Handy Android tablet tips and tricks

24th Mar 2012 | 10:00

Handy Android tablet tips and tricks

Improve Android with a few fancy enhancements

Improve your Android tablet

Android on a tablet is just about as good as it gets right now - with every iteration it gets better and more feature-rich, and soon the delightfully-named Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) will be available too.

If you're in the market for such a device then you'll be pleased with just how slick and capable an Android tablet is. There's certainly no need to be ashamed if you choose one instead of an iPad and it'll likely be a cheaper purchase.

Typically though, as the Android platform evolves it also tends to become a little more bloated - something that will ring a familiar bell with Windows users, at least in the case of Windows Vista.

While owners of older Android tablets don't have to worry about this (the increased hardware requirements that Google is demanding for its OS limit how far older tablets can be upgraded), there are still improvements to be made with early versions of the operating system, from 1.6 up to 2.1.

We've come up with a list of improvements to show you what can be done to enhance the way your Android tablet performs and make it work the way you want it to, whether it's an older tablet or one that you've just recently picked up from the shops.

Get 3G

3G

Not everyone is lucky enough to have 3G mobile broadband built into their Android tablet, but that shouldn't stop you from being able to surf the internet wherever you are. Provided you've got a smartphone with 3G onboard - which most now do - and as long as your phone and service provider support it, you can tether it to your Android tablet for instant, and faster, internet access.

There are two ways you can do this - you can either turn your phone into a wireless hotspot using your tablet's Wi-Fi function to connect to the phone, or you can connect to it via Bluetooth.

The second method is easily available if you're running a tablet with Android 3.0 Honeycomb or greater. Activate Bluetooth on your phone, then turn to your tablet and access 'Settings > Wireless and networks > Bluetooth'. Then go into 'Bluetooth Settings' and pair the tablet with your phone. Once this is done tap the spanner icon next to the name of the phone and press 'Tethering'. Provided it works with your phone, you can now freely surf the internet wherever you are.

Optimise Wi-Fi usage

Usually, the obvious way to prolong your tablet's battery charge is to turn off the Wi-Fi altogether when you're not using it, and, of course, you can do this on an Android tablet. However, there's a slightly smarter way that will give you the freedom to surf the internet when you want, without having to turn things on and off manually all the time.

Android tablets come with a little-known battery-saving tip that optimises your use of Wi-Fi so you never actually have to turn it off - it's called Wi-Fi sleep policy and can be found under Settings > Wireless and networks > Wi-Fi settings > Wi-Fi sleep policy. Tap this option and you'll see three further options.

The default status is 'Never', so it will sit there consuming battery power whenever your tablet is turned on. The two options found above this are better for your battery life. Tapping 'Never when plugged in' will only activate Wi-Fi when your device is connected to the mains, while tapping 'When screen is turned off' will shut off Wi-Fi when your Android tablet goes into standby mode, either automatically or when you press the standby button.

Note that tablets using an earlier OS than Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), such as 2.3 (Gingerbread) don't have the same Wi-Fi sleep policies and lack the 'When screen is turned off' policy, which is replaced by a less energy saving 'After 15 mins'.

Save space

Provided you've got a tablet running Android 2.2 or later, there's a little-known secret that will save you a huge amount of space on your tiny drive.

Google Music beta enables you to save all your songs to the cloud for free and then play them back whenever you want. At the time of writing it's only available in the US, and should be coming to UK shores soon.

Of course, you need an internet connection so it's probably better suited to those who spend a lot of their time connected to Wi-Fi or 3G, but even if you don't have an internet connection you can still listen to music with the offline mode.

Google Music beta works a little like Spotify - using the free Music app you select which songs you want to listen to and they are then synced and made available so that when you're online you can still access them.

One of the great things about Google Music beta is that you can simply upload files from a folder on your computer or even select an entire iTunes library to add.

Desktop makeover

For those of you running Android 3.0 or greater, you should know about a great feature that gives your desktop a complete makeover.

Live wallpapers are animated backgrounds which make your Android screen come to life, albeit at the expense of a little slice of your battery. You can find the Live wallpapers in 'Settings > Screen > Screen display > Home screen wallpaper > Live Wallpaper'. Select something from the list and tap 'Set wallpaper'.

If you want more of these stunning wallpapers, you can download hundreds of them for free through the Android Market.

Speed up the screen

Conversely, those who would like to save some much-needed battery life and even speed up their tablet in the process can turn off all the good looking - if occasionally impractical - effects that come in Android 3.0 onwards. For starters, you can get rid of the Live Wallpapers that we talked about above.

Instead of using moving backgrounds, load a standard wallpaper or choose something from the photo gallery to achieve a more personal touch.

