Editorial

Editorial: Android needs more "vanilla" devices

I hate custom skins for Android.

This has been true for me ever since I ditched my very first, and the very first, Android device, the HTC Dream (branded as the T-Mobile G1) for one of HTC's oldest devices that used Sense: the HTC Hero. It may have added features to Android that weren't available at the time, but it was incredibly slow and bogged down due to the immense amount of crap bundled in and the little care put into speed optimizations.

Not too much longer and I ditched that device for the Samsung Galaxy S, this time bundled with TouchWiz over the top of Android 2.1. In terms of first impressions TouchWiz was visually quite nice, but again there were some performance issues on a device that shouldn't have had them; something that custom ROM developers quickly noticed and fixed, and so for the majority of my time using the Galaxy S I was running a "vanilla" installation.

The Sensation would be much better without HTC Sense

What is a "vanilla" installation? Well basically it means an uncustomized version of the software, and in the case of Android this means an OS without any carrier or manufacturer UI changes. And I think there should be more devices that ship this way, for two reasons.

Firstly, the Android UI is finally mature enough that it is ready for the market spotlight, in terms of looks and features. With the Galaxy Nexus, the first (and so far, only) device to ship with vanilla Android 4.0, I spent quite some time using the operating system on a regular basis and found little to hate about it.

For the first time in the history of Android the user interface actually has some consistency between each of the bundled applications, and there isn't nearly as much of a need to resort to third-party applications to add features. Features that have been incorporated previously in custom skins are now available in the vanilla OS, such as unlock to camera, improved homescreen and camera features, improved notification pane and more; not to mention the fact that it actually looks great too.

Also, it's smooth to use on modern hardware. If it's smooth on today's hardware such as the Galaxy Nexus, you know that with the right optimization it will also be smooth on tomorrow's improved hardware. Bundling a skin atop a UI that is quite smooth to use is only going to present issues that no-one wants, hence why Microsoft prohibited it with Windows Phone 7. What are you left with? One of the smoothest operating systems available.

Vanilla Android 4.0 is great, so ship it on more than just the Galaxy Nexus

If a device ships out-of-the-box with Android 4.0 on-board, really I see no reason for a custom skin. Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich is good enough, seriously.

Secondly, if I buy a device with vanilla Android installed I know that there is one less step between me and the next Android update. No skin means no need for manufacturers to worry about updating it to support the new operating system, instead they can get on with simply making the next version of Android work as smoothly as the last.

Even better if no carrier crapware is installed, as that would bypass another step of the carriers needing to update their horrible bundled apps. Then Google and the hardware manufacturers can almost take the Apple approach: subvert the carrier by pushing an update to the phone without the carrier spending months to check it first.

I mustn't be alone in wishing that updates to my Android device come more quickly: it's a huge problem for the platform and a source of many, many community complaints. The Galaxy S II just got Android 4.0 two weeks ago, which at five months since the announcement of Android 4.0 is pretty poor. To make things worse this is on the better end of the update scale, with some devices not seeing an ICS update for another couple of months or even never.

Android minus the skin equals quicker updates, an equation that really isn't that hard to fathom and something that I, and many others, greatly desire.

Vanilla Android + awesome camera? Currently not available

At the end of the day what I really want is more devices loaded with Android 4.0+ out of the box without a skin, giving me the vanilla experience. Currently my only option for a new device is the Galaxy Nexus, and while it's a great device it may not suit my needs. What if I want a device with a smaller screen (say 4.0-inches) and a better processor like the Samsung Exynos 4210? What if I want a device with a hardware keyboard? What if I want an awesome camera like on the Xperia S?

Currently my only option for these types of devices is one with a custom skin loaded. Please Google, Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC and others, give me more devices with a "vanilla" experience. It's not that hard.

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62 Comments

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I agree with this--my Samsung Galaxy Tab is lovely, but a few "features" of it drive me crazy, and I only recently found out that every single one of them are due to Samsung's additions. Up until this point I was thinking it was stock Honeycomb, silly me for not paying enough attention before. I guess this is what custom ROMs are for. It's a shame, because I generally love Samsung products. Oh well, Android/Linux is all about freedom and customisability.

Android 4.0 is basically the first version that looks decent out-of-the-box. Android 2.3's stock interface was just a big joke compared to iOS or Windows Phone 7.

