So what are they, how do they differ, and which is right for you?
What Is Android Go?
Android Go is a refined and heavily optimized version of Android designed to run on low-cost, low-spec smartphones. It’s targeted at emerging markets and the so-called “next billion” users who are yet to own a smartphone.
The official name of the first version is Android Oreo (Go edition). Although it’s based on Android 8.1 and has a similar look and feature set, Google built it to address three specific conditions that its users face:
- Slow, unreliable, or expensive data connectivity.
- Cheaper, less capable hardware that is common in established markets.
- Limited opportunities to recharge the battery.
Android Go: Low Specs, Low Price
Android Go runs on devices with low-end hardware. This includes between 512MB and 1GB of RAM, and as little as 8GB of internal storage. Oreo’s Go Edition takes up half the space of its full-size counterpart.
Google has said that it expects most Go phones to cost under $100. Some could even be less than $50.
Smartphones are nothing without apps, of course. Google has produced Go-optimized versions of many of its key apps. Gmail, YouTube, Google Assistant, Maps, and Gboard are among the offerings, and they’re 50% smaller than the originals. There are also a few new apps, including the fast file manager Files Go.
Third-party developers are encouraged to produce Go versions of their apps. These will be downloadable through a modified Play Store. WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram are among those already available.
While software optimizations are intended to maximize performance on less capable hardware, other changes will benefit battery and data consumption. Among these are the limiting of background processes in apps, and having Android’s data saving features activated by default.
For those of us already using Android, Go will be too slow and underpowered to be of practical interest. However, its accessibility on the most affordable of hardware will help push Android into even more parts of the world.
The Best Android Go Phones
Here’s our pick of the best models in the first generation of Android Go phones:
- ZTE Tempo Go: An $80 phone available in the US. It’s got a 5 inch screen, 4G connectivity, a headphone jack, and a microSD slot to beef up the otherwise low-end specs.
- Nokia 1: A return to the days of one-handed devices, this is a 4.5 inch phone with a 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage. The standout features are a removable battery and Nokia’s trademark tough build quality. It’s priced at $85, but might not ever make it to countries like the US or UK.
- Alcatel 1X: The 1X aims for a slightly less compromised experience. It has a modern design, with a 5.3 inch 18:9 display and slimmer than expected bezels. The camera is also rated better than many of its rivals. The downside is a higher price, around $120.
Android Go isn’t the first time Google has targeted emerging markets with its mobile platform. In 2014, it launched a similar product aimed at budget devices, called Android One. That brand has now turned into something else entirely.
What Is Android One?
Android One is a Google-led program that enables manufacturers to release phones running a pure, “stock” version of Android. This includes no interface customizations, few extra pre-installed apps, and guaranteed operating system updates for two years.
The program is a partnership between Google and phone makers. Phones that already use stock Android are not automatically Android One phones.
For a manufacturer to join the program, it must agree to some key conditions:
- All phones must have the Android One logo printed on the rear.
- The manufacturer must agree to supply regular operating system and security updates.
- The number (and type of) apps that can be pre-installed will be tightly controlled.
Nokia has recently announced that it’s going all-in on Android One across its entire range. Other companies release devices in both original and Android One variants, but updates and the lack of bloatware are only guaranteed in the latter. The HTC U11 and Moto X4 are examples of this.
The Benefits of Android One
The main benefits to Android One are simplicity and support.
Simplicity comes from the fact that it runs stock Android. The uncustomized interface and lack of bloatware should lead to faster, smoother performance. Battery life should be strong, and because the user experience will be the same across all devices, it’s easier to use.
The phones come with the full suite of Google apps pre-installed, and any extra apps needed to add value. You might get a quality camera app optimized for the hardware, for example, but you won’t get a duplicate calendar or contacts apps, or junk is thrown in by the carrier.
As far as support is concerned, you get guaranteed updates that are often rare in the Android world.
All Android One devices will get updates to new versions of Android for two years, provided by Google and rolled out by the manufacturer or carrier. They also get monthly security updates for three years, direct from Google.
