Custom Android user interfaces: Time to show a little less ‘skin’

death of skins

Android Ice Cream Sandwich marks a new vision for Google’s mobile operating system. For the first time ever, it actually looks as if Google  had the consumer in mind and Android has never looked better. Previous versions of the OS may have been feature-packed but still lacked any sort of elegance and because of this, custom skins are found on a majority of Android devices today. It was a necessity. Now we’re questioning just how much of a necessity they are now.

Look, we get it. Manufacturers need to be able to distinguish their products from the rest, so this is where skinning Android comes in handy. Still, this has still never made an update come faster in any way, no matter how fast a manufacturer claims to update their devices. Below are three major players that all have the most attention and all have customized skins that should be tamed, especially with the introduction of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

Samsung (TouchWiz)

Who would have thought that the handset-maker that brought us the T-Mobile Behold 2 would turn into the Android king? Samsung has been vicious with its marketing, launches, and the Galaxy line is still the only real Android brand as far as hardware goes outside of the Nexus line (that’s notable). The Galaxy S II is still one of my all-time favorite phones and I’d be rocking it as my personal phone if the Galaxy Nexus wasn’t coming out soon.

The thing about Samsung, though, is that it doesn’t necessarily use the best hardware or implement the best software on their uber-popular devices. As far as hardware goes, Samsung has its AMOLED tech that really sets it apart and I’d personally choose a Super AMOLED Plus display over any qHD display coming from HTC or Motorola today.

Samsung’s custom Android user interface, TouchWiz, is awful and nice all at the same time. It’s nice because it’s hardly as heavy as other skins available but many things within TouchWiz are simply iOS rip-offs. The latest version of this skin has actually brought some nice and usable features to the table and you still feel like you’re using Android with TouchWiz, even though the iOS similarities are throughout. I’ve already sent out some suggestions to Samsung and hopefully they will consider the tips.

TouchWiz Strengths: Easy to use, not too heavy on customizations

TouchWiz Weaknesses: Too many iOS similarities, could be a lot better if Samsung actually tried

TouchWiz in a nutshell: iOS-Flavored Android

Motorola (MotoBlur)

They may never mention it again but don’t let Motorola allow you to believe that MotoBlur has been killed. MotoBlur is one of our least favorite custom Android skins we’ve ever seen as its simply a skin that really doesn’t add much value to the handset as a whole. At all.

As far as (Android) brand goes, Motorola is the least established of the three manufacturers. It only has the Droid brand behind it but that’s from Verizon and it’s not limited to Motorola devices. Motorola once had MotoBlur as a brand but it was essentially burned at the stake. That said, the custom skin has never looked better, which honestly isn’t saying much but it no longer looks like it was made for tweenagers.

Motorola is known for somewhat solid hardware but it would be hard to ever call one of its handsets sexy. Even the Droid RAZR is still a thinner version of the Droid X, and the Bionic is a thicker version, essentially.  Motorola handsets lack any sort of elegance and having something like MotoBlur running on top makes for one of the least enjoyable experiences. It’s definitely not all bad, though, as Google has gobbled them up and we may soon see some better devices in the pipe soon.

While the main purpose of this article suggests that these skins should be tames, we would be surprised if anyone missed MotoBlur if it finally went away.

MotoBlur Strengths: Heavy on social networking, latest version is more usable than ever

MotoBlur Weaknesses: It’s incredibly ugly for the most part and lacks any sort of aesthetic appeal found on other Android skins

MotoBlur in a nutshell: … Nevermind

HTC (Sense)

HTC is probably the most interesting of the bunch, as the Sense UI is its brand. The first iterations of Sense introduced features within the OS that have only recently been officially implemented and proved that Android could actually be sexy. Thing about Sense is that it’s so customized that you sometimes could feel that you’re not even using Android. Although, some people may not mind that.

One thing we’ve rarely ever complained about with HTC is its hardware. With some of the best designs and solidly constructed handsets available today, HTC is in the top spot in the Android space. HTC is the undisputed champion when it comes to hardware in the Android space and it would hard to argue otherwise.

Still, Sense is the core of HTC’s handsets. The custom skin is the most beautiful custom UI available today and always has been but it was not long ago that we began to see that all that beauty could have possible negative effects on its hardware. Because the Sense UI is so heavily customized, it proves to be more challenging for the company to update its older handsets with the latest version of Android and be able to squeeze the latest version of Sense on top. Not to mention that HTC recently punch a rather large security hole into its phones with all of that tinkering.

Ice Cream Sandwich maybe prove to be another problem for HTC. The latest version of Android looks better than ever but Sense virtually covers up everything and sometimes you wouldn’t notice you’re on the last version of the OS. Ice Cream Sandwich is different, though, and we’d love for HTC to shed some of its skin in favor of a slightly more stock look but it’s hard when you’ve invested in your software more than anything.

Sense Strengths: Beautiful, heavily customizable, best skin to date.

Sense Weaknesses: Bloated with apps you’ll never use,  possible future security problems due to customization.

Sense in a nutshell: A big clock.

So what in the hell am I saying?

What I’m not saying is that all custom Android skins should be banished and only leave stock Android devices available to the public. That would get old quickly. What I’d like to see is if these manufacturers found a way to let Ice Cream Sandwich shine through. Obviously, there was once a time that Android needed to be covered up. Now that’s not the case and while Google and others have vowed to keep Android updates consistent with a new alliance, these skins will stall said updates going forward.

If HTC and others aren’t willing to give up some features, then I don’t see why they couldn’t ship at least one stock Android device. You don’t have to have Nexus in the name to have stock Android on a phone. That said, most handsets that have stock Android and aren’t a part of the Nexus line are still subject to carrier bloatware.

So, Sense, TouchWiz, MotoBlur, think you could strip a little for us and show off that sweet Ice Cream Sandwich when it comes around?

  • Ajatales

    The first clue that Blake has no idea what he’s talking about is that he keeps referring to custom UIs as “skins”. The fact that this… collection of words is based solely on ll informed opinion makes it nothing more than a collection of words. Why would any manufacturer reduce their features to be more like pure Android? If a user prefers pure Android, that’s what they’ll buy.

    • Anonymous

      I repeatedly say that I’d just like manufacturers to allow Ice Cream Sandwich to shine though. They all should remain tastefully the same but I just think people may like what they see with Ice Cream Sandwich a bit more of it wasn’t mostly covered up. 

      • Anonymous

        Moreover, I was mainly referring to what are now redundant features. Should HTC continue to use it’s own scrollable widget API that it made specifically for Sense even though ICS now natively supports this?

  • Jaime Ramirez

    i agree blake!!! all android from now on should be pure android… there should be a theme option if the customer wants SENSE,BLUR,TOUCHWIZ. 

    • Anonymous

      Not saying everything should be pure Android. The best case scenario would be if Google actually creates a theme engine for manufacturers without having to sacrifice all integration they have put so much effort into. Ice Cream Sandwich may unify phones and tablets but it still doesn’t help devices with custom UIs get updates any faster.

  • Not so much

    I know that some custom UI’s were more visually pleasing to some customers but not everyone who is an android fan wants this. I personally would rather use a stock android phone as opposed to one that is customized up the wazoo. No one seems to mind that the windows phones are stock (iPhone as well) so a stock android phone can prove to be a good thing.

  • Drkstoner

    I have to agree with Blake to a point I love parts of Sense but there are alot of times I wish they would split it up into smaller apps(Messanging, Launcher, widgets, keyboard, etc), maybe develop and sell it split up for other phones people are making a killing just on Sense style clock widgets, but I wish there was more choice as to what parts of Sense are implemented on my phone

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