Android for the Windows Guy: Redmondize Your Smartphone

Posted on March 14, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Mobile with 94 Comments

Android for the Windows Guy: Redmondize Your Smartphone

While Apple’s iPhone is popular in certain countries, Android owns a near monopoly in the smartphone market. And it’s the go-to mobile choice for the Windows Guy.

There are a number of reasons for this but, put simply, Microsoft’s in-house mobile platform is an all-but-forgotten mess and the iPhone is a bit too isolationist and, yes, Apple-like, for many. So Android is pretty much where it’s at. It’s a successful and open mobile platform that Microsoft fans can rally around.

Microsoft makes this a lot easier by creating a wide range of Android solutions that extend well beyond what we think of as apps. Sure, all of Microsoft’s best-known apps—Word, Outlook, Excel, and so on—are available on Android, of course they are. I assume anyone can search the Google Play Store for the apps they want.

But Microsoft offers so much more on Android.

Indeed, if your goal is to minimize Google’s grip on your device and use Microsoft’s apps and services where possible, your options are actually pretty exciting. (On a related note, be sure to check out iPhone for the Windows Guy: Minimize Apple’s Grip on Your Device if you’re an iPhone user.)

A few options to consider.

Replace the Android home screen with Arrow Launcher. Microsoft makes what is arguably the best Android home screen (or “launcher” replacement), called Arrow Launcher. It offers deep personalization, and even replaces the Google Now “cards” screen (reached by swiping right from the home screen) with Microsoft’s own version. Obviously, you’re free to remove any Google apps from the home screen, regardless of which launcher you use, and you can uninstall most of them too. (See below.) Arrow Launcher is a big topic, so I’ll try to cover this option in more detail later.

Replace Google Assistant with Cortana. Cortana for Android isn’t just an app on Google’s platform: You can use it to replace Google Assistant and then access your preferred digital personal assistant by long-pressing on your device’s Home button too. (The only missing piece: “Hey Cortana” voice control only works from within the app.) To do so, open Settings and search for “Assist & voice input.” Then, change the Assist app to Cortana.

Replace Android’s virtual keyboard with SwiftKey. As with iPhone, you can easily swap out the default virtual keyboard in Android, called Gboard, with Microsoft’s SwiftKey Keyboard. This alternative offers great customization, including a wide range of free themes, Flow swipe-to-type functionality, and more.

Backup your photos automatically to OneDrive. While I do prefer Google Photos over other photo services, you should always back up your smartphone-based photos to at least two services. And one of them can be OneDrive, especially if you’re paying for additional services. To set this up, open the OneDrive app and navigate to Settings > Options and configure the option “Camera upload” to On. You can also configure whether to upload over cellular data or Wi-Fi only, whether to include videos, and which folders to back up.

Look for Microsoft app widgets. You long-press on an empty area of the home screen to find widgets that more closely resemble the live tiles you might be familiar with from Windows phone. I don’t really recommend plastering your home screen with these things, but a few can be really useful, including the “OneNote new note” and “Cortana” voice command widgets, each of which is the size of a normal icon. Be sure to look through the whole list.

Hide or replace the Google apps you don’t want. While I will caution against a wholesale de-Googling of your phone—see Android for the Windows Guy: Google Apps to Embrace for a list of some of the apps you absolutely should not remove—there’s no reason not to hide (or, when possible, even uninstall) the Google apps you do not want and will never use.

Looked at more generally, these and other capabilities, and of course the full range of Microsoft apps, do a lot to create a sort of Microsoft Android system. It’s the best of both worlds.

I have been examining these things for quite some time. In fact, I do everything I recommend above. But what I’ve not been doing, aside from some international trips where the availability of no-extra-cost Project Fi cellular and data access made it crazy to do otherwise, is use Android full time. Instead, I’ve been using an iPhone.

I have good reasons for this, chief among them that the iPhone is more stable and reliable than any Android phone, including the Pixel XL I also own. Despite many very real improvements over the past two major Android versions in particular, I’ve just never been particularly excited by this platform.

But I’m going to try.

I anticipate roadblocks, key among them what to do about my primary phone number, which I’d like to port to Project Fi. (One thing that still bothers me about Project Fi and many other Google services is that you must have a, rather than a G Suite custom domain, to use them. So I have to use Project Fi via an older Gmail account, and not my custom domain. Which is silly.)

I’ll figure it out. But I also need your help: Are there any Android-related topics that you really want me to examine? Let me know! I’d like to build out this article series into something that is both useful and complete.

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