13 ways to optimize your Android smartphone

Make your Android phone more powerful, useful, and efficient with these 13 quick tips.

13 ways to optimize your Android smartphone
13 ways to optimize your Android smartphone

Listen up, Android users: It's time for a smartphone tuneup.

Don't get me wrong, most Android devices work fine out of the box. But with a few minutes of manipulation and a few helpful apps, you can optimize your phone to make it more powerful, useful, and efficient. After all, isn't that what technology's all about?

So let's get to it, then. Here are 13 quick tweaks that'll improve your Android experience.

1. Blast away bloatware
1. Blast away bloatware

Manufacturers and carriers love to clutter up phones with preinstalled apps, better known as bloatware. But just because something's there by default doesn't mean you have to live with it forever. 

To send your bloatware packing, head into your system settings and look for the option labeled "Apps." Swipe over to the right until you're in the column labeled "All," then scroll through the list until you find the app you want to zap.

Tap the app and look for a button that says "Uninstall" or "Disable." Next, pound that button while belting out your most intimidating battle cry* -- then repeat as needed.

*Battle cry optional (but strongly recommended)

2. Make Chrome more efficient
2. Make Chrome more efficient

Using less bandwidth can make mobile browsing faster and help you burn through your monthly data allotment less quickly. Best of all, it takes just a flip of a switch to move yourself into a more efficient gear. 

Open up your Chrome app, tap the Menu icon at the top-right of the screen (or press your phone's Menu button, if you're using an older device), and select Settings. Tap the option labeled "Bandwidth management" and then select "Reduce data usage."

Flip the switch to turn the feature on, and -- shazam! -- Chrome will start optimizing content to decrease the amount of data that's sent to your phone.

3. Take control of your home screen
3. Take control of your home screen

Your phone's home screen is the starting point for everything you do, so why not make it work the way you want? 

A custom Android launcher can make your phone infinitely more flexible and productive. It replaces your entire home screen and app drawer with a different and generally far more customizable environment.

There are plenty of interesting launchers worth exploring. My favorite is Nova Launcher (pictured), which emulates the stock Android environment but allows you to tweak and improve all sorts of things about the setup. Other launchers, like EverythingMe and Terrain Home, reimagine the home screen experience more dramatically with features like context-sensitive panels and card-centric layouts.

4. Step up your task switching
4. Step up your task switching

Find yourself jumping between apps a lot? Android's native Recent Apps feature can help, but you can give multitasking even more oomph with a third-party task manager like Switchr

Switchr lets you swipe in from the edge of your phone's display to bring up a specific set of commonly used or recently used applications. It allows you to set up which area of the phone's edge acts as the trigger and control exactly which apps appear in the list. You can customize all sorts of stuff about how the list looks and works, too, allowing you to create an experience that's tailored to your personal workflow.

5. Make your display smarter
5. Make your display smarter

Your Android phone can automatically keep your display on when you're actively using it and off when you're not -- if you give it the right tools to get the job done.

An app called Screebl is the only thing you need. Screebl uses your device's accelerometer to detect how you're holding the phone. If the device is in a position that indicates active use, it'll keep the display lit up; if not, it'll shut it off.

It's simple and effective: No more wasted power -- and no more annoying instances of your screen automatically going dark when you're trying to read something.

6. Fix your phone's auto-brightness system
6. Fix your phone's auto-brightness system

While we're on the subject of smartphone screen improvements, let's make your device's auto-brightness system a little more effective, shall we?

An app called Lux does what your phone should do by default: It regulates your screen's brightness in a way that actually makes sense -- both for your eyes and for your battery life. The latter is especially important, as display use is almost always the single biggest consumer of battery with today's big and bright screens.

Lux is far more aggressive and effective than most stock setups, and it even lets you make adjustments to "teach" it your own personal preferences for different lighting environments if you want. Fire it up, and watch your phone's stamina improve.

7. Get a better keyboard
7. Get a better keyboard

Most Android phones ship with decent virtual keyboards, but nine times out of 10, you can find one that's better. So why settle for "okay" when "outstanding" is an option? 

