Android 101: a New User's Guide to Getting the Most out of Android

Learn the basics of the Android operating system

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If you're new to Android, you may have difficulties learning about its smart capabilities. These difficulties are partly due to how manufacturers such as Samsung, Sony, Motorola, and Google make the devices. Android devices are slightly different depending on which manufacturer made the phone. However, many features are similar on all Android devices. Whether you converted from the iPhone to the Samsung Galaxy phone or bought a new tablet, here are the basics of how to navigate and customize your Android smartphone or tablet.

All the information below should apply to your device no matter which company makes your Android phone: Samsung, Google, Huawei, Xiaomi, etc.

Android 101: the Home Screen, Notifications, Search Bar, App Drawer and Dock

The Home Screen is the screen you see when you are not inside an app. There's a lot of interesting stuff packed in this screen, and there's a lot you can do with it to be more productive using your Samsung Galaxy, Google Nexus, or whichever Android device you own.

The Android Home screen
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The Notification Center

The top of the Home Screen tells you quite a bit about what is going on with your smartphone or tablet. The right side displays information such as your carrier or Wi-Fi connection strength, battery life, and the current time. The left side of this bar lets you know what type of notifications you have.

For example, if you see the Gmail icon, you have new mail messages. A battery icon might indicate a low battery. To read the full notifications, hold your finger on this bar to display a quick view of your notifications, then swipe down with your finger to reveal the full notifications.

Android notification drawer, widgets, and search

The Search Bar

The Google Search bar is at the top of the screen or below the time widget on most Android smartphones and tablets. The Search bar also provides quick access to Google voice search. To use voice search, tap the microphone on the left side of the Search bar.

Apps and Widgets

The main portion of the screen contains icons for apps and widgets. Widgets are small apps that run on the Home screen. The Clock is one example of a widget.

When you swipe from right to left to move from page to page, the Search bar and the icons at the bottom of the screen display on each page.

Android app drawer and buttons

The Dock

The App Dock is at the bottom of the screen and, depending on the device, can hold up to seven apps. The App Dock is a great shortcut to your most-used apps. The apps in the App Dock remain present no matter which page of the Home screen is displayed.

Create a folder in the App Dock and have quick access to more than seven apps.

The App Drawer

The App Drawer contains every app installed and enabled on your smartphone or tablet and is listed in alphabetical order. If you can't locate an app, go to the App Drawer. The App Drawer is usually depicted by a white circle with black dots lined up on the inside.

The Android Buttons

Some devices have virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen and others have real buttons below the screen. These are the common buttons found on Android smartphones and tablets:

  • The arrow or triangle pointing left is the Back button. This acts similar to the Back button on a web browser. In an app, press the Back button to go to a previous screen in that app.
  • The Home button is either a circle or is bigger than the other buttons. It hides the app on the screen and displays the Home screen.
  • The Task button is usually depicted with a box or as several boxes stacked on each other. This button displays your recently opened apps. You can either tap an app to switch between apps or tap the X button to close an app.

There are three real buttons on the side of the device. The top button is the Suspend button which is used to turn off, put to sleep, or reboot the device. To reboot a device, hold the Suspend button for several seconds, then choose Power off. The other two buttons adjust the volume.

To capture a photo of the screen, hold the Suspend and Volume down buttons at the same time.

Customize the Android Home Screen

If you want to customize the Home screen to get more out of it, there are many things that can be done by pressing and moving your finger around the screen. You can move apps, create folders, and add new widgets to the Home screen such as a monthly calendar.

How to Move an App

You can place an app anywhere on the screen between the search bar and the dock as long as there is an empty space for it. And if you do move it to the same place as an app or a widget, they will move out of the way. This is all accomplished with a drag-and-drop type of gesture.

To move an app icon:

  1. Hold your finger on the app icon.

  2. When the icon becomes slightly larger, drag your finger across the screen.

    When you move an app, you can see an outline of where it will be dropped.
  3. When the app is in the location you want, remove your finger from the screen.

  4. To move the icon to another page, drag the app icon to the side of the screen and wait for Android to switch to the next page.

  5. When the icon is in the location you want, lift your finger to drop the app in place.

How to Create a Folder

You can create a folder in the same way you move an app. However, instead of moving it to a new spot, drop it directly on top of another app.

