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14 Essential Tweaks to Perform on Your New Nexus 5 Smartphone

By Ryan Whitwam

The Nexus 5 is great, but you can make it more great.

Google has been making iterative improvements to the Nexus flagship phones for five generations now, and the appropriately named Nexus 5 is perhaps the most competitive phone to come out of Mountain View thus far. The Nexus 5 offers us our first look at Android 4.4 KitKat, which is the most significant update to the platform since Ice Cream Sandwich two years ago. This phone debuts unique software and hardware features that you'll want to take full advantage of, and it's a steal at just $349 for the 16GB model.

This device is a great experience out of the box, but you can always make it better. Here are our14 essential steps to getting your Nexus 5 configured properly and ready for heavy use.

Unlock the Bootloader

With a Nexus device, I always suggest users who have even an inkling of possibly rooting or modding down the road unlock the device first thing. When you unlock the bootloader, the phone will perform a factory wipe. That's why you might as well do it before anything else. This is a pretty simple procedure, and you can undo it easily if you need to return your device for any reason.

First, go to the About menu in main system settings. Enable developer mode by tapping repeatedly on the Android build number (not version number) until you see a pop up confirming your developer status. Go back and open the newly revealed Developer options and turn on USB debugging.

Hit the Android developer portal and grab the SDK for use on your desktop computer. Launch the SDK Manager and download the suggested packages. One of them will be the USB drivers for your device. You might have to set the USB access mode to PTP to get it detected by the system, but it should work without any serious tweaking.

Go to the platform-tools folder in the SDK directory and launch a command prompt (or terminal) and type adb devices and hit enter. You should see a device ID in the output. If that worked, you're connected and ready to unlock. Type the following, hitting enter after each command:

adb reboot bootloader

(wait for the device)

fastboot oem unlock

Mac users might have to type ./ before each command, by the way. You will have to confirm the unlock on the device by using the volume toggle and power button. The device will think for a moment, and your bootloader will be unlocked. Now you're ready to move on with the fun part.

Set Up Google Now and voice

Android 4.4 on the Nexus 5 integrates Google Now in a much larger way. Google's predictive search tool is much more accessible from the homescreen. In fact, it has its own home screen panel just to the left of the main screen. One of your first orders of business should be to slide over there, and check for actionable cards.

Google Now on the Nexus 5 will ask some clarifying questions to tune the cards to you. It might ask how you usually get around -- car, public transit, and so on. Or maybe if you care about particular stocks. This is also a good time to go into the Customize menu with the magic wand button at the bottom of the scroll. From here you can quickly tweak a number of other cards like weather, commutes, and sports.

You'll probably notice the search bar on the homescreen has a reminder to say "Ok Google" to trigger a voice search. It's a neat feature, but the text is a little annoying. It will go away only when you've proven you understand what it's saying. Just do any voice search from the homescreen to clear the text and get your nice, clean bar.

Configure Data Usage

The data usage monitor is a feature that has existed in Android since 4.0, but it's still wonderful and always a good idea to set up early. It's near the top of the main system settings. Just head there and set the slider to warn you when you're nearing your data cap (assuming you have one).

Adding the data limit cutoff is useful if you want to make very, very sure you don't incur any penalties for overusing mobile data. Your data connection will automatically shut off if you hit this limit.

The apps that stack up below the graph can all be investigated further by tapping on them. Each screen shows you how much of the total data used came from the app, and how much of that was background usage. Down at the bottom is an option to disable background data for that app on a mobile network. You should only use this if you're worried about an app misbehaving.

Enable Lock Screen Widgets

For whatever reason, Google shipped the Nexus 5 with lockscreen widgets disabled. If you didn't know the feature existed, it would go completely unnoticed -- it's not even in a very intuitive place. Go into your main system settings, then to Security. Near the top is a checkbox for "Enable widgets." Yes, it says nothing about the lock screen, but that's what it means.

Once that's done, you can lock the device and swipe to the left to add more widgets from the OS, or from third party apps. If you decide you don't want to use lock screen widgets, you can leave them off. I know some folks don't like them, so it's nice there is an option.

Activate Google Wallet

One of the coolest things about KitKat is Google's Host Card Emulation (HCE) implementation. This means you can run tap and pay apps on any device with NFC. There will be no more restrictions of Google Wallet from carriers, and the setup process is much faster.

