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

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

For anyone who’s been living with iOS for years, getting started on Android — Google’s mobile operating system — can be daunting. And if you’ve never owned a smartphone before, the prospect of navigating new software might be a concern. Although there are many different versions of Android, and some companies put their own customized user interfaces on top of it, there are some basic tips that everyone can use to master Android.

To help you get started, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide on using the platform and its various functions. You can also check out our list of the best smartphones and smartwatches, if you want to get a better idea regarding the Android ecosystem.

Setting up your new phone

Before you can do anything on Android, you need to boot up your phone 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 a language, and connect your phone to a nearby Wi-Fi network. This should be easy — simply choose the right network and enter the appropriate password.

Android is built by Google, and as such, it works best with Google’s proprietary services. To take full advantage 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 apps and services. Manufacturers such as Samsung and Huawei may ask you if you want to create an additional, manufacturer-specific account, but you don’t really need to unless you want to use that company’s services as well.

You should also make sure that you enable backups on your device so 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 cloud 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 Google Pay, Google’s all-in-one payments platform. To set up the fingerprint sensor, simply 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 purposes, just 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 and gestures

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Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Unlike the home button in iOS, manufacturers typically equip Android devices with either three touch-sensitive buttons at the bottom of the screen, or rely on gestures for software control. 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. Many Android devices are still totally controlled by the three buttons, found below, though newer devices, running Android 9.0 Pie or later, may have switched to the newer gesture-based method.

Back 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 the websites you visit most often.

Home Button: The home button, located in the middle, will simply take you back to your home screen. In the most recent version of Android, holding down the home button will also activate “Screen search,” which pulls up the Google Assistant, Google’s AI-powered helper, from any app. More on that later.

Overview Button: The overview button, on the right, functions like the multi-tasking function in iOS. Pressing this button reveals a vertical list of every open and active app on your mobile device, allowing you to quickly navigate and jump between various apps with a simple tap of the screen. Double tap this button and you’ll jump straight back into your last used app.

If you don’t see the three buttons at the bottom of your Android screen, your device probably relies on Android Pie’s gestures instead. From the bottom of the display, you can swipe up, which will show the multitasking view. You can also press on the lone pill-shaped button to go home at any given moment.

Multiple home screens

Moto X4 Android One review front window
Julian Chokkattu/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. Android used to center the home screen, though now your primary screen will be located second from the left — directly next to the Google Feed screen.

Users can create shortcuts and group apps together within folders, but Android doesn’t force you 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 you to create, resize, and arrange various widgets on the home screen. Widgets display real-time information from apps on the home screen, and some of them are interactive.

The Quick Settings bar

The Quick Settings bar is a convenient way to quickly access your most-used toggles, and it’s also where you can see and dismiss all of your notifications. However, it may not be obvious how to use it at first. The good news is that the Quick Settings bar works the same way regardless of which version of Android you have on your smartphone.

To use it, swipe down once from the top to reveal your notifications. If you swipe down again, it will reveal all the quick toggles. If you don’t like swiping down twice to reveal both the quick toggles and the notifications, you can swipe down using two fingers.

Now that you can see your toggles and notifications, there are various ways for dealing with both. To deal with notifications, you can either tap to open a notification, you can swipe to dismiss it, or you can tap the three horizontal bars in the bottom right of the notifications to clear them all at once.

The toggles are easy to deal with. If you want to turn something on or off, such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, just tap the icon once. There is another hidden feature that is extremely useful, and that is a tap and hold gesture. If you tap and hold an icon in the Quick Settings bar for a couple of seconds, the full settings for that toggle will open. This can save you a lot of time digging through the settings menu. For example, if you are trying to pair Bluetooth headphones with your phone, you can tap and hold the Bluetooth toggle, and that will take you to the Bluetooth settings, where you can pair your device.

You should also be aware that you can tap the icons at the top of the Quick Settings bar. You can tap the battery icon to reveal the battery settings, for instance, or the cogwheel icon to access your system settings. And if you tap your profile picture, you can add more users.

It’s also worth mentioning that every new version of Android will slightly update the Quick Settings bar, and that some manufacturers make their own tweaks. This bar is one of the most important features of Android and one of the features you will use the most. If you purchase a device running Android Pie, for example, you will see an Edit option in the lower-right corner. If you tap this, it will let you drag and rearrange the icons in your tray. You can also drag new icons and get rid of the ones you seldom use. All these features are useful, but if you follow our simple guide, you will at least have the basic information on how this bar works, regardless of how Google updates it in future iterations of Android.

What apps should I get?

This is totally up to you. There are, however, some basic apps you should consider. For example, right away you might want to download apps from your favorite social media networks, like Facebook and Twitter. You might also want some entertainment apps, like Netflix. And, of course, you might want to get a few good games to play on those long flights.

For more suggestions on some great apps, check out our guide on the best apps available on Android.

Extensive customization

Gboard keyboard

At first, Android’s terminology may seem a little foreign. Launcher refers to different skins your Android phone can run. 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 letting you arrange your content in an attractive way.

Nonetheless, installing a new launcher allows you to cram more into your dock while utilizing a more distinct theme and interface. For instance, the Nova Launcher and Apex 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 allows you to customize nearly every component of the OS right down to the wallpaper. You can customize the virtual keyboard you use for texting and browsing the web, too, just like you can on Apple’s iOS operating system. Keyboard customization might seem like a small feature on the surface, but choosing a proper Android keyboard from Google Play is crucial making your Android experience a productive and enjoyable one. You can check out our list of best Android keyboard apps here.

Google Assistant integration

mobile trends google assistant ai

Android’s virtual assistant, Google Assistant, is available on all Android devices running Marshmallow 6.0 or later, and it has one major advantage over other mobile operating systems: The search engine. In many cases — though, not all — Google Assistant is a more comprehensive resource than Siri. For example, if you opt in, Google Assistant 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 your next appointment.

To access Google Assistant, tap and hold the home button for a couple of seconds. You can also activate it with your voice using the “OK, Google” or “Hey Google” voice command. If those commands aren’t working, or you would like to tweak the feature’s settings, open the Google app on your smartphone.

Google Pay and Google Play

Android Pay

Google Pay only further the unifies the experience Android offers. Like other mobile payment services, it allows you to store physical gift cards, use loyalty cards, pay for items in-store, and more. Here’s our guide on Google Pay and how to set it up:

  • Google 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 Google 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 App Store — operates as Google’s official digital store, allowing you to purchase apps, books, movies, music, and more with a few simple taps. It 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 account to share bookmarks and browsing history across devices through the Chrome browser.

Android Setbacks

No OS is 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 offers a radically different experience than the latest Samsung flagship. Thankfully, most problems have pretty easy solutions.

Battery Life

Long battery life hasn’t always been Android’s strong suit, but it’s getting better. Most recent devices, including Google’s Pixel 3 line of phones and the Samsung Galaxy S9, come with power-saving modes. What’s more, most recent Android phones charge using a simple USB-C cable — the kind you can find nearly anywhere, and many of the best Android phones support wireless charging, too.

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 Pixel, if you want to make sure you get the latest Android flavor as soon as it’s released. The Pixel line of phones is Google’s official smartphone range, and they’re guaranteed consistent updates.

The downside to inconsistent updates isn’t just missing out new features, but the 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.

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 from the iPhone to Android for you, complete with instructions for moving your music, photos, and contacts.

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