You’re in the market for a new smartphone (maybe your first smartphone), but which digital horse should you put your money behind? Choosing a smartphone OS is a bigger choice than you realize. Thankfully, if you can’t decide whether to pick iPhone, one of the many Android phones, or Windows Mobile, we’re here to help. We’ll break the battle down into categories and find a winner for each. Just pick what matters most to you, count up the wins in those categories, and you have a recommendation.
Affordability, interface, and apps
Apple doesn’t make budget devices, and the latest iPhone is always among the most expensive handsets on the market, costing $650 and up. Last year’s iPhone 6S comes in at $100 less. The iPhone SE is as close as Apple gets to budget starting from $400, but it’s still quite pricey. Apple’s large iPhone 7 Plus starts at $770.
Microsoft’s main hardware partner Nokia (which it now owns) was always good at producing quality hardware at relatively low prices. There are a wide range of older Windows Phones at varying price points, but few that rival Android and iOS on specs. Hardware manufacturers like Samsung, ZTE, LG, Lenovo, and Huawei were Windows Phone 8.1 partners, but they’ve abandoned the platform and Windows 10 Mobile handsets are thin on the ground. Microsoft’s Lumia brand is probably your best bet, though manufacturers like Acer and Blu offer alternatives.
For sheer scale and variety, nothing competes with Android. You can spend a lot if you want to, for example, Google’s new Pixel phones and Samsung’s Galaxy S line match Apple’s iPhone pricing, but there’s also a huge choice of low-cost handsets from a wide variety of different manufacturers and the platform has been deliberately optimized to run on low-end hardware. The fact that Android also leads the field in free apps makes it the natural choice for the budget-conscious. Chances are, if it’s a smartphone by HTC, Samsung, Sony, ZTE, Huawei, or LG, it’s running Android.
Led by Windows Phone, all three platforms have gravitated toward a minimalist, flat, fast, colorful user interface. The big difference is that many Android manufacturers have added their own user interfaces on top of stock Android, and so your mileage will vary. The basic structure with customizable home screens, an app drawer, and pull down notifications is standard, but there’s much more variation on Android than you’ll find on the other two platforms.
The Android Lollipop roll-out ushered in Google’s “Material Design,” giving stock Android a minimalist look with simple animations that offers some continuity across the platform and in Google’s apps. It’s stylish and slick, and it runs on around 35 percent of Android devices, at the time of writing. The aesthetic didn’t change much in Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which brought a few subtle refinements, but it’s still on less than 20 percent of devices. The latest Android 7.0 Nougat brings another batch of tweaks and enhancements, but it will be some time before we see it on a large percentage of devices.
The main issue is that the majority of Android phones don’t run stock Android. Every Android phone from each manufacturer looks and works differently, because each company puts a different user interface on top. The user interfaces range from the absolutely terrible or childish to the semi-OK ones that don’t grate on your nerves too much. The stock Android that’s found on the Pixel and Nexus phones is the best-looking version of Android and it gets software updates most frequently and quickly. Android’s lack of consistency is its biggest defect in terms of interface and design.
After a major redesign in iOS 7, Apple’s platform is bright and modern-feeling. The slick animations as you navigate around give a sense of depth, and it’s easy to understand. Apple made further refinements in iOS 9, but the aesthetic remained largely unchanged. The design was refreshed in iOS 10 with slick animations, richer notifications, and a major revamp of iMessage, along with a handful of new apps. It’s a big step forward for iOS that puts it more or less on par with Android in terms of functionality.
However, iOS is perfectly uniform across iPhones and iPads, because there are no alternative user interfaces on top of iOS. The end result is a cleaner, more attractive OS on every iPhone. The latest software is also immediately available to iPhone users. That’s why the majority of iPhone users already have iSO 10 on their phones versus the negligible percentage of Android users who have the latest OS version.