Open the Google Wallet app and select the account you want to use. What used to be a 30 second to one minute process fraught with errors now happens almost instantly. Once Wallet is set up, go into your main system settings and check out the Tap & Pay menu. You'll only have the one entry for Google Wallet right now, but this is where you'll go to switch payment providers once more apps support HCE on KitKat.

Configure Homescreens

The Nexus 5 is the only device with the new version of Google's launcher -- even the 4.4 update for other Nexus devices doesn't include this homescreen (officially). There are a lot of interesting visual tweaks, and the transparent navigation and status bars look great. What you need to decide is how many homescreen you want on your device.

There will only be two regular home screens on the N5 at first, but you can add more by dragging an app or widget off to the right until a new screen pops up. Drop it there, and the screen will stay put. Note that the widgets have moved out of the app drawer and are now accessed from the long-press menu on the homescreen.

If you long press, you can also grab and rearrange the homescreen panels you've made. To remove one, you have to clear everything from it and the system will delete it. The Nexus 5 will let you put an insane number of panels up -- I got to 30 before I got bored and stopped.

Get the Essential Apps

No phone is complete without apps, so let's go over some of the essential downloads. a few of these are of specific importance to the N5, but others are a good idea for Android in general.

Dashclock: After you enable the lock screen widgets, you'll want to install Dashclock. This app plugs into various apps to show notifications on the lock screen right next to the customizable clock. Plenty of apps include Dashclock extensions because it's just so cool.

Power Toggles: Google has taken the holo blue out of most parts of Android with 4.4, but the power control widget still has the old aesthetic. If you prefer to have these toggles on your homescreen and want them to match the system UI, check out Power Toggles. This app is free, highly configurable, and can be made to fit in perfectly with KitKat.

Battery Widget Reborn: Google didn't pack a giant battery into the N5, but stuck with a 2300mAh cell to save space. The battery life is good, but maybe you want a better reading of the level. Battery Widget Reborn looks great and can be made to fit in with the white KitKat aesthetic. It also has an optional notification with battery projections. It's free too.

Camera Zoom FX: Google hasn't done much with the camera app in 4.4, so maybe you'll want to check out something else. Camera Zoom FX is a great alternative with a ton of features like composition guides, a level indicator, auto-stabilization, and filters. It also has the proper 4:3 viewfinder, which is far preferable to the inaccurate 16:9 one the stock app uses. It's $2.99 in Google Play.

Timely: Google's clock app is okay, but Timely is absolutely gorgeous and has a lot of functionality. The elegant, colorful backgrounds look great on the Nexus 5 and it syncs alarms across devices. This app is free to try for a week, then you have to buy the full version for $2.99 or look at ads.

Moves: On of KitKat's less well-known features is the support for more sensors like hardware step counters. Rather than polling the accelerometer and gyroscope, apps can plug into this hardware on supported phones. The Nexus 5 has the right internals, and Moves supports the new software features. This should give you a reliable step counter in your phone while using next to no power. It's free too.

Load Up on the Best Games

The Nexus 5 has a killer screen and super-powerful GPU, so you'll want to grab some high-end games to put it through its paces. Here are some to start you off.

Anomaly 2: The just released sequel to the original Anomaly games brings insane high-resolution graphics to Android. It's a sort of reverse tower-defense approach where you have to take out the enemy turrets and complete objectives with your convoy of transforming vehicles. It's $4.99 in Google Play.

Plants vs. Zombies 2: I probably don't have to explain the essence of Plants vs. Zombies to you. It's a casual game that pits you against wave after wave of comical undead. This game has very high-resolution assets that look great on screens 1080p and above. It's also free-to-play and not overly abusive on Android.

Riptide GP2: Amazing visuals? Yep. Challenging gameplay? Check. Flawless controls? Also check. Riptide GP2 is possibly the best racing game on Android, and it's not even that expensive ($2.99). The Snapdragon 800 tears through the pixels in this title and there's a lot of content.

Dead Trigger 2: What list is complete without a shooter? Dead Trigger 2 features a world crawling with zombies to shoot, and it was recently rebalanced to be a little more fair. The graphics are excellent and the Nexus 5's screen really shines playing it. It's free-to-play, but it doesn't take much of an investment to get ahead. Dead Trigger 2 also features cloud saves.

