6 Android Projects to Try This Holiday Break

By Ryan Whitwam

The stock experience is only the beginning. Here are six recommended tweaks you should try on your Android phone or tablet!

No matter which Android device you've chosen as your daily driver, it's jam packed with a variety of neat features. However, if you've got a little time this holiday season and curiosity to tinker, you can expand on the stock functionality or even completely change the experience. With many folks getting new Android phones and tablets over this holiday break, what better way to spend that free time than embarking on an Android project or two? Here are some tweaks that you shouldn't be afraid to try out. And don't worry, nothing's permanent!

Get the Google Experience Launcher

Let's start off slow with an easy one. If you're not looking to get your hands too dirty, but you still want to try something new on your device, install the still semi-secret Google Experience Launcher. It only takes a few minutes and it should work on almost every Android phone and tablet out there.

It's more or less common knowledge now that Google is readying a new home screen launcher for Android devices, and it's probably already on your phone. The Google Search app, which started as just a quick search box, became a full app, then evolved into Google Now, is also a launcher these days. To access the Google Experience Launcher in your search app, you'll need to get the GEL stub app and install it on your phone or tablet.

Make sure Unknown Sources is enabled in your device's security settings, then download the APK linked above. After it is installed, your device will ask you which home screen you want to use, just like installing any number of third-party launchers. The difference here is that updates to the Google Search app through the Play Store will actually tweak your home screen.

This is a work in process -- in fact, Google just recently made some major changes to GEL on tablets. You're seeing the bleeding edge of Android if you sideload the Google Experience Launcher, and making your home there is a fun and low-risk project.

Control Your Phone with NFC

You probably have NFC in your Android device by now -- it's been a common element for a few years now. Its main use is to share content, but you can also use it to store data and trigger actions on your phone. All you need is a few NFC tags and some spare time. Unlike most of our projects, this one will require a small monetary investment.

First thing's first -- you need to pick up a few writable NFC tags. There are plenty of bundles available on Amazon for a few bucks. You can get stickers, keychains, or just regular plastic tags. Grabbing a mixture of stickers and keychains might be the best bet going into this project, but the goal is to get the tags that will make it easiest to automate your Android device's settings.

Not all devices have NFC enabled by default, so make sure yours is on before trying to write to any tags. An app like Trigger is ideal for setting up basic settings toggles and actions on its own. You can, for example, create a tag that silences your phone and sets an alarm when you set it on your nightstand. A keychain NFC tag could be used to activate Bluetooth and pair your phone with an in-car hands-free system.

If you want to take things a step farther, you can dig into Tasker, which can create almost any action on your device. It's not the easiest app to get the hang of, but Trigger can be used to activate any of your Tasker situations with an NFC tag. Believe it or not, this is probably one of the more time-consuming projects you can embark on if you really take it to the extremes.

Getting Root

If you want to get into really serious Android hacks and mods, you're going to need root access. This is where you have to do a risk calculation. Most devices will not be supported under warranty if you do what is necessary to gain root, but root lets you have a lot of fun monkeying around with Android. Additionally, getting root on some devices is a little messy and could result in a bricked device. In some ways this is just a precursor to all the holiday hacks to follow, but it can be quite a little project in its own right.

There are two basic categories of devices when it comes to root -- those with unlockable bootloaders and those without. If you have a Nexus, Google Play Edition device, or most non-AT&T/Verizon carrier phones, you can unlock the bootloader via a simple fastboot command. It's the same basic process as detailed in our recent Nexus 7 guide. You just need to unlock the bootloader, then use a custom recovery (TWRP or ClockworkMod) to install the superuser files that give you root access. Some phones will also require that you get an unlock code from the manufacturer -- this includes most variants of the HTC One and Moto X.

If you have a device with a locked and encrypted bootloader, things get more risky. Your best bet is to check out the XDA forum thread for your specific device to see what the current root method is like. Virtually every phone and tablet of any consequence has a root method, but it may very well change with each OTA update. Most of these methods rely on command line magic, but the guides are very detailed. Just check the MD5 sums on any files you are instructed to install and everything should be fine.

