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Enlist in the Android Army: A beginner’s guide to Android

For anyone who has been living with iOS for years, getting started on Android can be dauntingThose of you who’ve never had a smartphone before may also find navigating the operating system a challenge at first. Although there are many different versions of Android, and some companies put their own customizable user interfaces on top of Google’s version of the OS, there are some basic beginners tips that everyone can use to master Android.

Related: 100 awesome Android apps that will turn your phone into a jack of all trades

To help you get started, here’s our comprehensive guide on using the platform and its various functions. You can also check out our list of best smartphones, best phablets, and best smartwatches to get an idea of the Android ecosystem.

Setting up your new phone

Before you can do anything on Android, you need to boot your phone up for the first time and set it up. When you switch on your device for the first time, you’ll be asked to select a language. Press Start when you’ve picked the right language. The next step will be to connect your phone to a Wi-Fi network. This should be easy if you’ve owned a wireless device — simply choose the right network and enter the appropriate password.

Android is built by Google, therefore, to make full use of your device, you’re going to need a Google account. If you have a Gmail address, you already have a Google account. If you don’t, simply select Get an account and follow the on-screen instructions. You don’t technically need a Google account to use your phone, but it is required if you want to download apps, back up your data, and use other Google services. Some phone manufacturers also ask you if you want to create an extra account with them, but you don’t really need to unless you want to use that company’s services as well.

Related: 15 awesome Android 6.0 Marshmallow tips to try out

You should also make sure that you enable backups on your device, so that your data isn’t lost if there’s a problem later. Head to Settings > Accounts, select your Google account, and check everything you want to sync. To ensure that all your photos are saved for posterity, you should download Google Photos (if it’s not on your phone already). It offers unlimited storage for all your pictures, and you can access them on any device, whether it be your PC, Mac, iPad, or Android.

During the setup process, you may be asked if you want to add a passcode, pattern, or fingerprint to lock your device. Doing so will add extra security to your device, and if your phone has a fingerprint sensor, you should set it up for Android Pay anyway. To set up the fingerprint sensor, you just place your finger on the sensor multiple times until your digit is registered. You’ll also be asked to set up a passcode or PIN for backup in case your fingerprint can’t be read.

Once you’ve set up your device, you should check to see if there’s a software update available. To do this, press on the Settings app, scroll to the bottom, press About phone, and select System updates. On the next screen, you’ll see a Check for update button. Press it, and your phone will check to see if any updates are available. If so, you can download and install them.

The navigation buttons

Google Nexus 9 Screenshot

Unlike the iOS home button, manufacturers typically equip Android devices with three touch-sensitive buttons at the bottom of the screen. Various manufacturers have received flack in the past for deviating from Google’s vision, however, the most recent versions of the OS are relatively devoid of inconsistencies. Pretty much every essential action starts and ends with the three buttons, all of which are conveniently featured below.

back buttonBack Button: The back button, on the left, will take you back to the last thing you did in an app, or revert to the last page in your mobile browser. Additionally, holding the button down when using your browser should automatically open up a menu that makes it easy to access your favorite bookmarks, browsing history, and your most visited websites.

home buttonHome Button: The home button, in the middle, will simply take you back to your home screen, the fundamental location for accessing all aspects of your device. In the most recent version of Android, holding down the Home button will also activate “Now on Tap,” which allows you to interact with Google Now from any app. More on that later.

square

Overview Button: The overview button, on the right, essentially works in a similar vein to the multi-tasking function in iOS. Pressing the button will reveal a vertical list of every open and active app on your mobile device, thus allowing you to quickly navigate and jump between various apps with a mere touch of the screen.

Multiple homescreens

Samsung Galaxy S7
Jeffrey Van Camp/Digital Trends

Much like the iPhone, Android devices allow you to manage multiple home screens — up to five in earlier versions of Android, and as many as you like if you have Android 4.4 KitKat or above. However, unlike iOS, Android centers your primary home screen with the option to access other screens by swiping left and right. Android’s reputation for personalization begins here.