Kingdom Rush Frontiers: This game is amazing on any device, so N5 owners might not have any particular reason to check it out. Still, you should. This is the best balanced tower defense game on a mobile device with great graphics and lots of little extras to keep you occupied as the waves of creeps move in. It's $2.99.

Location Mode

Android 4.4, as implemented on the Nexus 5 has a vastly improved location menu that you should check out. It's under Location in the main settings and shows you the current location access mode, recent location requests by app, and your Google location services status.

If you're worried about battery life and not so much about location accuracy, you can change the global location setting in this menu. The default is high-accuracy, which uses GPS, mobile networks, and WiFi. You can switch to battery saver mode to cut out GPS without actually disabling it completely. There is also a GPS-only mode if WiFi or mobile networks are reporting incorrect data.

The list of apps accessing your location is also nice for your peace of mind. If you see something popping up more than you'd like, you can investigate, or simply uninstall it with a tap.

SMS Setting

The Nexus 5 does not have a dedicated SMS app -- it's gone. Now you'll use Hangouts to send and receive text messages by default. If you're not into that and want a separate app, you'll have to toggle a system setting. See, Android 4.4 designates a single SMS app at a time to notify you of messages.

To change the SMS app, you'll first have to install one that properly identifies itself to Android as an SMS provider. Most of the bigger apps have already done this. Head into the main system settings, then tap on More near the top. On this screen you'll see an entry for Default SMS App. Just tap on that and select your preferred client.

Faster Animations

The Nexus 5 is already scary fast -- so fast, in fact, that it doesn't really need long animations to hide load times. You can speed up the animations for an even snappier experience in just a few seconds.

Back in the main system settings, hop into the Developer Options. Make sure the slider at the top is on, then scroll about halfway down to find the animation settings. Set each of these three to 0.5x instead of 1x: Window animation scale, Transition animation scale, and Animator duration scale.

This makes opening apps and multitasking super-responsive. You can technically shut off the animations completely, but that makes things look oddly broken. I don't recommend it.

Root the Nexus 5

So you've come a long way setting up your Nexus 5, and the time has come to make a choice. Assuming you unlocked the bootloader earlier on, you can root the device quite easily. This is optional as it introduces a few more headaches with regard to OTA updates, but it's still the easiest root you'll ever do. If you're in, go ahead and grab the most recent version of the TWRP custom recovery image from the Team Win site. Place it in the SDK folder with ADB and Fastboot that you used earlier while unlocking the phone.

Ready? Plug in the device and type the following commands into an ADB command prompt, hitting enter after each one:

adb reboot bootloader

(wait for the device)

fastboot flash recovery recoveryfilename.img

At this point, use the volume toggle to choose Recovery from the bootloader menu and wait as the phone loads. You should find yourself in the TWRP interface, which is touch-enabled. Go to Reboot and choose System. The recovery will ask you if you want to install superuser. Say yes, and continue.

Let the device reboot normally and you should get a notification to download and run the SuperSU app from Google Play. This app manages root access for apps, and it will also let you know if SU needs to be updated. If so, it will handle the process for you. That's it -- you're rooted.

Screen Recording to Show Off

This isn't really an essential part of the setup, but you've gotten this far and you might as well try one of the more interesting features of the Nexus 5. This is the first device to support native screen recording. It's definitely developer focuses, bu since you've got ADB working, give it a shot.

Plug in your phone, then open a command prompt from the ADB folder. Use the following command to start recording:

adb shell screenrecord /sdcard/movie.mp4

This will start the recording immediately so make sure you're ready to go. The maximum record time is 3 minutes, but you can stop at any time by pressing ctrl-c. What you'll get is an MP4 file in the specified directory with the file name you've chosen. It won't have sound, but the framerates are good when viewed on a computer.

Survey the Battery and Enjoy

Well, now your Nexus 5 is rocking the best apps, has the right tweaks, and you know where everything is. This phone is ready for business or for browsing Reddit -- whatever you do with a smartphone.

You should take a day or two to gauge battery life after installing and tweaking everything. You should be seeing a good 16-17 hours of moderate use with 3-4 hours of screen-on time. It's a little better than the Nexus 4, but not as good as devices with larger batteries like the Galaxy Note 3 or LG G2. The battery might stretch a little longer after you've had the device for a while -- you're going to have trouble putting it down at first.