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Introduction to Android

presented at Brock House (c) 2017
 by Alan Zisman

Now in Swedish - thanks to Weronika Pawlak

Android is the most popular operating system in the world today (see: Nearly nine out of 10 smartphones shipped run on Android) - used by more people than Microsoft Windows, Apple's Macintosh or iOS. It's developed by Google and used by a variety of smartphone and tablet manufacturers for a huge variety of products. That's both a strength and a weakness - it's a strength because it means you can get a phone (or tablet) in a wide range of sizes - small, medium, large, extra-large, styles, price-points, with keyboards and without, etc. It's a weakness because there is a huge range of hardware and software versions - manufacturers and phone companies are free to customize Android as much as they want. This makes it difficult to distribute Android updates - even vital security updates; while a majority of Apple iPhone/iPad users are running either the latest iOS version or the previous one, Android users are running a wide range of versions - and even users of the same Android version will find that it looks and works differently on, say, a Samsung phone from one from HTC.

You might want to take a look at the Wikipedia article discussing Android versions and history. You're probably running an older version of Android - see: Android Oreo’s download numbers are sad, and show Android’s biggest problem

In this tutorial, we'll be looking at my Nexus 5X phone running Android 7.1.1 (Nougat) - your phone will almost certainly be different. Nexus phones are sold by Google and run 'pure' Android - without additions from manufacturers or cell phone services. As a result, they are the first to receive security patches and new versions of Android. They are also sold unlocked, and can be used with mobile phone providers world-wide.

Before we start, you might want to be familiar with a few standard smartphone actions and gestures:
Take a look at your phone -

It will have a power button and a longer volume control - typically pressing the top of the volume control makes the sounds louder, pressing the bottom lowers the sound (some phones may have separate up and down volume buttons). On some phones, these buttons are on opposite edges, on others they are on the same edge. Note that when your phone's running a quick press on the power button does not actually turn it off - it just turns off the display. The phone continues running, going online, and using battery power - eventually the battery can run itself completely down if you leave your phone like this. If you want to 'really' shut your phone down - perhaps if you're not going to use it for several days or longer, or if you want to restart it because it's frozen or you're having other problems - hold the power button down until you see a message asking if you want it to shut down.

On the bottom of most phones there's a small jack for a cable for charging your phone, connecting it to a computer, and connecting other devices. Most Android phones connect using a micro-USB plug which can only be plugged in one way - if it doesn't want to go in don't try to force it! Turn it 180-degrees and try again. You can use the cable and charger from a different manufacturer without problem. Some recent phones, however, (including my Nexus 5x) use a new style cord and connector called USB-C - these charge faster and are symmetrical - letting them be plugged in more easily - and have other advantages. They're probably going to become increasingly common, but it means I can't use older micro-USB cords (etc) without adaptors.

There's also (again on most phones) a headphone jack.

On the back, there a lens for the camera and (usually) a flash. Don't put your finger over the lens when you're taking a picture! Less obvious - the front 'selfie' camera.

Your mobile phone provider will give (or sell) you a SIM card, needed to connect to their network. Your phone will take one of three different sizes of SIM card - these days, phone companies most often distribute a single SIM than can be made into whatever size you need. Where to plug the SIM card in varies with different phone models - some have a removable back which lets you access the SIM (and in some cases also provides access to a micro-SD memory card slot for adding storage - a very good feature! and maybe also a removable battery). Other models have a slot on the side where you can pop the SIM card - and maybe a second slot for a memory card. (Don't get the two mixed up!). Typically, you push the card in a bit and it pops out. It will only fit right-side in. My Nexus 5x doesn't have a memory card slot; for the SIM card, there's a little tray on the side with a tiny hole in it - push in the hole with the end of a paper clip and the tray pops out, allowing access to the SIM card.

You'll only need to access the SIM card if you're switching to a different phone network - for instance when travelling.

