The sheer number of Android smartphones that you can choose from, whatever your budget may be, is truly mind boggling. What makes picking one even more difficult is the fact that each phone has a different personality. At the top of this tree is the Google Pixel XL and Pixel, running pure Android Nougat (7.0 or 7.1, if you prefer numbers) as well as the exclusive Assistant feature that is based on machine learning. Lending variety and purpose is the OnePlus 3T which packs in 6GB of RAM, which is perhaps more than what even your laptop or PC have right now. The LG G5 is all about the modular flexibility, and you can bolt on additional hardware (an audio converter, a second battery etc.) to improve usability. Even the more affordable Android phones around the Rs10,000 price point, such as the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4, now pack in specifications that will not leave you with a phone that stutters or struggles to run apps.
Not all Android phones are the same however, even though many of them may be running the exact same hardware and specifications. It is important to understand the software differences that define the user experience in a smartphone.
Personalization is brilliant…
Android phones are as different as they come, even though they may run the same operating system (OS). Google allows phone makers a generous amount of flexibility over the sort of customizations that they can implement on the base OS. There are two levels of software running in your smartphone—the OS itself, and the applications and extra features that are installed to run on it. Simply put, when smartphone makers start working on Android to add their own bit, they don’t need to worry about the performance of the core Android functionality—either they do not have access to certain parts of the software code or don’t need to alter it in any way. They instead deal with headaches of trying to make each and everything compatible with all other apps as well as relevant Android services. Easier said than done, because we have seen many instances of bloated customizations bogging down performance and the user experience.
And that is exactly why even though they may run largely the same OS, Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones with the TouchWiz UI are very different to use compared to HTC’s phones which run the Sense UI, for example. Chinese smartphone makers such as Xiaomi and LeEco actually customize Android so much that they go ahead and call the custom interface as an OS in itself. While that is debatable, the basics remain the same.
Security is important too
BlackBerry took Android, disabled bits of the core Android functionality that it classified as unnecessary in their scheme of things, added their own security layer on the OS, bolted on specific productivity and rolled out the Priv smartphone, and subsequently the DTEK series of phones. What you get, in this case, is a device that isn’t falling short in terms of overall performance, but is potentially more secure to the ever increasing threat of malwares on smartphones.
In a nutshell, phone makers are allowed to express themselves according to their vision of how a smartphone software should be, remain unique in a crowded smartphone space and every once in a while, can sometimes include the sort of features which Android does not have by default—Xiaomi’s MIUI 8 which includes the ability to run two instances of the same app, with different credentials at the same time, is an example.
…but it sometimes leads to fragmentation
With all the customization that is happening at the smartphone manufacturer’s end, the immediate drawback is that OS updates take a rather long time to reach the user’s phone, if at all. This may mean that a lot of popular Android phones remain some way behind the curve when it comes to the latest security patches as well as software enhancements which Google rolls out. Let us look at Google’s latest numbers regarding Android—only 24% of devices globally run Android Marshmallow (Android 6.0+), while the latest Nougat variant is on just 0.7% phones right now. Google has been cajoling phone makers to release the monthly security patches for Android, and while that has worked somewhat, it hasn’t really made even a dent in the larger picture.
Some are better than others
At present, the only smartphones that are immune from the frustrations of fragmentation are the newer Pixel phones—the Pixel and Pixel XL, as well as the Nexus branded devices—the Nexus 5X (made by LG), Nexus 6P (made by Huawei) and the older Nexus 6 (made by Motorola), to name a few. While OnePlus, for example, is trying to keep pace with newer Android releases (the OnePlus 3 and the OnePlus 3T have both received the latest Android updates), the rest of the ecosystem isn’t really up to it. For phones that are not directly in Google’s control, it is exceedingly difficult to persuade phone makers to spend their resources on updates—they pick and choose which phones to roll out updates for, and sometimes ignore the rest. Limitations of economics, resources and time also play a role. Plus, the same phone makers have focused on rolling out new devices and are actively trying to get you to upgrade to their latest phones, which means a phone you buy today will feel outdated in around 12 months. And as a buyer, there really isn’t much that you can do.