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7 handy hidden features in the Gmail Android app

Let’s face it: Email is inherently a bit of a pain. And while Google’s Gmail service is generally pretty pleasant to use, it certainly has some room for improvement — especially on the mobile front.

But as is so often the case with Google products, what you see isn’t entirely what you get. The Gmail Android app has some super-useful hidden touches you’ve probably never noticed lurking beneath its surface — easily overlooked features that can make your mobile email experience more powerful, efficient, and effective.

Here are seven such options worth uncovering — or maybe just remembering.

1. Advanced email formatting commands

The Gmail Android app’s email composing screen seems like a pretty bare-bones affair, but long-press on any open space whilst writing a new email — and by golly, goodness goshness, look what you’ll find:

Gmail Android App: Formatting JR

Tap that “Format” option, and how ’bout that? It’s a full slate of advanced text formatting commands for composing your message. You can style any part of your email with bold, italic, or underlined text; you can change your email’s font color or background color; and — an occasional life-saver — you can clear out all existing text formatting with a single tap.

Pretty handy, right?!

2. Custom swipe gestures

Ever wish you had an easy way to snooze messages from your inbox — or maybe even to mark them as unread without having to do a complicated finger-tap dance? Prepare to be pleased.

Go open up the Gmail Android app’s settings (by tapping the three-line menu icon in the upper-left corner and scrolling down until you see the “Settings” option). Tap “General settings,” then select “Swipe actions.”

Gmail Android App: Swipes JR

There, you can configure exactly what action is associated with swiping an email to the left and to the right from your inbox or from any other message list view. Set things up the way you want — using, if you’re so inclined, the old Inbox-like arrangement of a right swipe for archiving and a left swipe for snoozing — and then swipe away to your heart’s content (and with the optional occasional cackle).

3. An end to accidental actions

It’s all too easy to tap an icon by mistake when you’re managing email on the go, but Gmail actually has a spectacular way to keep yourself from doing something stupid on accident. It’s an extra step of confirmation for the worst kind of errant email presses — archiving or deleting a message you weren’t done with yet or hitting the Send button before your draft was finished. And it takes only a few quick taps to get it set up and activated.

Mosey your way back to the “General settings” area of the Gmail settings, scroll down to the very bottom of that section, and look for the “Action Confirmations” heading — and there, activate whichever bits of added confirmation will give you extra peace of mind:

Gmail Android App: Confirmations JR

The one thing worth noting is that the archive and delete confirmations don’t, vexingly, work with the swipe-based gestures we were just discussing for those commands. That’s especially unfortunate, since Gmail’s swipe gestures are all too easy to activate by accident when you’re trying to use Android 10’s awkwardly overlapping system-wide Back motion. But hey, some protection is still better than no protection, don’t ya think?

4. A less annoying Promotions tab

The Gmail Android app’s Promotions tab is both a blessing and a curse. It gives you a great way to keep less pressing messages out of your main inbox view, but it also throws in some ads and does some funky stuff with the order of your email.

There’s not much you can do about the ads, annoyingly, but you can stop the app from reordering messages and putting what it considers to be the “high value” promotions above everything else — as seen here, where my Gmail Android app for some reason decided I should see a week-old message about a subscription audio service over numerous more recent messages (including, slightly lower in the list, a more recent and relevant email from the same freakin’ service):

Gmail Android App: Promotions JR

(And yes, the ad in that top section is particularly lovely, too, isn’t it? Just a hair too personal of an assumption to make, if you ask me. Cut it out, Google.)

To get back to a fully chronological, normal-style view, jump back into the Gmail app’s settings — and this time, tap the address of your Google account, then tap “Inbox categories” on the following screen.

Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the screen that shows up next. See that option labeled “Enable Bundling of Top Email”? Uncheck it.

Gmail Android App: Promotions setting JR

Back your way out of there and then bask in the delight of having your emails once again presented in proper order, even if you can’t completely eliminate those pesky Promotions-tab ads.

5. A less nudgy inbox

While we’re on the subject of disabling annoying features, you know how Gmail does that thing now where it “nudges” you to respond or follow up to messages that have been sitting in your inbox for a while? If you find that to be more bothersome than beneficial, head back into the app’s settings and once again select your Google account.

Scroll down til you see the option for “Reply and follow up.” Tap it, then uncheck both options on the screen that follows — for “Suggest emails to reply to” and “Suggest emails to follow up on.”

Gmail Android App: Nudges JR

Nudges no more. Serenity now.

6. A speedy way to set an out-of-office responder

For years, the Gmail mobile app had no way to manage the service’s out-of-office vacation auto-responder. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes signs out ahead of a planned break and then realizes half an hour later I forgot to set my away message.

Well, fret no more, for at some point in the not-too-distant past, the Gmail Android app gained the ability to control the out-of-office responder. Yes, indeedly: You can just open up the app’s settings, tap the name of the account you want to modify, and then look for the “Vacation responder” option midway down the list of choices.

From there, it’ll take you a mere matter of moments to enable, configure, and edit your out-of-office auto-response to suit any situation imaginable.

