Android 101: Customize and tweak your Android phone

Android’s appeal lies in the option to customize it as much or little as you desire. The rabbit hole is deep, yet you don’t have to plunge into the scary world of rooting and ROMing to change how Android looks and works.

This guide is for users who want to take their first steps into the world of advanced Android use and customization. The tricks described here will help you make your device more intuitive and more capable, yet each tip remains within reach of the greenest Android newbie. As you learn these advanced tweaks, you’ll see even more opportunities for further customization. The road to Android fandom is paved with small changes that gradually transform your device. So come on—take the first step.

Make your home screen feel like home

Android’s home screen is where most interaction occurs. Your favorite apps and widgets always appear here for easy use and quick access to information. You’ll spend a lot of time with your home screen, so settle in and don't be afraid to get cozy. Choose a new wallpaper. Then prepare to unlock the path to serious customization.

A home screen customized with a replacement launcher.

The key to getting Android to be just the way you want it is to download an app known as a launcher replacement. As the name suggests, this kind of app replaces the operating system’s default launcher process and lets you change the look, size, and position of icons; add or remove home screens; change how scrolling works; add or remove columns or rows of icons; and much more. The exact options depend on the launcher, and many different launchers are available for download from the Google Play Store.

In fact, the plethora of options can feel overwhelming. We recommend starting with Apex Launcher or Nova Launcher. Both come in free and paid variants, with the paid version offering additional features and options. These launchers are relatively intuitive and receive regular updates that add new features. After you’re familiar with them, you can try unusual options such as Launcher 7.

Once you’ve downloaded a launcher, play! Experiment like a mad scientist. Don’t worry about messing up your device. If you’re unhappy with the result, you can always uninstall the launcher to revert your device to its default look.

Download and install new icons

Android is the only smartphone OS that will let you change every icon to the face of a character from Star Wars, or anything else you’d prefer.

Switching icons is a breeze. Most launchers have built-in support for themes and icons. You might also try Icon Changer Free, an app that simplifies the process of changing home-screen icons without the need for a launcher. It’s a good choice for users who like their device’s default look but still want new icons.

Certain launcher replacements allow you to change app icons.

You can find general-use icons in icon packs available on the Google Play Store. Many are free, and a wide variety is available. Just download a pack and then follow the wizard in your chosen launcher, or use Icon Changer Free to install them.

Create custom icons

Android Assets Studio is a powerful tool for crafting your own app icons.

Star Wars icons are cool, but they’re under copyright, so you’re not going to find them on the store. If you really want Yoda's face for the Browser app, you'll have to make the icons yourself. Fortunately, this procedure isn’t as hard as it sounds.

Handy websites such as Android Asset Studio and Android Icon Generator let you generate icons from any image you like. Just upload an image and use the provided options to resize it and crop it down to icon dimensions. Then save the file to your PC’s desktop or another easily remembered location.

Connect your Android device to your PC and move your newly created icon images into the device’s Pictures folder. This action will make the icons viewable in the Gallery app. You can later delete these images after you’ve used them to create a shortcut.

You can create your own custom icon for any app you choose.

Now use a free app like Icon Changer Free, Desktop Visualizer, or Folder Organizer to make shortcuts with the custom icon. That’s it—Boba Fett is now managing your contacts. (He should keep them in line.)

Replace the app drawer

An example of a customized app drawer.

Although you can change most shortcuts on your home screen, you can’t do the same for icons in the app drawer (without rooting the device). You can, however, use apps to replace the app drawer with an alternative that allows some customization. Popular options include AppDrawer and Organized Drawer.

Since the app drawer can’t be replaced by default, many users find that they have to install a custom launcher to pull off this trick. Once you've installed the new launcher, you can then add a custom app drawer with a drag and drop: Remove the default drawer by dragging it to an empty space on the home screen (or removing it completely), and then drag the replacement into its former location.

