What is an Android phone?

It's easy when you know, but for the uninitiated we answer the questions: 'what is an Android phone?' and 'what is an Android tablet?'

Here on PC Advisor we glibly use phrases such as 'Android phone' and 'Android tablet'. We know exactly what that means, but such insider knowledge is easy only when you know it. After all, an iPhone is an iPhone, but a Samsung Galaxy S4 is an Android phone. And just to complicate matters, Toshiba slates can be either 'Windows tablets' or 'Android tablets'. Finally, you may well buy your Samsung phone from O2 or Three, but it's still an Android phone. What gives?

Here then is our simple answer to the questions: 'what is an Android phone?' and 'what is an Android tablet?' (To understand other tech terms, read our story: Tech Jargon Buster: technology terms explained.)

What is an Android phone? What is an Android tablet?

In a sentence: an Android phone is a smartphone that uses Google's Android as its operating system. A tablet is - can you guess? - a tablet that uses Android as its OS.

Android is a Linux-based operating system designed and maintained by Google. It's aimed principally at touchscreen smartphones and tablets, athough some laptop makers are starting to run Android on their devices for reasons of cost.

That doesn't mean that Android phones are made by Google. Far from it, Google makes only the software - the only 'Google' phones and tablets are the Nexus devices such as the Nexus 4 phone and the Nexus 7 tablet. They are manufactured by third parties with Google funding, and marketed as Google devices in order to increase sales of Android phones, apps and media.

The reason so many phones and tablets run Google software is simple: Android is open source, or free to use. This means that any phone or tablet maker can use Android as their operating system, without having to develop their own software or pay a licensing fee.

Most phone and tablet makers choose Android for this reason, which means that Android is now the most popular platform for smartphones, and very popular with app makers. In turn this also means that smartphone purchasers can buy apps for their phones and know that they should work on most other smartphones, with the exception of iPhone, BlackBerry and Windows Phone devices. And Android is very well supported by app makers, and movie, magazine, music and TV publishers.

What is an Android phone? Android versions

Indeed, many phone makers go further than just using Android for their smartphones and tablets, they adapt the software to create a bespoke feel for their phones. One reason why the term 'Android phone' can be confusing is because the version of Android that appears on a Samsung phone looks different to that on an HTC handset (for example).

Further complications concern the iterations of Android. The most recent flavour on the market is Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. This shouldn't be confused with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, or indeed any of the (roughly) 11 versions of Android dating back to 2009 that you may come across. Even more confusing is the fact that as well as the two Jelly Beans there are two 'Honeycomb' OSes and a brace of 'Gingerbread'.

In part this bewildering array of Android OSes - all of them available on live smartphones - reflects the fact that Google simply makes the software and allows smartphone and tablet makers to do with them as they will. There is no requirement for phone makers to use the most recent version of Android, so many continue to use older flavours, and not all phones are updated in a timely fashion: if at all.  

It's also worth noting that some Android versions are aimed at tablets and some at smartphones.

What is an Android phone? Benefits of using Android

Android should be cheaper than the equivalent iPhone, BlackBerry or Windows Phone, because the software is free to use. It's not always the case, and cheap Android phones are nothing like as useful or stylish as an iPhone.

What is not in doubt is that Android is extremely popular - the most used mobile platform on the planet. Because of this the Google Play app store is well populated with apps and media.

Finally the open nature of Android means that you are not tied to a single app- or media store. You can, for instance, purchase music from multiple sources.