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6 Ways to Customize Android that iOS Users Can Only Dream About

cyanogenmod-header

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.

android-keyboards-and-input-methods

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.

swype-on-android

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.

select-home-screen-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.

widgetlocker

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.

Better yet, Google doesn’t place the same restrictions on developers Apple and Microsoft do – these third-party browsers are proper browsers that use their own rendering engines. Firefox for Android uses the same rendering engine that Firefox on your desktop does, and Opera Mobile has its own rendering engine, too. On iOS, these browsers must be “shells” around the built-in browser. In fact, although Chrome for iPhone is forced to be a shell around the built-in Safari browser, Chrome for iPhone isn’t even as fast as Safari because Chrome isn’t allowed to access Safari’s optimized JavaScript library and can’t include its own.

Although you can switch browsers on a jailbroken iOS device, iOS browsers like Chrome and Firefox will remain shells over Safari with inferior performance.

select-android-browser

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.

select-email-app

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

Comments (46)

  1. Veovis Muad'dib

    Change your keyboard – iOS has custom keyboards, including swype.
    Swap homescreen launchers – iOS has multiple homescreen launchers.
    Choose a lockscreen – iOS has multiple lockscreens.
    Set default browser – iOS can set default browsers.
    Switch email clients – iOS can set default email clients, though I believe it will still use the default when emailing from within another application.
    Install a new operating system – Not only does iOS have custom roms, but early iOS devices can also run Android.

    I’m not an apple fanboy by any means, I use both OSes happily, (As well as Windows 7 and Arch Linux and when I have a Mac available OS X) but when every single point on this list is a lie I feel it needs to be addressed.

  2. Sh4d0wy

    @veovis you are so misinformed it really quite startling. On a stock iOS device you cannot do ANY of these things, Apple has locked the system down to prevent this kind of functionality entirely.
    If are willing to jailbreak your device (assuming a jb is even available) THEN you can make these changes. The point of the article was to show what a stock unrooted android device is capable of.
    Please get your facts correct before calling people out.

  3. Anon

    @ Sh4d0wy you need to root to instal CyanogenMod . ….so you are not entirely correct.Please get your facts correct before calling people out.

  4. jimmy

    Does anyone else think these features aren’t very important? Changing the animations when you lock it or the colour of the keyboard buttons? If people are willing to spend good money on doing this kind of rubbish then im in the wrong business.

  5. DaveS

    Its not about colors or animations (although these modifications do allow for changing that)

    Whats important is you can customize how it works.

    For example, I switched to the Swype keyboard (mentioned above) over a year ago and never looked back.
    Swype is a gesture based keyboard. For me, it gives a huge increase in typing speed over your typical peck peck peck mobile keyboard.

  6. bull

    @veovis, @sh4dowy, and @anon

    granted that the article could be more specific in what exactly android can do that iOS cant do out of the box, there is still the point that android can do more from its stock os and without having to root than iOS can.

    I’ve had both systems and frankly Android can do a lot more and is more fun to use out of the box than iOS. I’ve never JB the iOS but i would like to say that i THINK rooting an android device is easier than JB an iOS. This is my opinion of course…

    Anyway to get to my point, lets not burn down villages because the article was slightly vague in how it was presented. The idea behind the article still stand true.

  7. Eco

    Why are you thinking that mentioned features are SO important? I don`t understand … I`m not dreamind for them on my iPhone :)

  8. robynsveil

    @ecd: which is why you are an Apple user :)

  9. Cambo

    I think the basic premise is pointing out the two vastly different cultures in the OS. Not saying one is right or wrong, because I’m sure you can point out the same number of differences that iOS can do that Android cannot. I’m not sure of the point of the article other than to piss off iOS users and start a flame war. I would hope there would be an equivalent article coming out of items iOS devices can do that Android “cannot”.

    All of the items above (except for installing another ROM) don’t require Root.

