Android Newbie Guide
February 24, 2012 11:25 AM   Subscribe

What do I need to know about Androids (and smartphones in general)?


My husband and I have had BlackBerry Curves with T-Mobile for the past two years. We're just now at the end of our contract and looking to upgrade to "real" phones.

We also just purchased an iPad, which we both use, but is set up with all of his information (email, Facebook, Game Center, etc.).

He has decided that he'd rather not spend the time and energy to research phones, and just wants to get an iPhone. So, he's easy.

I, however, want to understand all of the options available to me.

I understand that Androids allow for multitasking, which I think is important. And that they give you the ability to customize everything, but I don't really even know what that means. Since my phone isn't capable of doing much, I'm not even sure what I'd be using my new phone for. Besides the occasional call, lots of texting, updating Facebook, taking lots of pictures, and playing games, I want to know what else I can do!

So, I went to a few wireless carrier stores and started playing around with different Androids (I'm familiar enough with the iPhone that I don't feel more research is necessary). Upon recommendation of a tech friend, I also specifically searched out the Samsung Galaxy Note. At first I thought it was huge, but after playing around with it for a bit, I found I didn't mind the size so much, and I was taken in by all of the cool stuff it can do.

Now, because I'm new to the whole smartphone world, I don't know if I can get the same experience in another package. Is it that awesome? How much of what it can do able to be done on other Androids or iPhones? I found the apps that you use with the S pen were pretty neat, and I know I'd play around with them, so that's one check for the Note.

From my research, a lot of the complaints about the Note center around its size, and the inability to do things with one hand. Since I'm not used to a smartphone at all, this isn't really an issue for me. And the larger size doesn't much matter, since I don't carry my phone in my pocket, and I'd probably be using a bluetooth earpiece to talk anyway. It seems that most Androids are noticeably bigger than iPhones, so upping the size a bit more doesn't seem to be a problem.

I figure that if I did end up with the Note, it would pretty much be both a phone and a tablet, so then I wouldn't need to purchase a second iPad for me to play on.

So, while I'd appreciate feedback on this particular phone, I'm much more interested in general info and advice you can share about Androids.

Is there some kind of "Android Newbie Guide" that will go into detail about unleashing the full potential of my Android device? I mean, if I'm going to go with an Android, I want to take full advantage of everything it has to offer. And since I'm so new to this game, I don't even know where to start.
posted by MsVader to Technology (26 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I understand that Androids allow for multitasking, which I think is important

Minor note if you haven't done it already: Compare using and switching between apps on the iPhone and Android. The difference many not be as big as common sense would seemingly dictate.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:49 AM on February 24, 2012

Best answer: Ting has a bunch of Android How-To videos, as well as device specific tutorials for the phones they offer. They don't have the Galaxy Note though. The tutorial videos were really helpful when I helped set up my family with new phones recently.

One of biggest things I use my Android phone for, that I didn't expect to before I got a smartphone, is listening to podcasts. Being able to choose any episode from a feed and just download and listen to it immediately is so much better than remembering to sync to my mp3 player every once in a while. Android phones usually (maybe always?) have a microSD card slot, so storage is expandable. If you want to use it to replace an mp3 player like I did, that's helpful.
posted by helicomatic at 11:54 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

The thing I like most about my Android phone (a Samsung Galaxy Vibrant on T-Mo) over an iPhone is widgets and the ability to customize it.

Multitasking allows you to have apps running that will turn the volume down when you get into work, pop it into silent mode when you plug it in to charge at night etc. It allows you to run widgets on your home screen so at a glance I can see my agenda, the weather etc. If Woot gets a new item I get a notification etc etc.

Check out the Galaxy S2 or the new Galaxy Nexus

I can think of many things you can do with an Android that you can't do with an iPhone but nothing an iPhone can do that an Android can't.
posted by zeoslap at 12:00 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I do not know of an Android Newbie Guide. I switched mid-2011 and think it's excellent.

