Choice is nice, but when there's too much of it, it can become seriously overwhelming. That's one major caveat of being an Android user; there are so many different interface overlays forced on you by the manufacturers that it's hard to keep up with all of their features. It's also what makes it such a chore to decide which phone is the right fit for you among the numerous manufacturers who make Android devices.
That’s why we’re here to help. We laid out all the major differences between the five predominant Android interfaces: stock Android 4.4 KitKat, Samsung’s TouchWiz Nature UX 3.0, LG’s Optimus UI, HTC’s Sense 6, and Sony’s Xperia interface. We used the latest flagship from each of these companies to do the comparisons so that they’re all up to date. It’s all here in one handy place to aid you in deciding which manufacturer’s changes to the Android interface suit you best.
Let’s start with the thing you see first when you turn on the phone: the Lock screen. On KitKat, the Lock Screen lets you pin up to four app icons in the dock for easy access. All the various skins offer a limited selection of convenient widgets you can pin to the Lock screen, like one that starts up the camera app just as you unlock the device.
HTC, LG, Samsung, and Sony all use Android 4.4’s native unlocking mechanisms, though Samsung also offers a fingerprint scanner on several models of its phones, including its latest flagship, the Galaxy S5. You can set it up in the Settings panel, where you’ll be asked to swipe a finger eight times, and then enter a alphanumerical password as an alternative. You can program up to three different fingers.
LG’s Optimus UI offers a neat, different type of unlocking feature. It’s called KnockOn, and this convenient addition lets you double-tap the screen to wake it up and put it back to sleep. You can also use the related Knock Code feature to unlock the phone by tapping out a pattern without turning on the screen. As I noted in my LG G3 review, it’s simply less tedious than some of the other unlocking mechanisms.
By default, Google’s stock KitKat Home screen is perfectly bare bones. It features a dock with four app shortcuts, a folder of the essential Google apps suite, and a button for the Google Play store. There’s also a pinned Google Search bar at the top of the page that will take you anywhere your heart desires, though you can also shout out “Okay, Google” directly from the Home screen.
If you swipe to the leftmost screen, you’ll give way to Google Now, which offers contextual information based on your account activity. Many other manufacturers have taken upon themselves to insert their own little informational app in this exact spot; Samsung’s, for instance, is called My Magazine, while HTC’s is called BlinkFeed. We’ll explain a bit more about the differences between these particular apps later on.
The Application Drawer simply houses all your apps. On stock Android, all of the applications are organized in alphabetical order by default.
The manufacturers have taken liberties when it comes to this particular area of Android. Samsung’s TouchWiz, for instance, organizes your apps in alphabetical order by default, but you can also create folders within the Application Drawer and stick related apps in there, or set up your own custom view to you can create groups of apps based on your own organizational preferences.
LG’s Optimus UI is the same: you can categorize apps in alphabetical order, by the date they were downloaded, or by your own organizational structure. You can hide or show certain apps, which is great for banishing carrier bloatware, and then easily uninstall applications without having to dig into the Settings panel.
HTC’s Sense 6 offers a few viewing options, though not as many as its competitors. You can choose whether to display three or four apps per line, or you can rearrange apps in whatever order you want. So if, for instance, you wanted to hide all the apps in the Application Drawer, you could move up your eight most-used apps to the top for easy access rather than having them buried at the bottom of the fourth page. It's a smart, simple addition to the Application Drawer that stock Android should even consider implementing.
If you like options, Sony’s got a whole whopping load of them. Swipe over from the left bezel to pull out the Application Drawer options on the Xperia Z2’s interface. There’s even a quick launch icon for the Google Play store or a direct link to Sony’s own apps and services.
The Notifications panel is where you can peep all of the relevant information you’re looking for, like who’s pinged you in an app and whether all of your animals are asleep in Disco Zoo. In stock Android 4.4, you can merely swipe down from the top to view all of this information, or tap a button to access the Quick Settings to adjust things like Airplane mode or display brightness.
The latest version of Samsung’s TouchWiz offers a scrollable Quick Settings bar within the Notifications panel. There’s also a display brightness slider below that, followed by the standard Notifications panel. If you flip it over, you’ll see an overwhelming number of Quick Settings buttons you can tap at incessantly.
LG’s Notifications panel used to be so crowded that I would dread having to drag down the shade to dismiss any notifications. It’s not as bad any more, though there are still some remnants of its cluttered past, and it gets particularly bad when you have a hoard of notifications waiting for you. There is also a slider inside the drop down shade to adjust the screen brightness and handset volume, and like Samsung’s TouchWiz, there’s a Quick Settings slider.
HTC stuck with stock Android’s simplistic model by offering Quick Settings on one side of the drop-down shade and Notifications on the other. Sense 6 also offers some Quick Settings that stock Android currently doesn’t.
Sony’s Notifications panel looks the most different from the other interfaces, but otherwise it's just as plain as Sense 6's and stock Android's. There are clear labels on each side of the drop-down shade that indicate Notifications and Quick settings. The Quick Settings also feature text labels under each icon, and you can add more as you see fit from the Settings panel.