Android celebrates its fifth anniversary this month, and the little green robot's operating system has most certainly come a long way.
But while the platform has jumped to the top of worldwide installations and has been comfortably resting there for a while now, it's often been criticised for its lack of polish. And it's been neglected by many app designers tempted by sweet iOS fruits on the other side of the fence.
The world of Android app design is changing rapidly, though. When Google revealed Android 4.0 'Ice Cream Sandwich', it features a beautiful, modern interface called Holo and proper guidelines. Finally, there was one coherent Android app design to follow, instead of multiple custom skins from each OEM.
Today, more and more developers are applying the new Holo aesthetics, which were designed for easier scaling across the multitude of Android screen-sizes.
Support for different screens, resolutions, and orientations is a key feature of the operating system, and every Android user expects his apps to scale nicely across his devices, be it a 4in phone, a large 10in tablet or anything in between. So there's a distinct difference between beauty on iOS devices and beauty on Android.
While the former is often seen as a pure, fixed canvas, where great app designers can push every individual pixel to their liking, Android experiences benefit much more from the overall interaction between clear and simple interface, animations, data visualisation, and scalability.
Here are some Android app designs that stand out as being some of the most beautiful experiences the platform has to offer today.
The Kickstarter-founded Chameleon Launcher stands out amongst other popular launchers with a well-crafted, easy-to-use interface for Android tablets. The many native widgets are vividly colour-coded and they all scale nicely with custom layouts to any size within the grid. Fluid animations take you from screen to screen, while each can be customised with a wallpaper from the beautiful library.
02. Weather Eye
As with iOS, there are tons of weather apps on the Play Store. Weather Eye stands out with its minimalistic, Holo theme and all the basic features you would expect from a great weather app. There's also an option to select one of 12 iconsets for the weather status. But why didn't other Android app designs implement this before?
Pattrn does just one thing, but does it flawlessly. It lets you pick patterns from COLOURlovers and set those as your device's wallpaper. There aren’t a lot of interface elements to discuss here, but Pattrn is a perfect example how an Android app design can scale beautifully across all sorts of screen sizes and orientations.
When Read It Later relaunched their service as Pocket earlier this year, it showed how a developer can merge Android's Holo aesthetics with its own brand without feeling out of place. The grid and list views of the saved content flow seamlessly across smaller and larger screens, and a variety of greys, rich typography, and spots of vibrant colour give the Android app design for Pocket a unique identity.
There's just no way to avoid mentioning social news app Flipboard when talking about spot-on UI design for mobile - and that's no exception when we're talking about its Android app design. While some navigation patterns and UI assets show its iOS origins, in general flipping through the nicely laid-out bits of Flipboard's news is a breeze.
It might come second for some, but many users prefer 'Google Reader magazine' Feedly's very clean and straightforward Android app design over Flipboard's. There's no distraction from the content itself, just big pictures and subtle typography in a magazine-like layout. While there are some custom widgets within the app, those never feel forced or out of place in the overall experience.
Spotify made a big leap earlier this year when it rethought its Android app design with a clean Holo-compliant interface and streamlined navigation. Everything feels stripped down to its bare bones in black and white, except for the full-bleed cover artworks. This feels just right for a music streaming app, which should obviously be enjoyed with ears rather than eyes.
Google's own social network app is, in a way, the playground for every new interface pattern emerging on Android. From the card-like posts over circle avatars to the navigation drawer, everything is crafted and animated nicely, with scaling in mind. As ever, some will complain about certain details and missing features. But for a complex service like Google+, every part of the app is very well done and shines as one of the finest Android app designs around.
Path, the social network for people who prefer quality and selectivity to massive overload, is just beautiful. There are a couple of elements that feel a little more familiar to an iOS device, like gradients, subtle shadows and round edges everywhere, but the team behind the Android app design made sure that Path feels at home on Google's platform. Besides, you can't really argue about those gorgeous large photos, crisp icons, and fine details on every screen.
10. The Verge
Just recently, tech news app The Verge gave its native Android app design a beautiful new Holo theme. Modern post-Ice Cream Sandwich patterns like a left side drawer or swipeable tabs are present. But the paramount highlights here are The Verge's vivid colours and rich typography, taken directly from the branding of their web presence.
One of the latest contenders for the most beautiful Android app design is social scrapbooking app Pinterest. From the carefully implemented signing up process to full-bleed presentations of photos, Pinterest adds just enough detail to the UI to keep pictures and content at the centre.
Begone, skeuomorphic design! In Google Play Books, you won’t find wooden shelves, paper textures or dog-ears, just a clean presentation of your books’ covers side by side, with a carousel like navigation between them. The only allusion to physical books in this Android app design is the page turning effect. Again, a case of 'enjoy the content, not the interface chrome' - something that Apple has reverted to with iOS 7.
13. Google Now
Google is at the centre of Android and is therefore able to push Android app design much further than many other developers.
Google Now, an intelligent personal assistant app, launches with a simple swipe straight from the lock screen. The card-based layout scales perfectly across all sorts of screen sizes, with large type and colourful, location-aware illustrations rounding up the experience and making Google Now one of the most beautiful apps on Android to date.
14. Hotel Tonight
Android's Holo aesthetics were developed with flexibility and scalability in mind. Room booking app Hotel Tonight is a beautiful example of how to create a solid Android app design by embracing native fonts, colours and patterns yet still creating a unique looking brand. Every bit of this application is crafted perfectly within the boundaries of the core OS.
I hope you won't mind if I include Timer, by company Opoloo, as my final choice of top Android app designs. Clearly I'm biased, but the programmable timer app has been praised by others too - it was called 'definitely one of the best designed apps on Android' by Pushing Pixels, for example. We spent a lot of time fine-tuning our little app's UI and fitting all parts of Timer as close to the Holo guidelines as possible. Hopefully, you like it (it helps if you're a fan of black and orange!).
Words: Guenther Beyer
Guenther Beyer is a founder of Opoloo, a small but great design and development company based in New York and Mainz, Germany. Opoloo lovingly creates beautiful apps and web projects with heart and soul, from tip to toe. See them cut a mean rug at www.opoloo.com.
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Have you seen an amazing Android app design? Let us know about it in the comments below!