    One OS is not “better” than the other- both have become solid performers. Both drive the other to innovate and do better.

    It’s a matter of your personal preference.

  10. Rolo

    ECO.

    I cost more than all the clothes you are wearing right now.
    I will be obsolete in less than one year.
    I will suck the power out of your battery, I will drain all of it in 3, 2, 1…
    With love…

    …your iPhone.

  11. Kevalin

    Oh, you guys… shut up. It’s just an article. No one’s talkin’ about your Mama…

  12. Scott

    As someone who has tried ICS on my LG G2X and found that it was great except I could not answer half my phone calls, I was forced to go back to the stability of Gingerbread. However, I really preferred the way the screen looked with ICS. Now, with the Holo Launcher, I am able to get that back (and I was not aware of that until I read this article today). Thanks very much for the information!

  13. Chris

    @Kevalin

    My Mama uses Android. Because iOS is for non-technical hipster wannabes. LOL

  14. Citrus Rain

    :D I love K-9 Mail!

    I got HTC Thunderbolt 4G with CyanogenMod 7.1.1.2
    I ocassionally switch between ADW launcher and Go Launcher
    Browser of choice is Opera Mobile, but I do use OverSkreen when I want to see a link and continue checking updates without waiting for the page to load. (like on a work break)
    I use K-9 Mail simply because it’s Doctor Who related.

    On my Asus Transformer, I had Chrome, Dolphin and OverSkreen installed.
    Tried K-9 on it, but it didn’t have a good tablet version. So I just use the Gmail app.
    Currently the tablet is in limbo between the stock rom and a jellybean build. Haven’t had the time to reinstall the build with wifi working.

  15. Citrus Rain

    Oh, and I have Swiftkey X on my phone, and Swiftkey for tablets on my tablet.

  16. Diego A.

    Android rules!
    All the people that is sayin’ that iOS is better or even it works as good as Android does is because they are tryin’ to feel better after have made the big mistake of buy a full-of-restrictions iPhone.

    -Galaxy S2 Owner

  17. Rick

    No iTunes is worth the price of admission for me…

  18. Gireesh

    @ALL :P :P

    This article says.. For having these features on iOS you’ve to JAILBREAK it.
    Whereas in STOCK (UNROOTED) Android device, you need not to bother about ROOTING thing ;)
    Nice article tough :)
    But.. we all know that already.. right friends? :P

  19. att

    You forgot tasker (android app).Even with ios jailbreak, the level of customization is unreal

  20. asszem

    I changed my iphone 4 to a sgs2, exactly because of these features, so they are very important for me. But i have many friends that are very happy the way ios just works for them.

  21. Bennybbc

    Diego A., I have never owned an iPhone but a small amount of time with one quickly convinced me that Android was the OS for me. So I’m not going to defend the iPhone.

    That being said…Your semi-literate android fanboy stutterings aren’t doing anything to make Android devices or Android users look good in anyone’s eyes. Please move to the back of the room and keep your head down in case any of the iPhone fanboys see you and want to use you as an example of Android users.

    Galaxy S3 owner
    Former Droid X owner

  22. Jeff

    I use K-9 email and I like it much better than GMail. But I have not been able to get rid of GMail. When I get an incoming email, I get alerts from both email clients. If I try to disable GMail, I don’t get alerts at all. Does anyone know how to do this?

    Thanks.

  23. James

    Very nice article, and as Gireesh said, it’s something very well known by all the Android users.

    @Bennybbc
    Hahaha, you’re so funny, almost like a real clown!

  24. Citrus Rain

    @Jeff

    I can’t remember what I did originally, and I don’t have Gmail on my current rom, but try going to the applications list and wiping Gmail’s data. If that doesn’t work, try and sign out of gmail.