Users who want a replacement drawer that they can call upon with a swipe should check out Pulldown App Drawer. Instead of tapping an icon, you activate this drawer by swiping from the top or bottom of the screen (you get to choose). Other customization options include changing the apps shown per row and the color of the background and/or icon text.

Change settings with a swipe and a tap

The latest stock version of Android includes a quick-settings menu that you activate by swiping down on the right side of the notifications bar (on tablets) or by swiping the notifications bar down with two fingers (on phones).

The quick-settings panel in Android 4.2.

Many users have an old or manufacturer-customized version of Android, however. If that’s the case for you, check out an app like Notification Toggle, which works with any phone running Android 2.1 or newer. With this app you’ll be able to create your own custom quick-settings area that appears whenever you swipe down to view notifications.

Another app worth mentioning is Power Toggles. This tool enables quick settings in the notification area and sweetens the deal with a wide variety of visual-customization options.

Power Toggles

Settings in the notification area can get crowded, however, which is why old-fashioned toggle widgets are useful. Assorted apps, such as Beautiful Widgets, Extended Controls, SwitchPro, and Toggle Widgets, let you add setting toggles to your home screen. Once you install them, you can place the toggles as you would any other widget. And all of these apps let you customize them to display only the settings you need to access quickly.

Master your notifications

Are notifications driving you mad? No worries: You can disable them, even in apps that don’t have an obvious in-app notification manager.

Unchecking 'Show notifications' can help keep apps from constantly bugging you.

Open the Settings menu and then tap Apps. Find the app that's driving you crazy, and tap its name to open its options. Near the top, just below the Force Stop button, uncheck the Show notifications checkbox to make that app’s notifications disappear. This trick works only on devices running Android 4.1 or higher, but you have other ways to keep your notifications in check.

The Google Play Store is filled with creative apps that can help you control the notifications area to a greater degree. I’ve already covered Notification Toggle, which adds custom quick-settings items. But you should also check out Beacon Notifications, iPhone Notifications, Notification Bubbles, Notification Notes, and Windows Phone Notifications. These apps add utility and customization options to the notifications area that you don't get with stock Android.

Custom notification apps have their benefits. Just don't run more than one at any given time.

Be careful if you try to use more than one notification app, however—all of the installed apps can trigger a given notification, which might cause an annoying barrage of alerts. Pick out one or two favorite notification apps and stick with them.

Share everything

The Android share menu.

Sharing is one of Android’s strengths. Unlike iOS, which restricts how apps can share certain items, Android lets any app use all available options.

Using the share menu is simple: Just tap the app’s settings icon (which appears as three vertically stacked squares on a stock Android 4.0+ device) and look for the share option. This opens up a list of apps that you can use to share.

Note that the share menu is an option for Android developers, not a requirement, and as a result some apps may go without. You can’t enable the menu in an app that doesn’t support it.

If you’re really popular and you like to share your finds with as many people as possible, check out Andmade Share. This app lets you share through multiple apps simultaneously and allows you to rearrange how apps appear in the share menu. It’s a must-have for social media addicts.

Snap and edit screenshots

As of the Android 4.0 update, users can now snap screenshots at any time, without having to fuss with the Android SDK. You can do this by pressing the physical volume-down button and the power button simultaneously. After a brief delay you will hear a notification sound and see an animation that indicates the screenshot has been taken. If this trick does not work, consult your phone’s documentation—manufacturers may change how the feature works from device to device.

To take a screenshot on your Android phone or tablet, press and hold the volume down and power buttons at the same time.

Owners of devices lacking a built-in screenshot feature can either root the phone or use No Root Screenshot It, a $5 app.

Android 4.2 features a robust image editor.

Android 4.0 devices will add the screenshot to the Gallery app automatically. With the screenshot open, you can share it by going through the share menu or edit it (in Android 4.2 and higher) by tapping the icon at the lower left of the screen. The default editing options include filters, borders, simple transformations (such as crop and rotate) and adjustments like contrast or sharpness.

