Android 101: A New User's Guide to Getting the Most Out of Android

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New to Android? We all know how to place phone calls, but how about using those 'smart' capabilities? Whether you have just converted from the iPhone to the Samsung Galaxy phone or just got home with a fancy new tablet, we'll take you through some of the basics of how to navigate and (even better) customize your Android smartphone or tablet.

One of the difficulties with going Android is just how different manufacturers from Samsung to Sony to Motorola to Google make the devices. And they all like to put their personal spin on them, so each one is different in small ways. But most of what we'll cover are the features that are similar on all Android devices.

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

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The first thing we'll take a look at is the Home Screen, which is the screen you see when you are not inside an app. There's a lot of interesting stuff packed into this one screen, and there's a lot you can do with it to make yourself more productive using your Samsung Galaxy or your Google Nexus or whichever Android device you own.

Android notification drawer, widgets, and search

The Notification Center. The very top of the Home Screen is actually telling you quite a bit about what is going on with your smartphone or tablet. On the right side, it displays information like how many bars you are getting with your carrier or your Wi-Fi connection, how much battery life you have left and the current time. The left side of this bar is letting 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. You can read the full notifications by holding your finger down on this bar, which displays a quick view of your notifications, and then swiping down with your finger, which reveals the full notifications.

The Search Bar. It is easy to forget the Google Search bar at the top or just below the time widget on most Android smartphones and tablets, but it can be a great shortcut. You can also get quick access to Google's voice search by tapping the microphone on the left side of the search bar.

Apps and Widgets. The main portion of your screen is devoted to apps and widgets, which are small apps that run on your home screen like the clock. If you swipe from right to left, you can move from page to page. You'll notice the search bar and the icons at the bottom of the screen stay the same as you move to a new page.

Android app drawer and buttons

The Dock. It's easy to dismiss how handy the app dock at the bottom of the screen can be if you are willing to take advantage of it. Depending on your device, the dock can hold up to seven apps. And because they remain present no matter which page of the Home Screen you are on, they make great shortcuts to your most used apps. But the cool thing is that you can put a folder on the dock, which gives you quick access to even more apps.

The App Drawer. Perhaps the most important icon on the dock is the App Drawer. This special folder gives you access to every app you have installed and enabled on your smartphone or tablet listed in alphabetical order, so if you ever have problems locating an app, the App Drawer can be your best friend. The App Drawer is usually depicted by a white circle with black dots lined up on the inside.

The Android Buttons. While some devices have virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen and others have real buttons just below the screen, all Android smartphones and tablets have at two or three buttons.

The arrow or triangle pointing left is the Back button, which acts similar to the back button on your web browser. If you are in an app, it will take you to a previous screen in that app.

The Home button is usually in the middle and either has a circle or is simply bigger than the other buttons. It will take you out of whatever app you have on the screen and back to the Home screen.

The Task button is usually depicted with a box or as several boxes stacked on each other. This button brings up all your most recently opened apps, allowing you to either switch between apps very quickly or close an app by tapping the X button in the upper right corner.

There are also three buttons on the side of the device. The top button is a suspend button. This button can also be used to reboot the device by holding it down for several seconds and choosing "Power off" in the menu. The other two buttons are for adjusting the volume.

If you hold down the suspend and volume down buttons at the same time, you will capture a photo of the screen.

Move Apps and Create Folders

When you move an app, you can see an outline of where it will be dropped.

So how do we start customizing that Home Screen to get more out of it? There are an amazing number of things that can be accomplished simply by pressing a finger down and moving it around the screen. You can move apps, create folders, and even add new widgets to the Home Screen such as a monthly calendar.

How to Move an App

You can place an app pretty much anywhere on the screen between the search bar and the dock so 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 gladly move out of the way. This is all accomplished with a drag-and-drop type of gesture. You can "grab" an app icon by holding your finger down on it. One you pick it up -- you'll know because it becomes slightly larger -- you can move it to another part of the screen. If you want to move it to another "page", simply move it to the side of the screen and wait for Android to switch to the next page. When you have found a spot you like, simply lift your finger to drop the app in place,

How to Create a Folder

Android create app folder

You can actually create a folder in the same way you move an app. Instead of moving it to a new spot, drop it directly on top of another app. When you hover over the target app, you'll see a circle appear notifying you that a folder will be created. After you create the folder, tap on it. You will see the two apps inside and "Unnamed Folder" at the bottom. Tap "Unnamed Folder" and type in any name. You can add new apps to the folder the same way you created it: just drag them to the folder and drop them in.