Gmail Android App: Out of office JR

7. More selective notifications

Email notifications can occasionally be helpful, but let’s be honest: They can more often be hellish. Give yourself a break from the noise by trying out the Gmail Android app’s high-priority notification option, which uses artificial intelligence and other impressive-sounding buzzwords to figure out which incoming messages are actually important to you — and then to notify you only about those emails.

To give it a whirl, venture once more into the Gmail app’s settings, select your Google account, tap the line labeled “Notifications,” and select “High priority only.” Give it a day and see what you think.

If you know exactly what types of emails you need to be notified about — say, those from a particular person or domain name, those with a specific word in their subjects or bodies, or those that are sent to a particular address of yours — you can skip the A.I. and just set up your own custom Gmail notifications. That’s what I do, and as long as you can figure out a consistent formula for what sorts of emails are notification-worthy to you, it works incredibly well.

Either way, you’ll have a lot less noise — and a lot more energy to deal with what really matters. Even if, y’know, “what really matters” is simply finding a few free minutes to eat a midmorning hoagie.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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What is Project Treble? The Android upgrade fix explained

It’s tough to talk about Project Treble without getting lost in a forest of technical gobbledygook.

And it’s no wonder: Project Treble (take a deep breath) is Google’s ambitious effort to rearchitect Android in order to establish a modular base in which the lower-level code created by silicon vendors is separated from the main Android operating system framework so that device manufacturers can update the OS code without having to rely on silicon vendors to refresh the lower-level code for every release.

Whew! See what I mean?

In reality, though, Project Treble doesn’t have to be so complicated. Let’s break down what Treble is actually all about, in real-world terms — and what it actually means for you, as someone who uses Android and doesn’t necessarily speak the language of mumbo-jumbo.

We’ll start at the beginning:

What is Project Treble — in plain English?

I just fed the technical explanation into my patented Geek-to-English Translation Machine, and here’s what came out: Project Treble, at its core, is all about making it faster, easier, and cheaper for phone makers to process Android software updates and get them out to users.

That’s the short version. Now, the context: In the past, every time a new Android version came along, phone makers had to wait for the chipset vendors — the companies like Qualcomm, which supply the processors and other pieces inside the devices — to update the areas of the code related to all of that internal hardware. It was only when that effort was finished that the phone-maker was able to start its part of the process: integrating the new Google-provided software with its own interface customizations and feature additions, then testing it all thoroughly and getting it ready to roll out.

What Treble does is separate that lower-level stuff — the areas of the code related to a phone’s processor, modem, and so on — from the rest of the operating system. That way, those lower-level elements don’t have to be updated every time a new Android version comes along; they just exist as a constant foundation beneath everything else, and that first part of the process is no longer required.

project treble explained chart IDG / Computerworld

Project Treble separates the hardware-specific code (the pie crust) from the main Android OS code (the filling). Android apps are the delicious topping. (Click image to enlarge.)

To borrow an analogy from an earlier analysis, you can think of the whole thing like a pie: Up till recently, all of Android was mixed together, and that meant each ingredient had to be updated and stirred into the batter from scratch with every single OS update. Thanks to Treble, all the hardware-specific elements now exist as a crust — one that remains in place for a device’s entire life. And so whenever a new Android release arrives, the phone maker can focus solely on its part of the process — the filling — without first having to wait for someone else to provide a freshly made foundation.

Google actually started this process with its Android 8.0 Oreo release, in 2017, by creating the initial boundary between the operating system and the lower-level code. Rather fittingly, however, 2018’s Android 9 Pie software marked the first time the setup was complete and operational — with chipset vendors ready to support it and with a significant number of Treble-ready devices out in the wild and waiting.

Why is Project Treble even necessary?

Over the past several years, Android upgrades have devolved into a big, hot mess — and that’s putting it mildly: Aside from Google itself, with its Pixel line of phones, no Android device maker provides consistently timely and reliable software updates. And it’s the users who suffer, getting stuck with dated software that lacks not only features and interface improvements from newer releases but also privacy and security enhancements and a variety of other under-the-hood improvements that only OS updates can provide.

While Google has taken significant steps to make OS updates less all-important on Android — unbundling most system-level apps and services from the operating system so they can be updated regularly and universally, directly through the Play Store, and providing an increasing array of device options that come with timely update guarantees — it can’t remove all of the importance from the core system software. And the vast majority of Android users remain on devices that receive OS updates painfully late, if ever.

And that’s why Project Treble came about — to try to cut out some of the time and cost associated with processing OS updates so that manufacturers would step up their games and users could start getting current software more quickly.

How much difference is Project Treble actually making?

That’s the million-dollar question — and with two years of Treble-aided updates now in front of us, the answer isn’t especially uplifting.

According to my interview with one of Google’s Treble architects, Treble should shave about three months off the typical upgrade process by eliminating that initial lower-level phase. But scrutinizing the data from device-makers’ performance with both the Pie upgrade and the more recent Android 10 rollout, it’s clear that hasn’t exactly happened.

