You’re in the market for a new smartphone (maybe your first smartphone), but which digital horse should you put your money behind? Choosing a smartphone OS is a bigger choice than you realize. Thankfully, if you can’t decide whether to pick iPhone, one of the many Android phones, or Windows Phone, we’re here to help. We’ll break the battle down into categories and find a winner for each. Just pick what matters most to you, count up the wins in those categories, and you have a recommendation.
Updated on 12-12-2014 by Simon Hill: Changed to reflect the latest platform versions, Android 5.0 Lollipop, iOS 8, and Windows Phone 8.1.
Apple doesn’t make budget devices, and the latest iPhone is always among the most expensive handsets on the market, costing $200 with a two-year contract and $650 without. Last year’s iPhone 5S comes in at $100 less. The iPhone 5C — which is a lot better than you’d guess — is as close as Apple gets to budget at about $200 cheaper, but it’s still pricey.
Microsoft’s main hardware partner Nokia (which it now owns) has always been good at producing quality hardware at relatively low prices. There are a wide range of Windows Phones at varying price points, and finally a few that push the limit and rival Android and iOS on specs. It’s also worth remembering that hardware manufacturers like Samsung, ZTE, LG, Lenovo, and Huawei are signed up as Windows Phone 8.1 partners and could well produce some cheap handsets in the near future.
Still, for sheer scale and variety nothing competes with Android. There’s a huge choice of low cost handsets from a wide variety of different manufacturers and the platform has been deliberately optimized to run on low end hardware. The fact that Android also leads the field in free apps makes it the natural choice for the budget-conscious. Chances are, if it’s a smartphone by HTC, Samsung, Sony, ZTE, Huawei, or LG, it’s running Android.
Led by Windows Phone, all three platforms have gravitated toward a minimalist, flat, fast, colorful user interface. The big difference is that many Android manufacturers have added their own user interfaces on top of stock Android and so your mileage will vary. The basic structure with customizable home screens, an app drawer, and pull down notifications is standard, but there’s much more variation on Android than you’ll find on the other two platforms.
The Android Lollipop roll-out has ushered in Google’s “Material Design” which is a minimalist look with simple animations that’s intended to create a new continuity across the platform and in Google’s apps. It looks very stylish, but you’ll need a new device or a Nexus right now to see it. App developers are still adjusting and it will be a while before Android 5.0 Lollipop represents a big share of Android users.
After a major redesign in iOS 7, Apple’s platform is bright and modern-feeling. The slick animations as you navigate around give a sense of depth, and it’s easy to understand. Under the new paint job, this is still the same iOS that came out in 2007. Still, many have complained that the new version of iOS is hard on the eyes. There are settings to turn off its offending animations. Apple has made further refinements in iOS 8, but the aesthetic remains largely unchanged.
Windows Phone is based on a grid of “Live Tiles” which can be arranged and resized to suit the owner. It looks and acts much like Windows 8 PCs and tablets, but there’s no Desktop here. Windows Phone can sometimes feel overly stylish and sluggish compared to iOS and Android. It is very customizable, though, and WP 8.1 feels slicker than previous versions.
We can bump Windows Phone straight out of the running here because it trails way behind Android and iOS when it comes to overall app numbers and app quality.
Traditionally iOS has been a more lucrative platform for developers and easier to develop for, so there has been a tendency for new apps to appear there first, but that is changing as Android’s market share continues to grow. The Play Store still has a higher percentage of free apps than the App Store, but in terms of variety and quality we have to give this one to iOS.
App store usability
None of the app stores offer an excellent user experience and it can be tough to sift through the thousands of apps on offer to find what you really want. In terms of recommendations and curated charts the Apple App Store maintains a slender lead over Google’s Play Store. Microsoft’s Windows Phone store definitely lags behind in terms of usability and aesthetic.
Alternative app stores and sideloading
It’s relatively easy to sideload apps (install them from your PC using a USB cable or alternate download method) on Android and there are a lot of alternative app stores beyond the Play Store, although sideloading can open you up to the risk of malware. Both Apple and Microsoft are opposed to third-party app stores and expect users to stick to their app stores. If you want a wider choice of apps and easy sideloading then your choice is obvious. Android is more open than its competitors and is more geek friendly.
Battery life and management
As one of the biggest bugbears for smartphone owners, battery life is a huge factor. It’s difficult to compare the three platforms because there’s no common hardware. We could say 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. In Android you can see your battery usage at a glance, broken down by app, with an estimate of how much battery life you have left. In Lollipop, Google has baked a basic battery saver feature into Android. Most manufacturers also offer some kind of battery saving feature, which allows you to tweak performance or turn off background syncing for specific apps when the battery hits a certain level.
