One of the best things about Android is how customizable it is, letting users enjoy a whole host of different flavors. Some prefer their Android clean and stock-like. Others like phone manufacturers to come up with their own features and design tweaks. Whichever your preference, there’s likely an Android skin out there to match your style.
However, you might not always know precisely what you’re in for when picking up a new Android device, unlike with, say, an iPhone. Just what is MIUI anyway? To help you navigate the sometimes confusing Android skin landscape, this is your one-stop guide to Android skin customizations.
Stock Android/Pixel Android
Latest Version: 9.0 (Pie)
“Stock Android” is, of course, the most vanilla Android flavor available. This is the pure, out-the-box Android experience with nothing piled on top.
Many users strongly advocate the use of as-stock-as-possible Android — it’s a major factor for them when choosing between phones. Such was the historical appeal of Nexus devices (along with the low price), and now the Pixel range (in-spite of the price).
Stock Android certainly has a lot going for it: nippy performance unhindered by bloat, relatively small file size that leaves more storage for the user, rapid updates, and the clean material design aesthetic Google is known for. Stock Android provides a blank slate, allowing users to customize to their heart’s content.
That said, some might find stock Android a little boring. Certainly, as a phone reviewer, I’m always eager to see what new tricks each handset has to offer — and finding a completely generic experience waiting can be a little anticlimactic. Fortunately, Android is no slouch when it comes to features in itself, and the average user will find more than enough to play around with. It’s also very easy to customize, with endless third party apps available through the Play Store.
The Google Pixel series is probably one of the closest to true stock you’ll find, straight from the Mothership. Even then, there are added customization here such as the Pixel Launcher (though obviously that can be swapped out). You could argue no phone truly runs a purely stock version of Android, but this is the closest you’ll get, anyway. Fortunately, the next option on this list provides essentially the same benefits and a wider selection of devices.
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. Though that does come at the expense of unique gimmicks and features. Whether anything is truly stock is up for debate, but by using a Pixel phone or Android One (below), you’ll be getting something extremely close.
Best for: Minimal bloat, rapid updates, security.
Worst for: Originality and exciting new features.
Most interesting features: All the features you consider standard in an Android phone are stock features. If we’re talking about the Pixel Android, you also get interesting things like deeper Assistant integration.
Android One is almost stock, and comes with set criteria mandated by Google for OEMs to follow to qualify for the program. This is a version of Android with minimal bloatware and a commitment to rapid updates, including a minimum number of security updates.
Nokia uses Android One, and it is definitely to the OEM’s credit. While it might not be terribly exciting, Android One ensures less powerful hardware remains nippy and gives users the peace of mind they’ll get to sample the latest versions of Android in a timely manner.
Motorola also flies the Android One flag and demonstrates it’s possible to add interesting customizations like “Moto Actions” and cool camera features on top of the Android One experience. You might alternatively go with the Xiaomi Mi A1.
Special mention goes to Android Go, which isn’t an Android skin, but rather a different version of Android altogether, designed to run well on entry-level devices with just 512MB-1GB of RAM and 8-16GB of storage. It is significantly smaller than full Android to that end, but will only run a selection of pared-down apps.
How it compares: Android One is a light and rapidly updated version of Android that should be fast and stable on any device. Android One in itself is very vanilla — just like Pixel’s take — but as companies like Motorola show, it is possible to add interesting customization and features on top.
Best for: Minimal bloat, rapid updates.
Worst for: Originality and exciting new features.
Most interesting features: The features here are generally the same as stock, and might include things like Google Lens.
Latest version: 9.0.11
OxygenOS is also very close to stock. This is OnePlus’ Android skin and it’s largely unchanged, with a handful of thoughtfully designed additional features like useful gestures, an app locker for data-sensitive apps, and parallel apps for users with multiple social media accounts.
OxygenOS fans see it as the ideal compromise between the clean interface of stock Android and the unique functionality of a more original Android skin. As with stock Android and Android One, Oxygen OS is a big draw for some of OnePlus’ fans.