Let’s start with Pie: As my February 2019 analysis of that rollout makes all too apparent, nearly every major Android flagship device-maker (from a U.S. perspective) saw little to no improvement with the first true Treble test. Some companies even did meaningfully worse with the initial post-Treble rollout than they did with earlier, non-Treble-affected Android releases.

Samsung, notably, did a touch better with Pie than it did with Oreo, the year before — but it’s hard to frame its success as a Treble-related victory. The company went from 213 days between the software’s release and its first U.S. flagship phone rollout with Oreo to 177 days with Pie. That’s an improvement of 36 days, which is certainly something — but it isn’t nearly enough to account for the estimated 90 days of work Treble was supposed to save.

Plus, looking back even further, Samsung took 179 days to deliver Nougat to its then-current flagship the previous cycle — basically the same amount of time it took with Pie. Before that, the company took 155 days with Marshmallow and 105 days with Lollipop. So all that really happened was that Samsung had an especially bad year with Oreo and then went back to its still-underwhelming Nougat-level performance a year later — without even going as far as to match its slightly less embarrassing Marshmallow- or Lollipop-era performances from the years before that.

One company actually did achieve the 90-day improvement window Treble was designed to provide: OnePlus, the relatively small-scale maker of phones that have long been popular within the Android enthusiast community and have just recently started to see some more mainstream success. That’s a promising indication of the type of improvement Treble can theoretically enable — but the success is somewhat diminished by the fact that OnePlus simultaneously took 47 days longer to get Pie out to its previous-gen flagships than it did with Oreo the previous year (and in the case of OnePlus, those phones were indeed all Treble-ready).

So that’s year one of living in a Treble-enhanced world, in a nutshell. In year two, with 2019’s Android 10 update, some device-makers managed to improve their delivery times a bit further — but the results are rather scattered and still don’t seem to point specifically to any Treble-connected success.

Samsung, for instance, got about a hundred days faster with both its current-gen and previous-gen flagship rollouts in the Android 10 cycle — certainly nothing to write off. But at the same time, that level of improvement actually just brought the company back (almost) to its 2014 performance, with Lollipop. So can we really credit a return to a six-year-old standard — one that wasn’t even particularly impressive back then — to a change that came about in the last couple of years? It seems like a stretch.

LG also almost matched its 2014 level of mediocrity with the Android 10 rollout, on the current-gen flagship front, and is doing significantly worse than it did in 2014 with its previous-gen flagship phone support. (As of this writing, the company has yet to send Android 10 to its previous-gen flagship in the U.S. and is already two months and counting behind its 2014 standard.) HTC and Motorola, meanwhile, have yet to send Android 10 to any U.S. flagships, well over six months after the software’s release.

Again, the one exception to the rule is OnePlus, which brought its current-gen flagship delivery down to a mere 18 days with Android 10 — compared to 47 days with Android 9 and 138 days with Android 8. OnePlus did better with its previous-gen flagship, too, with a 93-day delay for Android 10 delivery. That’s still too long of a wait to be commendable, though, and it’s also essentially just bouncing back from a bad year to match the company’s previous-gen upgrade performance in 2017.

Android Upgrades: Current-Gen Flagships JR

It took many Android manufacturers longer to roll out Pie to current-gen devices than it did to deploy Oreo, though some have improved with Android 10. (Click image to enlarge it or here to see a detailed analysis.)

All these numbers are a lot to process, but the main takeaway is that it’s tough to square the data — even in areas where improvements are present — with any sort of narrative about Treble being the driver of the change.

More than anything, what we’re seeing serves to highlight a stark reality of the Android upgrade situation: Regardless of what improvements are made to the technical part of the process, most manufacturers simply aren’t motivated to make timely and reliable upgrades a priority. And why should they? Post-sales software support requires a fair amount of time and resources, even with Treble’s adjustments in place, and all of that effort brings little tangible benefit to the typical third-party Android device maker.

In fact, one could argue that providing timely and reliable software enhancements actively works against most companies’ interests, as it makes phone owners less likely to feel the need to spend money on a new device. Treble, unfortunately, can’t address that part of the equation; if phone makers see no reason to take post-sales software support seriously, all the optimization in the world won’t make an ounce of difference.

All considered, what we can say is that Treble absolutely does cut out a significant portion of the work required for phone makers to process and deliver OS updates — and that can and should make it possible for upgrades to be delivered faster without any additional investments. How things play out from there, however, is ultimately in each manufacturer’s hands, as these first two years of evidence illustrate.

This article was originally published in September 2018 and most recently updated in April 2020.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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6 big reasons to try the new Firefox Android preview

With all due respect to the physical abode around me, I practically live inside Google’s Chrome browser. Chrome is where I spend most of my days, during the week, at least — keeping up with all the latest tech info, using web-based apps like Trello, Docs, and Gmail, and watching the occasional video over on the Ye Ol’ YouTubes (always strictly work-related, of course).

At this point, I’ve got Chrome set up just the way I like it — with all sorts of custom shortcuts, crafty settings, and a carefully refined set of environment-enhancing extensions. The browser serves as a bridge between my various devices, both computers and phones, and makes it easy as can be for me to send text and links between ’em and find anything I’ve opened anywhere, anytime.

