Dec 13 AT 11:12 AM Nick Sarafolean 49 Comments

Stock Android might not be your device’s best side

android-4.4-kitkat

Many a time I’ve had people ask me what in the world I’m blabbering about when I get onto the subject of tech. One of the biggest areas of confusion for average consumers is the subject of stock Android. Not many people have any idea what stock Android is, and even fewer know what the different skins on their phones are. Prime example: My mother upgraded from a Samsung Stratosphere (you can facepalm with me) to an HTC One and was convinced that they couldn’t be running the same operating system because they looked so different. That’s the beauty and curse of Android.

I presume that most of you reading this article know what stock Android is, but I’ll give a concise explanation for those who don’t know. Stock Android is simply what Android is without any additions over top of it. For example, Google’s Nexus devices run entirely stock Android. That’s all it is. Now, a custom UI or skin is something that a manufacturer or developer creates. This is what you’ll find on many of the devices from big manufacturers like Samsung and HTC. That’s why the software on those phones looks different than stock Android. The thing is, they’re both still Android.

Stock Android and custom skins are often very different. Many Android enthusiasts are big into the world of stock Android. It is the end all, be all of Android software. Manufacturer skins can go and jump in a lake because stock Android beats them.

But is stock Android really showing off your device’s best side?

That comes down to what phone you have. We discussed this briefly on the fourth Android and Me podcast (which you should listen to if you want to be one of the cool kids) and agreed that not every device should run stock Android. For example, a device like Samsung’s Galaxy Note III is designed to take advantage of the large size and unique elements of the S Pen. With that in mind, Samsung designed the software to use those features to the fullest.

If the Note III ran stock Android, say a Google Play edition came out, it would lose the features designed to take advantage of the giant screen. It would also lose the features and software that use the S Pen. In fact, it would lose everything Samsung added to improve the experience. Then the only appeal of the device is that it’s large and has good hardware. It loses the software advantage that it had with Samsung’s TouchWiz UI that took advantage of everything about the device.

The same goes for other devices. Anyone remember the difference in camera quality between the standard HTC One and the HTC One GPe? It was fairly significant and didn’t show off what the phone’s unique camera could actually do. Stock Android simply isn’t always the best option when it comes down to Android software. In some cases, the manufacturer’s software is actually better.

But hey, I’ve been wrong before. Could I be wrong another time? Or does this point ring true? Translate your thoughts into text down in the comments.

A nerd at heart, Nick is an average person who has a passion for all things electronic. When not spending his time writing about the latest gadgets, Nick enjoys reading, dabbling in photography, and experimenting with anything and everything coffee. Should you wish to know more about him, you can follow him on Twitter @Zricon15.

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  • peekay5000

    The bestvof both world is adding device specific features, but keeping the UI as stock as possible. The best example I can think of is the motoX . the ui I very stock, but no one can say it lacks any kind of customization …

    • lolkings

      And thats YOUR opinion of what a device should have. others may prefer a skin overlay. Who is to say EVERYONE wants a stock overlay UI and not the visuals of other skins

      • guester

        good job highlighting that a person giving an opinion is giving an opinion

        you are a genius sir, truly a genius

  • w9jds

    In my experience the skinned versions of android sometimes have some benefits but usually in the long run sacrifice performance and beauty.

    Personally I like to go mostly stock with small improvements, kinda like the new Moto system where it is all stock except for active notification and always listening. They don’t sacrifice looks or performance but add much needed features.

  • hayder

    yes you are right. Xperia Z with Sony’s software is simply the best

  • Kent Burton

    You are wrong …. Lol its my opinion. They should have stock android with software available on play store. See Motorola and their camera app. The s pin app could be available on the play store for comparable devices to download and run. It could even be preinstalled. My mom just had me messing with he note 2 last weekend. It sucks to be on that old version of android. Stick to stock preinstal the manufacturer exsprence software and allow updates via play store. Is that to much to ask?

