The OEM Android skins that have now become so reviled were almost essential in the early days of Android. It used to be that you NEEDED something like Sense UI (as it was called at the time) to get any advanced software features in your smartphone. Google was rolling updates fast, but those early days were about laying the groundwork, not polishing the user experience. Fast forward to today and we've got a stock Android platform that is functional, feature-rich, and quite attractive. The OEM skins are still hanging around, though. Is there anything redeeming going on there?
Let's take a look at the Android software designed by some of the top OEMs and see where we stand. Stock might be the most desirable, but what if you can't get it? Who's the next best?
I still remember using a Galaxy S when they rolled out the first version of the modern TouchWiz UI -- before that TouchWiz was almost unrecognizable. The biggest problem at the time was Samsung's insistence on looking like iOS. Well a few years, a lawsuit, and millions upon million of sales have cured the company of its Apple lust. TouchWiz has evolved into its own pseudo-fork of Android with custom apps and services.
Early versions of TouchWiz were hard on the eyes due to the insanely bright colors. That's still true to a degree, but Samsung has cleaned up its act somewhat. More of the stock Android UI shines through, though the OEM can't seem to keep itself from at least tweaking the colors.
I spend most of my time using a stock Nexus 5, so every time I use a TouchWiz device I'm struck by one thing -- there's so much stuff. Samsung piles on features and UI elements that seem profoundly unnecessary to me. For example, the notification tray tells you when you're connected to WiFi, or have the device plugged into power -- thanks, Samsung. The settings are also cluttered and unnecessarily rearranged compared to almost all other Android devices (even more-so on the Galaxy S5). Many of the features like Smart Stay and Smart Scroll that Samsung was so proud of last year have never worked right for me (and many others). It's just a lot of clutter for very little benefit.
I don't want to give the impression that Samsung has it all wrong. The camera interface is probably the best of any OEM. It's clean, fast, and has a TON of features (most of which work). Not devices with the S Pen have some really interesting TouchWiz-only features that take advantage of it. The upcoming Galaxy S5 also includes a very cool ultra power saving mode that can stretch 10% charge into a full day of standby. So, there are actually some features that justify Samsung's Android modifications.
Overall, Samsung's getting closer with TouchWiz. There is still some unnecessary duplication of features (hi, S Voice) and I could do without the clutter, but I can tolerate and even enjoy using a TouchWiz device.
LG Optimus UI
LG has stopped calling its phones "Optimus," but Optimus UI is still the closest thing its software skin has to a name. There is one constant thread weaving its way through LG's Android ROM -- the desire to copy Samsung without looking like it's trying to copy Samsung. Really though, it's pretty obvious. Samsung and LG are big rivals in South Korea, but LG is playing catchup when it comes to Android.
There are times that LG's Android interface looks almost exactly like TouchWiz -- for example on the home screen. Although, the copy isn't perfect and LG seems to go off the rails when it deviates from Samsung's predefined script. The notification shade is a little less usable, the home screen interface is a bit more confusing, and the overall UI has consistency issues. There are also some very unnecessary, flashy animations in the Optimus UI.
For some reason, LG decided to commit to on-screen buttons, but stubbornly refuses to do it right. The standard on-screen buttons usually have back, home, and app switcher. However, LG has back, home, and MENU. Coincidentally, that's the same layout Samsung used with its hardware buttons until just recently. Oh, there are settings to change the buttons, but you can't make it work like all standard Android devices.
Even though Samsung has a lot of stuff in TouchWiz, some of it works. The only distinctly LG feature I can think of that I actually like is Knock On, which lets you wake the device simply by tapping twice on the screen. Other than that, I'd prefer to pass on LG's Optimus UI.
Yes, believe it or not, Motorola's Android ROM is not stock. It's very, very close, but includes customizations that make it distinct from the Nexus version of Android -- the closest thing to unmodified Android you can buy. I've certainly made it no secret I prefer a stock Android experience, so this is by far my favorite OEM version of Android to use. With its newer devices, Motorola stopped doing unnecessary things to differentiate the look and instead focused adding high-quality features to Android.
I can't think of anything Samsung, LG, or HTC do with Android that I like more than Active Display -- it's genius. Instead of a notification LED, you get an icon on the AMOLED screen that tells you which app is seeking your attention. You can tap it to see details, then dismiss or open it to wake the phone up. Active Display also ties into the phone's accelerometer so the screen wakes up with an unlock icon and clock when you pick it up. People are floored when they see this. It's so simple, but so useful.
Motorola's other headlining feature is Touchless Control, which is basically an extension of Google Now voice search. Even when the phone is asleep, you can use the "Okay Google Now" trigger phrase to wake up the voice control feature. Touchless Control lets you look up information, send text messages, and even have your notifications read to you.
There are a few smaller apps like Migrate and Assist (location and time-based settings), but Moto restrained itself to an amazing degree under Google's direction. By only making a handful of smart changes Motorola created a build of Android that's really hard to object to. It even has most of its features integrated in a modular way so they can be updated through Google Play.
The one part of Motorola's Android ROM I'm not sold on is the camera. It's basically a rearrangement of UI on the stock camera app. It's also updated through Google Play, but hasn't seen much in the way of improvements. Even though other OEMs go too far with most of the Android UI, the camera modifications are solid. Motorola is trailing when it comes to snapping pics.
Sense was the first Android skin to make its way to consumers in mid 2009 with the HTC Hero. This interface was a redesign of HTC's popular Windows Mobile skin known as TouchFlow. It took Sense a long time to shed the last vestiges of those early days, but it finally did with the launch of the HTC One.
HTC's UI is probably the most mature next to stock Android, and even that is a close contest. The colors are carefully chosen to go well together and there's very little unnecessary clutter. HTC has succeeded in making Sense faster and more feature-rich than it once was.
I think HTC might have the best camera experience, although the Ultrapixel sensor wasn't all I was hoping for. It's the software that makes the picture taking experience shine. Not only does it take fast, accurate images, it includes a special mode called HTC Zoe. A Zoe is basically a video clip just a few seconds long with full-resolution images to go with each frame. You can watch the video and pull out the frames you want. There are also some neat blending effects you can do to remove objects or create one of those single-frame time lapse images.
I know many people are not big fans of BlinkFeed, but I actually think this is an appealing way to browse content for many people. It could use some more features, but it is optional in newer builds of Sense. HTC is actually listening to feedback. Likewise, HTC improved home screen management and added clearer app drawer options in Sense 5.5 updates.
So things are looking good right now, but there is a big update to HTC's Android implementation coming with the new HTC One just over the horizon.
And the winner is...
Your choice of phone is going to rely on the hardware as much as software, but all things being equal, Motorola does the best with Android. The features it creates for Android add value and it doesn't arbitrarily change things. HTC is probably number two in my mind for its clean design and overall speed. Samsung does well overall, but gets pretty caught up in differentiating itself. That sometimes results in feature creep and a chunky UI. LG brings up the rear mostly because it tries to be Samsung, but can't quite pull it off. Not everything in Android needs an LG makeover.
These are, in part, aesthetic judgements. Some quirks might not bother you as much, or maybe you intend to ROM every phone you get. For everyone else, consider the Android skin when buying.