10 Poweruser Tips for Your New Android Phone: better living through Google

(I realize that this is a departure from my normal photo posts; more of those are coming soon.)

So you just unwrapped a shiny new Android phone on Christmas morning. Maybe this is your first smartphone, maybe you are switching from an iPhone, or maybe you have had an Android phone in the past and want to take this opportunity to start things off right. I’m assuming that you’ll be able to find plenty of guides online introducing you to your new phone and Android basics. I’ve been using Android for a few years now, and I’d like to share a few things you can do to jumpstart your use of Android from beginner to expert.

1. What if you lose your phone?

Screenshot_2013-12-27-11-58-02Let’s face it, nobody’s perfect, and there’s a good chance that at some point you’re going to lose your phone. Maybe you’ll leave it sitting on your desk at work, maybe it will get stolen from your purse at a bar, or maybe it will just slip down between the couch cushions at home. In any case, the time to prepare for a lost phone is before it happens, not after. Luckily, it only takes a few minutes to set up Android Device Manager to get you ready.

Go to your app drawer and select the “Google Settings” app. Open it, go to the selection for Android Device Manager, and make sure both “Remotely locate this device” and “Allow remote lock and factory reset” are checked off. If you have a second Android device, like a tablet, do the same thing on your other device, then install the Device Manager app on both devices. If you don’t have a second device, bookmark the device manager on your desktop or laptop browser.

Screenshot_2013-12-27-11-58-24When you’re not sure where your phone is, fire up the device manager app or website. You will get a map showing the last known location of the device, and you can remotely ring your device to help you find it if you dropped it in the park or let it slip between the couch cushions. If you left it at a coffee shop, you can remotely lock the device with a password so the baristas can’t browse your photos and text messages. If you think your phone is stolen or otherwise gone for good, you can remotely wipe all your personal data.

Set this up now, before it’s too late.

2. Back up your photos.

You’re going to take pictures with this phone. Probably a lot of them. You may be a great photographer with a hot camera, but the best camera you own is the one you have with you. Nothing is worse than losing valuable pictures of your kid or your honeymoon, so protect yourself. Android has a nifty feature that will automatically back your photos up online, so they’re easy to access from all your devices, and you don’t have to worry about losing those baby pictures when you drop your phone in a toilet.

Screenshot_2013-12-27-12-13-56First, install the Google+ app. Yes, that Google+, the social network that hasn’t ever quite gotten off the launchpad. Open the app, create an account if you haven’t in the past, and when you’re prompted to “Back up your photos,” take it. If you don’t have an unlimited data plan, you probably want to select “Over WiFi only,” and if you’ve been using the phone for a while, you’ll want to select “Also back up existing photos and videos” to get your old pics backed up. If you miss that dialog during setup, or if you want to make changes later, you’ll have the chance to.

Screenshot_2013-12-27-12-13-37In your app drawer, look for an app simply called “Photos.” This got installed when you installed Google+, and it’s the tool you’ll use to manage your photos (Meaning you never have to open the main Google+ app again. Don’t feel bad, nobody else does either.) You’ll have access to the photos you took on your phone, as well as any existing Google+/Picasa photos and enhanced pictures called “Auto Awesomes” that Google generates automatically. To get to your photos from another device, go to your photos on Google+.

3. The cloud-lover’s worst case scenario.

If you don’t already live your life in Google’s cloud, you will soon. The integration between Google’s services and Android is just too good to resist. When all your photos, documents, music, and email is all managed with Google services, your life becomes easier. Unfortunately, it also becomes easier for someone to ruin your digital life if your account becomes compromised. Add peace of mind by enabling two-factor authentication on your Google account. In its simplest form, two-factor authentication means something you know and something you have. Think of your ATM card. The PIN is useless without the card, and the card is useless without the PIN. Google makes it pretty easy to enable two-factor authentication, limiting the damage that a thief could do, even if they get your account password.

First, follow this tutorial to set up two-factor authentication on your account, then download the Authenticator app to your phone, which will become the thing that you have. Now, whenever you sign into your account from a new computer, you’ll be prompted for your password and the code generated by the Authenticator app: something you know and something you have. Make sure to print out the backup codes and put them somewhere safe!

4. Listen to your music. Yes, even from iTunes.

The fate of their music collections is one of the scariest things for iOS users considering a switch to Android. People associate iTunes with digital music and wonder how they’ll listen to music if they’re no longer using an iPhone. Well, fret not. Google Music not only allows you to stream your entire music collection from Google’s cloud to any device, it will even automatically update with new music you purchase. Even if you purchase that music in iTunes.

On the Play Music web app, download the desktop Music Manager for your Mac or Windows PC. When you launch it for the first time, it will prompt you to specify the folders where you keep your music collection. For most Windows users, this will be the Music Library, but if your iTunes library is stored somewhere else, you can add that as well. Make sure the option “Automatically upload songs added to my selected folders” is checked off. Select OK, and the window will go away. The Music Manager is now running in the background and will probably take days to upload a good sized music collection.

Screenshot_2013-12-27-14-09-46Screenshot_2013-12-27-14-14-47When your music has been uploaded, you can listen to it on the Google Play Music app, which is free and was probably pre-installed on your phone. You can also listen from your computer from any browser. Because everything you listen to is getting streamed from Google’s servers, it won’t work when you don’t have data, and it can use up a limited data plan pretty quickly. Touch the thumbnail icon next to an artist, album, or playlist to download it to your phone to listen to when you’re not connected to data, and go to menu/settings and select “Download via WiFi only” to avoid data charges. If you are really worried, you can select “Stream via WiFi only” to prevent using any mobile data at all.

