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By now, you've probably heard an earful about how great Android phones are, how they will take over the mobile world, and how they do everything the Apple iPhone can't. But if you haven't yet fully explored an Android phone, you may be wondering what the hype is all about.

First, a little history: Google's move into the mobile phone market started way back in 2005, when the Internet giant acquired a small startup company called Android, Inc. Rumors immediately began to surface that Google was developing its own challenge to the iPhone. But it wasn't just one phone--and Google wasn't the only company working on the project. In November 2007, the Open Handset Alliance--a consortium of 47 hardware, software, and telecom companies--unveiled Android, a mobile platform based on the open-source Linux operating system.

Because Android is open-source, the platform has many advantages for consumers and developers. Smartphone and other mobile device manufacturers have more freedom to tweak the software to meet their needs, opening up a wider range of options than most other cell phones can offer. For example, a few HTC- and Motorola-manufactured Android phones come with a custom user interface that runs over the base OS. Meanwhile, third-party software developers are free to create apps that improve on the operating system's standard features.

Another advantage of open-source is that Android isn't tied to a single device--whether it be a phone, a netbook, or a tablet. The HTC T-Mobile G1 was the first Android phone available to U.S. audiences, but a rapidly growing number of Android devices have crept onto the scene from various manufacturers, many of them bearing interesting and unique designs. The competition among the many companies that make Android phones and tablets is driving innovation in design, in components, and in new features and capabilities.

Another huge advantage that Android has over its rivals involves its support of 4G networks (LTE on Verizon, HSPA+ on AT&T and T-Mobile, and WiMax on Sprint) for faster data speeds. Right now, the only phones capable of handling 4G are Android phones--and it doesn't look as though Windows Phone 7 units or BlackBerrys will be jumping aboard the 4G bandwagon anytime soon. Plenty of rumors have been swirling in the phone industry about the possibility of a 4G iPhone 5, but we haven't been able to nail down confirmed information on that front. Meanwhile, in our head-to-head tests of competing 4G Android phones, we recorded staggering performance differences be--tween 4G and 3G data speeds on all four networks.

And of course, you also have considerable freedom in selecting a wireless network. Android phones are available for the big four major U.S. carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile) as well as many smaller, pre-paid carriers like Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile.

Android users can choose from thousands of third-party apps in the Android Market. Though the Android Market hasn't quite matched the iPhone App Store in number and quality of apps yet, it is getting there quickly. The Android Market stocks paid and free apps that you can download directly onto your device.

Unlike Apple, Google does not have a stringent app approval process, so developers can get their apps into the Android Market more easily and more quickly. Also, unlike the iPhone App store, the Android Market isn't the only place where Android users can obtain apps for their devices. Alternative sources include Web-based third-party Android app libraries (like GetJar.com) and individual developers' Websites. Heck, even Amazon has its own Android app store.

More mobile consumers now say that they want an Android phone than an iPhone, according to an April 2011 Nielsen survey. The difference isn't huge--31 percent for Android to 30 percent for the iPhone. But the trend looks good for the little green guy: Android's polling number has risen significantly from 26 percent in late 2010, while the iPhone's desirability has slipped slightly from 33 percent in that same period.

Since its inception, the Android platform has shaken up the mobile world--and that alone is worth paying attention to.

For comprehensive tips about Android and reviews of the best apps and devices to help you get the most out of the mobile operating system, order PCWorld's Android Superguide, on CD-ROM or in a convenient, downloadable PDF file.

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