If you’re buying a new smartphone today, chances are extremely good it will run one of two operating systems: Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS. These two platforms account for virtually all new smartphones shipped in the last couple of years, according to the IDC. In fact, the “other” category is so small that it doesn’t even account for 0.1% of sales.
That’s some serious dominance by the two biggest players, and the good news is that both smartphone operating systems are excellent. They have quite a bit in common with each other, but there are some important differences you’ll want to consider when you’re trying to decide between these twin giants. We’re going to pit Android against iOS in several categories here and pick a winner for each one.
However, don’t go into this expecting there to be a black and white answer. Ultimately, the best platform for you depends on — well — you. Pick the things that matter most to you and count the wins in those categories, and you have a personalized recommendation.
Apple has always been at the high-end of the market in terms of pricing, but the iPhone X took things to a whole new level with a starting price of $1,000. Apple’s iPhones haven’t gotten much cheaper since, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max starts at $1,100. They do come a little more affordable, but not by much. The iPhone 12 starts at $800, and the iPhone SE (2020) — the cheapest iPhone Apple sells — starts at $400. Apple continues to expand its offerings, but $400 is as cheap as it gets unless you delve into the secondhand market.
For sheer scale and variety, nothing competes with Android. You can spend a lot if you want to — for example, Samsung’s cutting-edge folding Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G costs $2,000, but there’s also a huge selection of good, low-cost handsets as low as $100, from a wide variety of different manufacturers. The platform has also been deliberately optimized to run on low-end hardware with the introduction of the variant OS Android Go. Finally, Android’s lead in free apps also makes it the natural choice for the budget-conscious.
Apple’s iOS is an exceptional OS, but the high entry point has always been one of its biggest issues. Apple’s iPhone SE and iPhone 12 make that entry point lower, but it’s still not a match for Android’s massive range of affordable devices. Whether you’re looking to spend $100 or $2,000, there’s an Android phone for you. iOS can’t say the same.
Let’s start with a look at the numbers. This is roughly how many apps you’ll find in the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store:
- Android apps: 2.7 million
- iOS apps: 1.82 million
However, numbers aren’t the best metric because most of us only use a handful of apps, and the most popular ones are available on both platforms. Traditionally, iOS has been a more lucrative platform for developers, so there has been a tendency for new apps to appear there first, but that’s changing as Android’s market share continues to grow. In the U.S., iOS still leads the way, but developers elsewhere are increasingly targeting Android first.
Luckily, both operating systems have been taking more precautions when it comes to malicious apps and spyware, making apps safer to download than ever.
The Play Store still has a higher percentage of free apps than the App Store. But the best mobile games still land on iOS first — and they don’t always come to Android, even if Android has plenty of great games. Ultimately, quality beats quantity, and so this is a narrow win for iOS.
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 App Store 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 two 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 iOS App Store edges the win for usability and curated content.
Alternative app stores and sideloading
It’s relatively easy to sideload apps on Android. Tick a box in the settings, download an APK, and you’re set. There are also a lot of alternative Android app stores beyond the Play Store, but sideloading can open you up to the risk of malware and isn’t worth worrying about for most people. Apple is opposed to third-party app stores, and if you want to access them, you’ll have to jailbreak your iPhone. If you want a wider choice of apps and easy sideloading, then your winner is obvious.
As the newer navigation system, Apple Maps did not have a great start, but it has improved significantly. Key features are similar: You can download maps for offline use, get accurate estimates based on current traffic conditions, and find turn-by-turn directions for driving or walking. Apple has even closed further in on Google Maps by adding cycling directions and more improvements in iOS 14. You’ll also find public transit and ride-booking integration. They all work well and should get you where you’re going.
It used to be that Google Maps would win this category hands-down — and while it’s still generally our map app of choice, Apple has made some huge strides toward parity in the last few years, and Apple Maps is now at the point where it’s a serious competitor. We would still personally download Google Maps, even on an iOS device, but if you chose to go with Apple’s map app over Google’s, then you wouldn’t be getting an inferior product. Right now, Google Maps still has a small advantage due to its larger database of reviews and businesses, but its lead has narrowed a lot, and we expect to see this category fall into being a tie eventually.
