Two of Androidâ€™s biggest strengths are choice and customization. While Apple is playing catch-up and adding widgets in iOS 14, Android phones have consistently introduced innovative features that empower users to customize their overall software experience. However, itâ€™s not usually stock Android or Pixel phones that make the biggest leaps.
In my view, custom Android skins have often been at the forefront of innovation. This, combined with the sleek visual design of modern skins like Samsungâ€™s One UI, is why I prefer Android skins to the â€œpureâ€� stock Android experience.
Explained: What is stock Android?
The history of Android skins vs stock Android
HTC was without a doubt one of the early Android UI pioneers. Who can forget that rainbow-colored wallpaper and weather clock widget? I may be biased because my first smartphone was the HTC Desire HD, but to me, it was iconic.
Sense may have been over-the-top in many regards, but thatâ€™s why I loved it. The smooth animation of clouds dissipating when unlocking the phone, the intuitiveness of its default browser, and the huge variety of customization options made for a fantastic user experience. Next to it, the stock Nexus S seemed plain and boring, even with its live wallpapers. The slightly better performance did not seem like a worthy trade-off to me.
Related: Remembering the first Android phone
Yet, I never would have stuck with the HTC skin for so long if it didnâ€™t offer some great features along with the bling. For example, flipping over a ringing phone to silence it has been a staple of the Taiwanese manufacturer since 2010. Stock Android, on the other hand, finally included the option in Android 9 Pie.
HTC also beat Google to the punch with the â€œFind my phoneâ€� feature, which was available through the Sense website years before the stock OS finally caught up.
However, not all skins were made equal in the early days of Android. Samsungâ€™s TouchWiz was notorious for being a bloated mess. The skin came with a multitude of preinstalled apps and features no one asked for (or ever used). Bugs and crashes were commonplace too.
At the time, TouchWiz was the number one reason I stayed away from Samsung phones even when their hardware and camera capabilities seemed tempting. However, Samsung didnâ€™t have a monopoly on over-featured skins. As time progressed, other manufacturers bogged down their phones with too many unnecessary extras, HTC included.
This inevitably led to a demand for cleaner, lighter versions of â€œpure Androidâ€� and Google Play Edition phones. They offered a more streamlined UI, free of dozens of manufacturer apps. Although, it took the introduction of Lollipopâ€™s material design for stock Android to realize its true potential.
Minimalist but stylish, Lollipop reinvigorated and elevated the OS. You didnâ€™t have to sacrifice looks to enjoy quick and consistent updates anymore. Unfortunately, the redesign momentum did not last long. In my opinion, 2020 stock Android is far less appealing than modern Android skins.
Why Android skins today are better than stock
Stock Android still offers a cleaner experience than some Android skins today, but plenty of manufacturers have caught up with the times. OnePlus with OxygenOS and Samsung with One UI are two of the standouts.
OxygenOS is often considered one of the best Android skins and for good reason. It is snappy, responsive, and almost as simple as its stock software. For years it has sported features like a gaming mode, built-in screen recording, and much more. Simplicity and convenience are not the domain of stock Android alone. Neither is minimalist design.
Donâ€™t miss: The best phones running stock Android
In my opinion, Samsungâ€™s One UI strikes the perfect balance between simplicity and style, making it my Android skin of choice. Its charming flat icons, clean menus optimized for one-handed use, and its stunning system-wide AMOLED dark mode are just some of the reasons why I canâ€™t get enough of it. Just like HTC Sense back in the day, itâ€™s the substance, not the style that keeps me coming back for more.
One UI has plenty of features that I enjoy that canâ€™t be found on its stock counterpart. Those include scrolling screenshots, a built-in screen recorder, and Bixby routines. This may sound crazy to those that havenâ€™t tried Bixby since its early days (when it was pretty awful), but Bixby has quietly become one of the best features of One UI.
Bixby works on the IFTTT principle without voice commands. With it, I save battery every night by automatically turning off the always-on display, Bluetooth, NFC, and other functions. This is one of the most convenient features on any phone Iâ€™ve recently owned.
But what about those additional apps that stock purists will say you donâ€™t need? Some manufacturer apps like Samsung Health are far from impressive even today, but I like having the choice between Google and OEM apps. Samsung Notes, for example, is so simple and easy-to-use that I prefer it to everything else.
Samsungâ€™s skin isnâ€™t perfect by any means. It still comes with some unnecessary pre-installed apps, but itâ€™s light years ahead of its TouchWiz predecessor.
UI ads are the only thing that can make me switch to stock Android.
Better yet, I donâ€™t have to sacrifice update speed for any of the extra features I love. In fact, Samsung has beaten Google to the security update punch multiple times since 2019. To me, this makes One UI the clear winner if I have to pick between it and stock Android.
Is there anything that would make me switch back to the stock OS? UI ads would definitely force me to make the jump, but at the moment, itâ€™s hard to see the appeal of stock Android. Material design was great when it made its debut, but itâ€™s time for a refresh. Itâ€™s quite telling that even Googleâ€™s own phones donâ€™t run traditional stock Android these days. Instead, you get a Pixel-ified version with unique tweaks and design elements.
Currently, pure Android looks dated compared to most Android skins. Many necessary or convenient features are missing too. So, unless history repeats itself and OEM user interfaces become incredibly slow and bloated, I will stick to Android skins.