By Chuck Gray
(Last updated 7/19/12) Something I get asked a lot as the librarian tech guy is whether a person in the market for a new smartphone or tablet should buy Apple or Android. This is a far more nuanced question than most people realize, and the answer will depend on a number of factors. Read on for a detailed comparison of the two.
First, let’s go over the basics. Apple’s devices, the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, run a mobile operating system called iOS. You will not find this software on any other devices since Apple, as always, does not license its software to third parties – everything it does is in-house only. This gives them total control over software and hardware development, ensuring that whatever product they churn out is tailored to exact specifications. iOS is a highly streamlined operating system that gives users few options as to how to it looks and behaves, but on the other hand is much easier to use for smartphone newcomers. Apple also maintains complete control over what software, or apps, are allowed on the device through their App Store. Every app submitted is examined by Apple staff to make certain it is virus/malware-free and complies to certain standards that Apple maintains and, frustratingly for developers, frequently changes.
Then there’s Google’s mobile operating system, Android. Though similar to Apple iOS in several ways (which has led to virtually endless litigation in the last three years), Android is indeed its own entity. Its greatest distinction from iOS is its open-source nature: Google gives Android away for free to hardware manufacturers and hobbyists alike on the Android Open Source Project site. This means that anyone can download, customize, and install Android on pretty much any hardware. For instance, most eBook readers, both tablet and eInk, run a customized version of Android. Because it is an open source project, Android is a far more complex operating system than iOS, allowing users far greater control over its functionality. Also because of its open-source nature, you will find it in many low-cost smartphones and tablets which are far more affordable than Apple products.
Android’s customizability and open nature come at a price, however. Smartphone newbies may find Android more intimidating than iOS since there is a great deal more to learn about the platform. Software can also be installed from sources outside of the Google Play Store, which on the whole is a good thing, but nonetheless makes Android a greater target for viruses and malware; heck, even the Google Play Store does a poor job of reviewing apps that are submitted to it, so it’s up to the user to be extra-vigilant when it comes to installing new apps. And even though anyone can build an app for Android without paying Google anything (save when they sell it out of the Play Store), it is much harder for app developers, especially game developers, to create software that will work on every Android device since the Android ecosystem is fractured across hundreds, maybe thousands at this point, of different devices all running different types of hardware and different versions of Android itself. This isn’t intrinsically bad since it’s basically the same deal that PC software developers are faced with, but when compared to Apple’s highly-controlled iOS ecosystem, it’s easy to see why many app developers prefer Apple over Android.
Now that I’ve given you a brief overview of these two mobile operating systems, let’s go point-by-point. A lot of comparisons that people would like to make are hardware-based, but since Android is available on phones and tablets from so many manufacturers, some of which build devices superior to Apple’s but most of which build devices far inferior to Apple’s, it’s hard to go over these differences. This list will instead go over experiences that are guaranteed to be shared on both platforms, meaning it’s mostly about the software.
Though the Google Play Store is growing in the number of apps it offers, it still can’t compare to Apple and on the whole the apps available for iOS are of greater quality, though they tend to be more expensive. Gamers, in particular, will tell you that Apple is definitely the platform for mobile gaming these days.
In a small win for Android, however, let us note that Android can support apps that are not from the Google Play Store. In fact, there are other app stores available for Android, the most popular of which is the Amazon App Store. Still . . .
App Support Winner: Apple
App Store Experience
Apple wins here because it provides greater security: almost every time an app is purchased, the buyer must input his password; the only exception to this rule is if a purchase is made within 15 minutes of a previous purchase, in which case the device will remember the password. Android, on the other hand, does not require a password. It makes up for this a bit by allowing users to return their app and get a full refund within 15 minutes of purchase; believe me, that’s saved me a few dollars over the years from nasty apps. Both stores have nicely formatted featured sections that make it easy to find new apps.
App Store Experience Winner: Tie
In addition to Apple's and Google’s respective app stores, both companies also offer digital music, movies, TV shows, books, and magazines. Apple most definitely wins on selection – they’ve been in this business for a much longer time than Google and have built up a huge catalog of media that smacks down Google without breaking a sweat. Google is building up a catalog to rival them, but they’ve got a long way to go – rarely can I find the same selection of music from Google that I do from Apple and I was surprised to discover that a few of the tracks I had purchased from Google were “clean” versions with the naughty words taken out (no, I’m not giving you my playlist!) and were not labeled as such when I bought them; it always disturbs me when retailers presume to protect me from something they feel isn’t good for me, doubly so when they’re the world’s largest Internet company.
On the other hand, Apple content is only viewable on Apple devices or iTunes. Google video content is available on pretty much any Android device in addition to Web browsers and its books can be read on any eReader supporting Adobe DRM, so you’re less locked-down than you are with Apple.
But I’m going to give this one to Apple. The sheer amount of content they have to choose from is just too much to ignore. I only wish that its books and videos weren’t locked into Apple devices.