Battery life and charging
As one of the biggest complaints from smartphone owners, battery life is a huge factor. It’s difficult to compare the two platforms because there’s no common hardware. 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 11, iPhone X, and even the iPhone SE (2020) adopted wireless charging and fast charging, so they’re not that far behind. It’s worth noting that you have to buy the fast-charging adapter separately for some iPhone models, whereas it’s usually provided in the box with an Android phone. Apple supplied a fast charger with the iPhone 11 Pro, but that was one of the last iPhones to come with any charger. From the iPhone 12 onwards, you’ll have to buy a charger separately, as iPhones now only come with a Lightning-to-USB-C cable.
However, Android fans shouldn’t sneer at iPhone lovers too much, as Samsung is following where Apple has led. The new Galaxy S21 range comes with no charger in the box, and, as with the headphone jack, we’ll probably start to see this change echo across to other manufacturers.
This category is far from clear-cut, but comparing similarly priced Android phones with iPhones, you can find a phone with a larger battery if that’s important to you, and they tend to have fast chargers included in the box (for the moment), so Android gets the win.
Apple’s iOS offers consistent and timely software updates and security patches. If you want the same experience on Android, then you have to buy one of Google’s Pixel phones or a phone running Android One. This is how iOS version shares break down according to the official Apple Developer website:
- iOS 14: 80%
- iOS 13: 12%
- Earlier: 8%
So, around 80% of all iOS devices are now running the latest version, and the numbers are even better when you look at devices introduced in the last four years. For those devices, 86% run iOS 14, 12% run iOS 13, and only 2% run an earlier version of iOS. That’s impressive.
Is Android up to a similar standard? No. Android 11 is now available, but don’t expect it to spread to a majority of devices for a while. Our Android stats come from Android Studio and don’t seem to be updated as often as Apple’s iOS distribution numbers. Android 11’s distribution stats seem to be out now, but we wouldn’t expect it to move into double digits for a while. Heck, according to Android Studio, it’s struggling to hit a single percentage point.
- Android 11: <1%
- Android 10: 8.2%
- Android 9.0 Pie: 31.3%
- Android 8.1 Oreo: 14%
- Android 8.0 Oreo: 7.3%
- Android 7.1.1 Nougat: 5.4%
- Android 7.0 Nougat: 7.5%
- Android 6.0 Marshmallow: 11.2%
- Android 5.1 Lollipop: 7.4%
- Android 5.0 Lollipop: 1.8%
- Android 4.4 KitKat: 4%
- Older: 1.9%
While there are some notable exceptions for Google’s own Pixel phones and those running Android One (like many of Nokia’s phones), if you want the latest features, bug fixes, and security updates, then you should choose iOS.
This has always been one of Android’s main strengths. It’s very easy to customize your phone — you can set up the layout you want on your home screen, add widgets and shortcuts, and even change your entire user interface with launchers.
iOS 14 was something of a revolution for iPhone users, introducing far more support for widgets on the iOS home screen. While initially, this seems more like a bit of fun, some users have taken advantage of widget-customizing apps to dramatically change the look of their devices. However, it’s still not up to the level of Android, which allows for third-party launchers that can completely change your phone into something else entirely. If you want a phone that embraces tinkering, or a truly unique, personalized look for your home screen, then Android is the platform for you.
The perception that Android is more complicated than iOS prevails, but there’s no need to dive into customization options. Both platforms offer a good range of accessibility features.
If you’re looking for a device for an elderly relative or a technophobe then you’ll find some specialist offerings on Android, but they tend to scale down what’s possible. Manufacturers like Samsung also include options like “Easy mode,” which makes the interface bigger and simplifies the whole experience, or you can opt for a third-party app to do the same. There are lots of good apps aimed at the elderly on Android and iOS, regardless.
Ultimately, iOS is simpler and easier to use in some important ways. It’s uniform across all iOS devices, whereas Android is slightly different on devices from different manufacturers. We also think iOS is less cluttered and more streamlined than most Android phones, although Google’s stock Android is every bit as elegant and accessible.
While Android has come a long way from the old days, it’s still not as accessible as iOS’s very simple interface. iOS wins here.
Calls and messaging
Basic calling and messaging functionality are good on both platforms, but it can be confusing on Android. First, Google appeared to be folding everything into Hangouts, which allows messages, SMS, video chat, group chat, and more via Wi-Fi or your data network. Then it released Allo and Duo, and now it is retiring Hangouts — but wait, it also shut down Allo as well! Messages is the default texting app, and that now seems to be Google’s main messaging app, and has received RCS support. However, you’ll find many manufacturers like to offer their own alternatives. Many Android phones come with their own messaging and dialer apps in addition to Google’s messaging apps, making the whole confusing situation even worse.
iOS, being controlled directly by Apple, is a lot simpler. FaceTime and iMessage come pre-installed on every iPhone and iPad, so it’s remarkably easy to connect with your friends and family. While iMessage is very easy to use, it works best when communicating with other iPhone users, creating a culture of blue versus green bubbles. You’ll find third-party app integration, fun stickers, GIFs, and much more in iMessage. We give iOS the win for its consistency and ease of use.
