When the iPhone first came out, it stood alone in the marketplace of smartphones. Oh, how the times have changed. Consumers in the market for a smartphone today have many more options thanks to the increased popularity of smartphones running Android or Windows Phone operating systems. But with the proliferation of options also comes an increase in uncertainty and confusion. Never fear: Maszam’s ultimate smartphone decision guide will direct your path.
Though they run different operating systems, all major players in the smartphone market offer startlingly similar functionality. Whichever phone you choose will give you the capability to:
- Make phone calls
- Send SMS/MMS messages
- Take pictures
- Listen to music
- Browse the Internet
- Download apps to add additional functionality
The differences come down to how well those features work, how well the phone integrates with the rest of your digital life, customizations/accessories, and price.
Any smartphone on the market will be able to handle the features listed in the last section, but they don’t all perform each feature at the same level. For example, depending on your needs, a phone that makes phone calls with excellent quality yet takes terribly low-quality pictures might not make the cut. Let’s take a look at how the different platforms handle the basic features we’ve come to expect from our mobile devices.
Calls and Messaging
Basic calling and messaging functionality is good on all three platforms. Google is doing their best to move everything into Hangouts, allowing users to send messages via Wi-Fi, data network, or SMS. This also allows for video calls online. The iOS platform offers basically the same exact thing with FaceTime and iMessage. Microsoft’s answer is Skype, but that’s separate from your standard SMS. Skype works on every platform; Hangouts doesn’t work on Windows Phone; iMessages and FaceTime are only for iOS and Mac OS X. Winner: Tie
Email is another feature that is assumed in smartphones these days. As such, it is very easy to use the default email apps on Android, iOS, and Windows Phone, and they are quick to set up. It’s simple on all three platforms to pull in multiple email accounts for viewing in the same inbox if you desire. A huge range of third-party email apps available for Android and iOS as well. Winner: Tie
The ability to connect to the rest of the world, whether via the Internet or through cellular networks, is a primary function of smartphones, and all the mobile platforms support Bluetooth and Wi-Fi as standard. The standout method of connectivity is NFC (near field communication). Windows Phone and Android have adopted NFC for easy wireless transfers and mobile payments, but Apple has not. In addition to making payments, NFC also offers a variety of other potential uses, for example: quick file transfers tapping phones together to share contacts or Web pages tapping on supported speakers to stream music. While NFC is supported in Windows Phone, it’s somewhat dodgy. We hope to see a more usable implementation in 8.1. Winner: Android
Android, iPhone, and Windows Phone all offer a good maps solution, and the key features are pretty similar on each platform: you can get turn-by-turn directions for driving or walking, get accurate estimates based on current traffic conditions, and download maps for offline use. Each certainly works well enough to get you where you’re going. Still, the scale and quality of Google Maps is unsurpassed, which is unsurprising considering the huge head start Google’s had. But regardless of the reason, Google Maps has more points of interest and is generally more detailed than Bing Maps or Apple Maps; however, the accuracy can vary from place to place. Winner: Android
Apple really shines in this area. On paper the iPhone 5S’s 8-megapixel camera has been numerically surpassed by Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Windows Phones like the Nokia Lumia 1020, but Apple’s ability to capture lighting, coloring, and other details shows that there’s more to a great camera than just the megapixel count. The camera apps on each platform are very good and very fast, but the iOS camera app takes the cake for ease of use and best results without tweaking. There’s more variation on Android simply because OEMs tend to add their own camera apps with lots of features, but none really hold a candle to Apple’s camera. Winner: iPhone
Battery life has become a huge factor for smartphone owners, but the three platforms are not easy to compare since there’s no common hardware. We could say iOS is optimized to squeeze the most out of the battery per mAh rating, but that doesn’t really matter when Android users can just buy a device with a much bigger battery, one that will outlast the iPhone easily. Despite the difficulty in comparing hardware, the battery management software on each platform is much easier to compare. In Android you can see your battery usage, broken down by app, at a glance, and it even provides an estimate of how much battery life remaining. Most manufacturers of Android devices also offer some kind of battery saving feature. Such battery saving typically allows users to adjust performance or turn off background syncing for specific apps when the battery hits a certain level. Android is also breaking new ground in the field of smartphone battery management. The Android L update will be the first release to have a battery saving option built in. Windows Phone falls somewhere in between as it has a battery saver option, yet one that is less robust than Android’s. The Windows version shows estimated remaining life and allows you to turn off background usage for apps or other non-essential features. Moving forward Apple is introducing more detailed battery usage statistics by app in iOS 8, but it is still lacking a battery saving app or mode. Winner: Android
Some users will be perfectly satisfied with their smartphone just as it comes off the shelf, but there is an entire subculture dedicated to modifying smartphones to add even more functionality or to further customize the phone.