I have a Samsung Galaxy S II (Hercules) and love it. It's not as big as the Note but about as big as I can use comfortably with one hand. I use Swype as my text-entry and it's great to be able to do it one-handed.

To me, the only major annoyance between iPhone and Android is that iPhone has one excellent audio app for all things audio (podcasts, audio books, mp3s, all of which I use). Android does not have one audio app that excels at all of these things--you need a different app for each if you want the most features (I use beyondpod for podcasts, audible and Mort Player for books, and the built in app for mp3s).

There is nothing the iPhone can do that my Android cannot that I know about or care about (I used to have an iPhone 3GS).

The screen on my Galaxy is absolutely better than the iPhone in the ways I care about: legibility in general and legibility in direct sunlight. The iPhone is utterly useless in direct sunlight (not sure if they fixed this in the 4S).

The main difference when it comes to customization is that Android allows the use of widgets. Whearas on the iPhone each icon just launches an app, the Android screen can have widgets which look like dynamic (constantly updated) icons. At it's most basic, these can tell you the weather, let you control apps without launching them (for instance, control an audio player), or use specific aspects of an app without leaving the home screen (such as create an audio or photo note, view contents of your calendar/agenda, etc.).

You can also customize the complete look of your phone. For example, to my memory the iPhone has a 4-icon dock at the bottom. My phone also has a 4-icon dock... but it's scrollable, so I can swipe left or right to bring up different docks (without changing the rest of the screen). I am also able to assign multiple apps to a single icon. So, for instance, if I tap on the "speech bubble" icon, it launches my texting app (Go SMS). If I stroke that same icon, it launches my email app. If I tap the icon that looks like an outline of a person, I see my contacts. If I stroke it, it launches my Facebook app. This is because I'm able to use a custom launcher (I use Go Launcher EX, which allows me to alter ever aspect of my "desktop", from wallpaper to icon size and placement, number of screens, results of gestures such as swiping down or up, etc etc.).

As much as I love the features of Android, one of the things I like best is that I can use them on whatever network I please. I'm in Canada and data and cell plans are outrageously expensive on the major networks and their offshoots. I wrote a lengthy post about this a while ago.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 12:01 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

The screen on my Galaxy is absolutely better than the iPhone in the ways I care about: legibility in general and legibility in direct sunlight. The iPhone is utterly useless in direct sunlight (not sure if they fixed this in the 4S).

I have an iphone 4s, and i've never had a problem using it in sunlight, and the resolution is WAY better than any other phone. There's just no comparison.

For example, to my memory the iPhone has a 4-icon dock at the bottom. My phone also has a 4-icon dock... but it's scrollable, so I can swipe left or right to bring up different docks

You can also do this on the iphone, it shows your most recently run apps if you scroll the dock. Or you can just flip through pages.
posted by empath at 12:04 PM on February 24, 2012

Best answer: I have an Android phone and love it. My husband has an iPhone and loves it.
I am tech-savvy and like that I can put widgets on my home screens, download apps that might replicate or even outright replace the stock apps that come on the phone, and generally customize the heck out of it. Plus the larger screen (Galaxy Nexus) allows for much more comfortable video and picture viewing on the go.

The only drawback to having a multi-OS household is that your husband will be able to use the same apps on his phone and the iPad but you will be left out in the cold unless you happen to agree upon any of the small (but growing) number of apps that work well across both iOS and Android.

And if you haven't checked it out already, has a pretty good archive of articles for iOS and Android users, from beginners through experts.
posted by trivia genius at 12:08 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

"You can also do this on the iphone, it shows your most recently run apps " - point is on an Android phone you get to choose what it shows. I have my Vibrant setup so that when I connect my bluetooth speaker it automatically pops up a dialog containing all my music apps - no way you can replicate that on iOS.

