Nexus phones are typically thought of as the ultimate form of Android greatness. They deliver timely updates straight from Google, are bloatware free, and get special perks like access to beta releases of Android.
But there are many good reasons why you may want to go for something other than a Nexus phone. The Nexus 6P is an unwieldy beast unless you have sizable paws. The 5X is too plasticky and underpowered—it's affordable, but you sort of get what you pay for.
By contrast, there are plenty of non-Nexus phones that are worthy of your hard-earned dollars. The Galaxy S7 Edge is a beauty and the best camera I’ve ever used on a smartphone. There are a lot of other solid phones out there from LG, HTC, Motorola, and OnePlus that offer their own unique perks. Of course that means you’re giving up what’s arguably the best Android experience.
Or are you? With a little bit of legwork, you can almost get that stock experience without the need to root your phone and slap on a custom ROM. If that’s what you’re after, here’s what you need to do.
Google-ify your launcher
The most basic, and probably the easiest, step you can take is to install the Google Now Launcher. This is the same launcher that comes as default on Nexus phones. It puts Google Now one swipe away, places a search bar at the top of each screen, and organizes all your apps in alphabetical order inside of the app drawer. It’s smooth and minimalist compared to some of the inelegant solutions offered by phone makers.
But the Now Launcher isn’t always the best option since you’re not able to change up the number of apps that can appear on each row in the grid. This causes them to look blown up and out of place on some larger phones that have a 5.5-inch screen or above. So try it out to see if it looks wrong to you.
In that case, consider Nova Launcher. With just a few tweaks, you can get a very Nexus-style look on your home screen.
Plus it has a ton of other options that let you change up the look of folders, create custom gestures, and help you feel like you can change just about anything you want.
Also, ADW Launcher recently returned from the dead to offer many choices to slim back your bloated launcher. There are plenty of other launchers out there if you want to try your hand at building your own stock Android experience from scratch.
Sideload the Google dialer and contacts app
Google makes a contacts and phone app, and they’re supposed to only be for Nexus devices. But with a little trickery, you can get them on your non-Nexus phone.
That means you’ll get the same cool features from the dialer, like the ability to look up nearby places right from the search bar and a consistent experience with your Google contacts entered or edited from your Gmail.
You may need to experiment, however. I tried this out on different phones, and the correct version to use varied depending on them. The latest edition worked on the HTC 10, while I had to go back Google Phone 2.5.12_rc9 on the Galaxy S7 Edge. The key is trial and error until you get it right.
Another point to remember: next time you go to initiate a call or open a contact from another app, you’ll have to select the Google app as the default. It’s a minor annoyance, as this step is what allows this freedom to switch up default apps.
Grab a theme
Some phones, like the Samsung Galaxy line and many HTC phones, offer a theme store where you can change up the icons, settings page, and overall design by piggybacking on the hard work of a developer. If you’re after a Nexus look, this can be a great way to go since several developers have built themes that look similar to stock Android.
If you search for “material” you’ll find many good options in the Galaxy Themes store (I’m a particular fan of Material Dark). Same goes with the HTC marketplace, though there aren’t quite as many choices to be found. Keep in mind that developers may update those themes from time to time, so it means yet another place to check for updates.
While most are free, a few of the themes will cost you a dollar or two. It’s a worthy price to pay for a much slicker look.
A few lockscreen tweaks
Even if you’ve made the aforementioned tweaks, don’t ignore the lockscreen. On the Galaxy S7 and S6 line, for example, you can change up which apps are available as a quick launch option when you unlock. So if you’ve made the Google Phone app your dialer, then you can add that to the lock screen to replace Samsung’s option.
LG lets you place shortcuts on your lockscreen so you can access a preferred app right away. So you can put the same type of access here, going to the Google Phone, Contacts, or Google app so you can get right to your preferred information. Any apps you sideload may vary in their effectiveness, so try it out before you get into a situation where you need to make a quick call but you instead end up throwing your phone at the wall because it’s not launching the dialer.
Know your limits
Finally, it’s worth knowing there’s only so much you can do. You can’t force your carrier or phone manufacturer to upgrade your phone. So when Android Nougat launches a little later this year, you may just have to be patient or decide now is finally the time to buy a Nexus device.
The bottom line is there are several ways to get close to what you’d experience with a Nexus phone. Of course this won’t solve the gap in software updates or the other benefits that come from the Nexus line, but a near-stock experience may be enough when paired up with a phone you really like.