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The many flavors of Android: A look at the major Android skins
If you were to look at a Samsung smartphone and a OnePlus smartphone, you’d think they would have the same software, right? After all, they’re both Android phones. However, a quick glance at both will show you they look very different. That’s because they both have custom versions of Android, which are known as Android skins.
See also: What is Android?
Android skins are software tweaks that live on top of stock Android. They often look very different and offer features that other skins don’t.
In other words, underneath all the additional design and functionality tweaks, the core version of Android is on all Android devices. To add some brand identity though, some manufacturers craft an experience that’s truly unique to their lines of phones. Others leave well enough alone and barely touch how Android functions.
Below, we’ve rounded up the major Android skins available on the market right now. If you’re shopping for an Android phone for the first time, this will be a great resource to help in your decision.
Editor’s note: This article is updated as of November 2021. We will update it as new manufacturers come along as well as when current OEMs update their products.
When people refer to “stock” Android, they’re usually referring to the core version launched in the Android Open-Source Project (AOSP). This is the baseline level of Android, that Google creates and upkeeps. Android skins are then built on top of this. However, some phones come with stock Android with no or very little skinning.
Further reading: Everything you need to know about stock Android
As of now, Nokia-branded phones from HMD Global are the most prominent devices that feature a very close-to-stock experience. In the past, Google’s Nexus line came with stock Android, and Google Play Editions of popular third-party phones also came with stock. This practice doesn’t happen much anymore. These days, if you want a phone with a true version of stock Android, you usually need to remove the pre-installed software and then put in stock Android yourself.
How it compares: Stock Android is what lies beneath any Android skin. The closer the device is to running stock, the more “raw” the experience will be. Unfortunately, that does come at the expense of unique gimmicks and features.
Stock Android breakdown
- Updates: Usually gets the latest versions of Android very quickly.
- Best for: Minimal bloat, security.
- Worst for: Originality and exciting new features.
- Most interesting features: All the features you consider standard in an Android phone are stock features. Examples include the app drawer, basic Android settings, notifications, etc.
Google Pixel UI
A lot of people might think Google’s Pixel phones come with stock Android. However, that’s not totally true. Google’s line of Nexus phones came with stock Android, which is why most people tend to assume Pixel phones do as well.
Pixel phones come with an Android skin colloquially known as Pixel UI. This is a version of Android that looks a lot like stock but incorporates a multitude of non-stock features and design tweaks.
Further reading: Everything you need to know about Pixel UI
Pixel phones come with exclusive software features you can’t find anywhere else. Some of these eventually become available on other Android devices, but some will only ever work on Pixel phones. Likewise, there are design elements of Pixel phones that don’t make it to other Android devices.
How it compares: Pixel UI looks and feels a lot like stock Android. If you’re looking for a bloat-free version of Android that doesn’t drastically change the way Android naturally feels, Pixel UI should be one of your top choices of Android skins. However, it will still be missing a lot of interesting features other “heavier” skins provide, such as Samsung’s One UI or Oppo’s Color OS.
Pixel UI breakdown
- Updates: Google pushes updates faster than nearly all other smartphone manufacturers.
- Best for: Minimal bloat, security, AI-based features.
- Worst for: Originality, risk-taking features, power users.
- Most interesting features: Google Assistant-based features are the best part of Pixel UI. Call Screen, Hold For Me, Magic Eraser, and other AI-based smarts are useful and usually exclusive to Pixel devices.
Samsung One UI
Samsung is the world’s most popular smartphone manufacturer. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume the majority of people reading this own a Samsung phone. If you do and the phone is relatively recent, you’re already familiar with One UI.
Further reading: Everything you need to know about One UI
One UI is one of the heaviest Android skins. By that, we mean it adds in a lot more features and makes a lot more tweaks to Android’s design than some other skins. This can be a real draw for power users who appreciate how much they can control their smartphone experience. People who aren’t power users though, may find the experience to be a bit chaotic. They also might never use (or even know about) half the features available.
Regardless, One UI has helped Samsung maintain its spot as the number one smartphone manufacturer. It’s probably the most well-known version of Android around the world.
