Stock Android devices remind us why Sense and TouchWiz are so important

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I have always valued the stock Android experience over the various customized strains from OEMs, even before Android itself looked anything like it does today – back in the Donut, Eclair, Froyo and Gingerbread days.

It’s more rustic, rough around the edges … raw.

I like to use devices as they were intended to be used, how they were supposed to look and feel from the factory. This is exactly why I don’t use cases. They mask the true beauty, engineering mastery, the design, and all the hard work that went into making a phone. It’s like saying you want to protect a drawing your kid made by hanging it on the refrigerator in a manila envelope instead of a sheer plastic sleeve.

And to me, customized versions of Android from OEMs are sort of like that, except they’re not manila envelopes; manufacturer skins are more like drawing on top of the kid’s drawing to fix the errors and things they don’t like about everything that makes it the original drawing.

In short, custom builds are what Android make it so great, so flexible. And as terrible as that analogy may seem, they absolutely have a place in this world.

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I find myself coming back to the Nexus 4 for Android in its purest form … maybe with a little embellishment.

They’re simply not for me … or any other purist. Pure stock is the only way to use Android the way the creators intended. And just as I prefer to use my phones without cases, if possible, I like to run my Android devices stock. To date, I’ve owned somewhere in the ballpark of 50 smartphones (likely a lot more, if you count all the ones I’ve forgotten about). Of all the Android phones, I estimate that, at some point, I have flashed a stock build of Android to at least 95 percent of them. (The remaining five percent accounts for devices that either didn’t have huge development support or were locked down like Fort Knox and were too much trouble to fool with.)

Often – but not always – the experience after “going stock” is better. It feels less cumbersome, smoother, faster, more lightweight and … free. But it’s never perfect, at least not on devices that were never intended to be stock devices.

This year we’re seeing exactly why TouchWiz and Sense, although filled to the brim with features (read: bloat) we’ll never use or need, are necessary. They serve a purpose and make the hardware more impressive and less … standard.

By standard, I’m talking about devices like effectively every Nexus handset to date. The Nexus One was easily the most impressive Nexus in comparison to the other devices available at the time of its launch. From that point, the physical hardware and specifications became more mundane and less groundbreaking as Google focused its Nexus efforts more on the software experience than impressive hardware. The Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, and Nexus 4 have all been great devices (that I have personally enjoyed … a ton). But there is nothing spectacular about them in terms of specs.

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The One comes with two major features stock Android may not utilize: the UltraPixel camera and BoomSound.

Take the Galaxy S 4 and HTC One, for example. The One has an UltraPixel camera, BoomSound front-facing speakers, and a wide angle front-facing camera. The Galaxy S 4 has top notch specifications, a 13-megapixel camera, microSD card slot, removable battery and more software features than anyone cares to count. And since the launch of these two smartphones, countless people have lamented far and wide, “I would get it [One or Galaxy S 4] if it had stock Android on it!”

But as that is finally becoming a reality, as a Google Edition Galaxy S 4 is on the horizon (as well as a possible Google Edition One), we’re learning just how important Sense and TouchWiz are to those specific phones.

The great cameras on the One and S 4 will become muddied by the stock software. And I know you’re thinking, “Taylor, how can you possibly know that?” Simple. Look at the camera quality on every Nexus handset to date.

You don’t realize how large of a role Samsung’s and HTC’s imaging software plays until you flash stock Android on a phone like the One. The UltraPixel camera with HTC’s touch is great, but after flashing CyanogenMod 10.1 to the phone, the camera is … okay. There is a lot more noise, even in well-lit pictures. And all the software features implemented by the two companies – Zoe, Drama Shot, Dual Camera, etc. – are missing from the mix. Instead, they use Google’s rather poorly implemented software.

All the great specifications in the world don’t make a phone better if it’s running generic software on hardware that warrants some optimization. The S 4 and One were built around the specific TouchWiz and Sense experiences. Had they originally been built as Nexus phones with Sense and TouchWiz added afterwards, the result would likely be very different.

BoomSound on the One may still be loud running CM 10.1, but it doesn’t technically have Beats Audio. We’re not complaining too much about that, but there’s noticeable clipping and distortion in the audio. This, of course, may be different and optimized with the Google Edition One.

screen-mode-s4But the point stands. Take the Galaxy S 4’s display, for example. Super AMOLED is known for being super-saturated. A professional photographer friend of mine just upgraded to the Galaxy S 4. Yesterday, she made a comment to me about how saturated the display is, and how everything looks fake and overdone. I showed her that she could tweak the display settings by jumping into Settings and changing the Screen Mode to Professional Photo or Standard, and it would tone down the saturation.

Unless the Google Edition Galaxy S 4 comes with modified AOSP software (which, mind you, would defeat the entire purpose), this will not be possible.

As much as I rag on HTC and Samsung for mucking up the stock Android experience, there is a definite and clear purpose for Sense and TouchWiz. And it didn’t take a Google Edition Galaxy S 4 to realize this. I discovered this when I flashed CM 10.1 on the Galaxy Note II and went to take a picture at a concert beside a girl with a unmodified Galaxy Note II. Her pictures turned out decent. Mine were terrible. And I couldn’t take one usable picture of the two bands I’ve been dying to see for years.

C’est la vie.

At the end of the day, I still prefer stock Android. But as much as I love the One, flashing stock Android to it just didn’t do it for me. Once again, I’m back to using the Nexus 4, a device that was built around stock Android, a device that was meant to run the purest form of Google’s mobile software. And that’s no coincidence.

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+