As we all know, the Android OS is an open platform meaning just about anyone can take the software and do just about whatever they like with it. It’s this reason many handset manufacturers opt to forgo the standard Android design (sometimes referred to as “stock Android”), injecting their own flavor into the OS. I like to think of it like an ice cream shop. While every shop is selling ice cream, they all have their own unique flavors and mixins that go beyond just plain vanilla. Unfortunately, for the kids that don’t want HTC’s rocky road, or Samsung’s cookies n’ cream, there’s little that can be done for those who prefer just plain vanilla.
Yes, for the truly dedicated, there’s always the method of rooting and installing the stock Android OS by way of custom ROMs. Only problem is rooting often times comes at the cost of voiding one’s warranty, buggy software, and even possible harm to the device by way of the dreaded “brick.” If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you’re not alone. But is rooting really the only way to a stock Android experience on your device? Not entirely.
For our lovely Phandroid readers, I put together this handy guide showing you how, with apps downloaded from the Google Play Store, you can obtain a mostly stock Android experience out of your device — all without the worries that come with rooting, hacking, or voiding of warranties. Before we start, keep in mind that some of these applications will not run properly on anything but the firmware they were taken/designed from. For instance, an Ice Cream Sandwich browser will only work on your device if you’re running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, not Gingerbread or Donut. Make sure you read the descriptions of the apps in the Play Store before you download. Now that we got that out of the way, let’s do this.
The most dramatic way to get your device looking like it’s running stock Android is by simply replacing its homescreen. In fact, most people will usually stop right there and that’s fine, but it’s only the tip of the Holo iceberg. With so many launcher replacements on the Google Play Store, there are numerous options to choose from. If you want something more closely resembling the stock Android experience (that is the point of this post, after all) you’ll want to stick with all-in-one solutions like Nova Launcher which offers a wide range of customizing options. Where you can find completely stock Jelly Bean launchers on the Play Store, they ain’t gonna help you when it comes to switching up those ugly icons your phone came with. Nova Launcher on the other hand, comes out of the box with Jelly Bean icons allowing for easy themeing of the remnants left behind from your unsavory manufacturer UI. Yay.
Another key ingredient to the stock Android experience is the first thing you look at upon waking your device — the lock screen. Once again, there are plenty of lockscreen options in the Play Store you can use to get your device looking like it’s running stock Android, the one with a heap of features being Widget Locker. I’ve been using Widget Locker for years now and while there are free lockscreen replacements (linked below), it’s WL’s feature set that keeps me coming back to it. The best part is you can use widgets from other apps, a key component if you want that stock Android 4.2 Jelly Bean clock displayed on your lockscreen.
Ahhhh, yes. The camera. Chances are there is absolutely nothing wrong with the camera application that comes on your device. In fact, it probably runs perfectly well and comes with sh*t ton of features. There’s only one problem: it ain’t stock. This time around, we have a fewer options for stock Android camera applications from the Play Store, most of which are dependent on the version of Android your device is currently running. Got Ice Cream Sandwich? Well, then you’re going to have to stick to the ICS cameras (linked below). If you’re on Jelly Bean, you’re in luck. The Jelly Bean camera app in this case comes tied to the stock Gallery app. Not sure why it had to be that way, but consider it a 2-for-1 deal.
Probably my most frequently used app on my phone is the gallery app. I spend a lot of time in there sharing pics to my various social networks and it pains me when I see anything but minimal look of stock Android gallery app. If you purchased the Jelly Bean camera (linked above), you already got the Jelly Bean gallery app. Good for you. For those that didn’t, or simply didn’t want to bother with using the stock camera app, then you can download the free Ice Cream Sandwich gallery app. This is essentially the same as the Jelly Bean gallery, except you lose the notification bar. I’m sure this wont even bother most of you the way it did me (Jelly Bean FTW).
I went nuts when Google finally updated the messaging app in Ice Cream Sandwich. Once a hideously dark and empty experience, is now clean and minimal. It took me awhile, but I was able to find the stock Ice Cream Sandwich messaging app that can be installed on any device running Ice Cream Sandwich or Jelly Bean. There’s only one problem — this stock messaging app can’t (at the moment) send off MMS/picture messages, so heavy sexters may want to stick with whatever messaging app is already available on their device. Fooey.