Home screenTake a look at your phone's Home Screen -

Here's my phone's Home Screen. Some things on it are standard and will be similar on your phone - others are customized.

At the top is a row of small icons - the Notification Bar. Icons on the left side are notifications of new information. Perhaps you got an email message or a text message or a Facebook message. Maybe there's a weather report. Or you have a calendar event. Maybe you missed a phone call.

On the right, you have other icons - the date & time, battery, wi-fi, and mobile phone network status.

If you pull down from the top of the screen, you can access the notifications. Clicking on a notification will (generally) take you to the app that lets you access that email, text message, or phone call. There's an option to clear the notifications - in Android 7 (Nougat) it says 'Clear All'. In some versions, it may be an unclear symbol at the bottom. Or an X at the top.

Pull down again (at least on my phone with this version of Android) and there's a set of icons for often-done tasks: Quick Access Settings - adjust the screen brightness, connect to a wi-fi network, turn on Airplane Mode, turn Bluetooth or Location on or off, turn on the flashlight (using the camera's flash and quickly burning through the phone's battery), etc. Near the top, there's an icon of a gear - one of many ways to enter Setup. (More below).

Below the notification bar, there's a Google Search item. Tap on it and you can type a question for Google Search. Click on the microphone icon and you can speak a question.

Below that, I've added the Transparent Clock & Weather widget - a free (or paid) download from Google Play. Widgets are apps that can be installed on a Home Screen that automatically run in the background - in this case, showing a clock and auto-updating weather reports. I like the transparency, letting me see the wallpaper image of my grandchildren and dog.

As mentioned, both custom wallpaper and custom widgets can be added by long-tapping on an unused piece of the Home Screen and following the on-screen instructions. You need to have your desired image on your phone (or installed the widget) prior to trying to set it up!

My screen also has two sets of icons - the lower set of icons (the 'Dock') appears on each Home Screen page (you can have multiple pages and move between them). Above them, I've got 5 icons for apps I access most often. I have another screen - to the right - with an additional set of icons.

(If you long-press on an icon or widget, you can remove it from the Home Screen (without uninstalling it) or move it around the Home Screen. If you drop one icon on top of another, a folder is created containing both icons. You can add additional icons to the folder. Many phones, out of the box, come with a folder of Google stuff... you can drag individual icons out of that folder, remove them from the Home Screen entirely, as desired.)

App DrawerA difference between Android and iPhone/iPad (iOS) - Apple's mobile products have the icons for all installed apps on a bunch of Home Screens - in more or less random order. I find that cluttered and confusing and prefer how Android lets me put the icons I most use in a more easy to find location. Icons for all apps - whether on the Home Screen or not - are in the App Drawer, accessed (on my phone) by tapping the white circle with the six grey dots in the middle of the lower row of app icons.

This gives me icons for all my apps in alphabetical order (after the top row of most recently accessed apps) - scroll down to see more. This lets me easily start up any app that I want even if it's not on one of the Home Screens.)

I can uninstall an app from here - long-press on it, and the option to uninstall it appears on the top of the screen. (If you change your mind, you can always download and install it again from the Google Play Store - if it's a paid-app you won't have to pay for it again). Note that core apps for the operating system, some apps installed by the manufacturer, and some apps from your cell phone company may not be uninstallable in this way... but you certainly can uninstall anything that you downloaded/installed from the Play Store.

Down on the very bottom -

Look at the bottom of the images of both my Home Screen and the App Drawer - there are three symbols: a triangle (or an arrow pointing left), a circle, and a square. Your phone may have a different set of icons or may have a physical button. Samsung phones have similar icons, but in reverse order. Android is wonderful that way!

These are virtual buttons - an advantage over physical buttons is that if you turn the phone 90-degrees, the virtual buttons move to the new bottom of the screen.... something that physical buttons won't do. If you're watching a video or doing something else full-screen, the virtual buttons may disappear - they'll reappear if you tap on the lower portion of the screen.

