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Smartphone Systems: Android

A guide to Android based mobile devices and smartphones

Google Android

Android is a widely used operating system, available on a variety of handsets from various manufacturers. It is owned by and licensed from the search engine giant Google. Android has an installed base of 1.6 billion units in 2014, which was 75% of the estimated total number of smartphones worldwide at that time.

Android differs from other major operating systems by being what is known as “open source”. This means that all the programming code that makes it work (normally top-secret) is available to look at by anyone.

Google Android as released on consumer smartphones should not be confused with AOSP (Android Open Source Project). AOSP is the true open source code that any person may donlowad and use/modify for their own purposes.

Google Android as released on consumer devices (such as the Nexus line of smartphones and tablets) cannot be modified by the end user. The same is true of versions running on OEM devices (such as Samsung, HTC and Sony), who modify the AOSP to their own needs.

Manufacturers

Many manufacturers and developers work with Android and as long as they abide by certain design rules put in place by Google, they can continue to include many of Google's services for free, such as access to the Play Store (where most apps are obtained safely) as well as other key products search as Search and Maps.

Major manufacturers such as Samsung, Sony, HTC, LG and Huawei all employ quite intensive personalisations on top of Google Android. Other manufacturers such as Motorola, ZTE, Asus and Acer may use the basic 'vanilla' Google Android or very lightweight modifications that barely change the design of the OS and simply add a few of their own applications.

This is the reason why a Samsung Android can look very different to an HTC Android for instance, and why some features may be unique to certain manufacturers or are not possible on every Android device.

Features & Customisation

Many Android users enjoy the ‘flexibility’ the system gives them. For tech-savvy users and even those new to it and looking to learn, this means they can thoroughly customise the outward appearance of most Android phones and adapt them to suit their needs very easily with applications, colour themes and more.

Due to Android being developed and released by Google, there is very good integration with Google’s services such as synchronisation with Gmail, Google , Google Contacts and Google Calendar, as well as the ability to use Google Maps for street level navigation built in (all wirelessly).

Central to the Google Android experience is keeping your important information up to date and with you at all times. Being able to wirelessly synchronise your e-mail, contacts, calendar and even social networking and hosting sites such as Facebook and Twitter your phone is an everyday task for the Android OS.

Email synchronisation in particular is very simple. If you have a Google Mail (Gmail) account, the application is ready to go on every Android phone - just enter your Google username and password and everything you keep abreast of on your desktop PC is available to view and edit on your phone. Having your emails fed to your phone makes replying to and reaching out to your contacts almost as easy as text messaging.

If you use Outlook, Yahoo or any other major provider, Android still caters for you and the intuitive, simple menus will still allow you to forward your emails to the phone after a couple of minutes setting up. This wireless synchronisation means that whenever your phone is in a WiFi hotspot or has 3G/4G connectivity (data charges apply) you are constantly able to keep on top of your email folder when away from your desk.

Applications

Google Play

Google have developed Google Play, a storefront where you can where you can download Android applications, as well as movies, music, digital books and even buy Android hardware from the Nexus range.

Google Play is set to surpass Apple's App Store by the end of 2013 in terms of total number of downloads. Accessible from any Google certified Android device or from the web store, you can download all types of applications directly to your device as well as manage them from the web.

It is difficult to say just how many applications are on offer; official Google figures matched the App Store in October 2012 at 700,000. Since then the number 900,000 has surfaced. In quarter 1 of 2015, it was reported that over 1.5 million individual apps were available to download.

Interface

Some devices come with Android just as Google developed it to be; these are usually the cheaper devices where the manufacturer does not have the resources to personalise and develop extra features. Often these phones are referred to as running a 'Vanilla' Android setup.

Google also regularly release a 'Nexus' phone and/or tablet in partnership with a particular manufacturer to showcase the newest versions of Android. In 2015, the most recent Nexus devices are the Nexus 5X and 6P, manufactured by LG and Huawei respectively, running Android 6.0 Marshmallow.

As mentioned earlier, many of the big name manufacturers like HTC and Samsung ‘tweak’ the system to add more features, personalise the design and create a more unique experience for the user. These tweaks are often referred to as 'skins'.

HTC Sense and Samsung's TouchWiz are well known examples of skins. The end result still has to pass Google’s tests and do everything that an Android device should in order to be granted access to Google's core services such as the Google Play storefront. This is the reason though why your HTC Android device might look a little different to your friend’s Samsung or LG device.

More recent devices are aiming for a more intelligent and more powerful interface whilst trying to maintain a cleaner and easier to use design.

Versions

Google Android has been available publicly for mobile phones since 28th September 2008 when manufacturer HTC released the HTC Dream. Since then there have been many different versions, each providing enhancements over the prior.