Windows 10 Mobile is based on a grid of “Live Tiles,” which can be arranged and resized to suit the owner. It looks and acts much like Windows 10 PCs and tablets, and there’s a consistency here that Microsoft’s desktop and Xbox users will find familiar. Windows Mobile can still sometimes feel overly stylish and sluggish compared to iOS and Android. It is very customizable, though, and Windows 10 Mobile definitely feels slicker than previous versions. The latest Windows 10 Mobile hardware also supports Continuum, an intriguing feature that allows you to dock your phone, and switch to a desktop interface. You can throw it up on a big screen and use a mouse and keyboard with it, effectively making your phone a PC.
At the end of the day, iOS has a more uniform, stylish, and simple interface than Android and Windows Mobile. Every aspect of iOS is carefully considered and designed by Apple. You don’t have to worry about manufacturers or carriers cluttering up your screen with a bunch of apps you’ll never use or a tacky interface that you hate. The app icons, animations, and simplicity of iOS makes it a joy to use.
We can bump Windows Mobile straight out of the running here, because it trails way behind Android and iOS when it comes to overall app numbers and app quality.
Traditionally, iOS has been a more lucrative platform for developers and easier to develop for, so there has been a tendency for new apps to appear there first, but that is changing as Android’s market share continues to grow. In the United States, iOS still leads the way, but developers elsewhere are increasingly targeting Android first. The Play Store still has a higher percentage of free apps than the App Store. Android also benefits from the latest and greatest versions of Google’s apps, which are sorely missed on Windows Mobile.
The best mobile games still land on iOS first and don’t always come to Android. The design of iOS apps is also more uniform and stylish, so if design is important to you, it’s the iPhone.
In terms of variety and quality, we have to give this one to iOS, but it’s a narrow win.
App store usability
None of the app stores offer an excellent user experience, and it can be tough to sift through the thousands of apps on offer to find what you really want. In terms of recommendations and curated charts, the Apple App Store maintains a lead over Google’s Play Store. Microsoft’s Windows Mobile store definitely lags behind in terms of usability and aesthetic. Apple even gives you recommendations for new apps, offers more sales on expensive apps and games, and makes it dead simple to find what you’re looking for in the App Store. You can also pay for apps with Apple Pay.
The App Store beats both the Google Play and Windows Mobile store with its recommendations for new apps, sales on expensive apps and games, and simpler interface. You can also pay for apps with Apple Pay and confirm downloads with your fingerprint for added security.
Alternative app stores and sideloading
It’s relatively easy to sideload apps (install them from your PC using a USB cable or alternate download method) on Android and there are a lot of alternative app stores beyond the Play Store, although sideloading can open you up to the risk of malware. Both Apple and Microsoft are opposed to third-party app stores and expect users to stick to their app stores. If you want a wider choice of apps and easy sideloading then your choice is obvious. Android is more open than its competitors and is more geek friendly.
Battery life, OS updates, customization, and communication
Battery life and management
As one of the biggest bugbears for smartphone owners, battery life is a huge factor. It’s difficult to compare the three platforms because there’s no common hardware. We could say iOS is optimized to squeeze the most out of the battery per mAh rating, but you can buy an Android device with a much bigger battery that will easily outlast the iPhone.
In Android you can see your battery usage at a glance, broken down by app, with an estimate of how much battery life you have left. With Lollipop, Google baked a basic battery saver feature into Android, and Marshmallow has added the ability to configure battery optimization for apps. Most manufacturers also offer some kind of battery saving feature, which allows you to tweak performance or turn off background syncing for specific apps when the battery hits a certain level. Another important consideration here is that many Android phones offer some kind of fast charging capability that will typically boost your battery by a decent amount in a relatively short space of time, for example, the Galaxy S7 Edge can charge to 50 percent in 30 minutes. There are also a number of Android phones offering wireless charging, and, though it’s slower than wired charging, it can be very convenient.
Windows 10 Mobile has a battery saver option that shows estimated remaining life, battery usage across your apps, and allows you to turn off background usage for apps or other non-essential features to save battery.