Content Stores Winner: Apple
In-App Purchasing (IAP)
Several apps these days, especially games, are “freemium” or “free-to-play.” This means you can download the basic app for free, but once you’re running it if you want to enable specific “premium” features you’ll need to pay. Games are by far the biggest culprits. When IAP was first allowed on the Apple App Store, a greedy little game for iOS called Smurfs’ Village came out that offered IAP for smurfberries that players could use to more quickly build their smurf villages. Smurfberries came in bundles that cost anywhere from $4.99 to $99.99 (really). Many parents who let their children play with their iPhones quickly discovered bills from Apple for hundreds of dollars thanks to impulse smurfberry purchases. Apple, after a while, made it so that all in-app purchases require a password, locking out would-be Smurf Emperors from spending their parents’ grocery budgets.
Guess what? Smurfs’ Village is also on Android. Android has no such password requirement for ANY purchasing, let alone in-app purchasing. Android parents, keep an eye on your credit card bills!
In-App Purchasing Winner: Apple
All iPhone apps must be approved by Apple and only a very small number have ever been found to be malicious after being published. And because no iOS apps are given low-level access to the device’s systems and can only very occasionally interact with each other, security risks are cut down even further. It is possible to “jailbreak” your iPhone to allow it to install third-party apps from outside the approved app store, but since this is not part of Apple’s original design, I’m not considering it in this comparison.
Android is much more like a PC in that you can install software on it from anywhere on the Web, so the user is required to be much more vigilant, and even software released on Google Play is notorious for being riddled with malware even though Google supposedly controls submissions, but come on - the Android ecosystem’s security is woefully lacking. It would be nice to see some kind of built-in security suite for Android from Google in the future.
The one area of security that Android shines over Apple is its device-locking schemes. Apple will let you lock your iPhone with either a PIN or a more complex password. Android ups these offerings by piling on pattern locks, biometric locks, and even face recognition, depending on the phone.
So while Android is definitely the device to own if you're prone to losing expensive things, Apple still beats it in terms of overall security.
Security Winner: Apple
With the release of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and the even newer 4.1 Jellybean, Google has given us a mobile OS that is even more aesthetically pleasing than iOS and can be completely customized with third-party app-launchers, widgets, live wallpapers, and more. Android has consistently raised the bar for interface design while iOS maintains, with few exceptions, pretty much exactly the same user interface as it had in 2007 with the release of the first iPhone.
User Interface Winner: Android
Though Android has seen numerous updates over the years, it is up to the device’s manufacturers to provide updates, and most of them are really, really bad at doing this. I’d wager that most Android smartphone users are running version 2.2 or 2.3 through the most up-to-date version is 4.1. And while one must take into account that Android 3.0 Honeycomb was a tablet-only OS the fact remains that Android users don’t get reliable updates the way that iOS users do. True, newer versions of iOS tend not to run well or at all on devices older than two years, but two years of update support is a heck of a lot better than most Android users receive.
System Updates Winner: Apple
With Apple stores all over, including in many Best Buys, and clearly marked service plans for sale, this is a no-contest for Apple. Mind you, with phones made of glass, front and back they need to provide that support.
Manufacturer Support Winner: Apple
When the iPhone first came out in 2007, it was lauded for its easy-to-use, desktop-like Web browser. Mobile browsers on the likes of the Treo or the Blackberry were wretched creatures that displayed horribly garbled Web pages, but Safari on the iPhone finally did it right. And then it stopped; iOS Safari is, with the exception of browser tabs on the iPad and the neat Reader mode, exactly the same as it’s ever been.
Enter Android. It brought with it a mobile Web browser that, after a few versions, was just as good as Safari on iOS. With the release of Android 2.2, the browser could also support Adobe Flash, something that Apple, playing the technological long game, has refused to enable on their devices. While Apple’s refusal to enable Flash on its devices has definitely jump-started the movement to create HTML streaming video and animation standards that will not require a separate program to display, many people prefer Android simply because so much of the Web still runs and will continue to run Flash for a long time yet.
Apple also restricts third-party Web browsers on iOS from using any other HTML engine besides Webkit, which is what powers Safari. Basically, this means that any third party Web browsers on iOS are just re-skinned versions of Safari. Android has no such restrictions; anyone can release any Web browser using any HTML engine with full support for Flash.
It should be noted that Adobe will soon stop updating Flash for Android. Additionally, Flash will not be officially supported on Android 4.1 Jellybean; users can still download it from the Adobe Web site, but as Android is updated more and more, this legacy version of Flash will become less and less stable and may be blocked altogether in the future. This is, again, in an effort to promote standardized HTML streaming video and animation.
All-in-all, however, Android delivers a richer Web browsing experience for the moment.