Also seconding the Swype keyboard as a big android/galaxy plus - I sorely miss it when using my iPad.
posted by zeoslap at 12:18 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

A major advantage of the iPhone is that you are more or less assured updates from Apple for a few years after buying the phone. Unless you get a one of the Nexus line of Android phones, there is absolutely no guarantee that the manufacturer and/or carrier will not "abandon" the phone far before the end of its useful life.

Regarding multitasking, the iPhone does multitask in its own way. Music and podcasts continue to play in the background even if you switch away from the app that's playing it. GPS navigation will continue in the background. Email will be checked and downloaded in the background. In some cases files will continue to download in the background (this is a less common feature). The notification system adequately fills in most of the rest of what you need.

You should ask yourself what you want from multitasking. Applications on phones always take up the entire screen so it's rare that you're truly doing two things at once.

The two big advantages to Android that I can see are the built in turn-by-turn navigation app (you can certainly get similar apps for the iPhone but they are not included), and the ability to put widgets on the home screen.
posted by The Lamplighter at 12:18 PM on February 24, 2012

I too am very interested in the Galaxy Note, seems like the Newton has finally come 'round again.

To me the big advantage of Android is how extensible it is. For example, if you install an application that can be used to share things with others (e.g. Facebook, Flickr, whatever) then whenever you say "Share This" in any program, that application (along with all applications that have a sharing capability) is one of the options. Share to Facebook, share to Flickr. iPhone has nothing like that. Same for maps; if you install an app that can do maps, Android will ask you which one you want to use for mapping, so when an app says "give me a map" it goes to whatever application you select.

Android also lets you add widgets to your home screen with weather, the latest text message, your e-mail, stock quotes, whatever you want. And by the way, the home screen application can be switched out too; there are a number of good replacements, many free. Pretty much every stock component can be replaced: text (SMS) app, e-mail, Web browser, phone dialer/address book... the list goes on. On most Android phones, you can even replace the entire operating system with a different variety from a third party.

The downside of all this flexibility, of course, is that you will spend a lot of time trying various apps to find the best one. With iPhone you can just use it, secure in the knowledge that there's not a better phone app you could be using -- if only because Apple doesn't allow any phone apps. On the other hand, the iPhone is very smooth and it's hard to imagine better phone, SMS, etc. apps than the provided ones anyway.

I have an Evo 4G on Sprint and will probably get another Android phone when I'm eligible for an upgrade this fall. My wife has an iPhone. I like the flexibility of Android and have "rooted" my phone and installed a third-party ROM with additional features... but I also spent a month with a phone that spontaneously rebooted at least twice a day, usually when I was trying to actually do something with it, until I figured out what was wrong and fixed it. Still, I think even if I didn't root my phone, I'd probably still go with Android.
posted by kindall at 12:21 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Androids are a hellava lot of fun!
First off, you can customize the os to your hearts content, with different flavors, or ROMs. This is great because it doesn't turn the device in as a one-size-fits-all category as the iPhone is.
Second, hardware options and offerings. The iPhone specs really are not that great in comparison to what the new Android devices have to offer, no 4g, and again, you can't add memory later as you can with Android devices.
Third, applications. The Android platform doesn't tie you down to an "official" app store, and no mega conglomerate is deciding what I can and cannot do with my applications.

Podcasting is one of my favorite things to use my device for. Plus I am not a mobile gamer, my phone is more of a task oriented device, and I can pretty much do anything and everything with it.
posted by handbanana at 12:58 PM on February 24, 2012

I made the same transition BB to Android about a year ago.

Android works really well with Google account/Gmail integration. The Gmail integration is very easy. Contacts and Calendar also sync automatically. Multiple accounts for Gmail/Google apps for your domain/etc... are also easily managed. Unlike the BB, there's no need to sync via a cable to a PC. You don't ever need to sync to a PC at all, in fact. You can, to move music and other files around, but you don't have to. If Gmail/Google contacts/Google Calendar isn't your cup of tea, then Android is much less of a good deal.

On Android 3 and up, I can use Google to autosync my Chrome bookmarks automagically. This works on my tablet, but I haven't been able to get this to work on my 2.3 phone.

