Not every Android's home screen looks the same, but they all work in mostly, pretty much, kinda the same way.
Phones with Google's own Android system and no customizations added on—increasingly a rare thing these days—all have the same look and feel. The majority of manufacturer HTC's Android phones have a "Sense" interface, which adds a good deal of social networking and redesign work to Android's home screen and many of its apps. Motorola's Android phones have varying levels of customization built into them, though they hue closer to the stock Android screen than HTC. There are other phones with their own unique interfaces, some that don't look anything like Android at all. Here, we'll cover the aspects of the Home screen that are universal, along with some of the specifics from HTC and Motorola phones.
Here's a look at the home screen, as it first looks, on a newer Android (2.1 version) phone, booting up for the first time. There are little trailing lights moving up and down, left and right. Despite your every human instinct, ignore them. For now, we're also not paying too much attention to the bar at the very top, which holds a bunch of icons showing your phone's status, and whether you've got notifications waiting for you. You're probably not seeing the icons you see here on the left edge, either, but that's fine—that's just how I got these screenshots.
Okay, so, you touched one of them, and you saw a few more shoot out. Now stop touching the screen. Okay—now stop.
If you had an older Android phone running the 1.6 version, here's how it would look:
You'll see it's much the same as the 2.1 version, just with a different look and feel (and default background image, but that can be changed).
If you're rocking an HTC-made phone, your home screen is, well, almost entirely different. Boot up a brand-new HTC EVO 4G, for example, and you see something like this:
On a Motorola phone, like the Droid X, your home screen looks fairly similar to Android's stock version, with a few cyborg-themed tweaks:
And if you've got a phone rocking Android 2.2, like my Nexus One, it's slightly different from the 2.1 screen shown above:
Important note: The calendar item shown above is from my wife's calendar. Not that there's anything wrong with Elizabeth Gilbert's tale of self-discovery. Or Julia Roberts. Ahem.
And if you're lucky enough to have received an upgrade to Android 2.3, "Gingerbread," here's how your home screen might look. It's not all that different from 2.2, really, but notice the top notification/system bar is turned black, and the bottom launcher buttons squared off:
From here on out, we'll be sticking to an Android 2.2 phone for a guided tour of your home screen. Your own Android phone will operate in the same way, though, but we'll note where an HTC or Motorola phone does differ significantly.
The home screen you see when you first turn on your screen isn't all the space you have—it's just the center. Using a thumb or finger, swipe your screen toward the left, as if you were holding a deck of playing cards and swiping the top card to the right.
Notice that the very top portion of your screen stays the same, with notifications on the left (which we'll get to) and phone status icons on the right, but there's a different set of icons and widgets on this page. The view of the background image has shifted, too, but it's hard to tell with this default. Go ahead, swipe to the left again, if you can:
Drat, nothing new here—at least on my phone. Look on the bottom, though, to the two icons. The middle is your application tray (or "drawer," as some phone makers call it). HTC phones keep their app trays in a left-of-center button on their bottom widget. Meanwhile, an icon on the right shows that you've got four screens to the right you can swipe over to. You get a total of five screens to play with in Android 2.1 and beyond, while older Android versions have three. Some phones get two or four additional screens, and there are apps in the Market that can add even more screens, if you'd like.
Newer Android versions (2.1 and later) also have a helpful navigation feature. Want to see what's over to the right of the first screen we started on? You could swipe over two more times, or—or!—you can press and hold on that little four-dot symbol in the bottom right corner.
Neato. It's a glimpse at all the screens available on your phone, with the backgrounds removed and replaced with white. In reality, you probably won't use this feature very often, unless you train yourself to do so. Most people are just fine swiping from one screen to the next, even if the shortcut or widget they're looking for is four screens away. Still, it's there if you know you have to go from screen one to screen five.
Motorola's newer phones show a similar kind of where-you-are indicator, but you can also tap any of the icons to zoom straight to that screen, or slide your finger along the icons at the bottom to quickly zoom through your home screens. We have to admit, it's a battery-killing blast to do this.
HTC's Sense phones only show a speedometer-style nodule to show where you are on your home screens—look for the little white bar to the right of center in this screenshot:
HTC owners can also tap their Home button once to get back to the center home screen and then, while on that central point, tap their Home button again to get a display of all the home screen panels and their contents:
No matter who made your phone, the bottom "tray" stays the same on every home screen. The actual items on your home screens, though, can definitely change. Let's look at the other three main components of an Android setup.