IMO, I think companies should keepin their skin BUT on their website, allow a vanilla ROM be directly downloaded from them. Gives options to the users.

htcz said,
IMO, I think companies should keepin their skin BUT on their website, allow a vanilla ROM be directly downloaded from them. Gives options to the users.

I second that. While the vanilla Android is in many directions great, I personally like HTC Sense. I don't have enough motivation to replace it by vanilla - the Sense looks nice, it is fast enough for me, some of the extra apps are in fact useful. The best is to give people a freedom - let those who need it have the vanilla, and those who like it the skin.

Agreed. My S II runs AOSP stock 4.0 without TouchWiz. Android 4.0 Genuinely looks a lot better, but a great alternative to delivering part of the same experience is changing the launcher to a 4.0 launcher like Apex or Nova launcher.

Articles like these make me feel good about buying the Galaxy Nexus at launch. I never liked the manufacturers UIs. The best one I used was LG's Home back on 2.2 because it was very close to stock. Every other UI seemed to be a mess.

I like HTC Sense. I had a MotoBlur phone (the Moto Cliq), but then went to a MyTouch 3G Slide and now the 4G Slide. I have never found Sense to be cumbersome or slow, I love the integration it provides. I've run "plain" ROMS and they are just boring and ugly in comparison. I've never had to wait for my current phone (the 4G Slide) to do anything, so I can't imagine why someone would think Sense is slowing it down.

Right on. Sense works. Pun intended, it makes sense. Sorry to see issues for others who have used it. Stock ICS is nice, so I won't miss Sense, but it's still nice.


fuzi0719 said,
I like HTC Sense. I had a MotoBlur phone (the Moto Cliq), but then went to a MyTouch 3G Slide and now the 4G Slide. I have never found Sense to be cumbersome or slow, I love the integration it provides. I've run "plain" ROMS and they are just boring and ugly in comparison. I've never had to wait for my current phone (the 4G Slide) to do anything, so I can't imagine why someone would think Sense is slowing it down.

My mid-range Samsung Galaxy Ace has TouchWiz obviously but I feel it doesn't intrude on the vanilla Android UI. Main thing is the home screen is customizable and you can turn off the TouchWiz widgets. But I agree all phones moving towards a unified UI would only help Android users as they upgrade phones and switch across manufacturers.

I actually think this will start happening on the higher end devices. Will be interesting to see what happens with the Galaxy S3

I actually used to like Sense earlier, and honestly, it was far better than MotoBlur or TouchWiz. But after using ICS on my Desire I just cannot go back!

I have HTC Vivid from work that recently updated to ICS. The task switcher on it is a mess. Is that vanilla or something HTC rigged on? If it's stock ICS, then stock is no better.

Lately I've been pretty unhappy with Androird in general as well. My problem is, I dont want to go iPhone and I dont know about a WP device either (honestly dont know much about it) Sucks that the options are somewhat limited now a days.

Actually, I feel the opposite: We need to maintain ****ty UI's so our 3rd-party (better) ROMs continue to flourish! A bad UI is a stepping stone to fixing other things and/or adding more stuff to a "half-baked" stock ROM.

The first thing I did when I bought my first phone was gutting it and replacing the stock garbage with Cyanogen. Best decision I ever made.

Enron said,
Don't you get an option to turn off these things?
Back in the day on Android 1.5, you could reset the android launcher as default. Since then, HTC has removed the stock android launcher.

I have an HTC Desire Z. I must say that I find Sense - especially the 3.5 version - very pleasant to use. The features added are very welcomed, such as the cool selector for the alarm time, for example, and the added features in some apps (for example, widgets - I failed to this very day to find a *simple* task list/to do list widget which allows me to just write what I have to do and tick it off when it's done)

Also, Sense 4 is looking good, and receiving a lot of good reviews. I'd say that custom interfaces aren't for everyone. But at least if you do it, do it good!

Android until now was too much black and looked like it was designed by the same people who programmed it. Which isn't a great idea. Ice Cream Sandwich showed us that you need an UI guy to do the UI.

P.S.: My sister owns an Galaxy S2. I could not stand TouchWiz. It looks ugly. Even vanilla Gingerbread looks better.

Ideally, you can choose. But is not ideal.

Manufacturers need to look beyond trying to be Apple by itself, and start thinking about being just the main collective called "Android". Because no matter what you do, you aren't building a fanbase like Apple unless you start a new trend with a new iOs. Much as you want to differentiate yourself from being "Android", everyone knows what you are.