Web Browsing Winner: Android
On-Device File Browsing
One of my biggest gripes about iOS is that there is no on-device file browser that would make it easy to see all your files in one place that could then be read by whichever apps you have loaded onto it, just like a desktop computer. In my best apps for iPhone article, I mentioned an app called AVPlayer which will play video formats other than those that are Apple-approved. It would be nice if I could plug my iPhone into my computer and just copy-paste those video files in a folder on the device and then play them with AVPlayer. Ha. No, instead I have to use iTunes, go into my apps, select the one that I want to transfer files to, and upload those video files. This is a barely acceptable solution, because it means those video files are then just for use by that app; if I want to play them in another video app, I have to go through the same process and transfer them again, meaning those videos are actually loaded onto the device twice since each app can’t draw from a central file storage area. With Android, it’s my ideal solution – just plug it in and use the regular file browser to copy/paste the videos and then you can choose from multiple apps to play those same files. Apple’s restrictions on file browsing are meant to make the overall process “simpler,” either by making it so that users can’t unintentionally screw up their file systems or by making it so that all media content is purchased through iTunes. You choose.
File Browsing Winner: Android
Even though I just spent the last meandering paragraph explaining why I prefer Android’s ability to connect directly to my computer without a special program, Apple’s going to win this round for the lay user. See, even though iTunes is slow, desperately in need of a redesign, and begs to be updated every other day with seemingly pointless downloads, it’s still the best single utility for backing up all your iPhone’s content to your Mac or PC.
Google does not, that I know of, offer any sort of uniform utility for all Android devices that brings to the table the same functionality as iTunes. If it does, it’s keeping it well-hidden!
Google, you really, really need to release your own iTunes alternative! I’m not super-keen on iTunes’ ubiquity, but the fact that it’s there if users want it is all that matters. You’ve got nothing to compete with Apple on this front. Oh, sure, there are some third-party tools for doing this like WonderShare’s MobileGo, but those aren’t Google products, and they don’t have the same brand recognition as iTunes. So, get to work!
Mac/PC Backup Winner: Apple
I remember when the iPad first came out, lots of people accused it of just being a big iPhone. Well, yeah. It is. That’s good, right? Yer darn right that’s good! And app developers have really stepped up their game in creating quality apps tailored for the larger screen. Then there are Android tablets. Android app developers haven’t done nearly as much for Android tablets as they have for the iPad; most apps for Android tablets are just phone apps that are stretched out for the much larger screen. So if you’re counting on the quality of the apps, go iPad.
Still, an Android tablet is far more versatile in terms of its operating system and physical interface with many of them including mini-HDMI ports to let them hook up to HDTVs and LCD projectors, USB ports to work with flash drives, or at the very least, microSD expansion slots. iPads can be made to do some of this, but you’ll have to pony-up the extra cash for adapters! If you’re looking for a more powerful mobile experience that’s closer to a laptop in a tablet form, Android is probably the way to go.
Tablet Winner: Tie
I’ve only been using Android since version 2.2, but its notification bar has been a stroke of genius the whole time I’ve been using the OS. A clever, little bar at the top of the screen that you can pull down will tell you everything you need to know, from incoming emails and texts to weather reports to which apps need to be updated and more. Apple only included this feature in iOS 5 which came out last fall and it’s nowhere near as complete. I’m not sure what they’ve got planned for iOS 6, slated to be released this fall, but it’s not one of the featured updates on the iOS 6 web page, so I doubt we’ll see much.
Notifications Winner: Android
Apple is officially breaking away from Google with iOS 6 in using their own in-house mapping system that will FINALLY include turn-by-turn voice navigation without having to purchase an expensive GPS app. Welcome to the party Apple – Google’s had this pretty much from the get-go, and I’ll tell you what, based on what I’ve seen so far from iOS 6, Google’s maps are still far more detailed. iOS 6 does have some truly fancy 3D city flyovers, but I just don’t see those mattering that much when people just want to get from point A to B.
Maps Winner: Android
I debated whether to include this section; to my way of thinking voice controls, in their current highly unpolished state, do more to hinder productivity than to help. But they seem to be the "in" thing and with the introduction of the iPhone 4S Apple delivered unto us “Siri”, a voice-controlled assistant. It got a lot of oohs and ahs at the press demonstration, and it’s one of the first things people try out upon purchasing a new iPhone, but I could tell from the moment it was announced that it was just a gimmick. More and more people are turning Siri off to conserve battery life and data, and the latest from New York Times blogger Nick Bilton suggests things aren’t getting much better.
Android’s voice searching and dictation are less ambitious than Siri, but they are more reliable. One hopes that Siri will continue to be improved and become as natural to use as Zoe Deschanel would have us believe. I’m sure it will be in time, but considering Siri’s broken promises and Android’s lack of ambition, I’m saying the only winner for the voice control category is the virtual keyboard.
Voice Control Winner: Your Thumbs!
Apple may come out ahead in the overall tallying, but don't let that make your decision for you. It just doesn’t work like that; one feature set may be more important to you than the overall picture as it is for me. So give what I’ve written a thorough examination and ask at the reference desk of your local branch for Consumer Report’s latest online smartphone recommendations. I’m an Android phone man, but I definitely see many advantages in iOS over Android, and I sure do love my iPad games. While there is no simple choice here, there are a lot of devices to choose from, so enjoy the hunt and find the product that’s best for you!