Blog
Jul 13

Pure Vanilla Android Yumminess

Waddaya Got?!

What kind of phone do you have? iPhone? Samsung? LG? HTC? Sony? Huawei? Acer? Asus? Nexus? It seems like quite a few different types of devices but if you own one of these phones, it will most likely run one of two operating systems: iOS (Apple iPhone) or Android (all the others). So what makes all of these phones different? Of all the Android phones, it is only the Nexus that runs pure vanilla Android. You might have heard the term before. If not, then yes I agree, it sounds weird.

The Android operating system was built by Google and the Nexus range of phones, tablets and phablets all run pure vanilla Android. Google usually partners with LG, Samsung, Asus, HTC etc. to build these devices for them. The Nexus devices receive updates to Android first before it comes to any of the other devices. Why? Because Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony etc. all use Android as their base operating system and then add their own themes, functionality, custom apps etc. before releasing the updated version of their operating system to their devices. Samsung’s operating system is called TouchWiz whereas LG’s operating system is called UX 4.0 for example.

But how much does the operating systems on these phones differ from pure vanilla Android? That’s exactly what I’m going to cover today!

A Little Background Info

When I first got into smartphone application development a couple of years ago, I started with iOS for Apple devices. I wouldn’t have called myself an Apple fanboy, but I had a Macbook Pro, an iPad 2, an iPhone 4, an iPod Touch and an iPod Nano. Everything was Apple. Fast forward a few years on, and the need to start looking at Android development became necessary. I was obviously completely unfamiliar with the Android operating system so I decided to get an Android device in order to familiarise myself with Android. The problem was that on numerous occasions I heard how different Samsung phones are compared to LG for example, even though they both run Android. So in order to get the pure vanilla Android experience I decided to get myself a Google Nexus 4 which was built by LG but ran pure vanilla Android straight from Google.

Coming from Apple devices I was slightly overwhelmed with the amount of customisation you could do like adding widgets and tweaking settings etc., but after a short amount of time I was quite familiar with how Android apps worked with regards to navigation, layout, menus, design principals and so forth. I really started enjoying Android a lot so I decided to upgrade to the Google Nexus 5 phone which is also built by LG but ran pure vanilla Android. I stuck with Android from Jelly Bean (v4.1), Kit Kat (v4.4) and Lollipop (v5.0) which is the current version. It was not until LG announced its new flagship phone in April 2015, the LG G4, that for the first time I started considering moving away from pure vanilla Android for the sake of getting that phone.

Photography has always been a hobby of mine, but I’ve never brought myself to invest in an expensive DSLR camera in order to take my hobby further. When LG announced the G4 and unveiled what its camera could do, I was blown away. It has a 16MP camera with a fixed aperture lens of f/1.8 which is larger than any other smartphone. For comparison purposes, the Samsung Galaxy S6 has an f/1.9 aperture lens and the iPhone 6 Plus has an f/2.2 aperture lens. What this means is that the camera’s lens can let in more light so you would get a lot less image noise in low-light situations. What also really caught my attention about the LG G4 camera was the manual mode, where you can manually set the ISO, focus, white balance and shutter speed (right down to 30 seconds). These features are normally reserved for expensive DSLR cameras, so when I heard they were coming to a phone I just said “shut up and take my money!”.

Having put the phone’s camera through its paces, the purchase was definitely worth it, as you can see from some of these photos I took with the LG G4 while travelling through Canada, USA and Mexico last month. All of these photos were taken directly from the phone without any post-processing.

The LG G4 has an amazing camera. Click to open the larger version.

Before I bought the phone, the only thing that I was weary of was that moving away from Google Nexus phones would mean that I would no longer get the pure vanilla Android experience. But how different is LG’s UX 4.0 operating system from stock Android?

