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Are all Androids created equal? How hardware plays a part

Some of the recent high-end Androids — like the Galaxy S7 or the LG G5 — pack some amazing technology under their glass face. Eight core processors and gigabytes of RAM, combined with dual-band ac WiFi radios and 16 core graphics are specifications that most computers didn't have just a few years ago. Some of us get really caught up in the race for newer and better hardware, while others aren't concerned at all and just want to get on Facebook, but most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We want a phone that does it all, doesn't struggle to do any of it and doesn't break the bank.

So let's talk about the hardware that is inside our phones for a bit.

For starters, the idea that all Androids run the same operating system couldn't be further from the truth. And we're not only talking about fragmentation, though that does play a pretty big role sometimes. Some folks reading this are familiar with Linux, and understand how the software from LG isn't the same as the software from Blu, or from HTC, or from Motorola, or even from Google — even if they all run Android. For the rest of us, keep in mind that Android is just source code. Nobody makes Android software and sells it to the people who make phones — they are responsible for making it themselves from the code provided.

Not all Android phones run the same Android.

Since Android is open-source, that means the folks building it and turning out something that can be installed on a phone have control over what gets included, what gets left out and are free to change any of it that they want. And they want to change it, because that's a way to sell phones — build out features that people will want. If every phone had the same features and looked exactly the same, companies that have the best ties to the people building the components would be able to offer the best price and the rest would fall by the wayside. That's why big companies — like Samsung — who can afford to bling out the software love Android. It's also why small companies that you may have never heard of love Android — they can use it for free and save money. The Micromax Canvas A1 doesn't run the same software as the Galaxy Note 5. And that's a good thing for everyone.

We're not just talking about choice when we say it's good that not all phones run the same Android. The Micormax we mentioned above would be a horrible experience if it were running the same software as a Galaxy Note. That's because hardware matters.

Galaxy S7 and Nexus 6P

Some top-shelf Androids do a whole lot of stuff, and try to do much of it all at the same time. That goes back to those features we talked about — there's a lot of software running to bring those features to the folks who want them, and that means they need some beefy hardware to do it. The Galaxy S7 is a great example of this. The latest and greatest processors from Samsung or Qualcomm and oodles of RAM mean that the S7 can do the things Samsung wants it to do — and the people buying it want it to do — pretty well. The S7 runs Android (it's version of Android) as well as the Nexus 6P runs Android (it's version of Android). But try to do all those things on the last generation of processor with less memory, slower storage devices and a lesser GPU, and it's not going to be as pretty. The Nexus 6P would choke pretty quickly if it were trying to run all the S things on top of all the Google things on top of all the things we installed from Google Play.

More features means you'll need better hardware.

Does that mean one phone is better than the other? Not really. Both phones do their own thing fairly well, and it's up to the user to pick the one they like better. But it is a good example of why the hardware matters.

This is why Android One works, or the Moto G before it. You have basic hardware (when compared to other more high-end phones) and wedge slim and well optimized software on it. Either get bogged down if we add a bunch of stuff from Google Play on them, because we're asking them to do more than the hardware can handle. Conversely, this is why some other phones from companies who try to do a bit too much on a budget phone aren't lauded the same way. Heavy software requires spec-heavy phones.

One last thing to consider is security. Ideally, an Android uses hardware-based encryption. Many of budget phones don't support things like trusted execution environments or hardware on-the-fly encrypt/decrypt. This means they aren't quite as secure without the hardware backing and can get sluggish when files and folders are encrypted. Android N may change the latter by using file-level encryption but having hardware that stores encryption keys like we see from ARM with their TrustZone technology is always better than a software solution. This doesn't mean that someone is going to hack you and steal all your data because you're using a phone without hardware-based security, but it is something that needs mentioned.

Micromax Canvas A1

So yes, hardware does matter. How much it matters depends on what you're trying to do. There is no one size fits all solution. If you're looking to do the basics — get online, message your friends and maybe even play a game or two, then you don't need the expensive phones that come with expensive hardware. If you want to squeeze every single ounce of performance from the computer that fits in your pocket, you'll want to keep with the high-end. As always, set reasonable expectations that line up with your budget, and don't let anyone else tell you what's right for you.

