Android Intelligence Advice

The 20-minute Android tune-up

A few minutes of maintenance each year can keep your Android phone running like a well-oiled machine.

Android Phone Tune-up
OpenClipart-Vectors/Google, modified by IDG Comm (CC0)

Ah, the beginning of a new year: What better time to clean up, start fresh, and make sure your various work spaces are primed for productivity?

Making your physical desk presentable is all on you (seriously, pal, would it kill ya to do a little dusting once in a while?), but when it comes to that virtual office in your pocket — y'know, that shiny ol' smartphone of yours — I'm here to help.

A handful of simple-seeming steps can go a long way in clearing out the virtual clutter, y'see, and turning your Android phone back into the optimal work companion it oughta be. And best of all? It shouldn't take you more than 20 minutes to complete.

So pop open your hood, put on the nearest pair of coveralls, and get ready to get your hands metaphorically dirty: It's time to step into the garage and get your mobile device in tip-top shape for 2020.

Step 1: Uninstall unnecessary apps

Time required: 2 minutes

This first step may sound silly, but believe you me, it can make a world of difference: Whether they're apps that came preinstalled or programs you downloaded once upon a time, there's a decent chance you have at least some unused items taking up space on your phone. And guess what? Those forgotten icons do more than just collect virtual dust; they actively work against your efficiency-oriented interests.

First, superfluous apps take up space — both in the physical sense of your phone's internal storage and in the sense of clutter that makes it tougher to find what you actually need. But beyond that, abandoned apps often take a toll on a phone's performance and stamina by needlessly eating up resources. And beyond that, they open the door to some easily avoidable privacy problems (more on those in a minute).

You can probably scan through your app drawer pretty quickly and figure out which programs you haven't opened in the past month or two. If you see something you aren't using — or something you really don't need (cough, cough, third-party security suites) — touch and hold its icon and then drag it up to the "Uninstall" command at the top of your screen.

If an app can't be uninstalled, it probably came preinstalled on your device and is baked into the system courtesy of your phone's manufacturer and/or carrier. You should still be able to disable it, though: Either long-press it and then touch the "i" icon that appears or find and tap its title within the Apps section of your system settings. Then, look for the "Disable" command, tap it with gusto, and send the thing off to app hell, where it belongs.

Bonus tip: Want a helping hand in identifying your unused apps? Grab Google's standalone Files utility (which notably isn't the same as the Files app that may have been preinstalled on your phone), and set yourself a reminder to check back on it in a month. By then, Files will have built up enough data to be able to tell you which apps you aren't actually ever using — and to give you a super-simple way to get rid of any of all of 'em with a few quick taps.

Android Phone Tune-Up: Unused Apps JR

Step 2: Lock down battery drainers and background data abusers

Time required: 5 minutes

Maybe there's an app you genuinely do use but that drags your phone down with over-the-top background activity — in other words, doing stuff you don't need it to do while you aren't actively looking at it. Facebook and Instagram are both notorious for this sort of obnoxious behavior, and they're anything but the only offenders.

Lucky for us, though, even when an app is poorly designed in this way — with abusive background activity and no easy option to stop it — you can still reclaim control. Start by opening up the Battery section of your system settings and looking at the app-by-app battery usage breakdown. (If your phone is running Android 9 or higher, you may have to tap the three-dot menu icon in the upper-right corner of the Battery settings to find that option.) This'll work best if you do it toward the end of a day, when your phone has plenty of activity to analyze.

Tap any app with high battery usage and then see how much of its activity is happening in the background — while you aren't actively using it. For any programs with high amounts of background activity, ask yourself: Is this app doing something in the background that actually matters? For instance, do you really need Facebook, Twitter, or other social media and news tools to be refreshing their feeds while you aren't looking at 'em? Probably not. But lots of apps in those areas do that by default and end up draining your device's battery (and sometimes even taking a toll on your phone's performance) as a result.

For any such items you come across, you've got two options: Look in the app's own settings to see if there's a way to turn off its background activity (something that's possible in Twitter and many news apps but, naturally, not in Facebook or Instagram) — or, provided your phone is running 2017's Android 8 release or higher, use Android's own background restriction option on that same screen within your phone's battery settings to shut it down at the system level.

Android Phone Tune-Up: Restrict App JR

Let's check one more place, just to round things out: Head over to the Network & Internet section of your system settings (or the Connections section, if you're on a Samsung phone) and tap the line labeled "Data usage" — or, if you're using Android 10 and don't see that line, tap "Mobile network." Now tap the line labeled either "Mobile data usage" or "App data usage."

Select any apps with high amounts of use and see how much of their data transferring is going on in the background. If an app is using a significant amount of background data for no apparent reason, take away its ability to do so by deactivating the "Background data" toggle on that same screen — which in turn will free up precious processing power and battery juice in addition to stopping the needless toll on your mobile data plan.

With both parts of this step, just be sure to use common sense and avoid disabling background permissions for any system-level tools — things like your Phone app or "Android OS" — as well as for any apps that genuinely need such capabilities in order to operate (like a messaging app, for instance, which wouldn't be able to look for new incoming messages if it didn't have background data and battery access).

Step 3: Check up on app permissions

Time required: 5 minutes

It's 2020. Do you know what data your apps have access to? (Please read that in your best booming TV announcer voice for maximum effect.)

