Once you’ve narrowed down a carrier and a smartphone plan, it comes time to choose a smartphone. This part can be easy if you are happily tied to a particular platform or fond of a particular manufacturer, but if you’re looking for a change or coming in fresh, choosing a new smartphone is a daunting task thanks to the dozens, if not hundreds, of options.
There’s only one way to approach this to ensure you get the best device for your needs: start at the top. That means first pick your operating system. For the vast majority, that comes down to Apple iOS or Google Android.
At a basic level, both platforms are similar. You can get the same work done on an iOS device as you can an Android. And you can watch movies, play games, browse the internet, send messages, video chat, take pictures, and manage email just the same. But if you dive in, core differences emerge that lend the platforms to specific types of users.
The Issue of Choice: Android vs iOS
Picking between Android and iOS requires that you take something of a bird’s-eye view on what separates the two. The biggest difference between Android and iOS lies in customization. Simply put, Android smartphones offer more customization than iOS smartphones. As a consequence, there’s a natural trade-off: because iOS devices can’t be tweaked to the same extent as Android, they’re seen by many as more intuitive and user friendly.
The Android Way
None of this is to say that you need a degree in computer science to operate an Android smartphone. But if you like to tinker and you want the ability to tweak your smartphone to give it a more unique and personalized interface, an Android smartphone is probably best for you.
Customization of Android smartphones is limited only by the functionality of the device and applications it’s running. This includes installing any number of themes; adding interactive widgets to home and lock screens; designating certain apps to launch specific file types; downloading third-party app launchers, app trays, dialers, keyboards, email, and SMS apps; and changing default fonts. Even better, Android smartphones enable app sideloading, which is the act of downloading apps to your smartphone from a source other than the official Google Play Store, like the popular Amazon Underground, or even straight off the internet.
There’s more. If you’re not happy with the level of customization you can get with your Android, you’ve always got the option of “rooting” your device. Rooting is the process of stripping away all layers of control put in place by Android smartphone manufacturers or the carriers. The benefits of rooting your Android include having greater ability to sideload apps, removing bloatware and custom skins, and doing away with the ads that come with free apps. This last part is accomplished by installing ad blocking extensions for your browser, which are typically only functional on rooted devices. Again, this doesn’t require a computer science degree, but it’s best suited for advanced users, and there is always a risk of bricking (rendering your smartphone inoperable).
The Android OS is also known for having more functional quick launch buttons in its pull-down notification bar. With an Android, you can single-tap from the pull-down bar to toggle Wi-Fi or Bluetooth on or off, turn on GPS, engage airplane mode, mute the volume, lock screen rotation, read and respond to texts, and more. Holding down the function icon even launches the settings menu for each. In comparison, iOS devices include a pull-up Control Center that have many of these functions and let you toggle them on or off, but if you want to make any settings changes there’s no shortcut to getting there.
In short, Android sets a loose set of boundaries and allows users a certain level of freedom in determining their own workflows and preferences. This necessitates some trial and error, but Android fans would insist that’s all part of the fun.
The Apple Way
Apple iOS devices are a different animal. Apple has loosened iOS up with recent updates, adding interactive widgets to the Notification Center and third-party keyboard support, but aside from that and wallpapers, iOS is a very uniform and inflexible environment. Out of the box, users cannot sideload apps or universally change default apps like the browser or email client. If you click a link in an app, it will open in Safari. There are workarounds whereby users can designate defaults going app by app (instructing the Gmail app to open all links in Chrome, for example), but it’s cumbersome to say the least.
If you want to customize your iPhone to the extent that you can customize an Android, you’ll have to jailbreak it. Jailbreaking is basically the act of stripping away Apple’s iOS software restrictions, of which there are many. One benefit is the ability to sideload apps from sources other than the Apple App Store (which haven’t been approved for use on iOS devices). It also lets you do things like install custom themes, resize and change app icons, universally designate default apps across the device, gain access to system files, create gesture shortcuts, and customize your lock screen.
Apple strongly discourages people from jailbreaking their iPhones and iPads because, according to them, doing so can cause your operating system to become unstable and susceptible to frequent crashes. Not only does jailbreaking an iPhone or iPad void your device warranty, but it also leaves you more vulnerable to malware that could gain entry through the sideloading of untrustworthy apps. Jailbreaking an iOS device also prevents you from being able to take advantage of frequent iOS updates. And again, there always the risk of bricking your iPhone and turning it into an expensive paperweight.
