I wrote this post around November, 2016, when I was deciding between phone manufacturers and comparing Android skins (the User Interface and manufacturer-specific ‘skin’ on top of stock Android) from each of those OEMs. I’ve updated it a little, to reflect my newfound experience with the Galaxy S7.
Now that I’ve decided what Operating System I’ll be going with for my next phone, it’s time to look at the different skins, or what I call ‘flavours,’ of Android. I’m not talking about OS updates (e.g. Lollipop, Marshmallow or Nougat), but how different phone manufacturers take the Android OS, give it a dose of their own branding and change the user interface to make it their own.
Many will argue that the best skin is stock Android – Android as it was intended, in its bare minimum form. But stock Android only comes on a selected number of devices, including the old Nexus and Pixel/2 phones.
For the majority of people who don’t get a Google Pixel/XL or Pixel 2/XL, a new phone will come with a pre-installed skin and, traditionally, lots of bloatware (pre-installed apps that you can’t uninstall). The bloatware is there for a few reasons – mostly, for advertising, and also because that advertising subsidises the cost of the phone, thus reducing the overall price – sometimes, networks have their own pre-installed apps on phones too, which can be especially annoying for consumers.
You may like the OEM skin, but you also might not, and that’s where downloading a custom launcher will come in handy. For that stock look, the Google Now Launcher is your best bet, although many more are available such as Nova Launcher or Action Launcher 3.
But a custom launcher won’t get rid of the bloatware, or the default skin. It will be layered on top. To be able to uninstall the default skin, and/or bloatware apps which can only be disabled, you’d need to ‘root’ your phone – this would, however, likely void your phone’s warranty, and isn’t something many people will be able to do.
While it is fairly a technical process, with a lot of essential reading involved, it’s not impossible to root your device – I was able to successfully root my HTC Wildfire a few years ago, and install a custom ROM – but it’s not something I’d want to be doing with a brand new phone on contract.
Therefore, knowing what’s available, and choosing wisely, is the difference between phone heaven and phone hell.
In this blog post, I’ll explore the Android landscape and analyse the pros and cons of the different skins available, from HTC’s Sense UI to Samsung’s TouchWiz.
HTC: Sense UI
Sense UI has been around from the start. I remember the first time I experienced Sense UI – with my HTC Wildfire running Android Gingerbread, which seems like a dinosaur compared to the modern roster of smartphones. And to tell you the truth, Sense UI felt much the same on my HTC Desire Eye. Sure, there’s been a few enhancements in the looks department, it’s very efficient and simple, the way Android should be – but for me, there’s no fizz. It’s flat. Too flat. Like flat Coca-Cola. It looks like Android Marshmallow, it feels like Android 6, but it lacks feeling.
After initial use in-store of a One A9S and HTC 10 (Nov 2016), there’s nothing to keep me glued to Sense UI. And here’s why:
When I first got my Desire Eye, I loved it, I loved the new developments with Sense, and I loved the user experience. Sadly, however, I’ve seen how that user interface has slowly diminished.
The much-touted Blinkfeed feature, once advertised as a social and news congregator that could be set as the default screen, or which sits just off to the left of your homescreen, was fantastic when it was first launched, but now it’s little more than a social feed that lacks the customisation settings I used to toggle, and riddled with adverts left, front and centre. The only purpose of Blinkfeed now seems to be to show us a ‘last success,’ a feature of the distant past which has now been updated and ruined. Why fix what isn’t broken?
The home screen, while customisable with the ample collection of free themes from the Themes store, still has a basic 4×4 grid layout that’s rather plain, dull and drab compared to other Android skin variants (the vivid TouchWiz comes to mind). If anything, it reminds me of the boxed notepads we used in school in Mathematics lessons – the worst part being that you can’t change the size of the grid. It’s 4×4, on every screen, for app icons and widgets.
