Even though Google’s Froyo 2.2 update for Android was released in the middle of 2010, phones have only just recently started shipping with it installed straight out of the box. Here’s how to get the most from your Froyo experience.
A handful of smartphones and tablets are will be updated to Froyo by the end of the year, while older devices appear to be at risk of being left in the dust. Every Android user who doesn’t have Froyo already certainly has it at the top of their Christmas lists, not only for its features, but also its improvements in performance.
Froyo is the first version of Android to make use of Google’s in-house JIT (Just In Time) compiler. Android runs on a Java platform, utilising the Dalvik Virtual Machine; in earlier versions it had to translate all functions into virtual instructions. A JIT compiler allows for a hybrid of virtual instructions and native machine code, meaning that the portions of code that are compatible can bypass the translation step. All of this technical mumbo-jumbo basically means Froyo delivers insane performance boosts that sometimes approach 2x gains.
Optimise the Froyo Experience
All of the above enhancements are just the tip of the iceberg, as Froyo comes with a long list of additional features, many of which deliver some very useful functions. We’re going to show you how to make the most of these new features and make your Android experience better, faster and stronger than it was before. (Well maybe not stronger… but you get the drift.)
The New Android Market and Its Apps
The Android Marketplace has a couple of new features under Froyo that are easy to overlook if you’re not paying attention. The first is a handy little “Allow automatic updating” option which shows up when you view your downloaded apps. In previous versions of Android, you’d often wake up in the morning with a notification saying “There are [X]updates available”, and you would have to go through each application one at a time to initialise the update. The new Auto Update feature will install new updates as they come out, as long as there are no changes to the permissions of the specific app. Enabling the Auto Update feature does weaken the security of your phone, so it’s best only to enable it for applications that you trust.
Running out of application memory? Install applications to your SD card instead.
The second feature isn’t actually in the Market, but the Android Framework itself. Froyo allows applications to be installed directly onto the SD card, which is great news for those using devices with just 512MB of integrated storage. This feature can be accessed through Menu>Settings>Applications>Manage Applications and selecting an application. Not all applications support this feature, but those that do will show a “Move to SD card” option.
You can quickly and easily turn your Android into a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Wireless tethering allows you to turn your Android phone into a portable Wi-Fi hotspot, and even though some Android phones have had this functionality for some time, Froyo now integrates it into the stock version of the firmware. Because of the potentially high stress it puts on the 3G data networks, tethering has been a very controversial subject lately. Carriers want to lock it down, limit it and charge extra for it. Users want unfettered access to the capabilities of their smartphone.
For those whose carriers haven’t removed this feature from their devices, Wireless Tethering is accessible by going to Menu>Settings>Wireless & Networks>Tethering & Portable Hotspots. Here you should see an option to enable the “Portable Wi-Fi hotspot”. Once enabled, you can connect to your phones internet in the same manner you’d connect to any other wireless network.
Keep in mind that it is extremely easy to eat up extreme amounts of data while tethered. If you’re not on an unlimited data subscription, you’ll want to keep a very close eye on your data usage.
Android 2.2 now allows you a wider range of voice commands and voice actions.
Froyo also brings some fancy new features to Google Search (found in the Marketplace if not already installed on your 2.2 device). Not only has Froyo improved the accuracy of Voice to Text translations, it also allows you to use the Google Search widget to issue voice commands. There is a fairly long list of commands, but here are a few of the most useful ones:
• “Call” – followed by a contact name or phone number
• “Send Text” – either by itself to open your default texting app, or followed by “to [contact] , [message] ”
• “Navigate to” – which will open the Navigation app and point you to your destination
• “Send Email” – just like “send text” only in e-mail form
• “Go-to” – followed by a website or search query to launch the web browser
Piles and piles of new features are great, but they can also lead to additional drain on the battery. Froyo users will notice performance improvements thanks to the new JIT compiler, which should also bring a net gain in battery life, mostly due to reduced processing overhead. Still, more powerful devices like the Epic 4G will still come up a little short. There’s no harm in demanding the longest battery life possible, apart from the usual tricks like managing your Wi-Fi, data, GPS and Bluetooth settings.
Modifying your plug-in settings is one surefire way to extend your battery life.
You might find that while standby times with Froyo are much better than the previous version of the OS, heavy web browsing yields the opposite effect. This is due largely in part to Adobe Flash. Even though it makes an excellent companion for rendering sites in all their intended glory, it takes a heavy toll on your battery. Fortunately, there is a solution in the Browser settings under “Enable plug-ins”. Generally, the “On demand” setting is sufficient for preventing Flash content from loading.
