One of the reasons I switched over to Android was because a DIY geek like me loves the thrill of customization. My previous smartphone was merely a fancy keyboard on something that could call and text. I rarely installed apps on it or even tinkered with it. Once I got a hold of an Android phone though, everything changed and I was eager to personalize my new Google-powered device.
A lot of people think that hacking involves a lot of work and even more risk. It’s partly true: messing around with the software of your phone might void your warranty and, in extreme cases, turn it into a lifeless brick. The good news is that Android enthusiasts the world over have risen up to the challenge and made it very easy to take your phone to the next level. All you need are a few software tools, a good set of instructions and a pinch of audacity to make that little green robot serve your whims.
Back when Nokia was still in everyone’s pockets, custom ringtones were all the rage. It was often the only thing you could personalize in a cellphone those days. Fast forward a decade or so to Android and you have Ringdroid, your go-to app for creating custom ringtones. It not only does it let you splice and dice tracks from your music library, you can even record your own tracks. From there, you can set it as your main ringtone, an alarm or an SMS notification.
The basic Android home screen is great but if you want to really bring it up a notch, there are several alternative launchers that give both a fresh new look to your phone and some nice added functionality. Some of these added features include folders for sorting apps, onscreen notifications and quick menu shortcuts. LauncherPro is the most recommended one and it gives you a scrollable app dock, custom icons, pop ups and more. Other highly-rated home screen launchers to try are ADW.Launcher, SlideScreen and GO Launcher EX.
We already talked about a few widgets that are must-haves a while back. It’s one of the special features of Android, having mini apps running on your home screen (or screens) that give you instant access to your calendar, music player, Twitter feed and more. You can even create your own through a powerful app called Widgetsoid. Widgets are always a staple in my home screens and all I can say is that they really make my phone that much easier to use.
People often forget that phones these days are PCs as well. If you want to have full control over the files in your phone storage and SD card, you need to get a file manager to help you do the job right. I personally swear by Astro which acts much like Explorer for Windows (or Finder for Mac). It lets you search for files, install and backup apps, email files as attachments,create and extract zip files, and do much more.
If moving files between devices is what you need, you can use AndFTP for FTP downloads and uploads. For local transfers, there is On Air which turns your Android device into a disk that connects over WiFi for no-plug, over-the-air transfers.
In mobile, battery is gold and running out of juice is never an option. In order to quell the uprising of rebellious, battery-hungry apps, you need to use a task manager. Watchdog Task Manager is one such beast. It will notify you if an app goes astray and uses up too many CPU cycles. You can even give it the thumbs down, Roman emperor-style, and kill the wayward app if it displeases you.
Another canine-named app that’s quite useful is 3G Watchdog. It helps you rein in your 3G connections so that you don’t go over your data plan and take a hit on your next billing.
If the stock keyboard of your Android phone isn’t to your liking, you can change that as well. Swype, an app familiar to Samsung owners, is one of the more innovative keyboard options. It lets you swipe your finger to complete words instead of pecking on the tiny onscreen characters. It does offer a different layout but onc you get used to it, you’ll be writing messages and emails faster than ever. It’s not for everyone though but there are other keyboards you can try such as SwiftKey, SlideIT and Better Keyboard.
Losing a phone is stressful. It’s not just because you misplaced a device that cost you a significant chunk of change; you also lose all the personal data stored in it, a scary thought if you have bank account numbers, your home address or your kids’ phone numbers in there. Fortunately, finding your phone can be done easily with an Android App. Prey is a free app that does just that and it not only lets you track your phone, you can also let it belt out an alarm or lock your lost device for added security.
If you need more features, WaveSecure is the way to go. On top of the features above, it lets you backup data on the web, restore data, track SIM card changes and remotely wipe your lost phone’s memory.
You might also want to get a password manager both to protect your sensitive logins as well as to make it easier for you to get into your favorite sites. Password managers like 1Password and Lastpass not only lockdown your passwords, they also let you grab the passwords you save on your computer if you use the desktop versions.
There are a lot of behind the scenes magic going on in your Android device which the powers-that-be have made hidden for one reason or another. If you want to play around with those, grab Spare Parts from the Market and tweak your window animation speed, WiFi sleep policy and screen font sizes with ease. A caveat: some tweaks might not work so proceed at your own risk!
Gaining root or superuser access to your phone opens up some very cool features to regular Joe users like us. You can backup your entire phone, take screenshots, use AdBlock and set the speed of your phone’s processor among other neat tricks. In addition, it’s particularly easy to root Android phones these days (especially the earlier models) and there are many apps available that make this process as painless as possible. Note though that rooting voids your device’s warranty, so fair warning. Read our newbie guide for rooting if you need more info on how to do this deed.
The pinnacle of Android hacking is the use of a custom ROM. Essentially, you will be replacing the OS currently in your phone with another version of Android. CyanogenMod is the most-oft used ROM and it has a variety of great features such as OpenVPN, incognito browsing (similar to that of Google Chrome) and theme support, among others.
Other ROMs available let you copy the interface of other phones (HTC Sense is one often ported), upgrade to a later Android version like Gingerbread or Honeycomb or optimize your phone for speed, battery life and stability. While there is the danger of permanently bricking your phone if a ROM flash goes bad, those that follow the instructions to the tee won’t have any issues. Well, most of the time that is.
If you’re feeling a bit naughty, you can even install Android on an old iPhone. But that’s just between you and me…