21 tips for making Android a better personal assistant

Become an Android email, calendar, and contacts master with these 21 tips for getting the most out of your device

Android tips for contacts and communication
mammela via pixabay

Android devices can do all sorts of wizardry these days -- everything from taking your heartbeat to turning off the lights in your bedroom. But sometimes, it's the simple stuff that matters the most.

For business users in particular, a top-notch experience is crucial in three core areas: email, for keeping up with correspondence on the go; calendar, for making sure you don't miss important appointments (like your weekly podiatrist session -- hey, I'm not here to judge); and contacts, for having easy access to the people you need to reach, podiatrist or otherwise. No matter how many impressive feats your phone can perform, it won't do you much good if it doesn't deliver in those domains.

Here are 21 tips for making the most of your device's email, calendar, and contacts capabilities.

Become an Android email master

Tip No. 1:
Google's Android Gmail app now supports external POP and IMAP accounts in addition to regular Gmail accounts. To add an external account to the app, touch the menu icon in the top-left corner of the screen, scroll down to Settings, select Add Account, and follow the prompts to input information for your external POP or IMAP account.

Android Gmail: Add External Account

Google's Android Gmail app now supports external POP and IMAP accounts in addition to regular Gmail accounts.

Tip No. 2:
Once you have multiple accounts added to your device's Gmail app, you can find them all and quickly toggle between them by tapping that same menu icon in the top-left corner (or simply sliding your finger inward from the left edge of the screen). To view email from all of your accounts simultaneously, in a single combined inbox, select All Inboxes.

Tip No. 3:
If you're using an Exchange-based account, it gets slightly more complicated: The Gmail app does support Exchange -- but, rather vexingly, only on Nexus devices as of now. If you're using any other type of phone or tablet, you'll need to go with either the old Android Email app (if it's available on your device) or a third-party alternative to get Exchange support (see the next tip for suggestions).

Tip No. 4:
Wish you could have a mobile interface that's more like Outlook? You're in luck: Microsoft recently released a free preview version of its Outlook app for Android. The app is fully functional and includes Exchange support, as well as Outlook Calendar access. The now-Symantec-owned TouchDown app is another popular option for Exchange-requiring users; it's available in separate forms for Android phones and tablets, and it requires a $20 key to function.

Microsoft Outlook for Android

Microsoft recently released a free preview version of its Outlook app for Android.

Tip No. 5:
The Android Gmail app can apply Google's trademark "conversation view" to messages from external accounts, if you're so inclined. With conversation view, all replies are grouped along with the original message to create a single thread. To enable conversation view for an external account, head into the app's settings, select General Settings, then check the Conversation View box.

Tip No. 6:
Finished with a message? You can archive it and get it out of your inbox by swiping on it (either to the left or to the right) from the main inbox view in the Gmail app. If you want to act on multiple messages -- archiving them or performing any other action -- tap the circular avatar next to each message you want to select, then find the action button for the command you need at the top of the screen.

Tip No. 7:
If you prefer deleting over archiving -- that is, moving a message to the trash, where it'll be permanently purged after a month, rather than keeping it filed away in your account for future reference -- you can adjust Gmail's swipe gesture accordingly. All you need to do is change the Gmail Default Action field from Archive to Delete in the app's general settings.

Tip No. 8:
Worried about sending something prematurely from your mobile device? Look at the very bottom of Gmail's general settings. There, you'll find an option to require confirmation before any email is sent. You can also activate a confirmation for archiving and deleting messages, if you want to be extracautious.

Android Gmail app signature

If you want to use a signature from the Android Gmail app, your only option is to configure a plain-text, app-specific signature.

Tip No. 9:
Frustratingly, there's no way to have a formatted signature appended to your messages with the Android Gmail app -- even if you have one configured in the regular Web-based Gmail interface. If you want to use a signature from the app, your only option is to configure a plain-text, app-specific signature for that purpose. You'll find the option by going into the app's settings and tapping the relevant account name.

Tip No. 10:
One option that has made its way from the Web to the mobile app is the ability to configure Gmail's automatic vacation response: Tap any account name in the app's settings, then tap Vacation Responder to activate, deactivate, or edit your preferences.