Under the Hood: Tweak and Boost Performance
Because Android is an open source platform, it is backed by a healthy community of independent developers and modders. The dedicated community at sites like www.cyanogenmod.com and www.xda-developers.com have been hard at work since Android 1.0. They’ve created a little bit of everything, from one-click rooting programs to full-fledged custom ROMs and kernels. Here’s a nice cheat sheet of tips, tactics and mods you can use to upgrade performance and increase functionality on any Android 2.2 phone.
Rooting for More Freedom
Similar to jailbreaking an iPhone, Android phones can be rooted, giving you complete control over the entire file system, allowing access to features and functions that are normally restricted. The term actually stems from Android’s Linux-based core where the “root” user account has read/write permissions for the whole file system.
If your mobile carrier has locked you out of wireless tethering, you can root your phone to make it work.
Apart from letting you edit system files on the fly, which is both convenient and risky, rooting gives you access to some exclusive features. Prior to Android 2.2, wireless tethering was by far the biggest reason for rooting your device. It’s built-in now, however not all Froyo builds include wireless tethering and some carriers even remove it. Rooting allows you to install apps like Wifi Tether and aNetShare, which permit you to circumvent any carrier restrictions. Rooting your Android phone will also allow you to overclock your CPU (more on this shortly), force apps to be installed on your SD card and take screenshots using apps like PicMe and ShootMe.
It’s not all sunshine and daisies though. Rooting comes with a few risks. For starters, rooting generally voids your manufacturer’s warrantee; however, manufacturers will often still honour warrantees as long as the damage is in no way related to the phone’s being rooted. It’s also possible to brick your device, though it’s fairly difficult to accidently brick a smartphone permanently. Still, these risks are definitely something to consider before making the decision to root. If you do decide that the benefits outweigh the risks, be sure to research any rooting methods thoroughly before attempting it. That being said, it’s not terribly difficult to accomplish.
Overclocking, Not Just for PCs
As mentioned briefly earlier, many Android devices can actually be overclocked (and underclocked). Overclocking methods vary from device to device, so we won’t get into specifics, but you will generally need to first root your device and run special scripts or install a customised kernel. You can then manage your clock speeds with an app like SetCPU (available for $US1.99 on the Android Marketplace).
Here, we’re using SetCPU to overclock an HTC Hero from 528MHz to 691MHz
Why overclock a smartphone? Because you can. Other than pushing the hardware to its limit, there’s very little reason to do it. For some of the older devices, like the G1 and original Motorola Droid, overclocking can make a difference when using apps designed for more modern hardware.
When it comes to fiddling with processor speeds, there are two approaches: one emphasizing balance and functionality, and the other focusing entirely on speed. Balance and functionality is all about creating the fastest experience possible while still maximising battery life. Often, this incorporates writing new processor governors, which lower the minimum frequency and raise the maximum, as well as telling the processor when to switch between the two. This usually results in relatively small speed boost, but the additional speed usually has no negative impact on battery life. In some cases, you may actually see an increase in battery life.
The second approach-pure speed-is all about performance benchmarking and one-upping the overclocking community. Just like overclocking PCs, there are a handful of benchmarking apps that are popular. Most allow you to immediately compare your performance results against the world. Here are our favourites:
We like Quadrant because it gauges performance across all system functions.
Quadrant: This benchmarking app is one of the favourites by far. Every new phone is judged based on its Quadrant scores, and for good reason. Quadrant benchmarks the CPU, memory, file system and 2D/3D graphics, which works well for comparing overall performance. However, its results can be misleading due to the way it weights certain portions of its tests. Using an EXT2 file system, for example, can as much as double the overall score compared to EXT3, even though the CPU and memory are unchanged.
Linpack: This is the Android version of the popular supercomputer benchmark LINPACK. It is very straightforward, measuring the MFLOPs of your CPU, perfect for quantifying those little tweaks to processor speeds.
Neocore: Neocore is an OpenGL benchmark that both demos some of the more advanced rendering features available in Android and measures your phone’s performance. It’s a great app for approximating some of the more demanding real-world scenarios.
Android Apps: Promising Newcomers and Must-Haves
Just like the iPhone, Android is nothing without apps. We consider these five sets of applications the most essential for power users because they allow you to tweak, modify and make the most of your Android 2.2 phone.
