There are many advantages to going with a single ecosystem for your desktop PC, laptop PC, mobile phone, and tablet. (Even game system and television, in some cases.) Devices within that ecosystem are designed to work well with each other. They sync easily so that preferences and media can be effortlessly copied or shared with multiple devices. Applications may be universal, meaning they require a single purchase to work on multiple devices at the same time. And the user interfaces are usually similar or identical across devices.
Though many users cross ecosystems and choose iOS, Android, and Windows devices based on need and not interoperability, we’re going to focus on what happens when a user decides to stay within a single ecosystem: what are the advantages and disadvantages, and what are the weak links are in that ecosystem?
Apple probably has the most tightly integrated ecosystem of any of the three. ITunes is just a better application on Apple products than on Microsoft’s products. And Apple has a television device, the AppleTV, that fits right into the ecosystem as well.
Benefits of the Apple ecosystem
In the Apple ecosystem, Apple devices back up to the same iCloud system that other Apple devices and PCs can use. You can stream music and video to other devices (like the Apple TV) using free AirPlay functionality. You can even mirror the device’s screen on another device. It makes a lot of sense to have multiple Apple devices in a home.
Operating system updates on iPhones and iPads are always free, updating an iPod Touch is usually free, and updating a Mac to the latest OS will run you $20. Note that there’s never a charge for incremental updates.
Once you purchase an app on any Apple device, you can sync it to any other Apple device free, or re-download it without restrictions. This is also the same for media purchased in iTunes.
Drawbacks of the Apple ecosystem
Old operating systems swiftly become unsupported by hardware and software, forcing you on an upgrade path that you may not necessarily wish to take. The flipside is also bad: newer Apple OSes can often not run legacy apps. Don’t even try to run an old PowerPC Mac app on a newer Intel Mac. It won’t work.
Apple even stops offering support for older versions of its operating systems after only a year or two, a far narrower window than, say, Windows. Also, app developers often discontinue support for earlier versions of iOS, or earlier device generations, forcing you to upgrade to continue using the app. For example, many new high-profile apps don’t work on the first iPad at all.
The other big weakness is that Apple’s ecosystem will run you much more money than any of the others. You’re paying for the brand, and also an expectation of quality
Millions of people consider the iPhone the best smartphone ever, and with good reason: it pioneered the touchscreen and spawned dozens of imitators. The newest iPhone 5 offers 4G connectivity and a larger screen, and the newest iPod Touch also offers a larger screen and a thin form factor.
The newest iPads are more expensive than competing Android tablets. They offer a similar experience as the iPhone and iPod Touch, but on a larger scale and with many tablet-specific applications. Apple also introduced the iPad mini this year for those who want an iPad that’s closer in size to an iPhone.
The Mac itself is somewhat of the weakest link in the Apple ecosystem. Someone used to the touchscreen iOS interface of the iPhone and iPad is going to be confused that Apple doesn’t even offer a touchscreen option for the Mac. And though several of the icons look the same, Apple’s OS X is very different than iOS. That said, iTunes works very well on the Mac, and it’s much less of a headache to sync an iPhone or iPad with a Mac than a PC. If you can justify the expense, adding a Mac to complete the Apple ecosystem makes a lot of sense. Plus, when you get a look at the slim, 5-millimeter-thick iMacs, it’s going to be hard to say no.
Like a gaming system, AppleTV is a device that connects to your TV via HDMI. But it’s not a gaming system; instead, it streams movies and TV shows to your TV from your iTunes library in the cloud. You can also stream media from an Apple device using AirPlay. This little $99 device fits right in to the Apple family and is really useful.
But what about Google…?
Though it started the race late, Google’s Android operating system has quickly caught up, offering a range of phones and tablets of all sizes, builds, and price points. Unlike Apple, it’s not all a single design, so you can choose the Android device that looks and feels the best for you.
Benefits of the Google ecosystem
The Android ecosystem is even more tightly integrated than Apple’s. By using a unified Google login, you can automatically download all the apps you’ve downloaded or purchased on one device to all of your devices – all without having to use an intermediary application like iTunes. Though some manufacturers, like Samsung, like to put their own “skin” or operating system layer on top of Android, the basic experience is the same across all devices. Applications and media automatically sync across all Google devices. Once you purchase it, it’s yours.
The Google ecosystem is among the least expensive. Good Android tablets cost about half of what an iPad costs, and the phones are comparable in price with Apple and Microsoft.
Though Google frequently updates Android, it still offers tech support for the earliest versions. Also, app developers are encouraged to be as backward compatible as possible. This chart shows the latest breakdowns of Android users: half of all Android users are still on Gingerbread, which is several versions old.
Drawbacks of the Google ecosystem
Operating system updates are always free for any Android device. However, you’re restricted by your device’s manufacturer. While “pure” Android devices like the Nexus 4 get updates immediately, branded devices like the Samsung Galaxy S3 can take months to update. It took five months for Samsung to get Jelly Bean after it had already been released.
There are relatively few apps that are optimized specifically for larger Android devices, like tablets. Often, you’re stuck using the phone version, but stretched out.
The initial line of Android phones had a clunky operating system, a small screen, and poor battery life. These devices didn’t stack up well against an iPhone, but times have changed, and phones like the Galaxy S 3 and HTC One X are as good, if not better, than the iPhone 5. The larger screen, NFC (near-field communication), removable battery, and the ability to add a memory card in some models separate these Android phones from the iPhone pack. The Galaxy S 3 has a superior feature set compared to most any mobile phone.
