Android Skins Explained: How Do Hardware Makers Change Stock Android?

In the Android world, hardware makers, otherwise known as Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), like to take Android and morph it into something that is entirely their own — this is an Android skin. All the big OEMs do it, creating many different user experiences across Android devices.

So what exactly do these skins add to or change from the stock Android experience? What software differences will you see between picking up an HTC device or a Samsung device? Let’s find out.

Stock Android

First, a quick rundown of stock Android. This is the flavor of Android running on Nexus devices, and it’s the base code that all the OEMs are given to tweak with. Google Play Edition devices also have nearly stock software, with a few tweaks to better support their hardware. This, as Android enthusiasts will gladly remind you in every comments sections ever, is pure Android.

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Above, you can see the evolution of Android, from 4.2 that shipped on the Nexus 4, to 4.4 that shipped on the Nexus 5. The most noticeable change is the white status bar icons and transparent navigation and status bars while on the home screen.

Quick Settings, accessible from the notification pulldown, is also a very noticeable feature of stock Android, shown below.

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The stock Android lockscreen, shown below, is a simple lock icon that you can slide in different directions to either unlock the device or access Google Now.

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Now that you have an idea of what stock Android looks like, let’s take a look at the most popular skin in terms of phones sold.

Samsung TouchWiz

Samsung is the leader of the Android world right now, selling more devices than any of the other Android OEMs by a long shot. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best. Android users often complain that Samsung bogs down their devices with bloatware (see: useless, space-consuming software) and that TouchWiz does little to enhance the user experience.

There’s some weight to this argument, as shown in the video above where the low-end Moto E bests the high-end Galaxy S5 in several speed tests. But people must find some of Samsung’s customizations alluring, because they keep on buying.

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Above, you can see the default lockscreen and homescreen for the Galaxy S5 which is running Samsung’s newest iteration of TouchWiz. You’ll notice that there is no lock icon in the center of the lock screen like on stock Android. Samsung ditched this in favor of a “swipe anywhere on the screen” function.

On the home screen, you can see how the icons are noticeably different from the stock icons, and there’s no navigation bar along the bottom. As most Samsung devices have hardware keys, it’s rare to see a navigation bar on a Touchwiz device.

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Above is both the settings menu and the notification shade found in the newest version of TouchWiz. Samsung has adopted a flatter, more circular design for this TouchWiz, but many older devices like the Galaxy S3, S4, and the Note line have squarer, more shaded icons that still heavily depart from stock Android. Likewise, the default settings menu is a simple black and white list in stock Android, but Samsung has made it a colorful grid of circles.

Those changes are all cosmetic, though. TouchWiz devices also offer a host of features that you won’t find on any other version of Android. A lot of times this can result in too much choice for the consumer. For instance, do you want to use Google’s Translate app, or Samsung’s S Translator? Google Now, or S Voice? Not to mention all the other features found in Samsung devices: S Health, Smart Scrolling, Smart Pause, Motion Controls, S Finder, Quick Connect, Toolbox, Multi Window, S Pen on Note devices… the list goes on and on.

HTC Sense

Sense, HTC’s stab at customizing Android, doesn’t go quite as far as Samsung’s TouchWiz, but it still is pretty different. Below you can see the evolution from Sense 5 on the One M7 to the current Sense 6 on the One M8. Sense now has a navigation bar, but the icons are noticeably different from stock Android, with squarer Home and Recent Apps buttons, as well as a more rounded Back button.

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HTC also bundles some software features with their phones that you won’t find elsewhere on Android, like a power-saving mode for preserving battery life, camera tricks like Zoe, and the newsfeed built into the homescreen dubbed Blinkfeed. Below you can see an example of Blinkfeed running on the newest One, and notice how the notification bar is green to match the app — that’s a Sense customization.

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With Sense 6, though, HTC has refined their interface to be much less intrusive. You don’t have the plethora of mostly useless features being shoved down your throat like on TouchWiz, and for the most part Sense 6 is a much more stock-looking experience.