The Difference

This isn’t going to be a technical post about performance, battery usage or anything like that. I just want to show the difference between pure vanilla Android and what LG’s UX 4.0 adds on top of that so that you can understand how Samsung, LG, HTC etc. are different even though they also run on Android. To make sure I had the most out-of-the-box version of each operating system without installing any additional apps or customisations, I flashed my Nexus 5 with the latest factory software image from Google (Android Lollipop v5.1.1) and did a factory reset of my LG G4 (running Android Lollipop v5.1). I also wanted to show how Samsung’s TouchWiz operating system differs, but I couldn’t find a volunteer who would allow me to factory reset their Galaxy phone. Oh well, I can’t say that I blame them.

Apart from the software, Samsung phones differ in that they have physical buttons for home, back and multi-task, whereas Nexus phones and the G4 have onscreen buttons. I’ve read that LG’s UX 4.0 is very close to stock Android, so let’s dive in and see for ourselves.

The Lock Screen

The lock screens of the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

The lock screens of the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

The lock screens are fairly similar. Both display the time and date as well as the WiFi signal strength, battery and user icon. On the Nexus 5, you swipe up to unlock, left to enter the camera app and right to enter the phone app. These options cannot be customised. The G4 on the other hand, allows you to customise the lock screen shortcuts to have up to five apps that can be opened by swiping up on them. To unlock the phone, you just swipe in any direction in the open area. On both devices you can additionally add an unlock pin, pattern or password. The G4 goes a step further by allowing you to use “Knock Code”, where a custom knock pattern in a 2×2 grid is used to unlock the phone.

Homescreen

The default homescreens of the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

The default homescreens of the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

You can see that even though the two homescreens look very similar, the icon styles and layout differ. The G4 has LG’s Smart Notice widget added automatically. On both devices you can fully customise which widgets you want on the homescreens and where you want your icons. The default web browser and message app on the Nexus 5 is Google Chrome and Google Hangouts whereas the G4 uses LG’s own versions of the apps, however, you can still download Google Chrome and Google Hangouts and make them your default web browser and message app.

App Folders

App folders on the Google Nexus 5 and LG G4 homescreens

App folders on the Google Nexus 5 and LG G4 homescreens

App folders on the homescreen are styled a little differently. The names of the folders can be customised on both. To add apps to the Nexus 5 folder, you would drag them into the folder from the apps screen. On the G4, you can tap the plus icon and then check several apps you would like to be in that folder. I like the ease of adding apps to folders on the G4 compared to pure vanilla Android.

Wallpapers, Widgets and Settings Oh My!

The homescreen customisation screen for the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

The homescreen customisation screen for the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

Touch and hold on an empty area on either homescreen and you will be shown the homescreen customisation screen. You can see how LG’s UX 4.0 built onto what is available in pure vanilla Android. Again, I prefer the ease of adding apps, widgets and homescreens on the G4 compared to dragging apps from the apps screen on the Nexus 5.

Quick Settings Menu

The quick settings menu on the Google Nexus 5 and LG G4

The quick settings menu on the Google Nexus 5 and LG G4

Swipe down from the top of the screen to reveal the quick settings menu. On both devices they are styled similarly, but once again the G4 has more customisation options available and shortcuts to disable auto brightness or mute the phone for example. You can customise what quick settings are available on the G4’s menu whereas on the Nexus 5 you’re presented with the most used options which can’t be reorganised or customised.

Extra Homescreen

The default extra homescreen on the Google Nexus 5 and LG G4

The default extra homescreen on the Google Nexus 5 and LG G4

If you swipe to the right on the first homescreen, you’re presented with these two screens. LG’s Smart Bulletin is the first example of new software built into LG’s UX 4.0 that doesn’t come with pure vanilla Android. Generally speaking, you can download all the Google apps that are missing from the G4 such as Google Hangouts but you won’t be able to download LG’s custom apps on the Nexus 5. On the Nexus 5 you have access to the Google Now panel by swiping right from the first homescreen. If you tap and hold in the home button and then swipe up, you can access Google Now on the G4. You can also disable Smart Bulletin and install the Google Now Launcher if you want the G4 to look and work like the Nexus 5. On the Nexus 5 you can only customise this by removing the Google Now screen completely.