    • Athul

      Well .. Having the apps on Google play makes them non”open source” its a way of having control over some specific details of ur os while keeping it majorly open source if u were Google. And also some features like the spen features would make no sense with phones without the pen. And that is all of them !!

      • Zach Guithues

        I have the Note 2 and I hate touchwiz. (“custom” skin that comes on Galaxy phones). I’ve been using AOSP “stock” based roms since day 1. Honestly, i never use the s-pen, but there are several apps in the play store that can use it. It would be great if samsung released their s-pen tools on the play store. They can do the same thing moto did with active display, only available on supported phones.

    • Leanell Zsiga

      Well said…I agree!

    • http://www.androidandme.com Dima Aryeh

      To be fair, there is no “S Pen app.” It’s deep system integration that isn’t possible with a simple Play Store app. Also, does Android version even matter? Many devices are updated to a new version of Android and all that changes is a number. Feature set and performance remains a lot of the time. Not all of the time, but a lot of the time.

      • hp420

        Sure it is!!! All samsung has to do is develop their own fork of xposed and provide modules for the features they want added in. Sure, it needs root permission….but who’s stopping samsung from creating an app that would provide elevated permissions only for the specific apps and functions they set it to allow….custom samsung superuser, so to speak.

        Remember…this is android. Open source software and firmware make it so all this could be possible.

        • lolkings

          You my friend are a genius. NO SARCASM intended, Its not like samsung developed the Note series and rules its market section to make money. Releasing it onto other platforms would give a loss in profits… use your brain.

  • Simon Kirk

    I have a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 -N7100. I rooted it & put cyanogenmod android 4.3 on it. My phone was transformed for the better. It feels like it has been turbocharged! I have had the phone for over a year. I rooted it after owning it for a year it felt like I had upgraded to a new improved model. I don’t miss the S pen specific abilities at all, I hardly used it. I mainly used it simply because it was there but only if I remembered. 9 times out of 10 I forgot about it. The only real/practical downside is that the camera software is massively inferior. Although to me this was not a deal breaker as I have a Samsung Galaxy camera. It’s a hugely underrated device. It has dropped in price considerably so I would recommend it to anyone.

  • Athul

    Absolutely true. The concept of having stock android on Ur device and simultaneously the device being at its best is an old concept. Its dates back to the time when official firmware of the phone was so so laggy that it made u cringe. But now the oem firmware of the devices r so good (v should thank Google here for both project butter and project svelt) that having the nexus feel just isn’t enough. What would be better is the nexus performance plus the goodies the manufacturers have to offer.after all its android .. Its evolving .. Its will only get better.

  • Athul

    Pardon me for the typos .. I am on my nexus 5 and I am not yet used to the larger screen .. Also it is project svelte.

  • Athul

    The first two comments mention moto x. Its not entirely stock. True. But what amazes me is the way moto x has managed to stray away from stock and also retain the performance of stock! They haven’t completely gone crazy with the ui improvement just to remind the user that they r on the moto phone, like what Samsung and HTC for that matter have done. Moto guys have kind of looked into the minds of people. The features they offered r beautiful and but even then its pure android.

    • tmoore4075

      Now this is one, based off what people have said about it and also it’s quick update to 4.4, that I’d consider.

  • Rohan

    The point is that putting stock Android also removes all the flaws of the custom ui.
    So it really boils down to how good the custom ui originally was..

  • tmoore4075

    Personally I like Stock. I like the idea of getting the updates fast. As Rohan also mentioned, there can be flaws in the custom UI I had an HTC Sensation and the phone itself? Awesome. Great screen, perfect size and great camera and flash. The overlay caused so many issues though. I swore I’d never do a custom UI again. I’ve had no issues with the Galaxy Nexus or Nexus 4 and didn’t have any before the Sensation when I had the Nexus One. I admit there are some cool things with the S4, Note 3 and HTC One but I’d rather have my phone guaranteed to work, and if it doesn’t they’d have an update fast.

