The 10 Best Versions of Android, Ranked
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Android, first released in 2008, is still a relatively young operating system. However, with several years of seeing multiple updates, there are plenty of Android versions to look at. Some were better than others, so let’s rank the 10 best.
The ranking criteria
Ultimately, any “best” list will depend on the author’s preference, and this list will be no different.
As a longtime Android user – all the way back to Android 1.5 – I have experience with almost every version of Android. However, Android makes things complicated. My experience with Android on a Pixel may be very different from someone else’s experience with the same version on a Samsung phone.
I won’t just rank the versions based on best features, because that would skew heavily toward the latest versions. Rather, I’ll look at the impact each release had on the platform as a whole.
Do you probably totally agree with my list? No! Let’s start.
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#10: Android 5.0 Lollipop
Let’s start at the bottom of the list with a controversial Android version. Android 5.0 Lollipop, released in 2014, gave us our first taste of ‘Material Design’. This marked yet another major design refresh for Android, but one that has arguably aged the best.
In addition to aesthetic changes, some important things also happened beneath the surface. Android moved from Dalvik to ART (Android Runtime), which improved the performance of apps. That’s why most Android apps support Android 5.0 and above these days.
Although Lollipop looked great on the surface, it was plagued by insects. Memory management was a mess on many devices, causing apps to close too often in the background. There were also many annoyances about the new notification system.
Lollipop was important to the future of Android, but had many hiccups.
#9: Android 6.0 Marshmallow
Speaking of bugs, let’s talk about the version that fixed many Lollipop issues. Android 6.0 Marshmallow, released in 2015, didn’t have the fanfare of other releases, but it was secretly very important.
Marshmallow introduced a major change to the way Android handles app permissions. Instead of asking you to grant all permissions the moment you install the app, you can grant them if needed. This means that you only give an app access to your files, for example, if you specifically do something that requires that permission.
#8: Android 7.0-7.1 Nougat
Android 7.0 Nougat was released in 2016 and it was another refining update. By this time, Material Design was becoming more polished and fleshed out. Android had a nice, consistent look.
Nougat finally brought split screen mode to “stock” Android. Before that, phone manufacturers had implemented their own split-screen mode methods, but Nougat made it a standard feature. This release also made “Doze”, a feature intended to save battery life, work a little better.
Perhaps the biggest thing Nougat brought was Google Assistant. This was the version of Android that was launched on Google’s first Pixel phone and was tightly integrated with the operating system. Google Assistant now comes standard on all Android devices.
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#7: Android 9 Pie
When Android 9 Pie was released in 2018, reception was mixed. For the first time, Android didn’t have a Recent/Summary button. The navigation consisted of a pill-shaped home button for gestures and a small contextual back button.
While the half-baked gestures were soon replaced by Android 10, a few other features had a lasting impact. Digital Wellbeing, a suite of tools to help people adopt better usage habits, was first included. Machine learning powered battery saver and screen brightness were also introduced.
A big part of Android Pie was privacy. Android gained better control over when apps could access your camera and microphone. There were many little things that significantly improved the overall privacy and security of the operating system.
#6: Android 2.0-2.1 Eclair
By far the oldest entry on this list, Android 2.0 Eclair was released in 2009, just six weeks after Android 1.6. This was a monumental update to the operating system at the time.
Eclair introduced many things we take for granted today: voice-activated turn-by-turn navigation in Google Maps, live wallpapers, speech-to-text, and even pinch to zoom. (Yes, Android didn’t have pinch-to-zoom before.)
If you were an Android user at the time, Eclair was the update. I remember well when my HTC Eris got the update and I was able to use the navigation in Google Maps. It was legitimately life-changing. And can you imagine using a phone without pinch-to-zoom?
#5: Android 4.1-4.3 Jelly Bean
Android Jelly Bean featured three updates from 2012 to 2013. As a result of the major design overhaul in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean was all about sophistication.
One of the most notable features of Jelly Bean was the introduction of the Quick Settings panel. This is a feature that has become standard on almost all smartphones. It brought several switches buried in the settings to a more convenient place.