Apps Apps Apps

The apps screen on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

The apps screen on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

Tapping the apps icon on the homescreen brings up all your apps. It might look like they are just styled slightly differently, but they work very differently. On the Nexus 5 the apps are all just displayed alphabetically and you swipe left and right to view all your apps. On the G4 you can customise the sort order, add apps into folders and easily access all available widgets that you can add to a homescreen.

Settings

The settings app on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

The settings app on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

On the Nexus 5, all the settings are displayed as grouped lists. By default the G4 groups the same lists of settings into tabs for better organisation but once again, as you can see from the far right screenshot, you can customise it to be displayed in list form like pure vanilla Android. The G4 has quick access toggles for various settings where on stock Android you will need to first open the menu item in order to enable or disable the setting. Again, I like how LG improved the ease of use in this regard.

Keyboard

The keyboard on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

The keyboard on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

You can clearly see more customisation options available to the G4’s keyboard. You can also set how high the keyboard should be, whether it should be black or white, and you can add quick access symbols to the keyboard. I added the exclamation mark next to the full stop for example. Another fancy trick the G4’s keyboard does, is that when you want to move the cursor, you can hold on the spacebar and drag left and right instead of trying to drag the cursor in the text.

Dialler

The dialler app on the Google Nexus 5 and LG G4

The dialler app on the Google Nexus 5 and LG G4

I’m not going to say much about the dialler app other than you can see the styling differences as well as LG’s extra functionality to easily access contacts, call logs and favourites. On stock Android, the dialler is a popup that you access by tapping the icon from the call logs, contacts and favourites panels.

Calendar

The different built-in calendar apps on the Google Nexus 5 and LG G4

The different built-in calendar apps on the Google Nexus 5 and LG G4

The Google Nexus 5 comes with the Google Calendar app built-in whereas LG’s UX 4.0 has it’s own calendar app that allows you to drag and drop items from your gallery, social media platform etc. onto a date in order to create an event. Once again, you can always just download the Google Calendar app on the G4, but you can’t download LG’s calendar app on the Nexus 5.

Calculator

The calculator apps on the Google Nexus 5 and LG G4

The calculator apps on the Google Nexus 5 and LG G4

A calculator is a calculator is a calculator. But you can see the different styling on both devices.

Weather

The weather apps on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

The weather apps on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

Here the difference is quite obvious. And again, you can always download Google’s News and Weather app on the G4.

Camera

The camera apps on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

The camera apps on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

I made a big fuss about the G4’s camera and here you can see why. Pure vanilla Android usually favours simplicity compared to the sometimes complicated interfaces seen on various other Android devices. In the screenshots above, I compare the built-in Google Camera app (also available for download on the G4) to the G4’s automatic and full manual modes. The G4 also has voice recognition so you can say either CHEESE! SMILE! WHISKEY! KIMCHI! or LG! to snap a picture. Using the front-facing camera you can also use Gesture Shot by holding your open hand up to the camera and then making a fist to take a photo, or making a fist twice to take four photos in succession. Quite handy I must say! (see what I did there?)

Multi-Tasking

The multi-tasking screen on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

The multi-tasking screen on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

The multi-tasking screen looks and works the same on both devices, but instead of having to swipe away each app in order to close all apps like you would on the Nexus 5, the G4 has a very handy button to clear all apps with a single tap. I use this feature all the time. You will also notice the dual window button on the G4 but more on that later.

Nighty Night

The power off screens on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

The power off screens on the Google Nexus 5 and the LG G4

When you want to turn the phone off all you need to do is hold down the power button and various power options are shown. The Nexus 5 only has the option to turn it off whereas the G4 does a nice little fading animation and presents some other options as well.

Other Than Differences, What’s Extra?

