Android basics

Learning a new system can be tough. This basic guide will take Android users a step beyond their user manuals and empower them with knowledge of key gestures and settings.

Joseph Hanlon Special to CNET News
Joe capitalises on a life-long love of blinking lights and upbeat MIDI soundtracks covering the latest developments in smartphones and tablet computers. When not ruining his eyesight staring at small screens, Joe ruins his eyesight playing video games and watching movies.
Joseph Hanlon
7 min read

Google's Android operating system is the new kid on the block, which is seeing an incredible surge in popularity thanks to the support it is receiving from manufacturers. In Australia the range of Android phones is growing faster than any other, and include models across all pricing tiers, from top-shelf handsets to prepaid models as well.

Learning any new system can be tough, especially when you have been using another system for many years. Google has done a good job of re-imaging a smartphone system, taking some of the best features from the systems we know and love, and adding a few new tricks of its own.

Most of the language used throughout the system include common-sense descriptions of each button and menu, but there are still a few tricky spots. This guide is intended for Android beginners and will complement the user manual that comes with your phone, not replace it. We'll be focusing on elements that are common to all Android phones, so keep your manual close for tips and tricks specific to your phone model.

The Menu key

There's a menu key on every Android. (Credit: CBSi)

There is no better place to start this guide than to look at the physical Menu key on every Android phone. The menu key is like clicking the right mouse button on a PC; it brings up a context-sensitive list of options depending on which screen you are currently viewing.

Context sensitive means you'll get a different menu depending on the app you are using. In Google Maps the Menu key brings up options and search functionality, and in the music player the Menu key will let you switch albums and artists. The Menu key is your fix-anything-button — if you are looking for an option that isn't available on the touchscreen, press Menu and see if what you're looking for is there.

Long presses

While the Menu key displays options and settings that will affect an entire application, a long press on the touchscreen of your Android phone will bring up item-specific options. This gesture should work on any of the core applications with lists of items like contacts, messaging, Gmail, the music player, calendar and image gallery.

In your email, for example, a long press on any email message in the Inbox will bring up options to delete, forward, reply, etc without having to open the message. A long press on a contact entry in your address book will bring up communications options for that contact, depending on what details you have entered about them.

Three examples of the long press gesture: on the home screen, in a message and on a web page. (Credit: CBSi)

If you long press on...

  • An empty area of the home screen: it will open options to create a shortcut or widget in this space.
  • A shortcut on the home screen: it will enable the ability to move the shortcut, drag to the bottom of the screen to remove it all together.
  • An app in the app drawer: it will create a shortcut on the home screen for that app (keep holding to move the shortcut to where you want it).
  • A message thread in your inbox: it will open options to delete a message or view the contact details.
  • A specific message in an SMS conversation: it will open options to delete a message, copy message text and send it to your SIM.
  • A contact in your address book: it will open options to edit contact details, link the contact to other contact details or delete the details altogether.
  • A date in the calendar: it will quickly add an appointment option.
  • A hyperlink in a web page: it will show you the options to open the link in a new window, copy the web address, bookmark the link, or share the link via email or SMS.

This is just a sample of the places where a long press gesture will open up options for you. Basically anything you can select with a short press also contains variable options under a long press gesture as well.

Important settings

The global settings for all Android phones are pretty comprehensive and often self-explanatory. There are some important features buried in Settings, however, so read on for a guide as to where to find them.

How to turn 3G data on and off. (Credit: CBSi)

Turning 3G on and off — Android phones can chew through data, so knowing how to turn 3G data on and off is essential. From the home screen press Menu > Settings > Wireless and network > Mobile networks. Unfortunately, the specific option differs from phone to phone, on the HTC Desire you can uncheck the "Mobile Networks" box, while the Galaxy S only has a "Use only 2G networks" option, which leaves data on but reduces the capabilities of data transmission to a minimum.

Turning Wi-Fi on and off — in the same menu as the 3G switcher you'll find the option to turn on Wi-Fi and settings for connecting to networks in your vicinity. There's also an option to have Android notify you when you're in range of an open network, which is handy for grabbing free internet when you're out and about. If you need to add advanced Wi-Fi settings, like DNS server details, connect to a network then press the Menu button on your phone while you're in the Wi-Fi settings screen and select Advanced Settings.

Accounts and Sync — if you need to add, amend or delete any of your personal account details from the phone, this is the menu you need to find. Within this menu you can connect to your social networks and define how often you want your phone to synchronise with these networks. You can turn on and off the phone's automatic syncing feature in this menu as well, and unless you have a huge data cap, we suggest you turn this feature off and manually sync programs like email and Facebook updates.

Factory data reset — there are a number of reasons to want to wipe your personal information off of a mobile phone, and Android makes this task extremely easy to do — if you know where to find the option. It used to live under "SD card and phone storage" so if you are using Android version 1.5 or 1.6, this is where you should look. For newer versions of the platform, take a peek under the "Privacy" setting menu.

The Launcher

The Launcher is the official name given to the home screen on an Android phone, and it refers to any program that controls the look and feel of these screens. For example, if you buy an HTC Desire the launcher is called HTC Sense and it looks and works differently to the launcher you would use if you bought a Samsung Galaxy S. The Launcher is the one place that manufacturers can differentiate their Android product from their competitors, and it is often the difference between a good Android phone and a lousy one.

Regardless of which Launcher software you use, there are a few key features that apply to them all.

Adding shortcuts and widgets — use a long press gesture on an empty space on any of your home screens to bring up a list of items you can add to that space, including widgets and shortcuts. If you download a widget from the Android Market it will show up in this list. Alternatively, if you long press on an app in the App Drawer it will transport a shortcut for that app to the home screen. Keep holding down on the icon and move it to a free space. If you want it on a different screen, move the icon to the left or right of the screen to change home screen panels.

You can change the wallpaper in three steps. (Credit: CBSi)

Changing the wallpaper — press the physical Menu key on your phone and select wallpaper. This will display all the locations of images on your phone. Find the image you want, crop it as necessary and apply.

Notifications panel — missed a call or received an SMS? Details of these events are stored in the notifications panel. Simply slide your finger downwards from the top of the screen to reveal this feature.


Like Apple's iPhone, third-party applications are one of the strongest selling points for any new Android phone. If there is a feature missing from your phone chances are there's an app to fill that gap available to download from the Market. Using the Market is easy, and setting up an account for purchases is simple if you own a credit card.

You'll need to add a credit card to your Google Account before purchasing apps on the Market. (Credit: CBSi)

How to purchase apps — everything on your Android phone is linked back to a Google account, typically a Gmail account. The Android Market is no different, and all app purchases are credited to this same account. The first time you attempt to purchase an app you'll be asked for your credit card details. If you punch these details in they will be linked to your Google account and you won't have to enter them in again when making purchases.

Uninstalling apps — mobile phone applications stores are a real mixed bag, and chances are you will download plenty of apps you'll want to ditch after testing. The most efficient way to delete an app is to return to the Market, press the Menu key, select Downloads, choose the app from the list you downloaded and select uninstall. If you paid for the app you will also have the option to refund your money if you uninstall within 24 hours of purchasing. Alternatively, there are dozens of apps online that do the uninstalling for you. We use Uninstaller Pro, which has the option to batch uninstall a collection of apps in one hit.