Android is very customizable – many of its features are just defaults and can be swapped out for third-party alternatives without any rooting required. Some of these things are possible on a jailbroken iOS device, while some remain impossible.
You can replace nearly anything included with the Android operating system, including some things not mentioned here – for example, you can install a replacement dialer or contacts app if you like, too.
Image Credit: Johan Larsson on Flickr
Change Your Keyboard
Android’s default keyboard is one of many options. Without even rooting your device, you can install third-party keyboards and switch between them from the Language and input screen in your device’s settings.
This allows third-party developers to experiment with new and different keyboards that may work better for you. Popular alternative keyboards include Swype, which is included by default with some Android smartphones and tablets and available as a free beta from Swype’s website, and SwiftKey, available for $4 from Google Play. Swype allows you to type words by “swiping” over their letters with your fingers, while SwiftKey uses natural language processing to automatically guess the words you meant to type and the words that you’ll type next.
Swap Home Screen Launchers
The default home screen is just another app that can be swapped out. If you’re looking for something with a completely different look or more options, you can install a third-party launcher from Google Play. There’s a thriving ecosystem of third-party launchers out there. GO Launcher EX is a very popular one – it includes skins, widgets, and many configuration options. If you’re using Gingerbread or Froyo, older versions of Android, but like the Android 4.0+ Ice Cream Sandwich look, you can try Holo Launcher to get a similar, updated look.
To select your default launcher, tap the Home button on your device after installing a launcher. You’ll be prompted to select a launcher.
Choose a Lock Screen
You can change your lock screen, too. Alternative lock screens offer different themes and additional functionality. For example, WidgetLocker allows you to add widgets to your lock screen and move them around to design your own ideal lock screen. Custom lock screens aren’t quite as popular as custom launchers – there aren’t nearly as many custom lock screens, and most of them seem to be paid apps.
Set Your Default Browser
Android allows you to install third-party browsers and set them as your default browser, allowing you to ignore the built-in browser (Internet or Chrome) entirely. When you tap a link after installing a new browser app on Android, you’ll be prompted to select your default browser.
Although you can switch browsers on a jailbroken iOS device, iOS browsers like Chrome and Firefox will remain shells over Safari with inferior performance.
Switch Email Clients
Unlike on iOS, you can also install different email clients and set them as the default email app that appears when you tap an email address link anywhere in the OS. Third-party email applications aren’t that popular (Android’s included Gmail app is very good for Gmail users), but Microsoft and Yahoo produce their own apps for Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail – each of which can be your default mail app, if you like. There are also other email apps, like K-9 Mail.
If you don’t like Gmail, you’ll never have to see it. You can’t say that for the default email app on iOS.
Install a New Operating System (Custom ROM)
Android is open source, so the community can build on its source code and create modified versions with additional features – these are known as custom ROMs. The most popular custom ROM is CyanogenMod, a custom ROM that can replace the included Android OS on a wide variety of devices. CyanogenMod is made possible by Android’s open-source nature – it isn’t just a series of hacks on top of a closed-source operating system build; the CyanogenMod developers start with Android’s source code and build on it to create their own community-developed version.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 08/10/12