At a time when personal data is essentially equal to money for lots of companies, you can't be too careful with keeping tabs on which apps want which bits of your information and why. And it's up to you to play the role of permission police — because while most reputable apps won't ask for types of access they don't genuinely need, you'd better believe there are apps (and, ahem, device-makers) out there looking to tap into your info for all the wrong reasons.

Take five minutes now to go through what permissions you've granted to different apps on your phone and make sure they all seem sensible. Open up the Privacy section of your system settings and tap the "Permissions manager" option. (On some devices, including Samsung phones, the option may be labeled "App permissions" and buried toward the bottom of a broader Security section.)

Go through each permission listed there and see which apps have been authorized. Think carefully about whether every app that has access to a given area really needs access to that area — and anytime you see something that strikes you as unnecessary, tap the app in question and then revoke its permission (either by deactivating a toggle next to its name or by tapping the app's name and then changing its setting to "Deny," depending on your specific Android version and implementation).

If your phone has Android 10, pay extra-close attention to the "Location" section of app permissions — as Android 10 gives you the power to get even more nuanced in that domain and specify whether apps should have access to your location all of the time, none of the time, or only when they're actively in use. Especially if your phone was upgraded to Android 10 (as opposed to shipping with it out of the box), you'll want to be sure to revisit every single app with location access and consider whether it needs such access all the time — which is what any apps that had location access at all prior to the upgrade will default to having — or whether it makes more sense for them to have such access only when you're actively using 'em.

Android Phone Tune-Up: App Permissions JR

Step 4: Nuke annoying notifications

Time required: 3 minutes

This next part of our tune-up is less about system performance and more about your own sanity and ability to get stuff done. Notifications are distractions, after all — and odds are, your phone's giving you plenty of attention-grabbing alerts you don't really need.

Think about all the notifications that show up on your Android device — and then think carefully about how many of them give you truly pertinent info that warrants the interruption. Do you need to know about every breaking news story the second it happens instead of finding that info when you actively seek it out on your own? What about social media mentions or incoming emails? Only you can decide what makes sense for you, but I'd be willing to wager you have at least a couple types of notifications you'd be better off without.

If you think of any such examples, head back into the Apps section of your system settings and tap the line labeled "Notifications" (or, on Samsung phones, look instead for the standalone Notifications sections in the main settings menu). There, you can select any app installed on your phone and then turn off either all of its alerts, at the system level, or disable only certain types of alerts it tends to send — for instance, leaving on notifications for direct messages in Twitter but shutting off all of the app's other types of interruptions. You can also get even more nuanced and change the way certain types of alerts appear — maybe setting an app's less important alerts to show up silently so you'll see 'em eventually but won't be bothered when they arrive.

Bonus tip: If your phone is running Android 9 or higher, there's an easy way to find your worst notification offenders: On that same "Notifications" screen of your system settings, look for the line labeled "See all from last 7 days." (On Samsung phones, it'll just say "See all.") Tap that, then tap the selector at the top of the screen and change it from "Most recent" to "Most frequent" — and then, you'll see an ordered list of exactly which apps are interrupting you the most. You can tap on any app's name from that list to jump directly to its notification controls and tell it to hush.

Android Phone Tune-Up: Notifications JR

Step 5: Clean up your storage

Time required: 3 minutes

Android phones frequently have limited amounts of local storage — so the next step in our tune-up will clear out the cobwebs and free up some of your device's local space. That will give you more room for future downloads and can also help your phone run a bit more smoothly, especially if your available storage is getting low.

The biggest storage-sucking culprit, not surprisingly, tends to be content from your camera — so if you aren't already using Google Photos' excellent and (generally) free cloud-syncing capability, head into the app's settings and set that up now.

The rest is easy as can be: Remember that Google Files app we were talking about a few minutes ago? Open it up and look through the cards on its main screen. They'll show you a bunch of smart suggestions for stuff you can clean up and delete, ranging from junk files and duplicates to already backed-up photos, videos, and other files you aren't using and likely don't need. You can review all of the suggestions and then click a button to sweep any of the associated files away without ever leaving the app.

Android Phone Tune-Up: Storage JR

Bonus tip: If you're using a Pixel or Android One phone, look for the "Smart Storage" option within the Storage section of your system settings. Activating it will allow your phone to automatically remove already-backed-up photos and videos whenever your storage is running low or after the files have been on your phone for a certain amount of time.

Step 6: Spruce up your home screen

Time required: 2 minutes

Last but not least, a tune-up step that's all about organization and efficiency: getting your home screen tidied up and in optimal working order.

An organized home screen makes it faster and easier to get to the stuff you use the most — and realistically, for most of us, that's a relatively small number of items. Look at every item on your home screen and think carefully about how often you use it. If it isn't something you open at least once daily (or close to it), take it off. That way, your home screen will be an uncluttered launching board for your most essential apps, shortcuts, and widgets — the stuff you actually access on a regular basis — and then everything else can be pulled up quickly as needed via your scrolling alphabetical app drawer.

Android Phone Tune-Up: Home Screen JR

Bonus tip: If you're using an older phone or a non-Google device, consider a third-party Android launcher that'll upgrade your home screen environment. The free Lawnchair Launcher provides a nice balance of simplicity and functionality, using Google's basic Pixel home screen interface as a base and then adding in plenty of extra options and opportunities for customization.

And with that, my dearest darling, your annual Android tune-up is complete. Give yourself a hearty pat on the back and grab a well-deserved donut; your phone is ready to pull out of the shop and rev its engine all over the world.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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