Make the most of Android messaging

Whether you need to communicate via e-mail, social network, or instant message, Android can make it happen.
  • JR Raphael (PC World (US online))
  • 05 May, 2010 01:11

A smartphone is designed to help you keep in touch, and Android devices are no exception. Google's mobile operating system gives you plenty of robust ways to stay connected. Here's a tour to get you started.

You've Got Mail

Android offers options for using both Gmail accounts and non-Google e-mail accounts (POP, IMAP, or Exchange). We'll begin with the former.

When you first power up an Android phone, the initial setup process will help you configure a primary Gmail account to be associated with the device. That account will automatically appear in the integrated Gmail app, and you'll always see mail appear there instantaneously as it arrives.

On phones running Android 2.0 or higher, you can add other synced Gmail accounts, as well. While in the Gmail app, press the phone's Menu key, and then select Accounts. Touch the Add account button at the bottom of the screen, and follow the prompts. Once the setup is complete, you can toggle among your various Gmail accounts by pressing the Menu key while in the Gmail app, and selecting Accounts.

Want to customize how the phone will notify you of incoming messages? Tap the Menu key while viewing any account's inbox, and select Settings. If you don't want to be notified of new messages at all, uncheck the Email notifications box. If you want to receive only a visual notification--an alert in your notification panel and a flashing of your phone's LED--set the ringtone to silent and make sure that the vibrate option is unchecked. You can set individual settings for each Gmail account on your phone: Just repeat these steps from any account's inbox, and the changes will apply only to that particular Gmail address.

Don't forget that your sent, deleted, and even spam messages are all synced by default, too. Press the Menu key and select the View labels option in Gmail to access all of your different mail folders.

Android's Combined Inbox

In addition to the Gmail-specific application, Android provides a general e-mail app that can connect to multiple POP, IMAP, and Exchange accounts. Simply open the e-mail app (found in the main system app launcher) and then follow the prompts to add any e-mail account you wish.

You have the option of configuring multiple accounts within a single combined inbox. While inside the app, tap the Menu key and select Accounts. There, you'll see a list of all of the e-mail accounts you've configured. You can tap on any account to open it individually, or you can tap on Combined Inbox to view messages from all of the accounts together. You can always add more accounts from this screen, too; just tap the Menu key again to find the Add account option.

The e-mail app, it's worth noting, does not provide what's known as "push e-mail." That means new messages won't show up instantaneously as they arrive, as they do with the Gmail app; instead, the app checks your accounts for new mail once every several minutes. You can define how frequently it checks each account by accessing the Account settings menu (press the Menu key while viewing any account), but the most frequent option is only once every 5 minutes.

E-Mail Synchronicity

Unless you're using an Exchange server, syncing your Android phone with Outlook can be a bit tricky. Google provides a full Outlook sync utility, but it's available only to paid Google Apps users.

If you're not using Google Apps, try GO Contact Sync. This free and open-source utility syncs your Outlook contacts with your Gmail contacts. Make sure that you use the same Gmail account you set as your phone's default, and the contacts will automatically sync from Gmail to your phone.

For your Outlook calendar, grab Google's free Calendar Sync utility. It syncs your Outlook calendar to your Gmail calendar, which also syncs automatically to your phone.

Using Google Voice

Your Android phone offers built-in apps for texting and voicemail, but you have a better option: Sign up for the free Google Voice service. Google Voice takes over your phone's text and voice messaging--and with Android, everything is built right into the device.

Once you have a Google Voice account, open the Google Voice app, which likely came preinstalled on your phone. (If you can't find it on your device, try searching in the Android Market.) Follow the prompts to connect to your account, and you'll be up and running in seconds.

We won't get into the nitty gritty of Google Voice and how it works here--for a more detailed look at the service's pros and cons, see "Google Voice: 5 Reasons to Use It, 5 Reasons to Think Twice"--but we will take a quick peek at how you can optimize its features for your Android handset.

