Want to get more from your phone? We take a look at some of the ways you can supercharge your Android superphone.
Android phones come in all shapes and sizes and many have custom overlays added to the Android software by the manufacturer. They all have one thing in common though and that is the ability to do almost anything you like with the operating system. You can speed up the hardware, completely change the interface or the entire operating system and these are just the tip of the iceberg.
In fact there are free options for changing every aspect of an Android phone, but on occasion paying a few pennies will offer a better experience so you shouldn’t be too concerned about spending a little to enhance your phone a lot.
Android is often updated by Google and each update brings new features which make the user experience faster and more flexible than before, but not all phones receive the updates at the same time. Some manufacturers are notoriously slow at providing updates while others are extremely quick, but there are options available for everyone to have the latest operating system on almost any phone.
XDA Developers is an excellent source of Android ROMs and the site is split in to categories for each of the major smartphones. If you own a phone that has not been blessed with an official update, a search on this site will likely bring up a new ROM that has been created to work with your phone.
An example was when Motorola did not offer an official update to Android 2.1 for technical reasons. At the same time a home-made ROM was available that worked well for many users which goes to show that an official ROM isn’t the only way to get the latest Android features.
If you have the nerve to test them, there are ROMs available that offer extreme customisations. One example is CyanogenMod which works on a variety of Android smartphones and brings a completely new interface and experience to the platform. It can improve sound quality, offers a browsing stealth mode for secure internet use and many other visual tweaks that a lot of Android users prefer to the standard look from Google.
The ROMs described above change much of the Android operating system, but there are some software tweaks available that can manage the hardware directly.
OverclockWidget, available from the Android Market, lets you increase the speed of a processor to its very limits which is useful when playing complex games or you can decrease the speed to save on battery life when undertaking standard tasks.
The fact that it is a widget means that the preferences are always available, but you should be aware that cranking up the speed too far on any smartphone could have disastrous effects on the processor so use it wisely.
Another way to speed up your Android usage is to change the default keyboard to something that works better for you. We rarely think about speed in terms of usage, but data entry is an often used part of any phone and can use more of your time than any other.
You don’t tap on each letter, but instead have to slide your finger between letters and let the software work out the words you are trying to type. The software is extremely clever and with practice could be the ideal solution to make your typing as quick as a full sized keyboard, but on your phone instead.
Another way to speed up your mobile use is to automate particular processes that you undertake each day. AutomateIt, from the Android Market, uses the location features built in to Android phones to set off tasks when a particular place is reached.
For example, you can have an alarm sound when you get to work or turn the sound off when you arrive at a meeting. The list of events that can be set up is endless thanks to way the app is built and with some careful setting up you could automate almost every repetitive function that you undertake each day.
Android Launcher apps
Aside from pure performance improvements, you can also change the main launcher to a setup that works better for you. There are many apps available that replace the home screens and act as layers above the standard Android interface.
Some of these merely add visual tweaks while others completely change the navigation of an Android smartphone so you will need to decide how far you are willing to go to change your phone.
The launcher apps are a mid-range solution between leaving your phone with the standard Android interface and completely replacing the ROM and so potentially offer a solution that is suitable for most users.
Despite all of the above tweaks and changes you can personalise your Android experience in other ways that are less intrusive. Widgets form the backbone of the main home screens and are potentially quicker at delivering information and keeping you updated than any other part of the system.
Most Android phones have a varied selection built in that offer access to the calendar, system settings and other services such as YouTube and Facebook.
However, the number of widgets available from the Android Market opens up this area to provide a limitless selection of features and uses. If you consider widgets to be apps that sit on the home screens you start to realise that they can be very powerful with the capability to offer complex solutions and continual real-time data streams for every Android user.
Widgets also offer quick access to system functions of which AudioManager is a good example. It can be used to control volume levels directly from the home screens and it also covers every aspect of sound control on an Android phone.
For example, you can deal with media, alerts, ringer, system and voice call volumes using sliders on a single screen which ensures that it will likely be your preferred volume management solution in the future.