I want a device to look great from the offset, without me having to download a custom launcher like Nova and apply my own choice of icons, grid size and layout. The HTC experience feels too limiting, too restrictive. From what I’ve seen of Android 7 on HTC devices, it doesn’t look like much of an improvement either.
To top it off, the devices aren’t great from HTC this year (2016). If I’m ‘upgrading,’ I would like to replace my Desire Eye with a superior phone, but a quick look at the specs sheet of many of HTC’s current crop of devices, not including the HTC 10, shows that in fact I’d be exchanging my Desire Eye for a newer, albeit much inferior HTC device.
I guess that’s why I’ve effectively already decided My Next Phone will not be a HTC. I’ve made the decision to jump ship, especially while I still think highly of HTC.
Maybe I shall return to the brand again in the future – that is, if they’re still around, and hopefully they are, because the new Google Pixel phones, manufactured by HTC, while way too expensive for my budget, look and feel great. You just know those chamfered edges are HTC’s own curves!
I’ve heard and seen this skin compared to iOS, and I must say I’m impressed. Sure, the lack of an app drawer is a small annoyance, but I hear you can now enable this in the Settings in more newer versions of the EMUI skin. However, the otherwise lack of an app drawer in the default skin is one disadvantage I would be willing to accept for the best of both worlds – the sleek sexiness of iOS, coupled with the functionality and customisability of Android.
I guess it helps that I was, and still am, absolutely in love with the Huawei P9, despite its shortcomings on camera/video capture. It’s metal body was so premium, it’s dual lens camera system unique despite facing stiff competition from the LG G5, G6, newer Moto phones and the hugely more expensive iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, but it even felt great in the hand – as does it’s younger siblings, the Huawei P10 and Honor 9.
I can’t see myself using the knuckle screenshot feature a lot, and can see myself parting ways with a few pennies for an ad-free screenshot app, but I love the EMUI skin. It’s everything I want in a phone. Huawei, and the EMUI experience, are unsurprisingly at the top of my list at the moment, and it will take a lot to knock them off the top spot.
Which is where LG comes in. Again, it helps that I like the unique wide angle lens setup of the G5, and the system UI is great too. On the UI/skin side of things, I haven’t had much experience with LG’s skin, however, from my various trials with demo devices in store, it certainly seems up to scratch and very comparable to the TouchWiz experience from it’s bigger South Korean tech giant rival, Samsung.
I’m sure this is something I don’t share with others, but I’ve had a great experience with TouchWiz in the past. Despite the general consensus being that it was clunky, too vibrant and too bloated, my Galaxy Tab Pro came with TouchWiz (Android Jelly Bean, and later, Android 4.4 KitKat) and I found it to be easy to use and functional. To this day (Feb 2018), it remains a reliable 3rd device, despite having problems with the battery life, and is ultimately the device responsible for me choosing Android over another Windows Phone (which was also due to specific apps) and the budget 16GB iPhone 5S.
After initial use of the updated TouchWiz on an S6 Edge in my local store, it felt functional despite being vivid – it still had that annoying, bright turquoise blue and green colour combination, something which I know has gone on the S7, replaced by a more eye-friendly white and blue colour combo. It’s also customisable thanks to a Themes store, similar to HTC’s, although sadly most of the Themes on Samsung’s Themes store app are paid options, all ranging around the £2.50 mark.
Still, it’s nice to see customisation in areas where it previously wasn’t available. From initial looks, it appears you can also change the colours of the Settings app.
There are a lot of Samsung apps as well, something which many people would brand as blatant Bloatware, but it doesn’t seem too bad compared to previous editions of TouchWiz. Also, unlike many of HTC’s own apps, which I never used and found to be taking up valuable space on my 16GB Desire Eye, Samsung’s own branded apps feel useful. Each app is so functional, that I feel no need to download individual applications, such as Calendar or Contacts.