  1. Drag an app and drop it on top of another app. A circle appears with a notification that a folder will be created.

  2. Tap the new folder to open it and view the apps it contains.

    Android create app folder
  3. Tap Unnamed Folder, then enter a descriptive name for the folder.

  4. To add new apps to the folder, drag the app icon to the folder and drop it.

How to Delete an App Icon

When you delete an app icon, only the icon is deleted from the Android device.

  1. Press and hold the app icon you want to delete.

  2. Drag the icon to the top of the screen and drop it on the X Remove.

    Android remove app icon
  3. The app icon is deleted but the app remains installed on the device.

How to Delete the Actual App

Sometimes, removing the icon is not enough. If you want to free up space on your device, you will want to get rid of the entire app. This is easy enough to do, although it isn't as simple as moving the icon around the screen.

  1. Open the Settings app. If you can't find it on your Home Screen, open the App Drawer.

  2. Choose Apps or Apps & notifications, depending on the Android version.

  3. In the list of apps on the smartphone or tablet, tap the app you want to uninstall.

  4. Tap Uninstall, then confirm your choice.

    Android uninstall an app
  5. Some of the apps that come with the device cannot be uninstalled. Instead, tap Disable to disable the app so that it cannot run in the background.

If your device is running low on storage space, delete the app to speed up your Android device.

How to Add Widgets to the Home Screen

Widgets are the best part about Android. Whether you have a Samsung Galaxy, Google Pixel, or Motorola Z, customize it to be the device you want it to be. And widgets are a big part of this.

Adding the calendar as a widget gives you a quick look at your month.

Widgets are small apps that are designed to run on a portion of the Home Screen rather than running in full-screen mode. The clock widget that is popular on most Android devices displays the time in a larger font than the clock at the upper-right corner of the screen. You can also put your calendar on the screen as a widget for quick access to meetings, appointments, events, and reminders you have for the day.

To add a widget to your Home screen:

  1. Press your finger on an empty spot of the Home screen.

  2. Tap Widgets to see a list of available widgets.

  3. Press your finger on a widget. The widget menu disappears and the Home screen appears.

    Android add widget to home screen
  4. Drag the widget to any open spot.

  5. Move the widget over an app or another widget. The app or widget moves to make space for the new widget.

  6. To place the widget on a different page of the Home Screen, drag the widget to the edge of the screen to change pages.

  7. When the widget is in the location you want, lift your finger from the screen.

Not every device is the same. For example, the Nvidia Shield tablet adds a widget as described above. The Google Nexus tablet uses an alternative scheme that is popular among some Android devices.

If you didn't see an option for widgets when you held your finger on the screen:

  1. Open the App Drawer. The App Drawer icon looks like a circle with black dots lining up on the inside.

  2. In the App Drawer, tap the Widgets tab.

  3. Hold your finger on a widget to select it.

  4. When the Home Screen appears, drag the widget to where you want it, then lift your finger from the screen to drop it in that location.

How to Use Voice Commands on Your Android Device

If you want the equivalent of Siri on your Samsung Galaxy, HTC, or another Android tablet, there are a number of alternatives on the Google Play store. Google Pixel devices and the Samsung Galaxy S series have it built into the device. Google Assistant and Samsung Bixby offer the Android world an alternative to Siri. If you'd prefer something simpler, use Google's voice search.

Asking Google Assistant what time it is in New York

To activate the Google voice engine, tap the microphone (you'll find it on the Home screen to the left of the Search bar). The screen changes to the Google app with an animation that indicates that the device is listening for your commands.

If you say something like, "Create a meeting for tomorrow at 8 a.m.," the assistant helps you create a new event.

You can also ask for simple things such as "Show me a nearby pizza restaurant" or "What's playing at the movies?"

If you want to perform more complicated tasks such as set a reminder, turn on Google Now. The Google search assistant prompts you to turn it on when you use one of these commands. If you say, "Remind me to take out the trash tomorrow at 10 a.m.," and Google Now is turned on, you'll be prompted to confirm the reminder. If not, you will be prompted to turn on Now cards.

A few other questions and tasks for Google's voice search:

  • Set an alarm for 8 a.m.
  • What is 52+37?
  • Calculate a tip for $12.32.
  • Who wrote Moby Dick?

If Google voice search doesn't know the answer, it displays results from the web, so it is similar to searching Google. This makes it a great way to do a quick web search without opening a web browser or typing words.