Ask Maggie: On disabling unwanted Android apps, recycling cell phones

This week's Ask Maggie tech advice column helps readers with questions about getting rid of unwanted Android apps, demystifying 3G connections, and how to recycle cell phones.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
10 min read

Smartphone manufacturers, Google, and wireless operators may think they're doing consumers a favor by preinstalling or bundling apps into the Android OS on their new smartphones, but some wireless subscribers would rather they didn't.

Ask Maggie

In this week's Ask Maggie column, I help a reader figure out the best way to disable applications that come bundled with Android phones and OS upgrades. I also explain why some phones easily connect to a 3G wireless and why some end up on slower-speed networks. And finally, I give a reader advice about how she can recycle old cell phones.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Getting rid of unwanted Android apps

Hi Maggie,
I recently bought a Droid Incredible on Verizon. It came with several preloaded apps that I don't use, but it does not allow me to uninstall the apps. For example, Skype, Amazon MP3, and City ID are all on my phone. Some of them, such as Skype, were not on the phone until I updated my phone to the latest version of Android OS. Then they showed up afterwards.

These apps are constantly opening themselves in the background. I've tried downloading an app killer to shut them down, but it doesn't seem they are completely shut down since I've found that they are often still running in the background. This is bothersome because these apps have access to my system tools, phone calls, storage, and network communications. Some of them can access my personal information, location, and account information, such as Facebook and Flickr. All of them are doing this without my permission. Is there any way to remove these apps? Is it legal for the carrier to force us to provide this information under the guise that we have somehow allowed it?


Dear Matt,
Thanks for writing. This is a growing concern for many Android users. In the old days before the Froyo Android 2.2 update (note the sarcasm), users could disable certain apps easily with a task killer that was found in the Android Market, such as Advanced Task Killer. These apps allowed you to easily turn off a bunch of apps at once and leave the ones you liked running. But since Froyo, this process has gotten more complicated and cumbersome, since the OS update killed the Task Killers.

Because this is such a confusing issue, I went straight to an expert, CNET's own Kent German. Kent is a senior editor at CNET and reviews smartphones. He has tons of experience with Android devices, so he was able to offer some advice.

The short answer to your question is that it's very difficult, if not impossible, to completely remove these apps from your phone. When apps are preinstalled with your phone, or if they come as part of an Android OS upgrade, they are typically built into the OS. This means that the app itself doesn't reside on the device per se in its RAM or on a memory card. So completely getting rid of it means that you'd have to go in and make changes to the OS.

This can be done by "rooting" the phone. This is a process that Kent would only recommend for the tech savvy since it requires a bit of know-how about the device you're using. It can also be quite involved, since it requires you to connect your device to your computer, download some software, and write a command or two.

My friend Stephen, who I consider very tech savvy, said it wasn't a big deal since you can find some decent tutorials on the Web. But he said that there are risks to rooting Android smartphones, such as bricking the device, which essentially makes it unusable.

By rooting the phone, you are given more access to the phone's Android OS, so that you can customize the experience to be exactly what you want it to be. You'll be able to add or remove certain features just like a programmer would do. But this is where it gets really sophisticated.

Also, after you root your phone, it is now up to you to make sure the device gets updated. This means that if Verizon adds a big Android patch, you can't install it. Rather, you have to go reload a new image to install the patch or upgrade. The downside is that it becomes very annoying to have to manage the device this way all for the sake of removing a few apps that you won't use. This is why Kent only recommends doing this if you are technically proficient and know what you're doing. It's also why my friend Stephen said he decided to live with the MotoBlur software that was preloaded on his new Droid 2.

For the average consumer, Kent recommends disabling individual apps. The task killer you were trying to use may not work now if you upgraded to Froyo, as I mentioned earlier. But Kent said that you should still be able to go in to the settings on your phone and individually turn off apps. The way you'd do this is to go into the "settings" menu; then click on "app" and/or "manage apps" to shut down the apps one at a time. This will not remove the apps, but it should stop them from running and popping up.

You also mentioned that you are concerned about these apps accessing your personal information, such as contacts and location without your permission. That really shouldn't be the case, I don't know of any applications that access Facebook or Flickr without your permission. What's more, you must be signed in to Facebook or Flickr for many apps to even use information from these services. Generally speaking, apps that access personal information or location information should require you to opt-in.

Also, remember that every time you make a phone call, send a text, or access the Internet, your cell phone carrier is tracking you and knows the duration of that interaction. Carriers are constantly aware of your location for E911 compliance in case there is an emergency. They also need that information to bill you for every call, text, or data session you use. So you might want to keep that in mind as well.

As for the legal ramifications, if you upgrade your operating system on your phone or any other device, you are agreeing to allow Google or whoever else to install that software on your device. You must agree to the software install, so in effect you are agreeing to allow them to install whatever is in that upgrade onto your phone.

