Screen recording, Smart Lock and Android's other best hidden features

From screen recording to keeping your phone unlocked when you're home, Android has some awesome features -- but they aren't always obvious.

Jason Cipriani Contributing Writer, ZDNet
Jason Cipriani is based out of beautiful Colorado and has been covering mobile technology news and reviewing the latest gadgets for the last six years. His work can also be found on sister site CNET in the How To section, as well as across several more online publications.
Jason Cipriani
8 min read
Google Pixel 5 smartphone

Your Android phone has a treasure trove of hidden features. 

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Part of the appeal of using an Android phone is the wide variety of hardware and software options. For instance, the experience you get from a Google Pixel phone is very different from what a Galaxy S21 offers, and then you add OnePlus into the mix and the experience diverges even more. That said, the core Android experience remains nearly the same. All three manufacturers use Android, sharing the same features -- some of which are hidden. 

And now that Google has released the first developer beta of Android 12 (which you can install if you like living on the edge), the staple Android features are only getting better, and there are sure to be more hidden features. 

Take screen recording as an example. It's a feature that you may not even realize Google added with the rollout of Android 11, but it's there, just waiting to help you show off your gaming skills. Also, the ability to use two apps at the same time is not only something iPhone users can only dream about but it's also downright useful and built into your Android phone (this feature isn't new, at least for Pixel phones) -- you just have to know where to look. One of my favorite hidden features is called Smart Lock, a tool that keeps my phone unlocked when I'm at home, then reverts back to requiring my fingerprint or PIN code when I leave. It's convenient and it allows me to keep my phone secure when I'm not at home. 

Keep in mind, the features below may not look or work exactly the same on every phone, and that's because different Android device manufacturers like to use unique interfaces. My advice? Use the search bar at the top of the Settings app if you're struggling to find a feature. 


You can finally record your screen with an official Google tool. 

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1. Have Android 11? Use the built-in screen recorder

Instead of taking a screenshot to show off your new all-time high score or capture a notification or app issue, use Android 11's new built-in screen recorder. Google released Android 11 last September, but as is usually the case with major Android updates, it's up to the device-maker to roll out the update.       

Once your phone is updated to Android 11, you'll find a new Screen Record button in the Quick Settings panel. Swipe down from the top of your screen to access the panel; you may have to swipe to the left to view more settings options, or you can tap the edit button to move Screen Record to the front panel. 

Once you activate Screen Record, you'll be asked if you want to capture audio, either just the sound made by the app you're using or both the device and audio captured by the microphone -- helpful for walking someone through troubleshooting or setting up an app. To stop recording, tap the Screen Record notification. The video will be saved to your phone's gallery or camera roll, where you can then edit and share it. 


Take control of alerts and notifications. 

Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/CNET

2. Quiet the notifications that can wait

Tired of every single notification causing your phone to bleep or boop? Tell your Android phone when you want an app to give silent alerts by long-pressing on the alert until you trigger a prompt, asking if you want the notification to be marked as an Alert or Silent

Alert will allow the apps' notifications to play sounds and show up on the lock screen, while Silent mode will mute the alert, but still make it visible in your notification tray. 


Live Caption is huge from an accessibility standpoint. 

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3. Add captions to any video or podcast

Live Caption is an impressive, yet relatively new feature that's slowly making its way to more devices. When active, it adds real-time captions to any video, podcast or voice note on your phone. It doesn't matter if the video you're watching is muted -- Live Caption will still transcribe it for you. 

Since it was first announced last year, Google has expanded its Live Caption feature beyond the Pixel phone lineup to included Samsung's latest phones, including the Note 20 and the OnePlus 8 series. There isn't an official list of supported devices, as far as I can tell, and your phone will have to be running Android 10 in order for it to work. 

To turn on Live Caption (or check if your phone is supported), open the Settings app and search for Live Caption. The Live Caption toggle is in a different place on the Pixel 4 , Galaxy S20 and OnePlus 8

After turning on Live Caption, anytime you begin playing a video -- even if you leave the volume turned off -- a small black box will show up on your screen giving real-time captions of whatever's being said. 

Obviously, these aren't captions prepared by a human in advance, so they can be less accurate at times, but it's still really well done and a feature that every phone should have, not just Android. You can learn more about the feature and how to use it in our complete guide (including how to limit profanity). 


Split Screen is easy to use on an Android phone. 

