If you've only recently started to get deeper into the whole smartphone tech thing, immersing yourself in the layers of geeky information that lie beneath the shiny surface, you've probably encountered the terms "stock Android" and / or "vanilla Android" more than a couple of times by now. What do they mean? They are basically used to describe phones that run a version of the Android operating system that looks, feels, and acts as close as possible to how Google — Android's creator — designed it to be.
The short answer is – yes, sure they do. Deep under the hood, all Android phones run the same processes and functions. This guarantees that you will be able to run all apps from the Play Store, sync with your Google account, and do all the optional customizations that Android handsets are praised for.
Why do manufacturers do this, instead of just running with the fully functional "stock" Android? The answer is pretty simple – the smartphone market is so saturated that everyone needs to stand out. It would be pretty boring if the hundreds and thousands of different smartphone models out there looked the same, now, wouldn't it? So manufacturers add different functions, widgets, battery saving modes, simple modes, driving modes and whatnot, customize their icons to fit their "style", and basically try to fill a niche in the market. If you are fairly new to the whole smartphone thing, or have been dedicated to just one smartphone brand thus far, chances are you haven't experienced "stock" Android yet.
You may have heard that a clean Android is very snappy and responsive – a pleasure to use even on lower class smartphones. Well, it's mostly true. Many manufacturers add so many features and functions that the system gets a bit bogged down, laggy, and in the worst cases – buggy. On the flip side, if you come from a feature-rich interface, you may find "stock" Android to be a bit boring.
So, if you want to try out a "vanilla" Android smartphone – which one do you pick up? Well, here we have a few models that you should consider. They all span different price ranges, so you can go all-in and buy a flagship for a daily driver, or you can get a cheaper entry-level handset, just to test out the experience. So, check them out and tell us what you think!
Of course, we can't start a "stock Android" pick without mentioning Google's Nexus smartphones. Built to bring users the experience that Google is going for with its Android, as well as timely updates and longest support times, you could say that the Nexus is Google's version of the iPhone — a smartphone, designed and built on order by the same manufacturer that makes its software. This year, we have two Nexus smartphones – the more affordable Nexus 5X (starting at $379), built by LG, and the more "premium" Nexus 6P (starting at $499), built by Huawei. Running the latest version of Android — 6.0 Marshmallow — and packing fingerprint scanners and pretty impressive cameras, both smartphones can be used as legitimate daily drivers for the demanding users. As a bonus, you can rest assured that you will get timely updates and the latest and greatest in Android experience straight from Google, days after a new Android build is released.
Motorola is among the few manufacturers that prides itself in bringing nearly stock Android to its customers. The smartphones do have a certain amount of Moto-specific features and functions installed on them, such as Motorola's own voice assistant, or the "shake device to start camera" gesture, but for the most part, they run pretty much vanilla Android. The smartphones range from the value-for-money Moto G (starting at $180), Moto X Play a.k.a. DROID Maxx 2 (starting at $384), Moto X Style a.k.a. Moto X Pure Edition (starting at $399.99), and the shatter-proof DROID Turbo 2 (starting at $624). The smartphones have great cameras — obviously, the higher the class, the better the snapper — and aim for outstanding battery life and recharge times. On top of that, Motorola is pretty quick to issue software updates whenever Google launches a new Android build, so you can rest assured that you will not be stuck on Android 5 Lollipop for long.
The Axon Pro was a pleasant surprise by ZTE – aggressively priced, beautifully designed, with a great sounding speaker, a crisp Sharp-made display, and still flaunting some "gimmicky" features, such as the dual camera on its back. It sports a heavy hardware punch under its hood, with the 64-bit Snapdragon 810 and a generous 4 GB of RAM, while still starting at $399.98. The non-Pro Axon is even more affordable, at $329.98 and is still a great option, if you don't mind it being downgraded to a 32-bit Snapdragon 801 and 2 GB of RAM — basically, the "flagship" specs of choice of 2014. Again, surprisingly, the Axons rock a near-stock Android experience, with a few apps and widgets and a couple of extra customization options sprinkled on top. Unfortunately, we can't be sure how regular the software updates would be, so that's something to keep in mind.
While we are on the topic of surprises – who ever expected that BlackBerry would go and make an Android handset? A premium-priced one at that – the PRIV rocks pretty respectable hardware, a sleek dual-curved screen (almost like, but with a shallower arc than the one found on a Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+), a retractable hardware keyboard, which also bears the Passport's "touch keyboard" functionality, and an impressive camera. The software is near-stock Android 5.1 Lollipop, with BlackBerry's own productivity- and security-oriented apps sprinkled on top, together with some gesture functionality to make use of the curved screen and hardware keyboard. Its price runs as high as the most premium of flagships, at $699 (currently in pre-order stage), but if you've been craving a mix of near-vanilla Android, curved screen, the hardware touch-enabled keyboard of the Passport, a cool retractable mechanism, great camera, and some extra productivity apps – the PRIV may be worth a consideration.
Ah, the notorious OnePlus. The company first became famous for the awesome value-for-money OnePlus One, but then got a boost in popularity thanks to a slightly controversial invite system, which basically makes consumers beg and enter various contests or waiting lines in order to buy one of its smartphones. Additionally, some of the contests (1, 2) also resulted in mini-scandals of their own, but enough going off on tangents. This year, OnePlus launched two smartphones – the powerfully-specced OnePlus 2 (starting at $329) and the less mighty, but beautifully designed OnePlus X (starting at $249). The operating system they run on is the home-brewed OxygenOS, which is pretty much stock Android, with a number of extra customization options sprinkled on top to help users shape their experience a bit more than vanilla Andy would.
A less-known company, hailing from the UK, Wileyfox is kind of, sort of, almost, but not exactly the OnePlus of Europe. It offers two smartphones — the entry-level Swift, with a Snapdragon 410, 2 GB of RAM, and 16 GB of storage (priced around $200); and mid-range Storm, with a Snapdragon 615, 3 GB of RAM, and 32 GB of storage (priced around $300). Why the analogy between those phones and OnePlus, you ask? First, both phones rock the Sandstone Black finish on their backs – something we've only seen on OnePlus' handsets before; the Storm's design is close to the OnePlus One; and last, but not least, both phones run on Cyanogen OS – the software that ran on the OnePlus One. Cyanogen OS in itself is pretty much vanilla Android, with deep, deep customization options, and a theme store – pretty snappy and pretty simple.