Read more: The best Android phones of 2016

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

36 Comments
  • I feel it's more software optimization nowadays wouldn't ya say jerry? Posted from my cracked Nexus 6/Nexus 7 2013/Surface Pro 3
  • I was thinking the same thing. With most high end devices having very similar hardware, software is really where you start to notice the difference in devices. 
  • Not entirely. Look at the SOT differences between the US and international S7 Edge devices (nearly 3 hours). Hardware has a lot to do with the overall phone experience, not just the smoothness of it which is what everyone on tech sites seem to be overly concerned with.
  • I kept this one about hardware. I'm giving software a separate look. But yes, software optimization is really important.
  • Cool beans Posted from my cracked Nexus 6/Nexus 7 2013/Surface Pro 3
  • Good.
    I know nothing about Linux, but I'm assuming a majority of the phones speed is how the software is written (with the same hardware specs).
    Doesn't it have an interpreture level? Before it compiles into machine code?
    I'm drawing a blank here... And I shouldn't be...
    Getting old... Brain fart. Posted via the Android Central App
  • The key with Android is hardware. The way Android was built versus how iOS was built requires the devices to be beefier. It would require a complete re-write in code, something that could be done, but it'd also force all app developers to re-code their apps - something that will never happen - it's too late in the game now. There's a reason iPhone's can operate with inferior internals.
  • A big part of that is that Apple designs their own SoC and controls their hardware in general, only requiring to code for so many different hardware designs.
  • Nice article,thanks. Posted via the Android Central App
  • So if multiple phone manufactures are using the same hardware, ie... the camera sensor, does the manufacturer of the sensor provide API's, or toolkits. or "something" that all phone manufacturers tie into? What part is baked into Android, and how much is left up to the phone manufacturer to figure out? Thanks
    David
  • I'll use the HTC 10 as an example, because I just finished digging through all the "guts" of the software. Sony provides what's called a shared object for the sensor (think of it as a driver) Qualcomm provides several shared objects for image processing. Both of these are closed source and only Sony or Qualcomm can change how they work. HTC provides the interface and the app, and can use the Qualcomm bits to tune how the image is built and how it looks. They also integrate Google's APIs for the camera and photo gallery, as well as other things like intents (sharing). Pretty much all phones are like this. The sensor needs a chunk of code, the image processing needs a chunk from the company that made the chip, and the people making the phone need to integrate both and use them to build pictures.
  • Thanks Jerry! So does any 3rd party app developer have full access to all of the shared objects, and potentially has the ability to create a better app? I've used Camera Zoom in the past, but I don't know that it did much better on my HTC EVO than the stock app. Maybe it was just a different interface to what HTC designed?
  • You should have built this bit into the blog :D
  • So, do ROM builders have to copy the binary blobs from the original device's OS to get these things to work - or is there some minimalist 'standard' that'll get the thing to take a picture - however lousy. Kinda like the VESA driver for X11 will get you a desktop on most Linux systems, but the fancy 3D stuff doesn't work. Posted via the Android Central App
  • In my opinion, the coolest thing about Jerry's articles is the balanced PERSPECTIVE he brings. Hardly (if ever) see a bunch of hyperbole. Also appreciate the clarity. As a writer-of-sorts myself, I admire the ability to achieve what he routinely does in the articles. Makes it look easy - and it really isn't. Good stuff, good Sir!
  • Keep these articles coming, Jerry. Loving them.
  • Same, he really makes the site and I want more fisher. Posted from my cracked Nexus 6/Nexus 7 2013/Surface Pro 3
  • Yes, it really is hard to be a subject matter expert, especially a generalist, and then convey concepts in a way that
    does not offend the specific subject matter expert, while actually providing enlightenment to the interested reader. I was there at Uniforum in Dallas when all the computer vendors interested in UNIX met at a hotel to discuss the
    AT&T stock purchase of SUN Microsystems which allowed the development of Solaris (sunos 5.X). Does that interest anyone I work with? No, but it does color my remarks on several topics. It is very very hard
    to resist the temptation to 'prove' yourself when you say something simple, like: Linux is a UNIX look-alike.
    And, in fact, it does not matter to those whom I serve. So yes, Kudos to Jerry for his ability to speak without buzzwords to communicate concepts that do
    not offend.
  • I always look forward to Jerry's articles. I learn something new every time. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Same Posted via the Android Central App