At one point during 2011, there were two main versions – one for phones (versions up to 2.3.x) and one for tablets (versions begining with 3.x). Since the release of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich in late 2011, both phones and tablets run the same version of Android.

Jelly Bean (Android 4.1), continued with this single OS approach and improvements have been added since.

Google also like to give names based on desserts - a list is below - to make it easier to remember them!

It is worth noting here that Google promise very quick updates to Android (often 1-2 major patches each year) that add significant upgrades and improvements for the user, with a full point release coming about once a year.

Whilst manufacturers produce their own Android phones, Google work with leading manufacturers to develop new 'Nexus' branded devices. These are 'Vanilla' Android devices with no skins and are designed to show off the latest version of the software, generally running on up to date cutting edge hardware.

In recent times, some manufacturers such as Sony, HTC and Samsung that usually skin their devices have also opted to allow Google to directly sell a Google Play edition (GPe) of their flagship handset in some countries. GPe phones will run the most recent vanilla Android version.

BE AWARE

'Vanilla' devices (including those Nexus and GPe models) often get updates far quicker than those with skins. This is because the device manufacturer who has developed a skin has to complete further development and testing to integrate the new features of the Android update with the skin and get it approved by Google.

It has become apparent that as Android develops and manufacturers produce a range of devices, fragmentation occurs where earlier and possibly outdated Android versions are used. This is most notable where very cheap Android devices ar released with versions still numbering 2.x.x or the device has not been approved by Google so does not have access to Google Play or other Google services.

Android versions and enhancements

1.0 (Unnamed)

First version with standard phone operation and Google services integration

1.1 (Unnamed)

Fixed minor bugs with 1.0 and added some features to Maps and saving attachments

1.5 (Cupcake)

Major visual interface upgrade, video recording and playback, copy and paste in web browser, upload videos and pictures to YouTube and Picasa

1.6 (Donut)

Major improvements to searching, text-to-speech function, turn-by-turn navigation in Maps, improved camera access and photo gallery, updates to Android Market

2.0/1 (Eclair)

Multiple account synchronisation, Exchange email support, Bluetooth 2.1, improved camera, improved web browser, upgrade to Google Maps

2.2 (Froyo)

Optimised speed and general use, improved email Exchange & file uploading, USB/WiFi hotspot tethering, Flash support, install applications to memory card, update to Android Market

2.3 (Gingerbread)

Redesign of interface, support for high resolution screens, NFC support, download manager, better audio/graphics for games, WebM/VP8 video support. Full details can be found here.

3.0/1 (Honeycomb)

Tablets only. System bar, action bar, multitasking, redesigned browser, camera, gallery, contacts, email, multi core processor support, resizeable widgets, support for external peripherals. Full details can be found here.

4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)

A compilation of Android 2.3 and 3.0 that offers new features such as facial recognition for unlocking the device, improved graphics, Google Beam, improved camera affects, web browsing and much more. Full details can be found here.

4.1/2/3 (Jelly Bean)

This version debuted on the Nexus 7 (the first Nexus tablet). Smoother, faster and more responsive graphics, new notifcations, more intelligent widgets, Google Chrome browser, improved voice recognition and more. Full details can be found here.

4.4 (KitKat)

The world thought it would be called Key Lime Pie but Google shocked us by signing a deal with the confectionary brand. KitKat brought optimisation to allow Android to better run on devices with less memory (RAM), and streamlined the APIs to allow developers to more easily make apps that do not take up as much storage. Additions to improve wireless printing, NFC card payments, better use of storage, low energy sensors and improved layouts and interfaces. Full details can be found here.

5.0/5.1 (Lollipop)

Version 5.0 brought with it focus and complete integration with Android side projects such as Android Auto and Android Wear for wearable devices. There was also a complete UI redesign with Google putting emphasis on Material Design guidelines that would inform their branding throughout the system and related applications.

User notifications were redeveloped as was the lock screen. For the techies out there, system performance was improved by replacing the Dalvik virtual machine with Android Run Time, plus over 5,000 new APIs were provided to developers to use in apps.

Read more here.

6.0 (Marshmallow)

Android 6.0 retains much of the immediate design of 5.0; many of the changes are based around user experience and system performance rather than visual changes.

A redeveloped permission model means that app permissions are not automatically granted on installation - the app must ask the user permission upon the first access attempt and the user can revoke access after. New power management systems known as Doze and App Standby were also introduced to improve battery performance by limiting application's abilities to access resources and drain power when the user is not interacting with the phone.

Fingerprint recognition was directly implemented in Andrid for the first time. The system has a new method for marking and accessing external (SD) storage, as well as sharing data from the screen to other applications.

Read more here.

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