All HTC phones would be better without sense. Sense is a good idea, but has too much bloat, and sucks the life out of every phone they put out. I am an HTC fan, and have had 3 HTC phones. I have rooted every one and ran CM on them. performance is night and day with and without sense.

i agree sence is crap but touchwiz looks fine on the sgs2 though i now have my htc legend just runnign cyanogen mod which uses adw

Now hold on a minute, it's fair enough to air your opinion on the subject but you cannot speak for every Android owner out there and since you mentioned a device I own let me add my take.

The only reason I and people I know bought the HTC Sensation is because of Sense. I have tried the vanilla versions including some of the latest builds of Android 4.0 for my device and I keep returning to Sense because I miss it and it's features. Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich is not good enough for me, seriously.

In regards to performance, I happen to use a customized version of the latest Sense ROM but have no issues at all. A family member also recently upgraded to a Sensation XE and decided to keep it stock.. no issues whatsoever. The devices are fluid, responsive and work without issues.

Sure, we might not get to the latest and greatest build number as fast but damnit I alsmost don't care because the device works for me as it is. Also, with recent advancements from the dev community we can now use Boot Manager so if I ever feel the urge to change to the latest stock, MIUI, ported ROM etc. I can do that with just a reboot.

I also recognise that there will be many out there like the author of the article who don't like the customizations and that will be why MIUI, AOKP etc. are all available for a wide array of devices for those who want them. Perhaps some middle ground needs to be found, whereby the end user can have their own choice between vanilla 'as Google served it up' or OEM builds. But just to label all manufacturer UIs as rubbish is complete rubbish in itself.

The Laughing Man said,
I to wish HTC Sense would die a horrible death. More then half of its features are full of memory holes or are useless.
Sense 1.x was awesome (at least compared to stock Android 2.1-2.3). Apps/widgets/launcher were fast, no-bloat, and provided a much better experience than stock Android. Now, it's just bloated and a mess. I still find Touchwiz to be much worse. How can anyone like that garbage?

Sense is horrible, Touchwiz is a mess, but I personally love Sony's UXP interface, and prefer it over Vanilla Android. I think it's on par with ICS in terms of interface quality, definately the new version like on the Xperia S.

While I agree on Android 4 that a Vanilla rom might do but any older versions of the OS with Vanilla just sucks.

I like TouchUI and Sense. I don't see the big deal, for most end users, the frequency of updates is fine. For those who want more, they know how.

Nashy said,
I like TouchUI and Sense. I don't see the big deal, for most end users, the frequency of updates is fine. For those who want more, they know how.

Users should be able to EASILY choose a pack of apps or skins if THEY WANT to install them. They should not have to risk breaking their phones trying to go stock.

Luis Mazza said,

Users should be able to EASILY choose a pack of apps or skins if THEY WANT to install them. They should not have to risk breaking their phones trying to go stock.

You have a choice. Don't buy phone x.

Samsung, HTC release their phone how they want. You can whinge all your like, yes, but they don't owe you anything, or have to give you anything.

Nashy said,

You have a choice. Don't buy phone x.

Samsung, HTC release their phone how they want. You can whinge all your like, yes, but they don't owe you anything, or have to give you anything.

Yes, they do. I'm not alone.

Luis Mazza said,

Yes, they do. I'm not alone.

What? They owe you as a consumer NOTHING. They make a product. If you like it, you buy it.

You don't like it, you don't buy it. Simple.

I don't know if you've seen the sales of the Galaxy S2 for example. Clearly, you're in the minority.

Nashy said,

What? They owe you as a consumer NOTHING. They make a product. If you like it, you buy it.

You don't like it, you don't buy it. Simple.

I don't know if you've seen the sales of the Galaxy S2 for example. Clearly, you're in the minority.

Whatever. No time to spare with you.

It's because these OEMs are desperately trying to create a brand that can compete with Apple, which is a fruitless exercise (see what I did there?). OEMs simply can't do software as well as Apple, therefore they should stick to what they know best - making awesome phones!

Keep vanilla Android and make it as easy as possible for people to use custom ROMs if they wish. All those people on XDA are the reason Android is great, OEMs should nurture it.

In short, OEMs: ditch the software "brands" you are trying to create; give the power to the developers!

SuperHans said,
It's because these OEMs are desperately trying to create a brand that can compete with Apple, which is a fruitless exercise (see what I did there?). OEMs simply can't do software as well as Apple, therefore they should stick to what they know best - making awesome phones!