It works so incredibly well for me — and yet, I can’t help but feel the lure of another suitor, one that’s both comfortingly familiar and tantalizingly new.

I’m talking about Firefox, a browser I knew inside and out long before Chrome came along as the hot young thang and enticed me away many moons ago. The Firefox of today is a very different beast from that browser of yesteryear, though, and on Android in particular, it’s rapidly evolving into something quite intriguing.

I’ve been spending some time using the latest preview build of Firefox’s long-under-development revamped Android app, and lemme tell ya: It’s pretty darn good. And in many ways, it makes Chrome feel like the rusty old relic that Firefox once became.

Now, mind you, I’m not giving up on Google’s browser yet. Chrome is constantly evolving, and I’m heavily invested in the ecosystem around it. But on Android, at least, I’m finding myself going back and forth more and more between it and Firefox. And the more I use Firefox, the more I find myself enjoying the experience.

Right now, Mozilla — the parent organization behind Firefox — has way too many overlapping versions of its Android browser, and it’s practically impossible to figure out which is what. The “new” version of Firefox, though, is currently called Firefox Preview, and it’s the one you want to try out for the moment if you’re looking to get a relatively stable yet reasonably current view of what’s in the works.

Eventually, all the new elements from that app will make their way into the main Firefox Android app, and it’ll become advisable to switch to that — but for now, the preview version is the place to go for the good stuff.

But enough big-picture yimmer-yammer. Here, specifically, are six reasons I’m enjoying the new Firefox Android experience — and why I’d suggest you give it a whirl as well and consider it as an occasional Chrome supplement, if not something more:

1. The new Firefox preview is fast. Like, crazy fast.

On the desktop front, there are simple steps you can take to speed up Chrome and make it more efficient. On the mobile front, though, most of those possibilities aren’t present.

Well, guess what? In Firefox, they’re built right in. By default, the new Firebox Android app blocks a whole host of web-based trackers — which makes web pages load meaningfully faster, especially on sites (cough, cough) that are rather bloated with over-the-top scripts and ads (awkward eye darting).

Scrolling through such sites in Chrome and then doing the same in Firefox is a night and day difference. It’s immediately noticeable, and once you get used to the Firefox fast lane on your phone, it’s a teensy bit tough to go back.

And on a related note…

2. The Firefox Android app has built-in tools for privacy protection.

For a while now, I’ve been suggesting Mozilla’s Firefox Focus Android app as the easiest and most effective way to crank up your privacy for phone-based web browsing. While that app still exists and remains quite commendable, though, its same capabilities are built right into the new Firefox Preview app (and the plan seems to be for Focus to eventually be phased out in its favor).

In addition to the built-in tracker blocker we were just talking about — which you can configure to suit your own preferences, by the way, with a thorough set of options for how heavy-handed its blocking should be — the preview app has Focus-like features such as the ability to automatically delete any or all of your browsing data every time you exit the app (something Focus does fully by default).

Firefox Android browsing data JR

And there’s one more noteworthy possibility that ties into that same front.

3. The new Firefox has some interesting extension potential.

Taking a cue from desktop browsers, Firefox’s latest Android effort is being built with support for user-selected extensions in mind. For now, as of the latest preview build released this week, only one extension is available — but it’s something that’s quite relevant to our current conversation: uBlock Origin, the enhanced script-blocking extension that’s popular on the desktop and incredibly effective at increasing privacy while decreasing page load times (even more so than Firefox’s built-in mechanisms by themselves).

Long-term, Mozilla says it plans to migrate more extensions from its Recommended for Android collection so they’ll be available within the new browser. That list is dominated by privacy- and security-centric titles, including other script-blocking utilities along with smart add-ons such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s HTTPS Everywhere extension, which forces an encrypted connection even on sites that don’t offer that by default.

4. The latest Firefox preview has some handy built-in features, too.

Foundational stuff aside, the new Firefox Android app has a handful of native features that stand out to me as being especially useful.

There’s a single-switch Reader View, for example, which strips away extraneous elements and transforms any article into a pleasant reading experience — one where you can even control the size and style of the text along with the page’s color scheme, if you’re so inspired.

Firefox Android reader view JR

On Chrome, the closest equivalent to that is awkwardly buried, far more limited, and in constant danger of being deprecated.

Another tool I’ve come to appreciate is Firefox’s built-in Collections feature. Anytime you’re viewing a page, you can tap the app’s menu icon and select “Save to Collection,” then add the page into a group with whatever name you want. Your collections then show up in the tab management screen, along with the general overview of your presently open pages.

Firefox Android collections JR

It’s a strikingly simple and sensible way to organize tabs and hang onto stuff for later reference — and it’s something Google’s been struggling to get right in Chrome for a while.

The Firefox Preview app even lets you decide whether you’d rather have its main toolbar on the top or the bottom of the browser, as opposed to Chrome’s one-size-fits-all (with that size shifting slightly every few weeks, it seems) approach.

