iOS or Android?

A view from a fan… of both.

It’s the age-old question: iOS or Android? iSheep or Fandroid? Why does it matter so much? Everybody else has an opinion, and DisCONNECT is nothing if not a non-stop stream of my opinions, so here’s my take.

iOS – Dependable but Inflexible

I’ve used iPhones ever since the iPhone 3G (with the occasional break) – I’ve owned every iPhone since then except for the 5C and the iPhone X. I know iOS. I’m extremely familiar with it. I’ve used it for so long that I’ve gotten sick of it, and yet I still appreciate some of the best aspects of the platform.

It really just works – so long as you do things the Apple Way. My various Android phones have all been a patchwork of features that kinda-sorta work, occasionally, if it feels like it. Even my Pixel 2 XL, a phone that Google themselves designed, still has random issues (it still doesn’t back up my SMS messages, location unlocking still won’t work, and voice unlocking still fails more often than it works). On iOS, everything actually works 99% of the time. Yes, there are still the occasional bug – but nothing like what I’ve endured with the various Android phones over the years. However it only works so long as you stay within Apple’s realm. If you use Apple Music, you can ask Siri to play a song and she’ll probably find it for you. If you want your photos to back up automatically and have your collection wherever you go, you can – so long as it’s with iCloud. Your phone will reliably back up – so long as you have the iCloud storage to do so. When you try to step outsides the walls, things become more difficult (the default music play is always Apple Music, for example). But otherwise it’s a very reliable, stable OS.

It’s secure and more private. Android is by no means a leaky mess, but iOS is inherently more secure, especially for users who aren’t particularly savvy with security. You can only install things from the App Store – which are vetted by Apple, with strict requirements for how apps behave. The downside is that apps tend to be less flexible in some cases on iOS (not that most users would notice), given that they’re strictly walled off from much of the OS, but this does result in a very secure device. Apple, for all their flaws, also aren’t really in the business of pushing advertisements or harvesting user data. iCloud is expensive compared to Google Drive, but Apple most probably aren’t running analytics on your data. Google most definitely is. Maybe you don’t care – that’s something you have to decide. There is a downside to this – many of Apple’s services (like maps, or Siri’s capacity to interpret user requests) are crippled due to this new-found privacy fetish. Google Assistant is so good because it has access to all that data.

It’s efficient. iPhones tend to have less RAM and smaller batteries than their Android counterparts – and yet are consistently very fast machines with decent battery life (some Android phones are better – depending on usage). Why is this? It’s easier to deploy apps for a very specific set of hardware profiles, so apps are highly optimised. Because apps are restricted from running background tasks except in some circumstances, apps can’t go rogue and chew through your battery. While Google has made great strides with Android Pie, battery management can still be a colossal pain in the arse. On iOS there’s nothing to worry about. The downside is that background tasks are limited. Google Photos, for example, can mostly backup photos automatically, but it’ll often get terminated by iOS when doing long tasks (e.g. uploading a video you’ve taken). You can’t leave something to download in the background or with the screen off – it’ll fail.

Long life cycle and good resale value. iOS 12 is being released on the iPhone 5S – which was released in 2013. By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S7, which was only released in 2016, is still yet to receive Android 8.0 (Oreo) – which was released last year. While Apple cop a lot of criticism for ‘planned obsolescence’, they do have incredibly good support for updating their phones. If you buy an iOS device you’ll get years of updates. The various Android manufacturers are much worse at this – even Google will only give you 2 years of major Android releases on the Pixel 2 XL (which was only released last year). Newer operating systems are more complex (maybe sometimes ‘bloated’ is the right word) which will inherently degrade older machines (nobody ever complained that Windows XP didn’t run on a machine that was new when Windows 95 was first released!), but at least they’re being supported. Also iOS devices tend to hold their resale value, which might be important if you’re selling your old phone.

There are more app limitations. Valve released the Steam Link app on iOS and Android – an app that allows you to stream PC games from your desktop PC to your phone. Google allowed the app without any problems. Apple threw a fit and immediately banned it once they found out you could technically buy games through Steam. Nevermind the fact that very few of those games run on iOS natively, Apple only cared that ‘in app’ purchases could occur without them getting a cut. Apple are hard gatekeepers and there are some apps that just don’t get released on the platform, no matter how hard you argue. Some apps have better functionality on Android because the app can hook deeper into the operating system. You can’t set default apps (for the most part) on iOS – you’re stuck with what they give you, and any third party replacement will have an inferior experience. Sometimes this gets particularly frustrating.

