How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

Summary:Well, here goes. You fanbois out there, holster your arrows. I'm gonna do this one snark-free.

UPDATE: Updated below, added "This is not a contest" section.

Regardless of how you may view our current economic doldrums, apparently nearly everyone I encounter is feeling flush enough to go out and buy a new smartphone.

I can't go to the doctor without being asked for a smartphone recommendation. I can't go to a family dinner without being asked for a smartphone recommendation. I can't even go to my favorite fusion Thai/Japanese sushi restaurant without being asked for a smartphone recommendation.

It always starts with a little hemming, a little hawing, followed by two key phrases. The first is "I'm thinking about getting a new phone." The second is this: "Should I buy an iPhone or an Android phone?"

In the immortal words of Sam Beckett (the quantum leaper, not the playwright), "Oh, boy." Well, here goes. You fanbois out there, holster your arrows. I'm gonna do this one snark-free.

There are a wide variety of reasons someone buys a smartphone. The one I've never fully understood was fashion. If you pick your phone because of how it looks or "what it says about you" (sheesh!), you're on your own. I'm going to answer the iPhone vs. Android question far more objectively.

I'm also not going to recommend based on price, since you can get cheap, underpowered phones in both varieties. If you're on a budget, you'll still want to factor in the rest of the characteristics I'm about to discuss.

You should generally buy a smartphone because you want certain features. Make a list of all the features and if one type of phone has more, buy that. There is one issue with regard to Android security problems, but I'm going to skip that for now. You can read more about that in many other articles (see below).

See also: The two reasons I avoided Android and finally upgraded to the relatively boring iPhone 4S

This is not a contest

I got an interesting, warm, friendly email from a reader. In it, he says (and I quote, well, except for the profanity part): "THANKS FOR WASTING MY TIME. 2 Pages of Bulls--t, and still no winner. Thanks for nothing."

While most emails I get from readers are friendly, sometimes I do get the inappropriate, and yet strangely instructive messages. This is one of those. It pointed out to me that in my first draft of this article, I missed stating an important point: this is not a contest.

Yes, I do rate certain factors below as better with Android or better with iPhone, but that's not the point. These two operating environments are both excellent, and this article is designed to help you choose one type of phone or another in the context of that base level of excellence. Sure, I pick on both in my day-to-day article writing, but that's the job of commentary. That's not the purpose of this article.

This article is designed to help YOU make a decision. Not my decision, but yours. YOU need to choose the phone that's right for YOUR life, not what I chose that's right for mine. So, in this case, I'm not declaring that one is better than another. You need to pick what you want, given your needs and preferences.

I chose an iPhone, in part, because I don't have time for tinkering and customizing. There were other times in my life that I would have gone with Android solely because of the customizability options. So, not only do you need to choose a phone that meets YOUR needs, your needs now may be different from what they were, or will be.

Choosing a phone is a deeply personal decision. This article is here to guide you, but what path you take is completely up to you. You're welcome.

4G/LTE: Android wins

Let's start with the big reason I would have bought an Android phone, but didn't: 4G/LTE. Android phones support very high speed mobile broadband. iPhones don't. I want high-speed mobile broadband, but since it's not available where I want it, that factor was no longer part of my equation. But if you want high-speed 4G or LTE, your only choice is Android.

Removable battery: slight lead for Android

Next, you need to decide how important a removable battery is. If it's essential, then your only choice is certain Android phones. You can add an add-on battery bulge to your iPhone, but it's a big add-on lump, not a replaceable battery. If you're okay with that, you could consider the iPhone.

Physical keyboard: slight lead for Android

I like physical keyboards. I don't like them enough to buy a phone just for the keyboard, but I prefer them. Most smartphones only have soft keyboards, but a few Android phones still have physical keyboards. So if that's a must-do requirement, go for Android.

By the way, I used to have a white-hot hatred for the iPhone's on-screen keyboard. That's been mitigated a bit by Siri voice recognition, which makes entering information into the iPhone far less irritating.

Voice recognition: tie

Both Apple and Android have voice recognition. Siri is the PR darling, but I've found it's relatively useless as a context-sensitive personal assistant. As a voice dictation tool, it works nicely, but so does the same basic functionality on Android.