Related: Customize your Android phone with the best 10 launchers, lockscreens, and more

Users can create shortcuts and group apps together within folders, but the platform doesn’t force users to store apps on the home screen the way iOS does. Instead, you can install and store apps in the App Drawer located within the dock. Android also allows users to create, resize, and arrange various widgets on the home screen. Widgets display real-time information from apps right there on the home screen, and some of them are interactive.

What apps should I get?

This is totally up to you, obviously. There are, however, some basic apps you should consider. Here are some of the apps you may want to get right away.

Facebook and Facebook Messenger

facebook

This is a no-brainer if you’re a Facebook user. The app allows you to do anything you could do on the main Facebook website, and in some situations, more. Sadly, if you want to chat, you’re going to need the Facebook Messenger app, as Facebook no longer lets you chat within the mobile app.

Download now from:

Google

Twitter

twitter-screen

Twitter is another no-brainer for social media fans. The official mobile app allows you to quickly and easily send tweets with photos and videos taken directly from your phone. You can also scroll through the latest tweets and check out what’s happening in the world — just like you can using the desktop interface.

Download now from:

Google

Inbox by Gmail

Inbox

Sure, you could just use the Gmail app to handle your emails, but Inbox makes things far easier, allowing you to treat your emails more like a to-do list rather than a standard box of mail. Once you’re done with an email, simply mark it as done and move on, or hit snooze and have the app remind you of the email later.

Download now from:

Google

ES File Explorer

ES File Explorer Thumb

If you want to get a little more advanced and start organizing your files manually, you’re going to want an Android file explorer. ES File Explorer is well-known, and for good reason. The app is easy-to-navigate, looks great, and makes it simple to move your files around. Quick note — if you don’t know what a file is, what it does, or where it should be, it’s best not to touch it as it could cause trouble within Android.

Download now from:

Google

Reddit

Reddit app

The official Reddit app only came out a few months ago, but it’s still a great way to keep up with the happenings on the Internet, or just relax and have a laugh. The app itself is well-designed and easy-to-use, especially if you’re already familiar with how Reddit works on a desktop.

Download now from:

Google

You can also check out our full list of 100 great Android apps you should download now.

Extensive customization

swiftkey-screen
At first, Android’s terminology may seem foreign. Launcher refers to different variations of your home screen arrangement. Different launchers change the look and functionality of your home screens and your app drawer. Although you’re always welcome to install a third-party launcher, the default launchers, created by Google or phone manufacturers like Samsung, do a pretty good job of arranging and conveniently displaying your data and content in an attractive way.

Nonetheless, installing a new launcher will allow you to cram more into your dock while utilizing a more distinct theme and interface. For instance, the Nova Launcher and Nokia’s new Z Launcher provide two vastly different ways of using the platform, each adorned with its own display aesthetics and navigation components. You can check out our favorite Android launchers here.

Aside from the default launcher, Android also allows you to customize nearly every component of the OS, right down to the wallpaper, and the virtual keyboard you use for texting and browsing the Web. Keyboard customization might seem like a small feature on the surface, and possibly a novel one, but choosing a proper Android keyboard from Google Play is crucial to efficiently composing emails and entering any sort of text. You can check out our list of best Android keyboard apps here.

Google Now integration

Google Now

Android’s virtual assistant, Google Now, has one major advantage over other mobile operating systems: the search engine. In many cases — though not all — Google Now is a more comprehensive resource than Siri. For example, if you opt in, Google Now will use your search history to display relevant news stories and sports scores. It will also analyze your travel habits to bring up relevant travel information, while additionally providing you with a time estimate and the best directions for driving to your next location. It will even tell you when to leave so you don’t miss that appointment. It may not be able to walk your dog, but as you can see in our guide on getting the most out of Google Now, the service can handle a good deal more than you might imagine.