Dropbox does the automagic thing for files too, though you can easily transfer by usb cable too. Such a nice feature. The file structure on an Android phone is similar to that of a BB. Things aren't exactly the same, but you will not have big surprises there.

The extensibility/customization stuff includes being able to replace the default apps for lots of actions. Don't like the default browser? You can make Dolphin or Firefox the thing that starts if you click on a URL. You can also replace the soft keyboard very easily. I like SwitfkeyX, but there are again lots of choices in the marketplace.

You can put active icons "widgets" on the phone's main screens. I use the weather, calendaring, mail and facebook ones all the time. I really can't imagine having a phone without them now. I also really appreciate the "settings bar" icons which tell me if the phone is in silent mode, if the bluetooth is on, in airplane mode, etc... I quite like a (paid) set called Beautiful Widgets.
posted by bonehead at 12:59 PM on February 24, 2012

I use Android. My wife has an iPhone. If you like to fiddle with your phone, or customize and tweak, then you'll probably like Android. If you just want the phone to work without muss or fuss, then the iPhone is hard to beat. Both platforms do pretty much everything the other does. However, I think the maps and GPS functions that are built into Android are amazing and very useful, especially for frequent travellers.
posted by Crotalus at 1:23 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

The only huge differentiation software-wise, in my mind, is Siri (only on iPhone) and Google Maps with Navigation (free, better than anything on iPhone, and Android only). Android also has a ton of nerdy customizable features, if that interests you, but that's the major functionality difference IMHO. I also think the iPhone 4S screen is just too darn small.
posted by speedgraphic at 1:39 PM on February 24, 2012

Please, please, please at least take a LOOK at Windows Phone. You can get a Nokia Lumia 710 for a great price from T-Mobile- I'm not sure if it's as fantastic deal as the 710 I got for $255 (off contract) from Rogers, but I know it's at T-Mo USA and I know it's a much cheaper option than any comparable Android handset.

It's also FUCKING AMAZING. I just made the switch from a BB Bold 9900- so absolutely a top-of-the-line device that makes your old Curve look like a pile of crap- and this phone, less than half the price of the 9900 off the shelf, is quite simply the best smartphone I've ever used. Better than my partner's iPhone 4S ($800 unlocked from the Apple Store here in Calgary), better than my friends' Galaxy Nexus and Samsung S2, better than any fucking phone. I miss some of the apps that I have on my 4th Gen iPod Touch but that's what I have that toy for.

I've had my Win Phone for only 3 weeks but am now a proselyte. You HAVE to give this phone a go. Please.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 1:40 PM on February 24, 2012

Nokia Maps/Drive on the Lumia 710/800/900 Window Phone models is better than Google Maps. Navigation free for life and you can download maps to use offline- you don't even need a SIM card.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 1:42 PM on February 24, 2012

Best answer: And that they give you the ability to customize everything, but I don't really even know what that means.

I haven't played with a recent iPhone, which I'm told has incorporated some Android-first-features, but what it means in the real world is that when you look at your phone and think "I wish it could do [simple little thing] that would make me very happy" then an iPhone often will not let you do that, and an Android usually will.

For example, if you find yourself turning wifi or bluetooth on and off a lot, Android phones will let you put those toggles right on the screen as soon as you swipe-to-unlock. Iphones will (or used to) keep them hidden behind several taps in the settings (making it a pain to toggle them, leading to them always being on and draining the battery). Iphones will give you one slider for unlocking the phone. Android (well, a specific app) will give you 6 different ones so that one unlocks, one unlocks and goes straight to the calculator, one unlocks and goes straight to the browser, one unlocks and goes straight to the podcast app, and so on. Basically, there are several different ways to put exactly which features/apps you want (even obscure ones normally buried in a sub-menu of settings) right there on the screen as soon as you unlock the phone (or, in some cases, before).

