Your digital life is only as private as you make it.
Android phones are awesome and make for pretty great holiday gifts. They're also different than most other types of phones, and there's a learning curve. It's cool — all great stuff takes a bit of time to master.
If you were gifted an Android and it's your first time using one, or if you've been doing the Android thing a while and just want to do a quick privacy checkup, here are three simple things you should do that help keep all your personal information away from anyone who shouldn't have it.
Enable the lock screen
A password, PIN or pattern or any other tools that your phone might have to make sure you're the only person who can see what's there is the first thing you need to enable. These can be made more efficient using a fingerprint, but there's always some sort of password behind it.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised at how many folks just don't bother. Without any type of protection on your phone's lock screen, anyone who picks it up can look at your photos, your texts, chats, and everything else. Even worse, they can get access to your Google account through the Gmail app with that they have your entire internet history, too.
This is easier than you might think. Typing out a long password on a phone keyboard can be a pain, but chances are your new Android phone came with a fingerprint sensor that can be setup to unlock everything with only the fingers you choose. Take the time to go through and protect yourself.
We're not suggesting this so you can keep secrets from your family and friends (though I'm the only person who can unlock my phone). Just that who can see your digital life should be people you choose and not anyone. Especially the person who might find your phone if you lose it.
Don't pirate apps
There are several good reasons why you shouldn't pirate apps for your phone, and one very important one is malware.
You might have heard about malware on Android phones. It makes for an interesting and scary story. It's not nearly as bad as some people want you to think, and almost all of it comes from downloading apps somewhere besides the official store(s) that came with your phone. the Google Play store has over a million apps and it's patrolled for bad apps by Google. You might have an app store from the people who made your phone, like Samsung or LG. Those are safe, too. Stick to what's there and you won't have any troubles.
It's easy to pirate apps on Android. It's almost as easy to drop a bit of malware into an app before it's uploaded. There are other safe places to get apps — F-Droid and Amazon come to mind — but while you're learning the ropes you're better off sticking to the app stores that comes on your phone.
Read those boring privacy policies
I know they're boring. Some of them are hard to understand and make your brain hurt. Mine, too. But it's also the only way to know what the people who made an app want to do and are allowed to do with any of the information you give them. Complaining when a company does something you don't like with your data does no good if you agreed to let them. And companies are getting better at writing a policy that is easy to read and sounds friendly.
We're not suggesting that everyone in the world is out to steal all your data. Companies, both big and small, who try to get squirrelly with our information don't escape the limelight and wrath of the internet. But things that might be OK for others might not be OK for you. The only way you'll know is to read exactly what you going to be using.
Battery life is an explosive issue. Literally, as Samsung is discovering to its dismay. The company’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphone was praised upon release for best-in-class battery life, far outpacing its key competitor, the iPhones 6S and 7 Plus. Then it started blowing up. Samsung issued a recall and replace programme, and the replacements also started blowing up, forcing the company to suspend production entirely.
The affair marks the latest road block on the long fight to improve the batteries that power our electronics. While processing speed doubles around every 18 months, battery capacity takes almost a decade to improve to the same degree. That gap is starting to cause problems, but as Samsung has found to its cost, it’s not easy to fix.
A smartphone often lasts less than a day, a laptop sometimes only a few hours and an electric car struggles to go 350 miles. So why is it that battery life is still such a problem – and when are we going to fix it?
What is a battery?
Batteries are small containers of chemical energy. When a smartphone is plugged into the mains, electricity is used to reset a chemical reaction within the battery, transferring electrons from the negative anode to the cathode – the positive end of the battery.
Once charged, the battery can then create electricity by driving electrons through a circuit, in this case a smartphone, to the anode and will continue to do so until all of the electrons contained within the battery have transferred to the anode or a built-in switch disconnects the battery.
What is a battery made of?
Inside a typical battery you have an anode, a cathode and electrolyte – something for the positive ions to travel through.
Lithium-ion batteries found in most smartphones and electronics have a metal oxide cathode made of a cobalt, nickel, manganese or iron mix, a porous graphite anode that holds lithium ions within it and a lithium salt electrolyte.
