Custom Android Devices: Off the Shelf vs. Purpose Built

Cam Summerson
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As you define the requirements for company-owned Android devices, selecting the right hardware can be daunting. There’s no shortage of options: buying consumer hardware, going directly for commercial-grade, buying white boxed hardware and providing your own operating system, or going all in and building your own devices.

Hardware Guide

Commercial vs. Custom Android Devices

The term "commercial grade" when referring to hardware and other digital devices is a bit of a misnomer. While there are commercial-specific devices like tablets, kiosks, and point of sale systems, most off-the-shelf consumer-grade Android hardware can technically be used in an enterprise use-case, effectively making it "commercial."

Custom Android devices, typically built by companies that specialize in building custom Android hardware, on the other hand, are purpose-built for enterprise use cases that are typically developed in partnership with chipset vendors and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) or Original Design Manufacturers (ODM).

Organizations often believe that custom Android is a product roadmap risk, since it can be hard to control cost, quality, and outcomes when you’re working with an unknown OEM. In reality, custom Android devices may be a better option than you believe. The best Android hardware for your use case could be custom or commercial.

Let's take a look at seven common myths and misconceptions around custom Android hardware, including costs, manufacturing processes, security, deployment, and more.

Myth #1. Custom Android devices are costlier

Customers often mistakenly believe that custom Android is always costlier than off-the-shelf products. In reality, the cost of Android can vary significantly for both purpose-built and off-the-shelf devices.

Custom Android can allow you to optimize features and performance for your budget to ensure you’re not paying for any unused hardware features or processing power. You could save money on common features that simply don’t make sense in your use case, such as an unneeded camera or microphone. This can allow you to maximize your budget. Depending on many different factors, purpose-built Android hardware can be 25% cheaper than consumer-grade devices with the right tweaks.

When you're in full control of the hardware, you're also in charge of the software updates and, thus, the lifespan of that hardware. Where are off-the-shelf device might stay updated and secure for 3 years in a good scenario, custom hardware go much longer, saving cost on upgrades.

Myth #2. Custom Android manufacturing is lengthy 

Another common misconception about purpose-built Android is that custom manufacturing is a lengthy process. In reality, you can streamline the entire process - from validation to design and manufacturing.

The biggest threat to a speedy deployment is devices that aren’t validated for your specific Android applications and use case requirements, which can occur with both commercial and custom devices. 


By partnering with Esper and MediaTek, you can develop a complete proof-of-concept for custom Android apps and devices in a matter of weeks, allowing you to significantly streamline your validation and manufacturing phases. Learn more.

Myth #3. Support and updates are complex

Purchasing commercial, off-the-shelf devices does not guarantee long-term support or ease of OS updates. In fact, purchasing either custom or commercial hardware that’s not validated can yield mixed results for long-term support requirements. OEMs offer varying levels of post-sales support to device customers, which means you’re not guaranteed access to regular updates. Even the best-supported Android devices will only see one major Android OS version update and three years of security patches. After that, you're on your own.


Support and updates are a crucial consideration for the hardware selection phase. Before you invest in devices, you need to research the updatability for after the manufacturer-provided window ends. It’s important to evaluate device update availability, how long updates will be available, and how difficult it is to apply these updates remotely or using on-site resources. Devices with limited long-term support options can be a security risk under any circumstances, and hardware that’s difficult to update can lead to mounting long-term support costs.

One of the most effective ways to simplify your long-term support requirements is to opt for either commercial or purpose-built devices with a custom version of Android. Custom Android OS can provide greater control over the device throughout the lifecycle, including remote over-the-air updates (OTA updates)

Related reading: What are the Benefits of a Custom Android OS?

Myth #4. Custom devices are less secure

Let’s be clear — there is no such thing as a hack-proof Android device. But, control and configurability both play an enormous role in the security of single-purpose Android devices. Custom devices can be more secure than commercial options since you can design for greater control over the entire device lifecycle by optimizing the hardware, OS, and cloud tools used to deploy and manage Android.

Off-the-shelf Android hardware can be a security risk if you’re unable to effectively lock it to your use case or remotely manage total device health in real-time. The wrong combination of device and cloud tools can leave device settings and features exposed to remote end users. When poor control over single-purpose Android is combined with poor visibility, it’s a recipe for security incidents.

In comparison, custom Android devices can offer a number of security and compliance advantages. You can integrate ISO or PCI requirements into the design phase. You can eliminate unnecessary features and ports to mitigate the potential surface area for an Android attack. Cloud tools and OS customization can further improve your ability to detect, manage, and remediate security risks in real-time — including greater protection against malicious Android firmware attacks that are hard to detect and even harder to mitigate on commercial-grade OS. 

Myth #5. Custom Android hardware is only for unique form factors

Android is the future of smart devices for healthcare and fitness. Custom Android software is the leading option for purpose-built fitness bikes, remote healthcare monitoring systems, and countless other use cases. But, unique form factors aren’t the only reason to consider a custom Android device.