So if I know this week that I need the calculator, maps, phone, 2 clients and one boss on speed dial, and a specific spreadsheet ready in 1 second, Android lets me put those things right behind the slider/unlocker and nothing else. Next week when I'm on vacation it can be maps, 2 specific websites, a Spanish-English dictionary, a dynamic weather report, an audiobook and a relative on speed-dial, then that's what it's set up for. An iPhone will (or would) make me hunt around for those things every time. I could even set it to automaticaly flip to the work-set-up everyday at 9am and the funtime set-up at 6pm (and turn off the wifi and bluetooth during the commute) if I wanted.

IPhones used to be far better for games (playing and selection) but Android is catching up. Both pretty much 'do' the same things and, in the end, do them about as well as each other. Android just lets you tell the phone to do things exactly like you want it to. And carry spare batteries.
posted by K.P. at 2:34 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

When people say "customize everything", they pretty much do mean everything. You can use the stock operating system that comes with Android, or you can root your phone and download a custom ROM--there are hundreds, all of them with different features and whatever. Some are optimized to make your phone as fast as it can be, others are fine-tuned to make your battery last as long as possible, others have other features.

I have yet to want to do something on my phone that I can't do. Some of it requires the use of third-party apps, but they all work, so... My notification drop-down has toggles for wifi, gps, screen brightness, screen orientation, and bluetooth. When I plug in my headphones, my music player of choice starts automatically; when I take out the headphones, it turns off. When I get to work, the phone automatically sets itself to vibrate only. I have custom vibration patterns for texts from various people--my mom is bzz bzzzz bzz; my husband is bzzzz bz; my best friend is bz bz bz. WiFi turns off when I leave home and turns on when I get back.

Realistically, if you're the kind of person who wants an attractive phone that does what you want it to do, I suspect you'd be happy with either the iPhone or an Android. If you want to tinker or customize the way your phone looks and works, you almost certainly want an Android.
posted by MeghanC at 3:02 PM on February 24, 2012

Not much to add here, but it's worth noting that one of the big non-Apple portable device conferences (Mobile World Congress) is coming up very soon, so it's probably worth waiting a week or two to see if anything exciting comes out of that. But as Android devices are so diversified, don't wait too long, because unlike Apple, the rate that things advance and upgrade is astronomically fast, as in weeks instead of months. FWIW, I've got the Galaxy Nexus and I love it, but I'm also rooted and running on an alternate ROM (Android Open Kang Project, aka AOKP) that has a ton of flexibility above and beyond the stock version of Android (which in turn is above and beyond that of iOS, IMO).
posted by zombieflanders at 3:26 PM on February 24, 2012

I recently went from a bb curve to a motorola droid. I like it a lot. Yes, it's huge, but I carry a purse. It has over-the-air fm radio, so I don't have to use data when I go for a walk and listen to the radio. There are some areas where the interface doesn't thrill me, but I'll eventually find apps to resolve that. Battery life is not so great; keep the brightness lowered. Lifehacker has a 'new android' article, but what you need most is best-of lists for android apps. I like Alarm&Timer or AlarmDroid, all manner of goog apps, esp. sky map, evernote, tm world clock. I apologize for being too lazy to look up links, but the android market is easy to search.
posted by theora55 at 4:35 PM on February 24, 2012

The main thing you need to know about any smartphone, Android, iPhone, Windows or Blackberry, is that it's watching you. So if you're going to do something illegal, leave it at home.
posted by Suddenly, elf ass at 7:50 PM on February 24, 2012

Response by poster: You guys have been amazing so far. I want to mark every answer as best answer. I'm definitely getting a better idea of all the things I can do, and I think you've helped to firmly cement me in the Android category. All of these customizations you've mentioned are kinda blowing my mind. I had no idea you could do all of these things. Curse BlackBerry for keeping me in the dark ages!

Suddenly, elf ass, you're kinda freaking me out. ;) I think I'll have to name my phone Hal.

