Android is awesome and powerful, but it has, shall we say, a learning curve. That scares some people away. After all, iOS is so intuitive that babies can use it. Literally. But you're not a baby.
Android may require a little effort to learn and set up, but you get a tangible return on that investment: A properly configured Android phone can get you the stuff you want faster and with less work than any other mobile operating system.
These tips will get you started exploring. Don't stop! Once you're comfortable with the basics, customizing your phone is actually kind of fun. Many of us fell in love with technology because the process of mastering it brought with it a sense of accomplishment. And once you get an Android phone tailored to your needs, you just might realize you don't want something that's all set up right out of the box—because nothing beats a custom fit.
The Most Basic Basics
• Most of you will be guided through the set-up process the first time you hit the power button. Don't skip it. Especially not the part where you add your Google account. If you missed it in the setup, just go to Settings > Accounts & Sync. Then decide what stuff you want to sync. I sync everything with my personal Google account, and then for my work account I just sync Gmail, Calendar, Contacts, and Docs.
• Once you're at the main screen, check out that little bar at the top; that's your notification window. Drag it down and you can see all of your incoming notifications (text messages, emails, calendar appointments, etc). If your phone is running Android 4.0 (aka Ice Cream Sandwich) or later, you can dismiss individual notifications by swiping them off with your finger.
• The app drawer is at the bottom of your screen. Tap it, and behold the icons for every app on your phone. That's essentially what the iOS home screen is (just a bunch of apps). Android goes a different direction, borrowing the desktop metaphor from computers. So you have a desktop you can organize and customize, and you have an app drawer where you can see everything.
• Settings. There's a gear-shaped icon in your app drawer, but there are shortcuts. In phones runnings Android 4.0 or higher you can find your settings in the notification window. Just drag it down and click Settings to open it up. If you're using Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) or lower, from the desktop, you just hit your menu button, and then select Settings.
• How the hell do you get to the menu within apps? Within most apps in Android 4.0 the menu button looks like three vertical dots. Why do three dots represent a menu? I have no idea, but it does. In Android 2.3 and below, use the physical menu button.
You see all of those icons and widgets that came pre-placed on your desktop? Get rid of them. They're mostly carrier or manufacturer junk, and it's better to start with a clean slate. To banish something you don't want, long-press it, then drag it to Remove (that doesn't uninstall the app, it just takes the shortcut off your desktop). If you see something that you love and you know you want to keep, drag it over to a screen off to the side for now.
So after you've set up your Google account, open up the Play Store (the Android Market) at least once and sign in (it's in your app drawer, looks like a grocery bag with a dumb triangular icon on it). After that, you should be able to install everything through the Play tab on your computer's web browser (it's in that black bar at the top of Gmail, etc). This makes browsing through apps and installing them stupid easy. You just click Install and you're done—the app will automatically install on your phone over the air. You can also just click these links on your phone, or browse through the Play Store on your phone, but it's way easier this way.
One thing first. In the Play Store app on your phone, hit Menu (the three dots) > Settings, and scroll down to "Auto-add widgets." You want to UNcheck that, otherwise your pristine desktop is going to get mighty cluttered.
Okay, here are some apps to get you started. Clicking them will take you to their Play Store page where you can just click Install:
• Keyboards. In most cases you're going to want to install a replacement keyboard. There are tons of options, and there's probably a perfect one for you, depending on what you like. If you're coming from iOS (or have iPhone envy) check out iTap (paid/free). Sliding keyboards (like Swype) are a super popular, where you drag your finger between letters. If you don't have Swype pre-installed on your phone, try SlideIT. Personally, I really like SwiftKey X with its spookily good text prediction, but some whom I've recommended it to hate it. (No accounting for taste.) There are dozens of others you can play with.
• Quick Profiles lets you switch a bunch of settings all at once. Handy, especially for turning off all your ringers, but leaving your alarm on loud. The paid upgrade has a rather handy widget.
• While there are some benefits to using the stock text messaging app, Handcent SMS is a replacement app for text messaging that is vastly more customizable. You can enable popups for messages and even assign different notification tones for different contacts. If you use it, make sure you make it your default messaging app and turn off notifications in the stock app, otherwise you'll get double notifications. Alternatively, if you've made the switch to Google Voice, it can completely replace your text and voice message apps.
• Social stuff. You can grab apps for Facebook, Twitter (or a Twitter client like TweetCaster), Instagram, GroupMe, Foursquare, Reddit, StumbleUpon, and others.
