Every time we hear about a smartphone, we hear about its user interface (UI) too. Many devices run Android, but what do people mean when they say the HTC 10 has Sense UI and the Galaxy Note 5 is using TouchWiz? I'm here to clear up the confusion and show you how some common user interfaces differ in our Android UI comparison.
What is a UI?
Firstly, what do we mean by a user interface? Though Android appears on all of these devices below, it comes in different guises. The Nexus 5X, and all other Nexus devices, have the 'stock' version of Android, which other smartphone manufacturers use to create their own versions.
These own-brand versions of Android are sometimes known as 'forked' versions.
Why not use the same UI on all devices?
Device manufacturers use their own UI for many reasons, but mostly for branding. The customizable nature of Android means original equipment managers, or OEMs, have an opportunity to add their own stamp to the software: in design and features.
In reality, these different user interfaces don't have a huge impact on your overall experience, they all allow for most of the same things, it's just about the packaging and the bundled apps that come with them.
It's important to understand that third-party UIs often differ between devices of the same manufacturer. TouchWiz on the Samsung Galaxy S5 looks different to how it does on the Galaxy S7: even if both UIs are based on the latest version of Android.
Similarly, and though it may seem obvious, different versions of the stock Android interface have different looks (i.e. Android Lollipop looks different to Android Marshmallow).
Major Android UIs
Below we have a list of some of the major Android UIs and a look at their appearance and functionality. Hit the quick-links to jump straight to a section.
- Samsung TouchWiz
- Sony Xperia UI
- HTC Sense
- LG LG UX
- Huawei / Honor Emotion UI
- Google / Nexus Stock Android
TouchWiz is Samsung's custom Android skin. Loved by some, hated by others, this interface is so ubiquitous that it's often what comes to consumers' minds first when thinking of Android, even though it's very different to the stock version.
Samsung's current TouchWiz direction focuses on an azure-blue palette finished with shades of white and gray. Like it or not, this interface is present on all devices in the Samsung range – be it tablets or smartphones – whatever the budget.
The lock screen features a simple clock, date and battery percentage if you're charging. The home screen icons and buttons have a clear Samsung flavor, with its typical flower image on the Gallery app and simple yellow Messages icon.
Note that the app drawer is set to the bottom right of the display rather than the most typical location at the bottom center, and the Google search bar hovers in the middle of the device, rather than at the top.
The symbols which represent the home screens currently in use are also Samsung's own: the main home screen or landing screen (typically the one containing the default weather widget and clock) is represented by a house icon. The news menu, delivered by Flipboard on the leftmost screen, is shown as two sideways bars, while the other home screens are depicted as dots.
Meanwhile, the application drawer has a transparent background, unlike many other interfaces, and scrolls horizontally.
The notifications panel contains what might be the biggest visual difference when comparing this UI to others. The date hangs in the upper left corner and options buttons can be found below on a sliding line (which can be used to reveal even more options). A display brightness bar sits underneath.
Samsung's TouchWiz is characterized by its gray, white and blue colors, all of which are clearly visible in the quick-settings menu: which contains Samsung's distinct, circular icons.
The alarm, contacts and phone apps also house adjustments and Samsung makes use of a handful of its own features like Smart Manager which (a cleaner/booster type app) and gestures.
Xperia UI is Sony's user interface. Like TouchWiz, it's a different aesthetic to stock Android and thus quite polarizing.
Since Sony phones do not have a physical home button, its Return, Home and Recent apps buttons are included as part of the software interface. These are represented by a triangle, pentagon and square.
Like most manufacturers, Sony uses its own custom icons, with reworked logos for calls, messaging and contacts. The app menu is located at the bottom center of the device, and the different home screens are portrayed as dots above it. Unlike Samsung, HTC and LG, Sony's UI doesn't include a newsfeed on the leftmost screen.
Sony's wallpapers consist of a range of bold colors, but its menus are presented in a dark charcoal, with a transparent app drawer like TouchWiz.
Xperia UI packages a few of Sony's own media apps like Music, Album, Video, as well as the 'What's New?' Sony-branded store.
