Android is now over six years old and despite the green robot android peeking out of phone shops up and down the highstreet, there are still those who don’t know what it is or what it’s all about.

If you fit into this category then have no fear, this article is your guide to understanding Android and what to expect when you see the little green guy on a product or device.

What is Android?

Android is the name of the mobile operating system made by American company; Google. It most commonly comes installed on a variety of smartphones and tablets from a host of manufacturers offering users access to Google’s own services like Search, YouTube, Maps, Gmail and more.

This means you can easily look for information on the web, watch videos, search for directions and write emails on your phone, just as you would on your computer, but there’s more to Android than these simple examples.

What can an Android phone do?

Android phones are highly customisable and as such can be altered to suit your tastes and needs with wallpapers, themes and launchers which completely change the look of your device's interface. You can download applications to do all sorts of things like check your Facebook and Twitter feeds, manage your bank account, order pizza and play games. You can plan events on from your phone's calendar and see them on your computer or browse websites on your desktop and pick them up on your phone.

Another neat feature of Android is that it automatically backs up your contacts for you. When you set up an Android phone you’ll need to create a Google Account or sign in with an existing one. Every time you save a number to the address book of your Android phone it will be synced to your Google Account.

The benefit of this is that if you lose your phone all of your numbers will be saved. The next time you get an Android phone (or and iPhone or Windows Phone if you prefer) and sign in with your Google Account, all of your contacts and friend's numbers will be displayed in your new phone’s address book immediately, no need to transfer or back them up anywhere else.

Syncing is a way for your phone to keep all your information; websites, contacts, calendar entries and apps up-to-date. This can happen over your phone's mobile data or WiFi connection, seamlessly, in the background.

What apps can I get on an Android phone?

There are hundreds of thousands of apps and games available to download from the Google Play store (formerly the Android Market). There are camera apps that allow you to take pictures with artistic effects and filters on them and music players which allow you to stream music from the web or create playlists. You can customise the appearance of your Android handset with a number of wallpapers based on pictures you’ve taken yourself or downloaded from the internet too.

An example of a widget on the homescreen of an Android phone. This one let's you access music play back from Spotify without having to open the application.
An example of a widget on the homescreen of an Android phone. This one let's you access music playback from Spotify without having to open the application.

There are also various on-screen widgets to download which allow access to and the alteration of settings on your phone, without the need to dive through menus as you would on non-Android devices. You can pretty much create your own system of shortcuts and menus to better suit how you uniquely use your phone.

Popular games available for Android phones include Cut The Rope, Goat Simulator and Temple Run 2 to name but three, but there are thousands of free and paid apps and games on offer.

How can I get apps on an Android phone?

The majority of apps can be downloaded from the Google Play store (the equivalent of Apple’s App Store), which includes a mix of free as well as 'premium' apps that you have to pay for. Some apps have ‘lite’ versions which are free, in the hope you’ll enjoy them and upgrade to the full premium version. Others - like Angry Birds - are free, but include adverts or the ability to make in-app purchases.

The same account that lets you backup your contacts can also have financial details added to it, allowing you the ability to purchase content from the Google Play store directly. You can pay either by debit or credit card and initial setup takes less than five minutes from a computer.

Google Play logo

Although there are over 1.3 million apps available to Android users in the Google Play store, some developers choose to make their apps available to download from their own sites or alternative app stores. In order to download these you'll have to change some settings on your phone before visiting these sites on your Android phone’s web browser. By downloading apps outside of the Google Play store, you do run the risk of attack in the form of data theft leave yourself more susceptible to viruses, so be careful if you choose this route.

Should you upgrade or change your Android phone; log into your Google account and you’ll be able to download your previously owned apps again, without being charged.

What does an Android phone look like?

Android phones come in many different shapes, colours and sizes. Some have super-fast processors, some have powerful cameras and a few have hardware QWERTY keyboards.

All current Android phones feature a touchscreens, the size of which varies, but in most cases it measures at least 3-inches diagonally, although some devices use much larger displays; like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 for example which features a 5.7-inch screen and has been described as a 'phablet' - a cross between a phone and tablet.

Popular Android phones include the Motorola Moto X (5.2-inch), HTC One (M8) (5-inch), Sony Xperia Z3 Compact (4.6-inch) and Samsung Galaxy Ace 3 (4-inch). Some examples of older Android phones with hardware QWERTY keyboards include the HTC Desire Z, HTC ChaCha and Sony Xperia Mini Pro, but these designs are diminishing as on-screen keyboards become better at predicting words, phrases and even complete sentences.

