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Android Tips and Tricks: Get more out of your Android phone

Aside from being asked ‘which phone should I get next?’ and ‘what apps/games should I download?’ we get asked all sorts of questions. Many of these are along the lines of ‘what else can I do with this phone?’ as if people expect us to reveal how to turn Galaxy S2’s into flying clockwork pigs.

So we’ve had a think of how else your Android phone could be useful along with ways on how to minimise battery usage and how to keep your phone safe and secure.

Use Google Docs to create shopping lists on your Android phone

Google Docs is a free word processing program that you can access from the web on your computer (docs.google.com) and from your Android phone via the free Google Docs app.

One of the great things about Google Docs is that anyone with a Google Account can access it and you can easily share documents.

Ostensibly, Google Docs is a free replacement for Microsoft Office, but we’re also fond of using it for non-work purposes, such as sharing shopping lists with our flatmates and girlfriends/boyfriends/significant others.

Another great thing about Google Docs is that you can access it via the browsers of iPhones, BlackBerrys, Windows Phone 7 and Symbian (S60) phones.

So if your flatmate/partner has an iPhone 4 or BlackBerry Torch you could start a list from your computer or your Android phone, share the document, and then they could tick items off the list as they go.

Of course, there are a ton of other ways Google Docs can be useful besides shopping lists. But when it comes to working on a big collaborative project, you’ll probably want to be hammering away at that script/proposal from your computer or laptop. In a pinch though, you could work away on your next masterpiece from your Android phone.

That said, we think that checking off items on a list from your phone when you’re on the move is one of the more practical uses of Google Docs on your mobile.

Keep an eye on your battery level, disable Wi-Fi and GPS when they’re not needed

In order to preserve the battery life of your Android phone we’d recommend placing the Power Control widget (which comes with virtually every Android phone) on one of your homescreens – long press on any homescreen, select Widgets and scroll down to Power Control (normally a cog or dial-shaped icon).

This useful little control panel allows you to disable things like Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth by the simple tap of a button. This saves you from having to go into the Settings menu and turn things on and off manually.

If you’re not using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, turn them off. Your Android phone will otherwise be wasting energy trying to search for hotspots and paired devices that you’re not going to connect to.

You could also switch off GPS if you’re not using Google Maps. That said, we normally leave our GPS on so that security/phone locating apps like Lookout Security can more easily locate your phone. But if our battery is on the wane, we’ve been known to turn GPS off from time to time. But only when we’re totally sure that we’re not going to fall asleep and leave our phone on the train.

If you’re up for spending a bit of money on a useful widget, we’d recommend that you check out SwitchPro (pictured above). This is an advanced version of the Power Control widget that allows you to turn off/activate more settings such as 2G/3G toggle and Airplane Mode.

Turning off 3G if it’s not needed is another good way to preserve juice. Useful if you need to keep your phone alive and you can do without checking emails and Twitter for a while.

Airplane Mode, as you’d expect, disables all wireless connections, which is useful if you’re going somewhere underground (like on the tube/metro) or anywhere where there’s not going to be a lot of signal for ages.

You can turn both of these settings on and off from your Android phone’s Settings, but SwitchPro gives you a convenient way to do it straight from your homescreen.


Got a light?

Who hasn’t, at some point, used the backlight from their phone’s screen to locate dropped keys/contact lenses/cigarette lighters in the dark?

The aforementioned SwitchPro widget also features a Flashlight control, which basically loads up a large blank white screen, turning your phone into a kind of rubbish torch.

While this is useful and will work on all Android phones, if your phone’s camera has an LED flash then you can download a number of free apps from the Market that’ll allow you to use the LED light as an ad hoc torch.

The ones we’ve used and like the best include Tiny Flashlight, which you can control with a widget and the very simple LED Light, which features just a simple on/off switch.

HTC’s Android phones like the Sensation (pictured) come with HTC’s own Flashlight app pre-installed, which allow you to do the same thing.

Safe and secure – choose a good PIN number, get a security app

There are three ways to keep your Android phone’s screen locked – either with a 4-digit PIN, a password or an unlock pattern.

Of the three, the PIN method is the one we’d recommend that you use. It’s more secure than the unlock pattern method – which can be betrayed by your own fingerprint marks left on the phone’s screen and it’s more convenient than entering a long password on a virtual Qwerty – less room for typos you see.

When choosing a PIN number for you Android phone, think carefully; don’t choose 1234, 0000, 2580 or 1111. Why? Because recent research suggests that they’re the four most commonly used passcodes.

In the battery saving section above, we mentioned the Lookout Security app. This great app is free to download from the Android Market and allows you to do a number of things; chiefly locate your phone on Google Maps if you should lose it.

After downloading and installing the free Lookout app on your phone, head over to mylookout.com and log in/register with an email address. Once you’ve logged in/created a profile, simply click the Locate tab to search for your phone.

Another way to help you track your phone if it’s been lost is to enable Latitude on Google Maps. Google Latitude allows you to locate your phone from your computer desktop in the same way as Lookout does. Plus, as it’s a feature of Google Maps, it’s already on your Android phone.

You’ll need to activate Latitude on your phone first (open Google Maps, press Menu > Latitude).

Then you can search for your phone’s location by visiting google.com/latitude when you’re logged in to your Google Account on your desktop.


Bought your Android phone unlocked and SIM-free?

If you haven’t bought your Android phone from a network and have just popped your existing SIM card in, then you may need to do some tinkering around in the settings before you can start doing things like accessing the internet and the Android Market.

If the phone doesn’t automatically detect network and 3G settings, you might need to manually enter the Access Point Name (APN).

On your Android phone go to Settings > Wireless & Networks > mobile networks > access point names then press the menu key to add an APN. APN information for all the UK networks can be found here.


Other things to consider

Music players – Want a decent music player on your Android phone but aren’t too sure where to start? Have a read through our Best Music Players for Android feature to get a better idea of the various music players and music apps available.

Wi-Fi Tethering: turn your Android phone into a wireless router – if your broadband service at home isn’t working, you’re waiting for a new router or you’ve just moved in to a new property and you’ve not got the internet set up yet, you can turn your Android phone into an impromptu wireless router. Read our step by step guide on exactly how to do this.

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