Sony's notifications shade and settings menu are essentially the same as the stock Android version, but the settings menu is very different. Here you will find Sony's own themes store, some advanced audio options (including an EQ), and extensive battery saving features.
Of course, one of Sony's major focuses is on camera software, with manual and auto modes as well as a slew of dedicated settings and plug-ins.
Sense is the user interface of Taiwanese manufacturer HTC. HTC's set of icons and widgets take on a flat, Material Design style aesthetic in its latest version – and it's the most similar it's been to stock Android for a while.
The recent apps menu, notification shade and quick settings menu all stick very closely to the stock look, but it's home screens and app drawer are distinct.
HTC has a dedicated news feed on its leftmost screen known as Blinkfeed, which can be personalized to show topics you're interested in. Meanwhile, Sense has a vertically scrolling app drawer, with a dark gray background, supporting something of a 'business' feel.
Like on TouchWiz and Xperia UI, Sense has a themes store so that you can customize the smartphone.
Sense's settings menu is largely the same as stock, aside from some the inclusion of some dedicated additions like the BoomSound menu for customizing sound profiles.
Sense features its own battery saving features, gestures, and device transfer options to get content from another phone (say, if you upgrade). These settings contain some strong additional features to the standard Android package.
LG UX is LG's UI and one of the first things which comes to mind when using an LG phone is the strange mix of default wallpapers. Things have improved with the LG G5, but the standard green-to-purple fade (see below) is still slightly awkward.
The LG G5 makes use of flat, square icons and – like Emotion UI listed below – lacks an app drawer. This means that all of the apps you download on the LG G5 appear across your home screens.
The notifications panel has some slight differences to stock Android. At the top left, we find the date and time as well as a shortcut to the settings, followed by several quick-access buttons on a sliding bar. The brightness setting can be found here as well.
LG doesn't allow you to enable or disable mobile data directly from the quick access bar by default, but you can drag and drop the feature into it if you wish. LG UI also makes use of a left-screen feed called 'Smart Bulletin', which by default includes updates from apps like Calendar, Music, Evernote and LG Health.
Emotion UI, or EMUI as it is also known, is the interface of Huawei and its sub-brand Honor. Like LG UX, EMUI lacks an app drawer, which is one of the reasons why it is often compared to iOS.
Its similarities to iOS, occasional performance issues and, in places, counter-intuitive menus means EMUI is often criticized. But there are a number of EMUI-specific features which could be seen as worthwhile improvements compared to the standard Android system. You can read more about EMUI's features at the link.
The shape and color of its icons change depending on the models, but Huawei generally makes use of square borders (with rounded corners) and white or beige colors, not unlike Apple's mobile software.
Its lock screen, however, is one of the more unique among mobile devices and can be used to access additional functions like a flashlight, or sound recorder.
There's no smoke without fire and, in a number of ways, EMUI it still lags (pardon the pun) behind its Android counterparts. But Huawei has made great strides in recent times and, given its increasing popularity, there's no doubt that it will continue to address these concerns in the future.
Stock Android is the interface found on Google's devices. For some, this is the Android gold standard, the real Android, free from any third-party alterations.
The main advantage of Stock Android compared to other UIs is the speed at which devices running it receive updates; Google creates the software, so its hardware is first to get it.
But another key aspect of its appeal is that you can rest assured that it has been optimized for the components inside the device. Google (in partnership with another OEM) releases only a couple of devices per year, purpose built for the new Android version. Other manufacturers release dozens of devices and are tasked with upgrading their own UIs for last-gen and current-gen hardware.
Stock Android makes use of flat, colorful icons, with a vertically scrolling app drawer and some beautiful animations. We've been covering Android N in depth for months now, so you can hit the link to find out all of the important details.
Which interface is the best?
The question is too subjective to answer: each user has their own unique tastes and expectations. It may sound like a cop-out but one of the great strengths of Android is that it offers such a variety of interfaces to choose from.
Most people favor the interface as Google intended: stock Android. But I always like to see what little additions OEMs include in their software.
We will update this article with even more Android UIs in the near future. For now, what do you think is the best Android interface? Let me know in the comments.
Please note: this article has been completely rewritten since it was first published and comments may not reflect the current content.
Additional contributions from editor Benoit Pepicq.