Android Expert Profiles

How I Use Android: Writer and Android Intelligence author JR Raphael

Time for yours truly to take a turn at the challenge. An up-close tour of my own personal Android setup, including my obsessively organized home screens.

How I Use Android: JR Raphael

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Since starting the "How I use Android" series last year, I've had the privilege of profiling some of the best and brightest people connected to Android -- developers, designers, and managers both within Google and without who work tirelessly to give us exceptional user experiences.

Sometimes, you've gotta lower the bar a little.

After asking so many people to share how they use Android in their own lives, I figured it was only right to start the new year by stepping into the hot seat myself. Thus, this unusual "How I use Android" entry -- one by and about the same silly schmo.

So who the hell am I, other than the lowly scribe who pens this column for you to skim whilst clipping your toenails? I'm just an ordinary word-slinger who's been lucky enough to cover Android since its start. I've reviewed more devices than I care to count and have written a frighteningly high number of features, guides, and other Android-related stories. I enjoy long lists, short words, and things that rhyme with "elephant." I also have excellent dental hygiene.

Aside from writing about Android on a professional level, I've used the platform in my own personal life for years. Most of my family and friends are using it these days, too. (I'm either that influential -- or they just want the always-available free tech support. I strongly suspect the latter.) So how do I, writer of these words and keeper of this commune, live with the platform we spend so much time discussing?

Time to let the robotic cat out of the bag. This is how your humble host (aka the jerk whose face is at the top of this page -- you know, me) uses Android.

The basics

Your current primary phone: The Nexus 6P. I've never been a big fan of big phones, but this device's all-around package was compelling enough to convince me to make the leap late last year. Size aside, the 6P is insanely close to being exactly what I want in a smartphone right now (and the size has been surprisingly easy for me to get used to).

What case is on your phone (if any): None. Nyet. Zero. Zilch. What can I say? I like to live on the wild side. (Here's why, if you're really interested.)

Your current tablet (if any): You know, I honestly haven't been spending much time using tablets as of late. Maybe it's the effect of having a larger phone with pretty solid battery life that makes it seem unnecessary. Maybe it's the effect of having a pretty little mini-me who rolls around my house and makes me want to keep my screen-staring time to a minimum. Whatever the cause, I just don't find myself reaching for a tablet very often anymore.

That being said, I have a Nexus 9 that I use for work-related research and testing (along with the instant gratification of same-day new-OS-release flashing). I also have a second-gen Nexus 7 that I keep around, and my wife has one of her own that's usually floating around our living room somewhere.

My old Nexus 10 is still the tablet I take with me for on-the-plane movie watching and simple HDMI-to-TV hotel room video-streaming when I travel, meanwhile, and my really old Motorola Xoom (oh yes) has gained new life as our stand-sitting kitchen command center.

Your current smartwatch (if any): The Huawei Watch -- stainless steel and black leather version. A lot of reviewers have picked the second-gen Moto 360 as the Wear watch to beat right now, but for me, Huawei's wearable is the clear overall winner.

What face you're using on your watch right now: I switch it up and have a few that I rotate through semi-regularly. My go-to face is a custom design I made with the excellent Pujie Black Watch Face (I shared an importable code of the design here, if you want to try it out for yourself). Skymaster Pilot and Minimal & Elegant are also among my personal favorites.

Pujie Black Android Wear Watch Face

The author's custom Pujie Wear face design in its illuminated mode (left) and dimmed state (right)

The home screen

A quick walk-through of your phone's home screen setup: My home screen is in a constant state of flux and semi-obsessive refinement, as I'm always looking for new ways to optimize things and make life simpler. (What can I say? Organization excites me. Hey, I never pretended I wasn't a total nerd.)

For the past year or so, the awesome Action Launcher 3 app has served as the foundation of my phone's home screen setup. It brings some clever and genuinely useful concepts to the environment, like a side-positioned quick-access app drawer and the ability to keep widgets available on demand without having them take up permanent space. And its developer (who was the subject of a past "How I use Android" profile, by the way) is constantly coming up with creative new ideas for how a home screen can work.

So with that being said, here's a walk-through of my current setup:

JR Home Screen (1)

On my main panel, I have a weather widget from Weather Timeline and an agenda widget from Today Calendar. Both have colorful, Material-esque designs that fit in nicely with my setup -- and both offer the customization and functionality I need from such widgets.

The search bar at the top gives me an easy way to conduct searches on demand. It also holds a custom shortcut that gives me quick access to Hue Pro, which I use to control the nifty multicolor lights I have throughout my living room. The bar is automatically themed to match the current wallpaper, too, as is the side-sliding app drawer (which you see in the second screenshot -- and which can be accessed by sliding in from the leftmost edge on any home screen panel). Those extra touches are all features Action Launcher enables.

(And you can't see it here, by the way, but swiping toward the right from this first panel takes me directly to Google Now, just like it would on the Google Now Launcher. The app drawer only appears if the swipe starts from the very edge of the screen.)

JR Home Screen (2)

Since my app drawer is on the side, I use the center position in the Favorites Tray to hold a shortcut to Keep, which I rely on for taking and viewing all sorts of notes. The other shortcuts in the tray are pretty obvious. Each of them also contains a widget, which I can pull up as needed by swiping upward on the icons, as you see in the screenshots above.