Apple introduced more detailed battery usage statistics by app in iOS 8, and a battery saving mode — called Low Power Mode — followed in iOS 9. We had a terrible time with battery life in iOS 7, and the bigger screens in the latest iPhones cancel out improvements made in iOS 8. There have been further improvements in power efficiency in iOS 9, but the iPhone 6S had a smaller battery than the iPhone 6, and the battery in the 6S Plus is exactly the same as its predecessor, so there was no tangible benefit. Apple lost a lot of ground in the battery wars, which may explain the significant jumps in battery size for the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. However, the lack of any fast charging in Apple’s latest flagships is a real disappointment.
All three platforms are updated on a pretty regular basis, but not every OS delivers those updates to uses in a timely fashion. There are big releases with new features and occasional redesigns every few months, and smaller releases to deal with bug fixes a little more frequently than that. Microsoft and Apple maintain greater control over the software, so it’s easier for them to roll out updates and compatible devices tend to upgrade to the latest version in a timely fashion. Apple’s iOS is the only mobile OS that offers consistent and timely software updates and security patches. That makes it number one in this category.
Apple always leaves behind a couple older devices each year when new software comes out, so it’s not entirely free of fragmentation, but it does better than Microsoft or Google. Usually, the devices that are left behind are 4-5 years old as opposed to 2 years old, which is when Nexus phone updates are cut off. For example, Windows Phone 7 devices can’t be updated to Windows Phone 8, and the Windows Phone 8.1 update to Windows 10 Mobile took a long while to happen.
Microsoft’s Windows Phone is a huge mess with updates. For example, Windows Phone 7 devices can’t be updated to Windows Phone 8, and the Windows Phone 8.1 update to Windows 10 Mobile took a long while to happen.
If you opt for a Nexus Android device, or one of the new Pixel phones from Google, then you’ll get the latest updates quickly, but if you don’t, you may never get an update. Samsung, Sony, and LG have finally begun providing some updates, but you’re at their mercy and the mercy of your wireless carrier, which also demands the right to test and release all new software updates for Windows Mobile and Android. Apple is exempt.
At last count, 18.7 percent of Android devices are running Android 6.0 Marshmallow (with Android 7.0 Nougat just launching) and 14 percent of Windows phones are running Windows 10 Mobile, compared to 67 percent of iOS devices running iOS 10. That’s a problem. You not only miss out on features, but also important security patches.
There are a lot of different elements to customizability, but we can state unequivocally that this is one of Android’s strengths.
- Out of the box, you can customize your Android experience in a variety of ways.
- You can install alternative launchers that will change the look of your user interface.
- You can set up your lock screen and multiple home screens with backgrounds, resizable widgets, and shortcuts. Both iOS and Windows Mobile offer limited options.
- You can set up backgrounds and shortcuts.
With Windows Mobile, you have re-sizable Live Tiles and color schemes to choose from, and you can add background images. In iOS 8, Apple added support for at-a-glance style widgets, but they’re confined to the Notification Center.
Google has always allowed you to choose your default keyboard in Android. Microsoft has gradually improved the keyboard in Windows Mobile, but it’s still locked down to the default option. Apple opened up third-party keyboard support in iOS 8, and there are many more options now, but it still has a way to go to match Android. Beyond the keyboard, you can set third-party apps as defaults for all kinds of things in Android that are locked down in iOS and Windows Mobile.
Rooting, bootloaders, and jailbreaking
We’ve looked at how to root your Android phone or tablet before. It’s not for everyone, but if you want root access and complete control over your device, then rooting is the way to get it. Rooting gives you access to more apps, the latest OS updates without waiting, new software skins to get the aesthetic you want, the chance to get rid of bloatware from carriers and manufacturers, potential tweaks to boost your device’s speed and battery life, and more.
Many Android OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) also offer a way to unlock the bootloader, which determines how the operating system loads up on your device. Microsoft and Apple are completely opposed to this kind of thing. Unlocking bootloaders and rooting is possible on some devices with Windows Mobile, and you can even install Android apps, but it’s not advisable. Jailbreaking is an option for iOS, which lets you download and install apps from outside the App Store and bypass some other limitations.