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4. Use two apps at the same time

One of my favorite features in Android is being able to have two apps on the screen at the same time. It's handy when I'm looking at a Google Doc and sending an email, or when I'm looking up a recipe and sending the ingredient list in Messages. But if you haven't done it before, it's not immediately clear how to put apps in split-screen mode. 

Tap the app switcher button, or if you're using Android's gesture navigation, swipe up from the bottom of the screen to enter the multitasking view and tap on the app icon at the top of an app's card or thumbnail followed by Split Screen. The first app will slide to the top of the screen, and the multitasking view will take up the bottom section of your screen. Either select another app from the multitasking view or launch an app from your home screen or app drawer. Not every app will support split-screen mode, and the only way I can figure out to tell if an app will work in this mode is simply to try opening it. 


Watch a video and browse Twitter at the same time? Go on, I'm listening. 

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5. Watch a video and use an app simultaneously

Similar to split-screen mode is Android's Picture-in-Picture feature: Using it could not be simpler, you just have to know it's there.

I like to watch my favorite Twitch streamers while I browse Reddit or check my emails. To trigger PiP, start watching a video and then go back to the home screen. Really, it's that easy. Once you leave the app, if it supports PiP mode, the video will show up as a small window on your phone's screen. You can drag it around, resize or close it. You can also use PiP with getting turn-by-turn directions in Google Maps, which makes it easy to see which stop you need to get off at while navigating the subway in a new city. 

To view a list of apps installed on your phone that support this feature, open the Settings app, and go to Apps & Notifications > Special app access > Picture-in-picture. This is also where you can go to disable PiP for an app. For example, if you don't want Google Maps continuing to show you turn-by-turn directions after you've left it, and would rather the app completely shut down, then disable this feature for Google Maps. 


Turn on Smart Lock to keep your phone unlocked at home. 

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6. Use Smart Lock to keep your phone unlocked when you're home

Another one of my favorite hidden features can keep you from having to enter your PIN or scan your fingerprint whenever you're home or at work. You can set it to keep your phone unlocked when you're in a specific location. You can also set it to keep the phone unlocked when it detects you're active, like when you're walking around while holding the phone pressed to your face or speaking over Bluetooth on wireless headphones. 

Open Settings > Security > Smart Lock and enter your PIN code when prompted. From there, you can pick which aspect of Smart Unlock you want to use and when. 

Just keep in mind that if you have Smart Lock set to keep your phone unlocked at home, that means anyone you live with will be able to get into it. 


Notification Log on your Android phone can be a lifesaver. 

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7. Recover accidentally cleared notifications 

Ever tap the button to clear your notification tray, only to notice an alert you needed to read at the last second? I know I have. Thankfully, there's a hidden Notification Log that will show you a running tally of every alert and notification you've received for the past few days. The only way to access it is through a home screen widget. 

Long-press on any empty spot on your screen, then select Widgets from the menu. Find the Settings option, then select Notification Log. The next time you miss an alert, tap the widget and you'll see a list of all of your alerts. 

If your phone doesn't have a Notification Log, give the Unnotification app a try. 


Android 10 makes it a breeze to share Wi-Fi networks with a QR code. 

Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/CNET

8. Quickly share your Wi-Fi network creds with friends

Giving your Wi-Fi network password to a friend or family member can be a hassle, especially if it's a long, complex series of numbers and letters. Or you may be hesitant to hand over your credentials because it's a password you use somewhere else -- I get it. Granted, having people over or visiting a friend's home is something most of us are avoiding right now, but as the CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated people, and things begin to return to normal, it's sure to come in handy. 

Thankfully, starting with Android 10 you can display a QR code on your phone's screen that will allow anyone who scans it to connect to your Wi-Fi network. 

You can scan or create a QR code on your device by opening the Settings app and selecting Network > Wi-Fi. If you're sharing your network credentials, tap on the network name and then Share. If you're connecting to a Wi-Fi network, tap on the QR Code icon next to Add Network

This feature also comes in handy if you're setting up a new phone and don't want to go through the process of copying your password. 

Now that you've mastered Android's hidden features, make sure you're completely acquainted with more of Android's staple features, like privacy settings and a dedicated dark mode. If you have Android 11, make sure to check out some of the Android 11 features we absolutely love. And here's what to look forward to with Android 12

Watch this: Android's useful new features