Keep vanilla Android and make it as easy as possible for people to use custom ROMs if they wish. All those people on XDA are the reason Android is great, OEMs should nurture it.

In short, OEMs: ditch the software "brands" you are trying to create; give the power to the developers!

Completely agree, they're hoping for that and a few that become so "used" to using their brand of crap that they'll buy it again when upgrade times comes around to avoid learning something new. Maybe they're also hoping for that one "killer app" to emerge to spur sales and this method keeps it exclusive.

that's what happen when you have one party provide the software and another supply the hardware.

welcome to the wonderful world of windows, android users. lmfao.

Totally agree with op. I've always hated the android skins and thus always avoided devices with them like the plague. Its kind of a shame as it does limit your options in terms of the devices you can get hold of, but TBH the fact my N1 has seen multiple updates where the majority of my friends devices from the same time have seen none in many cases makes the decision worth while.

Well, eventually this problem will solve itself. If consumers are unhappy, they will simply not buy the device. Android fragmentation is becoming such a huge issue, I believe Google will be changing the OS guidelines pretty soon. If they don't do it sooner then later, the problem might become to big to handle and Android will be doomed to become the Desktop Linux of the Mobile OS-world (read: no one will use it in the end).

Dannydeman said,
Well, eventually this problem will solve itself. If consumers are unhappy, they will simply not buy the device. Android fragmentation is becoming such a huge issue, I believe Google will be changing the OS guidelines pretty soon. If they don't do it sooner then later, the problem might become to big to handle and Android will be doomed to become the Desktop Linux of the Mobile OS-world (read: no one will use it in the end).

The issue is that that average customer doesn't know what Sense, TouchWiz, or Blur even are. They think that it is just Android. If they have a bad experience with it, there is a chance that they will avoid all future Android devices.

No thank you I rather have a phone themed by sony than stock. Just black background, black this black that, everything black. I want some colours and eye candy.

Soldiers33 said,
No thank you I rather have a phone themed by sony than stock. Just black background, black this black that, everything black. I want some colours and eye candy.
... but the default ICS background is a spectrum... rainbowish...

Soldiers33 said,
No thank you I rather have a phone themed by sony than stock. Just black background, black this black that, everything black. I want some colours and eye candy.
Have you ever heard of customizing a device?

Soldiers33 said,
No thank you I rather have a phone themed by sony than stock. Just black background, black this black that, everything black. I want some colours and eye candy.

Good for you. Some of us like minimalism, and functionality more than "eye candy".

Absolutely agree with you. Samsung lost me as a customer because of their garbage TouchWiz.

smartphone OEMs should compete on the features of the phones and they can very well add their own apps if they want to but just leave the stock experience of the OS alone!

I just got my Galaxy Nexus and I LOVE IT. I ADORE IT! ICS is magical in it's unaltered form and the screen is just stunning.

Out of all CEs ASUS seems to be the only one who really gets it and releases their android devices 99% stock. They only include their own apps and widgets but ICS is stock.

This is great for them because they don't have to waste resources making stupid skins and allows them to keep consumers in mind by sometimes pushing Android updates faster than Google "pure experience" devices like Nexus phones.

I mean I have ASUS Transformer 1 and we got ICS upgrade weeks after ICS was released. That's how it should be and hopefully others realize that.

Btw, I wanted to get Samsung Galaxy SIII but I won't because of the stupid TouchWiz and them making ICS into an abomination thanks to it. No matter how great the phone, I won't get it just because of that.

Compete on design and features of devices and leave Android alone as it is.

Boz said,
Absolutely agree with you. Samsung lost me as a customer....

*ring ring*
Hello?
"Yes, this is Samsung."
Oh hi....I'm not interested.
"We know. We read your post on Neowin."
Oh ok. So...bye?
"Yeah, not so fast. We want our phone back."
But...I don't have a Samsung phone.
"Yes, you do. We want it back."
NO IT'S MY GALAXY NEXUS!
"Actually, it's ours."
NOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooooo!

Boz said,
Absolutely agree with you. Samsung lost me as a customer because of their garbage TouchWiz.

smartphone OEMs should compete on the features of the phones and they can very well add their own apps if they want to but just leave the stock experience of the OS alone!

I just got my Galaxy Nexus and I LOVE IT. I ADORE IT! ICS is magical in it's unaltered form and the screen is just stunning.