This bar that nearly spans the screen, up at the top here? It's a widget. You may have heard this software term used with other devices, or even your own Mac or PC computer. A widget is basically something you stick to a particular point on the screen, where it sits and waits for something to happen. That something could be you clicking a button, like that little microphone indent on the right. It could be entering text, which the bar that's filled with a shaded "Google" and magnifying glass icon is waiting for. Or, in some cases, a widget just keeps track of something and shows it to you, like the current temperature, the number of programs running, or whether you've got the Wi-Fi, GPS, or Bluetooth enabled on this phone.
In this particular case, Google's pre-loaded their "Search" widget on your phone's primary home screen. HTC, Motorola, and the carriers that sell phones usually add many, many more widgets to their home screens. In Google's case, the central Search widget makes sense, given what it does (find apps and contacts on your phone, and search the web) and the firm's business model (get more people on the web and get them searching, so they'll encounter ads). You can click inside the big bar on the left to enter text, or hit the microphone on the right to speak your search term. We'll dig more into what the Search widget can do later. For now, let's keep heading down the page.
Behind that widget, and behind most everything on your screen, is wallpaper. In this case, it's a "Live Wallpaper." Little lights are traveling around, making your screen look like a window to the insides of some Tron-like mega-computer. If you don't like this kind of cold, digital display facing you every time you pull out your phone, there are falling leaves, blue skies, tropical beaches, and many more available. Oh, and you could also put just about any picture that fits in there, too. Changing this, and the rest of your home screen, is coming right up! In the meantime, let's get to more fun stuff.
Most everywhere on your center home screen where there aren't widgets, there are shortcuts. They're just like the icons on a computer desktop—they can be a link to launching an application, or a folder containing other shortcuts. You can't put files and documents on your home screen, but you can link to them.
You can also create shortcuts that quickly dial or SMS a friend, pull up directions, and start playing a music playlist, but, again, we'll explain that together with the wallpaper very, very soon. Soldier on to the icons at the bottom of your screen.
We went over the navigation buttons on the left and right sides—they show what screens are on either side of the one you're looking at. Then there's the middle icon, the grid of squares (or metallic tab, on older version). That's where all your applications are kept. What are you waiting for? Go ahead and tap it (or slide it up on older versions). On HTC phones, your applications are stashed in a button on the left, with an upward-pointing arrow. On some Motorola models, tapping the Home button while on the center home panel also brings up a list of apps:
Here's where you can get to pretty much everything you'd want to use on your phone. The default applications you'll find in here when first firing up your phone will differ, but the basic list is much the same. While you've got this "tray" open, you can slide your thumb up and down to scroll through your full app list, or, if you've got it, use the trackball for slower, row-by-row pacing. If you want to head back to the home screen, simply tap the home-style image at the bottom, or you can hit the Back button on your phone—it's a left-pointing arrow, and it may be either an actual physical button, or part of a little touch-sensitive square in a strip of black. Take a look at what you've got.
See something you like in your app list that you'd like on your Home Screen? Facebook, perhaps, or maybe the straight-up Music player. From here, we can add any app that you'd regularly click on to one of your home pages. Press and hold your thumb on its icon. You'll feel a slight vibration, the "tray" will fold back down, and a slightly magnified icon will stick to your finger, as long as you keep pressing on the screen.
Move your app icon to a spot on the screen that doesn't have an app icon or widget already on it—like, say, the space between the "Messaging" icon and the search bar—and let go. Boom! There it shall sit, waiting for you to click it.
Want to move that app, or any app, widget, or shortcut, somewhere else? Press and hold down on it, wait for the little vibration buzz, then drag the icon where you want it and let go.
Want to delete an app icon or widget? Press and hold, then drag it down to the spot where the app tray icon used to be, in the bottom center of the phone.
The app try icon becomes a trash can when you're dragging icons around. Drag an icon from your screen onto it and let go; it actually doesn't get deleted—it just goes back to the app tray. So that's one nice thing about your Android home screen: you can always set things back the way they were, and you can't really hurt anything.
All of the above functions work the same way on all your screens, by the way. That gives you 80 slots for icons (and a few two, three, or four-slot widgets) on a newer Android phone, and 48 on an older, three-screen phone.
Take some time and play around with placing your favorite and most useful icons where your thumb can find them. We'll add more applications a little bit later, but for now, just see what works for you. When I'm playing with a brand-new Android, I tend to remove the Phone icon, because it links to a different section (the dialer) of the same basic phone function as Contacts, and I tend to call contacts more than dial numbers. I also add my wife as a direct contact, add a Google Calendar widget to the center of my main home screen, create a folder for all my work bookmarks, and change the wallpaper, as you saw in the last two shots.
