Android One is the feature to look for if you want a phone with Android designed exactly as Google intended, but don’t want to spend money on a Google Pixel 3.
Android One is a version of the Android platform which uses a largely unmodified core interface, but with room to support a few little hardware extras. You could call it the best of both the so-called 'stock' and 'custom' approaches.
As well as a cohesive approach to user interface design, Android One promises better performance thanks to well-optimized software, no superfluous apps and a longer period of software support too, with timely security updates.
How long has Android One been around?
Android One was introduced in 2014. It was originally designed as a way to increase adoption of Android in developing countries where cheaper feature phones were still popular.
The first wave of Android One phones was aimed squarely at the Indian market and designed to run on low-end hardware. For years there wasn’t even a sniff of such a phone being destined for the US or the UK.
That has changed, though. Android One is no longer a platform for low-end phones. Android Go, introduced in 2017, takes up that role.
Android One is now available on all kinds of phones, from entry-level models with just enough RAM to handle full-fat Android, to some of the more powerful devices.
The key appeal is that it offers a clean look and feel, for people who like the software purity and timely updates of a Google Pixel, but either want to spend less, or prefer the hardware of another brand.
Which phones use Android One?
As of 2018, there are three main backers of Android One. HMD Global, using the Nokia name is by far the most prominent, with a whole range of phones that suit a variety of budgets.
More recently, Motorola unveiled the Motorola One, which pairs Android One with the company’s famously robust hardware designs.
Neither company were the first to release an Android One smartphone in Europe, though. The HTC U11 Life, a mid-range smartphone, came out towards the end of 2017, though the US got an Android One version of the Moto X4 marginally before then.
Three years of security updates, two of upgrades
Android One promises to be the most secure version of Android around, outside of the version on the Pixel at least. You get three years of security updates – which actually arrive in the month they’re released, not several months later as is so often the case with Android phones – which keeps you guarded against the latest software vulnerabilities.
This is an extremely important, but often ignored, factor when purchasing a smartphone, particularly in a time when personal data is extremely valuable and constantly under attack.
You can see when your current Android phone was last inoculated against threats in the About Phone section of Settings, under the Android Security Patch Level field. If it was a year ago, that’s very bad indeed.
Current Android One phones are also released with the promise of up to two years’ worth of operating system updates. These often introduce a whole swathe of new features, meaning you don’t have to rush out and buy new hardware to get a fresh smartphone experience.
Android One makes it easier for software updates to be released in a timely manner. While not necessarily on day one of release like Pixel devices, Android One phones should, in theory, receive updates quicker than alternatives, thanks to using a stock Android interface that requires little customization.
Manufacturers still need to make sure new versions of Android One work with their own hardware and software, such as Motorola’s Active Display or HTC’s Edge Sense. However, there isn’t an entire interface worth of software to be tweaked and quality-assured.
What apps do Android One phones have?
Android One offers clean-looking software, although the odd manufacturer tweak or two is allowed. The Nokia 7.1, for example, has a custom camera app complete with the enhanced Pro mode.
These extras are designed to be subtle and not interfere with the look and feel of the core interface. The rest of the app roster is made up of Google’s app suite.
All of these core apps are built using Google’s Material Design style, introduced in 2014 with Android 5.0. You get a pleasant, consistent look across almost all the apps in an Android One phone.
Android One vs. Pixel UI vs. Android Go
Want to dig a little deeper? Android One is a mostly-unadulterated version of Android, but it’s not the only one Google produces.
There’s also Android Go, 'stock' Android and the Pixel UI seen in Pixel phones. All are native versions of Android, but there are slight differences between them.
As of October 2018, only Pixel UI uses Android 9.0 as standard, which uses gesture controls to reach the multitasking app switching screen. It also places a universal search bar just above the dock.
Android One and 'stock' Android are very similar. You see some slight differences in the design of the soft keys and the transparency level of the apps menu, but to most eyes they are virtually the same.
The version intended for low-power phones, Android Go, ships with cut-down versions of core Google apps, including YouTube, Maps, Assistant and Files. These take up much less space and are designed to work better with limited system RAM.
Android Go works just fine with 512MB of RAM, just a quarter of what normal Android needs to run acceptably.
If your budget stretches to an Android One phone, we recommend the upgrade. If you want to try Go versions of Google suite apps, you can simply download them from the Play Store.