Not all Android phones are created equal. Despite the fact that Android is now the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, there are some significant differences in the way that Android devices from different manufacturers look and work. Much of this is due to the user interface layer added to Android by smartphone manufacturers such as HTC, Samsung, Motorola and Sony Ericsson.
In this article, we look at the most popular Android user interface layers: HTC Sense, Samsung TouchWiz, Motorola’s MotoBlur and Sony Ericsson’s Timescape. We’ll also look at Google’s vision for the future design of Android and how you can customise your Android device with wallpapers, widgets and new skins.
What is an Android user interface layer?
The Android operating system differs from other smartphone operating systems such as Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone in that it is open source. Although the development of Android is managed by Google, the source code is provided to smartphone manufacturers who will usually make their own modifications to Android. These modifications are often fairly significant and may come in the form of a new user interface or the addition of extra features not found in the standard version of Android. These additions are called a “user interface layer”.
Spot the difference: Android devices from different manufacturers often look radically different. User interface layers from left to right: HTC Sense, Samsung TouchWiz, Motorola MotoBlur, Google Holo and MIUI.
Microsoft does not allow Windows Phone manufacturers to change the user interface layer on Windows Phone devices. All Windows Phone devices use the Metro user interface.
HTC Sense is best known for its cosmetic additions to Android. This includes the home screen with its iconic animated digital clock widget. The home screen also features animations for the current weather: for example if rain is forecast, raindrops will appear on your home screen as windscreen wipers clean them away. There are similar animations for other weather conditions such as for thunderstorms and for snow.
Beyond the simple cosmetic additions, HTC Sense also includes the Friend Stream widget which shows what your friends are saying on Facebook and Twitter, features a customisable lock screen that allows you to jump directly into an application such as the camera and also adds motion control gestures such as flipping your phone over to silence an incoming call.
HTC Sense also features HTCSense.com integration which allows you to remotely lock, track or wipe your phone in case your phone is lost or stolen. Version 4.0 is set to add Dropbox integration with 50GB of free storage, Beats audio technology and a “guest mode” for when you give your phone to a friend.
TouchWiz UI makes some minor changes to the look and feel of Android such as adding buttons to the notification bar which allow wi-fi, Bluetooth, GPS and rotation capabilities to quickly be turned on or off. The notification bar also features the ability to silence the phone. Newer versions feature gestures such as being able to take a screenshot by sliding your palm across the screen.
The majority of changes in TouchWiz come in the form of applications which have been added by Samsung. This includes the Kies Air application which allows you to transfer files from your phone using wi-fi, the Readers Hub application which features access to books, magazines and newspapers and the Polaris Office application which allows the viewing and editing of Microsoft Office documents. As in HTC Sense, Samsung have also included remote phone tracking and wiping capabilities in the form of SamsungDive.
Other user interface layers: MotoBlur, Timescape
Motorola uses the MOTOBLUR user interface layer on their Android devices including the Motorola Defy and Motorola Flipout. MOTOBLUR has a focus on social networking and integrates together SMS text messages with status updates from Facebook and Twitter on your home screen. It also features remote phone tracking capabilities like in HTC Sense and Samsung Touchwiz.
Sony Ericsson uses the Timescape user interface (pictured right) on their Xperia range of Android devices. Like MOTOBLUR, Timescape also has a focus on social networking. The home screen in Timescape shows e-mails, text messages and status updates from Facebook and Twitter in a scrollable list which resembles a deck of cards.
Google’s new user interface layer: Holo
Two of the key criticisms of Android devices are sluggish performance and delays in receiving software updates. Android user interface layers have been blamed as the source of these problems: user interface layers can often require a lot of processing power to run and must also be updated every time a new version of Android is released. Because of this, it usually takes several months for Android devices to receive an update to the latest version.
By providing a better “default interface” in Android 4.0, it is hoped that this will reduce the need for manufacturers to add their own user interface layers on top of Android which can cause performance issues and delay software updates.
Customising your Android smartphone
Regardless of which user interface layer your phone includes, Android is designed to be customisable. There is an entire category of Personalisation apps in the Android Market which range from animated wallpapers to widgets for your home screen.
Android also allows you to install your own customised versions of the software. These are called custom ROMs. Custom ROMs include CyanogenMod and MIUI (pictured right) with some custom ROMs offering radical new user interfaces. Custom ROMs are only recommended for advanced and experienced users however: it’s possible to brick your phone if it is installed incorrectly and using a custom ROM will invalidate your warranty.
Android is one of the most customisable operating systems for smartphones. Whilst this allows for a great degree of personalisation, it also means that the Android user experience differs between devices from different manufacturers.
Do you have a preference between HTC Sense, Samsung TouchWiz, MOTOBLUR, Timescape or another user interface layer? Would you like to see more manufacturers adopting Google’s default user interface? Have you customised your Android device with new widgets and wallpapers?