Everyone is all abuzz about how cool the Android phones and devices are, but what really sets the Android OS apart from other device Operating Systems, and how do you take advantage of the power and openness of this great platform? What devices are for beginners, what devices are for the root user/developer, and what does root an Android phone mean? All of these questions will be touched on here, but only on an introductory level. More in-depth guides will be forthcoming.
First of all, we should understand what Android is. Google and Lucas Arts got together to develop an alternative smartphone operating system that would take full advantage of the powerful tools that most modern handsets incorporate. The Google phone was the ‘Original’ Android phone offered on T-Mobile. It was an impressive OS from the get-go, mostly in its open-source nature, which means that anyone can access the source code and develop applications or change different aspects of the kernel and user interface. Though many manufacturers and providers may be in denial of it, the open-source nature of the OS is the key to the success of Android devices.
Once people began developing apps and rooting their devices, the game changed. Certain devices, such as the original Motorola Droid, were quite easily rooted, and developers began instituting what has become known as custom ROMs. ROMs are user-created, device-specific, ready-made custom user interfaces for Android devices. CyanogenMod was, and still is, one of the most popular ROMs available. (The ROM series is named after its creator’s forum handle). With the onset of these highly customizable interfaces, the iPhone’s “they all look the same” interface lost a large piece of the smartphone market share.
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The rooting of Android phones has become both a boon to device owners and a thorn on the side of some providers and hardware manufacturers. To gain root access means to remove security blocks that keep users from having system access. In many ways, these security measures are there to prevent people from damaging their operating systems, as untrained actions can render a phone as useless as a brick, hence the term “bricking your phone.” Most root users have learned where the proper forums are and how to avoid damaging your device and restoring it to working condition, should the unspeakable happen. The biggest benefit of root access is that you can remove bloatware (the unwanted apps that come pre-installed on your device, taking up space and resources) and the ability to fully customize the interface through the use of ROMs or customization apps.
The most popular Android phones are the line of devices by HTC and Motorola. The main thing to look for if you want a highly customizable device is a popular device that has been around for several months. That way, you have a large group of users, and the developers have had time to build numerous offerings for you to install. Brand new devices are usually a challenge for the developers, as manufacturers and providers have not yet realized the benefit of offering full access to users. People buy these devices for hundreds of dollars or multi-year contracts, and as the owners of the phones, they are entitled to have some say as to what the device looks like, reacts like, and what version of Android they want on their device. It has become a game of intellectual tug-of-war that is entertaining and important.
There are also many ‘entry-level’ phones – phones that offer Android OS, but without all of the benefits of the more popular, high-end phones. LG and Sony-Ericsson have several models as great as a phone but simply haven’t had as many user upgrades. Some do not come with WiFi or have not been rooted; perhaps they lack CPU speed or system memory. These phones are great for casual users. Still, if you wish to “own” your phone, want root access, or wish to try your hand at development for the mobile devices, you might wish to do your research at any of several android specific developer forums. Just search for it – you’ll find plenty of them out there. You can also download Android ROMs.
As far as the other OS offerings for smartphones, there is the ever-popular but losing ground, iOS on the iPhones, and a few iterations of Windows for mobile phones. Both are closed source operating systems, making it difficult to develop for them, which drastically limits the app offerings. The market isn’t as competitive. Ease of use is pretty high across the board, but the final decision regarding which OS you prefer should be based on a well-researched investigation on your part. Please put your hands on the different phones, and feel them out. Many of the options available are more device-specific than OS-specific, so be sure to check out numerous phones and get a good feel for what may well be your best friend for the next year or two.