Android is now four years old and despite the little green robot (read: android) peeking out of phone shops up and down the highstreet, there are still those who don’t know what it is or what it’s all about.
If you fit into this category then this article is the beginner’s guide to Android which should help clear up what it actually means when you see the aforementioned green robot.
What is Android?
Android is the name of the mobile operating system made by American company; Google. It comes installed on a variety of smartphones and tablets, offering users access to Google’s own services like Search, Youtube, Maps, Gmail and more.
This means you can easily look for information on the web, watch videos, search for directions and write emails on your phone, just as you would on your computer. This is handy for checking up on things like train times and getting directions when out and about, but there’s more to Android than these simple examples.
What can an Android phone do?
Android phones are highly customisable and as such can be altered to suit your tastes and needs. You can check your Facebook and Twitter profiles through a variety of apps making it ideal for social networking. Through the calendar you can set reminders from your desktop or your phone and on the latest versions of Android you can send links to and from your computer and vice versa.
Another neat feature of Android is that it automatically backs up your contacts for you. When you set up an Android phone you’ll need to create a Google Account or sign in with an existing one. Every time you save a number to the address book of your Android phone it will be synced to your Google Account.
The benefit of this is if you lose your phone all of your numbers will be saved. The next time you get an Android phone and sign in with your Google Account, all of your contacts and friends numbers will be displayed in your new phone’s address book and you can even access or edit them from a computer.
What apps can I get on an Android phone?
There are hundreds of thousands of apps and games available to download from the Google Play store (formerly the Android Market). There are camera apps that allow you to take pictures with artistic effects and filters on them and music players which allow you to import MP3s from your phone or create playlists. You can customise the appearance of your Android handset with a number of wallpapers based on pictures you’ve taken yourself or downloaded from the web too.
There are also various on-screen widgets to download which allow access and alteration the settings of your phone without having to dive through menus as you would on rival devices. You can pretty much create your own system of shortcuts and menus to better suit how you uniquely use your phone.
Popular games available for Android phones include Angry Birds, Draw Something and Temple Run 2 to name but three, but there are thousands of free and paid apps and games on offer.
How can I get apps on an Android phone?
The majority of apps can be downloaded from the Google Play store (the equivalent of Apple’s App Store), which includes a mix of free as well as premium apps that you’ll have to pay for. Some apps have ‘lite’ versions which are free, in the hope you’ll enjoy them and upgrade to the full premium version. Others - like Angry Birds - are free, but include adverts.
The same account that lets you backup your contacts can also have financial details added to it, allowing you the ability to purchase content from the Google Play store directly. You can pay either by debit or credit card and initial setup takes less than five minutes from a computer.
Although there are some 700,000 apps available to Android users in the Google Play store, some developers choose to make their apps available to download from their own sites. In order to download these you'll have to change some settings on your phone before visiting the site on your Android phone’s web browser. By downloading apps other than from the Google Play store, you do run the risk of attack in the form of data theft or from a virus so be careful if you choose that route.
Should you upgrade or change your Android phone; log into your Google account and you’ll be able to download your previously owned apps again, without being charged.
What does an Android phone look like?
Android phones come in many different shapes, colours and sizes. Some have super-fast processors, some have powerful cameras and a few have hardware QWERTY keyboards.
All current Android phones feature a touchscreens, the size of which varies, but in most cases it measures at least 3-inches diagonally, although some devices use much larger displays; like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 for example which features a 5.5-inch screen and has been described as a 'phablet' - a cross between a phone and tablet.
Popular Android phones include the Samsung Galaxy S3 (4.8-inch), LG Nexus 4 (4.7-inch), Sony Xperia S (4.3-inch) and HTC Desire C (3.5-inch). Some examples of Android phones with hardware QWERTY keyboards include the HTC Desire Z, HTC ChaCha and Sony Xperia Mini Pro.
So who makes Android phones?
Every handset maker is free to make an Android phone if they want to. As well as the aforementioned HTC, Motorola, Samsung, LG and Sony, Acer, Alcatel, Huawei and ZTE have all made Android phones too. Apple, Nokia and RIM (who make BlackBerry smartphones) do not offer Android handsets however.
Does Google make any Android phones?
Although Google are the creators of the OS (Android) they have not made any hardware on which is runs in-house, however they have partnered with various handset manufacturers to make their own brand smartphones.
The Google Nexus One (left) was actually made by HTC and ran Android 2.1 Eclair; the Google Nexus S (center-left) was made by Samsung and launched on Android 2.3 Gingerbread, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus (centre-right) launched on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and the LG Nexus 4 (right) is the first handset to run Android 4.1/4.2 Jelly Bean out-the-box.
Google phones are currently always the first to receive new Android updates and are considered to be the flagship Android phones, even though others have bigger screens, better cameras and more powerful hardware.
Google is constantly working on new versions of the Android software. These releases are infrequent; at the moment they normally come out every six months or so, but Google is looking to slow this down to once a year.
Versions usually come with a numerical code and a codename that’s so far been named after desserts running in alphabetical order.
- Android 1.5 Cupcake
- Android 2.1 Eclair
- Android 2.2 Froyo
- Android 2.3 Gingerbread
- Android 3.2 Honeycomb - The first OS design specifically for a tablet, launching on the Motorola Xoom
- Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich: The first OS to run on smartphones and tablet, ending the 2.X naming convention.
- Android 4.1 Jelly Bean: Launched on the Google Nexus 7 tablet by Asus
- Android 4.2 Jelly Bean: Arrived on the LG Nexus 4
Google also releases minor updates with bug fixes and improvements.
Like Android phones, Android tablets come in all shapes and sizes. These can range from the 7-inch screens of the Nexus 7 to far larger displays, such as the 10-inch display found on the Nexus 10.
Somewhat confusingly, some older Android tablets; like the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, launched running Android 2.2 Froyo - a version of Android designed for phones, whilst Android 3.0 Honeycomb was the first release of the OS specifically for tablets.
Android tablets which don’t run on 3.0 Honeycomb couldn’t benefit from things like the redesigned YouTube app, 3D widgets and certain tablet-specific apps like SwiftKey for Tablets.
This fragmentation between Android phones and tablets was eliminated with the launch of Android Ice Cream Sandwich, which was design to operate on either type of device and scale accordingly. Android Jelly Bean has introduced a number of improvements for both the smartphone and tablet experience over the likes of ICS (Ice Cream Sandwich).
Do Android updates cost anything?
Android updates are free. The updates bring a number of new features and changes to Android each time. Generally though, with each update the speed and overall performance of Android is improved upon.
Most of the high-end Android phones are scheduled to receive updates first. Most Android phones will have at least one update during their life cycle, with some having two. A life cycle is usually around a year, but depending on the phone can be longer.
How do I get an update?
Android updates are normally received OTA (over the air), that is, sent directly to your Android phone without the need for a computer. Normally, once your Android phone or tablet is due to get an upgrade, you'll see a notification in the bar at the top of the screen. You'll then be prompted to connect to WiFi to avoid incurring extra data charges - updates can be quite big and downloading them over a mobile data connection isn’t advised.
Updates are generally one-stage processes and relatively straightforward, but in some cases you may need to back up/save any media (photos, movies, music) or apps you've downloaded before updating.
In some cases, such as with some of Sony’s and Samsung's older Android phones, you'll need to install the dedicated software supplied online by the manufacturer first.
Unlike iOS where all users get the update at the same time, regardless of device. Android updates are more fragmented, dependent on manufacturer and carrier - it can make for a frustrating experience, when some phones of the same model have the update when other phones haven’t.
This article was updated in January 2013