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Holiday tech support: 5 tips for Android phones

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No, you shouldn't install a custom ROM

Android phones don't usually need that much care and maintenance — assuming that your loved ones don't do anything crazy with them. But, well, that's probably a bad assumption. More so than iOS, Android phones make it easy to do lots of weird and cool things to the core of the OS. But "weird and cool" is the door to "stupid and dangerous," so when you head home this Thanksgiving, you might have a little work ahead of you.

Leave well enough alone

So look, your dad may come to you and say, "my phone is slow, what is wrong with it?" and exhort you to fix it. Take the phone, play around, and see if he's right. Perhaps he is, and perhaps that's okay. But the best answer may be to simply shrug and say, "Yup, that's just how it is" and not have to worry about digging through all the settings and apps that could be doing it.

This is cold. You must be stone cold to do this. But in the end, you could convince yourself that it isn't just best for you (since you're not signing up for a lifetime of tech support), it's also best for your family. Instead of worrying that their Galaxy S4 has some mysterious bug and only you can help, Pops will just accept that sometimes technology doesn't live up to our hopes and expectations.

But, truly, you shouldn't do this. It's mean. This is family. You're here to help.

Update the OS

Do a little Googling before you start changing things

Check to see if there are OS updates. There may not be! But if there are official updates available, you probably want to install them. Before that, though, do a quick Google search to see how people like the update. Sometimes OS updates make things a little worse. Bonus points if you find a way to show your family that you are, in fact, not a super expert and are solving problems by Googling them. We all know that's how tech support actually works, and maybe in the process you could teach a person to fish.

While we're on the subject, do not — I repeat do not — think that it's a solid idea to root the phone and install some sweet OS build off of XDA-Developers. Yes, it will make things better than whatever AT&T or Verizon have put on this thing — but is that worth the hassle of fixing whatever small things it could break? No, it is not. You're in triage mode here. Stop the bleeding, don't replace the leg.

Clean up home and notifications

Rearranging icons on the home screen is a dangerous game. People get used to where their stuff is. Sit down with your brother and straight up ask about each icon and whether or not they actually tap the thing on a regular basis. Make sure that the dock has Chrome and not some carrier-crufted browser. Figure out which email app he actually uses (pray it's Gmail. If it's not Gmail, make sure it's Gmail. Gmail can handle other email services pretty well now). Find out what apps he's digging into the app drawer to find.

Bottom line: don't change much and only do it with him sitting next to you, so he knows what you've moved. Don't be patronizing, but don't be afraid to be super explicit about why some widgets are stupid and some are good.

Change too much and you'll be doing Christmas tech support

You might be tempted to install a third-party launcher like Nova or Apex. My recommendation is to resist this temptation. Yes, it will probably look better and you can add some nice extra features — but as with custom ROMs, doing anything advanced here is just setting yourself up for future support queries.

Chances are also pretty good that your sibling gets a lot of notifications he doesn't care about. If you're on a recent version of Android, you can long-tap said app and disable notifications for it. Or turn off notifications from within the app — or delete it altogether.

Uninstall and disable garbage apps

There are two categories of apps you should worry about here. The first set is the stuff that the carrier has preinstalled on the phone. With very few exceptions, all of these apps are pointless and actively harm the experience of the phone. The worst ones are the "browser" apps that sometimes get put in the dock as the default. Jettison that crap with a quickness. Take it off the home screen.

When it comes to crapware, repeat this mantra: 'It's not your fault'

The second set is a little harder to fathom. Some apps just run in the background unnecessarily. Some are anti-virus, and security apps may not strictly be necessary. Some are actual malware that you need to excise from the device. Check to see if Mom ticked the box to allow apps that aren't from the Google Play Store (Settings -> Security -> Unknown sources). If so, that's a klaxon alarm that you're going to need to dig in and look for problems — perhaps with the aforementioned virus-scanning software you'd otherwise uninstall.

In both cases, the best way to peruse the device is to jam through all of the apps in settings rather than hitting the home screen. Go to Settings -> Apps or Settings -> Applications -> Application manager. Or go someplace else! The annoying thing about carriers and OEMs is that they love nothing more than shuffling settings around on their phones.

Once you finally find the application manager, scroll through and delete or disable the obvious stuff you know isn't needed. Here, again, Google is your friend. If you have a sliver of doubt, Google it and see what the forums are saying.

Buy your way out of this problem

You know what has a nice, clean install of Android without cruft or hassles? A Nexus phone. If you run into a wall fixing it at Thanksgiving, maybe that's a signal of what you should buy for Christmas.