The arrow is the back button - very handy (and something Apple's iOS has only inconsistently). It moves from the current screen to the previous one - either an earlier screen in the same app or the screen of the previous app. A very useful way to move, for instance, from reading an email message back to the list of messages. I probably use this more than any other button.

The circle is the Home button (some phones have a physical Home button). Tapping it moves out of whatever app your in and displays the Home Screen. Note that it doesn't close the app you were using - that's still running in the background - though if you're watching a YouTube video, it won't continue to play.

The square brings up a screen showing you all the apps that are running right now. You can scroll up or down through the list, and tap on one to bring it up to the front. You can click on the X in the top-corner of any of the displayed apps to close it - or pull it to the right to shut it down. There's rarely much need to shut down all your apps in this way - Android does a good job of managing memory and multitasking... I would only start shutting stuff down if the phone starts to misbehave or feel sluggish. And if that's the case, you may be better off shutting the phone down (remember - press the power button until you get a shut-down message) and then restarting it.

A few more standards -

Not on the Home Screen or App Drawer, but there are a few more standard interface items that will appear in lots of places:

Menu icons
Send To
  • The center icon in the blue screen capture (also from the Photos app) is the Send-To icon. It will also appear in lots of apps. It lets you send something - in this case a photo - to your choice of a variety of places. If I tap it in the Photo app, I see:
Send to items
I can, for instance, tap on the Gmail icon which will open that app, create a new message, and insert my photo in the body of the message. I just have to enter the name or email address of my intended recipient, type a subject and maybe a few words of text and tap 'Send'. Or I could tap an icon to send my photo via Facebook Messenger or in the mail Facebook program - the Send To options will vary depending on what apps are installed on your phone.

About the keyboard - Smartphones and tablets have 'virtual keyboards' that pop up when the device thinks you want to type some text. As is often the case with Android, different device models feature different keyboards - and you can install replacement keyboard apps, so your keyboard may look different. See: Best Keyboard for Android - the images below are of Google's Gboard keyboard, installable from the Google Play Store. (As well, you can connect a physical keyboard using a Bluetooth wireless connection).

Some things to note:

Apps and where to get them

"Between smartphones and tablets, Americans spend more than half of their digital media consumption time -- 57 percent -- in apps, according to the report. That's about the same as a year ago -- evidence that the dramatic shift to mobile has now leveled out in the U.S. These are the winners, according to comScore, as measured by their penetration of the U.S. mobile app audience: Facebook (81 percent), YouTube (71 percent), Facebook Messenger (68 percent), Google Search (61 percent), Google Maps (57 percent), Instagram (50 percent), Snapchat (50 percent), Google Play (47 percent), Gmail (44 percent), and Pandora (41 percent)." - 2017 U.S. Mobile App Report

Your phone comes with a bunch of apps already installed - Google's set of standard apps, additional apps from your phone manufacturer, other apps from your mobile provider - if you got your phone from them. This may be confusing. You may have Google's Gmail app (which works with other email accounts as well in many cases), Google's Email app (designed for non-Gmail email accounts), and Samsung email app. You can get other email apps as well. Pick one!

Apps can be a security problem, loading malware on your phone to steal identity, charge card, or banking information. This is a real problem in some parts of the world, but not a big concern (at least not now) in North America. In general, if you limit your app acquisitions to to Google's Play Store, you're pretty safe. You have a Play Store app on your phone already. Even if you limit yourself to free apps, Google Play will want you to enter credit card information.

