5 ways to make Android 2.1 work like Froyo

If you're envious of Android users who have Android 2.2, don't be. Here are some ways to get the same features.

Still waiting for Android 2.2? Given the slow pace of Froyo's rollout to Android phones, sometimes it feels like waiting for Godot. And if you're especially unlucky, the new version of the operating system won't even make it to your phone.

But if you're impatient for Froyo, or if your phone will never get it, there's something you can do -- give Android 2.1 some of the features of 2.2.

Even without the update, you can tether your computer to your smartphone, control your phone with your voice, get additional home screens and more.

Note: This article was written based on tests using a Droid X, so there might be slight differences when you try them on your Android phone. In addition, because Android's interface has been tweaked for some smartphone models, the tips in this article might not all work on all Android 2.1 phones.

Tether your laptop

Probably the niftiest new feature of Froyo is its ability to tether an Android phone to a laptop -- in other words, it can give your computer broadband wireless access through your smartphone.

Are you an Android 2.1 user (or an owner of the original Droid, which will not be given this feature)? Don't fret -- you can do all this without Froyo.

And in some ways, it's even better, because you may not have to pay the $20 or so fee that carriers tack on for the rights to tether a smartphone. Service contracts are often not clear about whether you are allowed to tether this way free of charge. But I've known several people who do it without paying the fee, and their service providers haven't said a word.

It's exceptionally easy, thanks to an app called PDAnet. Just install PDAnet on an Android phone, and load the accompanying software on a computer running Windows 7, Vista or XP or Mac OS X 10.5 or later. Then connect a USB cable between the computer and the smartphone, and then run the software on both devices. The computer will be connected to the Internet via the smartphone.

When you're connected, the PDAnet app on your phone gives connection information such as the amount of data you've transferred.

Instead of using a USB cable, you can connect your laptop to your smartphone via a Bluetooth connection, although in that case you'll have to go through the sometimes problematic steps of Bluetooth pairing.

There are two versions of the software. The free version has one limitation -- you can't visit secure Web sites that use the HTTPS protocol, such as the ones you use when you pay for something you buy online. To visit secure Web sites, you'll have to buy the paid version for $23.95. (According to the PDAnet Web site, there currently is a limited-time price of $18.95.)

If you use this software, you'll need to check the terms of service with your wireless provider, because your contract may not allow tethering.

Note: You may have problems using this software on a Droid X phone with a Mac, as I did. Here's the fix: When you connect the Droid X to a Mac via USB, you'll need to go to your notifications list on the Droid X and select "USB Mass Storage." You may also need to turn off the screen on the Droid X but leave the power on.

Speed up Android

By all accounts, one of the best things about Froyo is that it makes Android phones faster and more responsive. While there's no direct way to speed up an Android 2.1 phone, there are some steps you can take to make it move a bit more quickly.

The first isn't a surefire solution. I'm including it here because some people report that it works, but others say it doesn't work. I'll leave it up to your discretion to try it if you want.

Android multitasks, and many people don't close down an app in Android when they no longer want to use it. They just head back to the main screen and run another app. So that first or second or third app might still be running, sucking up memory and processor time.

Android includes routines for cleaning up apps that you no longer use, but some people believe it doesn't work as well as it should. So they use a task killer that lets them view all of the currently running apps and background services, and they kill any they don't want to run -- either automatically (for example, when the phone isn't being used) or manually.

There are several task killers you can get for free from the Android Market. I tried two of them: Task Manager from Adao Team and Task Killer from ReChild. Both work similarly -- they display all the apps currently running with a checkbox next to each, and they let you kill any app you no longer want to use by unchecking the box. I found that Task Killer displayed more tasks and services to kill than did Task Manager, although to be honest I didn't notice any speed difference after using either of them.

Will either of these speed up your Android 2.1 phone? The only way to find out is to try them out yourself.