  25. Rusty

    Market share says everything. Apple is a master at selling things that work (for the masses) and Android for those that like to tinker, both have their places. What bugs me about the Android market is this example. My sister decides to buy a cheap tablet (I know, a bad attribute to choose). She buys a Nook (flame suit on), takes it home, it doesn’t work (she didn’t give me all the details). Takes it back, they can’t get it to work. This goes on for a couple of days, she returns it. Being very frustrated (very), she decides to look at an iPad, end of story. All I can say is she absolutely loves the iPad and has had no issues of any kind. Now before you go nuts remember, perception is everything and the perception is that Apple’s stuff, while spendy, just plain works. I can live with either side and I do love to tinker but, with that said, have to say Apple products work.

  26. Citrus Rain

    @Gireesh

    For “Install a New Operating System (Custom ROM)” you have to root it.

  27. Erich

    Jeff, just go into your gmail account in the gmail app, and when you’re at your inbox, click the menu button then “more” then “settings” then choose your account. Scroll all the way to the bottom and uncheck email notifications.

  28. Chris

    @Rusty

    I have an iPad too, and I feel like I’ve wasted my money. Everytime I try and do something productive on it, I feel like I have one hand tied behind my back. I’ve taken it to meetings, but for taking notes It’s terrible, I’d rather use One-Note on a laptop, or even a pen and paper to take notes with than that thing.

    The games are decent, but using “virtual” buttons on a touch screen is no where near as accurate as the real thing. And usually ends in frustration due to lack of precision control.

    I tried to sit down and plan my family vacation, and purchase online tickets on the iPad, but eventually ended up doing it on a PC so I could actually print out our itenary, as well as my reciepts from the online purchases. And before you mention the poorly implemented printing “apps” on the iPad. Let me just say, I can print from my PC without having to pay for an “app” or sign up for some online service.

    So for any of you thinking about buying an iPad, unless you’ve got money to burn, don’t bother.

  29. Cosa

    iOS seems to be goosd for people like my father who just want to use the phone as is, and are OK with the apps and media avaiable through i-Tunes. It is smooth and polished. My brother’s is integrated out of the box to sync with his Airbook and iPad, which is great if you can afford Apple hardware and want the autoset up without any hassel. I did the same with my Android but had to got through a little more setup.

    Android is my choice since I do a lot of tech tinkering with the phone and use it for business and entertainment all of the time.

    I have dealt with both for a long time. I don’t like not being able to use Office or Flash because Apple can make an extra dime if I have to use their product instead of one I prefer. (Most of the time you just can’t do what you want as Apple has no alternative anyway.)

    All that to say you have a choice. Use what you like. Apple will have to step it up though. Android just out sold them 4 to 1 this quarter, so people like the options Android affords.

  30. melzee

    The article mentions some great customizations that speed up the users interaction with it and help complete tasks quicker. At the same time it makes for great eye candy. I have a Nexus One with Android 2.3.7 Oxygen1Mod ROM which in my opinion is the best alternative for this device now. The stock gingerbread runs well but space is limited for apps which just keep growing fatter.

    However, Android OS is basically a dumb phone or tablet for low vision and blind users. The Talkback feature is cumbersome and complicated to use and there is no set standard to make all apps accessible. Nokia phones with Symbian OS in the 90’s could run basic functions much quicker with Mobile Speak then Android can with Talkback.

    I was very excited about Android when it was released and had high hopes of it being a smarter and more accessible system .That hasn’t happened yet. Android OS functionality is highly limited with Talkback and it has no screen magnification feature that Symbian Windows and iOS have had for ages.

    With this fact in mind, it is fare to say that Android although somewhat functional for productive use is only targeting sighted users and has failed as a universal platform. The amount of time Google put in the self-driving car (which is awesome by the way), it could have done the same or less to make its OS fully accessible in the initial stage of development. Costly third party apps for Android are coming up with basic functionality grouped into one app, which is no different from what an early 2000’s Nokia E series can do.

