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Android Headliner: Why Have Vanilla Android When You Can Have Rocky Road?

October 18, 2015 - Written By John Anon

The last few weeks have been filled with Nexus talk. The release of the Huawei Nexus 6P and the LG Nexus 5X has literally been the talk of the town. Although, in all honesty, I am not that hugely keen on either Nexus device. In fact, I’m not overly keen on any of the Nexus range. It is not about the actual hardware, as it is difficult to argue with the strength of Nexus hardware. The devices do typically come with the best-in-class specs and usually are reliable and solid devices. Not to mention, they come running stock Android. But therein is my issue with Nexus devices. I’m just not a big fan of stock Android.

You see, my introduction to Android was through a Samsung device and therefore, was immediately exposed to TouchWiz. In fact, one could argue that at the time, TouchWiz was Android for me, as it was the only Android I knew. Much is the probably the case for many consumers who just buy a phone without considering the OS. However, this was quickly followed by an introduction to CyanogenMod and the custom world. From then on, regardless of the device being used, they were immediately flashed with a new ROM and although I jumped from Slim to PA to AOKP, it was usually always CyanogenMod I came back to. That was until I started using a OnePlus One – which as most already know, comes pre-installed with the other Cyanogen, Cyanogen OS. Or, at least it did when I picked one up.

In fact, with the exception of the odd review device that passes through, I have literally spent my Android life with a far-from-stock version of Android. That is until now, as the current device with me is the OnePlus 2. Now obviously this comes with OxygenOS which is a skinned version of Android. But, you would be forgiven for thinking this was stock. It certainly feels like it is with next to no apps on offer, limited visual tweaking and an almost complete absence of features beyond what you get on a Nexus. And in all honestly, after using the device day in, day out, I have never been so bored.

To be clear, we are not talking about bloatware and carrier apps. If you do buy a Samsung Galaxy S6 on AT&T, yes, you do get an unimaginable number of apps which you will never use. But that is different, that is commercial Android. What we are talking about is the likes of Cyanogen and TouchWiz at a far more fundamental level. Customizing the software is as important as customizing the hardware and it is where manufacturers have the opportunity to really differentiate themselves from the rest of the crowd. Take the Galaxy Note 5 for instance. You don’t think the Note range are such popular devices because of the hardware, do you? It’s because of the features associated with the S Pen, the software features integrated with Android by Samsung. In fact, a Galaxy Note 5 with stock Android would be one boring device. Just like the new Moto X is. When it comes to the Moto X, the only good software points are the small Moto additions (chop chop anyone)… not the close-to-stock experience.

And these are just a couple of examples. Whether you like Cyanogen or not, the features on offer with both Cyanogen OS and CyanogenMod (admittedly, a lot has crossed over from the latter to the former), are much more useful. Waiting for Cyanogen OS 12 to hit the OnePlus One was a great feeling, as I knew when it arrived it would come packing so many new features. And then when it did land, I was blown away with how good COS12 was. It turned the OnePlus One into a brand new phone again. Keeping in mind, by this point, I had already used multiple Lollipop running devices, but COS12 is not Lollipop, it is a Rocky Road version of Lollipop which is chock full of additional tweaks and features that you just do not get with plain Android. This was the case whenever anyone I knew used my OnePlus One as well. It is just a more enjoyable version of Android than stock.

And this is the bottom line. While the purists rightfully defend the honor of stock Android, I for one, do not place such great value on it. It is the building blocks of Android, but only that, building blocks. When you find a great ROM or skin, the whole experience becomes so much better. Which is why it was such a shame when the news came through this week about PA essentially shutting up shop. Paranoid Android was another great version of Android which came with many features which defined the experience. PIE just being the most obvious example. Which by the way, is a feature that you will find on quite a few devices nowadays. So you see, skinned Android is not Android that has been ruined, it is one which is innovative, fresh, and yes, sometimes messy, but one which can excite a smartphone and essentially bring it back to life. In a world where every manufacturer is trying to outdo each other on spec-counts, why as consumers, are the tech savvy defending the status quo of stock Android. Push manufacturers to be more software creative and we will see the after-market version of Android become so much more flavored and rich.