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iPhone or Android: Which Smartphone Should You Buy?

When you're looking for a new smartphone, choosing an iPhone or Android phone isn't a simple task. While both phones offer a lot of great features, they may seem so similar that it's hard to distinguish between them. If you look closely, though, you'll find that there are some key differences. Thirteen of those differences are examined here to help you decide whether an iPhone or Android phone is right for you.

1. Hardware: Choice vs. Polish

Hardware is the first place that the differences between the iPhone and Android become clear. Apple is the only company that makes iPhones, giving it extremely tight control over how the software and hardware work together. On the other hand, Google offers its Android software to many phone makers (Samsung, HTC, LG, and Motorola, among others, offer Android phones). As a result, Android phones vary quite a bit in size, weight, features, user experience, and quality.

It’s not uncommon to hear that some Android phones regularly overheat or freeze up or that some models are simply low quality. This inconsistency of quality isn’t an issue for the iPhone.

Apple offers users a single choice: what model of iPhone do you want (5, 4S or 4), not what company’s phone and then what model. Of course, some people may prefer the greater choice Android offers. Others, though, will appreciate the simplicity and quality offered by the iPhone.

2. OS Compatibility: A Waiting Game

If you want to make sure you always have the latest and greatest features that your chosen smartphone operating system offers, you have no choice but to buy an iPhone. That's because Android makers are very slow about updating their phones to Google's latest Android OS releases--and sometimes don't update their phones at all.

While it's to be expected that eventually older phones will no longer have support for the latest OS, Apple's support for older phones is generally better than Android's. Take for instance, iOS 5, its latest OS. It includes full support for the iPhone 3GS, a nearly three-year-old phone as of this writing. Because of that, roughly 75% of iPhone 3GS-4S users were running iOS 5 6 months after its release.

On the other hand, Android 4.0, codenamed Ice Cream Sandwich, is running on just 2.9% of Android devices 6 months after its release. This is partly because the makers of the phones control when the OS is released for their phones and, as that linked article shows, some makers have been slow to release it to their users.

So, if you want the latest and greatest as soon as it's ready, you need an iPhone.

Winner: iPhone

3. Apps: Selection vs. Control

While the iPhone App Store offers more apps than Google Play--about 700,000 versus 480,000 (as of July 2012)--overall selection isn’t the only factor. Apple is famously strict (some might say unpredictable) about what apps it allows and how it changes its policies, while Google’s standards for Android are somewhat more lax.

Many developers have complained about the emphasis on free apps for Android and the difficulty of developing for so many different phones. This fragmentation--the large numbers of devices and OS versions to support--makes developing for Android expensive (for instance, the developers of Temple Run reported that early in their Android experience nearly all of their support emails had to do with unsupported devices--but they support over 700 Android phones!). Combine these development costs with an emphasis on free that reduces the likelihood that developers can cover their costs and not all of the best apps make it to Android, and those that do don’t necessarily run on all phones.

Winner: Apple, but not by much

4. Gaming: A Growing Giant

Just a couple of years ago, video gaming--and especially mobile video gaming--was dominated by Nintendo’s DS and Sony’s PSP. The iPhone has changed that. The iPhone (and iPod touch) has rapidly become a major player in the mobile video game market, with tens of thousands of great games. The growth of the iPhone as a gaming platform, in fact, has led some observers to forecast that Apple is well on its way to eclipsing Nintendo and Sony as the leading mobile game platform.

Beyond that, the general expectation that Android apps should be free (noted above) has led game developers interested in making money (i.e., almost all of them, and certainly all the major ones) to develop for iPhone first and Android second. In fact, due to various problems with developing for Android, some game companies have stopped creating games for it all together.

While Android has its fair share of hit games, the iPhone has the clear advantage here.

Winner: iPhone

5. GPS Navigation: Free Wins--For Everyone

As long as you’ve got access to the Internet and a smartphone, you never have get lost again thanks to the built-in GPS and maps apps on both the iPhone and Android. Both platforms sport GPS apps that can give drivers turn-by-turn directions and, with the arrival of iOS 6, both platforms now have free, built-in, turn-by-turn directions.

