What is Android? [Back to Basics]

by: Ankit BanerjeeDecember 30, 2013

With the global market share of the Android OS already at nearly 80% and set to grow steadily, there are a lot of new users who’ve just picked up their first Android smartphone, and probably have some questions, including something like “What is Android?”

Today, we’ll be starting a new series of videos which should help you, or someone you know who is new to this OS, get started with Android. This is Part 1 of our Back to Basics Android video series. Let’s get started!

What is Android?

LG Samsung Sony Moto Nexus Stock Android UI Comparison

Android isn’t a phone, or an application, but is an operating system based on Linux, similar to Windows 8 or Mac OS that you’d find on your PC. In very simple terms, a mobile OS is where your phone functions, and where smartphone applications live. Everything you see on the display of your device is a part of the operating system. When you get a call, text message, or email, the OS processes that information and puts it in a readable format.

The Android OS is divided into various version numbers, implying significant jumps in features, operation, and stability, which usually have codenames. So, if you hear someone say Android Jelly Bean or KitKat, that is just the name of the version of Android you might have on your device.

Most modern smartphones and tablets will feature Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), Android 4.1/2/3 (Jelly Bean), or the latest version, Android 4.4 (Kitkat), while older devices and some low-end ones may run on Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) or Android 3.0 (Honeycomb).

Most Android device manufacturers, such as Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Sony, and numerous others, usually have a skin on top of the OS. These UI overlays usually include additional design aspects and features that are meant to enhance the Android experience, while also helping to differentiate between devices from different OEMs. So, while you may see names like Samsung Touchwiz, HTC Sense, Motorola MotoBlur, and others, underneath, it’s all Android. Google’s original version of Android, that on which all manufacturers add their overlays, is commonly referred to as stock Android.

Getting started

Before we begin, it’s important to note that the steps shown in the video are done using a device running stock Android, that is, without an UI overlay. There may be a few differences between your device and what is shown in the video, but the options and settings are similar, and should be easy to follow along.

Getting started Android 4.4

Starting at the beginning, there are a few steps you’ll need to do to set up your Android device. When you switch on the device for the first time, you’ll be greeted with a Welcome screen, where you will have to select a language. Scroll up or down to make your selection, and then go to next step by tapping the arrow/play button.

If you haven’t put one in yet, the next screen will ask you to insert a SIM card. Don’t worry if you don’t have one around, you can skip this step and continue with the setup, and add a SIM card to the device later.

Copy of Screenshot_1970-01-11-02-45-07Up next, you will be given the option to select a Wi-Fi network. If you’re in the range of a Wi-Fi network, we recommend connecting to it, as the setup wizard may sync your Google information on the device, which takes some time, and more importantly, requires data. Once again, you can skip this step as well if you’re not around a Wi-Fi network, and sync your device later. If you can connect to one, do so by tapping on the name that shows up on the list of available networks, and enter the password.

On the next screen, you’ll be asked whether you have an existing Google account. If you’re unsure, remember that if you use Gmail, the answer is yes. If you don’t have one, we recommend signing up. Having a Google account will make your Android experience a lot easier. Having a Google account setup on your smartphone or tablet will give you easy to access to all Google apps including Gmail, the Play Store, Calendar, Google+, and more, without needing to sign in each and every time. You can sign up for a Google account on your PC or from the phone directly.

If you have a Google account ready, tap on “yes,” after which you’ll be prompted to enter your email address and password. On a side note, if you need to enter numbers, you can get to the numbers on the keyboard by pressing the “?123” button, which will take you to the number layout. To return to the previous layout, press the “abc” button, which will be in the same location.

Backup and restore android 4.4

Next, you’ll be able to set up some key Google services, which by default, are all selected. First is “Backup and Restore,” which will let you back up all your information including downloads and contacts, which will then allow you to easily restore this information on a secondary, or future Android device, easily. All the information backed up is associated with the Google account you entered in the previous step.

The second and third options are with regards to your location. It’s entirely up to you about what options you’d like to select. Location services may be important, since some apps may require this information to work accurately, such as yellow pages, and Google Maps. This options can be accessed in the Settings menu at a later time, if you change your mind. Finally, you will be asked whether you would like to receive emails about news and offers from Google Play. Now you can add a device name, and personalize it. If you’ve added a Google account, your first and last name should already be stored.

Finally, at the end, you’ll see a couple of slides explaining one of the latest, and very useful, features of Android, Google Now. Google Now gives you information based on your activities, allowing you to set up home and office locations to show commute info such as traffic, weather, travel info, and upcoming games and live scores of your favorite sports teams. It serves a centralized hub for all the information you’ll need, and you should definitely give it a shot.

And we’re done!

The homescreen

[From left to right] Stock Android 4.4 on the Nexus 5, Moto's UI on the Moto X, and Touchwiz Android 4.2.2 on the Galaxy Note 3

From left to right: stock Android 4.4 on the Nexus 5, Moto’s UI on the Moto X, and Touchwiz Android 4.3 on the Galaxy Note 3

Once you’ve completed the simple steps to set up your device, you will arrive at the homescreen.

