Android can do a lot for you--but you have to know where to begin.
Compared to the cut-and-dried interface of the Apple iPhone, the Android operating system gives you ample room for customization and control. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you make the most of your Android phone's many features.
The first thing you'll notice about Android is that its desktop differs somewhat from those on other smartphone platforms. You have a lot of freedom to customize the Android desktop--and you aren't limited to four simple rows of perfectly aligned square icons. As a result, you can customize the Android desktop to reflect your interests, and you can make it as full and dynamic as you like.
The Android desktop is composed of multiple home-screen panels. Depending on the version of Android that your phone uses and on whether your device has a specialized "skin" such as MOTOBLUR, you may have from three to seven home-screen panels.
When you power up your phone for the first time, you'll see the main home-screen panel. This panel is typically centered; you can access additional panels on either side of the main one by swiping your finger left or right. Starting with the 2.1 version of Android, you can also see thumbnail-size icons of all of your panels at the bottom of the screen; to jump directly to a panel without swiping, simply tap the associated icon.
What goes on the home screens is up to you. You can fill the space with any combination of shortcuts, widgets, and folders you like.
As you'd expect, shortcuts are small icons that let you load apps or other functions on your phone; they function much like the ones you see on a PC desktop. You can set a shortcut to do anything from a opening a program to linking to a specific Web page to initiating a phone call to a favorite contact.
To add a shortcut, simply press and hold your finger on any open space on your home screen, and select Shortcuts from the resulting pop-up menu. From there, select Applications (to add an app), or Direct dial or Direct message (to create a shortcut for calling or texting a friend), or Bookmark (to open a Web page), or Directions (to activate turn-by-turn navigation to a specific destination, in Android 2.0 or higher).
Widgets are dynamic programs that operate directly on your home screen. They can perform any number of functions--giving you the latest weather, for example, or letting you play music from your personal collection or from the Internet. Thanks to the ever-expanding Android Market, your options are practically limitless.
To add a widget, press and hold your finger on an open space, as you would to begin creating a shortcut (above). This time, though, select the Widgets option from the drop-down menu. Even if you haven't downloaded anything from the Android Market, you should have a handful of options built into your phone. Start by adding the Power Control widget; it creates a handy one-touch toggle control for your phone's Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, data syncing, and screen brightness.
Folders are a good way to keep your content organized while simultaneously expanding your home-screen space. A folder lets you group multiple shortcuts in a single space. When you tap on a folder, a box pops up showing all of the shortcut icons inside the folder. You can fill one folder with one-touch dialing shortcuts to all of your favorite contacts, and another, perhaps, with various phone-number lookup utilities. Folders help you add many useful things to your home screens without eating up a lot of space.
To add one, press and hold your finger on an open space. Select Folders, and then New Folder. Then drag and drop as many shortcuts into the folder as you wish. To give it a custom name, tap the folder once to open it, and then hold your finger along the top bar until the Rename folder dialog box appears on your screen.
To move any shortcut, widget, or folder, simply touch and hold your finger to it. After a couple of seconds, it will seem to lift up from the screen. You can then drag it anywhere, including to another panel, and drop it wherever you like. As you drag and drop, you'll also see a trash symbol at the bottom-center of the screen; slide any icon down onto the trash symbol to remove it from the home screen altogether.
Android phones have four standard keys: a Back button, a Menu button, a Home button, and a Search button. These keys will help you navigate through your phone more easily, no matter what program or process you're running.
Pressing the Back key takes you back one step to whatever you were doing prior to beginning your current step. It works in Web navigation, e-mail navigation, or navigation to a previously open program.
Pressing the Menu key brings up a list of options relevant to the area of the phone you're currently using. When you press it on the home screen, it permits you to access your phone's settings and other customization options.
The Home key has two functions: If you press it once, it takes you back to your home screen. If you press and hold it, it allows you to multitask and switch to other programs you've recently used.
Pressing the Search key produces different results depending on where you are in Android at the time. From your home screen, it brings up a Quick Search Box that you can use to search the Web and your phone at the same time (Android will return the most relevant results from either domain as you type). From within an app, the Search key typically starts a search specific to that program--enabling you to search exclusively within your e-mail, for example, or within your contacts list.
The App Launcher
You can always find all of your apps in the app launcher. On phones running Android 2.0.1 or earlier, you open the app launcher by touching the gray tab at the bottom-center of the home screen. Starting with Android 2.1, a new square-based icon supplants the gray tab. The app launcher itself has a slightly different look as of the 2.1 release, too.
Within the app launcher, you can tap any app's icon to run the program, or press and hold it to drag it directly onto your home screen as a shortcut.
Android's notification panel puts incoming information at your fingertips, no matter what you're doing. Notifications can come from many different places: e-mail, voicemail, text messaging, even social network and news applications. When you get a new notification, an icon will appear at the top-left of your screen. You can pull down the panel to see detailed information about the notification and then take action if you wish.
Check the settings of various applications to see what kind of notifications they offer, and then customize them to work for you.
For comprehensive tips about Android and reviews of the best apps and devices to help you get the most out of the mobile operating system, order PCWorld's Android Superguide, on CD-ROM or in a convenient, downloadable PDF file.
This story, "Android 101: A Guide to Using Your Android Phone" was originally published by PCWorld.