5. Firefox’s Android app has a genuinely helpful cross-service searching system.

Google’s great for finding information, but sometimes, you want to search another source — be it an alternative search engine or a specific sort of site like Amazon or Twitter.

While Google isn’t keen on making it particularly easy to search external places (without flat-out changing the entire browser’s single default search provider), Firefox makes it delightfully simple to do just that: Anytime you tap the app’s address/search bar, you’re presented with a list of choices. You can just start typing and search in Google, by default, or you can tap one of the other options and search directly in that service from that same spot — without having to make any lasting change to the browser’s default behavior:

Firefox Android search options JR

You can even add your own custom search engines into that same area, just like you can on most desktop browsers.

Firefox Android custom search engines JR

Having that sort of flexibility from your phone is pretty forkin’ useful, if you ask me — one of those things you quickly start to take for granted and then realize you miss when it’s no longer there.

6. Firefox on Android is familiar.

Despite all these differences, what makes Firefox particularly pleasant to use on the Android front is the fact that it looks and feels — well, an awful lot like Chrome.

I mean, look for yourself:

Chrome vs. Firefox Android JR

That’s Chrome on the left and Firefox on the right. You really have to look closely to spot the differences, don’t you?

Even the apps’ menus are eerily similar in style:

Chrome vs. Firefox Android (settings) JR

That means the adjustment of moving from Chrome to Firefox and vice-versa is generally pretty minimal. There are some areas that don’t entirely line up, like Firefox’s lack of tab-swiping shortcuts, but by and large, you don’t even think about the fact that you’re using something different.

All in all, there’s an awful lot to like about this latest Firefox Android effort — and the app isn’t even finished yet. Whether you ultimately decide to use the Firefox preview as a full-fledged Chrome replacement or just an occasional alternative, it’s well worth checking out and keeping a close eye on as its development progresses.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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16 time-saving Android shortcuts | Computerworld

When it comes to modern technology, every second counts.

It may sound silly, but it’s true: A second is the difference between an interaction on your phone feeling instantaneous and feeling just a touch too slow. And particularly with how frequently we tend to repeat common mobile tech tasks — switching apps, opening menus, firing up our cameras, and so on — all of those seconds can add up fast.

The good news: Android has no shortage of hidden shortcuts that can help you save time and get stuff done more efficiently. All you have to do is learn how to use ’em.


1. Snap between apps

Cut out delays in toggling between apps by putting Android’s semi-secret fast-snap function to use: If your device runs Android 10 and has gesture navigation enabled, flick your finger toward the right along the bottom edge of the screen to snap back to your most recently used app.

If you then decide you want to return to the app you came from, you can flick your finger to the left for about five seconds after that initial snap. Once more than five seconds have passed, you’ll instead need to flick your finger to the right again to go back to that previous app (slightly confusing, I know).

Computerworld > Android 10 tips > switch apps JR Raphael/Computerworld

With Android 10’s gesture system, flicking your finger toward the right and left along the bottom edge of the screen will let you snap between recently used apps.

If your device runs an older version of Android — or simply doesn’t have gesture navigation enabled — you can achieve a similar effect with Android’s traditional three-button navigation system: Simply double-tap the Overview key (the square-shaped icon) to flip back and forth endlessly between your two most recently opened apps.

Both commands will work from your home screen, too, for a zippy return to whatever process you had open last.

2. Slide into Quick Settings

Android’s Quick Settings panel is a shortcut in and of itself — a single place with one-tap toggles to some of your device’s most commonly used functions, from Bluetooth to the flashlight and beyond.

Double your pleasure and get a little meta by using a shortcut to this shortcut mecca: Just swipe down from the top of your screen with two fingers (any two — swiper’s choice!). That’ll skip past the standard notification panel and take you directly to the fully expanded Quick Settings section.

3. Open menus like a pro

Not many folks know it, but there’s a faster way to open those three-dot overflow menus in a lot of apps — including core Google titles like Messages, Chrome, Gmail, Drive, Contacts, and Phone (which is available only on select devices).

Rather than tapping the icon to load the menu and then tapping the item you want, simply swipe downward on the icon and move your finger directly to your item of choice — without ever lifting your paw from the screen. The menu will appear as you swipe, and whatever item your finger is touching when you let go will be activated.

Computerworld > Android shortcuts > swipe menu in apps JR Raphael/Computerworld

You can skip the tap and instead swipe directly to the menu item you need in many Google apps.

The one downside: Once you get used to the speed and smoothness of that gesture, you’ll start to resent apps that haven’t adopted it.

4. Stop disturbances without the fuss

Sometimes you need to silence your phone quickly and discreetly. (You don’t have to tell me the reason. In fact, I’d prefer it if you wouldn’t.) Whenever that time comes, don’t mess with on-screen menus and icons: Many phones, including Samsung’s recent Galaxy devices and Google’s current Pixel models, can simply be flipped face down on any flat surface to have all of their sounds silenced in a heartbeat.

On Galaxy phones, you can confirm that the setting for that function is on by searching for “Easy mute” in your system settings. On a Pixel device, you’ll want to search your settings for “Flip to Shhh.”