You'll also notice an improvement in your tablet's performance if you get rid of the default animations that occur when you open and close windows or menus. Remove them by going to Settings > Animation > No Animations. Now you'll notice that when, for example, you tap the Home button it will switch straight to the home screen without displaying an animation.

Use voice control

Voice controls

Tablet owners of all ages can benefit from using Google Voice to speed up the way they interact with the device. Instead of having to search around the interface for the right option, you can use your voice to command Android to do it instead.

The clear advantage of this is that it'll speed up most of the tasks you regularly carry out in a day. There might be bigger benefits to using this facility on the phone version, but it still works well on a tablet. For example, you can visit a website in no time at all with 'go to' being the command prompt, you can open an application by saying its name, or you can send an email to a specific contact instantly.

In the top of the screen next to the Google icon is a microphone icon that, once pressed, will bring up the Google Voice prompt, and you just say the command. A list of common commands can be found at www.google.com/mobile/voice-actions.

Get directions

Maps

You might not be aware of this, but your Android tablet comes with a magnificent - and entirely free - satellite navigation application, which you can use to get from A to B in a car. The beauty of this app is that, combined with a tablet with a large screen, it makes reading the maps an absolute breeze, even if you're sat in the back of a car.

The satellite navigation app can also be used with Android's built-in voice control, so just say where you want to go and it'll take you there. Thankfully, all Android users are catered for because it works with Android 1.6 and upwards. If it's not already present on your device, just go to the Android Market and search for 'Google Maps With Navigation Beta'.

Upgrade your tablet

One of the most useful things you can do with your older Android tablet to give it a new lease of life is to upgrade the operating system to a later version.

If you're starting out with Donut 1.6 then you're out of luck unless your tablet happens to be highly specified in the hardware department. Those with later versions, such as Eclair 2.1 are starting off with a much better base for upgrading to a later version.

You can perform the most minor of updates - going from 2.1 to 2.2, for instance - simply by checking in your Settings area for system updates that come directly from the manufacturer of your tablet. Otherwise, if the update isn't available (your particular carrier might be holding back the update, for example) or if you want to jump up the evolutionary scale a few more notches, you can install a custom updated ROM specifically for your tablet.

We can't tell you which one to go for because it's impossible to tell you which version of a ROM to download to go with your manufacturer - you will need a specific firmware update otherwise it won't work. We published a tutorial on how to install Android on other devices here.

Head on over to androidtablets.net and look for the exact ROM that goes with your chosen device. Be warned though - you'll need to follow the installation instructions of a new ROM right down to the letter because if you don't, there's a chance your tablet could stop working altogether if the software is incorrectly installed on your device.

Root your tablet

Upgrading your tablet OS to a newer one as mentioned above is one example of rooting, whereby you gain full control over what you want your tablet to do and how it should look.

You can find out how to root your Android tablet on dozens of websites, but one of the best places to find guides is the XDA Developers forum.

Again, you'll need to find the guide that applies to your particular tablet. Once you do find it, rooting can be quite a straightforward process and it unlocks a whole range of potential upgrades.

From here on there are pretty much no limits to what you can do with your tablet - you will be able to install apps not normally available to locked tablets, such as overclocking the CPU to its full potential with SetCPU; or optimising your tablet's use of memory with AutoKiller Memory Optimiser.

There are all manner of performance-related improvements, so rooting is something you should consider if you crave a little bit of modification. Remember to follow the instructions carefully though - there's a small chance that something could go wrong if not.

It's also worth bearing in mind that rooting the OS will void your tablet's warranty.

Automatic backup

The latest version of Apple's iOS allows you to automatically back up your iPad over Wi-Fi, and Apple is - rightly so - proud of its new feature, which makes this regular procedure a quick and painless affair. Android also features a similar backup method, although instead of backing up to iTunes it uses Google's cloud backup facility.

By default your tablet should automatically be set to back up all your tablet's settings whenever you're connected, but if not you will need to go to Settings > Privacy and tap the tick box next to 'Back up my data'.

If you want to do a slightly more thorough backup in order to protect the entire contents of your device you can either manually copy everything from your tablet to your computer by simply connecting your tablet via USB cable and dragging and dropping everything to a folder. But that's a bit archaic isn't it?

A better way is to use an app such as MyBackup Pro which allows you to schedule automatic online backups so that your tablet automatically backs up practically everything - photos, apps, contacts, emails and more - to the cloud.

Video chat

So your tablet isn't a phone - so what. That doesn't mean you can't call your friends or family for a nice chat. Provided your tablet has a front-facing camera, you can use a video-chat app, such as Fring, which is completely free to use.

The app enables you to call up to three other people at the same time, so it's good for arranging a global meeting. The quality of the video adjusts to your connection, so if it's 3G then quality will suffer a touch but you should still get streaming without any annoying transmission delays.

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