5. Sync documents, files, and folders from your computer.

This one is dead simple. Install the Google Drive app on your phone. Now follow these steps to install Drive on your PC. Any files you add to your desktop Drive folder will now be available on your phone or in a browser on any computer.

6. Nobody loves voicemail. Until now.

There are a lot of ways to get in touch with me these days: chat, email, SMS, Twitter, and more. For whatever reason, voicemail is my least favorite. You sift through all the garbage, then when there’s one that you actually need you have to sit and wait for the caller to get to the point. Awful. Fortunately, Google has a solution that will give you a voicemail inbox that you can browse like email, including automatically transcribed messages so you never even need to listen to them.

Start out by following the steps in this tutorial to set up a new Google Voice account, using the options for a “Lite” account. This will enable the voicemail features of Voice without committing you to use Voice full time. (If you use a Google number or port in your number, you will automatically cancel your mobile phone plan and switch to using Voice for all your phone calls. This is beyond even a power user tutorial.)

Once you have an account set up, it’s time to configure your phone’s voicemail. Follow these steps to authorize your phone on your newly created account. Then, get the Voice app for your phone, open it and sign in. Go to the phone app (not Voice, your regular dialer), hit the … menu button, then select settings/voicemail/service. Switch the service setting to Google Voice. Your phone may process for a few seconds or a minute. When it’s done, tap the next setting, helpfully called “Setup,” to verify it went okay.

You may want to add the Voice app to a homescreen, although you will get a notification of each new voicemail. You can also opt (on the website) to have a copy of each voicemail forwarded to your gmail, which is helpful when your phone isn’t handy. Use the website to record outgoing greetings and manage advanced settings like call screening.

7. Unleash the power of your browser.

Google’s amazing Chrome browser integrates deeply with Android, making it a powerful cross-platform computing tool. There are a few things you can do to take advantage of it. First of all, install Chrome on your phone if you don’t already have it. Go to settings, and under the “Basic” header tap on your account/email address. Make sure Sync is turned on and “Chrome to Mobile” is enabled. I’m assuming you already have it installed on your computer, and if you haven’t already, go to settings/users and add the same account that you use on the phone. This will sync your bookmarks and saved passwords between your devices and enable you to open tabs from one of your devices on the other.

You can go one step further and use Chrome to Phone to send phone numbers, maps, and webpages to your phone from your desktop browser. It even lets you select text on the desktop and push it to your phone’s clipboard. Simply install the Chrome to Phone extension on your desktop, then install the Chrome to Phone app on your phone. Log into both, and you’re ready to go. You’ll notice the Chrome to Phone icon in your toolbar and when you right click on a link that is eligible to send to your phone.

While you’re at it, you might as well set up cloud print, so you can print from anywhere to your home printer. On the computer that your printer is hooked up to, go into Chrome and open Settings/Advanced Settings/Google Cloud Print/Manage. Network printers will show up automatically, or you can select one of your local printers to add. As long as the printer is connected and the PC it’s hooked to is on, it will be available. Now install the Cloud Print app on your phone, open it to verify you’re signed in, and Cloud Print will become an option in the standard Android sharing menu.

8. Put Google’s data collection to work for you

Google knows a lot about you and your online habits. Traditionally, they’ve used that knowledge to help advertisers target you better, but now there’s a way for you to harness their vast databases for your own benefit. Google Now is the next generation of Google’s search app for mobile, and it uses everything Google knows about you to put information at your fingertips: your local weather, tracking information for packages, traffic delays on your commute, updates to websites you visit frequently and more.

Screenshot_2013-12-27-16-07-11Screenshot_2013-12-27-16-09-26Your phone probably came with the Google Search app pre-installed, so open it up and go to the settings. Enable Google Now. Back in the app, scroll down to the bottom and use the magic wand button to set up reminders for sports scores, movies, stock prices, and more. Google will now use your search history to try to figure out what you’re interested in, where you are right now, and what information you might want or need.

You can even choose to share your commute information with your loved ones, while still keeping it private from the wider world. With this enabled, your spouse or kids will get a Google Now card telling them you’ve left work and how long it will be until you’re home.

9. Tweak your keyboard and voice input options.

Screenshot_2013-12-27-14-41-37Google makes assumptions about how you want to use your keyboard. Among other things, they assume that you want to use gesture typing to swipe around your keyboard tracing out words. I am not a fan. Luckily, I can change that. Under Settings/Language & Input, here are the changes I make:
a. check the box next to “Google voice typing” to make it easier to talk to your phone.
b. open the Google Keyboard settings by touching the sliders icon and…
-uncheck “Next-word suggestions” to see spelling correction suggestions instead.
-uncheck “Enable gesture typing” to use tap/touch typing instead of sliding typing.
-check “Voice input key” to show a microphone key for voice input.
-uncheck “Sound on keypress” to stop annoying people around you.

10. Customize your experience with Google Play.

Screenshot_2013-12-27-15-30-52Google Play is the terrible brand name of Google’s Android app store. There are a couple of things you can do to make your experience with Play more enjoyable. First, just keep in mind that you can browse the store from your computer and select apps to remotely install on your phone, which is very cool. Bookmark the Play app store, and when you find something you like, click Install to send it to your phone. Second, there are two quick changes that can improve your experience with the Play store on your phone. Open it up, go to settings, and make sure “Auto-update apps” is enabled. This will keep you from being constantly bombarded with requests from apps that want to update with a newer version. As long as their permissions haven’t changed, they’ll update in the background. I also always uncheck the option to “Auto-add widgets,” because it takes me forever to get the homescreen set up the way I want it, and I don’t want things being added to it willy nilly.

Has this been helpful? Share it with your Android using friends.