This page was last updated 21 May 2013.

iPhone vs. Android shoot-out

Revised in March 2013 to cover new phones and new software versions.

There is a fairly fundamental difference in the design goals for the iPhone and Android devices. The iPhone is designed for a range of separate sequential tasks that it does very beautifully. You ask it to do something - like checking your mail, calling up a web page, or looking up map directions. You ask the iPhone a question and it's very good at giving you the answers. There are rather few things it does on its own, like waiting for incoming calls or emails, and the operating system is tailored to permit exactly those few things.

The Android system, on the other hand, is more like an assistant who is constantly scouring the Internet for you, and telling you when something happens that interests you. Both devices are always-on, but Android takes it to a new level because it has its fingers in all sorts of Internet services at the same time. Whenever something happens on any of your social web services - any chat service, Facebook, Twitter, RSS news, Flickr (I can't think of an exception right now), it will see it and alert you. You do not have to call up an app to check Twitter, and then another one for Facebook, and then a third one for news. That would defeat the whole purpose.

People who debate the merits of OS arcana like multitasking, activity sharing, notification systems, impact on battery life, and so on miss the point. Even the iTunes debate seems beside the point to me - the entire notion of hooking up a cable or pressing buttons to "sync" data from one physical device in your hand to another physical device on your desk seems outdated, no matter how elegantly iTunes does its job. You might as well connect an RS232 cable and start Xmodem; same principle. A device like Android isn't about explicit syncing to be brought up to date with a desktop or the Internet. Instead, it's an integral part of the Internet.

If you'll forgive the hyperbole, the iPhone now seems like the ultimate refinement of 20th-century design dogmas, while Android is a 21st-century design - often not yet as refined as the iPhone, but a generation ahead.

But let me quickly add that much of the time, you do want to have a specific problem solved like looking up Wikipedia or finding the nearest bus stop, and here the devices are far closer and implementation designs do matter. If you aren't into social webs, the decision is pretty open. Much of the remainder of this page is about those implementation details, so you can decide which matter to you and choose accordingly.

It's also important to distinguish between the operation system (Android) and the hardware it runs on. For most phones, with the exception of the iPhone, different companies write the software and build the hardware. My hardware is an HTC Desire, which is cheaply thrown together and highly unreliable.

I am not lucky with cell phones: both my new iPhone and my new Desire had to be sent in for repairs. In the process I found that it takes some getting used to Android after using an iPhone for two years, but it is very painful to return to an iPhone after using Android. Any new OS is awkward at first because old habits no longer apply, but for some very basic things like app switching just aren't there on the iPhone. Steve Jobs wants to keep things as simnple as possible, and I commend the idea, but I'll stick with Einstein: "make things as simple as possible, but not simpler".

Ok, on to the comparison. In a nutshell:

iPhone Android
Simplicity, elegance, polish, consistency. Very easy to learn. Powerful, open, innovative, occasionally playful. Lacking polish for a long time but 4.1 (ICS, Ice Cream Sandwich) caught up with Apple, but many apps did not.
Spartan, artificial limitations. More core design features, such as active app icons, data sharing between apps, and apps for essential phone features such as app launchers or keyboards, that make things possible the iPhone's high walls between apps prevent.
Mostly safe from malware, except that some apps leak data. Mostly safe but slightly more malware, provided one sticks to the Google Play app store. Some non-Google stores, especially in China, are crawling with malware. Bigger target.
Walled garden, censorship, closed, Apple police behind every bush. Difficult to store and exchange data; relies on USB cable connection to iTunes on a single desktop machine. Open standards, free data exchange, no police - but also noone who stops standards violations. You are free to choose providers but also required to choose providers.
Always puts form over function, good at omitting unnecessary toy features but occasionally also omits necessary features. For example, an iPhone cannot answer the question "what's going on" at a glance, by design; there are no active icons. On balance, there is more to learn, more to explore, and more uneven app quality. The Android world is moving forward very rapidly compared to the iPhone's very placid progress.
If a feature is missing, you aren't supposed to need it. If a feature is missing, someone is already working on it.

Phone buying guide

I am comparing Android and iOS here. I am assuming that you followed these guidelines that apply to all phones, to make sure you are getting the real thing:

The discussion below compares my HTC Desire and Samsung Galaxy Nexus Android phones with my old iPhone 3G. I try to consider the iPhone 5 but I might not always do it justice, please tell me when I go wrong... I'll mark Android wins green, and iPhone wins red. You'll see more green than red, but that just reflects my decision to switch from iPhone to Android. I first wrote this in 2010, and my revision in 2013 finds that the gap between Android and iOS has narrowed, mostly because Android has caught up with iOS or has pulled ahead of if. So a few items are gone now, and there's now significantly more green and less red than in 2010.