Back Up All The Things

If you have managed to gain root access, you're going to want some backups that can be restored in case you make a mistake. There are two ways you can go about creating your backups -- there are simple app/setting backups, as well as full system images. The easiest thing to do once you get root access is to grab Titanium Backup from Google Play and get all your apps and settings saved.

Titanium is not the most intuitive app out there, but it's incredibly powerful. Even apps that don't allow backups by default can be extracted. You can also set Titanium to run on a schedule to send all your app data to Drive or Dropbox for safe keeping. The similar Helium Backup app can be used on a limited basis without root, but even on a rooted device it isn't quite as powerful as Titanium. These individual backups are useful when you're moving between ROMs because you can restore your apps exactly as they were in just a few minutes.

The other type of backup you might want to do is a full system image via a custom recovery like TWRP or ClockworkMod. The backup functions in these recoveries are in an easy to find, top level menu because this is one of the main benefits of a custom recovery. Simply create a backup and you get a copy of your system that can be restored from the recovery interface at any time. These backups can occupy a lot of space, but it's worth it for the peace of mind.

Use the Xposed Framework

If you want to make a few tweaks, but dealing with ROMs is unappealing, consider installing the Xposed framework. This process requires root, but only for the initial installation. Xposed comes via a simple APK installer that will deploy the framework in the system directory. Xposed supports a large number of modules that allow you to tweak the system without modifying any APKs or resources.

After installing Xposed, you'll be prompted to restart. If your device boots back up fine, you should be in the clear. If it bootloops, then it's time to restore from that backup you (hopefully) just made. For devices that are running stock or mostly stock Android, the GravityBox module should be the first thing you look at. This module includes options to change the battery meter style, move the clock, alter the Quick Settings, change the screen-off animation, implement PIE controls, and a ton more.

That's just the start, though. There are modules out there created by dedicated folks for devices like the HTC One and Galaxy S4 to address specific annoyances. Hate that NFC icon in the status bar? There are modules to remove that, for example. Some of the features from popular mods like Paranoid Android's Halo app switching can be grafted on to a regular ROM with Xposed modules as well.

What's really amazing about Xposed is that almost everything you change with it happens in real time without a reboot. Xposed is only making softmods to the system, so disabling the modules and rebooting your device makes everything stock again so you can install OTA updates. It's much less risky than ROMs.

Install a ROM

This is the big one -- completely changing out your stock system ROM for a custom one designed by Android fans like yourself is the most substantial project you can get into over your holiday break. A good ROM offers you an alternative to the carrier-dominated update cycle, which sees many phones left behind. It's not just about the version number -- many ROMs have unique features you won't get anywhere else.

There are a few big names in Android ROMs right now, but CyanogenMod is probably the most mature and well supported. This ROM can be downloaded directly from the CM website as a stable, monthly, or nightly build. CyanogenMod has secure messaging, enhanced camera features, full App Ops support, and more. Device support is also extremely broad with good documentation if you encounter issues. There is also an installer client that make the process much smoother for new users. You can get an overview of that in a recent App Roundup.

CyanogenMod 11

Paranoid Android is also a popular option, but it's not quite as easy to get into. PA is a more loosely managed project and it barely has a real website -- most of the news and downloads are posted on the Paranoid Android Google+ feed. Paranoid Android offers a variety of useful tweaks and UI mods, but the headlining feature is Halo, a notification system that includes built-in floating apps.

Whatever ROM you decide to go with, you'll need to flash it to your device. With the exception of CM's installer client, that means some file management and navigating your custom recovery. ROMs come as ZIP files, which you can place on the internal storage. Make sure you're backed up, then boot your phone or tablet into recovery. Use the install menu to select and flash the ZIP from your /sdcard directory (or wherever you stored it). It's a good idea to also wipe the system and cache when moving to a completely different ROM -- these options are usually in the advanced menu of your recovery.

If your ROM doesn't come with Google Apps built-in (which most don't), you will need to grab a second ZIP file containing these apps from XDA or some other source. This can be flashed after the main ROM to give you all the features you expect from Android. Upon reboot, you should have a shiny new OS to explore.