Other fast-muting shortcuts may also be available: On Pixel phones, for instance, you can press your power and volume-up buttons together, while the display is on, to silence everything quickly. Some phones, such as those made by OnePlus, feature a physical alert switch that lets you move to a silent mode by sliding a physical mechanism on the side of the device. And on any phone where no such options are available, you can always just activate the display and then press and hold the volume button until you see the silent setting at the bottom of the on-screen volume slider.

5. Snap a screenshot

See something on your screen you want to save or share? No problem: Press your phone’s power and volume-down buttons at the same time. That’ll cause the system to capture a screenshot, which you can then access and share via a notification that’ll appear on your device or via the “Screenshots” folder within Google Photos (or any other gallery app or Android file manager app).

6. Refresh the web with ease

Say you’re looking at a very important work-related web page in Chrome (because, obviously, that’s the only kind of web page you ever view from your work-based mobile device — right?). For one reason or another, you realize you need to refresh the page. What do you do?

Sure, you could open the Chrome menu and then select the refresh icon. Or you could skip a step and just swipe downward from anywhere on the page. You’ll see a circular refresh symbol appear at the top of the screen as you swipe. Make sure you pull down until the arrow within the symbol turns blue, then let go. (Once you get used to the gesture, you’ll find that a quick downward flick is all it really takes.)

android shortcuts refresh chrome 2020 JR Raphael/IDG

See the solid blue arrow above the “N” in “Android Intelligence”? Its presence is how you know it’s OK to let go.

Now, isn’t that refreshing?

7. Force a restart

No technology is foolproof. If your Samsung-made Android device ever isn’t responding, press its power and volume-down buttons at the same time — even if the display is off — and hold them down together for 10 to 15 seconds. On Pixel phones, you can just press and hold the Power button by itself for that same period of time. And on most other Android devices, one of those two processes will work.

Unless something really disastrous is going on (or your battery’s just dead), that’ll force your phone to restart, regardless of what you were last doing.

8. Get to your camera in a flash

When a photogenic moment arises — be it your child checking out her first TPS report or your co-worker getting a little too crazy at the company retreat — two seconds can be the difference between an unforgettable snapshot and an after-the-fact image. So don’t futz around with unlocking your phone and looking for the on-screen camera icon; instead, just double-tap the device’s power button to jump straight into shooting, whether your display is on or not.

That shortcut works on many current Android devices, including both Pixel phones and Samsung’s recent Galaxy gadgets (though on pre-2017 models, you’ll need to use the physical Home button instead of the power button). If it doesn’t work on your device, try searching your system settings for “gestures” to see if it or another similar option is available and perhaps just requires you to toggle it on before it’ll function.

9. Put notifications on notice

Next time you get an annoying notification, don’t scream out in frustration. Actually, you know what? Go ahead and scream if it helps. But when you’re finished, press and hold the notification in question to hop over to some helpful advanced settings. They’ll let you control exactly when and how that app is able to alert you.

android shortcuts notifications 2020 JR Raphael/IDG

The exact presentation will vary from one Android implementation to another, but pressing and holding a notification will always bring up some manner of advanced options for controlling how and when an app is able to alert you.

10. Wake your screen in a jiff

You might never realize it, but Google’s Pixel phones and some other Android devices support a super-speedy way of waking the screen: Tap your finger anywhere on its surface twice. That’s it!

Samsung’s recent Galaxy phones have a slight variation on that same notion: With those devices, you can tap the screen (even just once) to show the Always On Display, which typically includes a clock and any pending notifications. You can make sure that option is enabled and configure exactly how it works by searching for “Always On Display” within your Galaxy phone’s system settings.

11. Split your screen with a single press

Want to view two apps on-screen at the same time? If you’re still using a phone with Android 7 or 8 and Google’s own native split-screen implementation, you can just press and hold the Overview key from any app to get started. When you’re finished, press and hold the same key to go back to the regular single-app view.

Android shortcuts - split screen JR Raphael/IDG

With Android 7 and 8, a long-press is all it takes to split your screen in half and open a second app.

With phones running Android 9 and higher, the split-screen command is no longer so easily accessible — but take heart: With the right app and a few minutes of configuration, you can create your own custom shortcut for pulling it up in practically any way you want.

12. Keep your assistant at your fingertips

Need a helping hand? On Android phones with the traditional three-button navigation system, you can press and hold your Home key to access the Google Assistant from anywhere. If you’re using Android 10’s gesture navigation, swipe up diagonally from the bottom-left or bottom-right corner of your screen to call Assistant up. Just don’t call it Jeeves by mistake.

13. Access shortcuts from your home screen

With reasonably recent Android versions (2016’s Android 7.1 and higher), you can jump straight to some of your apps’ most useful functions without having to do any digging. Just press and hold an app’s icon on your home screen or in your app drawer, and if the app supports Android’s App Shortcuts system, you’ll see a list of options appear.

