Android 4.0 basics

Android 4.0: The ultimate guide (plus cheat sheet)

How to find your way around Google's Ice Cream Sandwich operating system and make the most of its new features

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Android 4.0 makes it easy for you to create folders on your home screen that contain apps, in case you want to group similar items together to save on space or make things more tidy. While previous versions of Android had folders, they're easier to manage in 4.0, and their appearance has a sleek new look as well.

Closed and open folders on Android home screen
Android 4.0 makes it easy to create folders of applications on your home screen (left). Tap a folder to expand it and see what's inside (right). Click to view larger image.

To create a folder in ICS, all you do is drop one icon on top of another on your home screen. You can add more items into the folder the same way.

Once a folder's been created, you can tap the folder to open it and show all the apps within; you can remove any item from the folder by touching it and dragging it out. You can name the folder, too: Just touch your finger to the text that says "Unnamed Folder" and type in any name you want.

Finally, you can place any items you want in the Favorites tray below the home-screen panels so they'll always be handy: Just touch and hold any icon that's already in the tray to move it out, and touch and drag any other icon in to replace it. You can even create folders within the tray, if you're so inclined.

Working with widgets

We can't talk about Android apps without talking about widgets. Widgets are one of the most powerful features Android provides; they essentially give you live, functioning programs right on your phone's home screen. Widgets let you do things like scroll through your inbox or your calendar, flip through current forecasts for multiple cities, and adjust your phone's basic settings without ever having to open a program or leave the home screen.

resizing a widget in Android 4.0
Many widgets can be resized in Android 4.0. Click to view larger image.

Widgets are frequently included as components of applications. For example, if you download the Pandora app, you'll also get the Pandora widget, which you can put on your home screen (or not) as you like. Some developers also offer standalone widget downloads, like the popular Beautiful Widgets and HD Widgets collections.

You can see a list of widgets on your device by touching the Widgets tab at the top of the app drawer and swiping left or right through the list. Placing a widget on your home screen is no different than placing an app shortcut: You press and hold the widget you want, then drag it wherever you wish on your home screen.

With Android 4.0, many widgets can be resized, too: Just press and hold any widget on your home screen, and if it's resizable, you'll see a blue box appear around it. Drag an edge of the box up, down, left or right to make the widget larger or smaller.

Want more widgets? Head to the Google Play Store; there's an entire section there devoted to apps with widgets, and you can always try searching, too.

Android 4.0 settings

Almost everything in Android can be customized, and Android 4.0 introduces a completely revamped settings area with a streamlined interface and numerous new options.

The simplest way to get to your phone's settings is to pull down the notification panel and then touch the icon directly next to the date (it looks like a series of sliding controls). Alternatively, you can find the Settings app within your app drawer; you can even put the shortcut directly on your home screen if you want.

Many of the items in the Android 4.0 settings area are self-explanatory. A few things are worth pointing out, though:

The Data Usage feature is a new and noteworthy addition to Android 4.0. It allows you to view your mobile data usage and see exactly how many bytes each application and process is utilizing.

It also lets you set a monthly mobile data limit; once set, the system will cut off all non-Wi-Fi data transfers above the limit to ensure you don't exceed your carrier's monthly data cap. You can set limits on background data transfers for specific apps, too, if you want to restrict activity for particularly data-hungry programs.

Android 4.0 settings
Android 4.0's settings area has a streamlined interface and numerous new options, such as a Battery section that shows detailed information about your phone's power consumption. Click to view larger image.

The Battery feature is another Android 4.0 addition that's well worth exploring. It allows you to get a grasp on your phone's power usage by seeing exactly how much of your battery charge is being consumed by each app and process during the day.

The Apps section of the settings shows you a complete list of all apps on your phone, including those you have installed and any that came preloaded on the device (touch the All tab to view preloaded applications). You can opt to disable any preinstalled app from here, which effectively hides it from the system and gets it out of your way.

This is useful for carrier-installed bloatware, which is often baked into the phone and impossible to uninstall. Just be careful in deciding what to disable, as disabling an important system process could have unintended consequences. As a general rule, if you aren't sure what something is, it's probably best to leave it alone.

The Accounts & Sync section shows you every account connected to your phone -- Google accounts, third-party email accounts and service-based accounts for apps like Dropbox or Facebook -- and allows you to change the autosync settings for each account as well. You can add new accounts and delete old ones from this area, too, which can be useful if you change email providers at some point or decide to add another inbox into the mix.

The Security section is an area you'll definitely want to visit. It houses the commands to set up a PIN, password or pattern lock for your phone. (Android 4.0 has a face-recognition unlock feature, too, but -- while incredibly novel -- it's far less secure than the more traditional methods.) The section also enables you to encrypt your phone's data and require a PIN or password to decrypt it every time the device is powered on.