  • Great article, gives me some things to think about as I consider buying my first android phone.
  • I have a sort of different take on this. Hardware matters because it's really the only compelling differentiator between Android phones and iPhones. What I mean is, while software (Android vs. iOS) is a differentiator, if you're comparing an Android phone and iPhone side-by-side, many--if not most--folks would give the edge to the iPhone in the "Software" category. Inconsistent experiences across devices, uncertainty and delays in software updates, bloatware and duplicate apps, and app availability/quality issues continue to ding Android when compared to iOS. Even Google often releases app updates on iOS first, which is ridiculous to me. Now, many Android will fans will cite customization as a benefit and while that's true, I don't believe it's a *compelling* benefit to most consumers--most folks don't care about customizing their phone beyond a wallpaper and maybe icon arrangement. And I think those of us who prefer Android need to stop relying so much on customization as a selling point, especially since things like widgets can have a questionable impact on battery life. I haven't used an iPhone for any extended amount of time, but one of the main reasons I prefer Android is the navigation experience. When someone hands me an iPhone, I get quickly annoyed by the lack of Back and Recent Apps buttons. But, when it came to getting my S6 back in April last year, the things that stood out to me were hardware-related: the display, the 3GB of RAM, the camera...the iPhone just doesn't compete, at least not on paper. Just like with PCs vs. Macs, you get more bang-for-your-buck with Android phones. Now, Apple does a great job of making the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but OEMs like Samsung are catching up--they're still behind, but making progress.
  • No. You have to compare the iPhone to the Nexus.
  • Although the 6P was/is among other Android flagships in terms of hardware, this previously wasn't the case. And in terms of software, Nexus eliminates the issues around updates and bloatware, but it doesn't address the app availability and quality issues. So, best case is that Nexus and iPhone are a draw in the Software category, in which case it comes down to preference or the "whole experience" factor. For most consumers, I believe the edge would still go to the iPhone.
  • Back, and recents action, is so bad on ios, and the password setup, for all their services is so lame( I went thru hoops to get my one account to work for all of their services, what a pain). I own a ipad air 2, and although it works well, the compromises that I have to make to do what I want it to do, are barely acceptable, and there's no leeway in choice. Customization means a lot, more than you think, if I put my phone, besides another , same model phone, I could tell which one's mine even if someone made the launcher to look the same, it's all about your own personal customization. Also, when something goes wrong, most of the time, you have to run to the apple store, just to get it running right again, android, you go to sites, like this, read the forums, decide , and fix it yourself. There's no catching up, as far as I can see, I use both android, and ios, and both are mature, just different. Iphone, and related apple products, have not only their marketing, history of being first, and various media props, from news shows, that don't know any better, and tout something that android may have had for a while(and pass it off as new), that's why they're relevant. Most people don't like different, and get used to a way, no matter if better circumstances are presented to them, people don't do well with change( not talking about updated os's) . People do what's familiar to them. Andriod gives you a better choice to be more personal, with your device, not just run a commercial showing the back of a laptop, with different art, anybody can customize a device like that. I build PCs, that are one offs, just for me, not store bought ones( Hint editors, run a article about outside art, from readers, who customize the outer shell, so we can see, it's not just apple that has this ability).
  • Great Article. I love the way companies can customize their own android os. I am a Pure android fan, thats why I got the moto x 2nd gen. Only draw back is the horrendous battery life that you get a year into the phone. I was thinking of upgrading to the nexus 6P but people are having alot of software issues. Moto Z is out of the question, what a horrible design.. i like the screen to body ratio of the X models, no buttons please.
  • ** just have to put out there that I was an Iphone 4 user that switched to android and would NEVER go back. too many great features would be lost
  • Gotta disagree there Jerry. I think last years hardware would run this years software just fine. In fact I'd say hardware from 2013 could run this years software just fine.
  • Heck I'd even go so far back as 2012 hardware.