When a manufacturer introduces their custom UI to a device, the first thing almost always kicked to the curb is the stock Android keyboard. This happens so often, you’d logically assume the stock keyboard is just that horrible, right? Couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Google has done some pretty awesome things with the Android keyboard starting in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich where text is more aggressively corrected, and in Jelly Bean, we even have next word predictions and Gesture Typing. So, there’s a couple of options here for heavy Android texters. You can download one of the modified stock Android keyboards below, or simply go with something like SwiftKey and use the built-in themeing options to make it appear more like stock Android. Either route would work.
In Android 4.2 Jelly Bean — the absolute latest firmware Android has to offer — Google decided to finally update the stock clock application. They did this by, not only giving the app a much needed visual overhaul, but making it more useful with the inclusion of timer and stop watch functions. One of the visual cues used to see which version of Android a device is running is almost always the stock clock widget, which was also updated in 4.2. Thankfully, a developer has uploaded both the stock clock app, with the included stock clock widget from 4.2 and it looks wonderful. Combine the Jelly Bean clock widget with the Widget Locker lockscreen replacement and you have yourself a faithful recreation of the lockscreen from Android 4.2 (for the most part).
The calculator in Android has long needed an update and one crafty developer from the CyanogenMod team took matters into his own hands, introducing a revamped calculator into the Play Store complete with scientific and graphing functions. So, yes. This is in many ways better than the stock app, but still keeps the stock app look. The best part? It’s free to download so hop to it.
Another application that’s almost always removed from manufacturer devices is the stock Calendar app. This allows Android OEM’s to introduce their own calendar app, usually heavily skinned and chalk full of features. For those that find the stock Android calendar sufficient — in looks and features — Google has actually made available the stock Android calendar for download in the Play Store. As so often is the case with Google’s apps, it’s available free of charge.
It was in Jelly Bean that Google made the controversial decision to remove their standard Android web browser (the one introduced all the way back in Honeycomb) from the OS entirely. Instead, they opted for their mobile Chrome browser, which offered better syncing across devices, but many found the browser slow in comparison to the previous version. While downloading Chrome from the Play Store would be the easy way at obtaining a “stock” Android look, the app doesn’t really feature Android’s Holo UI. For those wanting to take things back to the oldschool browser, there is one available from the Play Store, but you gotta be running Ice Cream Sandwich. Bummer. No Jelly Bean love here, folks.
The icing on the cake for obtaining a stock Android look is, of course, using the stock Android wallpapers. While downloading the official wallpapers found in Jelly Bean are easy (zip file provided below), it’s some of the stock live wallpapers that are a little harder to come by. When it comes to the Phase Beam live wallpaper — introduced way back in Ice Cream Sandwich — one thoughtful developer has uploaded the moving wallpaper onto Google Play for everyone to download and enjoy. While it’s not the exact same wallpaper found on stock Android devices, it does a well enough job at recreating the Phase Beam wallpaper, while adding a few tricks as well.
Google caused some buzz a few days ago when they introduced their music discovering app, Sound Search into the Google Play Store. Once reserved for Jelly Bean devices, Sound Search is now available to anyone with a device running Ice Cream Sandwich or above. It’s a great way to discover new music, download, and give your device yet another stock Android feature.
So, that just about concludes this guide. These are always the first apps I download whenever I receive a new device and aside from visiting my settings app, my eyes rarely see any trace of manufacturer UI. I think it’s clear Android manufacturers will never offer a “vanilla” version of the OS with any of their devices. For purists, we have the Nexus program for that. I’m fine with that, I really am. Individuality, options, and choice are good for Android and consumers. Still, there have been a vocal few screaming for manufacturers to make their UI an option (downloadable from the Play Store) and really, I think it’s Google’s responsibility to make this happen. Not by cutting off Play Store access, but simply by offering every single one of their stock Android applications in the Play Store for downloading. This, will give users the choice of downloading and getting a mostly stock Android experience, if they so choose. I’ll step down from my soap box now. Just some food for thought.
If you found this guide helpful, don’t forget to share with friends. Also, if you feel that I missed anything, or maybe you have a few apps you think should have made it into the post, sound off below. Cheers.