How it compares: OxygenOS is extremely close to a stock experience, which is actually one of its selling points. The closest comparison would be with Android One, which gets marginally faster updates but doesn’t have quite as customizable navigation options. We could also draw comparisons with HTC Sense, which is close to stock but has lots of customization options, especially aesthetic ones.
Best for: Minimal bloat, reliable, rapid updates, great customization.
Worst for: OnePlus doesn’t have quite the smorgasbord of features as compared with something like Samsung Experience or EMUI, and it’s not quite as quick to update as One/stock.
Most interesting features:
- Gestures – For navigating without the use of on-screen buttons.
- App locker – For apps that you want to keep private.
- Customization – Lots of options to make the experience your own.
Latest version: 9.5
Samsung Experience is a rebrand of TouchWiz, likely a reaction to backlash over the very divisive aesthetic changes and heavy bloat often associated with the platform.
Samsung’s approach until recent years was very much “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.” Old versions of TouchWiz came with everything (depending on the phone) from gaze-controlled scrolling on webpages, to multi-window multitasking before Android did it natively, and a quasi-authentic desktop PC-like experience called Dex. Unfortunately, all this extra stuff also introduced lag to devices that really should have been blazingly quick given their hardware.
Worse is that Samsung devices would often slow down over time. Battery life also suffered, as did internal storage. The latter is particularly egregious given the number of apps that simply duplicated Google’s own apps without adding anything useful. Particularly as you can’t remove them.
Over time, the Samsung Experience has become a little less over the top and the aesthetics have certainly improved after the introduction of Grace UX on the Note 7. It’s very easy to customize, with its powerful theme app.
A lot of what Samsung piles into its UI is also very useful, especially on devices like the Note phones. These take advantage of custom hardware through the ability to select and grab text from images, and to control media playback remotely with the S-Pen. Other great features include the always-on display, game launcher, and more. There’s so much here, it’s very easy to own a Samsung device for years and not realize half of what it can do.
That also means the UI is still a bit more bloated. Samsung is still up to its old tricks in some ways, even forcing us to use dedicated hardware keys for apps we don’t necessarily want (Bixby). More recently Samsung came under fire for making it impossible to remove the large and battery-hungry Facebook app (though it can be disabled). Updates to the latest versions of Android are generally pretty slow too.
Ultimately, Samsung devices are so widespread these days that for many people, this is Android. Those people are no doubt used to its quirks.
How it compares: Samsung Experience is a completely different kettle of fish as compared with the previous options on this list. This is Android with heavy customization, for better or for worse. The closest comparison is likely Huawei’s EMUI which packs in everything but the kitchen sink. While Samsung gives us even more bloat, it has become more restrained in its design sensibilities — whereas Huawei still has a bit to learn in this regard.
Best for: Cool features and things to do — you can own a Samsung device for months and still discover new things.
Worst for: Bloat and slow down. Samsung really is still the worst for these offenses, with countless duplicate apps, unwanted features (Bixby), and aesthetic changes. Top-end Samsung devices typically mitigate performance issues with powerful hardware. Updates are also very slow.
Most interesting features: Samsung Experience brings a ton of interesting features:
- Smart select – Select elements from your screen to save, extract text.
- Always-on display – Show the time and select notifications when the device is off.
- DEX – PC mode when plugged into an external display.
- Edge lighting – For infinity displays, shows notifications and more by lighting up the sides of the screen.
- Edge panel – Quick access to apps and contacts with a swipe.
- Bixby – Samsung’s new AI assistant.
There are also hardware-dependent features present on many devices, such as the cool S-Pen features for the Note line, the Health app which uses the heart rate monitor, and more.
Samsung One UI
Not to be confused with Android One, Samsung One UI is another overhaul for Samsung’s skin. The approach doubles down on Samsung’s more recent philosophy, and it’s more streamlined, scaled back, and focused. It’s Samsung with restraint.
On the whole, this seems to hit the mark. The aesthetic is round, flat, and simple throughout, and everything seems speedy. New animations look great, and there are a host of new features such as a “dark mode” for easy viewing in sunlight, gesture support (finally), and a host of new tricks for Bixby. Some of the new icons may be a little divisive, though.
Overall Samsung’s One UI is a major step in the right direction and the de facto experience for newer Samsung devices like the Galaxy S10 family.