Android users can use Google Maps Navigation, an app that’s not available for iPhone, to get free turn-by-turn directions to virtually anywhere. On the other hand, iPhone users running iOS 6 can use the new, built-in Maps app to get directions to their destination.

Winner: Tie

6. Flash: A Difficult Choice

The iPhone famously doesn’t run Flash--and never will--and makers of Android tablets trumpet that their devices do. If tablets using Android can run Flash, will Android phones be able to do the same?

The answer is sort of--and only older models. That's because Adobe, the makers of Flash, have ceased development of Flash for Android. While older Android devices can use Flash, Adobe has said it will no longer support Flash on Android 4.1 and higher, and that it will no longer be available for download through Google Play after August 2012. So, Android users who want Flash will have to decide: do they want to stay on an older operating system or have Flash?

After reports that the experience of running Flash on Android was never very good--many reviewers have pointed out that Flash doesn’t work terrifically well on Android tablets and that it drains batteries quickly--Adobe's decision seems to validate Apple's original point: Flash is bad for batteries and device stability.

While its lack of Flash prevents the iPhone from viewing some web content, many sites have alternate versions that work with the iPhone. So, iPhone users do miss some of the web, but less and less all the time. And, they may miss the parts of the web, but with HTML 5 set to displace Flash and Flash's own maker admitting it can't make a version that works well on Android, you'd have to conclude Apple wins this one.

Winner: iPhone

7. Battery Life: Consistent Improvement

Because of the greater variety of hardware used in Android phones, Android’s battery life is more varied and, on average, less than the iPhone’s. While early iPhone models had batteries that required a charge nearly every day, that’s no longer true. With recent models, it’s easy to go days at a time without needing a charge (though that will be tested with the iPhone 5).

The story is much more complex with Android, thanks to the large variety of models that run it. Some Android models now have 4-inch screen or 4G LTE networking, both of which burn through much more battery life. To get a sense of what that means, some 4G LTE Android phones are being touted as successes because they can work 8 hours straight without a charge. That means they don't last an entire day, just a work day. I'm sure the faster networking is great, but that's too much of a trade-off for me.

Add that to the battery-intensive apps Android phones run (including some in the background that the user doesn’t necessarily know are there), a charge every day (or less) isn’t unheard of.

Winner: iPhone

8. Screen Size: How Big Is Too Big?

If you're looking for the biggest screens available on smartphones, Android is your clear choice. It's not uncommon to find Android phones with 4.3-inch screens, and the HTC One X offers a 4.7-inch screen, while the Samsung Galaxy Note stretches the ruler at 5.3 inches. So, for sheer size, Android it is.

The question, of course, is whether a screen that big on a phone is actually a good idea. After all, phones go in our pockets or purses, they're held in our hands and to our faces, where huge devices may not necessarily be a benefit. And as we've seen already, large screens consume more battery power.

While Apple long held to the 3.5-inch screen size, the iPhone 5 brings a 4-inch screen. However, instead of making the entire device proportionally bigger, and therefore a less comfortable fit in the hand, Apple made the screen taller, but not wider. This allows the phone to still be easily used with one hand. Besides that, the Retina Display technology makes the iPhone's screen much higher-resolution than Android screens. Still, if it's raw size you're after, Android's the choice, but not by much.

Winner: Android

9. Networking: Tied in 4G

For the fastest wireless Internet experience, you have to go to Android. That's because--for now--only Android devices support true 4G LTE networking, the wireless data standard that is succeeding, and outspeeding, 3G.

Not all Android devices have 4G LTE, and not all areas of the U.S. have 4G LTE available yet, but if you've got a compatible device, have an available network, and are on a carrier with 4G LTE, some Android phones can offer blazing-fast speeds.

While Android used to hold the lead here, the category is now a tie thanks to the release of the iPhone 5. With true 4G LTE networking, the iPhone 5 is on par with Android for the fastest cellular data speeds.

Winner: Tie

10. Carriers: 4 vs. 3

If you like to have a lot of choices, Android is your best bet. Just like there are many Android phones from many companies, you can also get Android phones that work on any of the U.S.’s four major phone carriers: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

On the other hand, the iPhone is only available on AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon (for now; many expect T-Mobile to join the gang in 2013. In the meantime, unlocked AT&T iPhones can work on T-Mobile). Both options are available through the many small, regional carriers in the U.S., too

So, if you’re already a T-Mobile customer, or just want maximum flexibility, Android should be your choice.

