Do nothing.
There we go – if you’re in a hurry to move on, that’s a pretty easy takeaway! You see, after weeks of looking at tips and tricks and utilities and management schemes, I’ve ended up with the conclusion that it’s extremely easy to get to the point where the things you’re doing, and the apps you’re buying to try and increase performance in your Android smartphone, are actively getting in the way. Both your way and that of the OS, which (at Android 4.x) is now sufficiently sophisticated to make a better fist of things than anything else we can think of here. Having said that, some explanation and a few extra tips should prove more illuminating…
RAM (Random Access Memory) is the main thing to look at, of course. Short of extreme hackery in in terms of overlocking your phone’s processor (very definitely not for the faint hearted, or those who value their warranty!), the main performance factor in any smartphone is its RAM and what’s using it. You see, applications and data that are (running or stored) in RAM are much faster to access than the same stored in flash memory (i.e. the phone’s internal disk or microSD).
The author’s ageing Galaxy Nexus, with 300MB free RAM after booting, and optimised to within an inch of its life….!
So the ideal situation is to have all the applications you use the most in RAM at all times, for near instant switching (with the only remaining bottleneck being the device’s processor). The likely problem with this is that your phone’s RAM is finite and, at some point, something large (e.g. a game) that you run will end up demanding lots of RAM and ‘out’ go your core applications (Gmail, Twitter, Pocket Casts, etc.), with their states saved so that they can be restarted/resumed as exactly as possible in the near future. And, naturally, when it comes time to use one of your core applications again, this restart takes an awful lot longer than simply jumping to a fully running application in RAM.
Which brings us to two seemingly contradictory rules of thumb:
have as much free RAM as possible (so that there’s room to crank in new applications without disturbing any of your core apps that are already running)fill RAM as much as possible with running apps (so that as many core apps as possible can be available for instant switching)
In fact, these two rules don’t fall foul of each other – they’re both true and both relevant in a modern Android smartphone. The second rule is taken care of by the Android OS, which naturally fills RAM as new applications are started – though a buffer of up to 100MB (or thereabouts) is usually tried for, so that there’s always room for the OS and processor to ‘breathe’ (work).
Though it’s tempting to suggest that the first rule is also taken out of user hands (hence my ‘Do nothing’ crack at the top!), in fact there are things you might
be able to do, that make a difference in day to day use. And no, I don’t mean installing ‘free up’ style utilities, which essentially kill background Android services to free RAM and ignore the fact that most of them get restarted almost immediately – trust me, I’ve tried a number of these apps and ultimately de-installed each.
Nor do I mean choose a phone with more RAM in the first place, though that is rather an obvious starting point – if you’re a power user then you should prize RAM over all else, even over processor speed. More RAM = better web page handling, larger games handled smoothly, quicker switching between applications, and so on.
There are in fact two main things you can bear in mind when setting up your Android smartphone, both of which have a significant effect on free RAM, especially if you have a 1GB (or less) device.
1. Exercise restraint in setting up homescreens. Yes, your device lets you have up to nine of the things, each of which could be stocked with several ‘cool’ widgets, so it’s quite possible to end up with 20 or so widgets in place. Then add in a live wallpaper, for the ultimate in cool. Quite apart from such a homescreen map being too spread out to save you any time in the first place, it’s vital to understand that every widget is effectively a small application and requires RAM in order to exist and work (e.g. to display content). Ditto live wallpaper, which again is an Android application in its own right and can often use significant RAM.
Stick to a simple homescreen layout, maybe two or three, with a handful of your most valuable widgets, then use a static wallpaper (i.e. a still photo), and you’ll have more RAM for general Android application use.
2. Think about changing your homescreen/app-launcher altogether. If you’re an out-of-the-box sort of person then you may not want to tinker with this, but there are definitely RAM savings to be made here. As an example, I did some tests, detailed below, on my (now ageing) Galaxy Nexus. There’s a caveat in that the numbers tended to jump around, depending on exact network conditions and what data was being handled in real time, etc, but the broadstrokes comparison does apply, I think.
In each case, I set up the appropriate launcher with approximately the same shortcut icons and the same widget loadout (Google Now, Simple Bitcoin, Brightness Level, and Free Memory, in my case) and then rebooted, waiting a few minutes for all the typical Android services to get started, do their initial thing and then calm down – you’d be amazed how much free RAM fluctuates in the first few minutes after a phone is restarted!
LauncherAverage free RAM after booting had finishedGoogle Now (the ‘Google Experience’, etc.)265MBTrebuchet (the default own-brand/stock launcher that comes with Cyanogen Mod)308MBNovalauncher284MBApex Launcher293MB
Note again (in the table) that I used the word ‘average’ – the numbers really did vary quite a bit, though there was a very definite difference between the Trebuchet launcher from Cyanogen, effectively the stock Android launcher from v4.1 or so and the (slightly) more bloated Google Now system that has been coming on recent Nexus devices and other ‘Play Edition’ phones – plus you can of course side load this now from the Play Store. However, as with most newer software, it’s written (and tested) with higher specification devices in mind, and so its relative bloat has gone unchecked.
Picking a launcher, here in Settings/Apps/All under Android 4.4….
Add the two bits of advice together and I reckon on a possible difference of up to 75MB of free RAM in both simplifying homescreens massively and switching from the Google Now launcher to ‘Trebuchet’ (or ‘Apex Launcher’, for example), enough to make a significant difference on older hardware, at least.
Hopefully these insights and tips can you gain more free RAM in your own main smartphone and you’ll get a faster, smoother Android experience as a result. Comments welcome!

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