How to Delete an App Icon

Android remove app icon

If you guessed that you can delete an app icon the same way you move an app, you are correct. When you are moving an app around the screen, you will see "X Remove" at the top of the screen. If you drop an app icon to this remove section and drop it, the icon will disappear. However, it is important to remember this is just the app's icon. The app itself is still on your 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.

Android uninstall an app
  • First, open the Settings app. (If you can't find it on your Home Screen, open the App Drawer we discussed in the first section.)
  • Choose Apps or Apps & notifications, depending on your Android version, from the Settings menu.
  • This will list out all of the apps on your smartphone or tablet. Tap on the one you want to uninstall.
  • If you are allowed to uninstall it, you will have the option on the upper left side of the screen.
  • You cannot uninstall some of the apps that come with the device, but if you want to make sure they cannot run in the background, you can disable them. The Disable button takes the place of the Uninstall button.

If you are running very low on storage space, deleting the app can actually help speed up your Android device.

Add Widgets to the Home Screen

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

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

Despite the name, widgets are just small apps that are designed to run on a small portion of the Home Screen rather than running in full screen mode. They can also prove quite useful. The clock widget that is popular on most Android devices displays the time in a much bigger 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 what meeting, appointments, events and reminders you have for the day.

How to Add a Widget to Your Home Screen

Android add widget to home screen

On most Android smartphones and tablets, simply press your finger down on an empty spot of the Home Screen. A menu will come up allowing you to choose between wallpapers and widgets. If you tap on wallpapers, you can choose between some stock photos and the photos stored on your device. If you choose widgets, you will see a list of your available widgets.

You can add and place the widget just like you would an app. When you press your finger on the widget, the widget menu will disappear and reveal your home screen. You can place the widget in any open spot, and if you move it over an app or another widget, it will move aside to give you room. You can even place it on a different page of the Home Screen by hovering your finger at the edge of the screen to change pages. When you found the spot: drop it!

But what if you didn't receive an option for widgets when you held your finger down on the screen?

Unfortunately, not every device is the same. For example, my Nvidia Shield tablet allows me to add a widget just as I described. The Google Nexus tablets used an alternative scheme popular among some Android devices.

Instead of adding the widget by holding your finger down on the Home Screen, you will need to open the App Drawer. Remember, this is the app icon that looks like a circle with black dots lining up on the inside. It lists all of your apps in alphabetical order, and for devices that don't have a Widgets choice when holding a finger down on the Home Screen, the App Drawer should have a Widgets tab at the top of the screen.

The rest of the direction are the same: hold your finger down on a widget to select it, and when the Home Screen appears, drag it to where you want it and drop it by lifting your finger from the screen.

Use Voice Commands on Your Android Device

You will be surprised at just how much Google's voice search can do for you.

If you are looking for the equivalent of Siri on your Samsung Galaxy, HTC or other Android tablet, there are a number of alternatives on the Google Play store, Google's Pixel devices and Samsung's flagship Galaxy S series have it baked into the device.

Google Assistant and Samsung's Bixby both offer the Android world solid competition for Siri. If you'd prefer something simpler, you can always use Google's voice search.

You can activate Google's voice engine by tapping the microphone to the far left of the search bar at the top of the Home Screen. The screen should change to the Google app with an animation indicating your device is listening for your commands.

Try: "Create a meeting for tomorrow at 8 AM." The assistant will walk you through creating a new event.

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

If you want to perform more complicated tasks like setting a reminder, you will need to turn on Google Now. Luckily, the Google search assistant will ask you to turn it on when you stumble into one of these commands. Try "Remind me to take out the trash tomorrow at 10 AM." If you have Google Now turned on, you will be asked 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 AM
  • What is 52+37?
  • Calculate tip for $12.32
  • Who wrote Moby Dick?

If Google's voice search doesn't know the answer, she will give you results from the web, so it is just like searching Google. This makes it a great way to do a quick web search without bothering to do things like open a web browser or type in words.