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Android User Interfaces: HTC Sense, Samsung TouchWiz and others compared

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Android Logo.jpgNot 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”.


HTC Sense.jpgSamsung TouchWiz.jpgMotorola Motoblur.jpgStock ICS.jpgMIUI.jpg

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


HTC Sense 2.jpgHTC Sense is the user interface layer found on HTC’s Android devices. This includes smartphones such as the HTC Wildfire S, HTC Desire S and the HTC Sensation family of devices. It also includes the 7-inch HTC Flyer tablet.


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 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.


Samsung TouchWiz


Samsung TouchWiz.jpgSamsung TouchWiz UI is the user interface layer found on Samsung’s Galaxy range of devices (excluding the Galaxy Nexus which uses Holo). This includes smartphones such as the Galaxy S II and Galaxy Note and tablets from the Galaxy Tab range.


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


Sony Ericsson Timescape.jpgMotorola 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.


To this extent, Google have tried to improve the look and feel of Android in their latest version, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. This is the operating system which powers the recently-launched Galaxy Nexus. Ice Cream Sandwich features a radical new user interface dubbed ‘Holo’ with key enhancements including a new blue colour scheme, visual multitasking and a new font dubbed ‘Roboto’.

Android UI.jpg

Google’s new “Holo” user interface features a new colour scheme and visual multitasking. It can be found in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.


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


MIUI.jpgRegardless 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.


If you’re looking to give your phone a makeover, custom launcher applications such as LauncherPro, ADW Launcher and Go Launcher Ex can give your phone a fresh new look. It’s even possible to download a launcher which makes your Android device look like Windows Phone 7.


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.


Your thoughts…


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?


Ken Lo writes about mobile technology and the mobile industry at Ken's Tech Tips.


nice blog, I like htc sense style most

Good blog as always kenlo ... Smiley Happy

used custom ROM on my galaxy s a while back to get gingerbread from froyo cos samsung were reluctant in releasing.


The problem with samsung is that unless you install kies you won't get the updates from them ...and kies itself is naff.

The wife's got the wildefire s and the first time I saw the windscreen wiper I burst out laughing...the screen does actually look as if it has had water splashed on it.. Smiley Very Happy


Very nice blog. Nice little read Smiley Happy

intrsting read

I use the HTC Desire Z.

The extra titbits offered by HTC Sense started causing me having to tediously endure a 'Loading' message for about 7 seconds almost every time I pressed the 'Home' button.

So what did I do? I had to resort to removing almost EVERY SINGLE WIDGET from my Home screen (Friend Stream, Messages, Location, Weather and even the clock!) in order to stop the nagging Loading message from appearing. The only widget I have now is my Data counter. Even now, I have to wait for the Home screen to load every now and then.

It's no wonder why custom ROMs tend to do away with such rubbish and I welcome Google's initiative to get all the manufacturers to offer a standardised yet superior interface.

Although I've never used Windows Phone 7, my impression of the Metro interface is that it is far nicer than those of other OSs. I do miss the brilliant multitasking abilities of my old Windows Mobile 6.1 device.
ace of spades

Nice read ,

I personally think one of the best  User Interfaces / launchers for android  is SPB Shell  ,  it cost's around £9  but I think it's worth it , its a totally different kind of launcher ( full 3D ) . 


Edited : spelling correction .


Nice article thanks, lots of interesting info. I ended up with ADW Launcher at the moment as it was bundled in a CM7 ROM I installed recently - liking it so far and runs smoothly on my humble ZTE Skate.


@brulaw - had a look at some vids on Youtube - that SPB shell looks amazing. Does it run Ok on lower spec phones?


I think the fact that you can't learn one Android phone and expect to be able to work them all without some relearning greatly reduces the attractiveness of Android.


htc sense is the best.. for me..