Calls and messaging
Basic calling and messaging functionality is good on all three platforms. Google appeared to be folding everything into Hangouts, but somewhat confusingly it also offers Messenger, Allo, and Duo. You’ll also find manufacturers offering their own alternatives. With Hangouts, you can send messages via Wi-Fi, data network, or SMS. You can also make video calls online. It can be confusing, though depending on which Android phone you own, because many come with their own messaging and dialer apps in addition to Gooogle’s messaging apps, or they eliminate the Google apps. Group chats are hard to create on Android unless you get a third-party app, too.
FaceTime and iMessage come pre-installed on every iPhone and iPad, so it’s remarkably easy to connect with your friends and family. iMessage is very easy to use, but it’s obviously best with other iPhone users. In iOS 10, iMessage gained a lot of new features, including third-party app integration, fun stickers, GIFs, and much more. We give iOS the win for its consistency and ease of use.
Skype is Microsoft’s answer, but it’s separate from your standard SMS. Skype works on every platform; Hangouts doesn’t work on Windows Mobile; iMessages and FaceTime are only for iOS and Mac OS X.
The default email apps on Android, iOS, and Windows Mobile are very easy to use and quick to set up. You can pull in multiple email accounts and view them in a single inbox if you desire. Android and iOS have a huge range of third-party email apps available as well. However, Gmail is a stronger default email app than iOS’ Mail. Since Gmail is the most popular email address system in the world, it makes sense that the Gmail app would be a winner. You can also add email addresses from different providers in Gmail with ease.
The only issue is that Android phones often offer alternative email apps made by the manufacturers, which may or may not be good.
Peripherals, cloud, photos, voice assistants, and connectivity
The average iPad or iPhone owner spends more money on more things than the average Android or Windows Mobile device owner, and Apple has built up a great ecosystem of peripherals for its phones and tablets. There are far more peripherals and cases aimed at the iPhone than any other device, but something like Samsung’s latest Galaxy S7 would be a close second.
On the other hand, Android and Windows Mobile devices have adopted the Micro USB standard, whereas Apple insists on its proprietary Lightning cable, which means it’s much easier to find a charger if you’re not an iPhone owner. This often means you have to splash out on an overpriced Apple adapter, which are known to break. Peripheral manufacturers may still go after iOS as their main target, but it’s very rare to find something without Micro USB support.
The USB Type-C ports you’ll find on some of the latest Android phones are the future, because they offer more outputs through a single cable and they’re reversible, unlike Micro USB, but the peripheral market is still gearing up for USB Type-C.
Another mark against Apple here relates to its abandonment of the standard 3.5mm audio port in the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. You do get an adapter in the box, but it’s easily lost and the choice of headphones sporting 3.5mm audio jacks far exceeds those with Lightning connectors. Of course, now some Android phones are axing the headphone jack in favor of USB Type-C audio, so this may not be a difference for long.
It’s also important to note that Apple’s ecosystem of products all work together exceedingly well. The iPad, Apple Watch, MacBook, and HomeKit products all work together in perfect harmony. MacOS, WatchOS, and iOS are all well connected, making it easy to have all Apple products on the same page.
Since Android phones are produced by a number of different manufacturers, product ecosystems vary. Samsung has a great ecosystem, for example, and Android phones have support from Home, Chromecast, and Android Wear. However, it’s not quite as seamless.
Overall, taking all available accessories into account, you have more choice with an iPhone, so iOS takes the win here, but with caveats.
Apple is the one lagging behind when it comes to cloud storage and automatic backups. Microsoft’s OneDrive and Google Drive both offer 15GB for free and cross-platform support (although Google Drive doesn’t work with Windows Mobile). You only get 5GB with iCloud, and it only works with Windows, Mac, and iOS. If you need a lot of additional space, then Google Drive was the cheapest at $2 per month for 100GB ($24 for the year), but Apple and Microsoft dropped their prices to match. Apple charges $1 per month for 50GB, and Microsoft charges $2 per month for 100GB. It’s worth noting that if you subscribe to Office 365 Personal, you get 1TB of storage, 60 minutes of Skype calls per month, and all the latest Office apps for $7 per month or $70 for the year.
Android’s cloud storage is so much easier to use and more effective than the competition. Google also offers a lot more space for much less.
