Vanilla Android or a custom UI?

One of the big questions when stepping into Android is whether or not to go for a phone with the straight experience that the big G intended or to go for a handset with a custom UI on top.

Until now, it's been more of a case of picking the device based on its hardware features and living with the software consequences, but now that there's pretty much a straight choice between phones like the Nexus One and the upcoming HTC Desire, it's time to take a look at what a tinkered with OS may or may not do for you.

 

HTC Sense

Devices
HTC Hero, Tattoo, Magic, Legend & Desire
Pros
Social network integration, high customisation, more home space
Cons
A touch heavy

Sense was the first of the Custom UIs to break the Android chains. Introduced at a time when it was all HTC anyway, that's not the world's greatest claim but the Hero, on which it sits, was heralded by many as the gadget of 2009, and as a result Sense has become the only Android addition UI to be actively sought by consumers.

Its ethos is based on the pillars of customisation, integration and discovery according to CEO of HTC Peter Chou and in practice what it means is well crafted options for your home page as well as excellent threading together of your contacts and social networks. It offers a seven-page desktop, compared to the normal Android three or five (depending on which version), and allows you to pick from a world of looks and widgets to give it the flavour you're after. Because of the added space, it also means that each widget can come right to the surface when opened up, filling the screen, which you can then flick through with your finger.

Possibly the better part of the UI though is on the social networking side. Sense pulls in all the SMS, e-mails, Facebook, Twitter and IM conversations between you and each of your contacts and threads them together with any photos and attachments as well. You can then also filter these at a touch for a clearer look.

On top of all that, you get a series of customisable profile settings called Perspectives, a search facility, which works across whatever part of your phone you're looking at and some nice touches such as the clock automatically updating depending upon what time zone you're in.

The HTC Legend and Desire will carry the first updates to Sense which adds in some interesting new features. The most talked about is probably Leap which means you can pinch the home screen to get an overhead view of all seven pages at once. Next on the list is a built-in language translator and dictionary for any piece of text on the screen and last are some improvements to the Friend Stream pane and News Feeds too.

 

 

Motoblur

Devices
Motorola DEXT, CLIQ, Backflip & Devour
Pros
Social network integration, good home space
Cons
Sometimes too much social

Motoblur is in many ways a similar proposition to Sense, but it seems aimed at a younger target group with probably a greater focus on social network integration. The five-screen home page is not quite as neat as some of the others and rather resembles the look of the N97 with clutches of large customisable widgets, but on it you can have quite in depth access to Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

The contacts book goes even further and pulls in all the updates on all channels from all of your friends via the Happenings app, which is at the heart of this UI. You can poke, write on people's walls and, when you place a call, it brings up your contact's current status - either an instant ice-breaker or a topic of conversation for you to avoid.

Naturally, you can filter the social noise down with a well placed series of tabs but probably one of the nicest feature is that you can update the three listed social networks with the same status message at the touch of a single button.

Motoblur backs up all your handset's info into the cloud, offers built-in location of your phone should you lose it, remote wipe if necessary and direct photo uploads to Facebook, MySpace, Picasa and Photobucket. As it happens, much of that can be done with apps you'll find on the Android Market anyway, and it's for that kind of reason that this UI hasn't set the world alight - perhaps the reason you won't find it on Motorola's top-end handset, the Milestone.

For most users it's not quite as subtle and smooth as the likes of Sense, however, it's certainly pulled out all the stops for the social networking fiend.

 

 

Liquid

Devices
Acer Liquid A1/S100
Pros
Very light, good widgets
Cons
Not developed enough yet

You could be forgiven for not noticing the Liquid UI on the one and only current phone from Acer, the A1 or S100 depending upon where you are. Like straight Android, it has a three-page home screen, but what it adds are some media carousel menus at the far ends where you can flick through photos, videos and music quite happily.

Liquid integrates your contacts too with their relevant Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Picasa profiles complete with status updates, but this time, without the same images and photos and assorted media dragged in as well. Beyond that, it doesn't get in the way of Android too much though there is quite a nice widget the others don't have called Power Control, allowing you to turn on and off Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS as well as access the display drivers, all of which makes for better battery management. Useful indeed in the smartphone world. 

 

 

Timescape & Mediascape

Devices
Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, X10 Mini & X10 Mini Pro
Pros
Beautiful look, unrivalled media UI
Cons
Possibly over-complicated and slow

The new kid on the block is the UI from Sony Ericsson, previously known as the Rachel UI and then Nexus until Google came along with a handset of an all too similar name. Since then, it's gone under the remarkably less catchy title of either Timescape or Mediascape depending upon which side of this custom software you're using.

Timescape is the part of the equation that knits together your social circle in the same ways as both Sense and Motoblur. This time though, each contact is on a floating translucent card which scrolls about in a beautiful looking rolodex-type world until you stop on one and call it up to the surface. It integrates Twitter, Facebook, texts, IM, contact details and personal calendar events. It'll show you the last interaction you had with each person on the top of each card and every single one of them if you press the infinity button. There's also the filtering option with tabs on the bottom.

The stand-out feature for SE's own UI, though, has got to be Mediascape. It has a remarkably Zune like look and feel, which is an excellent thing in this case, offering the kind of content look and feel no other Android phone has had so far. Each menu of videos, photos and music displays a scrollable grid of mini icons and offers access to media stored on the handset as well as that stored online. There's also automatic face recognition software similar to Apple iPhoto and you'll even be able to call contacts by tapping on them in photographs.

On top of all this lies a three page home screen with access to whatever widgets and shortcuts you'd care to add but, seeing as the X10 hasn't quite arrived in stores yet, no one really knows quite how smooth this overlay is and whether it hampers the raw Android performance lying underneath. Something of the UI also speaks of the Playstation's XMB style as well and it'd be of little surprise to see either that or the Walkman arms of Sony stepping into this space soon.

 

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, the Android Custom UIs are growing fast, but how much of this is a reaction to handset brands not wanting to be subsumed by the operating system that's sitting on their phones? Are all of these UIs really of benefit to the consumer or are the companies just afraid of producing what people refer to "Android phones" or "Google phones" rather than Sony Ericsson's or HTC's?

Well, sometimes the answer is yes, but at the same time it should be realised that much of what they offer built-in can be self-tailored on straight Android with a few well-placed apps. Make sure that the benefits are worth it for you because they're also the reason why it takes so long to update to the latest version of Android in many cases.

That said, sometimes these UIs will be prettier and they may tie together your phone use into the kind of smooth look and feel you'd want from an iPhone competitor, but they all come at the cost of a little extra strain on the raw power of your handset too. A good thing then, that some manufacturers add a little more under the hood for that very reason.

To find out more about Motorola Milestone, click here