Goodbye headphone jack (hello proprietary connector). Nobody likes the Lightening cable, especially in the modern age of USB-C. Why Apple persist with this is a mystery. The death of the headphone jack, which Apple ushered in, is a goddamn pain in the arse – and it’s never coming back on iPhones. Apple want you to use their (expensive) AirPods (which, to be fair, are pretty good). They want licensing from various accessories. They will try to lock out accessories that haven’t worshiped at the Altar of iOS. It’s not fun. Android phones are mostly going the same way, but they typically use USB-C these days, and some (like Samsung) keep the old ways and retain the headphone jack.

Android – Varied but Flawed

I’ve had a variety of Samsung phones (Galaxies and Notes) and a Pixel 2 XL. Every time I’ve tried Android, I’ve found plenty of things to like, and lots of things to hate. Android has had a rocky road to get to where it is today; the earlier versions were awful and I’d argue the balance has only really tipped with the last few versions, and that’s partly because Apple are stagnant these days. But it is a capable operating system all the same.

Variety in Handsets! There’s an Android phone for every budget. Granted, most of the cheap ones are absolute trash, but there’s significant value in the midrange market. If you want a super expensive flagship that does everything, you’ve got the Galaxy Note. If you want something that has good performance but skimps on a few things (like the camera), there’s the OnePlus range. If you don’t mind owning a tool of the Chinese government, there’s Xiaomi (just kidding). There’s almost certainly a handset that’ll suit your budget. With iPhones, you’ve got two options: really fucking expensive, or last year’s model (which is merely really expensive). Want a cheap phone for your mum? There’s one that’ll fit the bill. Need a phone with a huge screen that does everything? There’s plenty of them too. Need one with a headphone jack? Well step right this way, my boy!

Freedom with apps and settings (but with risks). Google are still gatekeepers of the Play Store and still vet apps like Apple, but they are less concerned with ‘competition’ (i.e. stamping it out) than they are with apps that are blatantly malicious. This means that apps like the Steam Link are perfectly acceptable. Want a torrent client? We’ve got that, too! DosBox? It’s there. Emulators? Step right up, we’ve got ’em all! Don’t like the default launcher? Replace it! Want to use Spotify instead of Google Music? Go for it, it can be the new default – and Google Assistant can search Spotify too. You’re free to make the choice. Granted, Google won’t accept everything (Want an adblocker? ‘Get out of here, Stalker’ says Google) but unlike iOS, you can sideload apps fairly easily. That said, sideloading is a risk – it’s entirely possible to inject malicious code into apks, especially when sideloading. There are even malicious apps on Google Play. While Google does their best and tries to keep a clean store, the fact that Android is more open inherently leads to a new security flaw that’s hard to patch without sacrificing some freedom.

Apps can run in the background. Google Photos will happily upload that 1.5GB movie file with the screen off. If you set a book to download in Kindle… well, actually it shits the bed on my Pixel 2 XL, but it should work without problem even if you go use another app. Apps are able to run in the background and will reliably perform whatever task they’re supposed to be doing. On iOS this is extremely restricted and the OS will happily kill apps in the middle of legitimate tasks. The downside to this freedom is that apps can go rogue and chew through battery. An entire subsystem of the operating system has been dedicated to trying to stop this, and Android Pie did make significant progress in preventing a lot of this from happening – but it’s still entirely possible to check your phone to see a chunk of battery gone, thanks to some app that kept active in the background.

Google services tend to work better. I love Google Photos. Google Drive is pretty good, too. Google Maps basically knows where everything is. Google Assistant is useful (if you really want to talk to your phone). Android Auto is more open than CarPlay (at this stage). Google Music used to be good (until YouTube fucked it up). While all of this also works on iOS (except Android Auto of course), it works better on Android – especially because apps can reliably run in the background. It’s also a very simple process – sign into your Google account on your phone during setup, and that’s it – you’re off and running. The downside? Well, you’re giving your data to Google. You might not care about that, or it might be a big issue for you.