  • Leilf Falkenström

    Well, there are many things I would like to say about this.

    I do have a Note 2 and Note 3 and some other android devices where the first generation of Nexus 7 have impressed me we very good support from Google.

    The best phones are those that get most attention from other developers around. Samsung build so many different mobiles but to many of them are without support or very late with updates.

    Never had any iphone and probably never do, but must say that they seems to be very good in supporting the older phones.

  • ihatefanboys

    I converted my standard HTC One into a GPE and havent noticed any difference in quality on the camera. The only thing thats troublesome is the camera interface. If a software update improves upon the camera i also hope it improves the interface. Lucky for me ill get all updates quickly now that i have a GPE.

  • Ryan Gails

    I think you’re spot on with this. I would love a nexus device and when I had my SII and my Atrix ( Motoblur was horrendous) I always rooted and had a custom ROM to be closer to stock. Now, though, OEMs are making skins and features that are taken advantage of by their hardware. Having a GPe of some phones doesn’t make sense because you lose out, but having a phone that runs stock android and built for stock android works just fine. Skins are good for the phones they are designed for Stock is good if it doesn’t defeat the purpose of the hardware.

  • Eric

    Well, the thing is just that people hate other skins which removes the typical stock android look, yet they don’t really hate additional features which still maintain the stock android look, namely the those found on Moto X.

    For instance, people hate the fact that Samsung does not really follow the new Android UI guideline by still keeping the old Android 2.3 tab design in the phone and settings apps. Things like this cause inconsistency as what people see from apps in the play store mostly follows the Android UI guideline.

  • jerrbomb

    I have to agree that Vanilla Android isn’t for every phone.. True enough.. And some custom UI’s aren’t meant for the phones they are put in.. With that being said this article makes a very valid point… So no arguments here..

  • 1badelf

    There are advantages in both and disadvantages to both. Take for instance lg g2 knock knock feature. I rooted one of my devices and lost that feature. I love the knock feature and found myself knocking on the device i rooted and disliking it that way. The ui lg makes is somewhat lame and inadequate but without it it makes the g2 just like any other high spec device. I have had stock android on my n5 and disliked it so much i traded it for another g2.. stock android is just bare without all the bells and whistles. Look at it this way, you go to the dealership and look at a Chevy impala the ls is just a basic car nothing special you look at the rs model and it has the premium radio, alloy wheels, leather and heated seats, everything that makes it special. Stock android is life the ls model and the rs model is what the manufacturer adds android. (Maybe) don’t anyone try correcting me on impala models. It’s just an assimmaly.

    • Andrew

      But the rs model (to stick with the metapbor) typically has a better engine. Or at least the same one there is no lag due to the features. A custom UI is the difference between a premium classic car versus one you find in a farm field. The custom UI is built up rust that needs to scraped off to get back to its former glory. The nice heated seats and stereo system can be added, but they shouldn’t be hidden ind3ra nasty rusted dated exterior.

  • Mike C.

    I have a HTC One X. I love the hardware design, but I dislike HTC sense. It is not a big issue though, except for the fact that all of the customizations that HTC adds makes it very expensive for them to support my phone. Thus HTC have essentially abandoned me. Had they done Android with a few driver changes and a bunch of app that could be downloaded from play, support for them would be cheaper.

    I will never again buy an Android phone again that doesn’t run stock for this reason.

  • jimoshea

    I left HTC (Sense) and went stock (Nexus 4). I think this lets me more easily add skins, launchers, apps, etc. to make android what I want.
    Samsung and others could create installable “apps” that take advantage of the bigger screen or the S-pen.
    I definitely like the options other manufacturers have added but I plan on staying with a stock android device and hopefully getting third-party apps to make up where it’s lacking.

    • Shahin Fadakar

      I’m guessing my skins you mean the theming engine used in CM and other ROMs, but regardless of what OEM skin you’re using launchers and apps are cross-compatible, you don’t NEED stock android to switch your launcher or to download apps.