With Google Keep, for instance, you’ll get shortcuts for creating different types of notes, including lists and audio-based memos. Google Calendar gives you direct commands for creating new reminders or events. And the system Clock app has shortcuts for setting new alarms and timers, among other things.

android shortcuts app shortcuts 2020 JR Raphael/IDG

Skip steps and go right where you want with Android’s App Shortcuts system.

Plenty of third-party apps support the system, too — like Twitter, which offers direct commands for composing new tweets and direct messages, and Slack, which has shortcuts for snoozing notifications and jumping directly to any of your connected teams or conversations.

Not seeing anything, even for the apps mentioned above? Try a custom Android launcher, which’ll override your phone’s default home screen setup and allow you to access App Shortcuts (along with a host of other advanced options) on any device.

14. Control your cursor

Got Gboard? If you’re using Google’s keyboard app for your virtual typing — and there’s a strong argument that you should be — slide your finger along the space bar to move your cursor left or right within any text field. (That’s one of several useful shortcuts hidden within the Gboard app.)

15. Send a friendly rejection

Phone calls — pshaw! Who has time for ’em anymore? When you get a call you can’t or maybe just don’t want to answer, look toward the bottom of the screen for a message icon, a “Reply” tile, or a “Send message” option.

Either tap the icon or tile or slide your finger up from that area, and you’ll be presented with a list of ready-made rejection messages you can send to the caller while simultaneously declining his call.

android shortcuts call rejection 2020 JR Raphael/IDG

Reject a call politely and conveniently with a simple tap or swipe.

And a bonus tip: On most devices, you can customize those messages within the Phone app’s settings.

16. End calls with ease

When you do talk on your phone, finding the on-screen button to end a call isn’t always convenient. But Android actually has an easier way — if you know where to find it.

Open up the Accessibility section of your system settings, then activate the option labeled “Power button ends call.” (On a Samsung phone, you’ll first have to select “Interaction and dexterity” and then “Answering and ending calls” to find that option.)

Now, when you’re ready to say farewell, just tap your phone’s power button and bask in your shortcut-aided efficiency.

This story was originally published in October 2017 and most recently updated in March 2020.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Are Android upgrades actually improving? It’s complicated

There’s a popular narrative in tech media right now that Android upgrades are really, truly getting better — that for all the time device-makers take to send out updated software, they’re nevertheless improving and making strides toward a more reasonable standard.

I’ve been tracking Android upgrade performance closely for years now, and I’m hesitant to buy into such a narrative — especially when it seems to be based mostly on limited-scope, anecdotal perception and maybe the occasional marketing department nudge. So now that my Android 10 Upgrade Report Card is complete, I thought it’d be interesting to take a careful look at the actual data surrounding Android upgrades to see what the cold, hard numbers reveal.

The answer, in short: It’s complicated. Let’s break it down, shall we?

Android upgrades: All flagships are not equal

One thing folks frequently forget when talking about the state of Android upgrades is that there are two separate fronts we have to consider — the current-generation flagship phones, at the time of an upgrade’s arrival, and then the previous-gen flagship phones alongside ’em. As a general rule, Android device-makers commit to providing updates for two years to top-tier devices, which means those year-old phones are every bit as important as their more recent siblings. But since they tend to be less top of mind in terms of mainstream media attention, they also tend to be where companies cut some disconcerting corners.

We’ll start with the relatively positive news, though, specific to those current-gen flagships: On that front, with Android 10, we saw some genuine, heartening improvements from a few different sources.

Take a look for yourself. This first chart shows the total number of days from the time of an Android OS update’s release to its first appearance on a company’s current-gen flagship — from this current cycle all the way back to the Android Lollipop launch in 2014. (As a reminder, my data focuses specifically on U.S.-based versions of devices. That gives us a consistent metric for comparison and allows us to assess how quickly a typical U.S. device-owner could get the software in a typical situation. You can read more about my methodology here.)

Android Upgrades: Current-Gen Flagships JR

(Click image to enlarge.)

So what do we see there? Well, the company that deserves the most credit in terms of sheer improvement is OnePlus. It went from a 138-day delivery day with 2017’s Oreo release down to 47 days with last year’s Android Pie software and then a mere 18 days with this year’s Android 10 update. That’s an exemplary arc showing exactly how Google wanted update delivery processing to improve as a result of its Project Treble optimizations for Android — a series of steps implemented in 2018 to separate the software into multiple layers and make the updating process easier to pull off. 

(2017 was the first year OnePlus was included in my Report Card, by the way, which is why you don’t see any data for it in the previous cycles.)

We’ll talk more about Treble in a moment, but first, two other players show noteworthy improvements in their current-gen flagship upgrade performance: Samsung, which shaved its delivery time down from 213 days with Oreo to 177 days with Pie and then 106 days with Android 10 — and LG, which for the first time ever got a bit better this year by going from 298 days for last year’s upgrade to 129 days for this one.

But, well, when you look at the big picture, you quickly realize that neither of those is actually that grand of an evolution. First of all, taking 100-plus days to get a major operating system update into the hands of a company’s highest-paying customers is in and of itself nothing to celebrate. But even relatively speaking, Samsung is simply returning to the level of ho-hum performance it showed back in 2014, with Lollipop. And LG isn’t even quite touching its 2014 level of mediocrity.

