Thursday, June 4, 2015

How to start using a new Android device and get the best experience from it

There are many Android devices out there today.  This article will focus on tablets and phones.  Android is an operating system, similar to Windows or Linux.  However, Android does allow a significant amount of customization by the manufacturer who are creating an Android build for a device the sell.  Unfortunately device manufacturers can't seem to leave a good thing alone.  They put what is called "skins" on Android that make it look and act very differently.  Some of these include:

  • Amazon Fire OS
  • HTC Sense
  • Samsung Touch Wiz

For the most part, these modified Android versions are much worse than the proper Android which leads to a poor user experience, crashing, delayed updates to new operating systems, and inconsistency between devices.  I have been an Android user since the very first Motorola Droid came out in 2009.  I also had one of the first official Android tablets the Motorola Xoom.  When I try to use a Samsung or LG device, I have a hard time finding things.  The settings are all different.  Too much just looks and works differently.  As an app developer, I have also run into many issues caused by the customs versions of Android.

In addition to the custom operating system, they also create their own custom apps for email, calendar, phone dialer, contacts, file backup, device backup, etc.  None of these work nearly as well as the Google apps.  In the case of devices branded and sold through a cellular provider (the vast majority) it gets even worse.  Far worse.  Now the cellular provider really pollutes the device with a bunch of really awful software like their own versions of device backup, app stores, file storage, etc.  This adds yet another layer of terrible software on top of terrible software that really hurts the user experience and makes updates drag on for eternity, if ever.

So, how do we make things better.

  1. When you first get your new device make sure you log into it with your Gmail account that you create, preferably ahead of time.  Do not log into the cellular provider backup or file storage accounts.  Skip those steps.  Do not have the cellular store try to copy your contact in either.  They generally make a mess of it.  Their generic contact converters seem to always mess up copying fields from your current contacts.  If you have a non-smart phone you can use BitPIM to extract your old contacts.  Then upload them to Gmail using a PC and clean up any issues.  Use the PC to add new contacts as well.  Once you have your Gmail contacts correct, they can sync to the phone.  You can then manage them on the phone or the PC.
  2. If your phone or tablet has a confusing home screen and interface, install Google Now Launcher right away.  I recently bought a Lenovo tablet and the first thing I noticed was the terrible home screen.  Installing Google Now Launcher made a huge difference.  
  3. Disable and uninstall all the bloatware and terrible device manufacturer and cellular provider software that you don't want or is redundant with the Google apps like mail, calendar, backup, etc.   You do this by going to Android settings, finding "apps" in the list and selecting it.  This should list apps on the device.  Be careful to ensure you are seeing all apps, not just the ones you added.  You do this by scrolling to the right.  You will see the tabs change from "downloaded" to "running", to "all".  Make sure it is in then "all" tab.  Scroll down to the apps you don't want and select them one at a time.  For each app, click the "uninstall" button if it is available.  If "uninstall" is not available but "disable" is then disable.  
  4. Now install the right apps.  I prefer all the Google apps for most things.  
    1. Google Calendar
    2. Google Maps
    3. Google Drive and the related Docs and Sheets 
    4. Google Photos
    5. Gmail or Google Inbox
    6. Google Hangouts
    7. Google Translate
    8. Google Play Music
    9. Google Play Newsstand
    10. Google Play Movies & TV
    11. Google Play Books
    12. Google text-to-speech
    13. Google Camera
  5. Now disconnect all the older bloatware apps and connect the Google apps instead.  Start with calendar.  The other calendars are mostly junk as you store much of your calendar locally and they often don't connect or sync correctly with Google calendar.  Open Google Calendar and make sure you are logged in and that the local calendar is not the default calendar.  Use your google calendar for all appointments.  This way everything in synchronized in the cloud and you can manage it both with a PC and the phone.  You can also easily connect to other calendars such as school, clubs, etc.
Another option of course is to just buy a Nexus device to begin with and all of this is already taken care of for you.  I prefer Motorola devices.  The newer (Google ownership and after) are much cleaner than most so it is as close to a Nexus you can get short of a Nexus.  Now you can get the Nexus 6 which is both Nexus and Motorola.  Motorola finally started bypassing the carries all together.  Now you can get the 2015 and up Moto-X and other models direct from Motorola, unlocked, and bloatware free.

One other issue with the user experience is push notifications.  I guess this is a personal thing but there are very few push notifications I want.  Nice thing about Android is you can block apps from pushing notifications to your notification bar, beyond just the settings in the app itself.  There are several apps I do block because they misuse it.  In order to block an app from notifying, go to settings, then apps, then select the app of interest.  This is the same place we were above to disable and uninstall.  This time though just un-check  "show notifications".  That app can no longer put stuff on the notification bar.  Great feature.  

I actually don't have Facebook app installed.  Facebook is the kind of app that abuses push notifications and it has other issues.  I do use Facebook however.  I just have a shortcut on my home page that is a bookmark to the website.  Most people cant even tell the difference.  My home screen button looks the same as the app.  When you click the shortcut the website loads a mobile optimized page that looks nearly identical to the app.  The beauty of this is that Facebook cannot run in the background chewing up battery and data, and it can't pester you. Chrome browser added the ability to do push notifications in web apps in 2015.  However, when you first load the page the web app will ask if you want push notifications.  You can say no here.  To add a web app to your home screen in Chrome (on Android or desktop) use the menu and click the "add to homescreen".

Believe it or not Microsoft of all companies have made some good Android apps and services lately.  Some of these may rival Google.  In some cases I have both.  I use both Google Drive and One Drive for instance.

I started using Waze for navigation.  It has a fantastic crowd sourced traffic data that is unrivaled.  It is also owned by Google by the way.

The new Google Photos includes free backup of all your photos (up to 16MP) and videos (up to 1080p).  That is the best deal out there.  They also have a PC app to back up everything from your PC too.  You do have the option to backup larger photos and videos but that will cost Drive space.  16MP and 1080p is very good size, and happens to be equal or larger than most phones will shoot anyway.

I use Hangouts for SMS, MMS, and Hangouts IM, voice calls, and video calls.  It works great and free all over the world (except China where nothing Google works).  When I travel in and outside the US I can connect WiFi at my hotel and call home for free.  Very nice.  I have all my messaging in one place too.  Skype will do about the same except for SMS/MMS so it is another good option.

I like both Google Play Newsstand and Google News & Weather.  I read the news on both these apps every day.  With Newsstand, you can even connect to subscribed papers and magazines.  I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal via Newsstand for instance.

Google Play Music is also a great app.  It lets me use my music library both in the cloud and on the device to create instant mixes.  This is great for long trips where you don't want all kinds of strange music you don't like from a Pandora or the like since you can have Google Music use only your music for the mix.  It also has ad free streaming if you want it.

I use My Tracks to track my bicycle rides.  The only issue I have with it is the calorie estimator.  So, I also use Cardio Trainer.  I run both apps at the same time on the same device.   The only issue is you can only connect your heart monitor to one of them at a time.