There are others steps you can take if you want to speed up Android 2.1 -- they mainly involve shutting down background services and apps you don't often use. For example, having your smartphone constantly check for e-mail may slow it down and certainly sucks up battery life. You can have your phone check less frequently, or you can do the checking yourself manually.

To change the polling interval for e-mail, tap the Email app, press the Menu key, and select Email settings --> Email delivery. From the screen that appears, tap the down arrow next to "Fetch schedule" and select Manually.

You may also want to turn off other features you don't use all the time, such as GPS or Wi-Fi. Most Android phones have a power widget for doing that. You can use that widget to turn off any features you don't need, and to turn them back on when you want to use them.

It's also a good idea to uninstall downloaded apps that you no longer use, in case any of them automatically run background services you don't need. And if after downloading an app you notice your phone slows down, uninstall it. It's surprising how frequently badly behaving apps can hurt your phone's performance.

Get voice control

Google's Voice Actions for Android is a great free app that lets you control your phone using vocal commands to do things such as load Web pages, send text messages and call contacts. The bad news: although it doesn't ship with Froyo, only phones with Froyo can use it.

But Android 2.1 users need not feel left out -- the free Vlingo for Android lets you use your voice to dial contacts, send e-mails, text messages and tweets, and more.

Vlingo can't do everything that Google's Voice Actions can do. It can't, for example, load a Web page or tell your Android device to play music. But it can do a few tricks that Voice Actions doesn't do, such as launch apps. And it includes a text-to-speech feature that will read e-mails and text messages to you.

Vlingo is remarkably easy to use: Run the program and talk into your phone, and it does what you tell it. When I tried it, I could dictate a text message or e-mail and tell it who I wanted to send the message to; Vlingo opened the appropriate app and popped in my text, waiting for me to either send it or edit it. When I told it to find coffee shops in Cambridge, or Italian restaurants in Boston, it searched local listings via Google Maps and displayed the results. It properly opened apps when I asked it to.

As with all voice apps, don't expect Vlingo to properly recognize all the names you speak into it, and you may have to do some editing of text you send. But still, it does a remarkable job.

Get Flash on Android 2.1

One of Froyo's most notable features is its ability to run Adobe Flash. If you don't have Froyo, you won't be able to play Flash -- or will you?

A site called AddictiveTips claims to have found a way to run Flash on some Android 2.1 phones. The process involves downloading a zipped Flash app to your PC, copying it to the SD card of your Android 2.1 phone, using an app called Apps Installer to install the Flash app, and then rebooting.

However, that doesn't work on every Android phone. I couldn't get it to work on my Droid X, for example. People have reported that it works on the HTC EVO, the Nexus One and the Droid Eris. It may or may not work on your phone, but if you feel the need for Flash now, it might be worth a try.

Get more home screens

Many phone manufacturers tweak the Android interface -- in fact, one reason Froyo is coming to different phones at different times is because those manufacturers need to tweak Froyo for their phones. For example, the number of home screens users can have with Android 2.1 varies from phone to phone. The original Droid came with three home screens; with Froyo that number increases to five. The Droid X, on the other hand, came with seven of them.

If your phone doesn't have as many home screens as you want, you don't need to wait for Froyo to get more of them. You can get up to seven now using a free app called LauncherPro, which is available in the Android Market.

LauncherPro does more than give you up to seven home screens. It also animates certain actions -- when you tap the Application Tray, for example, the app icons fly into place -- and then they fly out of place when you leave the Application Tray. You can hide apps in the Application Tray as well. And if you have a trackball, you can use it to scroll through your screens.

Depending on your phone, you may have problems running LauncherPro. At first, I couldn't get it to work with my Droid X. I was able to fix that by downloading an app called Home Switcher from the Android Market after I downloaded LauncherPro. Home Switcher lets you choose whether to use your normal home screen or a home screen replacement app like LauncherPro.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor to Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

This story, "5 ways to make Android 2.1 work like Froyo" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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