Sony Xperia User Interface

While Sony’s Android skin doesn’t have a specific name, it is rather noticeable. It manages to stay close enough to stock to not draw the flak directed towards Samsung and HTC’s skins, but it still does a decent amount of tinkering. The navigation bar icons are rather different, Sony apps like Walkman are all over the place, and the Phone and Messaging apps are heavily customized.

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Sony definitely doesn’t take the brightly colored approach of Samsung, preferring instead to stick to a mostly black and white style, but still making small changes here and there. For a look at Sony’s newest flagship, the Xperia Z2, see the video below.

The lockscreen allows for a flick up or down to unlock, but stock Android users would otherwise feel relatively at home here. We’ve reviewed several Sony devices here before, and loved them from the hardware to the software, particularly the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact.

LG User Interface

LG’s unnamed UI, which used to be called Optimus, has been heavily refined for their newest flagship, the G3 — just as HTC changed up Sense quite a bit for the M8. You can now access the Recent Apps button from the navigation bar, and they have added some features like Smart Notice, which throws useful updates on your homescreen, and Knock Code, which allows you to unlock your device by tapping a specific code on the locked screen.

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While the G2 was well known for having a notification shade cluttered with all sorts of bloat — quick access settings, QSlide apps, brightness toggle, volume toggle — the G3 has introduced options to remove those. While some might find all the Q-branded apps to be useful, like Quick Remote or the floating apps features, others find them annoying and intrusive.

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While LG’s interface used to rival Samsung in terms of color and shading, they’ve toned things back for the G3, and this next iteration of their interface seems a lot simpler. Still, some of the features seem needlessly repetitive, like QSlide which allows you to save three apps at a time off to the left of the screen by swiping with three fingers. But why is this necessary when Android has a built-in Recent Apps feature?

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Still, many people are going to find LG’s new UI more attractive than stock Android, and features like Dual Window (which is a similar multitasking feature to Samsung’s Multi Window) could give you a compelling reason to choose this over stock. Others will gasp at any changes to stock Android and feel like QSlide (and the other LG features and apps) just get in the way — it all comes down to personal preference.

Xiaomi MIUI

MIUI is the skin that comes preloaded on Xiaomi devices, which is why most Americans probably have never heard of it. It’s very colorful and rounded, and behaves more like an iPhone due to the fact that it has no app drawer — all your apps are simply on one of the home screens.

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MIUI is known for it’s customizability. Above, you can see some of the various lockscreens you can choose from, and there are many more. MIUI is made to be themed and changed, but by default is very colorful and cartoonish.

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Nearly every aspect of Android is changed here. Above, you can see the heavily altered notification shade, Recent Apps switcher, homescreen, and phone app. For a completely different Android experience, MIUI has you covered.

What About Motorola And Amazon?

Before being bought by Google (and then sold to Lenovo), Motorola had a clunky skin called MotoBlur. After their acquisition, though, they dropped it for the Moto X, G, and E. Today, Moto smartphones still have some distinguishing features, but there aren’t enough customizations to really call it a skin.

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The Moto X has Active Display, a unique notification system baked into the operating system, as well as touchless voice controls and the driving assistant Motorola Assist. These allow Motorola to differentiate their devices without bogging it down with a sluggish UI.

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On the other hand, Amazon has run in the opposite direction and has forked Android past the point of calling it a skin. Amazon’s Fire tablets run FireOS, a custom operating system that, while built from Android, looks and behaves very little like Android. Fire tablets cannot even access the Google Play Store — only Amazon’s App Store.

Which Do You Like Best?

If hardware was not a deciding factor, which skin would you go for? If there was a blank slate device and you could customize it with any OEM skin, which would you choose? Or is stock Android more your thing?

Better yet, if you could pick and choose your favorite features from different skins, how would you craft the perfect UI? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Samsung Galaxy S5 Karlis Dambrans, Nexus 5 Karlis Dambrans, HTC One (M8) Karlis Dambrans, Sony Xperia ZR Karlis Dambrans, LG G2 Karlis Dambrans, Othree

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