Stock Android: Does Your Phone Need It?

Will it really make a difference to your phone?

Photo of a row of plastic Android figurines in different colors

Google

Stock Android frequently comes up in smartphone reviews since some devices have it while others have a modified version. There are several different Android variations in addition to the stock version, which makes parsing the differences all the more difficult. Here's what you need to know about stock Android and whether stock Android phones are the better choice.

What is Stock Android?

Android is an open source operating system so companies can modify it as they wish. Stock Android is a pure and unadulterated version of the Android operating system; just as Google designed it, without any modifications by the phone manufacturer, carrier, or any other third party. You won't find any bloatware — apps pre-installed by the carrier or manufacturer that users can't remove — on stock Android phones. In general, the stock Android OS takes up less space than the modified versions due to the lack of add-ons.

One of the most significant benefits to have stock Android is that your device is at the front of the line for OS updates, while those with modified Android can wait for months or even years and that is if they get the update at all. The reason for this is because companies have to add their modifications once the OS is released, which is time-consuming, plus they're at the mercy of carriers who are responsible for pushing out OS updates.

How to Get Stock Android

Luckily, there is an array of smartphones that run on stock Android, including Google's Pixel line, HTC, Motorola, Nokia, and Xiaomi, a Chinese electronics company. All Pixel devices have pure Android, while the other manufacturers offer both stock and modified Android phones. Samsung, which makes the popular flagship Galaxy smartphone has a custom skin that's close to pure Android called Samsung Experience. Lenovo, which previously used a modified version of the OS called Vibe Pure UI, announced in 2017 that it was going all in on stock Android for its smartphones and tablets.

Finally, there's the Essential phone, an unlocked smartphone with stock Android, brought to you by one of the co-founders of Android. (Google acquired Android in 2005.)

Stock Android isn't reserved just for expensive flagship phones. Google has two programs — Android One and Android Go — dedicated to getting its OS on budget smartphones around the world. Because lower-end phones have less memory and more modest specs, they can't necessarily accommodate stock Android.

Before these programs launched, many cheap Android phones had a clunky variation on the OS that lacked the newest features and ran slow. Android One is found on many mid-range phones, while Android Go, is on an array of entry-level models; both of these versions of the OS take up less space and bandwidth. 

Stock Android Vs. Modified Android

Before it launched Samsung Experience, the company had a more noticeable custom skin called TouchWiz on top of the Android OS. Other Android skins include HTC Sense, Huawei's EMUI, LG UX, Motorola UI, and OxygenOS from OnePlus. These variations on Android include pre-installed apps from the manufacturer such as camera, fitness, messaging, mobile payments, music, and virtual assistant apps.

Some custom skins have a modified interface, while others look similar to stock Android. Sometimes these OS variations even offer features before stock Android. For example, some custom skins had a split-screen mode and the option to show notifications on the lock screen, well before stock did. Many of these skins also include a variety of gesture controls to launch the camera and other actions. Other differences include a redesigned app drawer — or no app drawer at all, styled app icons, color schemes, and multiple theme options.

Do You Need Stock Android?

In the early days of Android, many of the custom skins were clunky and caused performance issues; OS updates were slow to come, and more often than not never arrived. The Nexus line of smartphones launched with stock Android, and an improved user experience. More recently, as manufacturers have refined their custom skins, in part as a response to the well-received Pixel smartphones, the difference between stock Android and custom skins has narrowed.

The most critical factor in your decision depends on how eager you are to get OS updates and how much you're willing to spend on a smartphone. While stock Android used to be significantly better than modified versions, now it's just different.