Rescuing an old or cheap Android phone, keeping it out of the waste stream, avoiding the impulse to always buy new: it feels good.
Actually using that phone with an Android version two or three versions behind, waiting for apps to load, feeling it shudder a bit as you simply scroll down a feed: it feels like trying to run a 5K after taking too many Benadryl.
Some things you cannot change about that old phone you pulled out of a drawer: The processor, the camera, the on-board memory, and, in some cases, the storage space. But there are many things you can swap out, software-wise, to make up for its hardware inefficiencies.
I and fellow iFixit writer Whitson Gordon wrote approximately 850 kadzillion blog posts involving Android customization and optimization during the early days of Android phones. Most were written when every phone was low-spec, in some sense. These days, even the cheapest Android phones can do the basics without serious tuning. There are many, many other search results for “how to speed up android” or “fix slow laggy android” that offer drastic measures (like rooting or installing unofficial ROMs) or unproven “tricks”. We wanted a shorter list of things that really work.
To make that list, and prove it worked, we grabbed a cheap, old phone. Specifically, a Moto G4. First launched in September 2016 in the U.S., the phone has 2 GB of memory, 16 GB of on-board storage (along with a microSD card slot). It was stranded at Android 7.0 (“Nougat”) when Motorola stopped updating it. I used this phone for a day, growled and glared at it, then improved it step by step. I had my far more modern Pixel 2 handy for comparison.
By the end, the G4 went from a Crud Phone I Can Barely Stand to a Phone I Could Actually Use—it’s still next to my computer as this post is published. I wouldn’t use it for augmented reality games or live-streaming events, but it’s fine for email, mindless social scrolling, and group texts about lunch. Here’s what made the most difference.
P.S. – It’s hard to capture the difference in feel, but I did some screen recordings of this G4 before and after I made the changes listed below. The “After” video has visual taps enabled, and generally shows off this software-tuned 2016 phone.
It’s weird to start off with a Jedi Mind Trick that doesn’t really speed things up inside your phone, but trust us on this. Watching your overburdened phone try to make a folder burst open or an app glide away, skipping frames as it goes, makes it feel unreliable and slow. But you can set your phone to just show you things when they’re ready, and your brain likes it much, much better.
You’ll first need to enable Developer Options on your phone. Go into your phone’s Settings, scroll all the way down to “About phone,” and then scroll all the way down on that screen to the “Build number.” Tap that Build number a total of seven times—after three taps, it should start showing you messages that “You are now X steps away from being a developer!” (Who needs school or certifications?) Once you’ve enabled Developer Options on your phone, go back to your main Settings menu. If you have a search function available, search for “animation,” and tap one of the results. Otherwise, head into the Developer Options, then scroll down until you see “Window animation scale.”
Tap on “Window animation scale” and choose the “Animation off” option. Do the same for the Transition and Animator options. Head back to your home screen, and start tapping around to see the difference. Things just appear instead of gliding in now, and you can’t feel the metaphorical engine struggling up the hill.
Switch Your Launcher and Start Fresh
An Android “launcher” is an app that manages the home screen, organizing the wallpaper, app shortcuts, a tray with even more apps, and whatever widgets you or the phone-maker or cellular carrier have put there. Some launchers are light and fast, some are stuffed with junk that cause the home screen to lag and stutter. The good launchers we recommend here are efficient, and have features that help you do other steps in this guide.
We won’t walk through the particulars of each launcher, but you want to make sure the launcher sets itself as your default home page. Installing a new launcher gives you a fresh start to organize your apps, avoid unnecessary widgets, and hide the pre-installed apps you never asked for.
Open this article on your phone and click the following links to install each app. Alternately, if you’re signed into your Google account on your computer, you can follow these links and click “Install” to push the app to your phone. If any of these launchers don’t suit you in their paid versions, be sure to get a refund from within the Play Store within 48 hours.
- Nova Launcher: An extremely versatile launcher that looks a lot like standard Android. You’ll have to pay for Prime to hide app icons, but its extra features are well worth the price.
- Apex Launcher: Similar to Nova, but with a blocky aesthetic and more emphasis on icon and theme customizing.
- Smart Launcher 3: If you want a much simpler home screen, this is the way to go.
Despite having more features than Google’s stock launcher, these launchers tend to be a bit smoother, especially if you’re willing to tinker with some of their more advanced settings.
Use Google’s Go Apps
Even if you never install another app, Google’s own default apps can feel like big, slow data hogs on an older phone. Fortunately (but also, weirdly), Google makes smaller, lighter versions of many of their own applications. They just reserve them for Android Go phones, which they mostly license to budget phone makers outside the U.S. But you can install some of Google’s Go apps from the Play Store, and grab the others with a little side-loading trickery.
For the apps that aren’t available on the U.S. Play Store below, we’ve included a link to APK Mirror, a trusted site for grabbing security-scanned apps. Once you’ve got the APK on your phone, you can enable “Unknown Sources” in your phone’s Settings and open the APK file to sideload it.
Be careful, though: APK Mirror’s website contains a number of links that look like download buttons, because they need to make some revenue, however distasteful those ads are. The only download link you want to click, after navigating to the latest version, reads “Download APK.”
