If you’re buying a new smartphone today, chances are extremely good it will run one of two operating systems: Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS. These two platforms account for virtually all new smartphones shipped in the last couple of years That’s some serious dominance by the two biggest players, and the good news is that both smartphone operating systems are excellent. They have quite a bit in common with each other, but there are some important differences you’ll want to consider when you’re trying to decide between these twin giants. We’re going to pit Android against iOS in several categories here and pick a winner for each one.
Apple has always been at the high-end of the market in terms of pricing, but the iPhone X took things to a whole new level with a starting price of $1,000. Apple’s iPhones haven’t gotten much cheaper since, and the iPhone 12 Pro Max starts at $1,100. They do come a little more affordable, but not by much. The iPhone 12 starts at $800, and the iPhone SE (2020) — the cheapest iPhone Apple sells — starts at $400. Apple continues to expand its offerings, but $400 is as cheap as it gets unless you delve into the secondhand market.
For sheer scale and variety, nothing competes with Android. You can spend a lot if you want to — for example, Samsung’s cutting-edge folding Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G costs $2,000, but there’s also a huge selection of good, low-cost handsets as low as $100, from a wide variety of different manufacturers. The platform has also been deliberately optimized to run on low-end hardware with the introduction of the variant OS Android Go. Finally, Android’s lead in free apps also makes it the natural choice for the budget-conscious.
Apple’s iOS is an exceptional OS, but the high entry point has always been one of its biggest issues. Apple’s iPhone SE and iPhone 12 make that entry point lower, but it’s still not a match for Android’s massive range of affordable devices. Whether you’re looking to spend $100 or $2,000, there’s an Android phone for you. iOS can’t say the same.
Let’s start with a look at the numbers. This is roughly how many apps you’ll find in the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store:
- Android apps: 2.7 million
- iOS apps: 1.82 million
However, numbers aren’t the best metric because most of us only use a handful of apps, and the most popular ones are available on both platforms. Traditionally, iOS has been a more lucrative platform for developers, so there has been a tendency for new apps to appear there first, but that’s changing as Android’s market share continues to grow. In the U.S., iOS still leads the way, but developers elsewhere are increasingly targeting Android first.
Luckily, both operating systems have been taking more precautions when it comes to malicious apps and spyware, making apps safer to download than ever.
The Play Store still has a higher percentage of free apps than the App Store. But the best mobile games still land on iOS first — and they don’t always come to Android, even if Android has plenty of great games. Ultimately, quality beats quantity, and so this is a narrow win for iOS.
It’s difficult to organize millions of apps and games, and neither Google’s Play Store or Apple’s App Store does it perfectly. Overall, we think Apple’s App Store provides a better browsing experience on your phone and does a better job with curated recommendations. The Play Store is easier to search and you can queue and install apps from the web browser on your PC or laptop.
We like the fact that you can buy apps using your fingerprint via Touch ID on iPhones, but you can set up the same thing for the Play Store on Android phones with fingerprint sensors. The Play Store wins points for having a no-quibble refund policy within two hours of purchase. There are some questionable apps in both stores, but Apple is generally stricter about blocking certain types of apps. That can be a good thing for overall quality, but it’s a bad thing if you’re into something like game emulators for classic consoles. The iOS App Store edges the win for usability and curated content.
As the newer navigation system, Apple Maps did not have a great start, but it has improved significantly. Key features are similar: You can download maps for offline use, get accurate estimates based on current traffic conditions, and find turn-by-turn directions for driving or walking. Apple has even closed further in on Google Maps by adding cycling directions and more improvements in iOS 14. You’ll also find public transit and ride-booking integration. They all work well and should get you where you’re going.
It used to be that Google Maps would win this category hands-down — and while it’s still generally our map app of choice, Apple has made some huge strides toward parity in the last few years, and Apple Maps is now at the point where it’s a serious competitor. We would still personally download Google Maps, even on an iOS device, but if you chose to go with Apple’s map app over Google’s, then you wouldn’t be getting an inferior product. Right now, Google Maps still has a small advantage due to its larger database of reviews and businesses, but its lead has narrowed a lot, and we expect to see this category fall into being a tie eventually.
Battery life and charging
As one of the biggest complaints from smartphone owners, battery life is a huge factor. It’s difficult to compare the two platforms because there’s no common hardware. 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.
Both Android and iOS allow you to see your battery usage at a glance, broken down by app, but only Android shows an estimate of how much battery life you have left. They both offer power-saving modes that can extend your battery life by limiting performance, connectivity, and other power-sapping features, but precisely how it works is generally more customizable on Android.
For a long time, Android had an advantage in the charging department, because many Android phones offered fast-charging capabilities and wireless charging. However, Apple’s iPhone 11, iPhone X, and even the iPhone SE (2020) adopted wireless charging and fast charging, so they’re not that far behind. It’s worth noting that you have to buy the fast-charging adapter separately for some iPhone models, whereas it’s usually provided in the box with an Android phone. Apple supplied a fast charger with the iPhone 11 Pro, but that was one of the last iPhones to come with any charger. From the iPhone 12 onwards, you’ll have to buy a charger separately, as iPhones now only come with a Lightning-to-USB-C cable.
However, Android fans shouldn’t sneer at iPhone lovers too much, as Samsung is following where Apple has led. The new Galaxy S21 range comes with no charger in the box, and, as with the headphone jack, we’ll probably start to see this change echo across to other manufacturers.
This category is far from clear-cut, but comparing similarly priced Android phones with iPhones, you can find a phone with a larger battery if that’s important to you, and they tend to have fast chargers included in the box (for the moment), so Android gets the win.
Apple is still lagging when it comes to cloud storage and automatic backups. Google offers 15GB for free and has cross-platform support. You only get 5GB with iCloud, and it only works with Windows, Mac, and iOS.
If you need a lot of additional space, Google One charges $2 per month for 100GB ($20 for the year), while Apple charges $1 per month for 50GB or $3 per month for 200GB. Apple’s price for 2TB jumps up to $10 per month. Google will also give you 2TB for that price, but you can get a discount if you pay for the year, which costs $100 ($8.33 per month).
Android’s cloud storage is easier to use and more effective than iCloud. You can also use Google Drive on an iPhone, whereas iCloud is iOS only.
You can do many of the same things with Apple’s Siri as you can with Google Assistant, but Siri is more like a straightforward helper for setting calendar appointments, searching the web, or making calls. Google Assistant has an extra layer. It can preemptively offer useful suggestions, and it has a more conversational side that offers up entertaining games and contextual information based on what you’re doing. It’s smarter and more versatile than Siri.
The addition of Siri Shortcuts in iOS 12, which allows you to set up voice commands to trigger groups of automated tasks, is a big step in the right direction and Siri is also beginning to make more suggestions based on your iPhone usage. For now, however, Google Assistant can do more and seems to be improving at a much faster rate, offering things like call screening and the ability to make reservations for you.
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 OS loads up on your device. Apple is completely opposed to this kind of thing. Jailbreaking is an option for iOS, which lets you download and install apps from outside the App Store and bypass some other limitations.
Numerically speaking, Android wins 10 categories and iOS wins seven, but iOS wins in some of the more important categories — we don’t think rooting or alternative app stores are as important for most people as accessibility or security, for example. However, it’s very difficult to compare the two. Because Apple controls both the hardware and the software of their devices, you’ll find iOS offers a more uniform experience across devices.