This may change. If Siri integrates nicely with Apple's bajillion apps, Siri might be a win.

Accessories: iPhone wins

My family's mound of iPhone accessories is one of the big reasons I went with the iPhone 4S rather than an Android phone. We have a ton of chargers, adapters, docks, and so forth around the house. Staying with the iPhone saved me some bucks.

If you have adapters and accessories for a platform already, that might be the one you'll go for.

One other note about accessories: there are a metric ton of them and they all fit the iPhone. There are so many variations of Android phones that, while there are a lot of accessories, there are less per phone by far than for the iPhone. So if you want some weird accessory for your phone, the odds are it exists for the iPhone. For Android, the odds are far less.

Familiarity

If you're upgrading a phone, do you want to stick with an environment you know, or are you bored and want something new? Do you have time to fiddled with something new and interesting, or do you just need to get the job done?

I'm totally bored with iOS (the iPhone OS), but I'm also incomprehensibly busy. I went with the iPhone 4S because it was the easiest, most convenient choice. That might not be your reasoning.

Next: Apps and more »

« Previous: Factors in your decision

Apps: tie, sort of

Without a doubt, you're aware of apps. There are a phenomenal number of iPhone apps and the number of Android apps are growing by a huge rate as well. If you made your choice based on number of apps, the score would be tied.

But here's where you need to do your research. If there are specific apps you want or need, and they only run on one platform, that's your platform. Think this through carefully and investigate what's out there. This is probably the big reason to choose one platform over another. In general, more mainstream apps (actually, more apps in general) run on iPhone.

Secondarily, there is the security issue I alluded to before. Android apps require you to be more aware of what each app does and take more precautions. If you're up for that, consider Android. If you don't want to fret app security, go Apple.

Customizability: win, by far, to Android

Unless you want to jailbreak your iPhone, you're stuck with Apple's PLAYSKOOL-style user interface. I, personally, think it's limited and outdated. But that's me. A lot of people love it. On the other hand, when it comes to Android, you can customize everything to your heart's content. If you want to deeply customize your phone, the choice can only be Android.

Carrier and reception: tie

It used to be that if you didn't want to use AT&T, you'd buy an Android phone. Now that the iPhone is on most of the major carriers, that's no longer as big of an issue. On the other hand, if you use a smaller carrier, you're probably going Android.

In terms of reception, this is a tough one to call. In my opinion, it's far more about the carrier than it is about the phone.

Camera: iPhone 4S wins

If using your phone as a replacement for a point-and-shoot camera is important, the iPhone 4S (specifically this model) is probably the win. In test after test, the iPhone 4S bested the various cameras in Android phones.

Size: depends on the phone

Earlier, I mentioned that fashion wasn't something I consider in a phone choice, but it should be noted that some Android phones are physically large. I like that, because I have big hands, but many people don't. While the iPhone is far from the only choice for smaller fit-in-hand phones, be sure to factor this in when considering your purchase.

What about Windows Phones, BlackBerry, Nokia, etc.?

Whenever I write an Android or iPhone article, we have three or four very loyal commenters who go off about why I don't mention Windows Phone or Nokia, or BlackBerry, or some other random platform. To be honest, these phones haven't hit the penetration level for me to pay that much attention to them.

For example, while by all indications, Windows Phone 7 is excellent, there are just not that many out there. That's a shame, but it's true. I didn't discuss them as a choice here because I've never, ever, not once have someone ask whether they should get a Windows Phone instead of an iPhone or Android phone.

If you like to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight, go for one of these fringe phones. Otherwise, you're probably choosing Android or iPhone.

Wrap-up

So, as you can see, there's no clear winner. In my mind, though, depending on what you need, you'll lean one way or the other. If 4G/LTE is critical to you, Android is the win. If certain apps are essential, you'll go with the phone that has those apps. If you're worried about security, go for the iPhone. If you need total flexibility, go for an Android phone. If you want a point-and-shoot replacement, go with the iPhone 4S.

Picking a phone is all about what you need. Look at these characteristics and make your own choice.

Which phone did you go with? TalkBack below and tell us, not only the phone, but what characteristics called to you most.

Topics: Android, Google, Hardware, iPhone, Mobility, Smartphones, Telcos

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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