In this article I’d like to help you make an informed decision when going for an Android phone. It has been developed by Google since early 2009. Since then it has become one of the fastest growing mobile operating systems since its initial public release on the HTC G1.
There are several advantages to choosing Android. It’s an open source operating system, which means that developers have a much easier time modifying it to fit their own needs. It’s been designed from the ground up to work on mobile phones and will be spreading to other devices, such as MIDs, TVs, in car solutions etc… One of the big disadvantages to Android is called fragmentation. Fragmentation means that you have different phones running different versions of Android. This means that not all Android software will run on all Android phones. For example, the Google Navigation software (free SatNav for Android), requires Android 1.6 or above to run.
Compare the versions
Version 1.5 of Android is the earliest version available to the public on the market. Most phones running 1.5 are now being upgraded to 2.1.
This version provided the base functionalities of a smart phone, including media playback and record, predictive text input and location awareness.
- Quick Search box, expanded search framework
- Camera optimisation
- Better VPN support
- Battery Meter
- Minor Market Updates
- Improved Performance and media support
- New APIs – improvements “behind the hood” as it were
- Multiple improvements to email, social networking and contacts
- Camera updates
- Improved web browser
- Improved virtual keyboard
- Live wallpapers
- Improved graphical feature set
- New APIs
- Better, more secure MS Exchange Support
- Improved Camera and Gallery app
- Added Wifi and USB Tether Support
- Massive performance boost
- Apps install on SD Card
- Adobe Flash 10.1 support
- Improved User interface
- Support for higher screen resolutions
- Improved text input
- Support for multiple cameras
- Improved Power Managemen
- Native support for more sensors
These versions are for tablets
4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
- 'No physical button' user interface
- Improved error correction on the keyboard
- Ability to access apps directly from lock screen (similar to the HTC Sense 3.x)
- Face Unlock, a feature that allows users to unlock handsets using facial recognition software
- New tabbed web browser, allowing up to 16 tabs
- Integrated screenshot capture
As you can see, Android has developed a lot, considering that 1.5 came out in May 09! For those wondering what an API does, quite simply it allows better apps to be made with less effort. Without the APIs, some apps simply couldn’t run, and that is why some apps the will run on 2.1 for instance, cannot run on 1.6. As it stands today most apps need 2.1 or above, some need 2.2 and maybe only a small handful need 2.3.
As I said before, Android is open source. This means people can take the standard Android and mess about with it to their hearts content.
First off, let’s talk corporate development. Companies such as HTC and Motorolla have heavily modified the default Android “flavour” called Vanilla to add functionality. For instance, HTC’s “flavour” Sense UI adds more home screens and widgets. Motorolla’s flavour “Motoblur” has added more of a social networking bias towards things. Sony Ericsson’s “Time Scape” flavour has changed the UI so much, that it’s barely recognisable to Android at times!
Vanilla / Sense UI
Motoblur / Timescape
Unofficial Custom ROMs
The Android development community (aka home-brewers or chefs) work in a similar manner to the company giants making our phones, in that they can create custom UIs and add extra features to the OS, however, they are not constrained by rules and regulations set by carriers or manufactures. This extra freedom has produced some interesting and innovative developments. These can vary from a ROM that provides much improved performance, a Vanilla variant for otherwise flavoured devices (Sense/MotoBlur/etc), or even early access to newer versions of Android that are not yet officially available for your device.
The number of Custom ROMs available for each phone varies dependant on several factors. These being the phone itself, how well the manufacturer has locked down the phone and how much interest there is in the community to develop for it. Some phones have several developers (or even developer teams) creating custom ROMs, which can lead to healthy competition or, unfortunately, some childlike bickering.
To install these custom ROMs you must first flash a new boot-loader to your phone, a process which voids your warranty*.
- This is not necessarily the case for all phones. The HTC Desire, for example, it is agreed that HTC must prove that your software modifications caused the fault that required you to return the device. Several phones have been returned that had, for example, dust under the screen despite being rooted as quite clearly, changing your operating system internals does not open the door to dust.
The most typical advantage to installing a custom ROM is the ability to gain "Root" access. Rooting provides many benefits to a user as it gives them full administrative rights to the file system of the phone which, in turn, opens up a new collection of apps that otherwise would not function on a typical Android device. An example would be PicMe, a root app that is used to provide screenshots, live video and even VNC-esque device control via a Java applet in any browser. This extremely useful app is only made possible through root access, there are many more out there.
A rooted device works because it allows an application to send Super User requests the the user of the phone who can then allow these Super User requests. Think of an SU request as an order that must be obeyed, like this.
Ultimately, as a buyer of a new device you want to consider a few things. First, what version of Android am I getting? 2.2 is the most up to date, but most phones are currently running 2.1. Second, bear in mind that "Vanilla" devices tend to be updated first, as customisations like Sense UI take a while to update. Ultimately though, you must feel comfortable and like what you see!