The Google Play Store is full of excellent third-party keyboard choices. I like SwiftKey (pictured), which combines personalized next-word prediction with superb swipe-to-type functionality and a host of opportunities for customization. Swype and TouchPal are a couple of other popular contenders.

8. Make your lock screen more useful
8. Make your lock screen more useful

Android allows you to put widgets not only on your home screen but also on your lock screen -- the first thing you see when you press your phone's power button. 

Lock screen widgets can give you a quick glance at info like the weather, upcoming appointments, your phone's battery percentage, or the latest news without having to unlock your device. You can combine multiple lock screen widgets so you can access different types of info with a single swipe.

There are tons of possibilities out there; head to the Security section of your phone's settings to make sure lock screen widgets are enabled, then look for the apps that provide you with the info you need.

9. Take control of notifications
9. Take control of notifications

Android's notification system can be incredibly handy -- at least, until some overzealous app starts filling up your notification panel with information you don't need. 

Android has a built-in mechanism for taming such pesky programs. If you can't find an option within the app itself to disable its notifications, mosey on over to the Apps section of your phone's system settings. Scroll through the list until you find the app in question, tap on its name, then uncheck the box labeled "Show notifications."

The app will never annoy you again.

10. Don't let an important email go unnoticed
10. Don't let an important email go unnoticed

Speaking of notifications, wouldn't Gmail alerts on your device be far more useful if they could alert you only when important messages arrive?

Turns out they can -- if you know the trick. The first step is to sign into the Gmail Web interface and create a filter that'll assign a special label to any messages you consider important. You might want to base the filter on a sender's name, for instance, or the presence of certain words in the subject.

The next slide shows how to complete the process, shifting attention to your phone.

10. Don't let an important email go unnoticed (continued)
10. Don't let an important email go unnoticed (continued)

Once the filter's saved, go into the settings section of the Gmail app on your phone and select your account from the list that appears. Select "Manage labels" and tap on the label you just created.

Now tap "Sync messages" and change the setting to "Sync: Last 30 days." Last but not least, check the box for "Label notifications" and then tap the "Sound" option to select what sound will play whenever an important message comes in.

Repeat the process to create multiple labels -- each with its own set of triggering conditions -- to get alerted with different sounds for different types of important emails.

11. Let yourself zoom free
11. Let yourself zoom free

Most websites these days are optimized for mobile viewing, but that doesn't mean you never need to zoom in to see something more closely. Unfortunately -- and somewhat bafflingly -- many mobile pages don't allow you to do that.

Here's how to get around that irksome restriction: Go into the settings of the Chrome Android browser and hop into the Accessibility section. Check the box labeled "Force enable zoom."

That's it: You can now pinch or tap to zoom as you please, even on a site that doesn't natively allow it. So long, squinting.

12. Free your phone's intelligence
12. Free your phone's intelligence

Perhaps the most powerful thing Android allows is the ability to make your phone contextually intelligent. Maybe you want your device to sense when you're at home and then activate Wi-Fi and connect to your home network. Or maybe you want it to lock your screen and go into silent mode anytime you place it face down. The possibilities are practically endless. 

For simple contextual intelligence, an app called Agent is a good place to start. Agent has recipes for basic tasks like modifying how your phone acts based on the time of day or current calendar events. It can detect when you're driving and do things like read your text messages aloud and let you respond without touching your phone.

13. Take the learning up a notch
13. Take the learning up a notch

If you really want to get wild -- and don't mind getting geeky -- an app called Tasker takes things to another level. It lets you create a massive range of "if-then"-style profiles to control how your phone acts based on almost any variable you can imagine -- location, battery level, the phone's physical orientation, what app is actively open, or almost anything else the phone can detect. I even use Tasker to route my calls to different numbers when I'm in specific places.

Tasker's interface isn't easy to navigate, but if you're reasonably tech-savvy and willing to take the time to figure it out, it has the potential to make your phone more powerful than you thought possible.