10 Tips for Tricking Out and Optimizing your Android Smartphone

Make no mistake, Android devices are amazingly powerful and useful right out of the box. Still, if you are a newcomer to Google's mobile operating system, you may find yourself quickly overwhelmed by the configuration and accessory options available to you. If you look at a lot of the advertising, the convenience and productivity gains that a smartphone brings to your daily activities will be about the unique mobile apps that you download and install. I've found that being a satisfied Android user is not just about the apps -- settings, configuration and accessories can make an enormous difference. Here are 10 practical tips that will enhance your complete Android experience.

1. Stock up on portable power

Regardless of how tidy you are about managing the power on your Google-based smartphone, chances are you are going to need to replenish your battery more than you thought. I carry a Belkin Mini Surge Protector with USB Charger in my computer bag. In addition to three AC outlets, the Belkin device has two powered USB ports on it and will also power several other devices when on the go. I recently purchased one of these for $15 with shipping on eBay, where I also purchased a car charger and additional standard AC adapters.

2. Get some extra Micro USB cables

Whether you power your Android handset with the AC adapter that shipped with your device, or the included data cable, you will want to travel with an extra data cable in your computer bag, jacket pocket, and other convenient hiding spots. I have an extra one at the office, one in my every day shoulder bag, and have a spare in my home office. I recently paid $1.49 (including shipping) for spare cables on eBay.

In spite of the various wireless capabilities, data cables come in handy. They are useful for moving data/music/photos on and off your device, for charging, but also for tethering (using your device as a broadband modem). The latest version of of Android 2.2 (Froyo) has easy-to-use tethering, and while it is possible to use a device such as the Nexus One as a hotspot, the option will really drain your battery quickly.

3. If you have a Nexus One, use it as a hotspot

Even though places such as Borders, Starbucks and McDonald's have free wireless, you may not be near one, or the service maybe congested. An unrooted Nexus One with Froyo allows for an easy hotspot. Depending on your carrier (or Android device), your mileage may vary on this, and as with cabled tethering, you may need to purchase the additional service from your carrier.

4. Consider ditching your standalone GPS and getting a car dock

I have an older portable Garmin unit that I normally travel with, but when it became clear that it would cost me over $100 to update the Garmin maps for a trip I recently took to Europe, I opted for a car dock for my Nexus One. Paired with Google's turn-by-turn direction, this solution led wife, daughter and myself through the UK and Ireland. From what I hear, it works best in the U.S. for now, but they are covering a good deal of Europe, so this is becoming a viable GPS alternative.

5. Turn off the radios you don't need

In most cases you will not need continuous Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, and automatic synchronization running at the same time. While convenient to have these radios on simultaneously, you will quickly run down your battery. There are a ton of market place apps focused on power management, but the lowest hanging fruit is Android's standard Power Control widget. I keep that in one of my secondary home screens, and toggle the individual radios on and off as necessary (I rarely use the GPS most days), or Wi-Fi and Bluetooth at the same time.

6. Widgets are not just eye candy...they can actually make you more productive

If you've moved from a BlackBerry, or more traditional cell phone, you may become quickly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of settings and options that are available to you, even for some basic functions. And, those settings may be nested down a couple of levels deep, making it cumbersome to change settings on the run. Fortunately, there are many free apps that will allow you to put a simple widget on one of your phone's screens to quickly change a setting. I use Quick Profiles to quickly shift between Vibrate Only (no audible ringing) and Phone Only (audible ringing). Mobile apps like these can bundle together many different behaviors into a single button push. TeslaLED is another handy widget that turns your device into a flash light.

7. Make sure to use screen protectors

Keep your device's screen in pristine condition with the screen protector of your choice. Costs and quality widely vary for the protective film that you layer on your display, but by covering up your touchscreen you will keep it from scratching. The extra protective layer can also help in bright sunlight. The BoxWave ClearTouch Crystal cover that I have on my N1 has held up nicely over six months of constant use. At some point I will sell this device, and the new owner will be happy to get a screen that isn't marred by scratches and such.

8. Check the market place for alternative dialers, keyboards, and browser

The Android development community is very active and chances are if you don't like the way a particular function works, someone else has developed an Android app that is more to your liking.

As a longtime BlackBerry user I found the stock Android phone dialer cumbersome and missing key features (especially speed dial). I've been using Dialer One, which turns your Android dialing experience into one more akin to a BlackBerry. For example, typing on Dialer One's standard T9 keyboard will invoke a look-ahead search of your appropriate contacts.

There are also many excellent alternative keyboard applications worth exploring (many of them free). I was a big Swype advocate for a while (enter text using gestures), but have recently switched to Smart Keyboard Pro which is highly customizable and has allowed me to be more accurate when typing on the run.

The stock Android browser works very well, but recently I stumbled on Dolphin HD which adds a variety of additional features, such as full screen capability, and integration with the LastPass password management system. I use LastPass on a variety of computers, and Dolphin allows me to easily carry that experience over to my Android device.

9. Secure your Android handset with a mobile app like Mobile Defense or Lookout

My hairdresser recently told me about several butt dialing incidents she unwittingly triggered from her Droid X. I quickly showed her how to use a visual pattern for screen unlocking (Settings/Location & Security/User Visible pattern). Now she can keep her phone locked when not active, and use a quick gesture-based method of unlocking (much easier than numbers).

And if you are nervous about misplacing your phone, or it getting into the hands of a thief, you may want to try out an app like Mobile Defense (still in beta) or Lookout. These apps work hand-in-hand with your device's built in security features (like the Visible pattern) and allow you to remotely track where your device has last been, lock it out, or wipe it.

10. Ditch your carrier's voice mail or visual voice mail plan and go with Google voice

Once you've gotten used to interacting with voice mail visually, you will never want to go back to old fashioned voice only management. The various carriers offer visual voice mail at an extra charge; however, you can have it for free via Google Voice. Not only will you be able to manage your messages visually from your devices, you will also be able to do it via the web on your desktop or laptop computer. Set up is very easy, and you can find Google Voice instructions here.

Kenny Schiff is a contributor to Internet.com's EnterpriseMobileToday.com. He is also the founder and president of TPC Healthcare, a specialty provider of real-time location and point-of-care communication technologies to hospitals and healthcare organizations.


Google, Android, Droid, nexus one, Froyo