I have been following mobile tech adamantly since 2007. In that time, I have seen many narratives shift over time. Android phones have gone from being terrible at photos to be very flexible mobile shooters capable of a variety of shooting modes. Companies have gone from making thick phones to paper-thin phones and back to thick phones again. One constant during this time, however, is the glorification on stock Android. Or rather, the more simple Android experience that is found on Nexus and Pixel devices. Stock Android in the early days was a breath of fresh air in the era of bloated Android skins from HTC, Samsung, and the like.
It is in this environment that OnePlus entered the fray of smartphone manufacturers as the champion of specs and stock Android. They were able to do this because as much as tech enthusiasts love Google software, some of the company’s hardware decisions (lower brightness displays, not as much RAM as the competition, etc) turns off that crowd. With OnePlus, the hardware specs were always there and Oxygen OS felt like stock Android with some useful modifications (see some of the praise that Oxygen OS has received here). OnePlus has become the darling of the smartphone world for its amazing hardware and clean software implementation. Yet it seems that the company is willing to risk that reputation with the newest redesign of Oxygen OS, which feels more Samsung than stock Android. While this is an interesting move for the Chinese company, this underscores an increasing trend: Android OEM’s are moving away from stock Android.
Features vs AI
Ever since the launch of Google’s first Pixel phone, it has been clear that the company sees its future in the Google Assistant. In the marketing materials for every Pixel phone, there is verbiage centered around the phone being helpful and productive. By contrast, any marketing of a phone from other Android manufacturers will emphasize the power of their phones, by brandishing the specifications to appeal to the tech user.
In many ways, Google markets its phones in a similar way that Apple markets iPhones to its customers. There is a premium placed on the experience. In the case of the iPhone, that experience is the Apple ecosystem and security that the company has become known for. In Google’s case, it is the intelligence of Google’s machine learning that creates a great phone experience no matter the user. As Google has gone down this path generation after generation of Pixel devices, other Android phone makers have gone in a different direction.
To differentiate themselves, companies like Samsung, LG, and OnePlus have had to add features and bump specs to make their phones stick out. What started with Samsung’s One UI software has become adopted by both LG and OnePlus. A slick software layer on top of Android with onehanded use in mind and adding native features that Google’s Android has yet to implement. Features like advanced screenshot editing, rich Android desktop support, and various display and audio customization options. These companies realize that Google has the resources and the talent to prioritize machine learning and AI on a software level that they just do not have. The solution as they see it is to add feature after feature on a hardware and software level to be able to stick out and be considered as better than what Google is offering.
Consider both Samsung and LG’s foray into foldable and dual-screen devices. A new hardware shift that emphasizes multitasking productivity above all else. OnePlus has continued to be a pioneer in the fast charging tech here in the West with its Dash Charge chargers. LG has added proper stylus support on its newest phones, while Samsung continues to work closely with Microsoft to bridge the gap between a Windows PC and phone. OnePlus is on this path with their newest skin and hardware trajectory.
The Division of Android
There are now two camps of Android software: the feature-packed and heavily skinned offering led by Samsung and the cleaner more minimalist stock Android experience led by Google. Companies in Samsung’s corner include LG, OnePlus, and Chinese manufacturers such as Xiaomi, Huawei, and Vivo. Meanwhile, Google directs the lead for Nokia, Sony, and Motorola as the ones that are prioritizing the cleaner stock Android feel. The division here is obvious. Handling a Nokia phone with Android One as its software is a very different experience day to day than using an LG Velvet for instance.
With OnePlus going the route of Samsung and LG, the idea of a more feature-rich Android experience has three of the most recognizable device names in the west. Samsung has always been a goliath of marketing and is a household name. LG has been around since the early days of Android, and despite a run of bad reception by reviewers is still regarded as a premier Android phone maker. And now OnePlus, the darling of the tech community for its prioritization of speed and cutting edge features has veered away from stock Android. All three of these companies sell to consumers a brute force solution to using our phones. That so much is placed on the specifications to power the features that they want the end-user to believe that they need. It is emphasizing specifications such as high refresh screens, faster storage chips, the latest and greatest processor that are the backbone of selling these phones.
Google’s vision, on the other hand, is much more subdued. An emphasis on simplicity, reliability, and usability. Using a Pixel device is meant to feel refreshing. A step away from all of the pre-installed carrier apps found on LG and Samsung phones. A cleaner home screen experience than the jumble of icons found on the iPhone. With Google search at the forefront, Google’s vision for Android is one of getting things done and then moving on to the next thing. A stark contrast from Samsung’s vision which attempts to maximize the usage of a device.
It is this continuing divide that drives the thought that Google’s Android is much different than everyone else’s Android. It is often suggested that Android as a whole is like Windows on laptops. You can see the comparison, a bunch of companies making similar devices running the same core operating system with a few changes here and there. Currently, however, Google’s idea of Android is more in line with what the company is looking to accomplish with Chrome OS than a mobile version of Windows. Samsung, LG, and now OnePlus are taking the more Windows approach now, and the gap in experience is growing with every release.
The Correct Answer
Like all phone debates, the question is asked. Which approach is better? And like all the endless phone debates, the answer is nuanced and based on the priorities of the user. There is a definite appeal to the feature loading that Samsung offers on its phones. To a certain extent, it can be argued that it is all of these features that make Samsung phones some of the only ones that warrant a price tag north of $1,000.
Consider the newly released Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. Like most Note phones in years past, this is Samsung’s “kitchen sink” device. Everything that they are looking to achieve on a phone is on this phone. High refresh rate display, a ton of RAM and storage, the latest processor from Qualcomm, and a camera system that gives the user many different ways to shoot moments from their life. It is anything and everything that a power user would want in a phone. In that regard, it justifies its price point of $1,300.
On the other hand, not everyone is a power user. And even fewer people want to spend that kind of money on a new phone. Ironically, at the same time that Samsung is releasing its newest phone, Google has also released a new phone. But their phone is the complete opposite of what Samsung’s is. The Note 20 Ultra oozes a feeling of excess. Every possible feature you could ever want for $1,300. The Google Pixel 4a, on the other hand, offers a solution for the everyman at $350. A phone that is fast enough for the day to day tasks with a battery that will last all day and a camera packed with machine learning to make the best out of every possible shot. These two devices highlight the difference in philosophy between these two different takes on Android.
Where a Samsung phone will show us what is possible, a Google phone seems to be content with a phone that nails the basics. A phone like the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is designed for the person that does everything on their phone. The person that uses their phone as their primary productivity, entertainment, and communication tool. A phone like this can be used for proper photo and video editing and can be a desktop replacement. The Pixel 4a is for the person looking for a phone that will take good pictures and keep the user connected to the people that they care about.
It is this difference in targeting that highlights the separation of what Android has become. In Samsung’s world, productivity is king. Having all of the features to simply get things done. We see this with the dual-screen ecosystem of LG and OnePlus’s obsession with speed. In Google’s world, utilizing a Google account to accomplish everything seamlessly is the focus. A Pixel device is designed around minimalism and using the phone when needed. A more mindful approach. Both have advantages and disadvantages. But as time goes on, more and more companies will adopt the approach of Samsung to differentiate themselves. Google stands alone and has lost another soldier in its stock Android crusade. It is time that we acknowledge as a tech community that Google and Android are no longer synonymous.