[Android UI] Under My Skin: The Many Faces of Android


Android. The OS we all love to...well...love! It's fast, it's smart, and heck it gives us plenty of geek cred amongst our friends. For some of us, version number obsession has set in as we race to update or flash our devices to higher and higher Android versions, Eclair, FroYo, Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean; in short, our obsession with the amazing dessert treats doled out by Google is not going to die any time soon!

But look around in your college, school or university, at your fellow Android brethren. It's the same OS, but why on earth does one friend's Samsung Galaxy phone look so different to another's HTC One phone, and what's the deal with "Nexus" phones anyway?

AOSP Android's home/app drawer/Google Now
Well, here's the deal in a nutshell...
Google and its horde of talented developers make Android, in it's "vanilla" form, which is Android, the way it's meant to be distributed. Think of it as a car company rolling out a "stock" car from the factory...no pimping, no bling, no 16 speaker surround...just the car. This is known as AOSP, or Android Open Source Project for the rest of us [image on left]. The lucky fools who get this look of Android are all you "Nexus" owners--that's any phone with Nexus in the name, and brings to mind the Nexus One, S, Galaxy Nexus, and the latest and all powerful beast, the Nexus 4. These phones are the pure Google phones, the ones that make Google engineers drool and high-five one another about just how awesome their new OS looks on that device. To add insult to injury to everyone else, the Nexus line gets software updates pretty much as they get announced by Google (think of it as Xzibit pimping your ride...again, and again, and again--oh wait, AOSP wasn't pimping, you say? Never mind, you get the point) and generally allow the people who own Nexus devices to brag and show off for a good few months before the rest of us catch up.

Now because Android is open source and free to distribute, Google then winds up for the big toss-out, and starts lobbing it's code for Android at all the other manufacturers of Android phones, including the likes of HTC, Samsung, Sony, LG, Motorola, Huawei and several other smaller companies not making a blip on the proverbial radar. These companies then take the code for AOSP Android and start modifying it with their own apps, settings, looks, launchers and style. All this faffing behind the scenes by each company has resulted in their own sub-brands of  "skins" which cover Android or changes the way it behaves. Also, it means that us poor blokes with non-Nexus phones have to wait a few more months for Android updates, depending on how much our company actually wants to update the phone, or force us to buy a new one. As a side note, most people generally get fed up and root their phones to flash updated ROMs anyway, I'll discuss that later.

Let's dip our toes into the water of these manufacturer skins for a sec:

HTC Sense

HTC Sense 4's home/lock screens
Often either the most criticized or the most loved manufacturer skin, HTC Sense, made by HTC (if that wasn't obvious) is arguably the deepest integrated and nicer looking shells on an Android phone. (excuse my slight bias here as an HTC owner) 
Sense is deeply integrated into the Android system, and the social roots run right into the contact manager, allowing you to see social updates from many social sources straight from your address book.Other goodies like flipping the phone to silence, dimming the ringtone when you pick up the phone, and the interactive lockscreen, make it one of the most useable skins on a phone. You'll know a Sense phone when you see it--that big flip clock reading 10:08 is generally the giveaway!  It has enough widgets to make even the power users among us feel faint, and who doesn't love the lock-screen weather animation? Although it's so slick (especially since Sense 4.0) it can be a bit of a heavy gorilla on the hardware, and this means lags on older devices force HTC to leave you in the cold with updates, and may make you feel like you could throw your phone against the wall. (Disclaimer: Andy Student Handbook does not advocate throwing phones at all, let alone against a wall!)

Samsung TouchWiz

The TouchWiz  home/setting screens
All you Samsung students and scholars out there, you get to boast you care about nature, as the latest iteration of what Samsung rolls out on it's mammoth Galaxy S3, S3 Mini, and Note 2 is called "Nature UX." It sounds kinda like a contradiction, nature on a silicon chip, but aside from that it prides itself in simplicity and sticking as close as possible to AOSP. This means less complicated and more simplistic widgets then what HTC offers, but nothing less powerful by any means. It's also got some pretty nifty features that Samsung enjoys punting on all its TV commercials, like S-Voice, the personal companion app, Direct Call, where you lift the phone to call directly from a message, and the Stay Awake deal which only dims your phone when you stop looking at it (that feels a bit creepy though). Again, TouchWiz is fairly light on hardware but the latest Nature UX might not hit older Samsung Galaxy phones because of Samsung's desire to keep everything smooth. Instead, they likely plan an upgrade to the existing TouchWiz UX. You'll probably recognize a TouchWiz phone by the rippling water and dandelion lock screen from the Galaxy S3.

Sony Xperia Skin/Timescape UI

Sony's Xperia/Timescape home/widget screens
I've struggled to find the actual name for what Sony calls their skins, I think their Xperia phones get dumped with...well...the Xperia skin. "Timescape UI" was mentioned but I'm not entirely sure whether that was for newer or older phones with the whole Sony/Ericsson split going on. This is a pretty radical change to AOSP Android and, like HTC Sense, has some enhancements even for hardware on the Xperia device that both makes you drool, and, very briefly, makes you mock Nexus owners who can't have the branded Xperia goodness on their phones. Gimmicks like "floating touch" and "wet finger tracking" make impressing mates a piece of cake, I mean, who won't think hovering your finger over your display and seeing it react is cool? You'll probably figure a phone has Xperia UI if you see those blue light swirls on the black background.  Otherwise, Sony's Bravia screen tech borrowed from it's TVs, and its Exmor Camera tech borrowed from its cameras along with weird sounding features like "xLoud Audio" and "White Magic" all pack into their Android phones. This makes them real nice sounding and looking, but sadly all that software clutter lags even newer phones really badly after a few months' use. Either way, if you're a Sony purist, Xperia will make you drool.

Is there more?

Although LG and Motorola also make skins for their respective devices, these three are, in my opinion, the most popular in the Android market today. That might change for sure, but this is how it's all stacking up right now.

Before you walk away feeling good that you've just learned the differences between AOSP and Manufacturer skins, there's two more thing to look at. Firstly; custom ROMs. These ROMs, which most of us lap up happily from XDA-Developers, let you get a taste of AOSP goodness on an originally HTC Sense/Samsung TouchWiz/Sony Xperia etc. smartphone. They let you install the latest desserts Google offers, and if you're lucky some enterprising developer has modified your skin, letting you get rid of the manufacturer bloat and keeping root plus your beloved overlay skin.

Secondly, if you're lazy/scared/indifferent about rooting and flashing, you can always scour the Google Play Store for some add-on launchers which make the front-end of your phone's OS look AOSP, or imitate another skin. This is only superficial though, unlike the custom ROM deal.

Well, that's me done on the topic, hope you learned something today about the magic and the many different faces of Android! Now go forth, and be enlightened!

This article written by Matt de Neef first appeared on AndyStudentHandbook.Blogspot.com