If you use the Photos app in Android, then you can automatically backup all of your photos and videos. You can also use Photos on iOS. OneDrive allows you to automatically back up photos on Android, iOS, or Windows Phone. You can only backup to iCloud on iOS, and it offers less free space at 5GB compared to 15GB with Google Drive and OneDrive.
It’s also worth noting that Google’s Photos app lets you backup an unlimited number of photos or videos at standard size for free, only full-sized files count against your allowance. If you have a Google Pixel phone, then you get free, unlimited photo and video storage at full resolution.
Winner: Windows Mobile
We had a look at Cortana vs Siri vs Google Now a while back. All three can interpret and act on a wide variety of voice commands. Siri is more like a straightforward assistant for setting calendar appointments, searching the Web, or making calls.
Google Now has an extra element, in that it can pre-emptively offer useful information. If you allow it to gather data on you then it might suggest directions to a place you recently searched for, or let you know the latest score for your favorite sports team. Android 6.0 Marshmallow introduced Now on Tap, which can provide information within the app you’re using, whether it’s info on a track you’re listening to, or throwing up details on the restaurant mentioned in the email you’re reading.
Android 7.0 Nougat takes things further with Google Assistant, which is more conversational and can help you to book a restaurant or even entertain you. It looks great, but Assistant is exclusive to Pixel phones for now.
Cortana falls somewhere in between Siri and Google Now encompassing elements of both. There’s an attempt to push things further by offering access to functions within apps and reminder prompts linked to specific people in your contacts. Cortana can also work contextually within apps, and seems to handle voice recognition well. Microsoft has really taken its time getting Cortana right and you can even now download Cortana on iOS and Android.
All the mobile platforms support Bluetooth and Wi-Fi as standard. Android and Windows Mobile led the way with NFC (near field communication) for easy wireless transfers and mobile payments, but Apple included NFC in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. It also launched Apple Pay with some major partners, which could close the mobile payment gap very quickly. Android now has Android Pay, too. NFC can also be used for quick file transfers, tapping phones together to share contacts or web pages, or tapping on supported speakers to stream music. Android wins by a hair because it’s often easier to set up third-party accessories with Android and NFC is unlocked so you can use it for more things.
Security, maps, camera, simplicity, and summary
Much has been made of the supposedly “toxic hell stew” that is Android, but the threat of malware is grossly exaggerated by the competition. The truth is that most people will never encounter a problem because they don’t go outside the Play Store for apps. Specific manufacturers like Samsung have taken extra efforts to beef up security for the enterprise market. But the slovenly nature of updates on many Android devices can seriously delay important security patches.
Speedy updates are now more important than ever because security breaches are becoming more serious. As long as Android lags behind in the update world, its devices will be less secure. That’s why millions of Android phones are still running software that’s 3-4 years old and vulnerable to serious hacks like Heartbleed and Stagefright.
Apple is already firmly entrenched in corporate America and has also worked on improved security for general consumers, most notably with Touch ID. The tight oversight that Apple has on apps and the ability to push updates out to more devices, more quickly, gives it a definite edge over Android. The company also encrypts data in iMessage and its other apps.
Apple also prioritizes user privacy, so you can feel safe knowing that your personal data is not stored or read by Apple. It is all encrypted, too. Meanwhile, Android also encrypts some data, but your privacy is less protected. Google mines your data for information that it can use to sell better ads and market products to you. Your data is also stored and read to provide you with a better AI experience.
Google says it’s challenging to fully protect user privacy and still provide the AI services it offers, but some security experts and Apple argue that Google presents a false choice between privacy and AI. Apple even went to war with the FBI to guarantee your right to encryption. It’s hard to beat that kind of dedication.
Windows Mobile is not as widely used, and that means MDM programs focus on iOS and Android, but Microsoft is certainly working to improve security and woo the business world.
There’s no denying that iOS is the most secure platform and the one that best protects user privacy. If you care about your privacy and security, go with an iPhone.
All three platforms offer a good maps solution, despite what you’ve heard. Key features are pretty similar, you can download maps for offline use, get accurate estimates based on current traffic conditions, and turn-by-turn directions for driving or walking. They all work well and should get you where you’re going.