How it compares: For the most part, One UI is the Samsung Experience you know and love (or hate). It feels a little slicker and polished, but it’s still a long way from stock, and it currently lacks support for some of Samsung’s themes. It’s one to watch, certainly.
Best for: Samsung levels of features, but with a little less slow-down and bloat.
Worst for: As a relatively unknown quantity, it remains to be seen how this skin will perform over time.
Most interesting features: One UI comes with most of the features you’re familiar with from Samsung Experience, plus these:
- Gesture navigation – Like many other skins, One UI now lets you navigate without the use of the on-screen buttons.
- Adoptable storage – Turns your SD card into an extension of your phone’s internal memory for all extents and purposes.
- Dark mode – Dark theme.
- Lift to wake – Lift the phone for it to come to life.
Latest version: 9.0
EMUI is short for “Emotion UI,” and is the UI found on Huawei and Honor phones. What emotion you’ll feel likely depends on how much you like big colorful icons and somewhat garish menus.
EMUI makes itself known rather than sinking into the background, which is always going to be divisive. Other than the rather bold aesthetic changes, which can be almost entirely removed with customizations, the OS introduces some handy features. A lot of background optimization is carried out by the AI, which frees up RAM and boosts longevity. Smart Tips are also useful for figuring out the best way to use your phone. Smart Split Screen is actually smart, and there’s even a PC mode. In some ways, it seems that Huawei is trying to out-Samsung Samsung.
Some people like EMUI, but it’s one of the more controversial options and is something to bear in mind when considering a phone from this manufacturer. Some people may also be put-off by the accusations of security threats, though the exact nature of these accusations remains a little cloudy to say the least.
How it compares: Similar to Samsung Experience in that it is a skin that you will know you are using. The aesthetic changes here might be considered ostentatious and certainly divisive. Also like Samsung, EMUI brings some genuinely cool features.
Best for: RAM management, AI features.
Worst for: Arguably this is a contender for worst UI design. There are currently privacy concerns surrounding its use. And it often seems that the bloat has a negative impact on performance. Updates not the quickest. It’s also very similar looking to iOS, which could be a turn off for some.
Most interesting features:
- AI-based memory management – Learns how you use your device then optimizes memory management.
- Smart split screen – More easily access a second app to use simultaneously without dismissing your current one.
- PC mode – Plug into an external display for a desktop-like experience.
Latest version: 10
MIUI actually began as a custom ROM. It was Xiaomi’s first creation when it was a small software company back in April 2010. At the time, the objective was to provide additional functionality missing from stock Android, such as cloud backups, while keeping the interface relatively simple. This ROM eventually led to the company’s first foray into the hardware market with the Mi One in 2011.
Early versions of MIUI were compared to iOS, partly for its aesthetics, and partly due to the omission of an application drawer, which forced users to keep all of their apps on horizontally scrolling home page screens. This rubbed some Android users the wrong way, but thankfully more recent versions have included the option to reinstate the drawer through the menu (or just switch out the launcher entirely).
There are definitely some welcome features that come included with MIUI, such as Mi Drop for transferring files, theming, and gestures. Most of the bloatware that is here (including a custom MIUI store) can thankfully be removed as well.
More recent versions are close enough to stock to be relatively inoffensive, though the differences to elements like the notification tray are quite noticeable. Your mileage may vary, and there are some less-than-ideal design decisions here: the recent menu feels like an unnecessary change, and split screen multitasking is also a little more complicated and potentially less speedy and intuitive. Then there was the recent, somewhat suspect decision to place advertising within the UI. In general the UI is quite iOS-like, which is off-putting for some.
How it compares: MIUI ‘s closest relative is perhaps ColorOS. Like that skin, MIUI falls somewhere between the likes of OxygenOS and Samsung Experience in the amount of features and bloat. The design changes are also quite noticeable and iOS-centric.
Best for: MIUI is a good option for theming and runs well on less powerful hardware. Bloatware is removable — hooray!
Worst for: Unnecessary changes to navigation and features like multitasking, which can be frustrating if you’re used to a more stock-like experience. iOS-inspired design is an acquired taste. Potentially advertising.