How it compares: One UI looks drastically different from other Android skins as well as stock Android. Samsung brings playfulness to the design. It also pre-installs a lot of its own applications, which some people don’t appreciate. However, a lot of the features offered with One UI blow competitors out of the water. In fact, Google sometimes cribs ideas from One UI for future stock Android releases.
One UI breakdown
- Updates: Samsung is one of the best for Android updates, second only to Google.
- Best for: Fast updates, power users, customization.
- Worst for: A bloat-free experience, a stock feel, minimalists.
- Most interesting features: Samsung has a robust theming system that allows you to completely customize the way your phone looks. If you combine Samsung’s options with third-party apps, you can wildly reinvent the way your phone looks and operates.
When Xiaomi’s MIUI first launched, it was clear the company was trying to emulate Apple’s iOS. The company removed the app drawer, for example, and various design elements all cribbed heavily from iOS. This made the original iterations of MIUI almost like an Apple-fied version of Android.
Further reading: Everything you need to know about MIUI
Recently though, Xiaomi has moved away from this and tried to find more of its own identity. The app drawer is back (although sometimes not by default) and things don’t scream “iOS” as much as they used to.
Additionally, MIUI now offers a lot of awesome features you can’t get with stock Android. Like Samsung’s One UI and other heavy Android skins, there are some things you can do with a Xiaomi phone you just can’t do with others.
Do note MIUI also appears on some sub-brands from Xiaomi, including Redmi, Poco, and Black Shark.
How it compares: MIUI is similar to One UI in that it offers a lot of unique features and designs. It also comes pre-installed with a lot of apps you may or may not want. It’s important to note as well that Xiaomi considers itself a data company, not a hardware company. As such, you can always expect a lot more data collection, ads, and software partnerships with Xiaomi phones.
- Updates: Xiaomi doesn’t have a great history of updating its phones quickly.
- Best for: Unique features, an experience different from stock, customization.
- Worst for: Stability, privacy, a stock feel.
- Most interesting features: MIUI has a feature called Control Center that’s essentially a carbon copy of Apple’s feature of the same name. It augments the notification shade to offer a one-stop-shop of all the toggles and information you need. It also has an Ultra Battery Saver feature that can significantly extend your phone’s battery life.
OnePlus Oxygen OS
Originally, Oxygen OS was incredibly close to stock Android. Over the years, OnePlus has significantly changed the way Oxygen OS looks and feels. Nowadays, it’s so far from stock that it’s getting closer to One UI territory.
Further reading: Everything you need to know about Oxygen OS
In the coming months, OnePlus is going to make even more changes to Oxygen OS as it integrates more with sister company Oppo. Eventually, Oppo and OnePlus will have one shared Android skin. We don’t know much about this yet, but we’ll learn more soon.
Today, Oxygen OS features a wealth of cool features that stock Android lacks. It’s still one of our readers’ favorite Android skins, even if it has lost some of its favor as it moves away from its stock roots.
How it compares: Oxygen OS is a very elegant Android skin. It’s smooth and simple, with OnePlus giving a lot of attention to the small details of the user experience. It isn’t quite as robust with features as One UI or Color OS, but it augments Android to a high enough degree that power users should feel right at home.
Oxygen OS breakdown
- Updates: OnePlus has been slacking with updates over the past few years, tarnishing its former reputation as a speedy updater.
- Best for: Minimal bloat, a refined experience, interesting features.
- Worst for: A stock feel, customization.
- Most interesting features: Zen Mode is a cool feature that locks you out of your phone for a set amount of time, forcing you to focus on other things. Hidden Space is a useful tool that allows you to hide apps from anyone who happens to use your phone. OnePlus also offers some very interesting always-on display designs you can’t get anywhere else.
Oppo Color OS
Oppo’s Color OS is most like Samsung’s One UI. However, don’t make the assumption that they look or feel the same, because they don’t. It’s just that Oppo takes the same approach to its skin as Samsung does, meaning it tries to offer you anything and everything.
Further reading: Everything you need to know about Color OS
Color OS is almost nothing like stock Android. It revamps nearly every detail of the software to give it a unique style. It also offers a multitude of features that will almost certainly never appear in the stock system.