The default email apps on Android and iOS are very easy to use and quick to set up. You can pull in multiple email accounts and view them in a single inbox if you desire. Android and iOS have a huge range of third-party email apps available as well. However, Gmail is a stronger default email app than iOS’ Mail. Since Gmail is the most popular email address system in the world, it makes sense that the Gmail app would be a winner. You can also add email addresses from different providers in Gmail with ease. The intuitiveness of the app with other Google Suite apps sets it apart from the rest.
The only issue is that Android phones often offer alternative email apps made by the manufacturers, which may or may not be good.
This is a difficult category to call. In the past, we’ve argued that Apple does the best job capturing lighting, coloring, and other details, but the latest Android smartphones are casting a lot of doubt on that assertion. Google’s Pixel 5 boasts an excellent camera, but so does the iPhone 12 Pro Max.
While most of the current crop of Android flagships sport good, or sometimes great, cameras, there’s a fair bit of variance, and the camera quality of many midrange devices doesn’t come close to the quality of iPhone cameras. As you’d expect, most budget Android phones have lower-quality cameras.
The camera apps on both platforms are very good and very fast. For ease of use and best results without tweaking, the iOS camera app takes the cake. There’s more variation on Android simply because manufacturers tend to add their own camera apps with lots of features, some good, some a bit gimmicky.
We used to grant this one to iOS for pure consistency, despite the strengths of phones like Google’s Pixel and Samsung’s Galaxy. However, times have moved on, and a lot more Android manufacturers can put up a fight against Apple’s excellent cameras. This has to be a tie.
If you use the Photos app in Android, then you can automatically back up all your photos and videos. You can back up photos and videos at the original resolution with iCloud or Google Photos, but you only get 5GB of free space with iCloud, compared to 15GB with Google.
This category is complicated by the fact that the default on iOS is iCloud, but you can also use Google’s Photos on iOS. However, since most people go with the default option, we’re giving Android the win here.
Apple is still lagging when it comes to cloud storage and automatic backups. Google offers 15GB for free and has cross-platform support. You only get 5GB with iCloud, and it only works with Windows, Mac, and iOS.
If you need a lot of additional space, Google One charges $2 per month for 100GB ($20 for the year), while Apple charges $1 per month for 50GB or $3 per month for 200GB. Apple’s price for 2TB jumps up to $10 per month. Google will also give you 2TB for that price, but you can get a discount if you pay for the year, which costs $100 ($8.33 per month).
Android’s cloud storage is easier to use and more effective than iCloud. You can also use Google Drive on an iPhone, whereas iCloud is iOS only.
You can do many of the same things with Apple’s Siri as you can with Google Assistant, but Siri is more like a straightforward helper for setting calendar appointments, searching the web, or making calls. Google Assistant has an extra layer. It can preemptively offer useful suggestions, and it has a more conversational side that offers up entertaining games and contextual information based on what you’re doing. It’s smarter and more versatile than Siri.
The addition of Siri Shortcuts in iOS 12, which allows you to set up voice commands to trigger groups of automated tasks, is a big step in the right direction and Siri is also beginning to make more suggestions based on your iPhone usage. For now, however, Google Assistant can do more and seems to be improving at a much faster rate, offering things like call screening and the ability to make reservations for you.
Much has been made of the supposedly “toxic hell stew” that is Android, but the threat of malware is exaggerated. The truth is that most people will never encounter a problem because they don’t go outside the Play Store for apps. Specific manufacturers like Samsung have taken extra efforts to beef up security for the enterprise market. But the slovenly nature of updates on many Android devices can seriously delay important security patches.
Speedy updates are now more important than ever because security breaches are becoming more serious. Android tends to lag in the update world — that is, unless you have a stock Android device like a Pixel or a phone running Android One. That lack of update speed tends to mean Android is less secure to emerging threats. Because millions of Android phones are still running software that’s years old, they can be vulnerable to serious hacks like Heartbleed and Stagefright.
Apple is firmly entrenched in corporate America and has also worked on improved security for general consumers, most notably with Touch ID and FaceID in the iPhone X and later. The tight oversight that Apple has on apps and the ability to push updates out to more devices more quickly gives it an edge over Android. The company also encrypts data in iMessage and its other apps.
