An unbiased view of Android vs. iPhone

A couple of years ago, I posted An unbiased view on Macs, because I couldn’t find anything even remotely resembling an unbiased view. I looked to see if there was an unbiased view of Android vs. iPhone, and I actually found one. It’s right here: Android vs. iPhone. It’s an extensive list, from a Mac developer who also happens to have a Nexus One, of pros and cons of Android, using iPhone as an opposing reference. I quite like the list. It really doesn’t reek of fanboyism. So if you’re interested in a comprehensive list of pros and cons, that’s the link you want.

I’m presenting it in a bit of a more personal view—why the iPhone appeals to me (why I love using my wife’s iPhone), and why I still use an Android phone.

First of all, I want to say that I think arguments fangirls and fanboys have about Android and iPhone are usually stupid. They tend to be arguments about which platform is “better” or which is more popular. The problem with “better” is that it is a vague and meaningless term that doesn’t help consumers make a choice. The bottom line is that neither the iPhone nor an Android phone will be the best smartphone product for everyone‘s mobile lifestyle. iPhone will be better for some. Android will be better for some. And some will find both equally good or equally useless.

So I’m more interested in the practical. What are the kinds of things that are important to you in making a smartphone purchase?

What I like about the iPhone
I know a lot of people who have iPhones. I’ve played with my friends’ iPhones. I’ve seen strangers use them on the bus. I’ve played with them in the Apple Store. I’ve “borrowed” my wife’s iPhone periodically. Here is what I can tell:

  • iPhones are sexy. The displays look good. The casing looks sleek. Even third-party apps generally tend to look better than their Android counterparts.
  • The interface is designed with touch in mind. That makes sense, since it is a touchscreen OS. One hard button takes you to the home screen if you press it once and then to search if you press it twice. Everything else is through the touchscreen. Android has too many hard buttons (Menu, Back, Search, Home, a trackball).
    Edit (March, 2012): I now own a Galaxy Nexus, which uses soft buttons for Recent Apps, Home, and Back. By default, there is a contextual Menu button and no more dedicated Search button. It looks as if Google is trying to move more in the direction of going fully touchscreen.
  • The touchscreen is very responsive (you’ll notice in a lot of YouTube videos comparing iPhones to Android phones that the reviewer often has to swipe or tap a couple of times for it to register on the Android phone). Pinch-to-zoom is a lot faster—there is no lag.
  • Multi-tasking is not a priority. Yes, I know some people view this is as a con against the iPhone, but I view it as a pro. I agree with Steve Jobs that performance and battery life matter more than multi-tasking. I really don’t use more than one app at a time anyway.
  • Here’s another one I like that I’ve heard many iPhone users complain about—notifications. I like that they just appear and then disappear. One thing I dislike about Android is that, to get rid of notifications, I have to swipe down the notification bar and then either click on the notification or click Clear to clear it. A notification should just notify me and then go away. I don’t need it lingering and requiring a lot of extra taps and swipes to remove.
    Edit (March, 2012): Since iOS 5, iPhones now use an Android-like notification in addition to the old notification system that pops up. This, for me, has now become a con for iPhone, since it essentially has the Android problem, making the interrupting notifications redundant… but still interrupting.
  • Updates come right away to all phones whose hardware can support the latest version. Don’t get me wrong—I definitely think criticisms of so-called Android fragmentation are exaggerated. Fragmentation doesn’t have much direct effect on the end user. But there is a real sense in which consumers just like to have the latest and greatest. If a new version comes out and Google says “Hey, it’s got this cool feature and that cool feature,” and you know your phone is powerful enough (enough processor speed, enough RAM) to support the update, it can be frustrating not to be able to install the update right away, and not everyone is geeky enough to risk a voided warranty to install a rooted rom (rooted roms can also be extremely buggy). With the iPhone, you just plug your phone into your computer, and iTunes will install the newest version of iOS as soon as it’s released.
    Edit (March, 2012): Google has three items in its “Nexus” line that get vanilla Android and over-the-air updates from Google in a timely fashion—the Nexus One, the Nexus S, and the Galaxy Nexus.
  • I may be the only Linux user who thinks so, but iTunes is a nice interface, and over the years it’s just gotten snappier in performance. I love the smart playlists and syncing capabilities. When it works, it works extremely well. Of course, I also know some iPhone users (particularly ones who have tried to use their iPhones with multiple computers) who have had a lot of bad experiences with iPhones and iTunes connectivity.
  • Even with the growth of Android as a platform over the past two years, sometimes there are apps available for the iPhone that are not available for Android. One that comes to mind is Netflix streaming. The iPhone has had this many months now (almost a year). Netflix just has murmurings about it possibly coming to Android “soon” and then for only select devices.
    Edit (June, 2011): Netflix now has streaming on just a handful of Android devices.
    Edit (March, 2012): Now almost all (maybe all?) Android phones on the market can play Netflix.

