iOS vs Android 2019 – Revenge of the Sith

Always two, there are.

So I’ve just about done it – I’ve almost entirely kicked Apple out of my life. It’s been a hard battle – I’ve been entrenched in this ecosystem since 2008(!) when I got my iPhone 3G. My wife uses an iPhone. My parents use an iPhone. Many of my other friends have iPhones. In Australia, the iOS/Android split is about 50/50 – well, more in favour of iOS. So it’s hard to break out of an ecosystem reliant heavily on iMessage – which, contrary to popular Eurocentric opinion, is popular in places other than the US.

After breaking out of the gilded prison, if you like, I’ve come to realise that Android systems do some things better than iOS… but it’s also laughably behind in some ways. Here are my thoughts on iOS and Android in 2019.

iOS: Reliable, Consistent – Expensive, Restrictive

I gave my parents iPhones. My wife uses an iPhone. I used to use an iPhone. The reason? They’re dependable phones. I’ve never thrown my iPhone onto my table in disgust. It does all of the basics extremely well – and reliably, too. Not once have I had issues with notifications, or missing calls, or weird touch screen issues, or any of the major basics screwing up. It’s a laughable answer, but ‘it just works’ is absolutely true. They’re also fairly reliable devices and hard to kill through inexperience or incompetence. Apps are sandboxed to the extreme, so it’s very hard for you to somehow affect the OS, other apps, or your personal data by installing a questionable app. The chances of malware being installed isn’t zero, but it’s close enough that you could happily give anyone an iPhone and be reasonably sure that the only way they’d become compromised is through their own stupidity – not apparently legitimate apps. They also have very consistent user interfaces, which don’t change dramatically, and are easy to operate. They’re simple devices – and they have a host of equally simple companion devices, like AirPods, Apple Watches, and even macOS if you want to go that far.

Apple’s services by iCloud are also fairly good. The crown jewel for it is really Find My iPhone, and proper iCloud device backups. My parents have no idea how to backup their phone, but it doesn’t matter because it’s automatic – and it creates a true backup of the device, not the random bullshit that Google sometimes manages, plus whatever half-arsed backup your device manufacturer supports. If their phone dies and they get a new one, it can be restored to how the old one was, without any real effort on their part besides waiting for it to download. Apple’s position on privacy is also somewhat of a drawcard these days – although you’d be foolish to trust Apple completely, there’s an undeniable focus on user privacy, and the fact that you’re paying for the privilege also helps; remember, if you’re not paying in money, you’re paying in data (and privacy).

That said, there’s a good reason why I left Apple. Firstly, that ecosystem might be great, but it’s obscenely expensive for what it is – iCloud isn’t as robust and quick as Google’s offering, and Google will give you more for less (and harvest your data – it’s up to you whether or not you care though). You’re also going to pay for that, and pay dearly – Google will give you 15GB of cloud storage for free, while Apple give you a mere 5GB, practically inadequate for even an iPhone backup. While pricing for cloud storage is competitive, Google’s 15GB goes much further, especially if you’re happy with High Quality photo uploads on Google Photos. And the devices themselves are getting increasingly expensive with comparatively little in the way of value – you’re paying obscene amounts for higher storage tiers. That said, because Apple supports their devices extremely well with updates, there’s little incentive to upgrade – so your phone will probably last a long time.

The other issue is that iOS is still somewhat restrictive, and the smoothest way to get anything done is to stay within the Apple ecosystem (and its related expenses). Apple have started to loosen the chains – the Steam Link app, which was killed off last year, has finally been allowed back onto the App Store. But while we have small victories, there’s still lots of things you simply won’t see – things like torrent clients, or any app with an inbuilt store, or anything that’s attempting to replace core OS functionality. With Apple shifting to a services model, they may even tighten the chains – there’s no replacing the defaults on iOS, so if you want to use Spotify for example, it’s not going to be as smooth as using Apple Music.