Most interesting features:
- Mi Drop – Easily transfer large files between devices.
- MIUI store – Access lots of exclusive apps.
- Theming – Lots of customization options.
Latest version: 5.2
ColorOS is the Android skin found on OPPO phones and it’s a noticeable departure from stock with its own pros and cons.
There are some quirks here that can be a nuisance for those familiar with stock Android: such as the notifications that need to be swiped sideways to dismiss, and the rather unintuitive settings menus (just try changing the default launcher and you’ll see what I mean). Like MIUI, it also uses a strange alternative recents and multitasking menu. The Smart Bar for quick app switching actually is fairly neat on the other hand. On the whole, the look and feel of ColorOS will bring fans and detractors — it ultimately comes down to personal preference.
How it compares: ColorOS has a different history but is similar in many ways to MIUI: it has a somewhat iOS-inspired look, it changes navigation elements and features such as multitasking, and it has some interesting features.
Best for: This is another skin found on less powerful hardware and it works well in that setting.
Worst for: Navigation and using features can be frustrating with unnecessary steps.
Most interesting features: The Smart Bar is cool, but there isn’t much else to it.
Latest version: 10
No prizes for guessing which smartphone manufacturer owns HTC Sense!
HTC Sense is relatively stock, but the Android skin comes with a feed (BlinkFeed), a custom AI (the HTC Sense Companion), and a theming engine. The theming engine is particularly comprehensive: allowing you to add unique sounds, fonts, and even home screen stickers that act as shortcuts in “Freestyle Mode.” Some devices have hardware specific features too, such as Edge Sense. There’s also Project Treble support, which should mean rapid updates.
Ultimately, this is a nice compromise between stock and custom — giving you a fairly vanilla flavor out of the box, but with the power to personalize if you so wish. Even BlinkFeed can be turned off.
You could replace this with your own custom ROM, but HTC would argue that makes no sense.
I am here all night.
How it compares: HTC Sense is somewhat similar to Oxygen OS, in that stays fairly close to stock. It should also receive rapid updates thanks to Project Treble.
Best for: Minimal bloat, speed, customization, rapid updates.
Worst for: Exciting features are somewhat scarce.
Most interesting features:
- Customization – HTC Sense lets you customize everything from your fonts to your sounds, and has a very creative “Freestyle mode” for its launcher.
- Edge sense – Certain hardware lets you assign actions to a squeeze of your device.
- HTC Sense Companion – A unique AI assistant.
Sony Xperia UI
Sony’s Xperia UI a relatively stock-like Android skin (more and more manufacturers seem to be heading this way), with some design tweaks and extra features like a stamina mode for extending the battery life. The UI and design changes are fairly restrained (ignoring the custom launcher), mainly affecting things like the recents menu — it only takes up a portion of the screen — and the lock screen. The color scheme is a little darker. It’s closer to the Holo schemes of old than flatter, iOS-inspired options like ColorOS.
How it compares: Like OxygenOS or HTC Sense, Sony’s Xperia UI is essentially a slightly tweaked version of stock. The experience feels a little less vanilla here, due to the more noticeable UI differences.
Best for: A slightly different look and feel.
Worst for: Again, interesting changes are scant.
Most interesting features: Stamina mode is a particularly effective battery-saving mode.
ZenUI is Asus’ Android skin, so it’s not something a lot of people have used. The design is actually quite nice and clean, but there aren’t a ton of notable features other than a chat app called Omelet and a fairly useful “do it later” tool.
Latest version: 6.0
I used to love LG UX because it was called Optimus UI. Despite the far less exciting name though, this Android Skin is still a fairly inoffensive option that brings a near-stock aesthetic with fingerprint sensor shortcuts and more gesture controls. Not a million miles from something like Oxygen OS or HTC Sense.