Neither company is achieving new ground, in other words; it’s just coming down from an embarrassingly bad four-year run and going back to the same underwhelming performance it pulled off five years ago. So does that really qualify as “getting better”? I guess it depends on your perspective.

As for HTC and Motorola, neither has delivered an Android 10 update to any current-gen flagship yet, so it’s impossible to say anything concrete — but even if one or the other does manage to do a bit better than last year, the standard for improvement is so laughably low that it won’t mean much. And taking more than six months to send software to users is certainly nothing to write home about, regardless.

Google, meanwhile, has basically been consistent, with little real room for improvement.

Again, though: That’s only half the story.

The previous-gen flagship complication

When we zoom out further to look at the time it takes Android device-makers to get new, major OS releases onto their previous-generation flagships — phones that frequently cost close to a thousand dollars and are only a single year old — an even messier reality emerges.

Here’s the data:

Android Upgrades: Previous-Gen Flagships JR

(Click image to enlarge.)

In this scenario, OnePlus again saw some significant improvements — jumping from 142 days with last year’s Pie update to 93 days with this year’s Android 10 delivery. But complicating matters are two things: First, in 2017, OnePlus also took 90-some-odd days to deliver the year’s Android update to its previous-gen flagship. That makes this year’s improvement seem less like a new accomplishment and more like a bounce back from a random off-year. And second, a quarter of a year is still simply too damn long to keep people waiting for current software, even on a year-old device.

Samsung’s story, meanwhile, is basically the same as in the current-gen flagship domain: The company managed to lower its delivery time from last year’s 233-day window down to 147 days this year. But that’s not even quite matching its performance from 2014, with Lollipop — and, I mean, c’mon: Nearly five months for a major OS update on a year-old top-tier device? There’s just no way that can be seen as acceptable, let alone commendable.

As for everyone else, LG, Motorola, and HTC have all yet to send Android 10 to any previous-gen flagships, while Google again has been relatively consistent across the years, albeit with a little more fluctuation along the way.

So what to make of all of this? There’s one more factor to consider, and then we’ll pull the various pieces together and sum it all up.

Time to talk Treble

So back to Project Treble. Treble, at its core, is all about making it faster, easier, and cheaper for phone makers to process Android software updates and get them out to users. And 2018’s Android Pie release was the first time its advancements were complete and operational — with chipset vendors ready to support the system and a significant number of Treble-ready devices out in the wild. So 2018 should have been the year we saw significant upgrade delivery improvements across the board as a result.

We actually have a metric to measure that success, too: Ahead of Android Pie’s release, I had the chance to interview Iliyan Malchev, a principal software engineer at Google and a key architect of the Project Treble program. One of my most pressing questions for him was exactly how much of an impact Treble ought to have on the Android upgrade delivery process, from a real-world perspective. And his answer was unambiguous.

The various improvements connected to Treble were expected to shave about a quarter of a year off the upgrade process, Malchev told me. That’s how long the lower-level code updating typically took, in his estimation — the part of the process Treble made unnecessary — and so without that work in the picture, device-makers were essentially getting a three-month jump.

By and large, though, we didn’t see a three-month improvement in update delivery times with the Pie update — not when it comes to the companies and products most relevant to U.S. users, at least.

So what about with Android 10? Well, things are absolutely a bit better — but can we really attribute that progress to Treble and consider it a result of Google’s structural improvements? I’m not entirely convinced. On the one hand, from 2017’s Oreo rollout to this year’s Android 10 process, Samsung did shave just over a hundred days off its current-gen flagship delivery, which is indeed close to a quarter of a year (a hair over it, in fact). But at the same time, it seems slightly disingenuous to credit that change to Treble when Samsung managed that same 100-ish-day delivery time way back in 2014, before Treble even existed.

The same can be said for LG, only that company still isn’t quite back to its 2014 level of mediocrity. So can we really say Treble is responsible for allowing LG to do almost as poorly as it did six years ago? It seems like a stretch.

And then there’s the previous-gen flagship front, where Samsung again almost (but not quite) matched its underwhelming 2014-level performance — and LG is currently 42 days worse than its 2014 effort and counting. Again, it’s hard to square those realities with any sort of “Treble is saving the day” narrative. And that’s to say nothing of the disastrous downward spirals HTC and Motorola are exhibiting, though one could certainly contend other factors are at play on those fronts.

Ultimately, the only conclusion I can reach is the same one I’ve been saying for years now: The companies responsible for the expensive, professional devices we’re buying and relying on can and should do better at keeping them up to date. But much as we may like to, we can’t control how those corporations prioritize post-sales software support — and clearly, Google can’t, either.

The best we can do is make ourselves aware of their tendencies, decide how much their successes or failings in that department matter to us, and then use that knowledge as ammo to power our future phone-purchasing decisions. (And if you think OS updates are relevant only for surface-level polish and front-facing features, by the way, you’re missing the bigger picture.)

The info is officially in your hands, my compadre. Now it’s up to you to decide what to do with it.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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