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How-To Geek

Lesson 2: Managing Your Installed Applications

Explaining permissions, what you should be paying attention to

Permissions are a many varied and often confusing mess on Android and the latest versions haven’t done much to fix this.

Whenever you install an application from the Play Store, you’ll be asked to accept permissions the app needs to have to run. Basically what this means is, the app needs to do stuff to your device, such as write to the storage in order to save preferences, or monitor the state of phone calls so that it pauses when someone calls you.

Almost anything an app does is harmless but that doesn’t mean you can simply turn a blind eye, especially if the app is kind of dodgy and needs to have permissions unrelated to what it does. The following are many of the permissions you will find (though there are more). If there is anything you may have a question about that we don’t cover here, we recommend you do a search or ask How-To Geek in the comments before proceeding with your install.

Hardware controls

Control vibrator – Not too much to worry about here. This simply means an application can control the vibrate function on your device such as to alert you to incoming calls and messages.

Take pictures – Simply, an app can control your camera. We’d say this is something you might want to pay a moderate amount of attention to if you’re using an app for which there’s no reasonable need for it to use the camera. Use common sense here and you should be fine.

Phone calls

Read phone state and identity – The reason this permission exists is to allow an app to determine whether it should pause when you take a phone call. Think of how Pandora or other streaming music apps pause automatically when the phone rings and you’ll see that it has this permission.

This permission can also be used to identify your phone and some app developers use this permission to ensure their product isn’t being pirated. In any event, keep an eye on this even though it’s largely harmless.

Your location

Fine (GPS) location – This will allow apps to pinpoint (fine) location. You probably already use this in map and navigation apps.

Coarse (network-based) location – Nearly identical to GPS only less precise (coarse).

Network Communication

Create Bluetooth connection – Your greatest danger would be if the Bluetooth device you’re connecting to is somehow insecure and allows someone to hack into it, and it exchanges data that you can compromise your security. We don’t know of anything like this off the top of our heads, and we don’t think this is something to concern yourself with.

Full internet access – Far and away, this is the permission you want to pay attention to. Most apps will often request this permission though many may never need it. Still, you have to remember, any malware needs a vector through which to spread so take a minute and ask yourself if that sketchy app you’re about to install really needs Internet access. For example, would you give a stopwatch app Internet access? Then again, maybe that stopwatch has a feature that uploads your times to the cloud so you can keep track of your progress. In the end, pay very close attention to this permission and do your research.

View network state, view Wi-Fi state – This has no more impact than to check whether your device is connected via Wi-Fi or mobile data. Not much to worry about here.

Services that cost you money

Make phone calls – Ask yourself what the application does. Is it a dialer, or some such other app that needs to make phone calls? The real risk here is that an application could use your phone to call a service that then charges you money. Just know that this is one of those permissions you really need to pay attention to.

Send SMS or MMS – Similar to above, in that a rogue app could conceivably send texts on your behalf such as signing you up for services that you don’t want. Again, pay attention to this one.

Storage

Modify/delete SD card contents – There’s nothing unusual about an application needing to access your SD card. Where else are you going to store your photos and texts? But, with great power comes great responsibility and this permission has the potential to wreak great damage.

System tools

Prevent phone from sleeping – There’s a difference between an application, such as a video player or e-reader that need to keep the device in some state of wakefulness, and one that prevents the device from sleeping. We cover “wakelocks” at the end of Lesson 3. This permission isn’t anything to be concerned about.

Modify global system settings – This also isn’t much to be concerned over. Many applications alter settings as needed, particularly widgets or notifications.

Read sync settings – If you use an application such as Facebook or Twitter and you want it to notify you, then it will need to know if sync settings are on. This permission is quite harmless.

Automatically start at boot – This one you might want to keep an eye on. It’s important to know whether an application really needs to start at boot. This may be harmless or it could indicate something more troubling.

Restart other applications – This merely means an application can tell Android to kill another app’s process though that app needs to be able to restart itself.

Retrieve running applications – This has the potential for trouble as it could allow a bad app to steal your data. That said, we don’t think there’s too much to worry about here.

Set preferred applications – This is pretty simple and shouldn’t be worrying. This simply means an application can set itself to perform tasks by default such as opening web links or e-mails in a preferred browser or client, respectively. The greatest impact this will have is if you actually don’t want to change your preferred application but that doesn’t necessarily qualify as harmful.

Your accounts

Discover known accounts – If you use an application that allows you to sign up using your Facebook or Google account, then this is definitely useful. All this permission does is allow the application to “discover” if you have those accounts, it doesn’t tell the app anything about the account, and you still have to give it further permission to actually access that account.

Your personal information

Read calendar data, write calendar data – Pay attention to this one. Obviously if the app has a need to know and modify your calendar then it’s no problem but it could be a perfect way for a rogue app to discover your schedule and other personal data.

