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iPhone or Android: Which Smartphone Should You Buy?

13 factors to consider before you buy

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When you're looking for a new smartphone, choosing an iPhone or Android phone isn't a simple task. While both phones offer a lot of great features, they may seem so similar that it's hard to distinguish between them. If you look closely, though, you'll find that there are some key differences. Thirteen of those differences are examined here to help you decide whether an iPhone or Android phone is right for you.

NOTE: This article is aimed at helping beginner and intermediate users, people who may be buying their first smartphone, decide what kind of phone to buy. As a result, the most advanced features--such as the ability to root an Android phone--are less relevant.

Last Updated: Feb. 27, 2013

1. Hardware: Choice vs. Polish

iphone 5
image copyright Apple Inc.

Hardware is the first place that the differences between the iPhone and Android become clear. Apple is the only company that makes iPhones, giving it extremely tight control over how the software and hardware work together. On the other hand, Google offers its Android software to many phone makers (Samsung, HTC, LG, and Motorola, among others, offer Android phones). As a result, Android phones vary quite a bit in size, weight, features, user experience, and quality.

It’s not uncommon to hear that some Android phones overheat or freeze up or that some models are simply low quality. While iPhones have also had hardware issues (especially the iPhone 4 antenna problems), inconsistency of quality generally isn’t an issue for the iPhone.

Apple offers users a single choice: what model of iPhone do you want (5, 4S or 4), not what company’s phone and then what model. Of course, some people may prefer the greater choice Android offers. Others, though, will appreciate the simplicity and quality offered by the iPhone.

Winner: Tie

2. OS Compatibility: A Waiting Game

ios 6
image copyright Apple Inc.

If you want to make sure you always have the latest and greatest features that your chosen smartphone operating system offers, you have no choice but to buy an iPhone. That's because Android makers are very slow about updating their phones to Google's latest Android OS releases--and sometimes don't update their phones at all.

While it's to be expected that eventually older phones will no longer have support for the latest OS, Apple's support for older phones is generally better than Android's. Take for instance, iOS 6, its latest OS. It includes full support for the iPhone 4, a more than two-year-old phone as of this writing. Because of that, the latest version of the iOS, 6.1.2, became the most-used version just a week after its release.

On the other hand, Android 4.0, codenamed Ice Cream Sandwich, is running on just 2.9% of Android devices 6 months after its release. This is partly because the makers of the phones control when the OS is released for their phones and, as that linked article shows, some makers have been slow to release it to their users.

So, if you want the latest and greatest as soon as it's ready, you need an iPhone.

Winner: iPhone

3. Apps: Selection vs. Control

Android Market logo
image copyright Google Inc.

While the iPhone App Store offers about the same number of apps as Google Play--around 9000,000 (as of June 2013)--overall selection isn’t the only factor. Apple is famously strict (some might say unpredictable) about what apps it allows and how it changes its policies, while Google’s standards for Android are somewhat more lax.

Many developers have complained about the emphasis on free apps for Android and the difficulty of developing for so many different phones. This fragmentation--the large numbers of devices and OS versions to support--makes developing for Android expensive (for instance, the developers of Temple Run reported that early in their Android experience nearly all of their support emails had to do with unsupported devices--but they support over 700 Android phones!). Combine these development costs with an emphasis on free that reduces the likelihood that developers can cover their costs and not all of the best apps make it to Android, and those that do don’t necessarily run on all phones.

Winner: Apple, but not by much

4. Gaming: A Growing Giant

image copyright Apple Inc.

Just a couple of years ago, video gaming--and especially mobile video gaming--was dominated by Nintendo’s DS and Sony’s PSP. The iPhone has changed that. The iPhone (and iPod touch) has rapidly become a major player in the mobile video game market, with tens of thousands of great games. The growth of the iPhone as a gaming platform, in fact, has led some observers to forecast that Apple is well on its way to eclipsing Nintendo and Sony as the leading mobile game platform.

Beyond that, the general expectation that Android apps should be free (noted above) has led game developers interested in making money (i.e., almost all of them, and certainly all the major ones) to develop for iPhone first and Android second. In fact, due to various problems with developing for Android, some game companies have stopped creating games for it all together.

While Android has its fair share of hit games, the iPhone has the clear advantage here.

Winner: iPhone

5. GPS Navigation: Free Wins--For Everyone

Google Maps Navigation
image copyright Google Inc.

As long as you've got access to the Internet and a smartphone, you never have get lost again thanks to the built-in GPS and maps apps on both the iPhone and Android. Both platforms sport GPS apps that can give drivers turn-by-turn directions and, with the arrival of iOS 6, both platforms now have free, built-in, turn-by-turn directions.