Many of these apps require Android 8.0 or later to install, even if you can find the APK file—which is, sadly, a limitation you can’t get around without some more drastic measures we’ll discuss later. For now, here are the apps, the minimum version of Android they require, and where you can pick it up:
- Google Maps Go (Android 4.1, Play Store)
- Navigation for Google Maps Go (4.4, Play Store)
- Google Go (5.0, APK Mirror)
- Google Assistant Go (8.0, APK Mirror)
- GBoard (keyboard) Go (5.0/8.0 versions, APK Mirror, look for the downloads with “lite” in the filename. You may have to try a few versions before you find the right one for your phone)
- YouTube Go (4.2, APK Mirror)
- Gmail Go (8.1, APK Mirror)
- Gallery Go (photo organizer, Play Store)
There’s a good chance Google has made even more of these if you’re reading this post; check the Play Store to find them.
Use Lite or Web Apps
Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram would all love you to install their full-size apps, allow them to constantly update in the background, and engage with their many features nobody uses. But they, like Google, want people everywhere to use their apps, so they offer lighter versions, or mobile web versions that are essentially apps.
Nearly any social app you use will have a mobile website that offers most of the features of a full app. Head to that website in Chrome on your phone and select “Add to Home screen” from the browser’s menu. That gives you an app-like container to use, where you’ll stay signed in.
- Facebook Lite (2.3, Play Store)
- Facebook Messenger Lite (4.0, Play Store)
- Twitter Lite (5.0, APK Mirror)
- TikTok Lite (4.1, APK Mirror)
- Skype Lite (4.0, Play Store)
- LinkedIn Lite (4.4, APK Mirror)
- Uber Lite (4.4, APK Mirror)
Also keep an eye out for third-party apps that can provide a lighter, and sometimes better, experience for using your favorite sites. We prefer Reddit is fun and BaconReader for browsing Reddit over the official app, for example.
Uninstall Apps You Don’t Need or Use
This one is kind of obvious, but it needs to be mentioned. If there’s an app on your phone you don’t use, remove it, usually by long-pressing on the shortcut to get to “App info,” or in the Apps section of your settings. Apps can do things in the background you don’t need, eat up data and storage, or (rarely but occasionally) go haywire with memory or CPU use. Be ruthless.
Turn On Data-Saving Modes
Old, cheap phones are often using slower networks. Even if they have fast connections, big webpages or feed refreshes use up your phone’s resources while they’re streaming in. You can mitigate some of these with data saver modes, tucked into the settings of some major apps. For example:
- Chrome: Settings > Lite mode
- Twitter/Twitter Lite: Tap your profile picture, then head toSettings and privacy > Data usage > Data saver
- Facebook: Tap the overflow button (three dashes in the upper-right corner) and head to Data Saver.
- YouTube: Settings > General > Limit mobile data usage
Phones with Android 7.0 and above also have a Data Saver mode built into Android itself, usually accessible from the pull-down settings tiles. Turning this on severely limits background data usage by apps, and even reigns in the app you’re currently using. A great Computerworld guide by JR Raphael walks through Data Saver and many other options for limiting data usage by a slow phone, including Google’s own Datally app.
Clear Out Your Storage (or Add More)
Older and lower-cost phones usually have less storage as part of those cost savings. When your phone runs out of internal storage space, it will struggle mightily to find some, or else scramble to read and write from what little there is left. This is the equivalent of your phone trying to pull a single branch out of a house-size brush pile.
Some easy ways to clear up storage on an overstuffed Android phone:
- Files by Google is tiny, efficient, and will recommend ways to clear out space, including backing up to the cloud and removing stuff you never use. It’s also a generally good file managing and sharing app.
- Using Google Photos allows you to automatically back up your phone photos to Google’s cloud and clear them off your storage, at pretty generous rates (free for up to 16 MP photos or 1080p videos), with scary-good search capabilities and face recognition. If you’re okay with the advertising giant having your photos, it’s an easy fix.
- Buy a microSD card, such as Wirecutter’s 128 GB or 64 GB picks, if your phone has a slot for it. In your storage settings, and in each app you use regularly, set as much data as you can to be put on the SD card.
- Newer versions of Android (8.0 and above) have built-in tools to free up space. Look in the Storage section of the Settings app and find recommendations there.
All the Other Stuff You Might Do
The suggestions above will make the biggest difference to your day-to-day experience of a lower-spec, non-modern Android phone. But there are other measures you might take, which either have slim returns or are mostly untested. Venture forth with that knowledge.
- Disable live wallpapers and remove widgets: Switching to a new launcher should already do this, but if your moving, glittering wallpaper or quirky weather widget stuck around, they do take up some resources.
- Enable “Force GPU Rendering” in Developer options: Some guides mention this as a way to trade some battery life for a smoother experience. Android developers say it shouldn’t do much these days, but it’s maybe worth testing for a day or two.
- Remove any “task killers” or “RAM savers”: These absolutely do not work and usually make things worse. If you had one installed previously, or someone installed one to “help” you, get rid of it.
- Rooting and ROMs: Many Android sites recommend this as an option for an out-of-date phone, or one saddled with permanent bloatware. Whitson wrote an old but mostly still valid guide to rooting (I told you we have a kadzillion of these) that explains the process. Having installed ROMs on more than a dozen phones and tablets in my life, I can say that it is not easy for newcomers, that you really can dig yourself into a hole (or a bricked device) if you follow bad advice, and that you’re trading more control and newer software for strange bugs and uncertain app compatibility. There was a one-month period, for example, where people couldn’t hear my end of phone calls, because of my CyanogenMod ROM. But if you’ve got a nothing-to-lose device, and you’re a pretty advanced user, it might be a weekend project.
What did we miss? What worked for you and your old but good phone? Let us know in the comments.