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 Mobile, 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.
Affordability, interface, and apps
Apple doesn’t make budget devices, and the latest iPhone is always among the most expensive handsets on the market, costing $650 and up. Last year’s iPhone 6S comes in at $100 less. The iPhone SE is as close as Apple gets to budget starting from $400, but it’s still quite pricey. Apple’s large iPhone 7 Plus starts at $770.
Microsoft’s main hardware partner Nokia (the subject of a disastrous acquisition) was always good at producing quality hardware at relatively low prices. There are a wide range of older Windows Phones at varying price points, but few that rival Android and iOS on specs. Hardware manufacturers like Samsung, ZTE, LG, Lenovo, and Huawei were Windows Phone 8.1 partners, but they’ve abandoned the platform and Windows 10 Mobile handsets are thin on the ground. Microsoft’s Lumia brand is probably your best bet, though manufacturers like Acer and Blu offer alternatives.
For sheer scale and variety, nothing competes with Android. You can spend a lot if you want to, for example, Google’s new Pixel phones and Samsung’s Galaxy S line match Apple’s iPhone pricing, but there’s also 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 ushered in Google’s “Material Design,” giving stock Android a minimalist look with simple animations that offers some continuity across the platform and in Google’s apps. It’s stylish and slick, and it runs on around 35 percent of Android devices, at the time of writing. The aesthetic didn’t change much in Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which brought a few subtle refinements, but it’s still on less than 20 percent of devices. The latest Android 7.0 Nougat brings another batch of tweaks and enhancements, but it will be some time before we see it on a large percentage of devices.
The main issue is that the majority of Android phones don’t run stock Android. Every Android phone from each manufacturer looks and works differently, because each company puts a different user interface on top. The user interfaces range from the absolutely terrible or childish to the semi-OK ones that don’t grate on your nerves too much. The stock Android that’s found on the Pixel and Nexus phones is the best-looking version of Android and it gets software updates most frequently and quickly. Android’s lack of consistency is its biggest defect in terms of interface and design.
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. Apple made further refinements in iOS 9, but the aesthetic remained largely unchanged. The design was refreshed in iOS 10 with slick animations, richer notifications, and a major revamp of iMessage, along with a handful of new apps. It’s a big step forward for iOS that puts it more or less on par with Android in terms of functionality.
However, iOS is perfectly uniform across iPhones and iPads, because there are no alternative user interfaces on top of iOS. The end result is a cleaner, more attractive OS on every iPhone. The latest software is also immediately available to iPhone users. That’s why the majority of iPhone users already have iSO 10 on their phones versus the negligible percentage of Android users who have the latest OS version.
Windows 10 Mobile 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 10 PCs and tablets, and there’s a consistency here that Microsoft’s desktop and Xbox users will find familiar. Windows Mobile can still sometimes feel overly stylish and sluggish compared to iOS and Android. It is very customizable, though, and Windows 10 Mobile definitely feels slicker than previous versions. The latest Windows 10 Mobile hardware also supports Continuum, an intriguing feature that allows you to dock your phone, and switch to a desktop interface. You can throw it up on a big screen and use a mouse and keyboard with it, effectively making your phone a PC.
At the end of the day, iOS has a more uniform, stylish, and simple interface than Android and Windows Mobile. Every aspect of iOS is carefully considered and designed by Apple. You don’t have to worry about manufacturers or carriers cluttering up your screen with a bunch of apps you’ll never use or a tacky interface that you hate. The app icons, animations, and simplicity of iOS makes it a joy to use.
We can bump Windows Mobile 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. In the United States, iOS still leads the way, but developers elsewhere are increasingly targeting Android first. The Play Store still has a higher percentage of free apps than the App Store. Android also benefits from the latest and greatest versions of Google’s apps, which are sorely missed on Windows Mobile.
The best mobile games still land on iOS first and don’t always come to Android. The design of iOS apps is also more uniform and stylish, so if design is important to you, it’s the iPhone.
In terms of variety and quality, we have to give this one to iOS, but it’s a narrow win.
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 lead over Google’s Play Store. Microsoft’s Windows Mobile store definitely lags behind in terms of usability and aesthetic. Apple even gives you recommendations for new apps, offers more sales on expensive apps and games, and makes it dead simple to find what you’re looking for in the App Store. You can also pay for apps with Apple Pay.
The App Store beats both the Google Play and Windows Mobile store with its recommendations for new apps, sales on expensive apps and games, and simpler interface. You can also pay for apps with Apple Pay and confirm downloads with your fingerprint for added security.
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.