Rooting, bootloaders, and jailbreaking
It’s not for everyone, but if you want complete control over your device then rooting is the way to get it. Rooting gives you access to more apps, new software skins to get the aesthetic you want, the latest OS updates without waiting, the chance to get rid of bloatware from carriers and manufacturers, potential tweaks to boost your device’s speed and battery life, and more. This type of access looks very different across the three platforms. Android is generally the most open to root access. As the only Open Source OS (covered in this article anyway), this makes perfect sense. Many Android manufacturers even 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 modification. Unlocking bootloaders and rooting is possible on some devices and versions of Windows Phone. Jailbreaking is an option for iOS, which lets you download and install apps from outside the App Store and bypass some other limitations. Winner: Android
Because of the behavior of its target market, Apple has built up a great ecosystem of peripherals for its phones and tablets. The average iPad or iPhone owner spends more money on more things than the average Android or Windows Phone device owner. There are far more peripherals and cases aimed at the iPhone than any other device, but something like Samsung’s latest Galaxy S5 would be a close second. On the other hand, Android and WP 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 are 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. Winner: iOS
Anyone familiar with the current state of consumer electronics will not be shocked that Apple doesn’t make budget devices. Among handsets on the market, the latest iPhone is always the most expensive; with a two-year contract they cost $200, $650 without. Nokia (which they now own) is Microsoft’s main hardware partner, and they have always been good at producing relatively low-priced yet quality hardware. There are a wide range of Windows Phones at varying price points, and finally a few that push the limit and rival Android and iOS on specs. It’s also worth remembering that hardware manufacturers like Samsung, ZTE, LG, Lenovo, and Huawei are signed up as Windows Phone 8.1 partners and could well produce some cheap handsets in the near future. Still, for variety and sheer scale Android is in a league of its own. A wide variety of different manufacturers are producing a huge choice of low cost handsets, and the platform has been deliberately optimized to run on low end hardware. Aside from the hardware, the budget-conscious can also consider Android a natural choice since it also leads the field in free apps. Odds are, if it’s a smartphone by HTC, Samsung, Sony, ZTE, Huawei, or LG, it’s running Android. Winner: Android
The ever-growing number of various, everyday functions we accomplish with our smartphones means that it is also increasingly important that one’s phone can integrate with the rest of a user’s digital life.
When it comes to cloud storage and automatic backups, Apple is the one behind the curve. Both Google Drive and OneDrive by Microsoft offer support across platforms (although Google Drive doesn’t work with Windows Phone) and 15GB for free. With iCloud you only get 5GB (typically not even enough to back up a single iPhone) and it only works with Windows, Mac, and iOS.
For users with a lot of storage needs, additional space is available on each platform. Google Drive is the cheapest at $2 per month for 100GB ($24 for the year), Apple charges $100 per year for 50GB, and Microsoft charges $50 per year for 100GB.
Users of the Photos app or Google+ in Android can backup all of your photos and videos automatically, which is a pretty handy feature (just be careful: if you take photos or videos of a personal nature keep in mind that those will be uploaded too). You can also use Google+ on iOS.
Microsoft’s OneDrive is also pretty flexible across platforms as it allows users to automatically back up photos on Android, iOS, or Windows Phone.
It used to be that with iCloud users could only backup the last 1,000 photos or photos from the last 30 days, nor could users backup videos. With iOS 8, however, the iCloud Photo Library will finally catch up with the Google and Microsoft, allowing users to keep a permanent backup, though as noted before iCloud offers far less free space at the measly 5GB compared to the 15GB users get with Google Drive and OneDrive.
It’s also worth noting that Google Drive lets you backup an unlimited number of photos or videos at standard size for free, only full-sized files count against your allowance.
Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, and Google Now: all three can understand and implement a wide variety of commands. Siri is great at setting calendar appointments, searching the Web, or making calls, more like a straightforward assistant.
An extra element in Google Now is its uncanny ability to offer useful information before users can even ask for it. Users who allow Google Now to gather data on them might find the assistant suggesting directions to a location recently searched in Google Maps, or show the latest score for their favorite sports team.
With Cortana, Microsoft tries to push the envelope. Their assistant covers most of the same features as the other two but also offers access to functions within apps as well as reminder prompts linked to specific people in your contacts. Microsoft has put a lot of effort it seems in getting Cortana right, and it has the potential to be a big win for the Windows Phone platform. Not to mention that it’s based on a character from a video game.
Winner: Windows Phone