You’ve no doubt heard the buzz around two of the biggest forces to be reckoned in the smartphone world, Android and the iPhone. And while it’s true they’re head-to-head competitors in many respects, the two mobile juggernauts might have more differences than similarities. Here, we’ll break down what they have in common and where they differ so that you can sort it all out when choosing the right phone.
What’s an operating system?
The core battle between Android and the iPhone is one between mobile operating systems. A mobile operating system (or “OS” runs on a phone and determines the organization of the entire experience you see on your screen, from the moment you press the power button. On a phone, the OS is your gateway to apps, the internet, email, and everything else. Both the Android OS and the iPhone OS were created to run on smartphones.
The iPhone: The one and only
When people say “iPhone” they might be referring to the actual phone or the OS the iPhone runs, called iOS. Unlike other smartphones, there’s really just one flavor of iPhone. Apple’s current iPhone is the 7th version to date and is referred to as the iPhone 5s.
The many faces of Android
The term Android refers to both Google’s mobile OS as well as any device running Android. This gets tricky too: some Verizon Android phones are branded as “Droids” but Android owners also occasionally refer to any Android device as a “Droid,” regardless of carrier.
Apple has faced some criticism for its approach to the iPhone app store, as nothing can sneak its way into the store without first getting the green light from the company. In the past, this has sometimes resulted in Apple’s stalling apps in the approval process or rejecting them altogether. Still, Apple boasts the biggest and arguably the best app store to date.
From the beginning of Android, Google emphasized the “openness” of its mobile OS, and the company does not implement any kind of app approval process, unlike its rival. App developers revel in Android’s openness, because there are fewer barriers to getting their product into the hands of customers. Critics of Google’s approach suggest that this system fails to filter out low-caliber apps, while Android evangelists believe that the laissez-faire approach will work itself out.
Either way, the app stores are quite comparable. The iPhone OS has been around for longer, so the iPhone’s store naturally boasts many more apps than Android’s relatively fewer offerings. But increasingly, new and popular apps are being developed in parallel for both platforms, and very few big hits remain exclusive to one store or the other.
While the iPhone is the true app pioneer, Android devices offer an additional kind of app experience that iPhone does not support, called “widgets.” Think of widgets as mini-versions of apps, perfect for information you’d like to access frequently at a glance. Unlike an app, a widget can provide you useful updates like local weather, email previews, and Twitter feeds right on your home screen, so launching the app itself isn’t necessary for quick updates. A widget is a one-click (or no-click) way to keep updated on the stuff you care about most, or to keep your most frequently used functions and features easily accessible.
Another unique advantage afforded by Android is its integration with Google. Gmail’s ubiquity means that just about everyone can benefit from Android’s superior native Gmail app. Beyond Gmail, Android’s version of Google Maps offers some unique and extremely useful features like Google’s Navigation, a GPS-driven, turn-by-turn directions app for the car that’s a solid substitute for a stand-alone GPS system.
On the whole, Android is a more flexible OS. If there’s something that bugs you about your phone or some setting you’d like to tweak, odds are an app on the Android market does just that — or even a simple setting on the phone itself may control what you need. Developers can even create apps that modify the look and feel of Android entirely.
A criticism frequently leveled at Android is the issue of “fragmentation.” Android fragmentation refers to the existence of multiple versions of Android across many different phones. The current version of Android (nicknamed KitKat but more commonly referred to as Android 4.4) is the latest and greatest Android build, but many relatively new devices still run an older version of the OS.
Android device manufacturers usually offer their own interpretation of Android, meaning that a Motorola Android phone will look and function a little differently from a comparable Android phone made by HTC. These unique, manufacturer-specific takes on the Android OS are called “skins.” While sometimes they are well regarded, like HTC’s lauded skin Sense, it all boils down to matters of preference. Unfortunately, it’s these skins that create the Android fragmentation problem, by making universal, across-the-board Android updates nearly impossible.
Apple remains firmly confident in its ability to craft the best possible experience for its customers, and as a result, the iPhone feels extremely polished. Renowned for its approach to design, Apple offers a sleek aesthetic and a cohesive, seamless experience on all of its devices, from the iPhone to laptop and desktop computers. This emphasis is very apparent on the iPhone, which is a breeze to use on top of being disarmingly attractive. It’s no secret that the iPhone 5s is the best-looking phone on the market, and it’s easy to see why.
The latest iPhone also debuted Apple’s Retina display, making it the highest-resolution display on a phone to date. That means an extremely crisp display for web browsing, e-reading and multimedia. Another iPhone exclusive is Apple’s FaceTime app, which facilitates seamless video chatting between iPhone owners and Macs.
While these features are certainly perks, owning a phone that looks amazing and “just works” is likely the winning formula behind the iPhone’s overwhelming success.
One prominent criticism of the iPhone revolves around Apple’s refusal to support Flash, a web-based feature that some websites require to load. Also, until recently, the iPhone was unable to multitask, meaning that it was only possible to open one iPhone app at a time. The newest iPhone OS supports multitasking, but it still can’t be used with all apps.
A very limiting aspect of the iPhone is its exclusive contract with AT&T. If you’d prefer to remain on a different mobile carrier or lack AT&T coverage in your area, you’re out of luck. While a Verizon iPhone is in the works, AT&T and the iPhone go hand and hand for now. Beyond these criticisms, Apple’s general attitude toward its products can prove a turn-off for some. The iPhone is less customizable because Apple purports to know exactly what will make your mobile experience the best it can be. Naturally, this paternalistic view on its customers can rub some would-be iPhone owners the wrong way, particularly when Google espouses the opposite attitude toward Android.
Which is right for us?
Ultimately, making the choice between Android and the iPhone comes down to personal taste. For those who value a high level of customization, an Android device is the way to go for an impressively flexible, though potentially less cohesive, experience. And for those seeking an undeniably smooth smartphone experience at the cost of flexibility, the iPhone will certainly not disappoint.