When you think about getting an app, think about the business model. Most of the listed apps will claim to be free, others will have prices - generally a few dollars or so. Some of the 'free' apps are genuinely free, at least to you - PayByPhone, an app to use your phone to pay for Vancouver parking meters is free to you - I suspect it gets money from the City of Vancouver every time you use it to pay for parking. An app to call a cab or Uber will be free. Google's apps are free - paid for by ads of Google search pages. Many free apps, though, are free because they serve up ads, often with a paid, ad-free version. Others are demo-ware - free but wanting you to buy a more complete version. Personally, I try free apps - if I don't care for them I uninstall them (remember how to do that)? If I want to keep using an app - and it has a paid version - I try to purchase that, getting rid of ads, often getting additional features, and helping to support the app developer.

(Much of the Android malware is found in hacked versions of paid apps - often games; users search for the app name + the word free and find a link that claims to be a source for a free version of an otherwise-paid app.... in order to save the cost of a cup of coffee or two they expose their phone to malware. Bad choice! Stay safer and limit your apps to downloads from Google's Play Store).

Here are some of the Android apps that I find useful:
For a step-by-step introduction to downloading and installing apps, see: Downloading Apps on Android: Everything You Need to Know
Every year, PC Magazine publishes a list of The 100 Best Android Apps. On the contrarian side: Do we really want an app for everything?

Transfering media files between your computer and phone

Android File Transfer window(I've written a blog posting titled: You Can Connect Your Android Device to Your PC or Mac - but be prepared for a few 'gotchas'! You may want to read it!)

Apple devices 'sync' with a desktop or laptop computer using Apple's iTunes app; connect the device to the computer either using a cable or wirelessly and you can transfer music, photos, videos, contacts, calendar and more. Android devices use a different model - contacts and calendar information is stored 'in the cloud' by your Google account, and can be accessed from your phone's Calendar and Contacts (sometimes called 'People') apps.

If you connect your Android device to your computer using the cable from your charger (which has a USB plug on the end) ideally your phone or tablet shows up on your computer just like a plug-in flash drive or external hard drive - you should see that your mobile device has folders for photos, videos and music and you can drag and drop the files you want on your phone or from your phone to your computer. That's the way it ought to work. It's rarely so straightforward, however... for instance:

Beef up your log-in screen

Screen Lock settingsWhether at home or on a computer or mobile device there is always a trade-off between convenience and security - it would be more convenient to never lock my front door and not have to find a key in my pocket when I come back from walking my dog with a bag of groceries in my hand. Many of our phones (and computers) are set to go straight to our home pages without asking us to verify our identity with some sort of log-in password. Bad idea! Children play with our phones (and computers) and phones in particular get lost or stolen in large numbers. You can help keep children, thieves, or just random strangers from having access to your email, Facebook account, and credit card information by adding some sort of log-in control to your phone. It adds a few seconds of inconvenience when your phone starts up (or wakes up) but it's worth it in a big way.

Two things you really should do:
Go back to the Settings/Security page - you may see a little Gear icon beside the words Screen Lock - if you tap on it, you'll get some options for the screen lock page. For instance, on my phone, it's set to automatically lock 5 seconds after the phone goes to sleep - leaving me a tiny bit of time to change my mind and wake up the phone without needing to enter my PIN. The option that pressing the power button instantly locks the phone is turned on. The third option lets me enter a custom Lock Screen Message. Tap that and you're able to type a line that will appear on your lock screen. I've added my email address and my drivers licence number. You might prefer to add a different phone number that someone finding the phone could call - it's up to you!

(I've found four cell phones over the past few years - typically, the owner tries to call their phone (which of course will only work if the phone's battery is charged). Hopefully if you lose your phone, someone will answer it and let you get it back. If you've installed Google's Device Manager app, you can try to locate your phone, or remotely ring it (handy if the phone is under the couch), lock it, or even erase it. See instructions.

More exploring the settings app

It's worthwhile taking the time to explore the large number of settings on your phone and spend some time making the phone truly yours.

