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How To Tweak Android's Lock Screen and Notifications

By Ryan Whitwam

Don't just be satisfied with the defaults. Android is all about tinkering, and the notifications and lock screen are prime targets.

Android affords users a ton of customization options that vary from one device to the next. There are often so many features, that the notion of improving what's already there gets pushed to the side. However, the uniqueness of Android provides some interesting opportunities to make the mobile experience better, and you owe it to yourself to investigate them fully. The notifications and lock screen have gained many new features in the last few updates. The implementation is slightly different on many devices, but there are also ways to retrofit new features onto these components that are almost universal.

Let's go over how to unlock the power of Android notifications and lock screens.

Notifications

OEMs tend to change a lot of things about how Android works, but very rarely has that included changing the basics of notifications. The notification shade is sacrosanct because it just works so well. In fact, Apple even borrowed some ideas from it for Notification Center. Most Android devices now have the basics like swipe to dismiss and expandable notifications, though some of the advanced features are restricted to more recent Jelly Bean builds.

Even with Android notifications being great to start with, we can still augment them in two basic ways -- by adding content to the notification shade, and by replicating notifications in an even more convenient way. First, let's make notifications easier to get at.

Floating Notifications is an app that does pretty much what you expect from the name. It sucks in notifications from your standard notification area, and stacks them up in a floating icon that appears on top of whatever else you're doing. Floating Notifications allows you to choose apps that are important to you that will produce floating icons. That way you're not overwhelmed with popups.

When you're not interacting with it, the notification icons are collapsed and out of the way. Tap on it, and it will pop out with icons for all the apps with notifications. You can dismiss or open notifications from Floating Notifications, but it also pulls the action buttons from notifications on Android 4.2 and higher. You get a 30 day trial, then you have to get the full version for $1.99.

Another way to move notifications out of the shade is with a relatively new app called DynamicNotifications. It recreates the Active Notification feature of the Moto X. Apps that you add to DynamicNotifications will wake up the screen with a minimalist icon, clock, and unlock slider. It makes the most sense with AMOLED screens, which only use power to display the white pixels. An LCD can be fine, though, if you keep the screen timeout low. This one is $1.99 for the full version.

The notification shade can also be used a way to keep persistent information or functions available. One app I like to keep running in my notifications is Battery Widget Reborn. Not only does this app provide a cool homescreen widget, but it can be used to show a persistent battery icon in the status bar, or just an entry visible when you pull the shade down. This is controlled by setting the notification priority in the app's settings.

It displays your battery level and estimated time remaining based on historical usage. It is also expandable with a graph of battery usage over time. As if that wasn't enough, it can also be configured to have settings toggles at the bottom of the graph. It's a very useful utility, and it's free.

What if you just want access to a few favorite apps without going back to the home screen or app drawer? That's where Quickly Notification Shortcuts comes in. It will only work on Android 4.1 or higher because of the robust expandable notifications introduced last year. Quickly allows you to place a miniature app launcher in the notification shade where it is always accessible.

Quickly can have up to three 4-icon rows for a total of 12 app shortcuts. This app also lets you control the notification priority. At the highest level is displays a persistent icon and stays at the top in expanded view. lower priorities let it float farther down the list with no persistent icon and a collapsed view by default.

Before smartphones were a thing, people were running programs on their PCs that showed the temperature in the system tray. There is a strong desire in the human species to know what the weather is like without actually going outside, so why not get that data in your notification area? There are many ways to do it, but Notification Weather is the most elegant I've seen.

Notification Weather places a clean, minimalist line in your notification shade with the current conditions, and optionally a four day forecast. It has all the data that's most important to you like the temperature, conditions, wind speed, and high/low temperature. It uses simple black and white icons to denote the conditions as well.

The free version of Notification Weather does the basics, but the $1 pro app adds some useful stuff like swipe to dismiss and additional weather providers.

Lock Screen

The lock screen on Android is in some ways the polar opposite of the notification shade. It has gone through many iterative changes over the years and OEMs frequently alter it. Before we get into the things you can do to spruce up the lock screen, remember to take full advantage of what your phone maker has built in. For example, both HTC and Samsung have the option to launch apps from the lockscreen. HTC also includes various custom lockscreens with the newest version of Sense like Calendar appointments, photos, and so on.

I mention this fairly often, but you should always set the owner information on your device and have it shown on the lock screen, if available on your device. So even if you have a PIN or pattern lock on the phone, an honest stranger can get in touch if you lose it.

The lock screen changed a lot in Android 4.2, which not all phones have. If you're running 4.2 or higher, Dashclock is an absolute must-have app. This app can be used as a regular home screen widget, but its real value is as a complete replacement for the standard clock widget in the Android lock screen.

Simply place Dashclock on an empty lock screen panel, and configure it to your liking. Note, some OEMs (like HTC) hide the lock screen widgets in the system settings. Dashclock has various clock styles, but it's the extensions that really make this app irresistible. There are standalone and bundled Dashclock extensions. Many of your favorite apps may already support this widget.

You can add multiple extensions to Dashclock, which show up right next to the clock. It has built-in support for various Google apps like Gmail and the Calendar. Dashclock is just an awesome way to get important bits of data collected in one place. It's also completely free.

You should also check out the included widgets for your lock screen in Android 4.2 and higher. Gmail, Calendar, Music, and more are all in attendance. A number of them are actually quite useful. And if you're going to use the Google Sound Search song ID widget, the lock screen is the place to put it. It's the only place I ever bother to use it.

Let's say you're still on Android 4.1 or 4.2 (sorry), or that your OEM has done some stuff with the lock screen that you just don't like. Well, there's always WidgetLocker. This is an app that replaces the standard lock screen on your device with a fully customizable interface with widgets, shortcuts, and sliders.

WidgetLocker is a bit daunting at first -- there is a lot to get into. Any home screen widget that is installed on your phone can be placed on WidgetLocker. It's basically a stripped-down home screen of its own. App icons can be placed normally or attached to slider actions. You can't use WidgetLocker with a pattern or PIN lock unless you want to go through two lock screens to access your phone, so this is a powerful, but low-security option. WidgetLocker is $2.99 in Google Play.

So, now maybe your phone or tablet is a little more feature-complete than it was out of the box. Android is all about customization, you just need to find the right tools to unleash its full potential. This is only a sampling of such tools -- there's a lot more out there to discover.