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What is Android and what is an Android phone?

Android is now nearly nine years old and despite the green robot android peeking out of phone shops up and down the high street, there are still plenty of people who don’t know what Android is.

If you fit into this category then have no fear; this article is your complete guide to understanding what Android is, what it can do and where to find it, including the best Android mobile phones, Android apps, which games you can play on Android devices, the very best features you can enjoy and how to update to the latest version.

What is Android

What is Android?

Android is the name of the mobile operating system owned 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 from your phone's calendar and see them on your computer or browse websites on your desktop Mac or PC 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 an 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 millions of apps and games available to download from the Google Play store (formerly Android Market). There are camera apps that allow you to take pictures with artistic effects and music players which allow you to stream songs 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 home screen of an Android phone. This one lets 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.

Read next: Top 10 best starter apps for your new Android phone or tablet

You can also download a huge range of games for your Android phone to keep you entertained on the go. Here are our favourite Android games of all time.

Asphalt Overdrive
Asphalt Overdrive is a simple to play, tricky to master racing game.

How can I download apps onto 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 hopes you’ll enjoy them enough to upgrade to the full premium version. Others - like Pokémon GO - 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, giving 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 well over a 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 them, you have to change some settings on your phone before visiting these sites on your Android device'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 or by leaving 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. In recent years, Google has expanded Google Play to offer more than just apps, with books, magazines, music and movies available for purchase and download in much the same way too.

Who actually makes Android phones?

Any handset maker is free to make an Android phone if they want to. The likes of Motorola, HTC, Samsung and Sony, Acer, Alcatel, Asus, Huawei, LG and ZTE have all made Android phones (and tablets). Blackberry also launched its very first Android phone, the strangely-named Blackberry Priv at the end of 2015.

Check out our guide to the best Android phones right now.

Does Google make any Android phones?

Although Google owns the OS (Android), the company has not made any of the smartphones on which it runs in-house (it did make the Android-powered Pixel C tablet in 2015). However, it has partnered with various handset manufacturers over the years to make its own-brand smartphones under the 'Nexus' name.

Nexus smartphone family
[From left to right] Google Nexus One (HTC)Google Nexus S (Samsung)Samsung Galaxy NexusGoogle Nexus 4 (LG)Google Nexus 5 (LG)Google Nexus 6 (Motorola), Google Nexus 5X (LG), Google Nexus 6P (Huawei), Google Pixel (HTC), Google Pixel XL (HTC)

Google's Nexus phones were typically the first to receive new updates and were considered to be the flagship Android phones, even though some other Android devices sported larger screens, better cameras and more powerful hardware. In 2016 Google shelved the Nexus brand name and replaced by launching two new phones called the Pixel and Pixel XL. For all intents and purposes, these new phones enjoy all the same benefits as the Nexus devices did and are essentially the spiritual successors to the Nexus line.

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. Check out our handy, comprehensive guide to every Android version out there.

Read next: How to check for updates for your Android phone

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 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
  • Android 6.0 Marshmallow: Launched on the LG Nexus 5X and Huawei Nexus 6P
  • Android 7.0 Nougat
  • Android 7.1 Nougat: Launched on the HTC-made Google Pixel and Pixel XL

The latest version, Android Nougat, aims to make the OS faster with a feature called 'instant apps', offers improved battery life with Doze on-the-go and adds native VR support. Here's what's changed between the different Android versions.

Android version

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 4.0 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 7.0 Nougat, which brings features like split screen support to the table.

Do Android updates cost anything?

Android updates are free to download and install. Updates bring a number of new features and changes to Android each time. Generally, 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 this can be longer. These updates differ from app updates, which are smaller, incremental releases for individual applications installed on your Android device.

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 update, 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 backup/save any media (photos, movies, music) or apps you've downloaded before updating.

Here's how to update your Android phone

How can I change the look and feel of my Android phone desktops?

Android phones from the likes of Huawei, LG and Samsung all sport a very different look and feel to the stock Android found on Google's own Nexus phones. That's because each manufacturer tends to add their own software overlay to Android, known as a 'launcher', which changes the design of the home screen, additional desktops, app logos and so on.

Luckily, if you feel like refreshing your Android phone's software design, it's incredibly easy to pull off. Just check out our guide to changing your Android launcher to learn how.

This article was last updated in October 2016

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