For more than a decade now, much is made about the various iterations of Android. Not so much the specific release number or name, but the general approach to Android. That is to say, a fair amount of people care whether it’s the standard, or “stock”, version that Google releases or if it’s skinned, or otherwise modified.
As a platform, Android has gone through numerous changes over the years with some of them being more obvious than others. Further, device makers have done quite a bit with their respective approach to Android, too.
Let’s take a look at the different builds of Android. From the vanilla, “Android as Google intended” stuff to the skinned and customized approach that phone makers employ.
What is Android?
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s well worth explaining for the purposes of the article. Android is a mobile operating system (like iOS) that is produced by Google and runs on most mobile devices in the world. In fact, Android has the biggest market share, even beating Microsoft’s Windows.
What is Stock Android?
AOSP vs Consumer Android
Android in itself is an open-source operating system that runs on a modified version of the Linux kernel. Open source means, of course, that anyone can view and modify its source code. This makes Android a collaborative platform that everyone can have a say in.
This official collaboration is called the Android Open Source Project, or AOSP. However, AOSP and the consumer version of Android that ultimately ends up on your phone are not the same.
The consumer version of Android comes with proprietary or non-free components including device firmware (the stuff that makes it so the operating system can actually play nice with your device hardware) and the Google Mobile Services (GMS). This includes Google Play Services, the Google Play Store, and Google apps such as Chrome and YouTube.
This basic version with only the firmware and Google Apps constitutes what is commonly referred to as “Stock Android”. In essence it gives you only the basic functionality needed for your device to work within the Google ecosystem.
The main benefits of stock Android include a clean UI, with no extra apps. Perhaps more importantly, devices with stock Android receive quicker software updates. Largely, they can get updates pretty much as soon as a new Android version is released
Many manufacturers make their own customizations on top of Android, producing so-called “skins.” Examples include OnePlus’s OxygenOS, Samsung’s One UI, and Xiaomi’s MIUI. In the past we also had HTC Sense UI and Motorola’s Motoblur.
These experiences include a different user interface (UI), bundled apps such as browsers or messaging apps, and some features that you wouldn’t see in stock Android. Depending on your perspective these customizations can sometimes be viewed as bloatware or bloat.
All of these extras take up more memory and storage than a stock version of Android would. In the earlier days of Android this would be more of an issue as it taxed the hardware more than the bare bones approach.
On top of the OEM touches your wireless carrier might include more apps, services, and customization on the phone. This is about as far as it gets from the stock Android look.
Some people may prefer these customizations because they implement far more features. Done right, these are truly valuable touches and tweaks.
Stock Android of the Past
Beyond the very first generations of Android phones, there have been various iterations of stock Android phones. Notably, there were two defunct versions known as “Google Play Edition phones” and the “Nexus” devices. Here’s a quick breakdown of the two.
Google Play Edition (GPE)
Google Play Edition phones were a program that ran for about two years, between 2013 and 2015. These were versions of popular consumer phones that, instead of running the manufacturer’s skin, ran a stock version of Android. Furthermore they were sold by Google through the Google Play Store and received software updates rather quickly.
Google’s Nexus phones were similar to Google Play Edition phones; however, the Nexus phones weren’t simply rebranded versions of existing smartphones. Instead, Nexus phones were developed through a collaboration between Google and mobile manufacturers.
These devices were marketed as developer-centric devices as they were unlocked and came with an unlockable bootloader by default. In short, one didn’t have to deal with carrier software or extra OEM apps.
Nexus phones also received updates directly from Google and were often first in line to pick up Android beta releases and developer previews.
The end of the Nexus line came with the Nexus 5X and 6P, both released in 2015. The Pixel line would pick up the mantle and see a nearly identical approach to software.
Motorola and Essential
Google announced its intention to purchase Motorola Mobility in 2011 and then sold it to Lenovo a couple of years later. In the interim Google revamped Moto phones and the devices in that era featured an essentially stock version of Android. This software experience continued once ownership moved to Lenovo.
Android founder Andy Rubin, who had left the Google team and started his own Essential brand would also lean on stock Android for its PH-1 handset. As he envisioned it, this would be the perfect Android phone.
Stock Android of Today
Where do you find stock Android in 2021? Surprisingly enough, it’s in quite a few places. Considering how the early years of Android saw device makers adding many customizations and enhancements, things have tightened up as of late.
The Google Pixel line is the successor of the Nexus phones and represents the ideal hardware experience to run its software. Pixel devices are designed and manufactured by Google, but may their genesis had help from the last remnants of HTC.
It’s worth making the distinction that Pixel phones don’t run an explicitly stock Android, but more of an enhanced approach. The UI is essentially untouched, but Pixel phones enjoy features no other Android offer. Consider it more of an early look at things that could come to the general Android experience at a later date.
Android One is a spiritual successor to the Google Play Edition phones. Devices under this branding are vetted by Google and run a stock version of Android.
The Android One program got started in 2014, and was initially designed as being a reference platform for low-end devices and emerging markets. Think dirt cheap smartphones with lesser-known device makers in countries with very little data infrastructure.
Android One has since expanded to target more territories and include mid-range and high-end devices. Android One handsets see software updates fairly soon after a new version is released. More importantly, they also pick up two years of Android updates and up to three years of security updates.
Nokia phones, manufactured by HMD Global, are pretty much the face of this program, but it’s not without the occasional hiccup. Motorola is also a fairly big participant in the Android One program as is the increasingly popular Xiaomi brand.
Android Go, or as it’s more officially recognized, “Android (Go Edition)”, is a stripped-down version of Android for low-end and budget handsets. Intended for smartphones with 2GB of RAM or less, it was first made available in 2017 with the Oreo release.
Android Go platform has optimizations designed to reduce mobile data usage, and includes a suite of Google Mobile Services and apps that require fewer resources and less bandwidth.
The interface is largely the same as the standard version of Android, but it does have easier access to quick-settings for features such as battery, mobile-data limit, and storage.
More importantly, there are a few modifications such as limiting to four apps in recent applications and disabling access to other settings. This is all in service of squeezing more performance out of the low-end hardware.
Most devices running Android Go have the stock Android user interface but it’s not a full requirement. Several manufacturers still employ customizations.
‘Almost’ Stock Android
As the unlocked phone market continues to evolve and brands emerge in new territories, we’re seeing more device makers taking a relaxed approach to Android.
Some phone makers, like Blu, have long designed handsets with a stock-like approach. That is to say things look generally untouched and free of overt customization. Save for the occasional extra settings, these look like Android as Google intends. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean the phones are free of bloatware or pre-installed apps.
Other companies who employ a stripped-down Android to various degrees include OnePlus, Sony, Xiaomi, Poco, TCL, Alcatel, NUU Mobile, and assorted international brands.