Positively charged lithium ions travel through the electrolyte from the anode to the cathode driving electrons through the smartphone as required and back to the anode.
Why doesn’t it last long enough?
low battery solar22 / Shutterstock
The principle of the battery may be simple, but the chemistry and technology to make it work is not. The major limiting factor for batteries is their energy density.
A battery can only generate as much electricity as its chemical components can store energy. Everything that is not the active material within the battery is effectively dead weight, including the casing, the controller chips, the wires to carry the current out – they all add weight but not power.
A typical lithium ion battery within a smartphone has an energy density around 150 Watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg). While Lithium ion battery energy density has improved since its introduction in the early 1990s, it is held back by its construction and chemistry.
The only way to immediately increase a smartphone’s battery life with current technology is to increase the power efficiency of the smartphone’s electronics and increase the size of the battery – but thinner and thinner smartphones demand thinner and thinner batteries.
Why does battery life diminish?
Battery life doesn’t stay constant for the entire life of a smartphone – it diminishes slowly over time, as the battery is discharged and recharged.
This is because the chemical reaction that produces the electricity causes thin layers of lithium to be laid down on the electrodes, which reduces the amount available to generate electricity and increases the internal resistance of the battery.
The higher the resistance the harder the battery has to work to maintain a usable voltage and so the amount of power it can produce per charge decreases. You might remember this bit from school:
Voltage = Current x Resistance (V=IR)
Why do some batteries explode?
burnt phone Le Matin
Batteries with much higher energy density than lithium-based cells are already available, but they aren’t safe enough for use in portable electronics.
“The more energy you put into a box, the more dangerous it’s going to be,” says Dr Billy Wu, lecturer at Imperial College London’s Dyson School of Design Engineering. “Safety is absolutely key and thermal management is crucial. If a battery heats up beyond 80C you hit what is called thermal runaway, where the components start to decompose, and that’s when it can explode.”
The specific cause of Samsung’s issues with exploding batteries is unknown, the company just cites “a battery cell issue”.
What happens next?
In the immediate term, battery advances will come by bringing existing lithium-ion technologies closer to their theoretical limits, which will increase the power density of batteries.
A typical lithium-ion battery using lithium manganese oxide has a theoretical power density of 280 Wh/kg, but the final product only has 150Wh/kg so there is certainly room for improvement.
“It’s about optimising the structure within the battery,” says Wu. “If you imagine inside your battery you have this porous structure full of the active material.”
“For higher power output, you need a more porous structure to increase the surface area and allow more lithium ions through at any one time, but because it’s got more holes it holds less active material, which in turn gives you lower capacity.”
New, advanced battery chemistries such as lithium-sulphur and lithium-silicon are also being worked on, with companies around the UK currently developing the technology.
What is the future of battery technology?
drained iphone battery Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian
Solid state batteries are one possible future, where the liquid electrolyte in the battery is replaced by a solid substance, which will provide significant safety improvements.
“The main advantage of solid state batteries is that you can go back to using lithium as the anode material, which has really good power and energy density, but wasn’t safe with liquid electrolytes,” explains Wu.
Solid-state batteries will remove the need for the porous carbon anode and therefore removes more of the weight from the battery that doesn’t contribute to generating power.
Metal air batteries, using zinc, lithium or aluminium are also on the horizon, but are 20 years away from being available in a commercial application according to Wu.
What can I do to help my battery last longer?
There are a few things you can do to help prolong the life of your battery. The nature of the chemical reaction inside the battery means that it has to work harder in the last 20% of discharge and above 80% of charging.
Keeping a lithium ion battery roughly between 80% and 20% of charge will help it keep a greater amount of its capacity for longer. Smart power management systems are currently being developed that do just that when plugged into a wall overnight.
Batteries should never be left constantly plugged in, which is particularly applicable to laptops. They are kept in better working order if they are discharged and recharged every so often. Once a month should do it.
Earlier this week my colleague Steve Kovach gave you a quick list of reasons why you should buy the iPhone over any Android alternative. They’re all perfectly valid.
As someone who owns and uses phones from both sides of the fence, though, I thought it’d be fun to see if I could still take the opposite tack.