Jelly Bean was also our first introduction to ‘Google Now’, which has since been abandoned. The concept of predictive information that could help you throughout the day was pretty incredible at the time. It hung around for a while, but was eventually replaced by Google Assistant.
Another cool feature of Jelly Bean that Google has since left was Lock Screen Widgets. It was nice to have quick access to useful widgets without unlocking your phone, but maybe not so easy for the average consumer to use.
#4: Android 4.4 KitKato
In 2013, Google released the first branded version of Android, 4.4 KitKat. Previous versions of Android had gone dark with neon highlights. KitKat took things in the opposite direction with light backgrounds and muted highlights.
This was the first version of Android to have a transparent status bar at the top of the home screen. It also marked the switch to single-color icons in the status bar, which in this case was white. These minor aesthetic changes made the system tray look a lot cleaner.
KitKat was the first version of Android to support the wake commands “OK Google”. At the time, it only worked with the screen on, but it was an important starting step for what would eventually become Google Assistant.
Android fans may remember KitKat as the version that launched on the Nexus 5. To this day, the Nexus 5 is arguably the most loved smartphone that Google has released. It was a great marriage of software and hardware.
#3: Android 10
Android 10, released in 2019, was the first version to drop the dessert nicknames. This indicated that Google hoped to take Android in a more “mature” direction.
The most notable change in Android 10 was full-screen gesture navigation. Android Pie started the transition away from a navigation bar and buttons, but Android 10 fully realized it. For the first time, Android didn’t have “Home” and “Back” buttons.
Another great addition in Android 10 was the system-wide dark theme. By flipping a switch, you can control the theme of any app that supports the system setting. No more choosing themes per app (unless you really want to). Android’s base color had slowly gone white and bright, so this was a very welcome feature.
Android 10 had a lot of features, but another important one was better control over permissions. Users finally got more control over which apps could access their locations. This is something that Google has been working on quite a bit over the past few years and Android 10 was a big step forward.
#2: Android 8.0-8.1 Oreo
Android Oreo, released in 2017, didn’t bring a huge design refresh, but it was quietly one of the most stable and refined versions of the operating system. This was the second time Google went with a brand for the dessert nickname.
However, Android Oreo was not short on features. Picture-in-picture became a native feature, notification channels brought countless customizations to notifications, and even text selection got new options.
Perhaps one of the most useful features to ever come to Android was introduced with Oreo: Password Autofill. Like the Chrome browser, Android can remember your login for apps, making it drastically easier to use apps and set up new devices.
Android Oreo also introduced Project Treble, which promised to improve the update situation that has plagued Android for years. Has it made a difference four years later? Probably not as much as Google had hoped.
oh and RIP to the blob emojis.
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#1: Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
Ice Cream Sandwich was released in 2011 and diehard Android fans will remember it as a pretty big deal. This was the first time Android really looked like a modern OS thanks to the newly hired design chief Matias Duarte†
Android 3.0 Honeycomb, which was only for tablets, introduced the neon ‘Holo UI’. Ice Cream Sandwich (commonly referred to as “ICS”) refined the Holo UI and brought it to phones, unifying the two device categories. Not everyone is a fan of how Google merged tablets and phones, but it was undoubtedly a big change for the platform.
Ice Cream Sandwich brought richer notifications that could be wiped off for the first time in Android history. Honeycomb’s revamped and more visual Recents menu has been adopted. Face Unlock has been added as a new security method.
It really cannot be emphasized enough how important the Holo UI was for Android. Before that, Android didn’t really have a design language. It was very basic and looked like something designed for developers. Ice Cream Sandwich finally made it easier to use.
Ice Cream Sandwich was launched on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Android nerds drooled over the hype video before the release. This was when it felt like Android was finally coming of age and Google was taking it seriously as a mainstream operating system.
This was a difficult list to put together, and it could be made in a completely different order with valid arguments. Every Android release has added something important, but some had a bigger impact overall. Hopefully the next big feature is just around the corner†