Understanding Android - Skinned vs Stock
It wasn't a pleasent experience when it comes to buying Android devices, and definitely not as easy as taking out your wallet and pay for it. If you were like me, that would mean weeks of extensive research, hours of watching reviews and asking around for recommendation. But in the end, no matter how far you go, for most user and for most of the time, its still quite a gamble. Head i win, tail you lose.
It took me quite awhile before i decided to buy the One X. Coming from iOS without any degree of expertise about Android made it even worst. I put three preliminary points that i wanted from my daily driver - a large screen with acceptable pixel density and enough performance with chance to use third-party AOSP rom like CyanogenMod which is One X's met the standard.
A Little Bit of History
Back in 2005, Google bought Android and released it under Apache license so manufacturers like Samsung or HTC could use it to build their devices. This had helped manufacturers from having to build their own OS and to enable access to third-party apps build for Android. While back then it didn't have quite a standard to compete with the iPhone (Before iPad came along in 2010), it became prevalent in the market with wider range of price tag and technical specs for consumer to choose.
The first Android phone that went on sale was the HTC Dream back in 2008. It runs on stock Android with 3.2inch touch screen and QWERTY keyboard. It didn't sell that well, but nevertheless its the game starter. The HTC Magic comes along as the successor in 2009, retain the same stock experience but this time without QWERTY keyboard. Few months later, HTC Hero made its debut as the first skinned Android phone with Sense and it took off with the consumer, marking the game cherry on top of Android begins. Samsung joined the club with Touchwiz, LG with Optimus UI, Sony with their own UI and it was very clear that these customization by manufacturers are only here to stay. So in order to fight all these anomalies, every year since 2010 Google will co-develop with one of these Android manufacturer to build Nexus, which is basically a flagship device that runs on stock Android experience.
Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. - Steve Jobs
Behind the Mask
Let's say you're a manufacturer building phones based on Android. What set you out from competitors that were building the same Android-based devices from marketing point of view? You could offer the same specs or maybe better, different designs with lower price point but in the end its all about experience controlled by software. To interact with the camera, we use software. To type, to text, to tweet, that's software. Hardware only matter as much as it doesn't hinder the user experience. So if you were HTC, you'd need to define the kind of experience that only available on HTC devices. Same goes for Samsung, Sony and the rest of Android manufacturer. The nature of Android as open source project give you all advantages to build and customize your devices at will while still compatible with aftermarket apps build for Android. This is what we called Skinned Android. You take Proton Wira, replace the engine with VR4, replace Proton's logo with Mitsubishi, replace the dashboard and still, its a Wira, not an Evo 3.
AOSP vs Sony vs Samsung vs Sense Homescreen. Notice Samsung even changed the UI on search bar as well.
AOSP vs Sony vs Samsung vs Sense Homescreen Notification drawer.
While customization is obligatory to separate all these devices from one to another, it has gone all the way ahead than the way Google intended it should be. And for most average users now, that mean Android is Samsung, not the other way around. Most people aren't aware of this because Google didn't spend on marketing as much as Samsung does. If you take a look at Galaxy S4's keynote, you'd barely notice if they ever mentioning anything about Android at all. This is kinda huge, because once you sold out people with impression, it sticks inside their head and spreads around like fire. That's what AirAsia has successfully executed for their airlines as an example.
What the heck Samsung is thinking? Image credit : arstechnica.com
When you bought a skinned version of Android devices, along with it comes hardware optimization, custom interface and so called value-added features by manufacturer. Its the experience sets by manufacturer instead of Google. Unfortunately, since some of them didn't really make both software and hardware together, its just getting a lot worst than stock Android. Take a look at the keyboard, which is the most basic element you're going to use everyday.
AOSP vs Sony vs Samsung vs Sense keyboard. I'd prefer Sony's minimalist approach here.
Basic Design 101 - when it comes to building a graphical user interface, basically you're designing a hint to visually indicate user which area is interactable. Spacing on keyboard ui indicates user to properly adjust their thumb to properly adapt to the screen size. It might not a big deal for big screen with small thumb, but try to put it another way around and you will see how ridiculous the experience is.
I don't care if you'd like to define this as subjective or not, but Sense keyboard in every retro aspect is a piece of shit. It might look friendly, but its not as intuitive as Samsung/Sony or AOSP keyboard.
There are few advantages as well of being a skinned Android to compare with stock Android or Nexus branded devices. First being manufacturer's optimization. Since they build this device, so they knew every corner very well and how to optimize it (Which is why iPhone didn't need impressive hardware specs). From having a better battery life compare to third-party AOSP rom, better photo quality and not to mention some benchmark cheat as well for higher score when running benchmark app. Last but not least, Skinned Android often comes under subsidize from carrier/telco making it affordable to buy high-end Android phones.
Design makes function beautiful.
Don't Die a Copy
Stock Android on the other hand is a pure Android experience. Its what Google intended it to be, a pure stock Android experience. If you bought a Nexus, then you're using pure Android Experience. If you bought a Google Play Edition phones, then you're using almost-stock Android with some enhancements by manufacturer like Beats Audio. I could say the same with Moto X and Moto G as they're very close to stock Android but with some additional enhancements.
Previous stock AOSP Jellybean. I have since upgraded to Android 4.4.2 Kitkat.
So what's the benefit of using stock Android? Well, you get stock Android UI called Holo, which is kind of love or hate depends on your taste. No bloatware by manufacturer or carrier since most of these devices are unsubsidized and unlocked. Faster Android updates because manufacturers didn't have to include their customization, and longer hardware support than the rest of skinned Android. And since Nexus brand are basically the flagship devices of the year, and most of Google Play Edition devices are flagship from manufacturer, you get the best of both world. Zero worries about performance.
And of course there are few cons that you need to be aware of. First of all, it comes with higher price tag since its only available unlocked and unsubsidized. And if you're living outside US, forget about buying the GPE as these only sells exclusively through Play Store (but i guess if you it badly, you can figure another way around). And as for GPE, you won't find any of those features from skinned version. The Google Edition of Galaxy S4 won't have all those fancy features to impress your friends at party like the Air Gesture. But since Beats Audio for HTC One GPE is still present, so some optimization is still there. Most users however, won't miss any of this stuff because it has almost zero practicality in everyday life.
Some people might wonder, why would i pay more for less? For what its worth, it boils down back to experience itself. Stock Android is basically the most basic Android. Its clean, original and pure. Its up to you to bloat it or not. But according to Pocketnow's survey on Touchwiz, most people agreed they've gone quite too far with Android. And honestly, i don't think people know about Android as much as they do with Samsung. That's the power of marketing and i can pretty much say, it succeeded especially in my country. That's why i don't believe in poll results because people who voted for it are likely Samsung users and they never have any experience with stock Android.
Personally i wouldn't recommend anything other than Nexus or GPE devices (i saw few units were sold at Low Yat's Plaza) but if you're budget conscious, i'd highly recommend the Moto G. Its cheap, running on almost-stock Android and it does everything perfectly. This video will give you a better insight about Moto G features.
I hope this post helps you to understand Android as much as i do.
Thanks to @aizanfahri for his time and ECC 1-pass check on this post.