Android is one of two main operating systems for smartphones and tablets - the other being Apple's iOS. Launched in 2007, Android was developed by Google and the Open Handset Alliance which is a consortium of 86 companies promoting open standards for mobile devices.
The latest version of Android, 4.1 ‘Jelly Bean’ was announced at Google’s I/O developer conference in June this year. This latest update included a smoother interface animation (‘Project Butter’) and Google Now - an 'intelligent' personal assistant that can update you on your favorite sports team and checks traffic and transit information among other things. The system looks at the usage patterns of your device and attempts to anticipate what you are planning to do.
The Android operating system is available on a plethora of devices, including phones and tablets from manufacturers such as Samsung, HTC, Motorola and LG. The first Android-powered device was the T-Mobile G1/HTC Dream smartphone which was launched in 2008. More recently, Android has started appearing on cameras. Polaroid showed a prototype Android camera at CES 2012 and recently both Nikon and Samsung announced cameras that run the Android OS.
On October 29th Google announced another update for the Android OS - version 4.2 which will still reside under the 'Jelly Bean' name. This new version brings a number of relative minor new features such as a new quick settings menu that can be accessed from the notification pull down, support for multiple user profiles which is most useful for tablet devices and support for the Miracast technology which allows you to wirelessly stream movies or other content to compatible displays. In addition Google Now can now monitor your email for relevant information such as flight numbers, ticket purchases or hotel and restaurant reservations and present this content in its card format.
However, from a photography point of view the Photo Sphere feature, 360-degree panoramic shooting mode that captures scenes in a Street View like fashion, is arguably the most interesting new addition to the OS.
The Android code is released as open-source and many device manufacturers and network carriers choose to modify the stock Android version to varying degrees, mostly by using proprietary versions of specific apps and implementing customized home screen launchers. Samsung calls its interface version ‘TouchWiz’, HTC’s is ‘Sense’ and Motorola’s ‘Blur’ respectively. Nonetheless, most custom UIs don’t venture too far from the original. Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets are somewhat of an exception, offering a more customized user interface which has been optimized for media consumption within the Amazon eco system. By default Amazon's Fire tablets also only allow you to install apps from the Amazon Appstore (see App store section below).
If you prefer the ‘pure’ Android experience you will have to look to one of Google’s Nexus devices. The phones and tablets in this series come with the unmodified 'stock' version of Android as released by Google. One of the main advantages of a Nexus devices is that they can usually be updated with a new Android version as soon as it is released. If you use a device with a manufacturer/carrier-modified version of Android you will have wait to for this version adapted for the new Android release. This can, depending on the age of your device, take a few months, if it happens at all.
The result of this is a very fragmented installation base. The latest Android version is typically only installed on a relatively small proportion of all devices because updates are not (yet) available from all manufacturers/carriers.
Please note that this article is based on the latest Android version, 4.1 ‘Jelly Bean’ as installed on a phone. When using an older or manufacturer/carrier-specific version of Android, or when working on a tablet, some processes and apps might vary slightly from the descriptions, and images shown below.
Operation of an Android phone is very straightforward, especially if you’ve used other touch-screen devices before. When you turn on a new device for the first time you have to log-in with your Google account and your contacts, calendar and other Google apps are automatically synced.
You tap an app icon to start the app and a press of the home button takes you back to the home screen. To the left of the home button at the bottom of the screen is the back button which also takes you back to the previous screen. Pressing the Multitask button on the lower-right displays a list of currently running apps and lets you switch to any of them.
At the top of the screen you find a Google search box. Here you can search your phone or the web. Pressing the microphone icon next to the search box allows you to speak your search term, rather than typing it into the box.
Just below the desktop and just above the navigation buttons is another row of apps which stays in place as you swipe through your homesceens. By default you’ll find the phone, contacts, text, and browser icons there, all of which can be moved and exchanged in the same way as the icons on the homescreen. The icon at the center of the row gives you access to a complete list of all apps that are installed on your device. Tap and hold any app in that list to place it on the homescreen.
The standard Android ‘Desktop’ consists of five screens that you can switch between by swiping left and right. On these screen you can place your app icons and widgets as you like. You can move any icon or widget by tapping and holding it until it starts ‘hovering’. You can then move it into an open slot on the desktop. You can also combine various apps into folders by dragging one onto another. You can also drag an app onto an existing folder. Apple's iOS works in much the same way.
Most apps follow a standard button and control layout that makes operation pretty intuitive. Almost all apps maintain the Back, Home and Multitask buttons at the bottom. Most also add a settings button that gives you access to the parameters and settings specific to the app. Generally you can browse through lists and pages of content by swiping up and down and/or left and right. You select/open items by tapping on them.
Notifications are another important element of Android. Notifications for events such as new email, texts or missed calls appear at the top of your screen in the shape of a little icon, next to the icons for battery status, 3G/4G coverage, WiFi and the clock etc. Swiping downward from the top of the screen opens the notification tray which gives you more detail about the notification, such as who your missed call was from or sender and subject of an email. You can then tap on each item to open it the linked app. In general any app can send notifications to the notification tray but you will typically be able to customize which notifications you want to see.