More accessories. Apple make the best smartwatch, but outside of that, Android phones have better accessories. I’ve got this cheap USB inspection camera (basically a little camera on the end of a flexible cable) that plugs into pretty much any Android phone and works with a simple app. Can’t do that on iOS. While you can technically get other smartwatches to work with iOS, the experience is inferior to the Apple Watch. On Android, there’s a host of options for smartwatches that all work very well (except they’re all inferior to the Apple Watch in my humble opinion), and more reliably than if you try to force iOS to play nice. There’s just more stuff you can plug into your Android phone than your iPhone.

Software updates are awful. If you want to reliably get new Android releases when they come out, your only real choice is a Pixel phone (and to be honest, they aren’t the best Android phones). For everyone else, you’re at the mercy of either your carrier or your smartphone manufacturer. Some, like Samsung, are glacially slow. Others, like OnePlus, are fairly quick when they want to be. Still others (usually the cheaper brands) will outright abandon their devices after the first update or so. Unfortunately this also extends to support periods – the Pixel 2 XL, Google’s own current flagship, will only get 2 years of major OS updates (3 years of security releases). Samsung’s Galaxy S7, 2016’s flagship phone, still has no release date for Oreo 8.0 (released in 2017 for fuck’s sake!). Apple meanwhile are supporting a handset released back in 2013. It’s such a big problem that Google have implemented Project Treble which basically separates the underlying Android OS from whatever crap the vendor piles on top – because Android OS version fragmentation is quite frankly horrifying. If you’re technologically inclined, you can find a custom ROM from the dedicated Android community and install an updated version yourself – but it’s not a process for the tech-illiterate, and it’s a big effort to get support for devices that aren’t all that old.

To Summarise…

One of the common refrains is that iPhones are way too expensive and nobody should be paying that, because my $300 XiaoXiao MiF25 works just awesome for me. This attitude is complete bullshit, because not everybody will be happy with a cheap (if competent) phone. If you use your phone a lot, it’s worth spending money on. If you don’t really care about your phone, then it probably isn’t. At the high end of the smartphone market, iPhones are fairly competitively priced with flagship Android handsets (the Pixel 2 XL, Galaxy S9 and Note 9 aren’t cheap – except when they go on sale, which iPhones almost never do). Flagships do offer tangible benefits (usually better cameras).

Another common refrain is that you can do so much more on Android! And that’s true – you can. But a significant portion of that ‘more stuff’ are things that most users don’t care about. Most people use their phones for social media, web browsing, watching YouTube, or doing their banking (and as an actual phone, believe it or not). iOS and Android are equally as good at these tasks. Can I stream my PC games to my iOS device via Steam Link? Nope. Do many people make use of it? Not really – not compared to the masses of smartphone users out there. Very few people care about the extra apps that Google permit. They’re going to be downloading Instagram, not DosBox.

On the opposite side of the fence – Android is insecure and Google are watching! is just as much of a misrepresentation. Android isn’t insecure by nature. Yes, there are more opportunities for an attack to occur, but if you’re careful (i.e. sticking to popular apps) then you’re not going to run into any problems. Google does collect a lot of personal data – and that might bother you. But the truth is your personal data is less interesting than your data in aggregate with many other users. That data is used to deliver you a service… unlike Facebook who take a much more personal interest in your profile to push you more ads and conduct social experiments.

So what does it come down to, then? Which one do you pick?

If you want a device that works very reliably with long software support, and are willing to buy into the Apple ecosystem, pick the iPhone. It isn’t cheap, but iPhones are all-round excellent handsets with a mature, secure, stable operating system. There are compromises, and the path of least resistance is to just buy into the Apple ecosystem (which usually means buying an iCloud storage subscription, and dealing with iTunes or an Apple Music subscription). But in return you’ll get a solid, dependable phone that’s secure and will receive OS updates for years.

If you want a selection of handsets at different price points, or you value customisability and flexibility, get an Android handset. There’s better value in the Android handset market and you’ll almost certainly find a capable phone at an affordable price. The high-end market put out excellent phones with great capabilities, sometimes exceeding what the iPhone offers. There is the risk of reduced security, and the various Android implementations sometimes leave a trail of broken or inconsistent features, but these are fairly minor issues in the grand scheme of things. Just be aware that OS updates a slow, and in some cases never eventuate – which can leave you with a relatively recent device stuck on an older Android build, which can be a pretty big concern. However if you’re willing to wait it out, or take matters into your own hands, Android offers much better flexibility and freedom from the walled garden.

 

Do you agree? Want to bleat about iSheep or post shit about Fandroids? Go for it, I couldn’t care less. This is only an opinion.

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