General user interface

The iPhone puts all programs it knows onto the home screen, where you can arrange them on up to 11 pages and their folders. Android has a program list, and you decide which programs you want to put on the home screen. Android comes with more apps, so if you don't want an app you won't see it on your home screen at all. With iOS 4, you need to drag unwanted icons into a junk folder.

The iPhone's 4x4 (or 5x4 for the iPhone 5) grid of app icons is so boring and poorly designed, like someone had cast the simplest possible design in stone regardless of how inconvenient and lacking of functionality it is. And the iPhone's configurability seems awfully spartan - it's like a breath of fresh air to see Android do all the things that fell through the cracks at Cupertino, or fell victim to the minimalist design. (To Apple's credit, they got the major options right, it's the smaller things such as font size selection that they left out.)

At the same time, Android doesn't degenerate into Symbian's maze of confusing and overlapping option dialogs; everything seems nicely sorted away where you'd expect it. Android 4 (ICS) has a brilliant preference layout; earlier Androids were more confusing. This is partly a matter of taste - why does the iPhone put the three different wireless enable switches (Wifi, cell network, Bluetooth) in three different menu nesting levels, for example? Whether you like Androids more powerful preferences or not depends on whether you subscribe to the Spartan philosophy, I suppose - I like minimalist elegance but not if it imposes artificial barriers that prevent me from doing things I need; your mileage is certain to vary.

Connectivity and data exchange

If you are on a limited data plan, or often run out of battery, you'll love the data and power breakdown Android 4 gives you per app. You know immediately which app has been hogging the battery or the network. Brilliant.
When you install an Android app, you are told precisely which system services the app uses (such as accessing the network, phone book, or location services). You have the choice of approving, or not installing the app. iOS has far less fine-grained permissions, but some of them can be changed at any time. For example, you can allow or deny location services to any app at any time. That's a big win for iOS.

On Android there's the LBE Privacy Guard app, which adds this capability in a highly refined way, but the app doesn't seem to be maintained well. It doesn't work on the most recent Android version 4.2.

An iPhone depends on iTunes on Mac or Windows computer. That's the only way to transfer music, video, and photos. And it must be a single iTunes computer, you can't load more videos on the road if you brought a notebook. And the connection to iTunes is by USB cable. It feels like a time warp back to 1970 with RS-232 serial cables and Xmodem. But with iOS 5 and 6 Apple is catching up; iCloud is very narrow (it has a photo stream but no galleries, only apps using the cloud APIs can exchange data in certain restricted ways, if you own a non-Apple device you can't use iCloud). But PIM data like calendars and contacts works well - but again, only between Apple devices.

Android is not shackled to a PC program. It's a modern always-online device that talks directly to the network for all its needs, wherever you are. Google offers several of these services, like calendars and address books, but it's all based on open standards so other providers can be used as well. The downside is that you'll need to configure each provider; there is no "single sign-on" outside of the Google services.

Personally I find iCloud creepy because all sorts of programs like iWorks Pages and Numbers leak data to it behind your back. Google is essentially one giant privacy black hole, but at least you know when you send them data, file by file. Myself, I value privacy so I use an ownCloud that I host at home, but that may not be an option for everyone.

the standard Android keyboard can be calibrated. I make fewer mistakes on it than on the iPhone. Hold-for-symbols is very convenient too because you always see everything on the key caps. But Android lets you replace the stock keyboard with apps such as SwiftKey or Swype. I swear that SwiftKey can read my mind, sometimes I write half my texts just by picking its suggestions, simultaneously in three different languages. Its suggestions often even get those tricky French endings right!

When I use an iPhone, it spooks me that the keycaps do not change case. All characters are uppercase even if they generate lowercase letters. This never bothered me before I switched to Android, now I see it as a design flaw.

The iPhone does not support any form of multitasking that deserves the name. They say it can't be done without compromising battery lifetime, and provided an extremely limited and constrained API that cover a few isolated cases. So you often lose connectivity when switching apps. That's especially a problem for social network and chat apps; you may become unreachable. Lame! Android solved what Apple couldn't.
An iPhone must be activated by Apple to work at all. An Android doesn't ask you to do this, but there are important apps - like Gmail push mail and the App Market - that will ask you to create a Google account. You need to agree to Additional Privacy Policies that I haven't been able to find.
The builtin Android mailer does not support an unified inbox. However, it only takes one tap to see all inboxes, with number of unread messages, and a second tap switches to that inbox. Better than iPhone 3, worse than iPhone 4. Annoyingly, it always sends alternative base64 / HTML; There is no option to set it to plain text. The mailer has a useful thread view mode and attachment finder, and it can save attachments to the memory card.

