How to tweak Android: 14 killer customisations

How to tweak Android: 14 killer customisations


While the iPhone has provided openness of content it’s been designed from the start to be a closed book.  Android on the other hand is a relative bastion of openness by comparison. By providing open access to its source code Google is trying to quickly build a mobile platform that can offer the world everything it wanted from a smartphone – and in so doing provide a real alternative to the iPhone.

The good news for Android users: it’s easy to access a swag of Android apps that offer unrivalled flexibility in tweaking the mobile platform to your heart’s delight. Even without ‘rooting’ your phone – modifying its internal controls over user access so you can access any part of the phone and its operating system in the way that iPhone hackers ‘jailbreak’ their devices – you can change the look and feel of your phone to suit your tastes and requirements.

There are still some limits however – mostly restrictions on capabilities such as tethering which Google has managed in accordance with carriers’ wishes. But if you’re brave enough rooting can restore tethering and add a host of other unorthodox capabilities – including completely rewritten versions of Android that serve as living hacker wish-lists.

When it comes to tweaking Android the imagination (and to some extent technical nous) is the limit. To get you started here are a number of ways you can make Android your own.

1. Add live wallpaper

This is one of the coolest features that sets Android apart from the iPhone: rather than having a static background image on your phone live wallpaper lets you show continually running animations on your phone’s screen. Pick up one of hundreds of themes in the Android Market look through the range from the likes of Kitteface Software or choose any video you want using C.C.P. Cre@ions’ Video Live Wallpaper.

 

2. Expose Android’s hidden settings

As in any desktop operating system there are a wealth of options buried in Android phones that can’t even be directly controlled using built-in functions.

Trust Android developers to find them – and Spare Parts to put them at your fingertips. Spare Parts offers access to a range of features such as controlling the speed and type of window animations; adjusting the size of onscreen fonts; changing screen rotation animations; and providing detailed statistics on battery usage. This last point can be particularly important so you can see just where that precious power is going.

3. Get control over your ringtones

Ringtones are a hugely important part of customising any phone which is why Apple has made it so tricky to add your own ringtones to the iPhone and prefers to steer users to downloadable (and expensive) ringtones. However Android makes it quite easy with broad music support and easy setup of ringtones. Grab an app like Ringdroid and you can load up a music file scroll through the waveform representation of the sound select the part you want to make your ringtone and set it as your ringtone or assign it so it plays when a specific person is calling you.

4. Use an alternative home screen

One very nice part of Android’s openness is that you can substitute your own home-screen managers. HTC for example has done this with its great Sense interface but there are a range of other options available. Consider PinkVenture’s GDE a drop-in home-screen replacement that includes 3D transitions the ability to sort apps into folders and manage them in groups and more. This is the kind of sweet eye candy that you’ll swipe through just to impress your iPhone-using friends.

5. Get widget-ified

If you haven’t explored the world of Android widgets yet take some time to check out the offerings. These are functional overlays that add specific capabilities to your device and fill out your home screen with useful features. For example Fancy Widget and Beautiful Widgets offer gorgeous time-and-weather capabilities Handmark’s Tweetcaster puts Twitter front and centre on your device and houmiak’s Post It Desk brings the yellow sticky notes to your home screen. Browse the likes of www.androidfreeware.net/tag-widget.html to see what’s out there and load ‘em up.

6. Put a homing device on your phone

Let’s face it: even the most doted-over phone can go missing in a pique of absent-mindedness. With even Apple offering free find-my-phone capabilities there’s really no excuse not to have a tracker installed. The likes of Where’s My Droid have proved popular in helping locate stolen or misplaced phones: text or email your phone to make it ring or tell it to send you its current GPS position and you can quickly find it. WaveSecure (recently acquired by McAfee) wraps location tracking with features like remote lockdown remote wiping and remote backup.

7. Get a better virtual keyboard

If you don’t like the data-entry keyboards that have been provided in Android or want to support foreign languages or specialised data-entry layouts for tasks like data entry you can change them. One popular addition is Swype which offers a number of different keyboard layouts and lets you enter text by dragging around the keyboard rather than tapping keys. However Swype isn’t on the Android Market and is only sporadically available (through legal means) so it’s worth considering alternatives including the similar SlideIT CooTek’s flexible TouchPal or the skinnable Better Keyboard.

8. Improve your file management

While Apple has worked hard to move iPhone users away from the idea that data is contained in files Android wholeheartedly embraces the idea. Adding a replacement file manager like Metago’s Astro File Manager gives full control over the data on your SD card. FTPServer lets you directly transfer files to and from your Android device from any FTP client AndTFTP provides Trivial FTP (TFTP) support and OnAir mounts your Android device like a network drive.

9. Get a task manager

Anybody who’s had to debug a problem on their PC knows how important it can be to see exactly what’s running on your system. Poorly written applications can hog CPU cycles or memory resources causing problems for other processes on the system. For this reason it’s highly advisable to give your Android phone a new task manager that can show you exactly what the device is up to; it may even surprise you how much is going on under the hood.

Use caution when terminating processes as it may have unexpected effects – but if you’re running low on memory and suspect something is causing problems the likes of TaskPanel Itching Thumb and Quick Task Killer Pro may help identify the culprit and boost performance.

10. Consider your security profile

Android is big on security as becomes clear the moment you install an app and find yourself staring at a long list of things it wants to access on your system. If you’re security conscious make sure you get acquainted with Android’s security permissions and check them when installing apps. You may also want to consider a password manager – either something like Protector which lets you password-protect your inbox chat calendar and other parts of your Android system or the likes of LastPass Keeper and 1Password which track and manage your various web site passwords across multiple systems.