While this may sound like Android One phones will lack uniqueness, they shouldn’t. Manufacturers still control what features they offer, whether it’s a dual camera setup like in the Nokia 8 Sirocco, or the squeezable frame from the HTC U11.
Phones can also hit any price point, from budget to flagship level.
The Best Android One Phones
What are the standout offerings in the Android One program? Here are our top picks.
- Nokia 8 Sirocco: The flagship Android One phone. It has a 5.5 inch QHD OLED display, with slim bezels and curved glass à la the Galaxy S9. Featuring 12MP wide and 13MP telephoto cameras with Zeiss lenses, plus Nokia’s excellent Camera Pro software, it could become a real contender in smartphone photography. The price is around $920.
- Nokia 7 plus: Many are describing the 7 plus as a replacement for the Nexus 5 and 5X. It’s powered by the impressive mid-range Snapdragon 670 processor, which should provide a great balance between performance and battery life, while the dual camera system is identical to that in the Sirocco. Price is around $490.
- Moto X4: An older device but still a good one. The X4 is available as an Android One variant (as well as with Motorola’s own software). It has 12MP and 8MP cameras, a 5.2-inch display, and decent battery. A solid mid-ranger all round. Available through Google’s Project Fi.
Is Android One the New Nexus?
It’s tempting to view Android One as the spiritual heir to Google’s Nexus program, and that’s partly true.
The Nexus phones placed stock Android and regular operating system updates at their heart, just as Android One does. The big difference is that the Nexuses also had unlockable bootloaders. This made them the go-to products for anyone who wanted to root their phone and install custom ROMs. There’s no such guarantee for Android One phones.
Where the Original Android Fits In
Alongside these two newer editions sits the regular old version of Android. This is the one based on the open-source Android operating system, is augmented with Google apps, and which manufacturers can then adopt any way they want.
We know the downsides. The often heavily-customized software might be slower and less well optimized than a stock alternative. Carriers routinely pre-load their own select apps whether you want them or not. And the update schedule can be patchy and inconsistent.
But you can sum up the attraction in one word: choice.
At a time when the hardware is becoming more uniform, software is ever more important. At each price bracket, phones look broadly the same and have the same specs. It’s in the software that manufacturers can differentiate their devices, and provide real choice.
Samsung Galaxy and a Google Pixel are similar in many ways, yet they feel totally different and have their own identities. Once you find a range you like, you can upgrade to the next model, knowing it will work the same way as the old one.
Or if you feel like a change, you have a choice from dozens of options. And because they all run on the same underlying software, you won’t lose any of your apps or data when you switch.
The ability to control the entire product is the reason why the biggest brands will continue to use the normal version of Android instead of adopting Android One. As a result, it will continue to be where you find the best devices, at all but the very cheapest price point.
Which Android Is Right for You?
So, with three distinct versions of Android, each aimed at different types of users, which one should you choose?
Who Should Buy Android Go?
Chances are if you’re reading this, then Android Go won’t be right for you. It’s primarily aimed at untapped markets that have been restricted for financial reasons. However, it could be an option for an older relative or someone who only has modest requirements for their phone.
Get Android Go if:
- You’re on a very tight budget.
- You only have a need for basic smartphone functionality.
- Performance is not a priority.
Who Should Buy Android One?
Android One is for the purists. Nexus fans, users of stock-based custom ROMs, and those who always want the latest version of Android are its main audience. If you want your phone as simple and uncluttered as possible, this is for you.
Get Android One if:
A big hope for Android One is that phone makers will be able to dedicate fewer resources to building the core software and its updates, and give more attention to innovation and high-quality apps. If it takes off, it could become much more important in future.
Who Should Buy “Original” Android?
The original version of Android is still the mass market option. You get the widest selection of the best devices, at all price points, from the biggest brands. Therefore, unless you specifically want to go for one of the other options, this is the default choice.
Stick with original Android if:
- You’re tied to a favorite brand.
- You love variety and choice.
- Regular updates are less of a priority.
Now you know all about the three flavors of Android!