The list of improvements you can make continues with the ability to add more storage to an Android device in two ways. You can use expansion cards to increase the available onboard memory by up to 32GB which should offer enough space for most users or you can utilise the various Cloud services that let you store and manage files online.
Services like Dropbox offer a limited amount of free space with the ability to pay for extra storage.
An Android app is available to directly interact with your account and with practice it can work just like extra physical memory thanks to the simple design and the speed at which the service works.
Google offers similar options as do many copycat services and with some considered use you can give yourself unlimited storage space anywhere that you have mobile internet access. When you consider that you can also stream music and video from many services, you quickly realise that the potential is never ending and that you may never be confined to physical memory again.
HD video capture
On the subject of uses outside of the phone, HD video capture capability is now common on many high-end Android smartphones and you can share your creations with others using built in services such as YouTube and Facebook. The purchase of a TV cable will allow you to watch videos stored on a phone via an HD TV and this can potentially make it the centre of your entertainment world.
When you consider the ability to transmit music and podcasts wirelessly to a car stereo, there is little reason to use separate equipment in the future.
Flash is of course the most used digital video format in the world and Android supports it using the Adobe Flash Player which lets you play Flash games and watch web video natively. One example is the ability to view videos on the main BBC site in a page as you would on a desktop computer which you cannot do on an iPhone or iPad. It is a facility that works very well on Android, but is one that does have some critics.
Concerns remain over reliability and the battery drain this feature brings, but this is where HTML5 comes in. It is being used more often to replace Flash on websites and offers many advanced web features that even Flash cannot handle.
HTML5 is capable of providing interactive experiences, not just fancy web pages, and some see it as a potential replacement for mobile apps in the future. OpenAppMkt cleverly highlights the potential of HTML5 and is the first site to visit if you want to see what all of the fuss is about.
When we talk about changing the way an Android phone works, this genuinely means that you can change everything. The built in apps are well built and work particularly well with Google services such as Gmail and Google Calendar, but there are alternatives for these as well.
Pocket Informant is one of a number of replacement calendars that offers calendar and task management alongside the ability to filter events and use a variety of views that suit the way you work best.
You can also replace the default contacts app with a third party solution like GO Contacts which brings some much needed fun to the contact management experience alongside smart dialling and secure backups among many other advanced features.
If there is a default feature on your Android phone that you think should work differently, it is likely that you will find an app that suits your needs better. Everything from the alarm clock to the calculator to the web browser can be substituted by alternatives and all you need to do is search for the terms in the Android Market to see what is available.
The only problem you will face is deciding which apps to choose because there are usually too many to choose from which makes the decision process somewhat longwinded.
One part of the Android system that receives little attention is the lock screen. Despite the fact that it is viewable more often than any other part of the system, most users stick with the default setup. However, there are many options to change the lock screen such as WidgetLocker which lets you customise almost every part of the locking process.
When you consider that a good app could save you valuable seconds every time you turn on your phone, it makes sense to search around to see if there is a solution that is quicker to use. Some of these options also add a higher level of security which is crucial if you carry sensitive information on your phone.
A secure lock screen is often enough to put off anyone who wants to take the phone and more importantly, if they do get hold of the phone they are much less likely to take the time to delve deeper if your initial level of security is high.
We have barely scraped the surface of what you can do to improve an Android smartphone, but it is perfectly possible to turn any high-end device into a super phone. Budget Android phones will struggle with some of the methods described here, but you can still improve them beyond all recognition from the state they arrived in.
You can change almost every aspect of an Android phone to suit your needs and with some tweaks you really can turn it into the kind of mobile powerhouse that even the smartphone manufacturers do not offer at this time.
The best way to approach improving your phone is to look around at what is available and be selective with the additions you want to install. There’s no point in installing everything you see because this could potentially slow the phone down; take your time, choose the solutions you need and carefully read reviews to ensure that you are getting the best experience every step of the way.