We all know that Android is made by Google, but it's not quite as simple as that. Each of the major smartphone manufacturers have their own fork of Android, complete with features and user interfaces unique to the devices they manufacture and sell. Google works with these manufacturers and ties all of these forks together with Google Play Services, which makes the devices you use today run apps in mostly the same way.
Then there's Cyanogen OS. It's not always easy to describe where this version of Android fits into the ecosystem, but to help simplify things we've put together this introduction to the things that make this flavor unique.
1. It's Android, more or less
As far as most folks are aware, Android begins with the Open Source project Google maintains, receives some secret sauce from the processor manufacturers, and goes off to the manufacturers for the rest of the software modifications that lead to HTC Sense, Samsung Touchwiz, and others. Cyanogen OS is built in a similar fashion, taking the version of Android anyone can build for themselves and adding in what they feel are software enhancements to improve the overall experience.
This extra software gives the user lots of options, and the level of customization can range from a Nexus-like experience to a 100% personalized system, depending on your skill level and desire to change the look and feel of the software on your phone. First and foremost, though, it's built on Android.
2. Cyanogen OS is not tied to any one manufacturer
While you'll usually only find Sense UI on HTC devices and Touchwiz on Samsung devices, Cyanogen is an independent company that has built their own flavor of Android and offers it to manufacturers to load on their phones. This means Cyanogen is responsible for things like adding features, fixing bugs, and supporting whatever hardware the manufacturer has put together.
It also means Cyanogen is responsible for software updates, which in theory is easier to do when the entire company is focused on their version of Android.
3. Their software partnerships are optional
Unless you've gone and built Android yourself from the Android Open Source Project, side-loaded it onto your device, and cherry picked the apps and features you want yourself, there's a good chance your phone includes software you have no intention of ever using. For the most part, these apps and features get called "bloatware" by the community, which can mean anything from the apps Google includes in every device running Play Services to those horrible trial games and antivirus apps you find loaded on mobile carrier-supported phones.
Cyanogen OS has a couple of these apps as well, including a few services from Microsoft and a dialer with a third party Caller ID app baked in. What separates this version of Android from many others is the ability to easily opt-out or uninstall these apps.
4. The company behind Cyanogen OS is big on choice
If you've been paying attention to the Cyanogen folks for a little while now, you've probably seen one or two overly aggressive headlines about taking down Google. While there are more than a few intentionally bombastic quotes out there from the CEO of Cyanogen, Inc. it couldn't be more clear by the actions of this team that the end goal is all about choice.
When you power up most Android phones and tablets right now, you're presented with the Google Play Store and Google apps and no compelling alternative to any of it. You can disable these apps one at a time and cobble together a handful of replacement services, but the end result is far from a complete thought. The Cyanogen folks want to change that by offering a compelling alternative to Google's services. They are far from ready to do so, but it you look at their current list of partners it's not hard to see how they plan to get there.
5. It's not CyanogenMod
Long before Cyanogen OS existed as a fully certified version of Android running on retail devices sold all around the world, there was CyanogenMod. This project started as a way to add some features to the first Android devices, and exploded into the most popular third-party version of Android for users to replace their existing Android experience with. It meant users who had been left behind by manufacturers could get updated to the latest version of Android, and it meant developers and hackers had a version of the operating system to tinker with.
CyanogenMod is the community arm of Cyanogen Inc, and CyanogenMod roms can be installed on Cyanogen OS devices, but it is maintained and offered quite differently from Cyanogen OS. It's mostly for tinkerers and folks who want to try out new things before they are dubbed "stable" in an official sense, where Cyanogen OS is something anyone can use easily.
6. The Lockscreen is a little different
One of the first things you notice about powering up a Cyanogen OS device is the lockscreen, which is a little different from other Android devices you may have used. The way the lockscreen interacts with notifications is similar enough to other offerings that there's little need to re-learn how to use anything, but the visual flourishes create an appealing glance experience.
The greatest example of this is when you're playing music on your phone and have the device locked. Waking the phone will reveal a visual equalizer that animates with the phone. It's a subtle thing, but something that is easy to appreciate if you listen to music on your phone a lot.
7. Tracing shapes on the screen actually does stuff
Even with the screen off, Cyanogen OS has several gestures that can be drawn on the display to activate features. For example, you can trace a "V" on the display to activate the flash on the back of the phone to act as a flashlight. You can also draw a circle to quickly access the camera, and swiping gestures are in place for quick music changes.
It's a simple feature, but one that makes a huge difference in how quickly you get to features that often take several steps to activate on other devices.
8. It has one of the most thorough theme engines out there
Personalization is something Android has always been known for, but this year we're seeing themes become a huge deal for nearly every major Android phone. While HTC has a nice community forming around their offerings, and Samsung has nailed the business relationships and brand recognition in their theme engine, nothing comes close to the system Cyanogen OS offers users.
The Cyanogen OS theme engine gives users control over the navigation buttons, lock screen, notification draw, system fonts, and a ton more. Their options can be installed as a whole theme, or cherry picked to deliver the ideal experience for the individual. It's also growing at a rapid pace, due largely to the community-driven efforts from the Cyanogen team.
9. The audio enhancement app doesn't suck
Audio tools for Android are nothing new, and depending on which you are dealing with they can actually be fairly decent, but it's usually a gamble. The Maxx Audio integration in Cyanogen OS is one of those that works quite well when you take the time to set it up to suit your needs. Depending on what phone you're using, the difference you hear in the speakers is fairly significant, though obviously the best experience can be found by plugging in headphones.
This enhancement tool can be enabled and disabled at will, and doesn't hang around in the notification draw like so many of the alternatives. At the very least, it's worth checking out for yourself.
10. You're going to see Cyanogen OS on a lot more devices this year
There's nothing wrong with looking at the list of available Cyanogen OS devices and deciding none of them are for you right now, but if you're waiting because you know this is the software you want there's a good chance you'll be seeing this name pop up quite a bit in the coming year. Between a strategic partnership with Qualcomm and their ever-growing list of manufacturer partners, Cyanogen OS is likely to be running on quite a few new devices by the end of the year.
The device list isn't the only thing growing, in fact the recent round of investments shows the company is going to continue growing rapidly. This means new partnerships, new features, and generally speaking more things to be excited about. 2015 is going to be a fun year for Android, and it's clear the Cyanogen folks are going to be an interesting part of it.