Android 101: Customize and tweak your Android phone

Android’s appeal lies in the option to customize it as much or little as you desire. The rabbit hole is deep, yet you don’t have to plunge into the scary world of rooting and ROMing to change how Android looks and works.

This guide is for users who want to take their first steps into the world of advanced Android use and customization. The tricks described here will help you make your device more intuitive and more capable, yet each tip remains within reach of the greenest Android newbie. As you learn these advanced tweaks, you’ll see even more opportunities for further customization. The road to Android fandom is paved with small changes that gradually transform your device. So come on—take the first step.

Make your home screen feel like home

Android’s home screen is where most interaction occurs. Your favorite apps and widgets always appear here for easy use and quick access to information. You’ll spend a lot of time with your home screen, so settle in and don't be afraid to get cozy. Choose a new wallpaper. Then prepare to unlock the path to serious customization.

A home screen customized with a replacement launcher.

The key to getting Android to be just the way you want it is to download an app known as a launcher replacement. As the name suggests, this kind of app replaces the operating system’s default launcher process and lets you change the look, size, and position of icons; add or remove home screens; change how scrolling works; add or remove columns or rows of icons; and much more. The exact options depend on the launcher, and many different launchers are available for download from the Google Play Store.

In fact, the plethora of options can feel overwhelming. We recommend starting with Apex Launcher or Nova Launcher. Both come in free and paid variants, with the paid version offering additional features and options. These launchers are relatively intuitive and receive regular updates that add new features. After you’re familiar with them, you can try unusual options such as Launcher 7.

Once you’ve downloaded a launcher, play! Experiment like a mad scientist. Don’t worry about messing up your device. If you’re unhappy with the result, you can always uninstall the launcher to revert your device to its default look.

Download and install new icons

Android is the only smartphone OS that will let you change every icon to the face of a character from Star Wars, or anything else you’d prefer.

Switching icons is a breeze. Most launchers have built-in support for themes and icons. You might also try Icon Changer Free, an app that simplifies the process of changing home-screen icons without the need for a launcher. It’s a good choice for users who like their device’s default look but still want new icons.

Certain launcher replacements allow you to change app icons.

You can find general-use icons in icon packs available on the Google Play Store. Many are free, and a wide variety is available. Just download a pack and then follow the wizard in your chosen launcher, or use Icon Changer Free to install them.

Create custom icons

Android Assets Studio is a powerful tool for crafting your own app icons.

Star Wars icons are cool, but they’re under copyright, so you’re not going to find them on the store. If you really want Yoda's face for the Browser app, you'll have to make the icons yourself. Fortunately, this procedure isn’t as hard as it sounds.

Handy websites such as Android Asset Studio and Android Icon Generator let you generate icons from any image you like. Just upload an image and use the provided options to resize it and crop it down to icon dimensions. Then save the file to your PC’s desktop or another easily remembered location.

Connect your Android device to your PC and move your newly created icon images into the device’s Pictures folder. This action will make the icons viewable in the Gallery app. You can later delete these images after you’ve used them to create a shortcut.

You can create your own custom icon for any app you choose.

Now use a free app like Icon Changer Free, Desktop Visualizer, or Folder Organizer to make shortcuts with the custom icon. That’s it—Boba Fett is now managing your contacts. (He should keep them in line.)

Replace the app drawer

An example of a customized app drawer.

Although you can change most shortcuts on your home screen, you can’t do the same for icons in the app drawer (without rooting the device). You can, however, use apps to replace the app drawer with an alternative that allows some customization. Popular options include AppDrawer and Organized Drawer.

Since the app drawer can’t be replaced by default, many users find that they have to install a custom launcher to pull off this trick. Once you've installed the new launcher, you can then add a custom app drawer with a drag and drop: Remove the default drawer by dragging it to an empty space on the home screen (or removing it completely), and then drag the replacement into its former location.

Users who want a replacement drawer that they can call upon with a swipe should check out Pulldown App Drawer. Instead of tapping an icon, you activate this drawer by swiping from the top or bottom of the screen (you get to choose). Other customization options include changing the apps shown per row and the color of the background and/or icon text.

Change settings with a swipe and a tap

The latest stock version of Android includes a quick-settings menu that you activate by swiping down on the right side of the notifications bar (on tablets) or by swiping the notifications bar down with two fingers (on phones).

The quick-settings panel in Android 4.2.

Many users have an old or manufacturer-customized version of Android, however. If that’s the case for you, check out an app like Notification Toggle, which works with any phone running Android 2.1 or newer. With this app you’ll be able to create your own custom quick-settings area that appears whenever you swipe down to view notifications.

Another app worth mentioning is Power Toggles. This tool enables quick settings in the notification area and sweetens the deal with a wide variety of visual-customization options.

Power Toggles

Settings in the notification area can get crowded, however, which is why old-fashioned toggle widgets are useful. Assorted apps, such as Beautiful Widgets, Extended Controls, SwitchPro, and Toggle Widgets, let you add setting toggles to your home screen. Once you install them, you can place the toggles as you would any other widget. And all of these apps let you customize them to display only the settings you need to access quickly.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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