Still, the scale and quality of Google Maps is unsurpassed. It has more points of interest and it is generally more detailed than Bing Maps or Apple Maps, but the accuracy can vary from place to place. Ever since Apple’s maps debacle, Google Maps has been everyone’s go-to Maps platform.
This is another area where Apple extracts maximum value from the hardware it offers. The 12-megapixel camera in the iPhone 7 has been numerically surpassed by Android phones like the LG G5 at 16-megapixels and Windows Mobile phones like the Lumia 950 at 20 megapixels, but there’s more to a great camera than just the megapixel count.
In the past, we’ve argued that Apple does the best job capturing lighting, coloring, and other details, but the latest Android smartphones are casting some doubt on that assertion. The iPhone 7 Plus also has a noticeably better camera than the iPhone 7. Some phones from LG, Samsung, Huawei, and others take excellent photos now, and some offer manual mode, which isn’t available on iOS yet.
The camera apps on each platform are very good and very fast. For ease of use and best results without tweaking, the iOS camera app takes the cake. There’s more variation on Android simply because OEMs tend to add their own camera apps with lots of features, some good, some a bit gimmicky, but we’d still take Apple’s camera any day of the week.
All three of the platforms are relatively intuitive and easy to pick up. If you were looking for a device for an elderly relative, or a technophobe then you’ll find some specialist offerings on Android, but they tend to scale down what’s possible. Manufacturers like Samsung also include options like “Easy mode” which make the interface bigger and simplify the whole experience, or you can opt for a third-party app to do the same. There are lots of good apps aimed at the elderly on Android and iOS as well.
There has been a perception that Android is more complicated than iOS, but it’s not really true. There’s no need to dive into the customization options if you don’t want to. All three platforms offer a good range of accessibility features.
Out of the box Windows Mobile is probably the most readable. If you’re willing to do a little tweaking and dig into the accessibility features then there’s little to choose between them.
However, iOS is simpler and easier to use in some important ways. It’s uniform across all iOS devices, whereas Android is different on every phone from different manufacturers. It’s less cluttered and more streamlined than most Android phones, which makes it easier to use.
Winner: iOS (due to security and simplicity)
Counting up the wins Android scores 10, iOS scores 9, and Windows Mobile scores 1. It’s a really close battle. Based on pure math, Android is the winner, but iOS is still our favorite OS because we weight these reasons higher: design, security, updates, ecosystem, and apps.
With iOS, you’re guaranteed timely updates to your phone’s software. That means you get vital security patches as soon as Apple pushes the software live. Unless you have a Pixel or a Nexus, you may never get the latest software updates or vital security patches. That’s why millions of Android phones are still running software that’s 3-4 years old and plagued by dangerous hacks like Heartbleed and Stagefright. It’s simply irresponsible. Apple also prioritizes user privacy, so your data won’t be stored or read by the company ever. It’s all encrypted and Apple isn’t using your data to sell ads.
Apple also prioritizes user privacy, so your data won’t be stored or read by the company ever. It’s all encrypted and Apple isn’t using your data to sell ads. Google’s business model is based on mining your data for information so as to better market products and tailor ads to you. That also results in better AI, but you sacrifice your privacy.
Apple also has a better ecosystem of apps and games. If you’re a mobile gamer or app fanatic, iOS is probably best for you. Since Apple controls the App Store with more specific guidelines, its apps are often more consistent and well designed. Android has tried to standardize the Play Store’s offerings, but it still has a long way to go.
Obviously, Android and iOS are more or less evenly matched, so you can’t go wrong with either. We just believe that security, simplicity, and good design are very important, and iOS leads the way on those fronts. Realistically, different categories will be important to different people, so you should just pay attention to the ones that count for you and make your decision based on that. Both Android and iOS have far more similarities than differences, so you can’t really go wrong (though be sure to get a Pixel if you buy Android, or something that gets updates).
Windows Mobile is the only OS on this list we cannot recommend at this point in time. Microsoft seems to have abandoned it for the time being and the app situation is just terrible.