What are UIs, and why should I care about them?

Optimus UI vs. Lollipop

 

[dropcaps]Many websites that talk about Android use the term “UI”, usually assuming readers know what they are referring to (including us). Most readers are likely able to figure out what a writer means, and continue on with the article. However, wouldn’t it be nice to know what exactly a UI is, and why as a consumer you should care about them? Well, be prepared to amaze your tech-obsessed relative, as I hope to give you an understanding of UIs.[/dropcaps]

What is a UI?

A UI, or User Interface, is actually a broad term used in the technology world to refer to something that a person (or user) interacts with (or interfaces with) when using an object, service, website, or something else. For example, the UI on a Windows computer would be your desktop. Through the desktop you then open windows into programs and websites, which will also have a UI. Essentially, the way you interact and give commands to something is the UI, or User Interface.

UI and Android

In the smartphone world, and more specifically the Android world, the UI is actually more specific. In order to understand this however, you first need to understand something about Android.

Android is the OS, or Operating System, that is built from the ground up by Google. When you hear about these Android versions, such as Android KitKat, Android Lollipop, those are built by developers from Google. Essentially, its the skeleton of the software in your smartphone.

Lollipop's Recent Carousel

When Google initially released Android, they wanted for it to be open source, basically meaning that anyone anywhere can access and look at the code that makes up Android. In contrast, iOS is developed and built only by Apple, and only Apple developers have access to the code. So when Google released Android, manufacturers had the ability to take the code, and make it their own. This allowed manufacturers such as Samsung and LG to make their own UI. If the OS is the skeleton, then a UI is the muscles and skin.

“Vanilla” or Stock Android

This term is applied to phones that have an unadulterated, unchanged version of Google’s Android. The biggest example of phones that have this is the Nexus line. This line of phones is sold by Google, but designed and manufactured by a manufacturer of Google’s choice. The most recent Nexus, the Nexus 6, was designed and made by Motorola. When you get a Nexus 6, the UI you see is exactly what Google made, with no other changes by Motorola (or whoever made the phone).

Existing UIs

So, Google makes Android, Google releases code of Android to manufacturers and the world, manufacturers make UIs. What do manufacturers do with their UIs?

Samsung’s TouchWiz

Samsung’s TouchWiz is probably the oldest and most recognizable UI. All the way back to the original Samsung Galaxy S, TouchWiz has existed. Samsung tends to change how things looks pretty drastically, adding their own design. However, they also add their own features. For example, in the Contacts app you can swipe the name of a contact to the left or to the right to perform an action with that contact, such as send a SMS, or make a call.Samsung's TouchWiz

While that is a more subtle feature, Samsung is also known for adding some pretty big and ground-breaking features. Like the ability for the phone to track your eyes to see if your watching a video or reading an article.

 

HTC, LG, and more have similar situations, where they change the look of Android, and adding their own unique features.

Motorola’s approach

Motorola used to approach Android similarly to Samsung, LG, and the others, where they changed the look and feel of the OS to create a unique UI. However, Motorola changed their approach after they were purchased by Google a couple years back.

Nowadays when you pick up a Motorola phone, it looks and feels like vanilla Android, and it pretty much is. What Motorola has done is still added features, but without changing Android visually. Using the body metaphor, Motorola only adds a few more muscles, and doesn’t change the skin of Android at all. For example, Motorola added something to their flagship line called “Moto Voice”, which allows a user to interact with their phone using only their voice. Motorola has added other features along with this.

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So, why should you care about UIs?

There are many arguments among Android enthusiasts about UIs and which one is better or if vanilla Android is the only way, etc. Here are some of those arguments for and against various UIs or stock Android.

[blockquote author=””]Just because you try one UI, doesn’t mean you should bash all of Android.[/blockquote]

For vanilla Android

Vanilla Android, because it has been untouched and unchanged, is generally quicker and faster than phones with UIs. Google works on one version of Android much longer than a manufacturer works on a UI, so naturally Google has refined it. Along with the speed, a phone with stock Android tends to stay just as fast as the phone ages, whereas phones with a UI tend to become slower over time.

Another advantage of vanilla Android is phones that have vanilla Android get updated much more quickly than phones without UIs. That’s why the Nexus phones and tablets are generally the first devices to receive a new version of Android, because there’s no need to change anything before sending the update.

The issue that Android enthusiasts tend to have with Samsung is all the bloatware Samsung adds. And most of it are things already provided by Google, yet Samsung insists that their consumers use Samsung’s in-house products. For example, Samsung has its own app store, along with the Google Play Store.

Against stock Android

Android enthusiasts that prefer something like Samsung’s TouchWiz tend to say they think vanilla Android doesn’t have enough to it. They appreciate the features added these manufacturers, and even mention how Google later adopts these features into stock Android. They also say that the speed difference between phones that have stock Android and those that have a different UI is marginal at best. They say that the bloatware and extra apps that manufacturers add can be disabled and ignored. Also, as UIs have evolved, they don’t get as slow with age as they used to.

Its worth noting that many reviewers are currently praising the steps Samsung has taken with their most recent iteration of TouchWiz.

[blockquote author=””]Ultimately its up to you.[/blockquote]

So what should you choose?

Probably the best aspect of Android is choice. The idea that there are different UIs goes to show that its up to a consumer to choose what they think is best.

One thing to keep in mind is these UIs really make your experience different compared to others. Just because you try one UI, doesn’t mean you should bash all of Android. Perhaps you need to try another phone with a different UI.

I cannot answer this question for you. I personally prefer Motorola’s approach, which is a mix of having stock Android but still getting useful features. However, I know other writers on this site that prefer Samsung’s TouchWiz, or Sony’s Xperia UI. I know others that live and breathe stock Android and have only ever owned Nexus devices. It all comes down to what you want.

Do you want to receive the latest features Google has developed for Android as soon as its available? Look at a phone that has stock Android.

Are you looking for a design that differs from vanilla Android, and features that don’t yet exist in vanilla Android? Then you should compare the feature-set that exist on phones from LG, Samsung, HTC, and more.

Ultimately its up to you.

[blockquote author=””]”Be together. Not the same.”[/blockquote]

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