Oh, wait, yeah. Here's how you do those things.
Let's tackle the easy one first. Just as you would "press and hold" to move an icon, press and hold down on a portion of the screen that doesn't have anything on it, and you'll see a menu pop up similar to the one here:
Shortcuts, widgets, and folders—oh, my. Right now, though, let's just press on Wallpapers.
Now it wants to know where you want to pull that wallpaper from: Gallery (photos from your phone's storage card and camera), Live wallpapers (the built-in images that move and change with time of day), or Wallpapers (the built-in images that don't move). When you get some cool pictures onto your phone, you can dig through the Gallery. For now, tap to peek into the Live wallpapers.
As you might guess, some of these are really cool features for a phone, but they can also be battery hogs. Still, if you like the idea of a lively phone, choose one of these wallpapers. When you do, you'll see a preview screen, and you might also see a "Settings" button in the lower-right you'll want to check out, so you can have your setup just so. If none of this fancy stuff appeals to you, hit the Back button once or twice, and you'll be back on the home screen.
Press and hold again, choose "Wallpapers," and look through the selection of just plain old "Wallpapers." Some of them are pretty darned nice, and they've covered just about every color. If you've jumped ahead and taken a few pictures with your camera, or transferred a wallpaper-worthy image to your camera's SD card, go ahead and select "Gallery" when asked where to select your wallpaper from. You'll see your photo gallery pop up, organized into folders and albums, after a second or two. Turn your phone sideways for an easier view of what you've got available.
Unless you're already an active user of Google's Picasa Web Albums, or got friendly with your phone's camera right out of the box, you probably won't see this kind of array. But you will, over time, and it's good to keep it in mind for a truly personalized phone. Me, I have a picture I adore, of Mark Twain messing around in Nikola Tesla's lab, that I thought would make for a great wallpaper. I transferred it from my laptop to my phone's memory card by plugging my phone into my laptop with the USB cord, then mounting it as a storage device—all covered elsewhere in this book. After copying it and un-plugging the phone, the Gallery app automatically picked up the picture off the memory card, tucked in a "wallpaper" folder.
So, to set this picture as my wallpaper, I clicked the "wallpaper" folder in the Gallery view, then clicked the only picture I had in there on the next screen. After doing that, your phone will ask you to crop and frame the portion of the photo you want as your wallpaper.
Using your fingers, you can expand the orange box at its edges to encompass more or less of the image, though it always stays in a certain height-to-width ratio that will work well on your screen. You can also drag the orange box around by pushing it around from the center with your finger. When you've got a nice frame on what you want, hit "Save," or choose "Discard" if you can't get the perspective you want. Me, I'm pretty happy with my uber-dork wallpaper.
Feeling a little more comfortable, a little more in control of your home screen? Great, now it's time to bust out the toys. On my own phone, I like to add a calendar widget to the center of my primary (center) home screen. It shows the next event that's upcoming on your Google Calendar agenda, and clicking on it provides quick access to all your events. Press and hold in the middle of that empty space, and select "Widgets" from the "Add to Home screen" dialog. Your carrier might have broken your widget offerings into different categories—"Widgets" and "Verizon Widgets," for example—but they're effectively the same.
Oh, my goodness—you could really get lost in these options. This list will only expand as you install new applications, but for now, you're looking at the default selection. I'm going to pick Calendar in this case, and it'll get placed just about where I pressed down in the first place.
I added the Calendar widget to my screen as an example, but what about all the other good stuff available by long-pressing on your screen? Here's the quick run-down on the widgets in Android 2.1 offered by default, and most should still be available to older Android versions as well.
Shortcuts are just what they sound like: time-saving links to the things you most often do with your phone. That can be launching a certain application, calling or texting a particular contact, getting directions back home, or other tasks. To get at your shortcut possibilities, press and hold on an empty section of the screen, and select Shortcuts from the menu that pops up. Here's the top of what you'll see on a standard Android phone—your own unit may have some additional offerings.
Let's quickly run through what you can do with these shortcuts. Some applications you install on your phone will add their own shortcuts to your list, but here's the default selection:
Folders on an Android home screen work the same way that folders on a computer desktop do. They're an organizational tool, a way of labeling and tucking away shortcuts. On a screen with a somewhat limited amount of premium up-front space, they're also really handy. Just like everything else, you press and hold on an empty space, then select Folders when "Add to home screen" pops up.
