What is Android?

ByDuncan Heaney
Android logo

Are you thinking about getting an Android smartphone or tablet? Read on to find out everything you need to know about Google’s popular mobile operating system, including what phones use it, what apps you can get on it and advantages and disadvantages.

Just as PCs and laptops require an operating system, such as Microsoft Windows, to run, so too do smartphones and tablets.

There are a few options out there, including Apple's iPhone operating system, more commonly known as iOS, and Microsoft's Windows Phone, but the most common mobile operating system in the world is Android.

It's developed and maintained by internet search giant Google, and differs primarily from most of the other mainstream mobile platforms in that it's open source. That means that companies don't have to pay to use it, and can modify it as they see fit - it's one of the reasons you see so many smartphones using Android compared to other platforms.

What can you do with Android phones and tablets?

Android gives you all the functionality you'd expect from a modern smartphone or tablet. You can download and use apps, like maps, shopping services, or games. You can send and receive email, or manage your Facebook and Twitter accounts on the go. You can listen to music, read digital versions of books and magazines, watch TV or movies and more.

You can also customise your phone, by adding the apps you want onto the front screens, or adding widgets - little live applications that can be placed on the homepage. A good example would be a clock or a constantly updating news ticker, but it's really up to the user what they want to add. 

Another big draw for Android over other platforms is the heavy integration with other Google services, including Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Docs, and, of course, Google Search. If you sign in to your Google account, you can usually save your settings and activity across different devices - so you can start writing a document on a PC and pick up where you left off on your tablet later, for example.

Samsung Galaxy S5 black

This is the Samung Galaxy S5, which comes with Android 4.4 AKA KitKat

For mobile phone manufacturers, Android is attractive because it offers a lot of flexibility. Many, including Samsung and HTC, offer their own user interfaces for Android, to enhance the experience and help their smartphones stand out from the many other devices that use the operating system.

Most of the time, the changes are relatively minor, but some devices rely on heavily modified versions. The Amazon Kindle Fire HD tablet, for example, uses Android, but you wouldn't know to look at it.

What are the different versions of Android?

Android is continuously updated by Google, and the company launches new versions regularly. Each release adds new functionality, keeping the operating system competitive with its rivals.

Every release of Android has a version number, but Google also gives each one a food-based name, and it's these that are most commonly used in discussion. The first 'complete' version of Android, following betas and tests, was Android 1.5, better known as Cupcake. Since then, the operating system's only gotten better, and the names ever more delicious.

LG G3

And this is the LG G3, which is now getting Android 5.0 AKA Lollipop

Different handsets are released with different versions of Android. Some, for example, may be bang up to date with the latest version, while others may prefer to rely on an older, tried and tested version. The latest version of Android is Android 5.0, also known as Lollipop, which was released earlier this month and has already been rolled out to the top-of-the-range LG G3.

These are the different versions of Android:

Version

Codename

1.5

Cupcake

1.6

Donut

2.0/2.1

Eclair

2.2

Froyo

2.3

Gingerbread

3.0/3.1/3.2

Honeycomb

4.0

Ice Cream Sandwich

4.1/4.2/4.3

Jelly Bean

4.4

KitKat

5.0

Lollipop

What Android apps are there?

Google Play, accessible from devices so long as they are connected to Wi-Fi or mobile internet connection, contains more than 700,000 apps, from useful tools like calendars, maps or shopping apps to fun games, like the insanely popular Angry Birds or Cut the Rope.

Google Play logo

And this is the Google Play logo - it doesn't use Android as far as we know

Some apps are free, but others users must pay for. In some cases, you can access stripped down 'lite' versions of applications, often supported by in-app advertising. In these cases, you can often pay for the app to get the full version and get rid of the adverts.

When you first sign up for Google Play, you'll be asked to enter your credit card details. Once you've done this, you can buy apps, movies, music and more without having to enter a password each time.

Google maintains far less stringent control over Google Play than Apple does over its App Store. That means there's a wide range of apps, but the quality is a lot more variable. To deal with this, Android users must largely rely on reviews to separate the badly designed or buggy apps from the rest.

Looking at the mark out of five an app gets and reading user comments before you download them is essential if you want to get the best Android apps. Fortunately, you can do all this from within Google Play.

What are the advantages of Android?

  • Android smartphones can be cheaper than those using other platforms
  • Loads of Android devices available, from budget handsets to top-end tablets
  • Thousands of apps available in Google Play
  • Integration with other Google services, including Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Search and YouTube
  • Easy to personalise dashboards and wallpapers to make your phone feel unique
  • Simple to set up widgets, icons and the like so you can customise the user interface to do what you want
  • Excellent social media integration
  • It's not Apple - that matters to some people

 What are the disadvantages of Android?

  • Arguably not as intuitive as Apple iOS
  • Quality of apps is extremely variable
  • More susceptible to malware than rival platforms
  • Some Android devices are better than others - read reviews before choosing a handset or tablet
  • It's not Apple - that matters to some people

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