    Last month I switched to iOS to enjoy the smartness of a modern phone and tablet. I got an iPad and learned to use Voiceover and magnifier in a day. Almost all tasks I could do on a computer is accomplished on the ipad as lots of apps are fully accessible. A truly equal opportunity operating system comes from Apple with mostly limitless functionality. It may not be as flashy and cool, but it is fast and works flawlessly.

    I don’t think Google will build a version of Android from scratch to exceed iOS’s convenience and functionality, thus leaving me and many other low vision and blind individuals the only option to switch to Apple products.

  31. melzee

    @Chris
    If you have a wireless printer setup at home, iPad can detect it and you can print directly. I use my ipad for taking notes and planing travel without any issues. It works superbly and prints pages directly to pdf with added apps and paper with Epson 845. I guess intuitive systems are not for everyone. The print feature is built in so no need for another printing app.

  32. Dantv

    2 Big reasons I won’t touch Android:
    1) Spyware and Viruses
    2) Everything is recorded a la Carrier IQ

    Screw Google, I am NOT your product!

  33. markisanandoid

    All the programmers I know (I was one and so know a few), my girlfriend, her friends, my friends, and my family have all switched to or already had an android phone or tablet. Unrooted, rooted, or simply loved, Android has it all and more and the hardware so much more powerful.

    No one seems to mention that Android devices don’t mind communicating with anything either whereas iphones won’t even bluetooth to my S II – how odd is that in this era? i-anythings are so dull drab and dull dull dull and dumb.

  34. Dark Reality

    “Screw Google, I am not your product!” Oh the irony. First-generation Android devices match and exceed the features of the latest iPhone, and Apple has decided it’s cheaper to sue than to actually compete, and their fans apologize for them, and come out of the woodwork every time Android to crow about it. They are the mindless drones Apple said they were freeing IBM’s customers from in the 1984 Super Bowl ad. Where Android users are happy to have a platform that, more or less, lets them do whatever, most just laugh off the iPhone as the missing link between the dumphone and the “pocket computer that has a phone in it”. Apple courtroom antics aside, the iPhone is cool with me. So are flip/camera phones. I just want something more.

    Anyway…

    Changing the lock screen isn’t that easy. Unlike keyboards and launchers, your lock screen is baked into the system and there’s no way to disable it. WidgetLocker and the others use tricks to try to suppress the stock lock screen, but half the time, after unlocking one you have to unlock the other. Only if your ROM supports disabling the stock lock screen can you cleanly run an aftermarket one. Maybe some Android phones come like that, but none I have owned did. Now that I’m running CyanogenMod, I happen to like their lock screen, so even though I could disable it, I simply choose not to.

    Also, Go anything is crap. I mean, it’s not bad, it’s just freemium, with paid themes/add-ons around every corner. There are solid apps for sale and for free that replace each one of their apps (or rather, that their apps are knock-offs of) that don’t try to nickel and dime you at every turn. Using Go Launcher Ex in Jelly Bean or ICS is just reprehensible; at least use Nova, if not Apex (best one I’ve found). An Android 4.x-optimized launcher will just work better in ICS/JB. But these are the things you learn using the platform. Like the silly comment about spyware and viruses. Don’t install dodgy apps nobody’s ever heard of and don’t pirate and you won’t have a problem. People wanna pirate a $3 game and they get a malware infection, then they want to remove the pirated software and say it’s Google’s fault. No it isn’t. It’s your own damn fault for being a cheapskate and a thief, and if you must defer blame, it’s the person who replaced the app’s or game’s DRM with malware.

  35. kenkimg

    Android is a little bit like a Pandora’s Box. User gets to see inside and to a deeper extent make modifications (also get into trouble if not careful). IOS is much more wysiwyg. Must be satisfied with what u see; you have to completely trust someone else’s thinking on how it works; Designed to keep the user out of the inner workings, one glove size fits all. Up to each & every user which is the best way to go…

  36. Paul

    Swype doesn’t exist for the iPhone, so how are you guys using it?

