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

guide to android gmail feature
Twin Design/Shutterstock

This article was updated on May 17 by Carlos Vega to include information regarding the Quick Settings bar and Google Assistant.

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, below is 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 HTC and Samsung 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 Android 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

Google Nexus 9 Screenshot

Unlike the home button in iOS, 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 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 the websites you visit most often.

home buttonHome 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.

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, while other screens are located to the left and right. Android’s personalization features really shine, here.

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 at first glance. 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 Nougat, 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.

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