There are a number of ways to access the settings app - the icon is a gear. You may have an icon for it on one of your Home Screens (though since there are several other easy ways to get there, I always remove the icon from the Home Screen). Alternatively, you can find the Settings icon in your App Drawer. Or pull down the Notifications Shade then pull it down again to get to the various fast-settings icons - there's a gear icon there too. Any way you do it, you'll see a long list of settings, organized into categories. We're not going to look at all of them but feel free to explore - you'll find that there is a lot there. As always, the details of your phone may differ from mine.

The first section is labeled Wireless & Networks. The first item, Wi-Fi lets you turn your Wi-Fi radio off or on and shows a list of nearby Wi-Fi networks. The ones that require a password to connect show a tiny padlock beside the 'fan' icon - the colouring of the 'fan' gives a rough indication of the signal strength. Once you enter a password and connect to a Wi-Fi network, your phone should remember the password for subsequent connections.

You may want to turn off Wi-Fi if you're not going to be accessing Wi-Fi networks for some long period - a long flight, a hike in the country, etc. Otherwise, your phone will waste battery power searching - and failing to find - any accessible Wi-Fi.

Next is Bluetooth - another radio, in this case for connecting to nearby Bluetooth gadgets - speakers and headsets, hands-free phone devices, wireless keyboards and mice, and more. If you're not connecting to any Bluetooth devices, turn it off to save battery power.

The Data Usage item shows you how many MB (megabytes) or GB (gigabytes) of cellular data your phone has used so far on this billing period. Lower down the page, it shows how much data has been accessed over Wi-Fi for the same period. My phone says I used 151 MB of cellular data between September 5 and today (September 22) - handy if I'm trying to figure out how much data I need to buy when travelling (see below).

...More offers a few more useful items: I can turn Airplane Mode off or on (yes, I can get here quicker by pulling down the Notification Shade) or turning the NFC radio off - you're probably not using this! The Tethering and HotSpot item lets you share your device's cell phone data connection with other computers, tablets, etc over Wi-Fi - I've used that when travelling; I've often had hotel rooms with crappy (or no) Wi-Fi. Setting up a temporary Wi-Fi hotspot let my wife go online on her (Wi-Fi only) iPad, sharing my phone's data connection.

Tap on the Cellular Networks item and you'll have an option to turn Data Roaming on or off - if it's off you won't accidentally access cellular data while outside your mobile provider's call area, keeping you safer from unexpected charges. (You can still get data using Wi-Fi).

Next section is labelled Device - the first item is Display which has a number of useful settings:
The Notifications item is useful if you'd like to turn off notifications from some apps. See: It's time to rethink how many notifications your phone is showing you

The Sound item lets you set separate volumes for 'Media', 'Alarms', and phone 'Ring' sounds, and whether to turn vibration on or off. You can change the default phone ringtone (or add a musical ringtone using the Ringdroid app, and select different sounds for notifications and alarms. (You can change the default sounds of specific apps in the settings for some of those apps in the following section).

The Apps section lists all the installed apps - I have 75. Mostly, I ignore this section, but it lets you disable or force-stop a misbehaving app, and lets you view information about each app, modify its notifications, and more.

The Storage, Battery, and Memory sections are pretty self-explanatory... the Users section lets you add a user - useful if multiple people are using your phone and you want each to have their own set of apps, contacts, email, etc.

The Personal section starts with Location - whether you have it turned on (which uses the GPS radio) or off, and which apps have recently made use of your location information. There are valid reasons for turning location off if you aren't needing mapping information and you don't want apps (Facebook, for instance) to be tracking you.

We've looked at the Screen Lock item in the Security section already - also worth thinking about in that section - much further down that list, Unknown Sources allows or disables the installation of apps from sources other than the Google Play Store. By default, it's turned off - it's a good idea to leave it that way unless you have a really good reason to install something from another source - and know it's safe and secure.