Windows Phone has a battery saver option that shows estimated remaining life and allows you to turn off background usage for apps or other non-essential features to save battery.
Apple has introduced more detailed battery usage statistics by app in iOS 8, but it lacks a battery saving app or mode. We had a terrible time with battery life in iOS 7, and the bigger screens in the latest iPhones cancel out improvements made in iOS 8. Apple has lost a lot of ground in the battery wars.
All three platforms are updated on a pretty regular basis. There are big releases with new features and occasional redesigns every few months, and smaller releases to deal with bug fixes a little more frequently than that. Microsoft and Apple maintain greater control over the software, so it’s easier for them to roll out updates and compatible devices tend to upgrade to the latest version in a timely fashion.
Apple always leaves behind a couple older devices each year when new software comes out, so it’s not entirely free of fragmentation, but it does better than Microsoft or Google. For example, Windows Phone 7 devices can’t be updated to Windows Phone 8. If you opt for a Nexus Android device then you’ll get the latest updates quickly, but if you don’t, you may never get an update. Samsung, Sony, and LG have finally begun providing some updates, but you’re at their mercy, and the mercy of your wireless carrier, which also has decided that it should have the right to test and release all new software updates for Windows Phone and Android. Apple is exempt.
There are a lot of different elements to customizability, but we can state unequivocally that this is one of Android’s strengths.
- Out of the box, you can customize your Android experience in a variety of ways.
- You can install alternative launchers that will change the look of your user interface.
- You can set up your lock screen and multiple home screens with backgrounds, resizable widgets, and shortcuts. Both iOS and Windows Phone offer limited options.
- You can set up backgrounds and shortcuts.
With Windows Phone you have re-sizable Live Tiles and color schemes to choose from, and you can add background images in 8.1. In iOS 8 there is finally some support for at-a-glance style widgets, but they’re confined to the Notification Center. Google has always allowed you to choose your default keyboard in Android. Microsoft has gradually improved the keyboard in Windows Phone, but it’s still locked down to the default option. Apple has opened up third-party keyboard support for iOS 8, but it still has a way to go to match Android. Beyond the keyboard, you can set third-party apps as defaults for all kinds of things in Android that are locked down in iOS and WP.
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 operating system loads up on your device. Microsoft and Apple are completely opposed to this kind of thing. Unlocking bootloaders and rooting is possible on some devices and versions of Windows Phone. Jailbreaking is an option for iOS, which lets you download and install apps from outside the App Store and bypass some other limitations.
Calls and messaging
Basic calling and messaging functionality is good on all three platforms. Google has made moves to fold everything into Hangouts, so you can send messages via Wi-Fi, data network, or SMS. You can also make video calls online. FaceTime and iMessage are basically exactly the same thing on the iOS platform. Skype is Microsoft’s answer, but it’s separate from your standard SMS. Skype works on every platform; Hangouts doesn’t work on Windows Phone; iMessages and FaceTime are only for iOS and Mac OS X.
The default email apps on Android, iOS, and Windows Phone 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.
The average iPad or iPhone owner spends more money on more things than the average Android or Windows Phone 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 something like Samsung’s latest Galaxy S5 would be a close second. On the other hand, Android and WP devices have adopted the Micro USB standard, whereas Apple insists on its proprietary Lightning cable, which means its much easier to find a charger if you’re not an iPhone owner. This often means you have to splash out on an overpriced Apple adapter, which are known to break. Peripheral manufacturers may still go after iOS as their main target, but it’s very rare to find something without Micro USB support.
Apple is the one lagging behind when it comes to cloud storage and automatic backups. Microsoft’s OneDrive and Google Drive both offer 15GB for free and cross-platform support (although Google Drive doesn’t work with Windows Phone). You only get 5GB with iCloud and it only works with Windows, Mac, and iOS. If you need a lot of additional space then Google Drive is the cheapest at $2 per month for 100GB ($24 for the year), Apple charges $100 per year for 50GB, and Microsoft charges $50 per year for 100GB.
If you use Google+ or the Photos app in Android then you can automatically backup all of your photos and videos. You can also use Google+ on iOS. OneDrive allows you to automatically back up photos on Android, iOS, or Windows Phone. Traditionally iCloud only backs up photos from the last 30 days or the last 1,000 photos and doesn’t save videos, but with iOS 8 the iCloud Photo Library keeps a permanent backup bringing it into line with the other two, although it offers less free space at 5GB compared to 15GB with Google Drive and OneDrive.
It’s also worth noting that Google Drive lets you backup an unlimited number of photos or videos at standard size for free, only full-sized files count against your allowance.
