Katherine Boehret

Ten Ways to Make Your Android Smarter

Are you getting the most out of Android? You may not know it, but some of the Google operating system’s most useful features may not be in plain view.

This week, I gathered 10 tricks that could make using an Android device easier and more enjoyable. Since only a handful of devices currently run the latest Android operating system, known as Jelly Bean, I focused on features that work on the more prevalent version of Android known as Ice Cream Sandwich. Many of these tips work on devices that run Jelly Bean and some work on earlier versions of Android. Since there are so many Android phone models, names and wording may differ in some of these steps.

1. Easier Keyboarding

To avoid switching from Android’s letter keyboard to its number and symbol keyboard, hold down the period key to see commonly used punctuation marks and symbols. Slide your finger to the menu that appears, lifting it to select the right key.

If you can’t stand tapping on glass to type on a virtual keyboard, try not lifting your fingers as much. Many Android devices come preloaded with Swype, which lets you type by dragging your finger from one letter to the next; lift your finger up when the word ends. It’s remarkably accurate. To see if Swype is running on your device, spell out a word without lifting your finger. If connecting lines don’t appear between each letter, tap and hold the space bar to see the Select Input Method screen and choose Swype. You can still type the old way, tapping one key at a time.

2. Unlock With Your Face

Instead of tracing a pattern on a screen or typing in a PIN, hold your Android device up and stare into its front-facing camera for a second to unlock it. This isn’t as secure as other methods and doesn’t always work, but it can be fun to use. To set this up go to Settings, Security, Screen Lock and choose Face Unlock. Set a backup PIN or pattern to trace for those moments when face detection doesn’t work.

3. Screen Shots Made Simple

Capture a still image of any screen you’re looking at by simultaneously pressing the power button and the volume down button. Find your screen shot in your Gallery under Screenshots or in the Notifications shade, which pulls down from the top of the screen. This feature only works in Android devices running Ice Cream Sandwich or later.

4. Manage Screens

In Android, app icons and widgets are organized on several Home screens. There are two ways to rearrange or remove these screens. One way on certain phones is to swipe from right to left to get to the last screen on your phone, tap at the bottom of that last screen (an option may say Manage Pages) and then touch and hold a screen to rearrange its order or remove it. For a shortcut, tap and hold the phone’s Home button for a second to jump directly to this.

5. Shortcut to Contacts

There’s an easier way to get in touch with your favorite people: Pin their faces to a Home screen. Go to All Apps, Widgets, select the Contact widget, which will prompt you to choose a person’s name from your contacts list. That person’s photo and contact information will be pinned to Home, for faster texting, calling and social networking. A Favorite Contacts widget pins four together on the Home screen.

6. Save the Battery With a Widget

Stop digging through menus to quickly turn off features that suck up your battery. One tool will do the trick: the Power Control widget. Find this by opening the All Apps page and tapping Widgets at the top. You may have to flip through a few screens to find the Power Control widget, but when you do, tap and hold it to anchor it on any of your pages. Once this bar is on a page, it will let you tap once to turn five features on or off: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, automatic account syncing (for Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and others) and screen brightness (low, medium, high or auto).

7. Auto-Update Apps

Avoid the nagging update notices that appear in your drop-down Notifications shade and set your apps to automatically update as updates become available. If you’re worried about conserving data, set this to update only over Wi-Fi. Open the Google Play store, Settings, Auto-Update Apps by Default and check the Wi-Fi option.

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All photos and videos that you capture on your device can be automatically saved to a private folder in Google+ called Instant Upload.
8. Sync Photos and Videos on the Go

If you’ve signed up for Google’s social network, Google+, you can automatically save any photos or videos you capture on your device to a private (by default) folder in Google+ called Instant Upload. See these back at your desktop by accessing Google+ and looking at Photos, Instant Upload. (Videos are there, too.) Conserve data usage by adjusting when these photos and videos get uploaded, like only in Wi-Fi or only when the device is plugged in and charging. Adjust these settings from your mobile device in Google+, Settings, Instant Upload.

9. Smarter Web Browsing

Google’s Chrome browser comes preloaded on Android devices and works on PC or Mac computers, iPads, iPhones and other devices. If you own a few devices and use Chrome on each, instantly access the tabs you left open on one from another device by tapping Menu, Other Devices and tapping on an opened website in another device’s list of opened tabs. Browse in Chrome without leaving any history by using Incognito Mode on your Android mobile device. Turn this on in Menu, New Incognito Tab.

10. Back Up and Restore Settings, Apps

If you’re upgrading from one Android device to another, you can start using your new device with your old settings and apps if you follow these steps.

First, on the old device, go to Settings, Privacy Settings (for devices running Android version 2) or Settings, Backup and Reset (for devices running Android version 4 or 5). Place a check mark beside the Back Up My Data option. Give it a few minutes to back up and then when you start the new Android device, a setup option will let you restore settings and apps from backup.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com


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