  • Lauri

    I think the whole definition has blurred somewhat. At the moment even if you have the same version of Android on the Nexus 4 and the Nexus 5 they do look and feel quite different as the Nexus 5 is the only device that comes with the new launcher with Google Now integration. So which one is the real ‘stock Android’?

  • Orion78

    Sorry but I don’t like bloated skinned devices. Moto X has it done perfectly. An almost stock experience with their own added features.

  • dennis

    When coming to stock android im very much happy i learned with first galaxy s1 now with s3 to root and install custom roms.TIl i get the learning curve i lost much data haha but when u get hang of it its the best way.Having installed 4.4 while samsung blow users with bugged 4.3 is very better or having any 4.3 is better than stock samsung.Samsung 4.2.2- 4.1.2 did had one of the greatest battery but now when i flash modified stock 4.3 ima hope same again.

  • Lee

    I ran stock Android, as well as custom AOSP ROMs on my Galaxy Nexus for the past year and a half or so and got really bored. I also decided, when reading reviews of the unlocked HTC One and Galaxy SIII, that it wasn’t worth losing a lot of the user experience, particularly in picture taking and video. I bought the LG G2 and have been very pleased with the enhanced user experience the LG UI brings to the table including multiple layers of multitasking, and a great camera. I would love to run Kit Kat when it comes to my phone, but for the first time on Android, since the HTC EVO Shift, I’m not waiting for the next big update or upgrade because the manufacturer did a great job tweaking the OS at hand.

    It used to seem that manufacturers skinned their phones just to differentiate them, which is adding unnecessary bulk to an OS that has a perfectly stock good UI. But, as manufacturers innovate, they add functionality to their devices that is not necessarily inherent in stock Android and these value-adds help them differentiate themselves.

  • Matt

    you guys forget that there is a very simple way to resolve “stock vs manufacturer features” isssue.
    Just install stock OSand do what motorola does, apply certain apps such as camera (or even launcher and S shit) to google market, people will download if they want to…. Simple installer will allow to make that choice much much easier.

    why cant samsung release their TouchWiz launcher to google play?? why cant they release their s pen stuff to google play. Its an app that works with very specific hardware (s pen is only available on galaxy note and it wont work on other devices). It is so simple, but obviously money comes first

  • thymeless

    The features Samsung added to the Note 3 are why I only rooted and not yet ROMmed. When I find a good Touchwiz ROM for the Note 3, I’ll make that jump.

  • james

    What most stock enthusiasts want is stock-looking UI. I doesn’t have to be stock if it still lookes stock. It’s the holo most enthusiasts want.

  • Alexander drzfr3shboialex

    Call me crazy but some skins are amazing. I had an HTC one and loved it, but wanted a nexus. So I got a nexus 5 and sold my HTC one. The nexus 5 was amazing! I especially loved the 60hours of music, but stock android is pretty bland. So I traded my one month old nexus 5 for a 1week old HTC one. I must say I love HTC and will probably be sticking to their products. The UltraPixel camera is really a blessing in disguise, yes it has it’s faults but overal it’s amazing. The front facing speakers are amazing as well, and I also love the wide angle in the front camera it truly adds to the experience. BlinkFeed is definitely handy. I’m eagerly awaiting the successor to the htc one.

  • clocinnorcal

    It all comes down to how well the custom UI is implemented. Samsung typically stuffs there devices full of bells and whistles that slow down the device over time or immediately, but they have gotten better. Stock seems to be the place of salvation for owners of laggy devices that cannot stand it anymore. There is no question that the stock camera in Android is not the best, or comparable to Sony, Samsung, etc.. but most people that switch to stock are ready to make concessions so they to can have a lag free device.

  • donger

    Truth.