So far I’ve only shown the differences of the same screens and default apps on both devices. This should give you an idea of how a manufacturer like LG took pure vanilla Android and gave it their own personality. There are, however, other factors that make devices from Samsung, LG, Sony etc. different from the stock Android operating system that comes with Nexus devices. Each manufacturer also includes several of their own apps that take advantage of the unique hardware built into their phones such as Samsung’s fingerprint scanner or, like I’ve already discussed, the G4’s camera software. There are also a bunch of custom apps that LG built into its UX 4.0 that aren’t available on stock Android such as LG Health, Smart Bulletin, Quick Remote for the G4’s IR blaster, FM Radio, LG Backup, QuickMemo+, LG SmartWorld, Voice Recorder and Weather among others.

Apart from custom apps, manufacturers can also decide to add their own functionality to the operating system as can be seen in the screenshots below. These are just some of the features that I most often use. There are many others on the G4, Samsung devices, HTC devices etc.

Custom functionality built into the operating system

Custom functionality built into the operating system

LG’s UX 4.0 built on top of Android Lollipop 5.1 includes various custom functionality that you won’t find in pure vanilla Android. From the screenshots above you will see that LG has built-in support for customising the order of the home touch buttons as well as the option to add more buttons up to a maximum of five. The configuration I prefer is the additional buttons to access dual window and bring down the quick settings menu. Since the G4’s large 5.5-inch screen could make swiping down from the top of the screen with one hand a little tricky even with large hands, the quick settings menu button is something that I use all the time.

The dual window functionality allows certain apps to be displayed at the same time. This is quite useful when constantly multi-tasking back and forth between the email app and web browser for example, which can be quite cumbersome.

Smart settings allow you to customise what settings should be enabled and disabled based on your location. I don’t want my phone to constantly search for WiFi hotspots when I’m not at home, but while I’m driving around I want my Bluetooth to be enabled in order to connect to my hands-free car kit.

These are just a few examples of the customisations that LG made to stock Android with their UX 4.0 operating system.

So Which Is Better?

Excuse the clich√© but it isn’t a matter of which is better, but rather which one you prefer. After spending a few years with pure vanilla Android as my only frame of reference, I was worried that I wouldn’t like LG’s UX 4.0 implementation of Android Lollipop. After becoming quite familiar with LG’s operating system and appreciating how it differs from stock Android, I can say that they both have their pros and cons.

While pure vanilla Android favours simplicity, I feel that it lacks customisation in certain areas and sometimes requires more steps to achieve a particular task. This can be seen in how you add app icons to the home screen, access certain settings in the settings app or close all open apps by swiping each one away. I get the impression that LG put a lot of thought into improving the ease of use in these areas.

The downside to most non-Nexus devices is that they usually come preinstalled with built-in apps that you seldom use, take up precious storage space and can’t be deleted. Google optimises Android in order to perform as efficiently as possible, but as soon as other manufacturers come along and start adding their own customisations and functionality, that optimisation starts to degrade. With powerful processors and loads of device memory, you probably won’t notice any performance difference, but it’s still there. The performance hit is more noticeable on certain devices but it all just depends on the hardware configurations and software running on top of Android.

As I’ve previously mentioned, when a new version of Android gets released, Google’s Nexus devices are always the first ones to receive the software update which is great. Once the update becomes available, other manufacturers like Samsung and LG first need to upgrade their own operating systems before they are compatible with the latest version of Android. The current version of Android is 5.1.1 and was released a few months ago. The LG G4 was released with version 5.1 and I’m not sure if, or when, they’re going to upgrade to 5.1.1 or whether they’re going to wait for the next major release of Android before updating their operating system. In some situations the update could get released soon after Google releases the updated version of Android. In other situations, as I’ve heard from other non-Nexus users, it could take months before the new version arrives on their devices. It all depends on the software and manufacturer.

I might still get my hands on the latest Samsung device running TouchWiz to see how it compares to LG’s UX 4.0 and stock Android but for now I’m thoroughly enjoying the LG G4 and not really longing for that pure vanilla Android experience that I’ve been used to for the past few years. The additional functionality is great and the ease of use is superior to stock Android in certain areas, but as already mentioned, it all comes down to user preference.