What are Settings?

Get a handle on your privacy and set up your preferences on every device

Phone settings

Whether you're on your first smartphone or your seventh, settings are or will be one of your best friends. Settings help you protect your privacy, save on battery life, silence notifications, and can make your device easier to use. With the growing popularity of smart devices, home automation, and the persistent buzz around the Internet of Things (IoT), settings are beginning to appear in more of our daily lives, not just in the technology realm. IoT refers to the idea of connecting everyday devices to the Internet that can then send and receive data.

If you decide to purchase a smart appliance, a smart speaker such as the Amazon Echo, or set up home automation, you'll need to know how to access and adjust important settings, just as you do with a smartphone, tablet, laptop, and other electronics.

What You Need to Know About Settings

Before we had all these electronic devices, we had devices that had their own sort-of-similar settings. You know, how loud a telephone would ring, how long a piece of bread stayed in the toaster, and where the driver's seat was adjusted to in the car. Of course, with today's electronics, the number of settings has increased exponentially, but they work in the same way.

Often represented as a gear icon on a smartphone or tablet, "settings" is an app that lets you customize your device to fit your preferences. In general, a smart device will have settings for wireless connections, device-related options, such as screen brightness, notification sounds, and date and time, and privacy and security controls, such as location services and screen lock set-up. Additionally, most of the apps that you download to your smartphone or tablet also have settings, which often include notifications, sharing options, and app-specific functions. Here are some of the common settings that you'll encounter on a smartphone or tablet, many of which you'll also find on any number of smart devices.

Wireless Connections

Smart devices have to connect to the Internet, and many will have a wireless and networks section in settings, or separate menu items for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode and other options. In either case, this where you can connect and disconnect your device from various wireless connections.

You can:

  • Set up Wi-Fi to connect your device to your home Internet connection or a wireless hotspot at a coffee shop, airport, or other location.
  • Turn on Bluetooth on to connect to other smart devices, such as a keyboard, smartwatch or fitness tracker, or accessories like wireless headphones.
  • Put your device in Airplane mode, which automatically disables the device's radios. This will make it impossible to receive incoming and outgoing calls and messages. It also turns off your web connection.
  • Connect and disconnect from your mobile network which you might want to do when traveling abroad to avoid roaming charges or to save on data usage. In fact, you can turn off access to mobile networks and still leave Wi-Fi enabled so that you can use free Wi-Fi where it's available.

On a smartphone, data refers to any way that you use the web, including email, web surfing, playing games that serve ads, or getting turn-by-turn directions. In this area of settings, you may also be able to view how much data you've consumed for the month and which of your apps are using the most of it.


Notifications will vary depending on the device and connected apps, but once you've used a smartphone, you'll find it easy enough to manage on other smart devices. Notification settings include the types of alerts you'd like to receive (new email, calendar reminder, game notification that it's your turn) as well as how you'd like to receive them (text, email, on-phone), and whether you want a sound, vibration, or both or neither. Managing the ringtone for different types of notifications is often in a separate section (see below). To change these settings, you may have to go into individual apps and make your adjustments.

Do Not Disturb

Some devices have an option in the Settings app to globally allow or block notifications from specific apps. Newer iPhones and Android devices have a feature called Do Not Disturb, which mutes notifications you deem unimportant and lets through the ones you can't miss, including alarms, for a particular period. This is a great feature to use when in a meeting or at the movies or anywhere that requires your (mostly) undivided attention. It's also convenient if you use your smartphone as your alarm clock and so that your sleep isn't disrupted with non-urgent notifications.

Sounds and Appearance

You can adjust the brightness of a smart device's display (if it has one), volume levels, and the look and feel of the interface.

  • The volume area usually has multiple options: media (music, video), alarm, and ring, so that you can turn your music up without turning up your alarm clock, ringtone, or text alert ping.
  • You can adjust the brightness of your screen manually or turn on auto-brightness so that your display can adapt to different lighting scenarios throughout the day and evening.
  • In this section, you can also upload and change your wallpaper and screen savers, as well as change color schemes and other design elements.
  • Change your ringtone and the various sounds your device makes to alert you of calendar events, new text messages, new emails, alarms, and more. Here you can also choose whether you want your device to vibrate along with or instead of the ringtone. You can set a default notification sound too, and even select the screen locking sound, touch sounds, power on sounds, and more.

Privacy and Security

Beyond customizing your experience, settings are also key to protecting your privacy and security. Important options include:

  • Turning location services on and off. You'll want to turn this feature on when you're using a navigation app, like Google Maps to get around, but there's no need to broadcast your location continuously.
  • Setting up your lock screen. Android has options to unlock your phone with a pin code, pattern, fingerprint, or a password, while Apple's unlock options are either a pin code or a fingerprint reader.
  • Enable Android Device Manager or Find my iPhone. Both Android and Apple offer options to geolocate your device if it's lost or stolen and even remotely lock it or erase all data if it can't be retrieved.
  • Backing up your device regularly. Android lets you save your data to Google Drive, while the iPhone connects to your iCloud account. You may also consider using a third-party app if you prefer.
  • Consider encrypting your Android or iOS device. Doing so will keep your data safe from criminals and will prevent the manufacturer or carrier from handing over your private information to law enforcement without permission.
  • Hide notifications from your lock screen. Ever received a personal text message or embarrassing reminder while your phone is in view of others? Put a stop to that and keep certain types of notifications from bursting through your lock screen or at least hide the content of said notifications.

System Settings

Finally, you can access device settings including the date and time, operating system version, text size, and other elements.

  • How often do you use your smartphone as a watch? Make sure the date and time are accurate by setting it manually or having it update automatically, including when you change time zones. 
  • Take advantage of accessibility settings, including the ability to adjust font size, enable a screen reader, change up the color scheme for better visibility, add captions to videos, and other features that make the device easier to use.
  • Go into "about phone" or "about device" to check which version of the operating system it's running, helpful information to have if you need to contact tech support, even if it's a friend or family member.
  • Choose which emergency broadcasts you'd like to receive (smartphones only). You can opt in and out of Amber Alerts, extreme weather alerts, and others by going into the phone's system settings.
  • Set up the language or languages you prefer to use.
  • Set default apps for email, messaging, navigation, and other activities.

This is obviously just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to settings, but you can see how spending some time with settings of your devices and your apps can make a commonplace device feel like it's truly yours. Some smart devices will have settings you won't find anywhere else, but understanding that settings are just ways to make the device act the way you want is a big step in the right direction.