Why I’m sticking with Android
I don’t get fanboyism or fangirlism. How can you think one popular product is superior to another in every single way and not acknowledge that people have different needs and preferences? How can you not even acknowledge that almost everything (if not everything) in life has both pros and cons? Well, I’m definitely an Android user, but, as you can see, there’s a lot I admire about the iPhone.

Nevertheless, I won’t be switching to an iPhone any time soon. Here are some great things about Android that keep me there:

  • I love Google Voice, and its integration into Android is seamless. Back in 2009, they tried to submit an app to the iTunes App Store, and Apple rejected it (or just simply didn’t accept it, depending on what semantic backflips you want to employ). My guess is that Google then put zero effort into the iPhone Google Voice app for the next year and a half so that by the time it was released it was just garbage (I know because my wife tried it out on her iPhone). Maybe after a few updates Google Voice for the iPhone might be usable, but even then there are some levels of integration Apple simply will not allow. With Google Voice I get free, unlimited text messaging. I can block numbers. More importantly, I have one number I can give everyone, and it can ring my Android phone when I have my phone on, or it can ring my GMail account when I’m on the computer. Voicemail transcriptions are notoriously inaccurate (almost hilariously so), but they are still better than nothing.
    Edit (March, 2012): Google has since updated to the Google Voice iPhone app, and it’s now better, but it still doesn’t match the quality of the Android app and, without jailbreaking, cannot integrate fully with the iPhone.
  • On a related note, Android has the ability (and has had this since at least Android 1.5, Cupcake) to send certain numbers straight to voicemail. So even if people call my real cell phone number (not my Google Voice one) as a wrong number, I can just add them to my “wrong number” contact, and I’ll never have to hear the phone ring again when they call. If they call my Google Voice number as a wrong number, I can add them to “wrong number,” and they’ll simply be blocked—they won’t even have the opportunity to leave me a voicemail.
  • The keys on the iPhone keyboard are easier to peck at accurately, but I still prefer the Android keyboard for a couple of reasons. To sum up quickly, it’s the visual distinction between upper- and lower-case letters, as well as the autocomplete suggestions. You can read in more detail in my The Pros and Cons of the Android Keyboard entry.
    Edit (March, 2012): the Gingerbread (Android 2.3) keyboard is the best I’ve found so far (yes, I’ve tried Swype and all the Swype-like keyboards—no thanks), because of how many auto-suggest options it presents for words as you type. Unfortunately, the stock Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) keyboard regressed a bit (only three suggestions, and you have to long-press the middle suggestion to get more suggestions). Fortunately, you can still install the Gingerbread keyboard through the Android Market (now called Google Play).
  • Occasionally we’ll rent a ZipCar and drive around some place we’re unfamiliar with. Turn-by-turn GPS navigation is really helpful during those times, and that comes with Android for free… even though the voice is a little scary. My wife and I call her the dominatrix.
  • I don’t think it matters that the iTunes App Store has more applications than the Android Market has. Most of the important ones are present in both stores. More importantly, Google can’t tell you what not to install. Even if an app is rejected by the Android Market (which is rare), you can still choose to override that and install apps outside the Android Market (you get a big warning that is a security risk, of course). Now with the new web Market, you can install apps on your device remotely using your computer. Google also allows you to install various web browsers and email clients. There are no restrictions on apps with a claim that they duplicate core functionality of Android.
    Edit (March, 2012): Apple is now allowing for other web browsers like Dolphin, Opera, and Skyfire, but you can’t set your default web browser to anything other than Safari without jailbreaking.
  • In theory, at least, Android can use Flash in its web browsers. You have to have Android 2.2 or higher, though, and your phone has to have hardware that supports it. The ability to play Flash is never a con. Even if you don’t like Flash, you don’t have to use it, and as far as I can tell it is just Flash on demand anyway (you have to manually decide to play Flash to get it to play).
    Edit (March, 2012): Adobe is going to stop developing Flash for Android in the future