Please, keep the advice and suggestions coming! I can't wait to start playing around.
posted by MsVader at 8:00 PM on February 24, 2012

Hi. I switched from a Blackberry Bold 9700 to a Galaxy Nexus just a couple of weeks ago - and your comment about stepping out of the dark ages really rings true. I've barely been able to stop fiddling with it.

What have I enjoyed the most? Homescreen widgets have to be up there. There's a little Youtube widget which integrates with your Google account and serves up your recommended videos like a little deck of cards on your homescreen for you to shuffle back and forth through. When one takes your fancy, just press it and watch the video. For a Youtube junkie like me, it's pretty awesome. For the matter, the inbuilt Youtube app is incredibly slick - way better than the mobile site you get on BB.

Also, the big bright screen is jaw-dropping (if a battery hog.) But that's device-specific rather than anything inherent in Android. I really would recommend the Galaxy Nexus though. It's a fantastic phone.

I've also enjoyed flashing a few different custom ROMs (operating system variants.) This probably isn't for everybody but it's one of the big things that sets Android apart from IOS. It's incredible to see the UI/performance tweaks certain very clever programmers have come up with.
posted by Ted Maul at 8:14 PM on February 24, 2012

One thing that the Android platform excels at well beyond the other players is GMail integration. The native GMail application on Android phones is the best GMail experience you can have on a mobile phone. If you are a big GMail user than this can easily tip your hand towards Android.
posted by mmascolino at 8:03 AM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: BTW, there are numerous Siri wannabes on Android. Probably the best is Vlingo. It doesn't do everything Siri does, but it does a lot of it, and it's free. Also, pretty much every app can use voice recognition; there's a button on the keyboard to use speech on anywhere you can input text.

Keyboards are another thing you can swap out. There are keyboards that let you enter text by gliding from one letter to the next (Swype). There are others that have supernatural word prediction (Swiftkey), I mean I can type "I love you" to my wife with THREE keystrokes because I do it so often. There's a Graffiti "keyboard" for Palm fans and other handwriting recognition ones. There's even one that combines a number of entry methods into one (FlexT9). Some of these cost a few bucks, but keep an eye out on the Amazon app store or on GetJar for discounts or freebies.

I guess I can't talk about how customizable Android without mentioning Tasker, an inexpensive app that lets you basically program your phone. For example, when my phone rings, and the Bluetooth is off, I've set up Tasker to turn it on so that if I'm in my car, I can take the call on the car handsfree unit. If Bluetooth isn't connected in ten seconds after it turns on, I have Tasker set up to turn it back off to save battery, because I'm not in my car. When I plug in my headphones, Tasker automatically gives me a menu of my music apps so I can pick which one I want, and also adds an item to the notification bar to turn the volume all the way up in one click in case I'm in my car and have connected the phone to the line input on the head unit. When I launch a mapping app, Tasker automatically turns on the GPS if it's off, and turns it off a few minutes after I've stopped using the app. I have even customized the locking function on my phone using Tasker, so it doesn't lock until the screen's been off for 15 seconds (so if I see it turn off and turn it back right on right away, I don't have to unlock it). If I don't unlock it a few seconds after I turn it on, Tasker displays my contact info so that if someone found it, they can contact me. This took hours to set up and debug, and it's not for everyone, but the iPhone can't do it at all.
posted by kindall at 10:08 AM on February 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Lastly, a lot of the comments about customization are focusing on functionality. But it is more customizable for aesthetics too. An iPhone lets you change wallpaper, lockscreen-image, and...anything else? AFAIK, you're locked into a set of icons and a font and general layout onscreen. Apart from those couple things, all iPhones look the same. An Android phone will let you change nearly everything about how it looks onscreen. If you look in Android forums you'll find threads like this one of people showing how they've laid out their phone. Many are just a mix of a wallpaper and an assortment of icons, but some are really well-thought-out cohesive mini-artworks.
posted by K.P. at 10:59 AM on February 25, 2012

For customization ideas/examples, check out myColorscreen.
posted by VoteBrian at 9:15 AM on February 26, 2012

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