But Android doesn't limit you to the builtin mailer - I switched to K9, and I am very happy with it. My only minor complaint is that it takes a while to tell it exactly which mail accounts and folder contents are important and should be sorted to the top of the unified inbox, although I am glad it has such a feature.

the browser is as good as Apple's, since it's also webkit. It supports double-tapping, but the meaning is not "2D-zoom until the block fits the screen width", but "make the block readable with a standard font size, even if this means re-layouting". Android zooms text better, but Apple zooms images better. Android can play embedded movies, what a relief! No more exiting the browser and starting a YouTube app. (Which Apple has removed from the stock iPhone in iOS 6.)

On my Galaxy Nexus I use Firefox, for its brilliant syncing feature and the variety of useful plugins. Firefox needs a fairly powerful phone but it's no longer the memory pig it was in the early betas. Firefox cannot exist on iOS because Apple requires that all browsers use Webkit. Their loss.

A first non-representative impression is that Google Play and the Apple app store are similarly well-stocked, although both have gaps. Android apps seem to be a little more expensive but also more powerful, and I see more apps with ad bars than on the iPhone (they are about the same size). Apple's iAd is still relatively new. Both shops are hard to search, you can't tell which of the 50 search hits is the right one for you. iPhone apps tend to follow Apple's spartan motif. This is also true for the builtin apps: Apple Maps is so far behind Google Maps that it's no contest, Apple has serious egg on its face on this one. The number of apps in either store (Apple is ahead) means very little because so many apps are useless or redundant. So what if Apple has 50 Twitter apps and Android has only 40? I care more about things like keyboards, launchers, VPNs, DroidNAS (which makes the phone memory appear in the MacOS finder, ready for drag-and-dropping files) and other apps that cannot exist on iOS.


This applies to the HTC Desire; there are many Android phones with different specs and better quality.

The iPhone is beautiful hardware design. Compared to the iPhone, the HTC Desire and Galaxy Nexus are shoddy junk designs, with plastic all over. But the Nexus 4, Nexus 7, or HTC One are beautiful; at least parts of the Android world have caught up.
Exchangeable battery on the HTC Desire and Galaxy Nexus! I have run out of battery while hiking in the mountains and was very happy that I could just pop in a spare, and if you travel you know how hard it can be to find a power socket at an airport, or the time to recharge. External packs are terribly inefficient.
Battery life on my iPhone 3G and HTC Desire was one day; the Galaxy Nexus runs for two days.
Exchangeable micro-SD memory card on the HTC Desire! (But exchangeable only when powered off, that's lame, my Nokia keeps running.) Unfortunately, the lower-cost Nexus devices often omit SD cards.
The Back button is great. It goes back wherever you are. on the iPhone, it's usually a little arrow button at the top left, sometimes it's Ok/Cancel, and sometimes (when you are at whatever the app calls its top menu) it's the hardware home button.

The "Menu" hardware button is great as well. All the options and preferences in one easy to find place. The iPhone puts all preferences into a separate app, but this is so inconvenient that many apps ignore that convention and find some place to put a preferences button right into the app. And options are typically in a button at the bottom. Consider the "Menu" button Android's answer to MacOS X's Apple-comma shortcut.

In general, the idea of using standard OS buttons for those things that all apps need very much appeals to me. Suddenly the iPhone's standard key operations like Back, Home, menu, and Search seem convoluted and awkward to me. Odd, I didn't feel that way before I switched to Android. It's a common theme: switching from the iPhone to an equivalent Android is easy, but try to switch back and you realize how awkward and outdated iOS often is.

The GPS receiver is about on par with Apple's. Both compare to a pro navigation receiver like the Garmin eTrex in the same way that the builtin miniature camera compares to a dedicated compact camera (let alone a DSLR) - slow, imprecise, hard to use in difficult situations, but good enough for placing you on a map and simple navigation. But the Android API permits third-party apps like GPS Status that can tell you how many satellites it sees, where they are, and signal strength. That's invaluable for getting a fix in difficult situations because you'll know if you need to move to a better place to get a fix. iPhones can't do that.
No mute switch. Seems minor but makes a big difference to me. The stock Android is better than HTC's Sense interface here because it puts mute on the unlock screen and power button long-press.

Default Apps

Android stole Apple's trick of rotating the calculator to show extra functions. But Android is rather lobotomized, it doesn't even have a memory.
The pictures taken with the camera are quite good if there is enough light. The picture viewer has a Share menu item that shows 11 different things you can do with it, depending on how many apps you have installed that know how to send data. For example, I have installed the Google Goggles app, which analyzes pictures and tells you what you are seeing; it shows up as one of the Share targets. Brilliant. On the iPhone you can email your photo or send it to iCloud, that's it.
Twitter, Facebook, Jabber, and Flickr are fully integrated. You'll feel left out if you don't have accounts there. (Personally, I do not have a Facebook account because I don't like to hand over my private data to Facebook for them to sell to anyone.) iOS 6 is making progress here, but with iOS you only get what Apple chooses to give you - or take away, in the Google Maps/YouTube case! - while on Android you install an app and it's automatically and immediately there in the share menus of every other applicable app.
During my experiments I turned on Google Latitude, which lets friends track my location. Google sent a mail explaining what has happened, with instructions for turning Latitude off. It's opt-in and protects you against accidental opt-in. Well done, especially for a company with such a cavalier attitude towards privacy.
iCloud is a closed Apple ecosystem. It's a polished and well-integrated experience, but it's very limited. Even though I use mostly Apple computers I have completely abandoned it because iCloud cannot work with non-Apple devices. Apple burns heretics without mercy.
Address book: I would trust Apple more with my personal address book than Google, but to be honest, that's more because Google has always been in the business of monetizing data and Apple is just now getting into it.
Bought the Oxford French Dictionary from the Android Market for 20 Euro. Very bad integration: it's an in-app purchase and the Market doesn't handle this at all. The app opens a web page where you have to enter contact and credit card info. Got into trouble at first because I didn't have cookies enabled and had to do it all over again. Not sure if this is Oxford's fault or a flaw in Google Play.
Folders: I had to search Google (Iin the meantime I have switched to DuckDuckGo and StartPage for searching) for instructions to place folders in the main iPhone menu. It's actually reasonably intuitive, but less so than the rest of the iPhone. Android wins: a folder is simply one of the things you can add if you press the "+" button. I can't decide which presentation I like better - the iPhone doesn't visually distinguish folder contents much and the folder contents have an arrow that points to the folder icon, even though I went FROM the folder TO its contents; on the other hand Android doesn't let me rearrange folder contents even though folders hold more icons (16 instead of 9).

But we're talking about Android so I now use GoLauncher Ex, which lets me configure the number of icons and sizes, and accomodate nonstandard folders such as Circle Launcher. Android always gives you a choice, you must just be willing to weed out the bad choices.

Developing: I used to be a paid-up iPhone app developer for a year. It was a highly frustrating experience. Apple uses a language a friend calls "objectionable C" that nobody else uses, which is a creaky mixture of C and Smalltalk. It's one of the early groping attempts at object-oriented languages in the early 1980s, and its age is painfully obvious. Because of Apple's draconian legal obstacles to sharing, it's a totally closed ecosystem with poor documentation and borderline-fascist certificate limitations. In hindsight, much of the required documentation exists, but it's a very steep learning curve and you quickly get a bloody nose from running into the artificial barriers erected by Apple. I am used to open software development, not boot camps with armed guards at the fence.

My general impression with both programming environments is that Apple has circumscribed the feature set. You can do anything that Apple has anticipated and provided an API for, but anything they left out is not possible at all. It's closed. Android, on the other hand, gives you access to pretty much everything and does not limit what you do with it. Imho, both system have comparable complexity and learning curve (except you probably know Java already but probably not Objective C).

Minor observations

Here are some other observations that I think are not important enough to influence an Android/iPhone decision, but I have talked to friends who disagree.

Setting up WLAN is just as easy as on the iPhone, and centuries ahead of Nokia.
Android has an interesting Wifi sleep policy to save power.
Data roaming is off by default, like on the iPhone.
Android has a neat info screen that shows battery usage per app or feature.
On Android, dragging past the end stops abruptly; iPhone overscrolls and snaps back.
HTC's Sense weather app is pretty but over-engineered. You just want to know whether it will rain, and see clouds move across your screen.
Android bug: the weather widget shows the configured places, and also the place I am currently in but that's always wrong on my phone. Marseille is misspelled Marseilles. .
Android has a scroll button at the bottom, like an inverted mouse. It's occasionally useful, especially for positioning the text cursor, but kind of redundant, the touch screen is very good.
Android has an FM radio. What is that good for?
The Desire's weight and size are almost the same as the iPhone 3, but the Desire looks smaller because of its rounded edges. It even looks smaller than the iPhone 4 which is much thinner. Its screen is a little bigger than the iPhone 3's. The iPhone looks bulkier, but the Desire's two-tone bezel may not meet everybody's taste.
Cool Android idea: reduce ringer volume when the phone is picked up.
Many Android menus have a "more" button with the same three-dot icon as on the iPhone. If you press it, the extra options replace the original menu while on the iPhone the original menu options remain visible. A friend of mine who favors the iPhone assures me that this is a major point for Apple. (I don't really care so I filed it under "minor".)
The phone preferences are well laid out on both phones. Android has a slight advantage because app preferences don't fill up the toplevel preferences screen, and Android had no need to hide away half the phone preferences behind a rather nondescript "General" submenu like the iPhone does.

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