So should you get an iPhone or an Android phone?
Well, I don’t know who you are, but I will tell you that the iPhone world and the Android world are very much eco-systems.

If you want the best experience from an iPhone, you should have an iTunes account and use iTunes to manage your music. It’d be nice to have a Mac with Mail and iCal as your main email client and calendar, respectively, and to use iPhoto to manage your photos. Your music, mail, address book, and photos will sync up when you plug in your iPhone.

If you want the best experience from an Android phone, you should have a Google account and use it for GMail, Contacts, Google Voice, and Calendar. You shouldn’t mind dragging and dropping music files to removable storage (even from iTunes) instead of having things automatically sync. Ideally, you should actually prefer dragging and dropping to iTunes syncing.
Edit (March, 2012): I have found an amazing pay-for app in Google Play called iSyncr. If you’re really conflicted about wanting an Android phone but “needing” iTunes, iSyncr is worth the investment.

Since I use Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu all regularly, drag-and-drop (as opposed to iTunes syncing) is ideal for me. I know that isn’t the case for everybody. And since I use three different operating systems, it’s nice to sync to “the cloud” my emails, contacts, and calendar, instead of to a single computer.

It’s certainly possible (and I know people who do it) to use an iPhone with a Windows computer and a GMail account. I just don’t think you’re getting the most out of it by doing so. Likewise, a hardcore Mac-Safari-iCal-Mail-MobileMe user who has no GMail account could use an Android phone but would also not get the most out of the phone by doing so.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. As always, use what’s best for you. There is no empirical “best” for everybody.

Join the Conversation

4 Comments

  1. Great write up and really unbiased view. I currently own the ancient Droid and love it but also like new iPhone for its simplicity and looks.

    Cheers!

  2. Yea. I’m just gonna say I dont agree with most of your pros for Apple Iphone. Full Disclosure I’m generally Anti-Apple but the two points I disagree with for sure

    Iphones are sexy. People always say this but really the Iphone looks bulky to me and the new Iphone 4 lost alot of it’s curve appeal. Though, I agree the Apple UI look is pretty good. A bunch of art majors that know how to use that gradient, transparency, and rounded edges. Though, I have GO Launcher and GO Messaging on my Android and boy is that sexy. Also, I love my G2 and Incredible.

    Multi-tasking. Uhm… yea.. multitasking is useful to many a people that do multiple things. Like myself.

  3. I agree with pretty much the whole article, and I’m the typical user he describes Droids as being right for. I happened to win a fourth gen iPod touch from my college’s computer department (I doubt that I ever would have spent the $300 on it myself), so I’ve gotten to experience iOS for awhile now. I think it’s pretty cool, and they’re even some things that it beats Android in, such as screen quality and overall smoothness of the UI. Also, they’res no doubt that there are way better games out for iOS, at least for the time being. Also I feel like the overall design of the device is more futuristic and well made.

    If I ever had to choose between iOS and Android, I would take any rooted Droid running 2.3. I couldn’t go without the custom ROMs and free tethering.

  4. Am no expert, but last i heard Android was a mobile operating system and not a mobile phone (which the iPhone is). So points like “iPhones are sexy. The displays look good. The casing looks sleek.The touchscreen is very responsive” are quite meaningless.
    In such cases what you should do (in order to be unbiased) is compare the iPhone to an Android phone with good reputation, currently on the market at around the same price point (for eg: Galaxy SII and many others).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *