This page was last updated 29 March 2013.
iPhone vs. Android shoot-out
Revised in March 2013 to cover new phones and new software
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physical device on your desk seems outdated, no matter how elegantly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
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:
- Do not buy vendor variants. Samsung adds TouchWiz to Android,
HTC adds Sense. These modifications accomplish three things: the phone
will rarely or never receive updates that add features or fix bugs, it
will be late and sometimes even ship with severely outdated software,
there may be new bugs (like Samsung's easily breakable lock screens in
March 2013), and almost everything they add has better alternatives in
the app store. Whenever possible, buy a Google Nexus! iOS does not have
- Do not buy subsidized phones. Buy off the shelf. It's a higher
up-front cost but lower cost over the phone's lifetime. Subsidized
phones are usually SIM-locked for a very long time (typically 24
months), which means you can't switch providers and you can't travel
to another country and use a local SIM card there which would let
you save massive amounts of money. The provider may also cripple the
phone - even iOS may lose tethering - or add nonremovable adware. And
provider certification can take a long time, so you will always have
an outdated phone.
- Do not use CDMA unless you have no choice because there
is no GSM in your area, if you travel at all. GSM works on the entire
planet; CDMA works almost nowhere except some places in the US,
Japan, and South America. CDMA also has technical defects that make
it difficult to maintain a data connection during voice calls. At the
time of writing (March 2013), LTE is somewhat immature - it's fast,
mostly due to low overhead which reduces ping times, but coverage is
poor outside the cities, only a few top-end Android phones work with
all networks (the iPhone 5 does not), voice over LTE is experimental,
and the speed may drop once it catches on and the cell towers get
more load. Wait.
- Avoid nano SIMs if you plan to travel abroad. You can buy
regular SIM cards (technically these are called mini SIM cards)
anywhere in the world, including developing nations. But you will
not find micro SIMs or nano SIMs. If you are careful you can cut
a regular (mini) SIM card to fit into a micro SIM slot, but if your
phone has a nano SIM slot you lose. Do not buy the iPhone 5 if you
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Android stole Apple's trick of rotating the calculator to show extra
functions. But Android is rather lobotomized, it doesn't even have a
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
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
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).
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
Setting up WLAN is just as easy as on the iPhone, and centuries ahead
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
On Android, dragging past the end stops abruptly; iPhone overscrolls and
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
Interesting link: http://blog.louisgray.com/2010/07/why-i-turned-in-my-iphone-and-went.html.