Winner: Android, for now

11. User Experience: Elegance vs. Customization

People who like complete control over the customization of their phones, and want to be able to fiddle the lowest level functions, will prefer Android thanks to its greater openness (one downside of this, though, is that each company that makes Android phones can tweak them, sometimes replacing default Android apps with inferior tools developed by that company). Android customization can also require some complex technical skills that the average person rarely has.

Taken as a comparison done on a features list, the distance between Android and iPhone doesn't seem that far--and it seems that Android is ahead in some areas. And while that's true, the experience of using a phone, a device that's with you all day long, doesn't boil down to what boxes get checked. The experience is driven by quality and attention to detail, how the device works and how you feel about it. There's a reason people feel passionately enough about the iPhone to wait hours to get one on the day of a new model's release. This happens sometimes with Android phones, but less often and at lesser scale.

Most people want a phone that works well, lets them run the apps they want, and is easy to use. On that front, the iPhone wins hands down. Apple’s intense focus on ease of use, quality experience, and things just working (see hardware, apps, and Flash above for examples of how Android’s openness can make life harder) makes it the clear choice for most users.

Winner: iPhone

12. User Maintenance: Storage and Battery

Apple prizes elegance and simplicity in the iPhone above all else. That’s a major reason that users can’t upgrade the storage or replace the batteries on their iPhones (it’s possible to get replacement iPhone batteries, but they’re have to be replaced by a skilled repairperson). Android, on the other hand, is open to user customization, meaning that users can change both phones’ memory and battery.

The trade-off is a bit more complexity and a bit less elegance, but that might be worth it compared to running out of memory or needing to pay for a battery replacement equal to a large percentage of the cost of your iPhone.

Winner: Android

13. Cost: Is Free Always Best?

If you’re particularly concerned with what your phone costs, you’ll probably choose Android. That’s because some Android phones, when paired with a new two-year contract from a phone company, are free. While Apple didn't used to offer a free iPhone, the 4 is now free with a two-year contract. Still, free Android phones offer some newer specs.

For those on a very tight budget, that may be the end of the discussion. If you’ve got some money to spend on your phone, though, look a little deeper. Free phones are usually free for a reason: they’re often less capable than their more-costly counterparts. Getting a free phone may be buying you more trouble than a paid phone. There are a number of Android and iPhone models under $100 with a two-year contract, including the iPhone 4S.

Otherwise, expect to spend $199-$299 (with two-year contract) for the newest and best Android phones or iPhones.

Winner: Tie

14. Bottom Line

The decision of whether to buy an iPhone or Android phone isn’t as simple as tallying up the winners above and choosing the phone that triumphed in more categories (6-3 for the iPhone, with 4 ties, for those counting). That’s because all of the categories won’t count for the same amount to all people. Some people will value hardware or carrier choice more, while others will care more about battery life or mobile gaming.

While it should be no surprise that the guy writing an iPhone website might prefer the iPhone, Android phones are good choices for many users. You’ll need to decide what factors are most important to you and then choose the phone that best meets your needs.

Five questions to help you decide

I think every person who works in IT secretly wants the, “No, I will not fix your computer” t-shirt. Anyone involved in working with PCs comes to dread the inevitable conversation, “Since you’re pretty good with computers, I’ve got this question.” I’m sure plumbers, electricians, and auto mechanics all have their own version of this scenario.
Lately, the question I’ve been getting most frequently is the one that I dread answering the most. “You seem to know a lot about smartphones. I’m thinking about an Android or an iPhone. Which do you recommend?”

You might think my answer would be pretty straightforward, but it never is. I’ve got a lot more hands-on experience than the average user on both Android and iOS platforms, including rooting, jail-breaking, and fixing bricked devices. I own an iPad, iPod Touch, and several Android devices. I know most people have to live with one platform or the other. This makes a recommendation very difficult to make.

What seems like a simple answer is really a complex situation. Both platforms are nearly indistinguishable from one another in average, day-to-day use. Sure, there may be some features like Siri or Google’s navigation that could sway a user one way or another, but for most users, their actual experience won’t differ much.

So, what guidelines can you use to help someone pick a phone that won’t have them coming back complaining that you steered them in the wrong direction? These points are usually where I start:

1: Are you invested in Google environments already?

Are you using Gmail, Google Docs, and/or Google as a single authentication point for other sites that support it? If you’ve already bought into Google solutions in your daily PC use, then Android is probably going to be a more seamless experience. It’s not that the iOS Google experience is limited, but it just makes sense if you’ve put all your eggs into the Google basket, that a phone designed around Android will deliver a more rewarding experience than one built by their competition.

2: Are you a Windows or Mac user?

Do you like the “empowerment” of the Windows experience, or do you prefer the carefully curated Macintosh environment? If you like to tinker, explore, and get into the depths of your device, Android might be your best choice. If you want a no-hassle appliance, you’ll probably prefer iOS. Apple Macintosh owners might find the iPhone iOS experience more comfortable, familiar, and well-integrated with the rest of their digital life.

3: Do most of your friends have iPhones and other iOS devices, or do they have Android smartphones?

Dropbox, Evernote, Bump, and even Words with Friends don’t care if you’re on a phone or tablet, Android or iOS. But each platform has unique differentiators. If all your friends use Facetime, you’re going to be left out if you pick up a 4G LTE Android device.

4: Do you plan on using this device as a BYOD on your corporate network to access company email or other resources?

If so, the decision may already be made for you. Make sure to check with your IT team to see if they have policies on which devices are supported.

5: What is your experience with spam, viruses, and malware?

If you’re the kind of person who constantly finds themselves turning to your local IT guru to fix your infected machine, the odds are that the same things are going to affect you in the smartphone world. In that case, you’re probably better of with an iOS device. There’s no doubt that iOS limits your freedom, but part of this is actually driven by a real “Apple Knows Best” mentality that seems to work.

If you’ve given up on Windows because of constant malware infections and you love your new Mac because it has never let you down, don’t go Android. If you’ve learned not to click on that “must see” video on Facebook or that email from the IRS or the European Lottery, and if you’ve never sent your personal account information to a Nigerian prince, then you’ll probably do fine with Android.

A great illustration of the difference between iOS and Android are the way apps are delivered to each device. On iOS, your only official option is the App Store. This is the perfect example of the double-edged sword of Apple’s approach. The benefit is that Apple inspects and approves every app in their store. The downside is that Apple controls and approves every application in their store. They can, and have, rejected apps for any reason — and when they do, there’s little recourse for Apple users.

Android, on the other hand, has a market where there isn’t any real inspection process, which makes it a buyer beware free-for-all. The end user is accountable for the security of their device. If the official Android Market (recently upgraded to the Google Play Store) isn’t enough for you, there are about a half-dozen other markets that you can download apps from, as well as the ability to download apps directly via a PC or your phone and side-load them onto your device — all without any risky jail-breaking or rooting of your device. This makes it very difficult for anyone to limit what apps are available.

With Android, I also have access to the file system, so I’m able to create a Kindle document in Calibre and send it via email, download the attachment, and then copy it in the file structure on my Android device to the Kindle directory. Kindle automatically adds the new book when I load the app.

On an iPhone, I have to email the document to my Amazon account from Calibre. I then log onto my Kindle page on Amazon, select the document, and select Deliver To My iOS device from a pull-down menu. It isn’t that you can’t do all of the same things, but in some cases, the simplicity of iOS can make things a little more difficult. Each of these are examples of “power use” though, where I’m pushing beyond the “appliance-like” mobile experience. Many users would never try these things. However, for people who want to push the limits, iOS can be a stifling experience.

Ultimately, the decision to go with one platform or the other no longer strongly hinges on which carrier you’re most comfortable with, and that opens the gates to more difficult decisions for the smartphone buyer. I generally say I can’t really make a recommendation one way or the other, that both platforms have strengths and weaknesses, and it mostly comes down to personal preference. However, asking the five questions above can help narrow the field for most prospective buyers — and that’s a good place to start.

Of course, these are just a few considerations. How do you help guide buyers to their best smartphone purchase? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.


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