As far as your data goes, Google can automatically back up your basic phone settings as well as your installed applications; if you should ever move to a new device, your settings and applications can then automatically be restored. Just make sure you have the "Back up my data" and "Automatic restore" options checked in the Backup & Reset section of your phone's settings if you want this feature to work.

Android 4.0 search and voice control

Google is famous for search, so not surprisingly, search is a core part of the Android 4.0 experience. The basic search functionality in ICS is the same as in past Android releases, but there's a new, more convenient way to access it: via a persistent Google search bar at the top of every home screen panel. (Some manufacturer-modified versions of ICS may put the bar in a different location or make it an optional element you can choose to include.)

To search for anything -- whether on your phone or on the Web -- touch your finger to the Google search bar. This will pull up a box that you can type any term into; your phone will start displaying relevant results for items on your phone and on the Web as you type, much like Google does with its Google Instant search feature online.

By default, the Android search function will look through a lot of different types of content, including apps you have installed, contacts you have stored, bookmarks and recently visited Web pages, and music files in your personal collection. You can customize exactly what types of content are and aren't included by tapping the Menu icon at the top-right of the search screen and selecting Settings and then "Searchable items."

In addition to standard search, Android includes a robust voice search system. Simply tap the microphone icon in the Google search bar and begin to speak; your phone will transcribe and then search for whatever words you say. Like regular search, the voice search will include items both on your phone and on the Web.

The microphone icon also gives you access to Google's Voice Actions technology. Voice Actions lets you complete numerous functions on your phone just by speaking (yes, kind of like Apple's Siri -- only this has been around since 2010). Try pressing the microphone and saying some of these commands:

  • send text to [contact] [message]
  • call [business name and city]
  • call [contact]
  • send email to [contact] [message]
  • go to [website]
  • note to self [note]
  • navigate to [location/business name]
  • directions to [location/business name]
  • map of [location]
  • listen to [artist/song/album]

Android 4.0 text input

Android 4.0 has a virtual keyboard that pops up anytime you're able to enter text. The 4.0-level keyboard is dramatically improved over the one in past Android releases; even when you type sloppily and miss a lot of characters, it can usually figure out what you're trying to say. The keyboard also has built-in word suggestion and spell-check capabilities.

In addition to the regular tap-style input, you can use Android's voice recognition technology to enter text anywhere in the system. Just tap the microphone icon on the keyboard and begin to speak; the system will transcribe text on the fly and show your words on-screen as you talk.

One nice thing about Android compared to other mobile platforms is that you aren't limited to using only the default system keyboard; you can opt to replace or supplement it with a third-party alternative if you'd like. Several popular third-party options exist, including SwiftKey -- which is known for its impressive text-predicting technology -- and Swype, which lets you type by sliding your finger from key to key without ever lifting it up.

Android devices can support a wide range of USB input devices, too, including mice, keyboards and game controllers; you can also wirelessly connect a Bluetooth keyboard to your phone if you really want to get down to business.

Android 4.0 file management and sharing

Unlike other mobile platforms, Android gives you complete control over the files stored on your phone. You can browse your Android device like a computer, moving and copying files or opening and sharing documents at will.

Android 4.0 has a built-in Downloads app that lets you access files you've downloaded from the Web, but the key to truly unlocking your phone's file management potential is installing a good file management app. I like Astro File Manager, which is available for free in the Google Play Store. (The free version of the app has ads; a $3.99 "pro" key will give you an ad-free experience.)

When you open Astro -- or any other comparable file management utility -- you'll see a list of folders and files in your phone's storage. You can navigate through the folders just like you would on your PC's hard drive; pressing and holding any item will give you a list of options like copying, moving, renaming or deleting. It'll also give you an option to send the file to any other compatible application -- if you want to share a document with someone via email, for example, or send it to your Dropbox or Google Drive account.

Android devices can interface with PCs just like portable hard drives, too: Connect your phone to an open USB port on a Windows computer, and it'll automatically show up as a media device (using the MTP protocol). You can then open the device on your computer, click through folders, and copy or move data back and forth as needed.

Mac OS X doesn't natively support the MTP protocol that Android utilizes, so you'll need to install an Android File Transfer application before you can connect your phone to an Apple computer.

Android 4.0 includes full support for near-field communication (NFC), which opens the door for some interesting contact-free device-to-device file sharing. You can pass along a contact, Web page, YouTube video or application from one NFC-enabled Android 4.x device to another simply by touching the two phones together back-to-back; once the connection is established, the system will prompt you to "beam" whatever content is currently loaded on your screen.

With its Galaxy S III phone, Samsung expanded on Android's NFC beaming functionality to allow for contact-free sharing of images, video files and music files; that expanded functionality, however, works only between two Galaxy S III phones and is consequently rather limited in practicality.

So there you have it: the ins and outs of Android 4.0. Bookmark this story, print out our cheat sheet charts for future reference, and you'll be well on your way to becoming an Ice Cream Sandwich pro.

Next: Android 4.0 cheat sheet

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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