with “Input Method” at the bottom. Select that, and you’ll get a list of all enabled input methods.

If you have a Droid X, Droid 2, or one of the Samsung Galaxy S line, you should have Swype preinstalled. Seriously, try out Swype before you go searching for other input methods. Swype rocks.

And now, on to app recommendations:

General Apps for Everyone

  • Alarm Clock Plus: The built-in alarm clock is okay, but this one is much more full-featured. It’ll let you set alarms that fade in gradually, and lets you use any music on your phone for any alarm sound.
  • Barcode Scanner: Also called ZXing (pronounced “Zebra Crossing”); the most popular Android app for scanning QR codes.
  • Battery Status (Ad Free): Since many Android phones have limited battery life, this app is worth paying for. It gives you actual percentages for how much battery you have left, and customizable icons, too. I like the Green->Yellow->Red color-changing icon.
  • Bookmark Sort & Backup: Lets you re-order your bookmarks in the web browser.
  • Bump: Transfer contact info, apps, pictures, etc., by “fist-bumping” your phone with someone else’s. A very cool idea, and it brings back a version of the Palm’s “beaming” feature, which made it easy to transfer information with people in the same room.
  • Ringdroid: Snip a piece out of any MP3 in your library and use it as a ringtone.
  • Ringo Lite: Assign custom per-contact SMS notification tones. Stock Android will let you assign custom per-user ringtones, but I use SMS a lot more than voice calls, and I want to know when a particular friend is texting me.
  • Sound Manager: This allows you to change the notification and ringer volumes independently of each other (they’re normally yoked). It also lets you tweak the alarm, media, system, and other volumes, and lets you set schedules to adjust them automatically. (For example, my office environment is pretty quiet, so I have it automatically drop the ringer and notification volumes to just-above-silent at 9:00 am, then automatically maximize them at 5:00 pm so I can hear incoming calls or texts on the noisy street when I leave the office.)
  • Tricorder: Mimics a ST:TNG-style tricorder. Uses the phone’s actual sensors to measure all kinds of stuff. Incredibly cool!
  • Where’s My Droid?: Set a custom word or phrase that you can text to your phone which will make the ringer go off at maximum volume — even if you previously had your phone set to vibrate or silent. Useful for the absent-minded types who often misplace their phones.

Also, practically everyone winds up installing Advanced Task Killer, or ATK. Reports (i.e., anecdotal data) differ on whether it helps or not. It may well be related to what model of phone you have, what version of Android you’re running, and what applications you use most often.

Productivity/PDA Apps

Since I originally got my start with the Palm III, I’ve tended to use hand-held computing devices more like PDAs than like a phone. I jot notes, I set calendar events with reminders, I keep track of my to-do list… if I can also receive calls, that’s a nice extra bonus, but really, I want to be able to pull something out of my pocket and write, “Remember to buy milk” at any time.

  • Noodles: A pretty good “to-do list” app. Has multiple categories; allows you to re-order items within a category and set any of three priority levels to items.
  • NoteEverything: A multi-format note-taking app that allows text, audio, and visual notes. Very full-featured!
  • TxtPad Lite: A text-file editor. This has the advantage that you can save your work in files that can be read and edited by your computer when you put your phone in USB drive mode. Unfortunately, the text files always seem to save with Unix line-breaks, even when you set the option to use Windows line-breaks. If that’s a deal-breaker, Ted (Text Editor) gets it right. However, TxtPad has a nice feature where you can set up a toolbar that includes “Cursor Left” and “Cursor Right” buttons, which are indispensable for text editing. Since I have a few editors that will open Unix-style text files, I find the cursor-control buttons useful enough to make up for the broken line-break format, but others might not.


These two together seem to supply everything one might need in a smartphone flashlight:

  • Color Flashlight: Adjustable color and brightness. Has various blinky effects, if you want, plus a “candle” mode.
  • TeslaLED: Uses your phone’s LED (camera flash) as a super-bright flashlight.

Augmented Reality Coolness:

  • Google Sky Map: Shows stars, constellations, and planets overlaid on a sky map that moves with your phone.
  • Satellite AR: Point your phone at the sky and see where possibly-visible orbiting objects are, from the ISS to comsats in geosynch. (Yes, I’m a nerd who loves outer space. This should come as no surprise.)
  • Yelp: I’m dubious about their recommendations and business practices, but try out the “monocle” mode in this app. It’s quite cool.

For Those Studying Japanese:

Since I happen to be one of that group, I may as well share what I’ve found…

  • Graffiti: Yes, this is the Graffiti input method originally built by Palm back in the late ’90s. However, this version also has a Japanese IME mode available, which is really useful for inputting Japanese text.
  • WWWJDIC: Access Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC on your phone. とてもすごいですよ!
  • JED —Japanese Dictionary: A Japanese dictionary. After downloading it, you’ll need to manually download the main data file, and you’ll probably want the kanji stroke order file, too. Then restart the application to actually start using it as a dictionary.