We had a look at Cortana vs Siri vs Google Now a while back. All three can interpret and action a wide variety of voice commands. Siri is more like a straightforward assistant for setting calendar appointments, searching the Web, or making calls. Google Now has an extra element, in that it can pre-emptively offer useful information. If you allow it to gather data on you then it might suggest directions to a place you recently searched for, or let you know the latest score for your favorite sports team.
Cortana falls somewhere in between Siri and Google Now encompassing elements of both. There’s an attempt to push things further by offering access to functions within apps and reminder prompts linked to specific people in your contacts. Microsoft has really taken its time getting Cortana right and it has the potential to be a big win for the Windows Phone platform.
Winner: Windows Phone
All the mobile platforms support Bluetooth and Wi-Fi as standard. Android and Windows Phone led the way with NFC (near field communication) for easy wireless transfers and mobile payments, but Apple has included NFC in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. It has also launched Apple Pay with some major partners, which could close the mobile payment gap very quickly. NFC can also be used for quick file transfers, tapping phones together to share contacts or Web pages, or tapping on supported speakers to stream music. There’s nothing to really separate the platforms here.
Much has been made of the supposedly “toxic hell stew” that is Android, but the threat of malware is grossly exaggerated by the competition. 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.
Apple is already firmly entrenched in corporate America and has also worked on improved security for general consumers, most notably with the Touch ID. The tight oversight that Apple has on apps and the ability to push updates out to more devices, more quickly, gives it a definite edge over Android.
Windows Phone is not as widely used, and that means MDM programs focus on iOS and Android, but Microsoft is certainly working to improve security and woo the business world.
All three platforms offer a good maps solution, despite what you’ve heard. Key features are pretty similar, you can download maps for offline use, get accurate estimates based on current traffic conditions, and turn-by-turn directions for driving or walking. They all work well and should get you where you’re going.
Still, the scale and quality of Google Maps is unsurpassed. It has more points of interest and it is generally more detailed than Bing Maps or Apple Maps, but the accuracy can vary from place to place.
This is another area where Apple extracts maximum value from the hardware it offers. The 8-megapixel camera in the iPhone 6 has been numerically surpassed by Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Windows Phones like the Nokia Lumia 1020, but there’s more to a great camera than just the megapixel count. Apple does the best job capturing lighting, coloring, and other details.
The camera apps on each platform 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 OEMs tend to add their own camera apps with lots of features, some good, some a bit gimmicky, but we’d take Apple’s camera any day of the week.
All three of the platforms are relatively intuitive and easy to pick up. If you were 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 make the interface bigger and simplify 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 as well.
There has been a perception that Android is more complicated than iOS, but it’s not really true. There’s no need to dive into the customization options if you don’t want to. All three platforms offer a good range of accessibility features.
Out of the box Windows Phone is probably the most readable. If you’re willing to do a little tweaking and dig into the accessibility features then there’s little to choose between them.
|Alt app stores||1st||2nd||3rd|
|Calls & messaging||1st||1st||1st|
Counting up the wins Android scores 8, iOS scores 6, Windows Phone scores 1, and there were 5 ties. Realistically, different categories will be important to different people, so you should just pay attention to the ones that count for you and make your decision based on that. They are all good platforms with far more similarities than differences, so you can’t really go wrong.
Android is a great all-rounder which offers by far the greatest choice. Thanks to great support from companies like Samsung and LG, there are more handsets at different price points, a much wider variety of customization options, and greater freedom to tweak your device if you choose to do so.
Google’s apps and prowess when it comes to cloud services also weigh in here, and if you’re a big user of Google services already, Android definitely makes the most sense for you. One of its strengths is also one of its greatest weaknesses and that’s the old fragmentation argument. It’s hard to discuss Android as a single experience because there is a big gap between a premium flagship and a budget release, though Google is taking steps to close that gap.
iOS is a slick platform that has matured well, and it offers an accessible, uniform experience. It has the best official library of apps, a huge range of interesting peripherals, and an excellent camera app that sums up Apple’s focus on making things easy for the user. Apple also has tighter control which means updates are rolled out quickly across the board and security is generally better, partly due to the popularity of iOS devices in the enterprise.
The downside for iOS is the premium price tag, walled garden, lack of customization options, and the underdeveloped cloud services.
Windows Phone has perpetually played catchup since it debuted a few years ago. Microsoft struggles to keep up with the pace set by Apple and Google. The platform is solid and there are some intriguing improvements in 8.1, most notably Cortana, but we can’t overlook the lack of apps and the lack of quality in the apps that do exist when compared to the big two. In terms of general usability and basic phone functions Windows Phone is on par. As Microsoft makes a play for cloud domination, exploits its popular Office suite, and takes steps to work more closely with the enterprise it may become a more attractive prospect for business users, but beyond Cortana it’s tough to see a good reason to choose Windows Phone right now.