Out of all CEs ASUS seems to be the only one who really gets it and releases their android devices 99% stock. They only include their own apps and widgets but ICS is stock.

This is great for them because they don't have to waste resources making stupid skins and allows them to keep consumers in mind by sometimes pushing Android updates faster than Google "pure experience" devices like Nexus phones.

I mean I have ASUS Transformer 1 and we got ICS upgrade weeks after ICS was released. That's how it should be and hopefully others realize that.

Btw, I wanted to get Samsung Galaxy SIII but I won't because of the stupid TouchWiz and them making ICS into an abomination thanks to it. No matter how great the phone, I won't get it just because of that.

Compete on design and features of devices and leave Android alone as it is.


You sure do hold an awful lot of hate, bro. SGSIII is gearing up to be the best phone available (partial opinion but largely true) and you will miss out because you're stuck in a way of thinking that puts you more in line with iOS: release options are the best options.

You should look into what makes android a great platform: roms.

nekkidtruth said,

*ring ring*
Hello?
"Yes, this is Samsung."
Oh hi....I'm not interested.
"We know. We read your post on Neowin."
Oh ok. So...bye?
"Yeah, not so fast. We want our phone back."
But...I don't have a Samsung phone.
"Yes, you do. We want it back."
NO IT'S MY GALAXY NEXUS!
"Actually, it's ours."
NOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooooo!

Galaxy Nexus is Google phone produced by Samsung and it's pure Android phone.

I was referring to their retail Samsung branded phones like Galaxy S2 and S3. I had Galaxy SII and even though it was amazing phone I will not buy any other Samsung product if it has their skin crap on it.

Boz said,

Galaxy Nexus is Google phone produced by Samsung and it's pure Android phone.

I was referring to their retail Samsung branded phones like Galaxy S2 and S3. I had Galaxy SII and even though it was amazing phone I will not buy any other Samsung product if it has their skin crap on it.

The phone is manufactured by Samsung. It is a Samsung phone. It just so happens to run a vanilla version of Google's Android. It is still a Samsung phone. You're a hypocrite. Admit it.

It's like saying "I refuse to buy GM vehicles! I love my Saturn!"

nekkidtruth said,

The phone is manufactured by Samsung. It is a Samsung phone. It just so happens to run a vanilla version of Google's Android. It is still a Samsung phone. You're a hypocrite. Admit it.

It's like saying "I refuse to buy GM vehicles! I love my Saturn!"

Calm down sport. Google phone like Nexus is not necessarily produced by samsung.. and saying that I will not buy another Samsung phone means that I will continue buying pure experience phones which is the point of the whole thing.

Get a life.

Boz said,

Calm down sport. Google phone like Nexus is not necessarily produced by samsung.. and saying that I will not buy another Samsung phone means that I will continue buying pure experience phones which is the point of the whole thing.

Get a life.

I have a life. I'm well aware that Nexus phones aren't always produced by Samsung, but this one is. You said Samsung had lost a customer, and then you turned around and say "OMFG I LUV MY GALAXY NEXUS!!!!!!!!111"

Hypocrite.

Nice Editorial!

I share a lot of these thoughts too. I have a HTC Sensation myself, and I'm happy about the speed increase and features, after upgrading to 4.0, but HTC Sense is still not a good thing imo.

This article is known fact and we won't find many Manufacturer skin fanboys either. There shouldn't even be any debate on any opinions in this editorial.

sanke1 said,
This article is known fact and we won't find many Manufacturer skin fanboys either. There shouldn't even be any debate on any opinions in this editorial.

Fanboys say that we, skin haters, are the minority. What they refuse to see is that the minority of geeks have the power to greatly influence the majority of buyers who ask for our advice.
They should respect the "minority".

Luis Mazza said,

Fanboys say that we, skin haters, are the minority. What they refuse to see is that the minority of geeks have the power to greatly influence the majority of buyers who ask for our advice.
They should respect the "minority".


Once again. There are NO Manufacturer skin fanboys. The fanboys you talk about are general Android fanboys and they all hate skins.

sanke1 said,

Once again. There are NO Manufacturer skin fanboys. The fanboys you talk about are general Android fanboys and they all hate skins.

I consider myself a big fan of HTC Sense. It's just down right attractive IMO.

sanke1 said,

Once again. There are NO Manufacturer skin fanboys. The fanboys you talk about are general Android fanboys and they all hate skins.

You can't base such an argument, because you're then saying that all "fanboys" are geeks, which is definitely not true.