This wealth of changes and options makes Color OS quite polarizing. Some love its unique feel and the interesting features it offers, while others think it doesn’t feel enough like traditional Android. You’ll need to try out all the Android skins you can to see which side of the line you fall on.
Also, keep in mind that OnePlus and Oppo are working to create a new Android skin that will replace both Oxygen OS and Color OS. We’re still waiting to hear more information on this.
How it compares: Color OS allows you to totally control nearly every facet of the operating system. There are lots of customization options, and plenty of included apps and features that allow you to make your phone your own. This comes at the cost of stability, a bloat-free experience, and speedy and consistent updates.
Color OS breakdown
- Updates: Oppo’s update policy is getting better each year, but it still lags behind companies like Google and Samsung.
- Best for: Customization, interesting features, uniqueness.
- Worst for: Stability, a stock feel, a bloat-free experience.
- Most interesting features: Color OS allows you to make a lot of your own aspects of the Android operating system, including always-on display animations, ringtones, icons, etc. You create these through easy-to-use applications that come pre-installed with Color OS. There are also a lot of interesting design changes that really give the OS a unique look and feel.
Asus Zen UI / ROG UI
Asus actually has two different Android skins. Its normal smartphones come with Zen UI, which is a very close-to-stock experience, not too far removed from Pixel UI. Meanwhile, its gaming phones in the ROG Phone series have the option of using ROG UI, which has a much more “gamer” aesthetic.
Further reading: Everything you need to know about Zen UI and ROG UI
Zen UI looks and feels like stock Android which keeps it light, simple, and bloat-free. It does add in some extra features though, so it’s not quite stock.
Meanwhile, ROG UI focuses a lot on gaming with bright colors and interesting features to make your smartphone gaming experience better.
Either way, Asus’ Android skins are well-regarded for nailing the basics, while still offering some neat perks. They aren’t as fully-featured as something like One UI or Color OS, but there are lots of smartphone users out there who appreciate that simplicity.
How it compares: The closest approximation for Zen UI is Google’s own Pixel UI. Its simplicity is its major strength, as the skin ends up being very stable and smooth. ROG UI is also stable and smooth, but non-gamers might be turned off by how chaotic the gamer-centric designs are.
Zen UI /ROG UI breakdown
- Updates: Asus has a very poor reputation when it comes to updates.
- Best for: Minimal bloat, stability, privacy.
- Worst for: Security, unique features, support.
- Most interesting features: Both Zen UI and ROG UI feature a Battery Care feature that focuses not on your overall battery life, but instead on the longevity of your battery. It helps keep your battery going longer by preventing over-charging. Another neat feature is Game Genie, which brings your gaming experience to the next level. This used to only be in ROG UI but is now included with Zen UI as well.
Sony Xperia UI
Sony’s Xperia UI comes on its Xperia smartphones. Like Asus’ Zen UI, the Sony Android skin makes minimal changes to stock Android. This makes the system light, simple, and stable.
Further reading: Everything you need to know about Xperia UI
Of course, Sony does still add its own features on top of stock Android. It just doesn’t go nearly as far as other Android skins, such as One UI or Color OS.
In general, Xperia UI is a great choice for people who appreciate Pixel UI or just stock Android in general, but don’t want a Pixel phone.
How it compares: If you’ve ever used a Pixel phone before, you’ll feel right at home with Sony’s Xperia UI. It looks and feels just like stock Android, so it’s immediately familiar.
Xperia UI breakdown
- Updates: Sony is one of the worst companies when it comes to updates, so don’t expect fast and consistent software support.
- Best for: Minimal bloat, stability, a stock feel.
- Worst for: Exciting features, security.
- Most interesting features: Xperia UI offers a feature called Side Sense, which is a widget that makes one-handed use much easier. It also offers exclusive camera apps that take best advantage of Sony hardware. Creator Mode is also an interesting unique feature that makes the displayed colors as accurate as possible, which is perfect for cinephiles.
Those are the major Android skins and how they work. Which one is your favorite?