One more thing to remember, you are not required to upgrade or update your phone OS every time a new software release comes out. So the next time an update is available, you might want to wait a little while and see what other people think of the upgrade. In other words, let everyone else be the guinea pig for the new software. If there are bugs or problems with the software, hopefully Google or the phone manufacturer will have it worked out by the time you upgrade your device.

Why can't I connect to 3G?

Dear Maggie,
I have a Nokia 6350 flip phone on AT&T. It's a 3G device. I also have two other 3G phones in my AT&T family plan. I have noticed that sometimes my phone gets a 3G signal and the other phones are on EDGE. This has happened at home in Texas, where the 3G coverage isn't great. And it has happened in bigger cities where the 3G coverage is better. My phone will be connected to 3G, but the other devices will be on EDGE. Is there a way to tell the phone to only go to 3G? Does AT&T somehow deactivate the 3G capability for people who are not on a data plan and force them to only use EDGE?

Thank you,

Dear Emery,
To answer your question simply, there is no way for you set your phone so that it only connects to a 3G network. Some smartphones allow you to connect to lower-speed services. For example, if you have an iPhone you might set it to only connect to the EDGE network to conserve power. You can set it to airplane mode so it turns off the cellular radio altogether. You can also turn the Wi-Fi radio on or off. This is mostly to help you manage the battery life of your device or in the case of airplane mode, allow you to use the device when you're flying.

But most midrange phones, such as the Nokia 6350, do not offer this capability. And it wouldn't make sense to turn off the EDGE capability because the EDGE network has a wider footprint, which means you are more likely to get a signal with EDGE rather than 3G.

The answer to your second question is also no. Neither AT&T nor any other wireless operator can prevent or block a 3G phone from accessing the 3G network because you are not subscribed to a data plan. Their network billing and authentication systems are simply not designed this way.

There are multiple factors to consider with regard to connecting devices to cell networks. Network congestion in that particular cell site as well as the quality of the signal from a cell tower to the device are two key factors.

For example, if the 3G network is congested in a particular area, it may allow some devices to connect, while others must connect to the EDGE network. So in your case, your Nokia phone may have requested and connected to the network before it became too congested.

The second thing that could be happening has to do with signal strength. This is particularly important if you are in a place where the 3G signal may be weak. In these situations, phones often switch back and forth between EDGE and 3G networks.

Another thing to consider is that the quality of the components used in all cell phones varies. The quality of the engineering that goes into building certain devices also varies. So even though two phones may comply with the same technical standards, they may vary in performance. In your case, the Nokia phone may simply use better components or it may be engineered better so that it can access a 3G signal more often, even when the signal is somewhat weaker.

If you notice that your device switches to the EDGE network or if it never connects to the 3G network to begin with, you can try a couple of things to try and get the 3G connection. For one, you could turn your phone off and turn it back on again. (If you have a smartphone you can turn the 3G on or off or switch between airplane mode and cellular service).

When the device is turned back on, it will search for the closest cell tower to establish a network connection. Subscribers are constantly moving in and out of cell sites, turning their devices on and off, so if you try to reconnect to the network, even if it's just a minute or two later, conditions in the cell site may have changed. If the network was too congested before, it might not be as crowded a few minutes later. You could also try moving around to see if you can get a better quality signal somewhere else.

I hope this helps!

Go Green!

Dear Maggie,
I have a couple of old cell phones in my desk drawer that I'd like to get rid of. I know that simply throwing them away is bad for the environment. Can you tell me how I can recycle or donate my old cell phones?


Dear Elizabeth,
This is a great question since discarded cell phones account for nearly 65,000 tons of toxic waste each year, including lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, and arsenic. As the life cycle of phones gets shorter with people upgrading to new phones about every 18 to 24 months, the number of cell phones that end up in landfills is growing. Some estimates suggest that 125 million cell phones end up in landfills every year.

There are currently no federal regulations in the U.S. requiring that mobile phones be recycled or donated for reuse. As a result, less than 1 percent of all cell phones in the U.S. are recycled.

The good news is that mobile phone manufacturers and U.S. carriers recognize the need for recycling programs. All four major U.S. wireless operators accept used and unwanted phones at their retail locations. So if you buy your new phone at your carrier's retail store, you can likely recycle or donate your old phone right when you upgrade to a new phone.

Phones that still work and are in good condition can be refurbished and resold by either you or a wireless carrier. There are also programs that accept donated phones and give them away for free. Some programs give them to victims of domestic violence, while others give them to senior citizens so people can call 911 in an emergency.

There is also a program called Cell Phones for Soldiers, which uses the proceeds from selling or recycling donated phones to buy calling cards for soldiers serving overseas.

Here are some organizations that take donated phones:

If your phone is too old to be refurbished or isn't working anymore, it can be recycled. Stores such as Radio Shack, Best Buy, Office Depot, and Staples, have recycling bins for used phones. You can also go to the Call 2 Recycle Web site to get the location of the nearest recycling center.

Before donating or recycling your phone, make sure you erase any stored information, such as your contact list, text messages, or your incoming and outgoing call history. You can go to settings and do a master reset to wipe the device of all personal information.