After a few uses, I can see myself getting very used to the Samsung interface, although at this stage, the S7 and S7 Edge are way too expensive for my budget (correct as of Nov 2016, although as I’ve already said in my last post, this changed after a phone call to my network, EE).
Whereas the S7 and S7 Edge benefit from expandable storage, the S6/Edge didn’t come with the Micro SD card slots, so I couldn’t see myself going for the older, cheaper flagship models either. I guess we’ll have to wait and see, but if I was rating these UI’s, I’d put Sense UI in 5th/last place, Sony in 4th, LG 3rd, TouchWiz 2nd, and Huawei’s EMUI in 1st. (NB: this ranking has changed after extensive use with my Galaxy S7 – I had originally ranked TouchWiz in 4th, with LG 2nd.)
Why did I rate Sony’s Android skin higher than Samsung’s TouchWiz, I hear you ask? For the simple reason that you get the simplest Android experience while still getting a great looking interface.
Also, you get the best of Sony as well. Music app? Walkman. A great name and an even better brand of devices. I’ve owned a Sony Ericsson phone and two Walkman MP3 players – I still have one of the MP3 players, it still works, and the sound quality is still miles better than my old iPod Touch (which I no longer have, since it needed a battery replacement and the repairs so costly that it was cheaper to get a new ‘iTouch.’ So, as it was insured, I used the value-of voucher issued to me against a 2-in-1 ultrabook, which is half laptop and half tablet. It’s proved much more useful than another annoying iFruit.)
Camera app? Yep, Sony’s experience with digital cameras and user interfaces is included here as well. It’s not the best camera app I’ve ever had the pleasure of using, but everything that needs to be there, is there: HDR mode, Selfie mode, Manual mode, plus a roster of extra, downloadable camera modes and apps that you can open and use within the main Sony Camera app.
The UI is great too. It’s got the flair of stock Android that’s hard to replicate, with custom flashy icons that seem to stand out against any wallpaper without being too obtrusive. It’s unique and flashy, and yet it’s also subtle. For me, it’s what HTC’s Sense UI should be, but isn’t.
Speaking of which, Sony still offers just enough colour and vibrancy in their UI, and functionality in their user experience, to keep me interested in their phones. The Xperia lineup, while not the most popular, offers a wide range of phones to suit my budget and liking.
Back in December 2016, I found myself seriously considering the Xperia X Compact, the smaller and cheaper sibling to the Xperia X. Despite its body being made of a cheap feeling plastic, I loved it. I still love it. It felt like it would survive a fall without incurring too much damage, all while still looking great. It had curves in all the right places, it was small and was very easy to use one-handed. If I hadn’t been persuaded that the Galaxy S7 was the best device, and older flagship considering the Galaxy S8 was due to be released, I probably wouldn’t have made that aforementioned knee-jerk reaction to get the S7 over the P9. I’d like to think that I would have gone for the Xperia X Compact, and might still do in the future.
I think that about sums up the main Android skins currently available, but an honourable mention must be given to OnePlus, whose devices and software/Android skin has been hailed as one of the best, if not even better and more functional than stock Android (by the likes of Android Central, Mr Mobile and Unbox Therapy, among others).
The only reason I didn’t include OnePlus in my comparison is that, at the time when I was trying to get my new, ‘Next Phone,’ OnePlus phones weren’t readily available on contract in the UK. Only one major network had recently been signed up to supply OnePlus phones at the end of 2016, and that was O2 (formerly known as BT Cellnet before the business was sold by BT to Spanish company Telefonica).
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll recall how my personal experience with O2 wasn’t great and I didn’t fancy going back to them, either. As I didn’t have the budget to buy the phone outright, and my only option to get a OnePlus on contract was with O2, I didn’t see why I should get my hopes up with the advantages of OnePlus’ UI when there was no possibility of me walking away with a OnePlus phone. Thus, I left it out of my reviews. I would, however, consider a OnePlus device in the future if the contract situation was to change.