At the top of the screen is the notification bar, which includes icons for any pending notifications you may have, such as missed calls, messages, emails, Facebook alerts, and even game alerts, to the left, along with icons to indicate connection and strength of your mobile network, Wi-Fi network, battery level, and time, to the right. You can access the notifications by swiping down from the top. Once the notification center is open, you can swipe the notification away, or press the notification to open the corresponding app.

Screenshot_2013-12-29-21-11-41In this notification bar, you can also access some quick toggles, depending on which version of Android your device runs, and also the UI overlay. For example, on some skins, such as Touchwiz, the toggles are available at the top of the notification center itself, while on stock Android or HTC Sense, you’ll need to tap the “More” button at the top right corner. You can simply press the icons to launch or turn on and off different settings such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, airplane mode, and more.

At the bottom of the screen, you will see the dock, which includes several icons. These icons will be available on every homescreen window. You can choose which apps to include in the dock, and should ideally be those that you use frequently.

Depending on your device, below the dock you might have a navigation bar, made up of a “back” button (takes you back to the previous screen), a “home” button (takes you to the homescreen), and a “last accessed apps” button (shows the apps that you have opened recently). Stock Android, some LG devices, Sony devices and some others have this navigation bar. Other devices, such as Samsung Galaxy phones and HTC phones, have physical buttons below the screen, instead of the on-screen navigation bar, that usually have the same functionality.


The Galaxy S3 on the left has a physical button, while the Nexus 4 has an on-screen navigation bar

To move between homescreens, just swipe from left to right. When you reach the end, the will no longer move to the next screen, unless you have infinite scroll on. You can also see dots that correspond to which screen you are located on. Pressing the home button takes you back to main screen.

android ui screenshot g

Left to right: Google Now screen, stock homescreen, stock app drawer

If you’ve just picked up a Nexus 5, that runs Android 4.4 KitKat and features the Google Experience Launcher, swiping to the left from the main screen will take you into Google Now. You can swipe out of it, or press the home button to return to the main screen. There are specific ways to access Google Now on other devices, depending on the OEM, and can also be selected by you in the Settings.

To launch an application, all you need to do is tap on the app icon. All your apps can be accessed in the app drawer (the center icon in the dock), and you may have some apps available on the homescreen by default, depending on what device you’re using. Again, to return the main screen from an app, press the home button.

That’s all for now! As amazing and fun as Android is, first time users may take a while to figure things out and get used, and that’s why we’re here to help. Stay tuned as we continue to to guide you through the world of Android the next episode of Back to Basics Android!

  • Shark Bait

    You missed the bit about how its the best!

  • Shark Bait

    I think its time to stop calling what OEM’s do to android a ‘skin’ or ‘overlay’. These offer much more than UI changes, they go much further than skin deep, offering new features and functions not available in normal android.
    This makes these inherently different to normal android (not just a skin) , a distribution of android if you like, similar to what Linux mint is to Ubuntu

    • Luqmaan Mathee

      Yep I’d call it a ROM. I’m so sick and tired of people saying Nova launcher replaced TouchWiz.

      • Shark Bait

        Yeah I suppose it’s Samsung’s ROM. In the past it was OK to say its just a launcher but it’s so much more now

        • Magneira

          I dont think the fact that it has a separeted app that has voice recognition makes it like a totatly new thing, you could call the fire os an diferente distribution of android but touch wiz is just a skin with apps preloaded, like s voice and s that s this.

          • Shark Bait

            Its not just S voice. Their are things inherent to the OS, like split screen, eye tracking, air gesture and more that make it very similar to what Amazon have done, the only difference is samsung still has play services

    • mikegonzalez2k

      Agreed. S Voice isn’t an overlay if Google Voice. It’s a completely separate voice recognition AI. Changes that manufacturers make to vanilla Android go much deeper than the visual aspects. They are down at the core functional level.

    • MasterMuffin

      Or a Samsung/HTC/Sony etc. DE (desktop environment)

    • NeedName

      Totally agree and have been saying this same thing for years, often calling them “proprietary Android” or “OEM Android.”

      However, I would say they are much more invasive into Android than Mint is to Ubuntu.

      • Shark Bait

        It is very invasive yes, I’d guess the code is very different and it brilliant how they still keep compatibility

    • teotsi21

      I agree. Try uninstalling all the bloatware from a Samsung Galaxy device. Mission impossible.

  • najiy91


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    great article about android :)

  • Lisandro O Oocks

    Android is FREEDOM!

    Continue thread with what is Android to you..

  • teotsi21

    when i got my first android phone, i was coming from an apple product(ipod touch). My knowledge on apple products made me feel so stupid that i couldn’t use android at all…but, as i started to get the point, i became an android guy!

    Android FTW!