  • A

    You could have mentioned custom ROMs as well. I’m running Cyanogen on my phone(HTC one x) and latest stock on my nexus 7. I prefer the Cyanogen custom Rom over HTC ‘s sense stock ROM due to no bloat and it being close to stock android with Cyanogens added features, but I did sacrifice the sense camera. I was running Paranoid Android on my nexus 7 but KitKat came out and I have to say that stock Android rooted on my N7 is really slick. Didn’t think I’d ever go full circle back to stock, but I did… At least till CM11 becomes stable.

  • okii

    Sony xperiaZ ?????

  • leo

    One doubt regarding android„ whether the Samsung or HTC have to pay for android??
    Since android is opensource

  • http://droidsamurai.blogspot.com DroidSamurai

    You know, I don’t mind device makers adding on to the stock Android OS, BUT, there must be a way to do that w/o ruining the base UX. The fact is, the device makers have full access to the underlying system. I think we can all agree that, for example, Samsung can add support of S-Pen, w/o making everything of the TouchWiz skin look so much different than the stock Android OS. The proof is on many custom ROMs — they all offer something that the stock OS doesn’t, but most of them retain the same look and feel of the stock Android UX.

  • juul

    First after SGS1 & SGS3 never Samsung again for me unless GPe. TW looks so childish and ugly and terrible lag. The difference in performance and battery on the SGS4 with TW and much better GPe of among others a colleque of mine is ridiculoes. TW on Android is sort of a crime imo.

    After going Vanilla with custom roms and buying Nexus 7 Flo, stock Android is totally my taste. Although I use XTheme Engine for a totally black Android (menu’s, Play Store, etc.

    Since recently I am having more problems however the direction Google is going with it’s stock Android. The ever growing amount of Google bloatware is turning clean stock Android in G-droid. 80 percent of Gapps I don’ want, so disable 20 percent of Gapps I do want to use are as system apps always running. Youtube for instance I use highest 3 times a week, but always running. Thank god for Greenify (Donate ver.), but those making Android bulging and battery draining Gapps irritate the hell out of me. I want the freedom to install those appa as controlable user-apps via Play Store. (Removing Gapps out of system and install as ‘normal’ app causes OTA’s to fail).

    That’s why I hope there will be a successor productline of Nexus type of smartphones and tablets with again a clean as possible stock Android with also fast fresh OTA updates of new Android versions. How Nexus used to be. Google is killing Android for me. with all there bloat.

    • lolkings

      ^this

      A lot of people fail to realize that google also ahs its own bloat, and blindly and ignorantly state that only manufacturers other can google will have the bloat.

  • Albin

    Fairly new to Android, but the overall approach to the OS seems less like Apple or Microsoft and more like Linux, where it’s no sense talking about a “stock” user interface for the OS since a “desktop environment” is essentially a different layer of development from the OS. Even a nameplate like Ubuntu Linux platform which puts out its own “Unity” interface is really only one spin on a bunch of alternatives, some of which are at least equally sophisticated.

    Sounds on that basis like “stock” is just a grab for “authenticity” of some sort for Google’s own spin on the user experience, which is not intrinsically better or worse than what another team might come up with.

  • Brian M

    They need a way to do customizations while still being able to easily & quickly do security updates or a kind of core OS update so the phones are more secure.

    Until that point, I can only recommend stock, it may not have all of the best features/performance on a phone, but at least it will be able to be updated.

  • Tom Jobson (xTOMJv)

    I think that stock android is the way to go. Im using an LG G2 with the google now launcher, love it. You still get knock on if you use it in the notification bar, but you do lose the stock widgets. I like the idea of having a google launcher, with all of your devices features but there is an option to go to LG’s or whoever you phones made by launcher and setup.

    Stock android is the cleanest and quickest, hence why i was going to get a nexus 5.

  • Supahemi

    If you guys dont recall, Samsung and Google have a cross licensing deal…that being said I would love a pure android device with some of SAMMYS features…like s beam….I dont know of any oyre android device that can beam big files like 5 gigs to another phone or tablet or Tv…when I tried it with my nexus 7…it said yhe file was yo large to beam…