Within the Google Voice app, you can read and listen to any voicemail messages you've received at your Google Voice number, as well as send and receive text messages for free. Remember, though, that all messages will show as coming from your Google Voice number, not your main cell phone number.

Google Voice, as of now, can check for new messages only as frequently as once every 5 minutes. As with most things, however, there is a workaround: Log in to the Google Voice Website from your PC. Click on Settings, and then choose Voicemail & SMS. Under the 'Voicemail Notifications' section, check the options to e-mail both voicemail notifications and SMS messages to your Gmail account.

From now on, every time you receive a voicemail or text message via Google Voice, you'll get an e-mail notification to your Gmail account. Since your Gmail account is fully synced with your phone, these notifications will pop up instantaneously as they arrive. You can even reply to a text message simply by responding to the e-mail; Google will automatically route your response to the sender's cell phone as a regular SMS note.

If you go this route, you may want to disable notifications within the Google Voice app, as they'll be redundant with the e-mail alerts you'll already have received. To do this, tap the Menu key within the Google Voice app and select Settings. Touch Refresh and notification, and then adjust the notification, ringtone, and LED display preferences as you wish.

One final Google Voice tip: If you go back and forth between using your Google Voice number and your regular cell phone number for placing calls, try adding the Toggle Google Voice shortcut to your home screen. (It's located under the phone's main Shortcuts menu; just tap and hold your finger on any open space on your home screen, and then select Shortcuts to find and add it.) The Toggle Google Voice shortcut gives you a one-tap switch to change which number you're using to dial out at any given time.

Social Networking

Staying up-to-date with your favorite social network is easy with Android. Both Facebook and MySpace have official apps that you can download for free within the Android Market. Once each app is installed, you can look through its settings (tap the Menu key from inside the app) to configure how frequently it ought to check for new messages and notifications, as well as how it should notify you when new items arrive.

When it comes to Twitter, your options are more diverse. No officially sanctioned Twitter app for Android (or any other platform, for that matter) exists, but you do have several strong third-party options from which to choose.

  • Twidroid has long been a favorite of Android users. The app is available in a limited-functionality free edition or in a full-featured paid edition.
  • Swift offers a slimmer and somewhat cleaner Twitter interface for the Android operating system. It's free.
  • Seesmic is shaping up to be the most powerful Twitter app on the Android Market right now. Made by the same team that builds the PC-based version, the Android version of Seesmic supports tweeting from multiple accounts, tweeting with geolocation data, and full integrated use of Twitter's Lists feature. Seesmic is a free download.

All three of these Twitter clients (and most others) allow you to configure how frequently they check for updates and how they notify you of new mentions, direct messages, and general tweets. Tap the phone's Menu key and look under Settings in any of the apps to customize the program according to your own personal preferences.

Instant Messaging

Whatever your instant messaging platform of choice, odds are you can find an app to keep you connected on your Android device. Google Talk, of course, comes preloaded on most Android phones. But other third-party programs let you use that and other chat protocols simultaneously and seamlessly.

A good app to start with is Meebo, available for free in the Android Market. Like its PC-based cousin, the Meebo Android app allows you to connect to numerous chat services, including Google Talk, AIM, Facebook Chat, ICQ, MSN, MySpace, and Yahoo. Once signed in, you can send and receive messages with friends on any network. The program runs in the background, too, so you can stay signed in and receive messages regardless of what you're doing.

Another strong contender is Fring, also free in the Android Market. In addition to connecting to multiple chat services, Fring gives you the option to make and receive voice calls via Google Talk or Skype. It can connect to any SIP service as well, providing you with plenty of ways to get unbilled talk time over the Internet.

For comprehensive tips about Android and reviews of the best apps and devices to help you get the most out of the mobile operating system, order PCWorld's Android Superguide, on CD-ROM or in a convenient, downloadable PDF file.