So why iOS? For all its rigidity, it’s very intuitive and relatively stable. If something breaks or doesn’t work right, Apple is quick to push out a fix. Apple iOS is also polished in ways that makes Android users envious. Apple once adopted the “It just works” slogan, and that applies here. There’s a uniformity with iOS and makes sense to users, and makes it very easy to pick up and use with little or no experience.
Despite the fact there are more Android smartphones in circulation than there are iOS devices, many app developers hit the iOS market first. One reason for this, fragmentation. With literally thousands of different Android devices on the market with different RAM, processors, and display sizes and resolutions, and numerous versions of Android in use at any given time, it’s a challenge for app developers to keep up with support demands. Squashing hyper-specific bugs can be daunting. There’s also the issue of testing, which is significantly simpler when dealing with a handful of iOS devices versus thousands of Android handsets.
As a result, iPhone users sometimes get access to apps far in advance of Android users. In some cases, apps initially released to the iOS market may never make it to the Android market, like the excellent Photoshop Sketch and Tweetbot. The same can be said for apps created specifically for Android devices, but these are typically limited to apps like Tasker, which leverage customization capabilities iOS devices aren’t capable of off the shelf.
Generally, Apple’s tight grip and limited device variability ensures a level of quality control not found in the Google Play Store. It’s more commonplace for Android users to experience app failure or bugs after upgrading to the new OS because app developers haven’t had an opportunity to adapt their apps to the new software. This is a less frequent occurrence with iOS apps.
Just because app developers sometimes lead with iOS doesn’t mean Apple holds the lion’s share of applications. On the contrary, there are more applications available to Android users thanks to Android sideloading support. But even looking at the official repositories, most estimates suggest the Google Play Store has a few hundred thousand more apps than the Apple App Store.
Other Things to Think About
The mobile carriers may make it easy for you to trade in your iPhone for a Samsung, but that doesn’t mean the cross-platform migration will be without its fair share of road bumps and obstacles. For one, any apps you downloaded on one platform will have to be downloaded on the new. Most importantly, any apps you paid for will also have to be purchased again.
For those unsure about making the leap, Apple has released an official app called Move to iOS which eases the transition by helping you to transfer content from your Android to your iOS device with ease. Google also offers a similar resource for Android adopters that help with transferring music, photos, contacts, and even offering assistance finding replacement apps.
The issue of USB hosting and general accessory support is another big consideration. Android smartphones are far more versatile with the number of USB-based peripherals that they can be attached to, like keyboards, mice, game controllers, and external hard drives. Apple uses its proprietary Lightning cable, and even with the proper adapters wouldn’t support an Xbox 360 controller like an Android device. Apple and third-parties offer all sorts of iOS hardware accessories, but most are Bluetooth-based with some exceptions.
What about Blackberry and Windows?
Blackberry and Microsoft have been in the game for ages, and technically serve as alternatives for iOS and Android. There are a few things to consider here: Windows devices may be greatly appealing if you’re a dedicated PC user comfortable with the Windows environment, and BlackBerry was once the choice of businesses for its tight security controls. Both Windows 10 Mobile and BlackBerry 10 are fine operating systems in their own right, but both are crippled by their app situations and limited hardware selection.
The list of missing apps is as long as it is varied, including Pinterest and Snapchat, and a quick look at mobile operating system marketshare suggests the situation is only going to get worse, with both BlackBerry and Windows combining for about 4% of the total and trending in the wrong direction. Why would developers spend time working on platforms virtually no one is using?
In terms of devices, the last BlackBerry smartphone, the BlackBerry Priv ran Android instead of BlackBerry 10, and last BlackBerry 10 device, the BlackBerry Leap, launched in April 2015. Acer, HP, Microsoft, and a few others are still pumping out Windows 10 Mobile smartphones, but with the exception of Microsoft’s Lumia brand, most are budget or niche devices.Bottom line: Technically these are iOS and Android alternatives. We would still recommend avoiding them unless they pull an incredible market turnaround.
You Do You
Once again, both operating systems will serve you well. Remember, there’s not much you can’t do an Android that can’t also be done on an iOS device, and vice versa. It’s more a matter of how you go about doing those things. If you want less restricted freedom to customize your smartphone and workflows, Android is the way. If you prefer to use a slick device that’s ready to go straight out of the box, iOS is the way. Pick your poison.
Want to learn more about buying a smartphone? Read all about network technology, including LTE, GSM, and CDMA. And then read all about no-contract smartphone data plans and pricing and picking the right smartphone plan. Finally, learn all about smartphone specs, recycling your smartphone, and buying an unlocked smartphone.