Both Android and iPhone users can use Google Maps Navigation to get free turn-by-turn directions to virtually anywhere. It's good that this app is available for both platforms because, while iPhone users running iOS 6 can use the new, built-in Maps app to get directions to their destination, Google Maps is generally thought to be superior.

Winner: Tie

6. Flash: A Difficult Choice

flash player for iphone
image copyright Adobe Inc.

The iPhone famously doesn’t run Flash--and never will--and makers of Android tablets trumpet that their devices do. If tablets using Android can run Flash, will Android phones be able to do the same?

The answer is sort of--and only older models. That's because Adobe, the makers of Flash, have ceased development of Flash for Android. While older Android devices can use Flash, Adobe has said it will no longer support Flash on Android 4.1 and higher, and that it will no longer be available for download through Google Play after August 2012. So, Android users who want Flash will have to decide: do they want to stay on an older operating system or have Flash?

After reports that the experience of running Flash on Android was never very good--many reviewers have pointed out that Flash doesn’t work terrifically well on Android tablets and that it drains batteries quickly--Adobe's decision seems to validate Apple's original point: Flash is bad for batteries and device stability.

While its lack of Flash prevents the iPhone from viewing some web content, many sites have alternate versions that work with the iPhone. So, iPhone users do miss some of the web, but less and less all the time. And, they may miss the parts of the web, but with HTML 5 set to displace Flash and Flash's own maker admitting it can't make a version that works well on Android, you'd have to conclude Apple wins this one.

Winner: iPhone

7. Battery Life: Consistent Improvement

iPhone battery

Because of the greater variety of hardware used in Android phones, Android’s battery life is more varied. While early iPhone models had batteries that required a charge nearly every day, that’s no longer true. With recent models, it’s easy to go days at a time without needing a charge (though that will be tested with the iPhone 5).

The story is much more complex with Android, thanks to the large variety of models that run it. Some Android models now have 4-inch screen or 4G LTE networking, both of which burn through much more battery life. To get a sense of what that means, some 4G LTE Android phones are being touted as successes because they can work 8 hours straight without a charge. That means they don't last an entire day, just a work day. I'm sure the faster networking is great, but that's too much of a trade-off for me. Add that to the battery-intensive apps Android phones run (including some in the background that the user doesn’t necessarily know are there), a charge every day (or less) isn’t unheard of.

That said, there are some Android phones that offer ultra-high capacity batteries. If you don't mind the extra bulk, they'll work much longer than iPhones on a single charge.

Winner: Tie

8. Screen Size: How Big Is Too Big?

samsung galaxy note
image copyright Samsung

If you're looking for the biggest screens available on smartphones, Android is your clear choice. It's not uncommon to find Android phones with 4.3-inch screens, and the HTC One X offers a 4.7-inch screen, while the Samsung Galaxy Note stretches the ruler at 5.3 inches. So, for sheer size, Android it is.

The question, of course, is whether a screen that big on a phone is actually a good idea. After all, phones go in our pockets or purses, they're held in our hands and to our faces, where huge devices may not necessarily be a benefit. And as we've seen already, large screens consume more battery power.

While Apple long held to the 3.5-inch screen size, the iPhone 5 brings a 4-inch screen. However, instead of making the entire device proportionally bigger, and therefore a less comfortable fit in the hand, Apple made the screen taller, but not wider. This allows the phone to still be easily used with one hand. Besides that, the Retina Display technology gives the iPhone's screen much higher pixel density (how many pixels can fight in the same physical space; the more pixels the better the image) than many Android screens. Still, if it's raw size you're after, Android's the choice, but not by much.

Winner: Android

9. Networking: Tied in 4G

AT&T 4G LTE
image copyright AT&T

For the fastest wireless Internet experience, you have to go to Android. That's because--for now--only Android devices support true 4G LTE networking, the wireless data standard that is succeeding, and outspeeding, 3G.

Not all Android devices have 4G LTE, and not all areas of the U.S. have 4G LTE available yet, but if you've got a compatible device, have an available network, and are on a carrier with 4G LTE, some Android phones can offer blazing-fast speeds.

While Android used to hold the lead here, the category is now a tie thanks to the release of the iPhone 5. With true 4G LTE networking, the iPhone 5 is on par with Android for the fastest cellular data speeds.

Winner: Tie

10. Carriers: Tied at 4

images copyright A&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon

If you like to have a lot of choices, both Android and iPhone offer the same basic options. Just like there are many Android phones from many companies, you can also get Android phones that work on any of the U.S.’s four major phone carriers: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

For years, the iPhone lagged behind Android's carrier selection for various reasons. When T-Mobile began offering the iPhone in the spring of 2013, though, that difference was erased. Now you can get both an iPhone or Android device from all four major carriers in the U.S.

Both options are available through the many small, regional carriers in the U.S., too

Winner: Tie

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