Skipping down to the Backup & Reset item - I think it's worthwhile to enable backing up data to my Google account and setting the phone to automatically restore - Google gives free storage for each installed app on its cloud servers. If you get a new phone, when you log into the same Google account, you'll get the option to restore apps and settings, which can be a real time saver in setting up the new phone. The Network Settings Reset can be helpful if you're having persisten trouble connecting to Wi-Fi or cellular networks, but not that it will erase all your saved network passwords. Finally, using the Factory Data Reset item erases everything you've added to your phone - apps, photos, music, email, etc. Use it if you're selling or passing on your phone to another user - they get a phone that acts like it's just been taken out of the box.

The final section, System doesn't have much that you need to bother with. The final About Phone item can be used to check for updates, though unless you have a Nexus phone, you probably won't get updates regularly.

Google Cloud Services you may not be using

By setting up an Android phone you set up a Google account whether you realized it or not - even if you don't use Google's Gmail for your email. These give you a large amount of storage for free that you might as well be making use of - and they can be used to access files, photos, music, and more on your phone or tablet, your computer (Windows or Mac) at home, work, or travelling, and to share files, photos (etc) with colleagues, friends, and family (including on Facebook or other social networks).
Note that it's valid to have privacy concerns about storing documents, photos, etc in Google's online storage services - or in any cloud service.

Optimizing Battery Life -

Hopefully your smartphone battery lasts you through a whole day or more if that's the case, you're probably okay and can just recharge your phone every night while you sleep. (Yes, it's okay to charge your phone before the battery is fully discharged - modern batteries no longer suffer from a 'memory effect' where charging a partially dis-charged battery will affect the battery's life).

The biggest drain on your battery is the screen - that's part of the reason why modern smartphones, with big bright screens, tend to have shorter battery life than older feature phones with small screens. (As well, we're more likely to use a smartphone more and in more different ways than we used older, less capable styles of phones). So what can make the biggest difference in battery life is turning down your screen brightness. That's a trade-off though - a dimmer screen is harder to view. Find a balance - not too bright, not too dim. Your phone may want to automatically make your screen brighter or dimmer depending on the level of outside light. Experiment with having this setting on or off - see if you notice a difference in battery life.

Turn off radios that you aren't using - no Bluetooth devices? Turn off Bluetooth (there may be a Quick Settings icon for that - see above). Not using location? Turn it off. Going a while without connecting to Wi-Fi? You get the picture.

See:  Tips and myths about extending smartphone battery life and How to see which apps are draining your battery and 6 common battery myths

One more thing - the standard Facebook and Facebook Messenger apps are real battery wasters. You may need this article to help you install the more efficient Facebook-Lite and Messenger-Lite versions. A bit of work but worthwhile! (I recommend you use Swipe for Facebook).

Travelling with your phone

Smartphones can be very useful when travelling - see: 30 ways to use your smartphone while travelling. Lots of us now take our phone with us on trips. Note that you cell phone charger can be used in foreign countries though you may need a cheap adaptor (not an expensive voltage converter) to plug into a foreign electric outlet.

If you have an older phone sitting in a drawer, you may want to take it instead, so that if it gets lost or damaged it's not as big a deal - however, while most current models can connect to international phone networks, that may not be the case with your older model.

There are a number of ways to use a phone when you're outside your mobile provider's coverage area without getting surprised by a huge phone bill when you get home. There's no single best answer for everyone. Some things you could do:
Google offers a number of apps that can be useful when travelling. The new Google Trips helps plan trips and offers restaurant and site-seeing advice for your location. Google Translate can be helpful for translating words, phrases and more - it can even use your phone's camera... point it at a sign and watch the sign magically reappear in English. Very cool! (If you'll be using it where you won't have Wi-Fi or mobile connectivity you can download the foreign language data to it before leaving home). Google Maps can be very useful for providing maps and directions - you can also download maps in advance so that you can use it even if you have no connectivity. (See How to download Google Maps). Popular travel author Rick Steves has a series of free audio guides to European cities and attractions (including a number of museums) - you might want to install his app and download the guides for the places you plan to visit.

Other links for more information: