In many ways, today’s smartphone era is a two-party system. While Windows Phone is finally starting to pick up a little speed, and there are BlackBerry devotees among us, smartphone shopping often boils down to picking between Android and the iPhone. Sure it’s true that they’re head-to-head competitors in many respects, but the two mobile juggernauts offer very distinctly different experiences. We’ll break down what they have in common and where they differ, so you can size up your own needs and find your smartphone soulmate.
The iPhone: The one and only
When people talk about something “on the iPhone” they’re usually referring to a feature of the iPhone’s software, known as iOS. Unlike other smartphones, there’s really just one iPhone, though older versions of the same phone do exist. Apple is also on-point about keeping its devices up to speed on the same software, so it’s way less confusing across the board than Android. Apple’s current generation of iPhone is the iPhone 4S, and before that we had the iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, and so on. While there’s just one (current) iPhone, you can buy it in black or white, and you can choose how much storage space to spring for.
The many faces of Android
The term Android refers to both Google’s mobile operating system as well as any device running Android. This gets tricky: some Verizon Android phones are branded as “Droids” but Android owners occasionally refer to any Android device as a “Droid,” regardless of carrier. There are Android phones of all shapes and sizes from all four major mobile carriers.
The App Store vs. the Android Market
Getting down to it, apps are the reason most of us buy a smartphone these days. Apple’s App Store is a bustling hub of downloadable games and tools, and it’s widely regarded as the biggest, best app marketplace to date. Apple is known for having a relatively strict and at times arbitrary approach to the apps it lets into the App Store, which has resulted in some controversies in the past. Still, the App Store remains king of the hill.
From the beginning of Android, Google emphasized the “openness” of its mobile OS, and the company doesn’t have the same kind of strict app approval process for its own app hub, the Android Market. Critics of Google’s approach suggest that this system fails to filter out malware, while Android evangelists believe that the laissez-faire approach works 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 more apps than the Android Market. 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.
A 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. If you’re plugged into Google’s Web world, you’ll feel right at home on Android.
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. Even a simple setting on the phone itself may control what you need. A set of slick apps known as “launchers” can even modify the look and feel of Android entirely. Truly, no two Androids are alike.
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 is nicknamed Ice Cream Sandwich and also commonly called Android 4.0 or “ICS”, but many relatively new devices still run an older version of the operating system.
But the plot thickens even further: Android device manufacturers usually offer their own interpretation of Android, via a layer of software known as a “skin”. Skins can come with their own unique look and even skin-specific apps that you wouldn’t find on a phone by a different manufacturer, meaning that a Motorola Android phone will look and function a bit differently from a comparable Android phone made by HTC.
Some of the best known skins include HTC’s Sense, Motorola’s Motoblur, Samsung’s TouchWiz. Unfortunately, it’s these skins that exacerbate the Android fragmentation problem, by making universal, across-the-board Android updates impossible. Since manufacturers need time to make their own twists on “vanilla” Android (a common term for non-skinned Android software), it can be a waiting game when it comes to software updates.
Only one phone family circumvents this entire problem: devices in Google’s Nexus line (most recently the Galaxy Nexus) offer a vanilla Android experience delivered straight from Google. Nexus devices are always first to new Android software.
Apple remains firmly confident in its ability to craft the best possible experience for its customers, and as a result, the iPhone is extremely polished. Apple offers a sleek aesthetic and a cohesive, seamless experience on all of its devices, from the iPhone to the iPad and its myriad computers and accessories. This emphasis is very apparent on the iPhone, which is a breeze to use. And it’s no secret that the iPhone 4S (and its predecessor) are arguably the best-looking phones on the market.
With the last-generation iPhone 4, Apple introduced its Retina display technology, making the iPhone the most pixel-rich 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 Apple devices. And with the release of the iPhone 4S, Apple has debuted a comprehensive, at times hilarious voice command and search system known as Siri.
While these features are certainly perks, owning a phone that looks great and “just works” is the real winning formula behind the iPhone’s overwhelming success.
Apple’s general attitude toward its products can prove to be 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 — and it’s usually right. Naturally, this paternalistic view can rub some would-be iPhone owners the wrong way, particularly when Google espouses the opposite attitude toward Android.
Beyond its approach, the iPhone has now debuted across three of the four major carriers, but T-Mobile loyalists are still out of luck. And to date, no iPhone supports any carrier’s next-gen 4G network, though 4G capability is widely rumored to be built into the next generation device. The iPhone is powerful, but if you’ve got a real need for speed when it comes to surfing the web from the palm of your hand, you’d be well served to look to one of the myriad Android 4G phones. 3G just can’t keep up.
Which is right for me?
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 will open up an amazingly flexible mobile world. If you’re seeking a polished smartphone experience at the cost of some flexibility, the iPhone won’t disappoint.