Related: How to get the most out of Google Now

As previously mentioned, Google Now also has a feature called Now on Tap — at least if your smartphone is running Android Marshmallow or later. Using Now on Tap largely depends on the app you’re using, or the screen you’re currently on, but it usually works in a similar fashion regardless of the app. Let’s say you’re planning a movie date with a friend via Facebook Messenger, for instance. After planning the event, you should be able to hold down the Home button, which will prompt Now on Tap to provide the trailer and information regarding the actors in the movie.

Android Pay and Google Play

Android Pay

Google Play and Android Pay only further the unified experience Android offers. The latter functions as a digital wallet, allowing you to store your physical gift cards online, use various loyalty cards, and so on. Here’s our guide on Android Pay and how to set it up:

  • Android Pay comes preloaded on many devices, but if your phone doesn’t have the app, you can download it from the Google Play Store.
  • If you already have a card in your Google account, you just need to confirm the details to add it to Android Pay. Alternatively, you can add a new card from any participating bank by snapping a picture of your card and confirming the details.

Google Play — the Android equivalent to Apple’s iTunes and App stores — operates as Google’s official digital store, allowing you to purchase apps, books, movies, music, and more with a few simple taps. The service even lets you install apps remotely, meaning you can download an app on your tablet when you’re at work and it’ll be there when you arrive home.

A unified Android experience across platforms

No other operating system offers the same level of diversity as Android. The Android OS has expanded beyond smartphones into the realm of tablets and wearable devices, including a swath of smartwatches. What’s more, you can download files on your Android device, open them when you’re offline, and share them with other Android users at a moment’s notice.

Google even takes it one step further, allowing seamless integration between recent Android devices and Google’s Web-based OS for computers, Chrome OS. You can also use your Google log-in to share bookmarks and browsing history across devices through the Chrome browser.

Android Setbacks

Alas, no OS is created perfect and there are a few notable issues with Android devices. Despite all the convenience and the modular features, Android is an open platform and there are inevitably inconsistencies given the plethora of manufacturers making devices for it. A budget Android smartphone running an older version of the platform is a completely different prospect from the latest Samsung flagship. But, no device is without its issues. Thankfully, most problems have a pretty easy solution, whether we’re talking about problems with the Galaxy S7 or the Nexus 6P.

Battery Life

A common complaint for mobile devices, long-battery life has never been Android’s strong suit. Most recent devices, including the Nexus line of phones and the Samsung Galaxy S7, come with power-saving modes. What’s more, most Androids charge using a simple Micro USB cable, the kind you can find nearly anywhere. USB-C is, however, set to take over. Android 5.0 Lollipop and later also has a battery saver option built-in and Google Play’s collection of battery saving apps offers even more solutions for making the most of your power.

Inconsistent Updates

Since many manufacturers design devices that run on Android OS, every Android user is at the mercy of their phone manufacturer when it comes to getting the latest Android updates. Consider a stock Android device, like the Nexus 6P or 5X, if you want to make sure you get the latest Android flavor as soon as it’s released. The Nexus line is Google’s official smartphone and tablet range, which guarantees consistent and reliable updates.

The downside to inconsistent updates isn’t just missing out out new features, it’s also a security risk. Major hacks like Stagefright and Heartbleed have prompted Google to act with monthly security patches for devices, but many manufacturers and carriers stall those updates, resulting in millions of vulnerable Android phones. The FTC and FCC are even investigating the issue on behalf of consumers.

Bottom Line

Android is more customizable and versatile than iOS, which makes it pretty darn irresistible if you can forgo Apple’s ecosystem. Though it may be difficult for someone who owns a fleet of Mac products at home to make the switch, it can be done with a little patience and perseverance. We even have a comprehensive tutorial on switching for the iPhone to Android for you, complete with instructions for moving your music, photos, and contacts.

This article was initially published on Feb. 18, 2015, and updated on May 15, 2016, by Chrisitan de Looper to include sections on how to set up your phone and which apps to download.