What is Android? All your questions about the operating system answered

Google Pixel problems

It’s hard to imagine a world without Android. It’s been almost a decade since the first official release, and the operating system has risen from humble beginnings to become the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, with more than 2 billion users.

But despite its overwhelming presence, “what is Android?” isn’t a question with a simple answer. Far from being as straightforward as Apple’s range of iPhones, where an iPhone is an iPhone, Android seems to exist as a veritable galaxy, with smartphones from all over the world and from many different manufacturers all powered by the same operating system. And yet, they often look so different. What gives?

Developed by Google, Android can be confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. We’ve rounded up the most common questions that you might have about the now-ubiquitous operating system, and we’ve got the answers you’re looking for. If you’re confused by Nougat, don’t understand what an Android Go is, and are wondering why so many people want to know when an Oreo is due to hit their phone, read on.

What is Android?

google android one u s stock phone smartphone

Android is an open source operating system (OS) — “open source” because the basic code is free to use, and can be used by anyone who wants to adapt it for their use. Because of its open source nature and its familiar and solid base, Android has seen use in a vast number of personal devices outside of smartphones — you can find Android running in TV streaming boxes, video game consoles, in your car, and elsewhere.

What’s the difference between an Android phone and an iPhone? Outside of any personal preference, you’re likely to find little difference between the two in terms of day-to-day tasks, since both handle all the usual smartphones tasks in a similar way. But if you’re interested in taking your control a little further, then you’ll find Android isn’t limited by the demands of Google in the same way that iOS can be limited by Apple.

Android’s open nature doesn’t just mean that manufacturers can customize Android for their devices (more on that later) — it also puts that customization into your hands. Most standard Android devices also have the ability to run a “custom launcher” — that’s an app that runs instead of your usual home screen and allows you to change the look and feel of your device, from something as simple as the look of your app icons, all the way to deciding how your app drawer scrolls and how many icons fit onto one screen.

What is stock Android?

You might have previously heard of “stock Android” either as the OS a device is running or as a comparison point. But what is “stock” Android? It’s not a soup you make by boiling down old Android handsets — that would be an Android stock, and please don’t do that. Instead, stock Android refers to the base version of the OS used by Android’s owner and primary developer, Google. It’s usually thought of as the most basic version of Android available, and it represents the base layer of Android, coupled with Google’s standard apps, like YouTube, Maps, and Google Drive. But don’t take that to mean it’s lacking in functionality — stock Android is widely considered one of the best operating systems around. Google’s Pixel phones run mostly stock Android, but with a few extra additions just for Google’s own special phones.

While personal preference is obviously key in choosing which version of Android you prefer, stock Android has the advantage of being considered the fastest and least demanding version of Android. This is simply because it has less going on behind-the-scenes, and so is able to commit more resources to whatever actions you’re undertaking. While the Pixel 2‘s smooth and snappy performance isn’t just owed the use of close-to stock Android, the slim OS goes a long way toward helping the user experience. Stock Android is Android as Google intended.

What is Oreo?

Android oreo
Maybe you’re wondering: What’s the difference between “Nougat” and “Oreo”? Each Android update that’s major enough to require its own number is also granted its own sweet-based name (Android 7.0 Nougat or Android 8.0 Oreo). Each new version brings some changes, a few refinements, and usually adds new features. Because there’s no system of universal updates for all Android devices, there’s a wide range of different versions of Android on different phones, which is known as Android fragmentation.

Android 8.0 Oreo is the latest major Android release, but we’re expecting an Android 9.0 announcement at the upcoming Google I/O event in May 2018. Since Android releases proceed alphabetically, and the last release was “Oreo,” Android 9.0 looks set to be something beginning with “P”. Various clues in Google’s I/O announcement hint at “Pineapple,” maybe even “Pineapple Upside-Down Cake,” but based on the snacks our own Julian Chokkattu was offered at CES, we’re expecting “Peppermint.”

What is “Android Go” or “Android One”?

If you’ve been in the budget market at all, you’ve probably also come across “Android Go,” or “Android One.” Android Go is a version of stock Android specially tuned for lower-powered devices that might not be able to run the latest version of Android. Android Go was launched fairly recently, with an eye toward low-end devices in the Indian and Brazilian markets.

Android One, on the other hand, was the precursor to Android Go, and is as bare a version of stock Android as you can get. It’s different from Android Go though, and it’s most common on budget smartphones like the HTC U11 Life and the Moto X4.

Manufacturer skins and UIs

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review app switch
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Google isn’t the only company in town changing Android’s looks. Each manufacturer has the option of creating their own look for Android on their devices, and it’s an option a lot of companies utilize. Each manufacturer’s take on “reskinning” Android is different, as is the extent to which they depart from the look of stock Android. These reskins, or UIs (user interfaces), can go from as simple as HTC’s Sense UI, which adds a few additional elements to stock Android, all the way to Huawei’s Emotion UI (EMUI), which looks and feels significantly different from most other versions of Android.

But don’t worry; it generally doesn’t matter which version of Android you’re running — since they all run on the same underlying Android framework, you’ll still be able to access the same apps as everyone else. However, if you’re a fan of being up to date with the latest security and software patches, then you might want to stick with a stock Android device like a Google Pixel, or a phone with Android One, since those devices benefit from updates straight from Google. Phones with customized manufacturer skins generally take longer to receive updates and upgrades since each manufacturer has to update their software to run the new OS, as well as run their own tests. That’s why the Samsung Galaxy S8 received the Android 8.0 Oreo update in February 2018, despite that update officially releasing in August 2017.