(The Phone widget is from an app called Resizable Contacts Widget -- which is kinda old and no longer updated but still does exactly what I need. The Hangouts widget is also via a third-party app, and I use the Gmail widget to peek at my inbox since Inbox itself doesn't presently provide one of its own.)

JR Home Screen (3)

My other home screen panel has shortcuts to my most commonly used apps, most of which are grouped into special Action Launcher folders called "covers." Those let me tap the icon to open the primary app in the group, shown in the icon -- which is the action I perform most of the time -- or swipe up on the icon to view the full folder of related apps and select something else. The idea is to have the things I use most frequently a single tap away (hence items like Google+ and Feedly existing as their own standalone icons instead of being part of a group), with other regularly but not as constantly accessed things one more step away.

The covers are also automatically themed to match my current wallpaper, which gives the environment a comely touch of visual cohesiveness.

JR Home Screen (4)

Finally, I use Action Launcher's Quickpage feature to keep a panel of widgets that's available by swiping in from the rightmost edge anywhere on the home screen (which means it's easy to pull up regardless of where on the home screen I happen to be). That's where I keep playback controls for the various audio services I have on my phone.

As you can see, I prefer a more clean and minimalist approach to the home screen, though one that's also packed with plenty of time-saving functionality. From form to function, it's very much custom-tailored to me and my needs -- a nice reminder of what sets Android apart from other mobile operating systems and what drew me to the platform in the first place.

What wallpaper you're using: Minima Pro Live Wallpaper. I change the design every so often, whenever it starts to feel stale -- and with Action Launcher's auto-theming feature, that seemingly simple switch really does make my whole home screen look fresh and new. (The current design is one I threw together myself, but the app comes with a bunch of premade options along with the ability to search and download other users' shared creations.)

Though it's a live wallpaper, I have the app set to use extremely minimal movement: If the phone is still, the wallpaper is perfectly still as well. The "live" function only comes into play when the phone itself is tilted, which causes the shapes to shift subtly on the screen.

Anything else of note (interesting customizations, special icons, etc): I think I've covered most of the key customizations. The only special icon I have is the one for Keep, which comes from an icon pack called Gel. Since it's in the center spot, where the app drawer usually goes, I felt like I needed something simple and circular to provide visual balance and look right to my eyes.

I should also note that when I review phones, I never go to the trouble of implementing all of this. I always stick with the device's stock launcher, whatever that is (and as much as I may dislike it personally -- gotta get the full experience if you want to review a phone!) and then create a very simplified and scaled down version of this basic arrangement, without anything even remotely fancy.

The experience and the apps

What's one of your favorite Android-related tips or tricks?

One of my biggest mobile tech annoyances is the way some websites inexplicably won't let you zoom into a page when you're on a smartphone or tablet. It makes absolutely no sense and fills me with rage every time it happens.

Luckily, there's a simple fix -- and you'll only have to do it once on any Android device you use: Just head into the "Accessibility" section of Chrome's settings and check the box next to "Force enable zoom." That's it: You can now zoom in wherever you want, even when the website you're viewing doesn't want you to (for reasons I will never understand).

It's one of the first things I do on any Android device.

Beyond the obvious stock Google programs, a few apps you can't live without right now (and a quick word about why):

Link Bubble. I open a lot of links from other apps on my phone -- Twitter, Google+, different news-reading tools. Rather than having each link I tap take me away to the browser and interrupt what I'm doing, Link Bubble lets me have the links open in a little bubble on the side of my screen. I can then open a bunch of stuff at once and go read it all whenever I'm ready. I use the hell out of this app, almost every single day.

FeedlyReader. Keeping up with tech news is a big part of what I do from my mobile device, and Feedly is the best service for me to follow specific sources and make sure I don't miss anything important. But Feedly's own Android app has always been less than exceptional.

The third-party FeedlyReader client fits my work flow wonderfully, as it gives me a simple card-based list of headlines and story summaries from the sites I follow. I can see exactly where I left off, and I can just swipe on any story to open it in Link Bubble without having to navigate complex menus or go through multiple screens of in-app content first.

Sadly, the app hasn't been updated in a year now, so I know it's only a matter of time until I'll have to abandon it and move on to something else -- but for now, it's exactly what I need from a news-reading client. Nothing else comes close to fitting the bill.

Keep and Inbox. Both of these lower-profile Google apps have become core parts of my productivity setup on mobile devices and the desktop alike. Keep is where I store notes on everything from story ideas and project-related lists to personal stuff like lists of our favorite restaurants (for those moments when my wife and I are both blanking on where we should eat) and my daughter's insurance info.

It took a while for Inbox to win me over, but I absolutely adore it now and can't see myself going back to the regular Gmail app anytime soon. Features like Inbox's native trip-organizing ability and its native systems for snoozing messages and setting reminders make it absolutely invaluable to me. The fact that the reminder system works seamlessly with Android's voice command system and other Google apps (like -- you guessed it -- Keep) really takes things to another level.

Organizational systems that work together in harmony -- ahh. That, my friends, is what we call nerd nirvana.

Check out more Android expert profiles below or in the official Google+ collection -- and stay tuned for even more entries in the weeks to come!

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