  37. Dark Reality

    “Also get in trouble if not careful”. You’re referring to the possibility of “bricking” your device — causing it to be unrecoverable. More and more devices are coming out that cannot be hard bricked, only soft bricked. Mine’s one of them. I can erase \system and then flash the stock recovery. Now it doesn’t boot or do anything. Screwed? Nope. All I have to do is flash the ClockWorkMod recovery (CWM) and flash a ROM. Unbricked. It’s that easy. If you screw up a ROM and boot loop (or can’t boot) you can simply flash another. Or flash back to complete stock.

  38. Eco

    @Androids Why you Android users are so arrogant whit your OS? Why can`t you just live with your OS and don`t try to prove that your OS is the best of the best of the best? Rememer MIB?? :)

  39. nettie

    i want my phone understand me, not i’m understanding the phone.

    thats why i choose android

  40. salada

    @DANTV Carrier IQ was on iphone as well, remember? Remember when Apple got caught tracking all your movements to a database on your phone and then stored it on your computer so someone could see where you’ve been for everyday for as long as you had your phone? There has been malware that has slipped past Apple’s strict QC as well. If you arent a complete douche and have a think about what you install on your phone there’s no reason why Android is any less secure than iOS. Oh and since you can root an Android phone you have a much better chance of removing malware or blocking it (using Droidwall) or similar anyway.

  41. Citrus Rain

    @Eco

    Because all OSes are crap. But I’ll just name the mobile ones for now.

    iOS is crap because it’s a walled garden connected to a kill switch at Apple HQ.
    Android is crap because of the garbage modifications and bloatware manufacturers and carriers add to it.
    ASOP Android roms are crap depending on how well they are taken care of.
    Blackberry OS is crap because RIM is having a hard time keeping up.
    Windows Phone 7 is crap because nobody makes apps for it.

  42. dariel

    You guys are so pathetic. Android runs on a Linux OS of course you are gonna be able to modify it more than iOS because that is what Linux was originally built for, an open source OS which anybody can tinker
    with to their desires. Both OS’s have their pros and con, in the long run iphones will last more than androids and barely freeze while androids have the tendency to always be causing problems. I’ve used both OS and i personally like the iphone better, but thats just me.

  43. r

    in the end, it’s all about playing with toys

  44. Paranoid Android

    Can people stop referring to Android as a smartphone… Android is the operating system, not the phone.

    You can’t dispute the fact that Android offers FAR, FAR MORE flexibility and freedom than iOS. But you can’t look past the fact that iOS is easier/quicker to “officially” update than Android.

    Another awesome thing about Android is you’re not forced to use one phone — you can pick what you want (Samsung, HTC, Motorola) — all which offer handsets with superior specs to that of the iPhone.

    I used to be an iPhone/iOS fanboy, but once I discovered what freedom (Android) feels like, there was no way I was going back to being locked up in a polished cage (iOS) again.

  45. jaydub

    No one in the comments above mentioned Graffiti as an alternative “keyboard” for text entry. I grew up on the Palm in the early days and can write Graffiti nearly as fast as I can type. Furthermore, I don’t have to be staring at the keyboard while I enter text. I tried Swype but probably didn’t give it enough time to become proficient, and besides, when entering a lot of numbers, there is no way that Swype can guess what the sequence is. The Graffiti app that I eventually found in the app store (as a precondition to my buying a smartphone) also predicts what words I may be typing and often saves some “keystrokes.”.

    Moreover, I am a fan of open source, a fan of community development, and a fan of open systems, so for me iPhone, iMac, iPad, iTunes, iXYZ were never much of an option. Give iPhone much of the credit for clarifying what a smartphone can be, but IMHO give Android credit for taking it to the next level.

  46. Noob

    I have both ios and android( ipod touch 4g(soon to be 5g) and samsung galaxy s3). I like android for the customization and ios for the awesome games

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