  • Well, perhaps on Android, but not on iOS. We had five iPhones until recently, now down to three. Anything below a 5SE is not suitable for iOS 9 or above, unless you are a very patient person who does not mind waiting, and you don't mind large apps reloading frequently, like checking a message and having the game you were playing reload.
  • I mean no personal offense, but you are nuts with this statement. I should preface my following commentary by saying that my vocation involves selling and troubleshooting all manner of today's smartphones over 40 hours a week. I would agree that last year's hardware could handle a majority of today's software expectations, but that's simply because the last 2 years have been more about standardizing hardware that used to be considered premium, along with giving it an avg of a 20% performance boost. 4 years ago in 2012 technology was still making leaps and bounds. 2012's Samsung phone of the year was the freakin Galaxy S3 and you're really gonna tell me you think an s3 would seamlessly run today's software? Hah. That was when Dual-core processors had just become a thing and voice automation was just starting to make its way into phones as a common practice (EG Google Voice). Even today's entry level devices have basic quad-core processors, and yet they are much better than 2012's flagship phones. The very reason why Android got so much criticism for so many years was because of how audacious Android has always been with its technology and software leaps and bounds. Phones back then would often buckle under the stress, doing things like crashing, freezing, overheating, etc. I know because I did many a factory resets to get all the junk off people's phones. Today people want to do a lot more than basic functions, and today the hardware not only equals but is starting to exceed the realistic requirements to accomplish all of our wants and needs. Back then new technology came about every 8 months. Now we're seeing it every 2-3 generations. Bottom line is that I wouldn't go further back than 2014 for a phone that could perform under today's software expectations, and there would still undoubtedly be moments when a Galaxy S5 would feel noticeably slower than an S7 DEPENDING on what you are doing....which is really the main point the author was making in the first place.
  • I own so many phone running Android or iOS. Ios runs good because it's made for one device only and everyone is on ios 9 than 10 because it runs great. However always the same and doesn't matter which iPhone you have. Android is smarter because of all these phone makers out there to get better and better. I had a Nexus 6p and the build quality wasn't good. So I trade it for a note 5 and than you see the difference. Stock Android may had not all the fancy features but it works great. You getting more support like voice to unlock is handy to have and so on. But I use my s pen on a daily bases so I stay with the note. I really depends on what people prefer stock Android or.... Again when do we get a module phone so i can have high specs I want
  • I was hoping for a little more, not the obvious "you have more stuff, need better hardware". What really would have been nice was a deeper dive into Ram management (How the OS handles it in use/rest) since that seems to be the "hardware buzz" lately with the phones going from 4, 6, 8 gigs of ram, and how/IF it matters all that much.
  • Seeing that last screenshot really takes me back to those ICS-Kitkat days. I had forgotten about those buttons. Initially I didn't care for the triangle/circle/square buttons. After seeing them for a few years, they look way better than the old buttons (IMO).
  • A great article yet again Jerry, thank you. It is true that for all that the phones have to do, you need better hardware, even the iPhone 6s/Plus does better than the previous generations because it's hardware is more customized to handle what people expect the phone to do now, with its M9 co-processor that finally enables an always listening Siri. Think of the original Moto X and the things it could do that would finish the battery off on other devices (like the always listening capability, again).
  • Different places to put the camera, buttons, etc.. Yeah even with the same android version, without bloatware, it's gonna work differently , from one model, to the next. What I don't get, is the claims a lot of mfgs make about their phones, and capabilities. I use a g3, and find that lg's spec on the top speed is set too high, and it works better with a little lowering of clock speed(from 2.5, to 1.9). I think marketing dept's , play up some specs, and the ones who have a hand in making the things , have to adjust the hardware for this, whether it can really handle it, or not. I haven't had a phone yet, that didn't need a little underclocking, to work better. Battery last longer, less artifacts appear(actually no artifacts anymore, and it's still as smooth as it ever was), and some perceived bugs, are gone. I've found out that this can handle any version of android just fine(had marshmallow, but couldn't root it that way, so went to kitkat, and I don't miss marshmallow, with other apps, I can do anything that I could do with the latest). Marketing dept's should keep their hands out of the making of these things, and not put pressure on engineering aspects.