So who makes Android phones?

Any handset maker is free to make an Android phone if they want to. As well as the aforementioned Motorola, HTC, Samsung and Sony, Acer, Alcatel, Asus, Huawei, LG and ZTE have all made Android phones (and tablets) too. Apple, Nokia and BlackBerry do not offer Android handsets however. 

Does Google make any Android phones?

Although Google owns the OS (Android) they have not made any hardware on which it runs in-house. However, they have partnered with various handset manufacturers over the years to make their own-brand smartphones under the 'Nexus' name.

Nexus smartphone family
[From left to right] The Google Nexus One was actually made by HTC and ran Android 2.1 Eclair; the Google Nexus S was made by Samsung and launched on Android 2.3 Gingerbread, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus launched on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, the LG Nexus 4 was the first handset to run Android 4.1 Jelly Bean out-the-box; the LG Nexus 5 was the first handset to run Android 4.4 KitKat and the current Nexus handset the Motorola Nexus 6, is the is the first handset to run Android 5.0 Lollipop.

Google's Nexus phones are typically the first to receive new updates and are considered to be the flagship Android phones, even though some other Android devices sport larger screens, better cameras and more powerful hardware.

Android updates

Google is constantly working on new versions of the Android software. These releases are infrequent; at the moment they normally come out every six months or so, but Google is looking to slow this down to once a year.

Versions usually come with a numerical code and a name that’s so far been themed after sweets and desserts, running in alphabetical order.

  • Android 1.5 Cupcake
  • Android 1.6 Donut
  • Android 2.1 Eclair
  • Android 2.2 Froyo
  • Android 2.3 Gingerbread
  • Android 3.2 Honeycomb - The first OS design specifically for a tablets, launching on the Motorola Xoom
  • Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich: The first OS to run on smartphones and tablets, ending the 2.X naming convention.
  • Android 4.1 Jelly Bean: Launched on the Google Nexus 7 tablet by Asus
  • Android 4.2 Jelly Bean: Arrived on the LG Nexus 4
  • Android 4.3 Jelly Bean
  • Android 4.4 KitKat: Launched on the LG Nexus 5
  • Android 5.0 Lollipop: Launched on the Motorola Nexus 6 and HTC Nexus 9

Google also releases minor updates with bug fixes and improvements.

Android tablets

Like Android phones, Android tablets come in all shapes and sizes. These can range from the 7-inch screen of the Asus-made Google Nexus 7 to far larger displays, such as the 10-inch display found on the Nexus 10.

Somewhat confusingly, some older Android tablets; like the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, launched running Android 2.2 Froyo - a version of Android designed for phones, whilst Android 3.0 Honeycomb was the first release of the OS specifically for tablets.

Older Android tablets which didn’t run on 3.0 Honeycomb couldn’t benefit from things like the redesigned YouTube app, improved widgets and certain tablet-specific apps like SwiftKey for Tablets.

This fragmentation between Android phones and tablets was eliminated with the launch of Android Ice Cream Sandwich, which was designed to operate on either type of device and scale accordingly. Android Jelly Bean introduced a number of improvements for both the smartphone and tablet experience over the likes of ICS (Ice Cream Sandwich) and that trend continues with the latest release, Android 5.0 Lollipop.

Do Android updates cost anything?

Android updates are free. The updates bring a number of new features and changes to Android each time. Generally though, with each update the speed and overall performance of Android is improved upon.

Most of the high-end Android phones are scheduled to receive updates first. Most Android phones will have at least one update during their life cycle, with some having two. A life cycle is usually around 18 months, but depending on the phone can be longer.

How do I get an update?

Android updates are normally received OTA (Over The Air), that is, sent directly to your Android phone without the need for a computer. Normally, once your Android phone or tablet is due to get an upgrade, you'll see a notification in the bar at the top of the screen. You'll then be prompted to connect to WiFi to avoid incurring extra data charges - updates can be quite big and downloading them over a mobile data connection isn’t advised as it may result in expensive data charges.

Updates are generally one-stage processes and relatively straightforward, but in some cases you may need to back up/save any media (photos, movies, music) or apps you've downloaded before updating.

In some cases, such as with some of Sony’s and Samsung's older Android phones, you'll need to install the dedicated software supplied online by the manufacturer first.

Unlike Apple's iOS, where the majority of users get the latest update simultaniously, regardless of device (this usually means the last three to four generations of hardware). Android updates are more fragmented, dependent on manufacturers and in some cases carriers as well - this can make for a frustrating experience when some phones of the same model have the update and others haven't.

This article was last updated in October 2014