• Other stuff we like. Dropbox, Evernote, Kindle, Yelp, Google Reader, Spotify, Netflix, and so on. If you've heard of an app, it's very likely in the Play Store. Just browse around, pay attention to ratings, and experiment. (Oh, not neccessarily neccessary, but check out Samurai II: Vengeance. That game is so damn fun.)
Embrace the Widget
Yes, it's a dumb name, but widgets are worth it: They put a live information and instant controls right on your homescreen. Want to see your upcoming appointments? Try CalWidget. Everyone should have an LED flashlight widget on their desktop (turn it on/off right from the home screen). For the current weather (in your city or another), check out The Weather Channel. Install the Power Control and Music widgets (that come preloaded in Android). Keep up on your social media with the Twitter or Foursquare widgets. Why do these things? Because you can control your music, turn on/off Wi-Fi, adjust your screen's brightness, see your next appointment, turn on your LED flashlight, all without even having to open an app. You can do these things with a single touch, swipe, or just a glance to your desktop. It's incredibly convenient. Many widgets are resizable and scrollable. Do not fear the widget.
Once you've installed a bunch of stuff, take like 10 mins and organize your homescreen. Think of it as your actual desk. If you just pile everything on there randomly, it's going to be messy and it will only cause you frustration. But if you place things deliberately, so you know where everything lives, you can get to what you want without even thinking about it. You only have to do this once (and you can always tweak at will).
To move apps to the desktop, just open the app drawer, long-press the app, and then drag it to the home screen. Dragging one app onto another creates a folder (which you can then label, if you want). In stock Android 4.0, widgets are installed through the app drawer—just click on the widgets tab and drag the one you want to the desktop. In Android 2.3, and some skinned versions (like HTC Sense 4.0) add widgets by long-pressing on the homescreen.
Put the stuff you will use most often right up front on the center home screen. Things you'll use often on the screens just to the right and left. On one of my screens there's nothing but shortcuts to my "favorite" contacts (which I marked with a star) and my Power Control widget. On another, there are folders labeled "Social Apps," "Games," and a bunch of other semi-frequently used stuff. Your resulting home screen might look something like this one. Is it pristine and beautiful? No. Is it highly functional and easy to use? Yes. Take the time to make your homescreen yours. You'll be happy you did.
Put some tunes on there. Either mount it to your computer via USB and drag some music over, or give Google Music a shot. Get the uploader on your desktop and upload a bunch of your music folders or your whole iTunes library. You get to store something like 20,000 songs free. Import some pictures and videos too, while you're at it. If you're using Android 3.0 or higher and you are a Mac user, download the Android File Transfer utility. That may make transfering files via USB a little easier.
• If you're running Android 4.0 or above, set up Face Unlock. It's kind of a gimmicky, but it's fun and it saves time (usually). Settings > Security > Screen lock > Face Unlock. Once you've set it up do the "Improve face matching" thing a few times at different angles (especially from a bit lower, because we usually look down on our phones) and in different light. It works pretty well.
• You probably don't want your phone to ring every time you get a freaking email. To turn off the sounds for email, open Gmail and go to Settings > (your email account) > Ringtone & vibrate. then set it to silent. You'll have to do that on each of your accounts separately, which is annoying, but I guess some people have important email accounts and unimportant ones (you can also set it so certain labels will ring—handy when you have an email-happy boss).
• Not only can you use any MP3 you have saved on your phone as your default ringtone, but did you know you can assign specific ringtones to specific contacts? You'll know your BFF is calling without even having to look at your phone. The easiest way to do it is with a free app called Ringtone Maker. It lets you set the in/out points of a song if you want, built in fades, and assign it to specific contacts if you want. Super easy.
• Voice commands. Siri isn't the only game in town, in fact, as we've shown, in some ways Android's voice actions are superior to their iOS sister's. In Android 2.3 and below you can long-press the search button to activate voice actions, which was a very nice feature and is sadly absent in the newest versions. In Android 4.0 you'll have to use the Google Search bar on your desktop. Just tap the mic and make your demands. Android is also very good at taking dictation. Whenever you're entering text, look for the mic icon on your keyboard to use the built in speech-to-text features.
There are tons and tons of other tips and tricks. Do you have some favorites that you love to tell new Android users? Shout them out in the comments. We may even add it to our list if its good enough. In the meantime, have fun getting to know your new exobrain.