A handy reference table
|Stock Android||Android 9.0 Pie||Pixel Phones||Clean, fast, first to get updates, includes all of Google’s services and apps||Clean material design aesthetic||Could be considered dull, Material Design not to everyone’s tastes|
|Android One||Nokia Devices, Motorola Devices, Xiaomi Mi A1, Some HTC||Clean, fast, guaranteed updates, bloat free, may have some OEM-added features||Clean material design aesthetic||Could be considered dull, Material Design not to everyone’s tastes|
|OxygenOS||Oxygen OS 9.0.11||OnePlus Devices||Parallel apps, gesture controls, app locker||Similar to stock||Could be considered dull, Material Design not to everyone’s tastes|
|Samsung Experience (Formerly TouchWiz)||Samsung Experience 9.5||Samsung Devices||Themes, Bixby, Dex (PC Mode), Samsung Health, Edge UX, Always On Display, easy editing for screen shots, S-Pen (Note)||Grace UX utilizes lots of negative space, very customizable||Somewhat bloated, slow to receive updates, bloatware and duplicate apps|
|EMUI||EMUI 9.0||Huawei and Honor Phones||AI features, smart RAM management, navigation dock, smart split screen, smart tips, PC mode||iOS-like UI changes in places, customizable, light settings menu||UI changes divisive, some bloatware|
|MIUI||MIUI 10||Xiaomi Devices (inc. Pocophone)||Mi Drop, themes, gestures, volume slider||iOS-like UI changes in places, customizable, changes to notification tray, settings etc.||Unintuitive multitasking, divisive design changes, advertising|
|ColorOS||ColorOS 5.2||OPPO Phones||Smart Bar, theming, gestures, security center||Customizable, changes to notification tray, settings etc.||Somewhat fiddly settings menu, other changes to UI|
|HTC Sense||HTC Sense 10||HTC Devices||Highly customizable, BlinkFeed, HTC Sense Companion, Freestyle Mode, Project Treble||Largely stock-like, square, highly customizable||Could argue Android One would be better – seeing as there isn’t a lot here that’s unique|
|Sony Xperia UI||Sony Devices||Samina mode, some useful built-in apps||Largely stock, custom launcher and a few other minor tweaks||As above|
|Zen UI||126.96.36.199_160307||Asus Phones||Omelet chat, ‘do it later’ feature||Quite clean, lots of grey||As above|
|LG UX||LG UX 6.0||LG Phones||Fingerprint sensor shortcuts, gesture control||Fairly stock, adds some transparency||As above|
So, which Android skin is best?
Now you have a pretty good idea of the different Android skins and their features, so which one is right for you?
We can do though, is to broadly divide the skins into two camps: the ones close to stock, and those that make a big mark and bring lots of additional features. In the first camp, you have stock and Pixel Android, Android Go, OxygenOS, HTC Sense, LG UX, and Sony’s Xperia UI. Samsung Xperience, EMUI, MIUI, and Color OS are all on the end of the spectrum. If you pick a near-stock Android experience, you know what you are getting and shouldn’t be in for any huge surprises — it’s just a matter of looking for the extra features that appeal to you.
If you pick something with more UI changes and features, make sure the additions are worth the compromised update schedules and performance. Many people are willing to overlook a lot of Samsung’s faults because its features are genuinely cool and the UI is inoffensive. We’re more on the fence when it comes to EMUI, MIUI, and ColorOS, though.
Does it even matter?
Most people will be more swayed by hardware than software when choosing their next smartphone, which ultimately takes the choice away from you. If you like the Pocophone F1 because of its price and performance, you’re getting MIUI and that’s that!
A lot of the customizations you associate with an Android skin can also be removed. If you don’t like the home screen, then you can easily swap that out for Nova launcher or another alternative. Icons can be changed with icon packs, and in some cases the bloatware can be deleted.
It’s debatable what should even be considered a skin anymore. What is stock Android, when the Pixel and Android Go both offer different experiences? If we consider the launcher part of the skin, what about the camera app? How about the pre-loaded apps? It is often better to judge each device on its own merits, and only use what you already know about a skin as a guide.
Some skins are a little slower or missing features you like — and there’s not much you can do about the settings menu — but generally the differences are largely cosmetic and removable.
When choosing an Android skin, it’s important to consider its look and features, and even whether it will get updates promptly before, making a decision. Heck, the OS may not even be available on your chosen device.
The great thing about Android is you can still customize nearly everything to get it just how you like, regardless of your choice.
Which is your favorite Android skin?