Read contact data – This one is very important. You don’t want to grant permission willy-nilly here. This constitutes a serious privacy issue if a rogue app can access your contacts. Pay attention to this one and make sure the app you’re installing is legitimate and really needs to access your contacts.

Your Play Store apps

Tap the upper-left corner of the Play Store to access a slide-out menu. Here you’ll see applicable actions associated with your account – “Store home,” “My apps,” “Shop apps,” “My wishlist,” and “Redeem” – as well as the “settings.”

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If you tap “My apps” you’ll be able to see the apps that are “installed” on your device as well as “all” the apps that you’ve ever purchased or downloaded for your account.

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Settings

Tap “Settings” and then you can decide if, among other things, apps notify you when there are updates, whether apps auto-update, and if new apps auto-add widgets to the home screen. This last part can be a concern if you experience home screen lag (explained in Lesson 4) or you may simply not want apps automatically adding stuff to your home screen without your input.

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Managing installed applications with Apps settings

To assume total control over the apps installed on your device, you need to use the settings that come with Android. You can access the apps settings in the same way you access all the other settings.

When you first open the “Apps” settings, you see your apps displayed in four categories: Downloaded, Running, All, and Disabled. At the bottom of each, you can see how much space your apps occupy as well as how much RAM “running” apps use.

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Note, on the “running” apps screen, you can switch between running and cached processes. Cached processes are things that are suspended in the background until you need them again. This saves time and improves performances over constantly stopping and restarting things.

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On all three remaining screen, you can access the settings from the upper-right corner of the screen, which simply allow you to sort everything by size, and reset app preferences. On Samsung, you can press the menu button to get a similar menu. If you reset your app preferences, they will all revert to their default settings. This might be helpful to fix odd app behavior but remember, it will undo a lot of your customizations, so use this wisely. Note, the Samsung interface offers a few more options over the Android equivalent.

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App info

Tap on any app to open its “app info” screen. Here you are given some basic information on what version it is, how much storage it uses, cache data, defaults, and permissions (discussed previously).

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So what can you do with this information? There certainly is a lot of it and much of it may already seem immediately apparently but let’s go through everything so you know how to manage your apps.

Force stop/Uninstall updates/Disable

In this first section, you force the app to stop, uninstall updates, and disable it altogether.

There’s a couple of reasons why you would want to perform these actions. Let’s say you notice an app you just can’t quit, or you have an app that’s using an abnormal amount of resources or sucking your battery dry. Forcing it to stop can be a preferable option to restarting your device, if only to see if that particular app is the troublemaker.

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On the other hand, let’s say the app maker pushes out an update, which does more harm than good or they make changes that you simply don’t like (it happens). You can uninstall that update or updates to revert to an earlier app version.

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Then you can simply “disable” apps, which is a welcome relief to anyone who might not want to use a lot of the apps that come pre-installed on their devices. On the Samsung interface, this is simply called “turn off.”

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No, you’re not technically uninstalling the app, it’s still on your device, occupying storage space, but it’s no longer accessible to your system and it will disappear from your app tray, which is a great way to simply de-clutter things.

Clear data/cache

Clearing app and cache data is a sure way to free up storage space but caveats abound. In many cases, clearing data can undo personalizations and other simple things like sign-in information. So for example, if you clear the data from the Facebook app, you will have to sign back in the next time you launch the app.

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Cache data, on the other hand, is fairly safe to delete; however, bear in mind that when you use that app again in the future, you will have to re-download any cached data, which means that if you’re on a limited data plan, it will eat into your monthly allotment. Nevertheless, if you suddenly find yourself short on space, clearing your cache can quickly regain some breathing room.

Quickly uninstalling apps

Note that above we talk about uninstalling updates and disabling built-in apps. If you are simply looking to uninstall an app you downloaded, you can do that in the “Apps” settings, of course, but there’s an even easier way.

Open your app drawer and press and hold the app you want to remove, the app drawer will then recede as if you were going to place a shortcut, but note that you also can drag the item to “App info” and “Uninstall.”

If you’re using a Samsung device, this will be labeled “remove.”

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If you do this with a built-in app such as the Play Store or Maps, you will simply be given the option to open “app info.” Remember, you can’t uninstall the default, built-in apps but you can disable them.

Conclusion

With this we have given you the knowledge to easily manage your apps without needing to download a single add-on app. By being able to control app activity and their associated shortcuts, you can help ensure your Android experience is smooth and clutter free. You also can now take control of your app permissions and make better, more informed decisions about what you install.

In the next lesson, we will talk at length about how to best prolong your devices battery life and hopefully allow it to, at the very least, last the day.

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Born and brainwashed an Ohio State Buckeye, Matt now lives a warm, snow-free life just north of the Texas/Mexico border. He fancies himself a modern-day jack-of-all-trades; favorite conversation starters include operating systems, Android, BBQ, quantum physics, and roller skating.

  • Published 04/22/14