With no Google Play edition variants from HTC or Samsung this year, users who crave the unique hardware experiences offered by these companies are once again left wondering what the best way to make their phone feel more like a Nexus could be. One big thing HTC and Samsung have in common this generation is their new theme engines. While the theme systems deployed by HTC and Samsung aren't exactly the same, there's been no shortage of theme creators trying their hand at releasing Material Design themes into both stores.
How do these themes stand up to the real thing? Glad you asked. Let's take a look.
The Nexus Experience
Google's Nexus hardware gets updated with all the latest goodies before everything else, which includes the guidelines for Google's shiny new design language. Material Design is all about adding depth and life to the user experience, which means cards and layers and clean, crisp fonts and icons. It's a clutter-free experience that tucks menu items off to the left and right, with the Roboto font sitting front and center.
Google's guidelines for Material Design couldn't be more clear, and it's the language we'll eventually see across all of Google's web and mobile experiences, which is why the company is working so hard to make sure developers have the tools necessary to offer similar experiences in their own apps and services.
We also know that Google is, at the very least, playing with the notion that offering a dark theme in the next version of Android is a good idea. There are a lot of folks out there who aren't huge fans of the flat white look to a lot of the Material experience right now, and a dark theme would help with that quite a bit. We'll most likely see more on this when Android M reaches an official release, but in the meantime it's a fun thing to play with if you're still on the first build of the Developer Preview. (The theming was pulled in the first update.)
Material Design is simple, clean, and everything you need to implement this experience, right down to the font, is out there for you to take advantage of, for free.
Material themes in the HTC store
One of the coolest things about the new HTC theme engine is how modular and flexible the experience is. Anyone can publish a theme to the HTC store, and can even charge money if they so choose. We live in the golden age of icon packs and themes for third party variants of Android, but surprisingly few themes in the HTC store dubbed "Material" offer something that looks similar to the Nexus experience. The above theme, which is called Material Flat in the HTC Store, includes a neat looking Material-ish wallpaper, and that's about the only thing you can say is Material about the experience. The icons, while cool looking, aren't anything like the Nexus Material icons.
This next theme wasn't clearly labeled Material Design, but it managed to be closer than most. This is the AOSP Dark theme, and it features icons that are similar to the Nexus icon pack, as well as a nice wallpaper and a reasonable color palette given how dark this is supposed to be. While all HTC themes are going to offer the elements of Sense UI you expect to find in an HTC phone, this is a nice blend of Material and Sense. It's probably as close as you can get to a dark theme that looks almost like it could be on a Nexus at first glance.
As you can see, these are pretty far from what you see on a Nexus device. In most cases, the so-called Material themes in the HTC store are little more than a nice wallpaper. In fact, in our browsing, there were two that seemed to offer the Nexus 5 default wallpaper as the "Material" offering to the theme. A lot more can be done here, especially with the flexibility HTC offers, so maybe we'll see more (and better) options in the future.
Samsung's Material-ish offerings
Samsung's theme engine isn't nearly as flexible or user-guided as HTC's, but the tradeoff is you get a significantly less chaotic browsing experience with more complete themes and a generally more professional feel to the ecosystem. Samsung has approves several themes that call themselves Material, and like the one above you can see the biggest changes are the wallpaper and the icons. There's an honest attempt to make the folders more Material-ish with a shaded circle in the background to offer depth, but it doesn't always show. You'll also notice the Quick Settings panel is a little different, but given the current design for TouchWiz there's not much more to be done here.
The next best offering in the Samsung theme store is the Material Dark theme. As the name suggests it is a whole lot of dark, even in places where a splash of color really wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. While the Android M dark theme is far from complete, this color palette is probably a lot closer to what most folks who say they want a dark theme have in mind. This isn't the most popular Material theme on the Samsung store right now, but it's also relatively new compared to some of the others. It's not exactly what most would call Material, but the designer clearly deserves points for trying.
Samsung places a lot of limitations on the things that can be themed, so it's unlikely we'll ever see Material themes that offer much more than what you see here. If these are enough to scratch that Nexus itch for you, it's likely these will be your default theme for quite a while.