Getting data onto and off the phone can be a total pain too – if you’ve got a nice collection of *.epub ebook files, you’re going to have to fiddle with a cloud service or network storage to get them into the Books app. Same goes for PDFs and the like. You can’t use external storage devices – even though the iPad has a USB-C connector, you can’t just plug in any old drive and copy files to it. Apps are tightly sandboxed so apart from cloud storage or exporting from one app to another, there’s no true access to the filesystem to work between apps. While this is very safe, it’s also very frustrating when you just want to get some data across to or off the phone. It’s way harder than it needs to be.

Many tasks are simply easier on an Android phone – and some can only be done on Android phones, because of restrictions in place from Apple. But if your needs are simple, and you care about a secure, reliable phone, then iOS may be your pick. I certainly was happy with it for over a decade of use – it’s only now that I’ve found Android phones have come close enough to the smooth operation of iOS that I’ve been happy to switch with little compromise to access better functionality.

Android: Good Value, Flexible – Fragmented, Inconsistent

I’ve used most of the Galaxy Note and S lines of phones, plus a Pixel 2 XL. It wasn’t until the Pixel 2 XL that I decided that Android was something I could recommend to other people. Until then, Android was sluggish, burdened by obscene bloatware, and nowhere near as slick as iOS. It’s taken a long time, and some OEMs needed to be consistently reminded that their skins were awful (Hello, Samsung!), but we’ve gotten much better. I’ve got a Note 9 at the moment, and even though I’ve tried using my old iPhone 8+ a few times lately, I’ve been coming back to my Note 9.

Firstly, Android devices are much better value than iOS – because there are loads of OEMs looking to get your cash. If you want Google’s pure, minimalist Android vision with long-term update support, there’s the Pixel line (which isn’t cheap). If you want a feature packed phone that does literally everything, there’s Samsung’s S range and the Note series (which updates at a snail’s pace, and isn’t cheap). If you want crazy cameras and potentially Chinese spyware, there’s Huawei (just kidding… maybe? Also not cheap). Or alternatively there’s a myriad of other devices, including throwaway cheap Chinese brands that are fast, with huge storage capacities, but will never see a single update and also have cameras comparable with an iPhone 4. There’s a phone for every price point – and even when you do buy into the top end (which is comparable to Apple pricing), there’s often loads of extras – preorder bonuses, cashback offers, bundled accessories like cases and fast chargers, plus the phones often just do more than an iPhone by default.

On top of that, the ecosystem is friendly to your wallet. All of the major players integrate well with Google’s services, and will happily let you use whatever app or service you like – there’s very few cases of enforced defaults, unlike Apple’s world where iCloud and Apple’s services are first and foremost, and the others are always more annoying to use. I wouldn’t say it’s cheap, because it can get expensive – but there’s more value for your money, better cross platform support, and more flexibility in the Android ecosystem.

Speaking of flexibility, as I’ve already suggested in the iOS overview, there’s a lot more freedom for app development on Android. Steam Link made it to Android months before it did on iOS, with no intervention or questioning from Google – and even supports internet streaming. If you want a torrent client, or an emulator, or pretty much anything, you can find it on Android. Hell, you can run a variant of DosBOX if you really want to. You’ve also got full access to the file system – if you want to download files from the internet, even something you can’t even use on the phone, you can do so and then just dump it on your computer as if the phone was a USB drive. You can even plug in a USB drive and access it like you would on a PC. Want to copy music to your phone? It’s as simple as copying it off a USB drive. Some phones even offer microSD storage support, to expand the onboard storage even further. There are very few walls you can run into on Android – with enough dedication, or if you’re less worried about security or warranties, you can do just about anything.