Task Managers and the Right Way to Use Them
Advanced Task Managers aren’t verboten around here; use them to target particularly troublesome apps.
Task managers are a fairly controversial subject when it comes to Android. Some argue that using a task manager to kill all unused apps improves performance and battery life, while others aver that the Android OS already manages resources optimally on its own. Both sides are technically correct. Android does manage its resources extremely well, keeping dormant apps in memory until more memory is needed, and then overwriting memory data with next to no hit in performance. The problem is that some app developers write sloppy code and/or some apps run a little too aggressively in the background. These are the apps that make task managers necessary.
You can’t just install an automated task killer and call it good. An automated task killer will kill all background applications, which is great for freeing up memory, but this is completely unnecessary and only results in more battery use when the apps are inevitably re-opened. The trick to using a task manager effectively is to target only the apps that you rarely use and/or hog your battery.
Give Your Home Screen a Makeover
Subvert the Android home screen’s grid with Launcher Pro.
Froyo may make some significant upgrades to the user interface compared to Android versions 1.0 to 1.6, but it is still limited to the confines of the original Android interface. This is where home replacement apps come in, which allow you to create a non-standard version of the Android interface.
We have two favourite home replacement applications: Launcher Pro and ADW Launcher. Both offer the familiar Android layout for shortcuts and widgets, but they also have some very useful innovations. You can thumb through a huge list of options to tweak everything from the look of the App Drawer to the items on the Dock Bar. The licensed version of Launcher Pro also includes a few of its own specialised widgets and even the capability to resize most other widgets to fit your screen however you like.
A revolutionary keyboard? After using 8Pen for a while, we say yes.
Touch screen keyboards have come a long way in terms of accuracy and usability with error correction, auto-complete, and predictions, but the fact remains that they are awkward to use. The problem is that current touch screen keyboards are nothing more than clever adaptations of the standard two-handed keyboards that we’re used to, and they just don’t quite work on such a small scale.
8Pen is an entirely new keyboard design, created from the ground up specifically for a small, touch screen interface. It incorporates a large centre point for starting/ending words and letters. Letters and symbols are divided into four quadrants. You type by starting in the centre, passing into the quadrant that contains the desired letter, and rotating either clockwise or counterclockwise through the number of quadrants equal to the position of the letter from the centre. It sounds fairly complicated and takes a while to get used to, but given a bit of dedication to learning the foreign layout, the result is a very natural writing feel with loops and swirls.
Chrome to Phone
Chrome to Phone will grown on you – we guarantee it.
Chrome to Phone is another app directly from the minds of Google. Despite being a relatively simple app, it does require Android version 2.2 or higher. Chrome to Phone lets you send links and web pages from your PC to your phone in just a single click. It may not seem particularly useful at first, but take a moment to think about how many times you’ve downloaded a file to your computer just to copy it over to your phone immediately afterwards or how many times you’ve struggled to navigate to a website on your phone that you’ve previously found on your PC. You’ll notice that the more you tinker with your phone, the more you’ll grow to appreciate Chrome to Phone.
The Future of Android: Version 2.3 Gingerbread
The next iteration of Android, version 2.3 (code name Gingerbread) is just around the corner, though as we’ve seen in the past with previous updates, some devices will get it sooner than others, and some won’t get it at all. While it’s still uncertain exactly which new features will be included, it appears that one of the core attributes of Gingerbread will be a makeover of Android’s user interface. Upgrading the stock interface may tangentially help everyone; if this incentivises headset manufacturers to stop customising their own Android skins and themes, we see faster adoption rates for future updates in the future.
The biggest and perhaps most anticipated upgrade is integrated video chat built on top of the Google Talk platform. This should be a welcome alternative to the current video chat solutions offered by Qik. Integrated video chat support will encourage manufacturers to include front-facing cameras on more of their future phones. It’s likely that by this time next year, front-facing cameras will be standard on all smartphones.
Other rumoured updates include a makeover for various Google applications, improved social networking features, improved copy/paste functionality, support for near field communication and upgraded streaming media support. Given the release of Google TV, it’s likely that the 2.3 update will incorporate support for this new Google appliance.
Finally, Gingerbread is also rumoured to include additional support for larger display sizes with resolutions up to WXGA (1280×800 or 1360×768). This indicates that Google supports the recent wave of interest in tablet devices.