Custom Android devices come in countless different form factors, including:

  • Smartphones
  • Tablets
  • Kiosks
  • Fitness Equipment
  • Signage
  • Healthcare Devices
  • Wearables
  • And much more

Just because your preferred form factor is available off-the-shelf doesn’t mean that commercial devices are a better option. Purpose-built hardware can offer superior performance and cost control in many use cases, even if you need a traditional form factor such as smartphone or tablet. 

Myth #6. Custom devices are harder to deploy

Provisioning and deployment can be a challenge with any mobile device. But custom devices aren’t necessarily harder to deploy than commercial options. Validating performance can prevent provisioning nightmares since there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all device or use case. 

Android device customization should allow you to fully test your proof-of-concept performance on sample boards before proceeding to the design or manufacturing phase. 

Adding a custom OS to purpose-built Android hardware can significantly streamline your provisioning and deployment process, especially if you’re able to validate your proof-of-concept in advance. With Esper Foundation for Android, you can ship the device directly from the OEM to the point of use for painless, touchless provisioning on-site from the moment a device connects to Wi-Fi or Ethernet. This eliminates the time, cost, and headache of provisioning devices at headquarters before shipping devices to the final point of use. 

Myth #7. Custom Android devices are risky

Purchasing the wrong device for your requirements is an enormous risk to your product roadmap. Hardware selection is critically-important and risks can occur if you choose a commercial or custom device that isn’t validated for compatibility. 

Custom Android hardware isn't necessarily a risk — choosing validated, enhanced, or purpose-built hardware is the best way to protect your product roadmap from issues related to performance, security, visibility, or control. 

Are Android custom devices right for you?

Custom Android hardware may be right or you could be better served by validated or enhanced commercial devices. The answer varies depending on your roadmap, industry, budget, timeline, and other factors. Here's a quick look at some key considerations when deciding between custom and off-the-shelf Android devices.

Building custom hardware

GMS vs. Non-GMS Devices

Custom vs. commercial Android can vary depending on whether you need a Google Mobile Services (GMS) or AOSP (Android Open Source Project). The most significant difference is that GMS devices include a package of applications and services from Google, including Chrome, Search, YouTube and more.  OEMs must pursue a very specific process to produce GMS-certified devices which can add to the total device cost and dramatically increase the time to market.

Learn MoreGMS vs. Non GMS for Android Devices

There are pros and cons to GMS vs. Non-GMS devices which vary significantly according to your use case and requirements. GMS devices are the standard for consumer-grade Android, but they’re not necessarily the best or most cost-effective choice for every enterprise use case. 

Esper is the industry’s leading source of custom and commercial device support for both GMS and AOSP/Non-GMS Android devices. You can learn more about Esper’s support for Android OS versions 4.4+ in our requirement docs

Budget

Your total budget and budget per device are both important considerations in determining whether to build or buy Android devices. It’s essential to ensure you’re converting budget to value by optimizing performance and features for cost. Don't forget to factor in the "after," too — device maintenance, updates, support, and more all play a role in the total cost of ownership (TCO).

Additional resourceTCO for dedicated device management

Timeline

Your timeline for deployment can also shape whether you’re best positioned to build or buy. But, custom device delivery doesn’t need to take years. You can validate a complete proof-of-concept in weeks by partnering with Esper. Our robust catalog of partners can streamline your device build process.

Industry

The industry you work in can shape your requirements, especially if you’re subject to regulatory requirements such as PCI DSS or ISO 13485. Industry can also impact your need for ruggedized devices that are shatter-proof, water-proof, and fit for other tough workplace conditions. Still, there are both commercial and custom options available for even the most highly-regulated industries or ruggedized use cases. 

Use case

A well-defined use case is among the most important considerations for commercial vs. custom Android devices. The target users, usage volume, environment, applications, purpose, and mission-critical components of your use case can help you select the right validated or purpose-built hardware. And, if you’re still working to define your use case, partnering with experts can help you fully understand your requirements. 

Requirements

Vague requirements can be a risk in any product roadmap, including single-purpose Android hardware. This can be especially true if you’re planning to customize your hardware with an unknown vendor. Expert assistance really matters in the requirements-gathering phase to ensure you’re fully prepared to optimize device features, processing, storage, and other variables in your hardware search. 

How to select the right single-purpose Android hardware

If you think that a custom device could be right for you, schedule a consultation with our hardware experts to learn about our validated and custom device options for your use case.

We are Android experts who can help you make the right decision for your unique situation to streamline your single-purpose deployment.

Talk to Our Experts

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Custom Android Devices: Off the Shelf vs. Purpose Built
Cam Summerson
Cam Summerson

Cam is Esper's Director of Content and brings over 10 years of technology journalism experience to Esper, including nearly half-a-decade as Editor in Chief of a technology publication. He currently oversees the ideation, execution, and distribution plans for numerous types of content from blog posts to ebooks and beyond.

Cam Summerson

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