So consider this a counterpoint. If you don’t want to hop on the Apple train, here are a few time-tested advantages Google’s mobile OS has over its rival from Cupertino.
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What we’re really arguing when we talk about “iOS vs. Android” is whether you like a closed ecosystem or an open one. With the iPhone, Apple holds the keys. It makes all the hardware, and has final say over all the software. This lets it have all the benefits noted in the piece linked above — guaranteed updates, extensive support, minimal bloatware, and so on.
Android, meanwhile, is fair game for everyone. (Relatively speaking.) There’s a bunch of different companies all fighting for the same market. That isn’t great for their bottom lines, but it means you get a diverse selection of devices, at a diverse set of price points.
You cannot get a functional iPhone for $50. You cannot get a full-featured flagship iPhone for $400. The old joke is that Android is for poor people, and while that’s not wrong, allowing more people to own a good smartphone isn’t exactly a bad thing.
There’s a variety of devices, at a variety of prices
Apple just incorporated (official) water resistance with the iPhone 7. Next year, it’s expected to adopt a more vivid OLED display with the (presumed) iPhone 8. It recently upgraded the storage space of its current models, but it still doesn’t support microSD cards, which’d expand it further without making you drop another $100.
Android phones have had all of these things, and more, for years. Wireless charging, faster charging, removable batteries, dual-SIM support (which makes it easier to use your phone internationally), dual cameras — all of it is available, and usually available first, outside of Apple’s walls.
Now, will all these features be available on the same Android phone? Usually, no. But if there’s some niche feature you think would make your life easier, you're much more likely to find it on Android.
You can customize.
Do you ever get tired at looking at the iPhone’s same grid of apps, update after update? Well, here, you can just download a new look. You can also take apps you don’t normally use off of your home screen. You don’t have to dig into your settings menu every time you want to turn off location tracking, either. Nor do you have to 3D Touch notifications whenever you want to get more out of them. The point is, if you don’t like something, you can actually change it in Android.
The app difference is overstated (on phones)...
Let’s be real: People aren’t downloading new apps. The stuff you use, you probably already have, and very few of those essentials are excluded from the platform with 84% of the market. You might get an update a little bit later, and sometimes the design won’t be as slick (hello, Twitter!), but usually any difference is marginal.
The only exception is if you’re very into mobile games — there, iOS does get some releases well before they arrive elsewhere. (Or if you’re on a tablet. Don’t buy an Android tablet.)
...and Google’s stock software is superior.
Apple is a hardware company. Google, for as much as it wants to expand, is still a software company. When you look at what's pre-loaded onto iOS and Android by default, it shows.
Gmail (or even Inbox) is more powerful than Mail. Apple Maps is only just approaching parity with Google Maps. Google Now (and eventually Google Assistant) is more capable than Siri. Even Google’s keyboard does more.
Apple seems to realize that many iOS users just download Google stuff onto their iPhones anyway, given that it finally made it possible to remove stock apps with iOS 10. On Android, though, the good stuff is already there, and often ingrained into the device itself. When you’re routed toward your mail app, for instance, you aren’t prompted to re-install Mail.
There are headphone jacks!
I mean this literally and figuratively. For one, yes, it’s nice to avoid dongles.
More generally, though, the iPhone is less receptive to open standards. Again, Apple’s whole deal is locking you into its world of things. Lightning accessories only work with iOS devices. All your iMessage conversations become worthless if you ever switch. That easy Bluetooth pairing you see with the AirPods? Only on iOS.
This is smart business, and those kind of Apple-exclusive experiences can be great. But not always. More importantly, if you ever change your mind, Android doesn’t punish you for it. When its phones inevitably drop the headphone jack, they’ll just move to USB-C, which will be available on every non-iOS device.
All that said, vertical integration can be a beautiful thing.
All these years later, the song remains the same: Android is about value, iPhone is the more coherent unified package. Beyond the smoother software rollout, we didn’t even touch on Android’s existential security crisis, or the fact that the iPhone 7 destroys all competition from performance standpoint.
Nevertheless, high-end Android phones have closed the gap, and the OS they use is still superior in important ways.