Android 101: Customize and tweak your Android phone

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!

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit

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