Everything other than "New folder" is fairly self-explanatory in purpose, but also covers aspects of the phone we'll cover elsewhere in this text. The basic folder, the one you drop your own apps, bookmarks, and other home screen icons into, is created by selecting "New folder." Select it, and a folder will appear in the empty spot where you held and pressed. It is just labeled "Folder" by default, but we can change that. Tap your new "Folder" icon.
Not much to see here. To rename our folder something a little more recognizable than "Folder," tap and hold on the gray bar with the name "Folder." You'll get a text prompt, where you can type in anything you'd like to name the folder on your hardware keyboard, or with the on-screen keys. I'm naming mine "Lifehacker," and I'll store all the web bookmarks I use on my phone to help manage the site I blog for, Lifehacker.com.
Just like you drag apps from inside the app tray onto your home screen, you can drag apps, bookmarks, shortcuts, contacts, and most everything except widgets into a folder. The one trick to note is that you can't open the folder, then press and hold to create something inside it—you have to create your shortcuts outside the folder, then drag them on top of the folder, until the icon appears to "open," then let go. Here's what I ended up stashing inside my Lifehacker folder:
The top row is all bookmarks I've created in my browser, to sites like Lifehacker's email portal, the full-screen and mobile-formatted versions of the site, and the Google Reader tool I use to run through news feeds. The bottom row has, from the left, two quick text message (SMS) shortcuts so I can quickly text my boss and another editor, and then two links to labels in my Lifehacker mail account that I might want to keep up on—emails from my boss, and emails from other Lifehacker staffers.
In short, folders keep your home screen slightly less cluttered, and put only one additional click between you and the things you like to tap on frequently.
So now that you've seen how you can customize your phone's home screen, take a few minutes and play around with it.
Think about the kind of information you're looking for when you pull your phone out of your pocket, and set as much of it as you can on your central home screen. Think about what kind of themes, functions, or container systems the screens to the right and left can serve. Want an example? I'll share my phone, with screens from left to right. Note, however, that I'm only using three of the five screens offered in Android 2.1, I've changed the background to a simple green to prevent repeated images of Mark Twain, added gray bars to delineate my three screens, and cropped off the notification/status bar up top:
I arrange my screens with a focus on the center two rows, because I'm mostly holding my Android phone with one hand, and when I let my phone rest, it sits just slightly left of center on the screen. With that in mind, I've put applications I'd use while I'm out and about, like the camera and photo apps, barcode scanner, and news/weather checker on the left-hand screen, because it's easy to swipe over to when I'm in a hurry, but even easier to turn the camera on by accident from a home screen icon.
Given that the center screen is the prime real estate, I gave the most prime space to the Calendar widget because it helps reinforce whatever event I have coming up next, whether it's a social event or a work deadline. Starting at the bottom left, I switched out the Phone shortcut and moved Contacts into its place, then put a direct contact link to my wife right above it. Just above that is a link to my Google Voice inbox, where I manage voicemail and SMS messages. The search bar that's placed at the top by default? I tapped, held, and dragged it into the trash, because on my phone, at least, hitting the magnifying glass button on the phone itself to type, or holding the button to speak a command, offers the same capabilities.
In the search bar's place, I've placed the Lifehacker folder full of bookmarks and editor contacts I detailed above, and then links to the web memory service Evernote, the location-based Foursquare network, and the Facebook client. Coming around the corner, there's Seesmic for Twitter checking and posting, and Remember the Milk for to-do lists. The Maps and Browser icons remain where they were by default, and I put Gmail in a fairly comfortable place on the left.
Finally, on the right-hand screen, I've moved the Power bar widget down one row, then loaded a few helpful settings and utilities below it. FlashLight is a goofy-but-useful app that turns the entire screen white, so you can find your way around a dark kitchen. Next to it, I tapped and held, selected Shortcuts, then Settings, then selected Bluetooth settings. That way, I could have quick access to the devices and computers my phone was hooked up with by Bluetooth, right under the on/off Bluetooth switch on the Power bar. I put a link to the Car Home, with its big buttons and car-oriented shortcuts, under the GPS switch, and that widget on the far right is an on/off switch and battery tracker for JuiceDefender, a very geeky app that tries to save battery life by automating internet connections and Wi-Fi use.
It must be noted that if you add 15 social widgets that constantly update, your phone might start to see some slowdown, especially when returning home after using an app. That aside, your phone's home screens are yours to arrange, optimize, mess with, and make your own. It's no big effort to keep a photo frame of your kids or pets on the far-right screen for quick bragging rights, or keep a widget with the latest news on your favorite baseball team on hand.
You can similarly customize your phone Notification bar on top to keep you informed, and that's precisely what we're covering next.