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Debate: Are Android Skins Good or Evil?

As the Android OS gets sleeker and more mature with each new iteration, smartphone makers are coming under fire for continuing to layer their own software on top of Google's. If you ask someone like HTC, they'll tell you why something like Sense 4.0 is better than stock Ice Cream Sandwich. Other examples include Samsung's TouchWiz, which enables the new Samsung Galaxy S III to do things like wake the device up with your voice and watch a video picture-in-picture while you're using another app.

So are Android "skins" really evil? And how could they get better? To sound off on this debate we recruited two of the brightest minds in mobile, PCMag lead mobile analyst Sascha Segan and senior mobile editor for The Verge, Chris Ziegler.

Check out the video and some of the highlights of our roundtable below.

Mark Spoonauer: Sascha, let's start with you. In your experience with Sense 4.0, how do you think this is evolving? Do you think it's evolving in the right way, or is it still too heavy?

Sascha Segan: I think Sense 4.0 on Android Ice Cream Sandwich is a lot lighter than Sense 3.6 was, and in general I'm pretty pro-skins, because I write for consumers and want a phone to do everything it needs to do right out of the box.

I often find a lot of the guys I talk to who hate skins are people who do heavy configuration on their own devices. But for the vast majority of consumers out there, Android does tend to start out rather stark, missing a few key things -- Facebook integration is the biggest one by far -- and HTC Sense can add an extra layer of smoothness to the experience.

Mark: Chris, I feel like your opinion of Sense 4.0 in particular was mixed. What was your overall opinion? Do you feel like they didn't make quite enough progress?

Chris Ziegler: I think that OEM customization of Android is kind of antiquated at this point, because they're looking at it through a pre-ICS viewpoint when, frankly, the UX sucked. Now with Android 4.0, we're seeing that it's far better than it's ever been before.

What's ironic to me is that you'd think that you'd find the stock Android 4.0 experience -- like you see on the Galaxy Nexus -- on a broad base of devices, with only a few other devices that are customizing on top of that. Actually, the opposite is true: It's virtually impossible to get the stock ICS experience.

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Sascha: When you come down to it, there are two things that manufacturers are doing with these skins. The first -- and this is something that I'm championing -- is that they're genuinely adding functionality. HTC's "drag-to-the-ring" unlock screen adds functionality; their integration of Facebook into the Contacts list adds functionality.

However, a lot of these companies are doing some things simply for the sake of differentiation. Samsung's decision to change all of the icons in the system for no apparent purpose is my biggest frustration in this regard.

Mark: When you have the manufacturers putting their own skins on top of Android, do you risk fragmenting Android even further than it already is?

Sascha: In terms of fragmentation, I worry most from a developer's perspective -- that is, the compatibility of third-party apps. Skins don't typically affect that. What skins are fragmenting is the user experience, and how consumers can become fluent with one OEM's version of Android, and not another.

Mark: So skins aren't going away any time, nor do I think they should, as can add value, but OEMs could certainly be more thoughtful about what they include -- especially if they have Google's help.

Sascha: I think a lot of people complain about skins because of their hit on speed and memory. That's something that HTC has really improved going from Sense 3.6 to Sense 4.0, and it's something that OEMs need to pay a lot more attention to. OEMs have to ask, are all these random icon changes worth the hit to performance?

Chris: OEMs need to turn their "experiences" into widgets, into apps, and into enhancements to the stock Android look and feel. I think that over the next two to three versions of these skins, we're going to see them move in that direction -- at least I hope.