Though initially a weak link in the form of the heavy, expensive Motorola Xoom, the latest Android tablets, like the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire, are inexpensive, light, and fast. Most have a smaller form factor for ease of use (and the iPad Mini is a response to this trend). The Kindle Fire, especially, is a link to Amazon’s own ecosystem, including FreeTime Unlimited, a subscription service that provides a huge range of free apps and games for kids. No other tablet has anything like that.
In the absence of any true Google Android PCs, Google has a line of ChromeBooks, which run in the cloud and are based on Google’s Chrome Web browser. Unfortunately, ChromeBooks are useless offline, and are missing applications that only work in Windows. Google’s weakest link is definitely the PC, then, forcing a user to choose between a Windows or a Mac machine. The Chromebook runs an operating system based on Google’s Chrome browser.
Google TV, rather than being a standalone device, is a component of many smart TVs. This Android experience on your TV allows you to access applications, Chrome, and so on, just as you would do on a standalone device.
And how about Microsoft…?
Windows PCs are used by the vast majority of computer users. Windows devices that aren’t PCs make up a tiny minority of the company’s offerings. Microsoft is doing all it can to change that and create an ecosystem where there once was just the PC. It remains to be seen whether they’re capable of doing so, and they’re certainly not there yet.
Benefits of the Microsoft ecosystem
Microsoft has the greatest “sameness” across all its devices. The Windows 8 interface, formerly called Metro, looks almost exactly the same on a Windows 8 PC, tablet, smartphone, and Xbox 360. Once you’ve mastered how to navigate through Windows 8 on one device, you can do it on all of them.
Windows PCs are also much cheaper than Apple’s, and you can generally get much greater performance for the money. This ecosystem is also the only one that supports touchscreen PCs.
Microsoft is still supporting Windows XP, which is more than 11 years old. That being said, the company will finally stop supporting XP in April of 2014, but that tells you how long you’ll be able to use a given Windows operating system securely and with the latest updates. Almost all Windows apps ever made work on full Windows Vista, 7, or 8 – only the specialized Windows 8 apps in the Microsoft Store are exclusive to Windows 8 … everything else works on Vista and 7.
Drawbacks of the Microsoft ecosystem
The Microsoft ecosystem is somewhat broken. A Windows Phone app is not the same as a Windows RT app for the Surface and neither is it the same as the corresponding app for a full Windows 8 machine. There’s no universal app, and there’s little support for syncing close-enough or similar apps across devices. Microsoft devices do share the same universal login idea as Google devices. Though the apps won’t carry over, once you log in to any
Microsoft device, many of your settings and preferences will.
The weak link in the Microsoft ecosystem is the phones. Windows 8 Phones just aren’t ready for prime time, and there’s one big reason for that: the app support just isn’t there. When key apps like Instagram, Facebook and Gmail aren’t included, and may never be, the phone becomes pretty useless. Sure, Windows 8 Phone has Facebook integration, but it’s not an official app and works poorly. Once the app support is there, Windows Phone may be able to stand up to Android or iPhone; but it may be too little, too late.
The new Windows Surface tablets offer Windows RT, which is a lighter version of Windows 8. Only Microsoft Office can live in the desktop mode on a Windows RT machine; no other apps can, nor can Windows 7 or earlier apps. The Windows Surface Pro is more expensive and can run the same Windows apps as a PC. So far, the built-in apps common to both a Windows tablet and a Windows 8 PC aren’t that useful. The Mail, Calendar, and Messaging apps are all really bare bones and are missing important features users have come to expect from apps like these, such as a Conversation Mode in the Mail app.
It’s worth mentioning that there are full Windows 8 tablets that cost less than the Surface Pro. A Windows 8 touchscreen laptop will likely give you a better value for your money, and will also have a physical keyboard.
The Windows PC does integrate well with Windows devices … but only if everything is running Windows 8. If not, the integration really isn’t anything special. There’s a “My Windows Phone” app for Windows 8 PCs that allows you to move media files around, share items from your phone to your PC, and save photos taken with the phone directly to the PC – but that’s not really the same thing as syncing the same apps across multiple devices like Android does, or having universal apps like iOS does.
Also, though Windows 8 looks the same across Windows 8 devices, the first time that Windows has been unified in this way, it’s really not the same experience underneath the visual surface. The apps are different, and compatibility is questionable. In fact, it’s valid to say that Windows PCs integrate better with Android or Apple devices than they do with Windows devices.
Though initially divergent, the Xbox 360’s operating system greatly resembles Windows 8. Using the SmartGlass app, available for any smartphone, you can use your phone as a remote control for your Xbox, among many other useful functions. It’s also pretty easy to set up a media library on your PC that can be accessed from your Xbox. Unfortunately, that’s where the ecosystem ends; the Xbox 360 doesn’t offer much in the way of integration otherwise. The next Xbox, coming in 2013, might change all that.
The Winner Is…
Though Apple has the best tablets, Android has the best phones, and Windows has the best PCs, there really isn’t one unified ecosystem that does it all the best. Our recommendation: Try the Android or iOS ecosystems, but instead of going with a pointless Chromebook or an expensive Mac, get a decent Windows PC instead.
About the Author
Steve Horton is the Manager and Director, Community and Social Media for ReviverSoft, a software company that focuses on helping people get more out of their PCs.
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