Several weeks ago in this column I reviewed several Android and iPhone apps that can be used to possibly locate lost or stolen phones and tablets. While several of the apps were free, most were limited in capabilities unless a paid, usually nominal, subscription fee was paid. Now, Google, known for its innovation and services, recently (April 15) offered a pair of very simple and free ways to locate almost any lost or stolen Android device, totally for free. The Android user actually has an option from Google where the user can choose and install the free Goggle app “Android Device Manager” (last updated April 9), or can simply update the integral main Google app to the one dated April 15, 2015, or later.
I downloaded the updated April 15 main Google app (it’s icon has a lower case “g” in a baby blue square), which should be installed anyway on almost all Android devices. This new updated primary Google app offers additional features not available on earlier versions of the app. As with earlier versions of the basic Google app, this new version allows the user to quickly search the web as well as the device on which it is installed. The Google app may also utilize voice based searches, and display personalized search results based on the current location of the user.
One of the new features added to the April 15 update of the Google app is a most useful “Find my Phone” function which is accomplished just like any other search function by simply typing “Find My Phone” in the search box. Before this simple process can be accomplished, the user needs to have the April 15 update (or later version) of the Google app installed on the missing phone or tablet. From another device or computer, the user must log into the same Google or Gmail account that is used on the missing device, and then open a web browser that is connected to the internet. Google naturally recommends its own Chrome browser, but others I tried worked just fine. Open up the Google website at google.com, and then enter “find my phone” in the search box. For security verification reasons, Google will again ask the user to sign in to the Google account used on the missing device. If the missing phone or tablet is powered on, and has any type of data connection established (Wi-Fi or cellular), it will miraculously appear on a detailed Google map, typically in a matter of seconds. Once displayed, Google will display the calculated accuracy of the location, and offer the user the opportunity to ring the phone at its loudest setting for up to five minutes. The loud ringing can be stopped by a quick press of the “power” button on the device.
Being somewhat of a skeptic, I had to try it as soon as I found out about this new Google search feature. While sitting at my office desk, I checked to verify that I had the April 15 Google update installed on my phone; I did. For those who may not how to check to see if the latest Google app is installed (by default, it is automatically updated on most Android devices), open the “Play Store” on the phone or tablet, tap the “Apps” button, and then in the search box at the top of the screen simply enter “Google”, and search. This particular Google app, as stated above, simply says “Google”, and displays the lower case “g” in a baby blue, square icon. Once the Play Store is opened displaying the Google app, it will either say “Update” if an update is available, or if it says “Open”, then the latest version of Google is already installed.
From my desktop computer, using Firefox (worked fine with other browsers), I opened my Gmail account, which shares its login with my smart phone. My phone was powered on, on my desk in my office on the second floor of a two story steel framed brick building, connected to the Wi-Fi network, but had its GPS function turned off. I then went to the Google.com website, and typed “find my phone” in the search box. Almost instantly, the model number of my phone, MT2L03, appeared on the top right corner of the map. The search results indicated that Google was attempting to contact my phone, and once a connection was established, Google asked me to login a second time using the same login to verify my identity, then displayed “Locating your phone”. Within about 10 seconds, a detailed street map appeared, indicating the location of my phone in my building, with an accuracy of within 73 feet. The location pinpointed by the Google map was almost dead on; it was very easy to zoom in on the Google map in order to get more detail on the location of the phone.
At the bottom left corner of the Google map display was a blue icon of a ringing smart phone; clicking on this icon will cause the phone to ring at it loudest volume for a full five minutes, or until the power button on the phone is pressed. In a subsequent test at home, I purposely switched my phone to the “silent” setting, and repeated the “find my phone” process. Again it quickly located my phone at my house, this time within 69 feet. When I clicked on the “ring” icon, my phone blared its default ringtone at full volume, even though it had been manually set to silent. As a subsequent experiment, I turned the GPS on in my phone, verifying that it was working by using the Google Maps on my phone; surprisingly, the accuracy displayed by Google in my browser was unchanged, and was the same whether the GPS on the phone was on or off. At home, at the office, in a car, or other location, this five minute long, maximum volume ringing, can easily be utilized to find a misplaced phone. If necessary, the five minute ringing cycle can be repeated.
For those who want even more power and features when locating a lost or stolen phone, the latest version (April 9 as I type this) of Google’s free “Android Device Manager” can just as easily locate a lost or missing Android device as using the Google search engine, but it also offers the ability to ring, lock, or erase the device. To lock the missing or stolen device, the user creates a PIN number which will be required to “open” the device once the lock feature is enabled; this will make it very difficult for unauthorized users to make use of the device. If the phone is indeed stolen, the legitimate owner can use the “Android Device Manager” to remotely wipe the phone clean of any personal data that could be purloined and abused by the thief. An option in the “Android Device Manager” allows it to be linked with the basic Google app and its “Google Now” feature, which adds the lock and erase icons to the display on the “find your phone” display on the Google map. The “Android Device Manager” is a free download from the Google Play Store.
While lacking some functionality of its commercial (paid) competitors, such as the ability to turn on the front facing camera transmitting the image of the user, or blink the light on the camera flash, the basic Google search app and the free “Android Device Manager” would be more than adequate to locate the majority of lost Android devices, as it is much more likely that a device is simply misplaced or lost, rather than stolen. Since they are totally free, and the basic Google app is an integral part of the Android operating system, Android users have the ability to quickly overcome the stresses of trying to find that darned lost phone.