If you’re buying a new smartphone today, chances are very good that it will run Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS mobile operating systems. These two platforms accounted for more than 99 percent of all new smartphones shipped in 2016, and that rose to 99.7 percent last year, according to IDC. Microsoft has thrown in the towel with Windows Phone, BlackBerry makes Android devices now, and there are very few other options worth considering.
The good news is that both smartphone operating systems are excellent. They have far more in common than what divides them, but there are some important differences that you’ll want to consider. We’re going to pit Android against iOS in several categories here and pick a winner for each one. Ultimately, the best platform for you depends on you. Pick the things that matter most to you, count the wins in those categories, and you have a recommendation.
Hardware: Choice vs. Polish
Hardware is the first place where the differences between the iPhone and Android become clear.
Only Apple makes iPhones, so it has extremely tight control over how the software and hardware work together. On the other hand, Google offers the Android software to many phone makers, including Samsung, HTC, LG, and Motorola. Because of that, Android phones vary widely in size, weight, features, and quality.
Premium-priced Android phones tend to be as good as the iPhone in terms of hardware quality, but cheaper Android options are more prone to problems. Of course iPhones can have hardware issues, too, but they’re generally higher quality.
If you’re buying an iPhone, you just need to pick a model. Because many companies make Android devices, you have to pick both a brand and a model, which can be a bit confusing.
OS Compatibility: A Waiting Game
To make sure you always have the latest and greatest version of your smartphone operating system, you have to get an iPhone.
That’s because some Android makers are slow at updating their phones to the latest version of the Android OS version, and sometimes don’t update their phones at all.
While it’s to be expected that older phones will eventually lose support for the latest OS, Apple’s support for older phones is generally better than Android’s.
Take iOS 11 as an example. It includes full support for the iPhone 5S, which was released in 2013. Thanks to support for such an old device, and full availability for all other models, iOS 11 was installed on about 66% of compatible models within 6 weeks of its release.
On the other hand, Android 8, codenamed Oreo, was running on just 0.2% of Android devices more than 8 weeks after its release. Even its predecessor, Android 7, was only running on about 18% of devices more than a year after its release. The makers of the phones – not users – control when the OS is released for their phones and, as stats shows, most companies are very slow to update.
So, if you want the latest and greatest as soon as it’s ready, you need an iPhone.
Apps: Selection vs. Control
The Apple App Store offers fewer apps than Google Play (around 2.1 million vs. 3.5 million, as of April 2018), but overall selection isn’t the most important factor.
Apple is famously strict (some would say too strict) about what apps it allows, while Google’s standards for Android are lax. While Apple’s control may seem too tight, it also prevents situations like the one where a fake version of WhatsApp was published on Google Play and downloaded by 1 million people before it was removed. That’s a major potential security threat.
Beyond that, some developers have complained about the difficulty of developing for so many different phones. Fragmentation – the large numbers of devices and OS versions to support – makes developing for Android expensive. For example, the developers of Temple Run reported that early in their Android experience nearly all of their support emails had to do with unsupported devices even though they support over 700 Android phones.
Combine development costs with the emphasis on free apps for Android, and it reduces the likelihood that developers can cover their costs. Key apps also almost always debut first on iOS, with Android versions coming later, if they come at all.
It’s difficult to organize millions of apps and games and neither Google’s Play Store or Apple’s App Store does it perfectly. Overall, we think Apple’s redesigned App Store in iOS 11 provides a better browsing experience on your phone and does a better job with curated recommendations. The Play Store is easier to search and you can queue and install apps from the web browser on your PC or laptop.
We like the fact that you can buy apps using your fingerprint via Touch ID on iPhones, but you can set up the same thing for the Play Store on Android phones with fingerprint sensors. The Play Store wins points for having a no quibble refund policy within 2 hours of purchase. There are some questionable apps in both stores, but Apple is generally stricter about blocking certain types of apps. That can be a good thing for overall quality, but it’s a bad thing if you’re into something like game emulators for classic consoles. The App Store edges the win for usability and curated content.
Battery life and charging
As one of the biggest bugbears for smartphone owners, battery life is a huge factor. It’s difficult to compare the two platforms because there’s no common hardware. We could say iOS is optimized to squeeze the most out of the battery per mAh rating, but you can buy an Android device with a much bigger battery that will easily outlast the iPhone.
Both Android and iOS allow you to see your battery usage at a glance, broken down by app, but only Android shows an estimate of how much battery life you have left. They both offer power saving modes that can extend your battery life by limiting performance, connectivity, and other power-sapping features, but precisely how it works is generally more customizable on Android.
For a long time, Android had an advantage in the charging department, because many Android phones offered fast charging capabilities and wireless charging. However, Apple’s iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and iPhone X all offer wireless charging and fast charging. It’s worth noting you have to buy the fast charging adapter separately, whereas it’s usually provided in the box with an Android phone.
This category is far from clear cut, but comparing similarly priced Android phones with iPhones, they tend to have longer battery life and they always have fast chargers included in the box, so Android gets the win.
Should You Switch?
If you’re frustrated by aspects of your current phone—or if newer models of your phone don’t include features you want—you may be tempted to switch operating systems. We generally recommend against it, though. By the time you’ve used a phone for a couple of years, you’ve spent a lot of time learning its quirks, and you’ve probably invested a decent amount of money into apps, games, music, or videos that you may have to rebuy if you switch.
That said, switching from Android to iOS is a bit easier than the other way around, because you don’t have to move most of your stuff if you don’t want to. Google makes versions of its most popular apps—including Chrome, Gmail, Photos, Maps, Drive, and Google Play Books, Movies, and Music—for iOS, which helps ease the transition. And Apple’s Move to iOS app can walk you through transferring the rest of your stuff. That’s not the case when switching away from iOS: Apple Music aside, Apple makes it difficult to impossible to use iCloud services or access your media on non-Apple devices.
Those same Google services also help ease the move from iOS to Android, though the process actually involves moving your stuff from your device (and Apple’s cloud) into Google’s. Google recommends using the backup feature of the Google Drive app for iOS to move your contacts, calendar events, and photos from your phone into Google’s apps. In doing so, you’ll lose any non-Apple-Music media, notes, reminders, and other data stored in iCloud. You also won’t be able to communicate with iOS users using iMessage or FaceTime, which can be a big sticking point if you have a lot of iPhone-using friends and family. By now, most popular apps and games are available on both iOS and Android (though you may have to repurchase them when you switch), but specialty apps like audio, video, or image editors are more likely to be iOS-only.