You can add editing functions with apps. Popular options include Aviary Photo EditorPhoto Editor, and PicsArt.

Create a wireless hotspot

Turning an Android device into a Wi-Fi hotspot has always been one of the platform’s most popular tweaks. The mobile carriers, which don’t want users to be able to share their data plans without paying an additional fee, are finding ways to disable this function just as quickly as developers are finding ways to enable it.

Currently you have two simple methods to create a hotspot without rooting your phone. Owners of devices running Android 4.0 or older can try FoxFi, a no-root tethering app that is available for $7 on the Google Play Store. Carriers have been blocking access to this app, however, so you may need to visit FoxFi’s work-around site to access it. Creating a hotspot is as easy as opening the app, entering a hotspot name and password, and checking the Activate box.

FoxFi turns your smartphone into a mobile hotspot.

Alternatives to FoxFi include EasyTetherWiFi Hotspot / WiFi Tether, and WiFi Hotspot & USB Tether Pro, but all of those apps are more expensive.

Users on a tight budget might prefer to enable a wireless hotspot by downloading a toggle widget app (such as Extended Controls, which I discussed earlier), as many of these apps include a Wi-Fi hotspot toggle. This approach is much less expensive than using a tethering app like FoxFi, but you should keep in mind that most toggle widgets merely let you turn the hotspot on or off; they don’t allow you to determine the network name or security settings. That’s what an app like FoxFi is for.

A Wi-Fi hotspot toggle.

Though these tricks might work, they’re exactly that—tricks. Mobile carriers officially require users to pay extra for tethering, so using a hotspot app may put you in breach of your contract and could result in unexpected fees. Carriers may disable these apps via a software update or block them from showing up in the Google Play Store on your device.

Manage mobile data

AT&T and Verizon’s war against unlimited data has forced some Android owners to worry about every megabyte they consume. Renting and streaming an HD movie from the Play Store normally costs about $5, but it could cost several times more if your data plan starts accruing overage charges while you watch.

Use Android's built-in data tracker to manage your mobile data use.

Google has tried to tackle this problem by baking data-management features into Android 4.0. Open the Settings menu and find Data usage, which should be the third option down. Here Android breaks down the data you’ve used on a per-app basis.

Onavo offers a variety of tools for keeping your data usage in check.

Users who don’t have Android 4.0 or newer can gain similar functionality with apps like My Data Manager and Onavo Count. Once you know what’s using your data, you can squash the offending apps or change your habits.

If you’re the stubborn sort, however, try Onavo Extend. This free service uses server-side compression to reduce the amount of data sent to your phone during day-to-day use. No need to change your habits—just install, sign up, and enjoy.

Press the big red button

There may come a time when you need to play a funeral march and reset your device. You might wish to do this because of an unfortunate error, or because you're selling your old Android device and you want to erase all the awesome self-portraits you snapped in front of the bathroom mirror. Whatever the reason, reformatting and resetting a device is easy.

Open the familiar Settings menu and navigate to Backup & reset. On the next screen you will see an option to reset your device to factory settings. I think you can guess what it does. Tap it, confirm, and wait.

Android reset screen

Owners of older Android devices follow similar steps. Open Settings, but look for SD & phone storage instead. Inside that menu you’ll see the Factory data reset option. Tap and confirm.

Remember, this reset is permanent, so be especially sure that you’ve backed up any important data. Also, do not attempt a reset on a device low on battery: There’s a chance that the battery will give out in the middle of the reset process, an accident that could cause your Android device’s premature demise.

Enjoy your new old phone

You may be amazed at what these advanced tips can do to your device. A revamped launcher, some custom icons, and a few useful apps can make even aging devices feel brand-new. Better still, taking charge of customization will transform your device from just another Android into your Android. Try doing that on Windows Phone or iOS!

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