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Xposed - a guide to Android customization extravaganza

Xposed - a guide to Android customization extravaganza
Customization - the beauty of Android! Many users cite the freedom to tweak and modify Google's operating system as its strongest virtue against its main competitors - iOS and Windows Phone. While Apple and Microsoft's mobile offerings are supposed to be "perfect" the way they are, they are full of little and not so little things that even the most casual, unpretentious users wish were different. So is Android, of course, but unlike iOS which requires jailbreaking, and Windows Phone, which looks and stays the same no matter what, it comes with the privilege of being relatively easy to customize. Seamless, even, if you just want more personalization options without going deep. Simply open the Play Store, install a launcher, choose a different theme and enjoy it. And for the adventurous, there's even the possibility to switch to a different Android ROM all-together, although this comes with a fair share of risks and inconveniences - including data loss and bricking. That's where Xposed comes in.

Xposed is like a software version of Google's Project Ara. It's a framework which lets you install "modules" with added functionality on top of Android. Many of them replicate functionality you'll only find inside custom Android ROMs, such as the ability to set a screen unlock pattern with a 4x4, 5x5, or even 6x6 grid, for example. Now this feature is just a few taps and a reboot away. No flashing necessary, but you will have to root your device. If you haven't done that already, by the end of this article, you will surely know whether it's worth it. You will need a device that runs either Android Gingerbread or Ice Cream Sandwich, and we recommend at least 1GB RAM, as all of Xposed's active modules consume small amounts of additional memory.

Installing Xposed


Before proceeding, we suggest you back up your device just in case. Use Titanium Backup or whatever your preferred method is to get a snapshot of how your gadget was before we tinkered with it. We also demand that you carefully read each downloadable module's description and don't install it if something about it looks sketchy. As the modules feature tweaks that require many Android permissions, there is some potential for ending up with unwanted malware on your phone. But if that was the case, Xposed wouldn't have been as popular as it is now.

Backed up or not, let's get Xposed. As framework isn't available from Google Play, you will have to sideload the APK file from this link. It will automatically download the framework's latest version http://dl.xposed.info/latest.apk. Moving on, open the APK file and install it. The Xposed Installer will appear in your app drawer. Open it, tap Framework, and press "Install/Update". Reboot your phone, and that's it. That was quick, wasn't it?

Going modular


Here's where the fun begins. Open Xposed Installer again, and tap Download. You will be greeted by an extensive list of modules waiting to be explored. Simply tap on one you like and hit Download to get it. When you get all the modules you're interested in, go back to Xposed Installer's Modules menu. You will see a list of installed modules with checkmarks to the left. These activate and de-activate them. Note that these actions require you to reboot before you can see the changes. So it might be best to activate all the modules you want to toy with at once, reboot your device, and start exploring.

Customizations galore!


We went through the list, picked a bunch of them that made sense to us, tried them out, and demonstrated how they work on a stock Nexus 5 - our beloved "guinea pig" of a smartphone. Along with random tweaks, we tested two very feature-rich customization tools - Gravity Box and GEL Settings. They offer extensive options for changing how various details in the Android interface look and work. Needless to say, we had a blast exploring them, so without further ado, here they are.

Immerse Me and Immersive Mode, Don't Panic! - these two modules work in tandem to provide a quick and dirty way to get rid of the omnipresent Android software control keys. when you don't need them. It's not like you always want them stealing screen space, right? For some reason, Google realised this only when Android 4.4 KitKat came around, and enabled the so-called Immersive Mode for games and multimedia. With these two modules, Immersive Mode goes system-wide. The obtrusive keys and upper navigation bar automatically disappear when not in use, and to get them back, you simply tap or slide upwards. It's the kind of elegant solution that should have been included in Android in the first place.

CyanLockScreen - an excellent solution to change the grid for the lock-screen unlock pattern to a 4x4, 5x5, or 6x6 grid and really get creative with your patterns. We tested it and had no problems so far.

Overflow Mod - this simple tweak replaces the three squares overflow menu icon with a version made of three circles. It's a small change, but the circles definitely look more sophisticated.

Smooth System Progress Bar - this module lets you give the Android system progress bars (visible when installing an app, for example) a complete makeover according to your wishes. You can adjust the speed, the bar width, the length of separation between the bars' sections, and the section count. And you can select a different color, of course - what's the purpose if you couldn't paint the progress bar a lovingly nerdy CRT green?

YouTube AdAway - this module deals with annoying YouTube ads once for all.. until you update the YouTube app, that is. But fear not, because AdAway's developer has no problems with updating his creation along the way. It works really well, although whether you'll choose that, or the ubiquitous AdBlock is entirely up to you.

Gravity Box - this customization module is worthy of an article of its own, but we'd rather keep you busy with awesome new smartphones and tablets instead. Anyway, here are some of the highlights we discovered inside its many menus. The Lockscreen tweaks part lets you decorate the unlock ring with a battery indicator arc, fire up the flashlight with a long press on it, and even make minute adjustments to its horizontal and vertical offset. 

The Statusbar tweaks menu contains nifty options to add data usage indicators to the Wi-Fi/3G status icons in the status bar. The Power Tweaks section lets you enable an advanced power menu with the added options of rebooting, taking a screenshot and screen recording while in the power menu, and more. 

The Telephony menu lets you choose an action to be performed when the device is flipped face down while ringing, set a full-screen caller photo, and keep incoming phone calls in background. The Launcher tweaks lets you choose a number of rows and columns for the home-screen, which sadly didn't work on our Nexus 5 for some reason. Navigation keys are customizable as well - each of the three software keys can be assigned double-tap and long-press actions to your whim. 

Finally, the Misc tweaks page lets you add a helpful RAM usage bar to the recent tasks menu. There's lot more to be found in Gravity Box, and that's only one of two free customization suites we got from Xposed. The next one's called...

Xposed GEL Settings. This is one of the sleekest power-tweaking apps/modules we've had the pleasure of using, and we owe it to the background which is ripped straight of Ubuntu to an extent. Anyway, let's see what this puppy can do. 

The General settings page lets you lock down the desktop to prevent dragging, hide the page indicator, resize widgets and other harmless little tweaks. The Google Search bar can be hidden and configured to automatically show up on the Google Now page. 

The Homescreen page offers columns and rows adjustments, while the App Drawer page lets you make many changes to how the drawer and icons look. For example, you can make it fully transparent, and add shadows to the icons' labels. 

The Gestures page gives a taste of some paid functionality, namely assigning different actions to swiping and tapping gestures. 

The Backup and Restore functionality is also only available after donating to the developer, while the Settings page offers the ability to import and export GEL settings.

Wrap-up


Mind you, all of the stuff we demonstrated is just obvious tweaks that we felt like checking out. As long as Android stays true to its open nature and continues to evolve, Xposed's potential is vast and limitless. And since it's a developer-driven community effort, it's practically guaranteed that if you ever feel like something else in Android needs to be changed, some developer has already felt the same and whipped up an Xposed module. The beauty of Android, indeed!

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