11. Root your phone

If you want even more control over your Android phone you’ll need to ‘root’ it – bypass the user controls built into the operating system to give you ‘super-user’ status (so you can do whatever you like with it). Once you have super-user status you can do things like back up and restore complete system images using ROM Manager; tweak the speed of your phone’s CPU using SetCPU; and get full system-level file access using Root Explorer.

You can block ads with a firewall-based filter like AdFree Android; and take Android screenshots using an app like ShootMe – which grabs the screen when you shake or yell at your phone – or PicMe which lets you see and control your device from a desktop computer. This last capability alone may be all the motivation many people need to jump in and start rooting.

The exact procedure varies slightly from phone to phone and your best bet is to Google “how to root” followed by the name of your phone. As an example here’s how to root LG’s Optimus S (via www.lg-phones.org):

1. Ensure you have the Android SDK Java and LG’s phone drivers installed.
2. Plug the phone into your PC via USB.
3. Make sure the phone isn’t set to mount as a USB drive but is set to charge-only.
4. Make sure USB Debugging is enabled via Settings > Applications > Development > USB Debugging.
5. Launch the SDK manager.
6. Run CMD and type:

cd c:/Name-of-your-SDK-tools folder
adb push rageagainstthecage-arm5.bin /data/local/tmp/rageagainstthecage
adb shell
chmod 3755 /data/local/tmp/rageagainstthecage
cd /data/local/tmp
./rageagainstthecage

7. Now wait a moment while your phone disconnects and the ADB session finishes. Type adb shell and you should see a # symbol rather than the usual $. This signifies that you have super-user rights.

Some phones can be rooted using a series of keypresses. As another example here’s how to root Samsung’s popular Galaxy S smartphone (via TechLivez.com):

1. Download the Update.zip file from here or if your phone is running v2.2 ‘Froyo’ get it from here.
2. Turn on Mass Storage on your phone by going to Settings > About Phone > USB Settings > Mass Storage.
3. Connect your phone via USB and turn on the USB storage by tapping USB Connected on the top menu.
4. Transfer the Update.zip file you downloaded to the root folder of the device (for example G:).
5. Shut down the phone and unplug the USB cable.
6. Simultaneously press the Home Volume-Up and Power buttons for a short time until the phone boots into Android System Recovery mode.
7. Use the Volume button to choose the apply sdcard: Update.zip option and press Home to select it.
8. The update will apply the rooting procedure and reboot the phone.

To confirm that you have super-user capabilities download the app Terminal Emulator start it up and type su at the command line. The system will ask if you want to allow root access; tap Allow and note that you have an icon called ‘Superuser permissions’ on your home screen.

12. Install a custom ROM

Ever wanted to see what Android can really do when the geeks of the world are set loose on it? A team of developers has been putting their dreams into action with the rapid release of CyanogenMod a replacement ROM that adds a bunch of features and tweaks the performance of most Android devices.

The first release candidate of CyanogenMod 6 which is based on the Android v2.2 ‘Froyo’ code was published online on July 11 just a few weeks after Google published it to the world. The latest version v6.1 is itself open-source and incorporates a broad range of features in an installable environment that replaces the existing OS install.

Enhancements in the new version include touch-to-focus and continuous autofocus while recording videos; ‘quiet hours’ when notifications can be muted or blocked; camera option sliders; stable-shot camera mode; kill a foreground application by long-pressing the back key; long-press search button to jump to compose an SMS or MMS; an updated Terminal Emulator; better backlight performance; A2DP bug fixes; status bar themes; support for eMMC storage cards; Bluetooth HID support; ADW.Launcher an analogue to Mac OS X’s Growl that allows applications to post their own notifications on Android phones; and more (see here for a complete list).

In other words CyanogenMod is what you get when a bunch of committed Android geeks to work together to make Froyo everything they think it should be.

Sadly installing it will void your phone’s warranty since it rips out the protections that Google and the phone makers have set up to prevent just this sort of thing (you can it’s said restore the original ROM to avoid this problem if you become disenchanted with the rooted system). Yet with over 250000 claimed users already there are clearly a lot of people prepared to take that risk. The open-source CyanogenMod ROM is available for download and you should Google “how to install cyanogenmod” followed by the name of your phone to get step-by-step written or video instructions for your phone; instructions for Google’s Nexus One for example are here.

13. Turn your Android phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot

One of the coolest things you can do with a rooted phone is to set it up so it shares its 3G Internet connection with other devices in the area via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. This gives it the same role as one of the connection-sharing devices now sold by a number of carriers but requires no additional hardware. If you’ve rooted your phone check out Wireless Tether tetherWiFi or similar apps to set up this most valuable mod. Once they’re running any Wi-Fi-enabled device – from an iPad or iPod touch to a notebook computer or smartphone – will be able to get online wherever you have good enough coverage.

14. Breathe new life into an old iPhone

Trust the smartphone hackers to figure this one out: the latest in Android pimping has provided a way to install the operating system on iPhone 2G (which was never released in Australia) and 3G models. This may violate the principles of both iPhone and Android users but for a growing number of disillusioned iPhone 3G owners it may well be a more than welcome alternative.

RedmondPie.com’s how-to guide outlines the procedure something like this:

1. Jailbreak your iPhone using PwnageTool Redsn0w or Blackra1n tools.
2. Run the Cydia app loader then add http://repo.neonkoala.co.uk/ as a repository.
3. From Bootlace install and run the OpeniBoot app.
4. Tap iDroid on the bottom row to install iDroid.
5. Once iDroid has been installed tap QuickBoot on the bottom row then tap the Android logo. Your phone will restart and boot into Android.