Verizon vs AT&T vs Sprint vs T-Mobile: How Each Carrier Controls Android

By Ryan Whitwam

Which carrier is exerting the most control over your Android experience?

It's a widely varied world of Android phones out there. Part of this wide variety is due to the way carriers choose to modify android, and which phones they decide to pick up. Depending on the carrier you're with, you may have to make some compromises in your Android experience. 


Verizon - Big Red loves Bing and locked bootloaders

The Droid X has proved a challenge for modders 

If non-standard kernel software is installed on one of these phones, it will refuse to boot. You get kicked to the boot loader so you can reinstall the original software, assuming you have it. With Verizon's abnormally long QA testing, users have a long road of waiting ahead for future system updates. The hacking community is diligently working to break the encryption, but be aware.  

Verizon's other major Android faux pas is the straight-up removal of Google search from some of their phones. Basically, any phones that do not carry Verizon's Droid branding look like they are in danger of having Google search cruelly ripped from the OS, and Bing lazily slapped in its place. All the thoughtful integration of Google search services is lost. The Samsung Fascinate is so hobbled, and the upcoming HTC Merge/Lexikon is rumored to be Binged as well.  

The Fascinate has Bing instead of Google 

Regardless of the phone you get, Verizon quite adeptly has managed to insert an excessive amount of crapware. Apps like CityID, blockbuster, and Vcast nav are preinstalled. No, you cannot remove them unless you root the phone. Verizon really doesn't like users doing that either. They forced the removal of a rooting app called Easy Root because it supported the Droid X. Not cool in our book. 

Are you looking for stock, mostly unmodified Android? On Verizon you've only got one choice, the original Motorola Droid. It's due for being discontinued soon, and the official updates are probably coming to an end, but it is one of the most hackable Android phones around. The Android 2.2 Wi-Fi hotspot capability has been removed from Verizon phones, as expected. In its place, most phones get a hotspot app, but you have to pay Big Red a monthly fee to use it. It's bummer, but just about universally the case right now. 

AT&T - All your apps are belong to us

The Backflip - with Yahoo 

As such, users are missing out on apps that are distributed outside the Market, and many beta apps. This seems like an arbitrary means of control that will only hurt the less tech savvy users. Those that really want to install apps outside the Android Market can do so with the Android SDK, or with some third-party tools. Both these options require a PC, and are inconvenient. AT&T doesn't have any Android 2.2 phones yet, but we can't imagine they will allow the free Wi-Fi hotspot capability to remain when the time comes. The best we can probably hope for is a paid app. 

 AT&T junk apps on the Captivate

Par for the course: you can't remove any of these apps without root access. In some cases, these AT&T apps can confuse users by duplicating functions of existing Google apps, like navigation.AT&T even went so far as to remove the icon for Google Navigation. You can still access it, but only through maps. There are also some tie-ins with third part apps. AT&T phones are likely to come with MobiTV, Mobile Banking, Where, and more. On the Motorola Backflip, AT&T and Motorola pulled  a Verizon before we knew what that meant, and removed Google search services, this time replacing it with Yahoo. 

Unfortunately, AT&T doesn't even have the best selection of Android phones, and none of them run stock Android, or anything close to it. You've got a phone running HTC Sense, a Galaxy S phone with TouchWiz, and an old MotoBlur phone. AT&T's commitment feels minimal, and their implementations are restrictive. 

Sprint - Open ROMs, lots of skins

Sprint's custom apps are locked to 3G/4G 
all their Android phones now. The loadout of unneeded apps hasn't changed much since that first Android handset, and the Evo 4G is in much the same state. Sprint TV, Sprint Navigation, NASCAR, Sprint Football - it's all there, and you can't remove it without rooting. Many of these can only be used over mobile data, no Wi-Fi. There's also a blockbuster app loaded on. 

almost stock, but comes with a ton of crapware and strange UI modifications that make us of Sprint's Sprint ID service. 

There is no overt locking down of Android phones on Sprint as far as we're aware. When a leaked version of Android 2.2 for the Evo broke the upgrade path for users that installed it, Sprint and HTC fixed it. HTC developed a special update for those users and Sprint pushed it out just days after the official update. This is the kind of user-friendly behavior we like to see.  

T-Mobile - A stock Android haven, or un-rootable underworld?  

 The G1, the oldest and least updated

There is a clear demarcation between T-Mobile's modified Android phones, and their stock ones. The recently released G2 is relatively free of crapware. Aside from the Google apps like Earth, Goggles, and Finance, there are only a few extra apps. There is a Photobucket app that bugs you until you turn it off, and three unobtrusive T-Mobile apps. T-Mobile comes as close as any carrier to offering a stock Android experience, and we have to applaud them for that.  

If you look at the phones T-Mobile worked on modifying, it gets messy. The MyTouch 3G Slide for example, has home screen integration with a poor MyFaves gallery, and the hard search button has been replaced with a Genius Button that offers a different speech recognition interface. It's unclear if the new MyTouch will share these heavy-handed modifications. The Vibrant is loaded down with crapware in a more conventional way. The Vibrant has preinstalled apps for Avatar (the film), MobiTV, Slacker Radio, and Gogo In Flight Wi-Fi. The Vibrant is also running a modified build of Android (Samsung TouchWiz in this case).  

The G2: anti-root? 
enable it in the future, and now early reports indicate that's happening. An OTA update is rolling out as we speak, and users are reporting that it brings back the stock Froyo tethering options. If true, we'll be totally floored. 

Lastly, there is the issue of openness. Verizon and AT&T are guilty of some Android lockdown. What about T-Mobile? For the most part, their phones have been unencumbered by restrictions on app installs and ROM modifications. The G1 and MyTouch line have been very hacker friendly. The Vibrant can be easily unlocked and even works on AT&T's 3G bands. However, the launch of the G2 calls this into question. Some outlets are reporting that the G2 reinstalls the stock ROM if a user alters it. T-Mobile has responded calling it a security feature. If true, this would be a serious issue, and outright user-hostile on the part of HTC and Tmo. 

This is still up in the air, but famed Android modder Cyanogen has put his two cents in. He claims that there is no such "feature" and that T-Mobile is just covering up a bug that they aren't ready to fix. Cyanogen believes that the phone is not writing to NAND memory, but sends messages indicating it has. This makes users think a root has been installed permanently, but in reality it has not. According to the modder, this is a simple NAND lock with an extra bug that will be cracked eventually. 

And the winner is...

If pressed, we'd have to say that Verizon is the most restrictive with Android. Their tacit endorsement of locked bootloaders on the new Motorola phones, and removal of Google search is far and away, the most egregious misuse of the platform. AT&T is looking like the runner up. Their lukewarm promotion of Android is not winning them any fans, and the inability to sideload apps is just annoying. Sprint and T-Mobile are neck and neck in our eyes. If this business with the G2 rooting turns out to be overblown, and tethering is rolling out, it's a clear win for T-Mobile. If not, Sprint could win our hearts by releasing a stock Android phone with little in the way of modifications. 

Tell us about how you feel your carrier is handling Android. Policies seem to be fluid and vary from phone to phone, and we want to hear about your experiences. Which carrier do you feel is the most restrictive with Android?
Image Credit: BGR, HTC, Motorola