Using Android with profiles and dual-SIMs is possible but needs work

Upping your smartphone game to have proper work/personal differentiation is possible, but it's far from perfect, especially with Signal.

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Let's get to work

Image: Google

Many things happened at the start of the pandemic when people fled offices to spend the rest of the year at home, but one I accidentally stumbled into was the use of Android segmented between home and work profiles on a device with two SIM cards.

In theory, there is so much that should be good about this scenario, but like most things that occurred in 2020, optimism was not generally going to be rewarded. However, the end result that will be described is better than the standard work and home profile mash that we have used on our devices in the past.

The same reason why I said I accidentally stumbled into this situation is because the decision of whether to use proper Android profiles on your device is one that is made deep in the bowels of your IT department; it's not something that lay-users can decide to use. In short, your company must decide whether to support work profiles or not. If you shift employers, that precious segmentation could very well disappear.

When enabled, the work profile gives you a second tab on the all apps listing in Android, and overlays a briefcase icon over app icons designated for work so you know which profile it is using. It is possible to upload personal data into the work apps, such as sharing memes with colleagues, but Android does warn you that you are crossing borders, which is a handy touch.

Because you are able to have completely different settings in the two profiles, one trick I found useful was setting the keyboard under the work profile to a totally different colour than my regular Android keyboard. It was a quick visual reminder of which profile I was using, particularly when using an app common between profiles such as Gmail.

If your company offers work profiles, it's happy days, and enjoy yourself. Profiles are much better than an all-seeing, all-controlling mobile device management profile that many companies impose on employees.

With profiles enabled, the next way to up the game would be to use a second SIM card -- and this is where the limits of Android begin to show.

Once again, I stumbled into this, with Telstra extending its eSIM functionality in the latter half of the year to the Android side of the fence, and making it easily deployable within its management app.

This process is a breeze: Follow some prompts, wait a while for the telco's backend systems to do some work, and pull your old redundant SIM out.

That left the phone capable of using another physical SIM card, and this is where the SIM I had purchased to replace my office desk phone number at the start of the pandemic came into play, with it previously being used rarely in an older device.

If you have thoughts of pairing a work SIM with a personal SIM, and entering some utopia where a work app will use a certain data connection, and a personal app uses another, walk away now. It doesn't work like that at all.

See also: Switching to Signal? Turn on these settings now for greater privacy and security

While it is possible to have two SIMs in an Android device -- which I should point out is a Pixel 5 -- when it comes to data, you will be selecting which connection to use for everything. To switch data connection, you need to power one SIM down for data, and have the other replace it.

For phone calls and texts, it is possible to receive on both, but that functionality has a certain shelf life as over-the-top services replace these stock standard use cases. It's the sort of arrangement that would have been fabulous in the early 2010s when travelling overseas, before cheap-enough roaming options became available.

The good part of this situation is Android does allow you to assign a SIM to a contact so your family can be called from your personal number, and work mates can get the work number.

Android's Messages app is able to handle SMSes from both numbers, and does it well, but for this to work, it needs to be the default SMS app. This situation is particularly galling if you happen to use another app to handle your SMSes like I did.

In my case, it was Signal, and because the app is only able to handle one number per data connection, and you can only have one SIM data connection open at once, it's possible to use Signal to handle SMS for one SIM, but messages sent to the other will fall into the ether.

Signal itself says it does not support dual-SIM at all, even for its regular messaging, and while it might have been possible to have a copy of other messenger apps like WhatsApp in both personal and work profiles, thereby having separated instances, that isn't a solution to the problem I had.

Currently, I have had both Messages and Signal running alongside for months, and while it isn't the end of the world, using one app for secure messaging and SMS is more convenient.

In theory, the process of switching the data connection is not terribly troublesome but, in practice, I've found I am far more likely to sit on the same connection, and then after the fact realise I should have been using the other SIM card. Alternatively, I may switch it to the second SIM with the smaller quota, burn through a bunch of data, and curse myself for forgetting to switch it back.

The perfect solution to this situation would be to assign a SIM per profile, but alas, Android does not have that capability -- but it really needs it. An acceptable halfway house would be a SIM per app, especially when working with profiles, but that is also a no go.

Using a second SIM on an Android phone really is a hit and miss affair, Google would do well to improve what it offers, but work profiles are exactly the sort of separation you've been longing for.

At a bare minimum, using a dual SIM phone removes the need to lug a second physical device around. And given the size of phones these days, that's no small thing.

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