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Uncovering a More Useful Android Lock Screen

Nowadays, there’s a smartphone app for just about everything. Need to hail a ride? There’s an app for that. Need a game for your cat? There’s an app for that, too. But the more titles you have, the more cluttered your smartphone can get, making it difficult to quickly navigate to the app you want.

You can, of course, pin your most frequently used apps to the home screen, or organize them into folders. Some Android phones even allow you to add shortcuts to the lock screen. But what if your smartphone could automatically surface the apps you need the most throughout the day? After all, when you’re at work, you probably don’t need Netflix to be front and center, and when you’re home for the night, Google Maps doesn’t need to take up prime screen real estate.

That’s the goal behind Cover, a new Android lock screen app created by a team of former Google, Facebook and Yahoo engineers. Cover automatically changes the shortcuts on your lock screen based on whether you’re at home, at work, in the car or out and about. To do so, Cover learns (with your permission) which apps you use most during certain hours of the day, while taking your location into consideration.

I’ve been using the app on the Nexus 5 for the past week, and I found it to be efficient, slick and easy to use. When I was at work, it provided quick access to my email, calendar and documents. At home, it would serve up apps like Google Play Movies & TV, Instagram and Yahoo Fantasy Sports. I missed Cover’s functionality whenever I switched over to my iPhone 5.

I also like that Cover lets you preview new messages, Facebook updates and the like, without launching the full app. Beyond the lock screen, a task switcher allows you to easily move between apps. But, for now, Cover doesn’t offer much flexibility in rearranging apps, and not all of the features always worked correctly. For example, the app sometimes didn’t switch to car mode when I was traveling in a moving vehicle.

The team behind Cover is still working to get all the features right and add more functionality, which is why the app is currently only available via invite (you can sign up for one on Cover’s website). But the company hopes to open it up to everyone as a free app before Christmas.

When you first launch Cover, it asks you to enter your home and work address. Using Wi-Fi and cell towers to pinpoint your location, the app can then determine when to switch between Home, Work or Out mode based on whether you’re in or out of one of these zones. I found all of these features worked well, as the lock screen seamlessly changed modes every time I went to work or returned home.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of different ways that Cover determines when to turn on/off Car mode. One is if you have your phone connected to your car via Bluetooth. Whenever you get in your car, and your phone automatically connects to your car, the app goes into Car mode.

If you don’t have a Bluetooth system in your car, Cover then uses your phone’s gyroscope and accelerometer sensors to detect whether you’re moving at a certain speed in a single direction, so it can switch modes. The company says it uses this motion-sensing method rather than GPS in order to save battery life, but also admits that the technology is still experimental.

As I mentioned earlier, I had some problems with Car mode. I tested the app on a few car rides (none via Bluetooth), and Cover didn’t switch to Car mode on several occasions. Fortunately, the app makes it easy to manually change modes via a small pull-down menu in the upper-right corner of the lock screen. The company says that it is working to improve car detection.

Since Cover needs some time to learn which apps you use the most, it will initially populate the lock screen with six apps that make the most sense for each category. For example, for work, some of the initial apps that showed up on my Nexus 5 were email, calendar, Keep (Google’s note-taking app) and Google Drive. But after several days, it learned that I often use LinkedIn and Twitter during the work day, and added those to the mix.

All of your apps are listed vertically along the left side of the screen. You can also swipe up from the middle of the lock screen to access an additional six apps. To open any title, simply swipe left to right from the appropriate icon. A feature called Peek also allows you to quickly preview something, such as a new message or appointment request, by just pulling and holding the lock screen to the right. This way, you don’t have to fully launch the app, in case it’s something you can respond to later.

All of these actions worked smoothly, and it was nice to be able to launch apps in just a couple of moves. If you lock your phone using a PIN or pattern, you will need to enter that first before Cover will open an app. (These security features also disable the Peek functionality). Even so, it was still quicker than the iPhone 5 or Nexus 5 sans Cover, where I had to unlock the screen, enter my PIN, and then navigate to the right folder to launch an app.

Once you’re working in the app, Cover offers a multitasking function where you can swipe down from the upper-right corner to switch between apps. The first three in the tray are the most recently used apps, while the last three are contextual. While this was nice, I wish there was a way to access other apps. Similarly, it would be nice if Cover offered a little flexibility in customizing the app list. The company says it hopes to add this feature in the future.

Lastly, you might be concerned about privacy, since Cover monitors your activity and location, but the company has a number of security measures in place, including encrypting all your data and never storing your phone’s ID. You can read more about the security features in the company’s FAQ.

While Cover has some wrinkles to iron out, it provides Android users with a smart and sleek solution for getting the most out of your lock screen.

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