Apple prioritizes user privacy, so you can feel safe knowing your personal data is not stored or read by Apple. It is all encrypted, too. Meanwhile, Android encrypts some data, but your privacy is less protected. Google mines your data for information that it can use to sell better ads and market products to you. Your data is also stored and read to provide you with a better A.I. experience.
Google claims it is committed to fully protect user privacy and still provide the A.I. services it offers, but some security experts and Apple argue that Google presents a false choice between A.I. and privacy. Apple even went to war with the FBI to guarantee your right to encryption. It’s hard to beat that kind of dedication.
There’s no denying that iOS is the most secure platform and the one that best protects user privacy. If you care about your privacy and security, go with an iPhone.
Rooting, bootloaders, and jailbreaking
We’ve looked at how to root your Android phone or tablet before. It’s not for everyone, but if you want root access and complete control over your device, then rooting is the way to get it. Rooting gives you access to more apps, the latest OS updates without waiting, new software skins to get the aesthetic you want, the chance to get rid of bloatware from carriers and manufacturers, potential tweaks to boost your device’s speed and battery life, and more.
Many Android OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) also offer a way to unlock the bootloader, which determines how the OS loads up on your device. Apple is completely opposed to this kind of thing. Jailbreaking is an option for iOS, which lets you download and install apps from outside the App Store and bypass some other limitations.
Cases and accessories
The average iPad or iPhone owner spends more money on more things than the average Android device owner, and Apple has built up a great ecosystem of peripherals for its phones and tablets. There are far more peripherals and cases aimed at the iPhone than any other device, but a major flagship like the Samsung Galaxy S21 would be a close second.
On the other hand, Android devices have adopted the Micro USB or USB-C standard, whereas Apple insists on its proprietary Lightning cable. This means it’s much easier to find a charger if you’re not an iPhone owner, and often means you have to splash out on an overpriced Apple adapter. Peripheral manufacturers may still go after iOS as their main target, but it’s very rare to find something without Micro USB or USB-C support.
Another mark against Apple is the abandonment of the standard 3.5mm audio port, as begun with the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. You did get an adapter in the box with a new iPhone for a while, but Apple no longer includes it, so you’ll have to buy the dongle and, even if you do, it’s easily lost. The choice of headphones sporting 3.5mm audio jacks far exceeds those with Lightning connectors. Of course, Android phones continue to ax the headphone jack in favor of USB-C and Bluetooth audio, so this is lessening as a point against Apple.
It’s also important to note that Apple’s ecosystem of products all work together exceedingly well. The iPad, Apple Watch, MacBook, and HomeKit products all work together in perfect harmony. MacOS, WatchOS, iPadOS, and iOS are all well connected, making it easy to have all Apple products on the same page. If you’re already invested in a MacBook or iPad, then an iPhone would allow all of your devices to work well together.
Since Android phones are produced by many different manufacturers, product ecosystems vary. Samsung has a great ecosystem, for example, and Android phones have support from Home, Chromecast, and Wear OS. However, it’s not quite as seamless as it is with Apple.
Overall, taking all available accessories into account, you have more choice with an iPhone, so iOS takes the win here, but with caveats.
Numerically speaking, Android wins 10 categories and iOS wins seven, but iOS wins in some of the more important categories — we don’t think rooting or alternative app stores are as important for most people as accessibility or security, for example. However, it’s very difficult to compare the two. Because Apple controls both the hardware and the software of their devices, you’ll find iOS offers a more uniform experience across devices.
A straight comparison of the latest versions of Android and iOS wouldn’t be very representative of most people’s experience, because most Android devices aren’t running the latest version. The experience you get is further complicated by the fact that most Android smartphone manufacturers add their own user interface on top of Google’s stock Android. As a result, there’s quite a big difference between using Google’s Pixel 5, the Samsung Galaxy S21, and the OnePlus 8T, for example.
If you do decide to go with an Android device, make sure you do a little research and look at the version of Android it runs, the manufacturer skin on top, and the manufacturer’s record for software updates.
Ultimately, different categories will be important to different people, so you should pay attention to the ones that count for you and make your decision based on that. If security and privacy are important factors, then the iPhone is the obvious choice. If battery life tops your list and you want to be able to customize your phone, then choose Android. Both Android and iOS are mature, feature-packed platforms with far more similarities than differences, and we can heartily recommend either.
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