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Steal these Android tips and tricks

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You don't need a degree in software engineering to get more out of your Android smartphone.

Regardless of the kind of Android phone you're packing — be it from Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola or Sony, to name a few makers — we've got a handful of helpful ways to unlock the capabilities of your favorite handset.

Unless otherwise specified, it also shouldn't matter what version of Android you're running on your smartphone, with the most popular today being Android 2.3 ("Gingerbread") or the latest release, Android 4.0 ("Ice Cream Sandwich"). To figure out what version you're running, go to the About section of your device, under Settings.

Many of these tips and tricks will work on Android-based tablets (including those powered by Android 3.x, a.k.a. "Honeycomb") as well as phone-tablet hybrids like the Samsung Galaxy Note and its built-in stylus pen.

Oh, and if you have any tips of your own, feel free to share them with others below in the Comments section.

Text or talk

If you're getting a call on your Gingerbread or Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) device, you can swipe the screen to the right to answer, swipe to the left to ignore or swipe up to quickly respond with a text message — by default it's "I'm busy right now. I will call you later." On some models, you'll need to tap "Ignore With Text." But you can change this default message in the phone's app's Settings area to something else altogether.

Hi mom!

If there's someone you call a lot, there's an easy way to set up a "quick dial" for them on your Android device. Simply tap and hold anywhere on your homescreen wallpaper and select Shortcuts from your list of options. Now, touch Direct Dial and select the person from your contacts list. If you have a photo of this person in your contacts then that's what you'll see on the shortcut icon, along with their first name. You can also use this little-known tool for one-touch texting, by selecting the Direct Message option instead.

Cutting corners

There are many dozens of handy shortcuts to speed up your time on Android devices — some tied to the web browsers, others to using the virtual keyboard and another set related to app management. But here are a few handy ones for those who use Gmail on an Android device: While inside of a message, tap the R key to reply to the message, F to forward it, A to reply to all (to everyone in the To: and Cc: field) or Y to archive an email (this last shortcut works inside of the message or while in the main inbox view). Compose a new email by tapping Menu + C or refresh your inbox with Menu + U.

Flash, on demand

Unlike the iPhone, Android devices are capable of displaying websites with Flash animation, video and games. But if you don't have a generous data plan with your carrier, or if you find loading Flash is slowing down your browsing, you can launch Flash on-demand. That is, you can tap to see or interact with Flash content when you want — and if you don't tap to start it, it won't load. To do this, go to the Settings of your web browser, select Advanced and tap to change the Enable Flash and Plug-Ins tab from "Always On" to "On demand" or "Off."

Siri, Shmiri

If you're a seasoned Android user you likely know Google has offered voice-based search for some time, but the voice-to-text dictation feature is really strong on the phone — especially with ICS. Tap the microphone icon to the left of the spacebar while inside of a text or email and start talking. Not only will you see the words typed out as you say them — unlike Apple's Siri, which shows you the words after you're done talking — but the accuracy is outstanding and you'll find this is much faster than typing out a lengthy message. Don't forget to say punctuation requests, such as "comma,' "period" and "question mark."

Speak easy

One of the advantages of Android over competing smartphone platforms is its integrated Google apps ranging from Search and Maps to Gmail to YouTube to Calendar to Google+ to Earth. One of the most powerful of the free services, however, is Google Voice, which lets you make phone calls (with cheap international rates), send and receive free text messages, transcribes voicemails into text, forward your number and set up custom greetings for different callers. Google Voice will quickly become your favorite app, so get to know it.

Say cheese

Quick — your friend is doing something ridiculous and you must capture the moment. Problem is, by the time you pick up and unlock your Android phone, launch the camera and snap the picture, it's simply too late. Well, here's a trick to enabling the camera from the lock screen so you don't miss the action. Instead of sliding the ring towards the center of the screen or typing in your PIN code or pattern, simply tap and hold the camera icon on the bottom right of your smartphone and drag it to the ring — it'll meet you halfway — and then let go to launch the camera pronto. Cool, huh?

Wild about widgets

One of the great things about an open-source platform is you can customize the look and feel of your Android's homescreen in a myriad of ways. Want "live" wallpaper that animates behind your icons? Too bad iPhone can't do that. Want to create one homescreen for work (with 9 to 5 apps) and one for play (5 to 9 apps)? Why not. Something else that separates Android from the IOS camp is Widgets, which you can add by pressing and holding down on the home screen; these can range from funky clocks and bookmarks to weather information and messages to photos and system information. Have fun exploring. If you're running ICS you can also resize these widgets on the fly.

Screen dream

Before ICS, it wasn't easy to snap a picture of what you're seeing on the device's display. To take a screenshot of a game, website, message or anything else, Android 4.x users can simply press the power and volume-down buttons at the same time. The screen will flash white, you'll hear a sound and the image be saved in your photo gallery. If you're on a non-ICS-device — such as Froyo, Gingerbread or Honeycomb — try the $5 No Root Screenshot It app, but be aware you'll need to connect your device to a computer via a USB cable to enable screenshots each time you restart the phone.

Don't leave home without it

Increasingly, Android devices are shipping with NFC (Near Field Communication) technology under the hood. This wireless radio can be used to make payments at retail, vending machines or between supported devices, in place of using cash, credit or debit. Consider it an electronic wallet, of sorts, that lets you buy goods or services by tapping or swiping on a sensor. NFC-enabled phones -- such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy S II, LG Viper 4G LTE and LG Optimus LTE — all work with apps like Google Wallet at supporting stores for NFC payments.

Freeze frame

You're likely aware there are a few photo effects built into your Android camera app. If not, from the photo gallery, simply tap Edit from the dropdown menu and you can brighten up a dark shot, add a film grain look, remove red-eye or tweak color (better yet, download the free Instagram app). But did you know ICS has another cool photo feature: when you're shooting a video with your Android device, tap the frame and it'll take a still snapshot and automatically dump it into your camera roll. Those running older Android devices can download an app, like Frame Grabber from Google Play (formerly Android Market), that do the same thing -- but you'll have to grab a still after the video has been shot.

Later gator

About to go on a long flight without any Internet connectivity? Those on an ICS device can save web content to read at a later time — without needing an app to do it (like Pocket). If you're inside the browser and come across something interesting you want to read at a later time, tap the menu tab and select "Save for offline reading" instead of "Bookmark," as the latter will require an Internet connection. This is also a good tip in case you're nearing your monthly data limit and want to queue up a few things to read offline.

Know when to fold 'em

If you need to clean up a messy desktop, perhaps littered with multiple app icons over multiple pages, you can press and hold on an app, drag it onto another one and it will create a folder and place them both in there. You can then tap and hold to rename the folder to something relevant ("Music Apps"), add more apps to the folder, if you like, and then rearrange where they go on your homescreen. You can also drag and drop shortcuts into folders, too, if you like, but not widgets.

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