That’s bad news from a security point of view, but manufacturer skins aren’t completely pointless. Each custom UI comes with advantages and features that you won’t find in stock Android. For example, EMUI’s power-management software is superior to many other phones, Galaxy phones can get apps specially tweaked to work with Samsung hardware, and Motorola has equipped its budget line with some fun extras. Much of this is personal preference, so always make sure you research a phone thoroughly before you buy.

What is “Forked” Android?

amazon fire hd 10 black certified refurbished w promo code firehd10 dtdeals  tablet

This isn’t an element of Android you’re likely to ever need to think about, but if all the talk of stock Android and manufacturer reskins has left you hungry for more, you might want to hear about Android “forks” as well.

As we’ve discussed, since Android is open source, the basic code that underpins most of its functions can be used and adapted by pretty much anyone. That’s the reason we see such variety in the Android ecosystem, and so many manufacturers making their own Android versions. However, though Android is free and open, Google’s services aren’t, and to access the vast repository of apps on the Google Play Store, you have to play by its rules — a price that many manufacturers are willing to pay.

A few manufacturers don’t want to play by Google’s rules. That’s where “forks” come in. A fork — so named because its development “forks” away from the original development — is an independently developed piece of software that uses Android as its base, but doesn’t have to be connected back to the Google ecosystem. You’ve probably used a forked version of Android and not realized it — Amazon’s Fire tablet OS was developed from a build of Android, but doesn’t have any of Google’s apps or services built into it.  You’ll also find Android forks on some Chinese-built devices, with interfaces that look surprisingly like Android but don’t have access to the Google Play Store.

While forks could be seen as a bad thing, it’s not that simple. Forks are just another piece of life the open source software picture, and since Google has a handle on its own software, Android as we know it is well-protected.

Product Review

Mediocre battery and a big notch slight Google's otherwise perfect Pixel phone

Google’s Pixel 3 XL has two big flaws: The gigantic notch on the front, and mediocre battery life. That being said, this is the best Android experience you can find in a smartphone today.

Is the Pixelbook 2 still happening? Here's everything we know so far

What will the Pixelbook 2 be like? Has the Pixel Slate taken its place? Google hasn't announced it, but thanks to rumors and leaks, we think we have a pretty good idea of what the potential new flagship Chromebook will be like.

Google will start charging Android manufacturers to use its apps in Europe

Google announced that it will be charging Android device manufacturers in Europe a licensing fee to use its apps and services. The announcement comes as an effort to comply with new European Commission regulations.

How to convert and play FLAC music files on your iPhone or iPad

The high-resolution revolution is upon us, and FLAC files are a popular way to store hi-res sound. But what if you’re an iOS user? Check out our article to find out more about FLAC files, and how to use them on Apple devices.

Here’s our guide on how to get ‘Fortnite’ on your Android device

'Fortnite: Battle Royale' is one of the biggest games in the world right now, and it's finally on Android, even if getting set up is a bit long-winded. Here's how to play 'Fortnite: Battle Royale' on an Android device.

Key settings you need to change on your brand-new LG V40 ThinQ

Now that you've got your brand-new LG V40 ThinQ, it's time to get to work. Whether its hiding the notch or setting a schedule for the blue light filter, here are some key settings you'll want to change on your LG V40 ThinQ.
Product Review

LG's new V40 has 5 cameras, but ThinQ twice before you buy

The LG V40 ThinQ has five cameras -- three on the back and two on the front. This makes it one of the most versatile camera phones LG has released to date, and it’s creatively fun to use. Read on for more in-depth analysis.

Keep Notes is the latest app to get Google’s Material Design makeover

Google is updating more and more of its apps to come into line with its latest Material Design trends, and now it's Keep Notes' turn to get a new pair of pants. This update is now rolling out on Android devices.

The upcoming OnePlus 6T may get a major camera update

According to a recent report, the launch of the OnePlus 6T could be different from any other OnePlus launch in history. How? It could have the backing of a major U.S. carrier. Here's everything we know about the OnePlus 6T.

Verizon's newest deals can net you $500 off the LG V40 ThinQ

Looking for a new LG flagship? The LG V40 ThinQ is here, and it's bringing a familiar style, two more camera lenses, and upgraded specs. Here's absolutely everything you need to know about the LG V40 ThinQ.

Pixel 3 XL vs. Pixel 2 XL vs. Pixel XL: Which XL is best for you?

A Google Pixel XL is the best phone to get if you want the perfect Android experience on a big screen. However, with the release of the Pixel 3 XL, you have more choices then ever. Which Pixel XL should you buy?

LG V40 ThinQ vs. Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Can the V40 unseat the king?

The LG V40 ThinQ is packing a massive display and an incredible five lenses, making it a unique offering in the market. But is it better than the Galaxy Note 9, another phone with a huge display and great cameras?

There are four versions of the Mate 20, but which one is the best?

Huawei revealed its full range of Mate 20 handsets, and it seems that there is a device that fits everyone's needs. We've compared all the options, including the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, the Mate 20 X, the Mate 20, and the Mate 20 Lite.

Keep your new Google phone pixel perfect with the best Pixel 3 cases

If you want your new Google phone to stay pixel perfect, then you should snag one of the best Pixel 3 cases. We've scoped out some of your best options so far based on different styles, levels of protection, and budgets.