So it’s cheaper, and it’s more powerful – but there are still major issues deep in the Android sector. Firstly, it’s awfully fragmented. Many flagships are lucky to see two major Android updates – usually many months behind the official update release – and even security patches can come out at a glacially slow pace. My Note 9 is on the March 2019 security update – and it’s now mid May, which means any security patches from April aren’t applied, potentially leaving my device vulnerable. If you don’t have a flagship, you might never see a new major Android release – and if you’ve got a particularly cheap phone from a terrible OEM, you might not even see security updates. The only way around that is to get one of the Google Pixel phones – which aren’t cheap, and tend to be less feature packed than other phones. Fragmentation has been a huge issue with Android ever since release – and while many argue that updates don’t matter, they absolutely should – having a device that fails to receive timely security updates isn’t a selling point or a feature. It’s also harder to develop for Android as a result – you can’t target the latest (and most improved) iteration of Android, because a tiny percentage of devices run it. This results in software being crippled due to legacy support. Ever wondered why Snapchat photos looks like complete garbage on Android versus iOS? It’s probably not your camera – it’s the APIs that Snapchat uses, because it’s still supporting awful old versions of Android.

Similarly, there’s a lot of inconsistencies in Android – and a lot of that is due to this fragmentation and every OEM stamping their own skins on top. Pick up a Samsung and a Huawei phone, and you’ll find similarities but also plenty of differences, with different navigation behaviours, different settings in different places, different app behaviours, and a host of other frustrating differences. There’s also loads of little issues that pop up depending on your device – for example, I’ll answer my phone and often find that the phone has somehow started detecting touches and has been trying to launch apps, because the screen isn’t properly rejecting input when held up to my face. I’ve had issues with GPS location accuracy, compass functionality, Google Assistant detection, random slowdowns and sluggish behaviour, apps chewing battery for no reason and staying active, and Samsung doing weird things like not letting me properly use Google Photos when selecting contact images. Also my Steam Controller won’t stay connected to my Note 9, and nobody can help me. The obvious answer is, again, to use a Pixel phone – but they have their own software issues too. Unlike my old iPhone, I most certainly have been frustrated at my Android phones, because of silly software issues that make using the phone harder, often at crucial times. I find them less dependable and less consistent.

But for all my complaining, for all the issues I can still find with my Android phones, they’re full of features that iOS just doesn’t get, and I’m getting way more phone for my dollar. If I’m patient, I can pick up Android phones on deep discount – I got a Pixel 2 XL about 6 months after release for several hundred dollars off, and my Galaxy Note 9 was a grey import that I got for an excellent price (and which I changed the CSC on so it’s functionally identical to a local one). If you want to get these phones on a plan, they’re often cheaper than anything you’ll find with an Apple device. They do more, they come with more accessories, there’s less restrictions, and many tasks are easier. But the fragmentation, inconsistent behaviour, and the recent spate of malware on the Google Play Store are important issues to be aware of. I’ve found that if you want to jump from iOS, the most comfortable jump is to a Pixel device – or a Samsung device if you really want a full featured phone.

Does it matter?

Phones have become ridiculously expensive, but they’re also lasting longer. Back in the late 2000s/early 2010s, smartphones developed at a rapid pace. There were significant improvements between generations – massive leaps that made upgrading worth it. Those days have largely ended. Your iPhone 7 isn’t that much worse than the iPhone X or XS for most people’s uses. The equation is somewhat different with Android – while the jump from an S9 to a S10 isn’t that massive, the jump from an S8 to an S10 is, and your S8 will likely not see a new major Android update and will be low on the list for monthly updates. On the other hand, the original Pixel from 2016 has the latest version of Android, and might even see Android Q! Who you pick for your phone plays a big part in what sort of support you receive.

For some, there’s a clear winner – if you’re entrenched in the iOS ecosystem or really hate Google, you’re going to pick an iPhone. If you’re anti-Apple or want to stretch your dollar, you’ll probably pick Android. If you’re on the fence, it’s worth trying a few handsets out to see which one you like. But whatever you pick, both will do the same basic tasks, and do it well – though I’d argue that iOS is slightly easier for non-techies to grasp. Whatever you pick will work well for any general smartphone stuff – but if you demand flexibility and control, you’ll probably want to lean towards Android.

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