Tip No. 11:
Perhaps the most powerful and least used feature of the Gmail Android app is its ability to set custom notifications for labels. Have you ever found yourself wishing your phone alerted you only when certain important email messages hit your inbox? Perhaps with different sounds for different types of messages? Custom notifications for labels is where this magic happens.

To take full advantage of the feature, you'll want to spend a few minutes creating custom labels and filters in the Gmail Web interface. Alternatively, if you use Gmail's Priority Inbox or categorized inbox, you can go with the default labels from those setups instead.

Once you've assigned your labels and filters, jump into the settings of the Gmail Android app and tap the name of your account. Look for the Manage Labels option, then find and tap the label you want to customize. Make sure it's set to sync messages for at least the last 30 days, then check the Label Notifications box and select whatever notification sound and vibrate setting you want.

Repeat the process as needed for any additional labels, and ta-da: Your Android device is now like your own personal assistant, sorting through the junk and letting you know with a specific sound whenever anything important has arrived.

Become an Android calendar master

Tip No. 12:
If you have a phone or tablet with manufacturer-modified software, try installing Google's official Google Calendar app for Android. It's designed with the fresh and modern Lollipop-level Material Design guidelines, which makes for a far more pleasant user experience than the alternatives most manufacturers ship with their devices. The app has some excellent features, too, like the ability to automatically add relevant images and maps to your events, to automatically create events from confirmations and itineraries in your Gmail inbox, and to simplify the process of adding an event by making intelligent suggestions as you type.

Google Calendar app for Android

Google Calendar's Material Design UI makes for a far more pleasant user experience than what most manufacturers ship with their devices.

Tip No. 13:
For extra pizazz, the third-party Today Calendar app -- free with an optional $4.49 pro version -- is also worth a whirl. Today starts with a Google Calendar-like base and adds advanced options like custom theming support and a series of fully customizable widgets with agenda and full-month views.

Tip No. 14:
In addition to regular alerts for calendar events, the Google Now system that is integrated into Android can help you make and manage reminders based on the time or your current location. Simply tap the microphone on your device's home screen or within Google Now (usually accessed by swiping upward on or long-pressing your device's Home button), then say something like: "Remind me to take out the trash when I get home" or "Remind me to call the doctor's office tomorrow morning."

Tip No. 15:
You can use Google Now to create recurring reminders, too: Follow the same steps mentioned above but add the word "every" into your command -- "Remind me to file my TPS report every Friday at noon," for instance.

Tip No. 16:
To manage your Google Now reminders, head into Google Now and tap the menu icon in the top-left corner of the screen, then select Reminders. You'll find all of your present and past reminders there, along with an option to manually create a new reminder on the spot.

Google Keep

Google Keep ties into Google Now, so you can set location- and time-based reminders in Keep.

Tip No. 17:
Looking for a more flexible way to organize your tasks? Grab the free Google Keep app and use it for jotting down longer notes and to-do lists. The app ties into the Google Now system, so you can set reminders for items in Keep and have them work exactly like the regular Now reminders mentioned above.

Become an Android contacts master

Tip No. 18:
Your contacts on any Android device are automatically synced with Google's universal Contacts system -- which means you can view and edit them via the recently redesigned Google Contacts Web app, and all of your changes will instantly and automatically be synced to any Android phones or tablets connected to the same account.

Tip No. 19:
To make a frequently used contact easier to find, tap the star icon alongside the person's name either in the Contacts app on your Android device or in the Google Contacts Web app. That'll cause that person's information to appear at the very top of your phone's Contacts app and dialer, as well as the Web-based Google Contacts interface.

Tip No. 20:
Ever notice that you have multiple entries for the same person -- maybe one for someone's work email and another for her personal email and phone number? Google makes it easy to clean it up: From the Contacts Web app, select Find Duplicates in the menu on the left side of the screen. The system will pull up a list of entries that appear to be related and give you a single-click option to confirm and merge them.

Tip No. 21:
Last but certainly not least, do yourself a favor and get all the Google+ silliness out of your Android device's contacts. (If you hadn't noticed, Google started automatically including everyone you've ever connected with on G+ in your main contacts list a while back -- which generally creates a whole lot of overlap and unnecessary clutter.)

In the Google Contacts Web app, click More on the left side of the screen, then click Settings. Uncheck the box under Circles, click Save, and take a deep breath: Order and sanity have officially been restored.

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