The notification bars of some manufacturer provided Android launchers, for example Samsung’s Touchwiz , also include a series of widgets for quick access to frequently changes settings such as data, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth etc. Stock Android does not offer these useful shortcuts but there are plenty of third party options available - in the screenshot above you can see the third party app Power Toggles' widget at the top of the notification screen.
The Android OS is highly customizable. Most elements of the UI that you’d expect to be modifiable on a phone or tablet can be changed. This includes background images, ring tones and other sounds, font sizes, notifications, app and widget placement on the homescreen etc. However, Android doesn’t stop there, customization options can be further extended by installing a custom launcher such as LauncherPro or ADW.Launcher.
With the Android code being open source an Android 'hacking' community has developed. Groups such as CyanogenMod offer custom ROMs (modified versions of the underlying firmware) for a wide range of Android phones and tablets. These versions offer modifications such as CPU overclocking and other performance and interface enhancements. CyanogenMod also usually makes the latest Android version available on many devices before the manufacturers or carriers do. Obviously, if you go down this route, you do so at your own risk.
Apps and Appstores
There are hundreds of thousands of apps available for the Android operating system. The main marketplace to find and download them is Google’s original app store - the Google Play store. Here you can find apps from a wide variety of categories - games, business, educational, photography, productivity, social and much more. On the Play store you can also purchase music, books, magazines, tv programs and movies for consumption on your device.
While the Google Play store is the biggest and oldest Android app store it is not the only one. You can install apps on your device from a variety of other marketplaces but the only Google Play competitor of real significance is currently the Amazon Appstore. The selection is smaller than on Google Play but the store is curated which means that all apps in the Appstore are selected and tested by Amazon staff (much like the Apple App Store) whereas pretty much any app (within certain guidelines) can be made available by developers on Google Play, which has caused certain issues from time to time with malware, falling through the cracks. The Amazon Appstore also offers one normally paid app for free every day day.
Both Google Play and the Amazon Appstore you can browse on your desktop computer or access from your mobile device via a dedicated app. Below we give you an overview of the most common Google Android apps that come pre-installed on your device.
The phone app does exactly what it sounds like it should. You can call a number by choosing from your contacts or directly typing it into the app. Alternatively you can tap the microphone symbol in the Google search box on the home screen and use the voice command ‘call’.
You can send text messages and multi-media messages using the Android messaging app. Like in the phone app you can choose from a list of contacts, enter a number or use the voice command ‘text’. As always when typing text in Android, a soft-keyboard pops up as soon as you tap onto a text-box.
The Android camera app allows you to record still images (including panoramas) and videos using the front and rear cameras of your device. The image size and video resolution will depend on the actual device you are using. In the standard version of Jelly Bean you can start the camera app straight from the lock screen, by swiping to the left. Most controls are located on the right side of the screen. You can switch between standard stills, panorama and movie mode and between the front and rear camera. There is also the shutter button and a slider to control the digital zoom.
Tapping on the settings symbol gives you access to a range of further parameters. You can change your flash, white balance and exposure compensation. You can also select a scene mode. Some phone manufacturers tend to bundle proprietary versions of the camera app with their devices, so, depending on your device model, you might have some more options and/or a slightly different control interface.
This is where you’re captured images can be accessed and viewed. You can navigate through albums and double-tap or pinch an image to zoom in. You can also create slideshows, use a range of editing functions and apply filter effects and email or share images with other applications you have installed on your device including social networking apps such as Facebook and Google+.
In the standard Android Gallery app the editing menus include functions such as fill-light, shadow and highlight adjustment, a range of effects, several color filters, cropping, sharpening, rotating, anti red eye, face glow and face tan.
The Google Maps app most of the version’s functionality and is a valuable tool when navigating unknown areas. You can search for points of interest, you can use Streetview and you can display a range of map layers including satellite, traffic, transit lines and terrain. Google maps also offers turn-by-turn navigation and can give you directions for driving, biking, walking and public transit. If you venture into areas without cell phone coverage you can save specified map areas locally on your phone before you go.
Gmail is Android’s standard mail app and lets you do all the things you know from the browser version. You can send, receive, tag , star and search email. The Android version of this app allows you to access multiple accounts. There is also a POP3/IMAP email client available for those who want to connect to a non-Gmail account.
This app plays sound and music files that you have stored on your device or in the cloud. You can sort tracks by album and artist and download new files from the Google Play store.
The Android version of Google’s popular web browser makes an ideal addition to the desktop variant. You can browse the web in multiple tabs and like in the gallery app you can magnify by double-tapping or pinching. If you use Google Chrome on other devices the browser can be setup to sync your bookmarks between all of them.
Google Now is a new addition to the latest Android version – 4.1 ‘Jelly Bean’. It is a form of intelligent personal assistant that can answer questions via a natural language user interface and makes recommendations based on your device usage patterns. It does so via cards that appear in your notification tray. The cards contain sports scores, public transit, flight and traffic information and public alerts among other things.
Google Drive is a service that allows you to store documents of any kind in the cloud. All these documents are then synced across all your devices and accessible locally when needed. You can also share drive folders with users to collaborate on or simply exchange documents. Google Drive also allows you to create and edit Google Docs - a variety of office type documents including text documents and spreadsheets (with the browser version you can also create presentations). You get 5GB of cloud storage free of charge and can extend your space up to 1TB for a fee.