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

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.

SHARE:

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

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

385 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Neither, Windows Phone 7 Mango is the real winner

    Not surprised you would have left them out. The result? A poorly conceived and written article. Mango is soooo smooth compared to Android, and the people centric Metro interface is so natural unlike iOS. You really need to open your eyes.
    Oknarf
    • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

      @Oknarf is still using his BetaVision Player. "It's gonna' make a comeback!"
      mybunkaccount@...
      • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

        @mybunkaccount@... Nonsense. I switched from a 2.5 year iPhone addiction to a Windows Phone 7 device on a trial basis in December of 2010, and never went back. WP7, in spite of what many of the Apple fanboys would like to believe, is a *brilliant* product and a fantastic OS. It's user experience is head and shoulders above iOS, and I say that as a former iOS evangelist who preached it to everyone who'd listen.

        I wouldn't have believed it either--and then I tried it using the "30 day return policy" offered by AT&T. Inside of 3 days, I knew I would never go back. Compared to the Live Tiles and clean UI of WP7 (especially in 7.5), iOS just seems...antique.
        jasongw
      • Its been decided Already Android

        iPhones are toys for what i do.<br><br>Until IOS can handle multiple parallel tasks (multitasking). its no go.<br><br>Then there is the issue of internationalization, IOs messes everything up. Android is just a simple thing.<br><br>With quad core and octa core units around the corner, the will effectively compete against AMD's FX-8120 and Intel's Xenon 7560 with a fraction of the power consumption. For the price and capability, Android its worth it.<br> <br>This kind of processing power alone makes Android the only choice. As IOs doesn't have the capability of real multi processing. <br>

        Having used windows as a development platform for decades, and the quality of current Windows platforms (the lack of security). Its Windows as whole have been rule out. And Tiles over complicate simple tasks and use up too much useful screen real state.

        <br>Though thats for the use that I need. Not everyone else.
        Uralbas
      • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

        @mybunkaccount@... Have to agree with @Oknarf, WP7 is a great phone. The live tiles, voice recognition, speech to text (and back), REAL applications, fully integrated applications (text to call to FB to email w/o going back to the homepage and scrolling through apps), multi-tasking, replacable battery, etc make a phone that can be used easily, and is faster than the iPhone. It is the ONLY phone I have not had to teach my wife how to use, and she hates the iPad2. One of my friends bought an iP4s and complained about several issues with it, handed her my WP7 Focus and said play with it - she loved how intuitive nd fast it was and is considering returning the iPhone (she had a iP3 version for two years, it died).
        gke565
    • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

      @Oknarf Right because a "winner" has a large majority of the market share and everywhere one looks there is a WP7 dev... oh wait, no they do not have the majority of the market share and I have yet to see a WP7 device in the wild. WP7 is "winning" in the same sense Charlie Sheen is [i]WINNING[/i]...
      athynz
      • So I assume ...

        @Pete "athynz" Athens , So I assume that when you shop for a car you only look at vehicles with a majority of the market share? That means you can only drive a Ford F Series or Chevy Silverado. Remember, no looking past the top two. And when buying a computer you only look at either an HP or Dell, again remember no looking past the top two as you would not want to appear to be Charlie. I'll rember to wave at you when you drive by in your F Series on your HP computer. Have fun.
        Oknarf
      • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

        @Pete "athynz" Athens
        Have to agree with Oknarf. A purchase should be identified based on qualities, not on who currently has the most market share. If everyone thought that waym GM would never have got into trouble, and Hyundai would never have sole a car in North America.
        And consistent with ZDnet policy, the Blackberry alternative has been ignored as well. I'm close to giving up my subscription to ZDnet over its editorial biases.
        Schleeve
      • The OS is like a fuel type. It has all kinds of implications.

        @Oknarf when you look at OS choices, on smart phones, it's like choosing vehicle for a car, not choosing the model of vehicle. Apps are like refueling stations that you have access to. Sure there may be some good things going on in Mango, from many peoples perspective. But, if the developers don't buy devices, learn the programming environment, and start writing apps, or porting them, then nothing else about the WP-7 matters. My brother has a WP-7 phone, and loves it. My whole family is iPhone and Macs now. My primary feature for choosing Apple products, again, and again, is AirPlay. I can take my Apple TV with me. I gave my Parents an Apple TV so that they can watch videos that I publish to mobile me, on it. I have an AirPort express that I can take with me for remote speaker access. I normally have it in the back yard with speakers hooked up to it, and I can work out in the yard, or have a party and have music ready to go. Anyone with an iPhone on my network, and play their choice of music. It just works, and it's the number one feature, that I really think most of the world is missing out on.
        greggwon@...
      • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

        @Pete "athynz" Athens If you don't mind being a big fish in a very small pond, go for it. I hung onto an Atari 1040ST for NINE years, as the small puddle dried up, and got smaller and smaller. NOT going there again.
        rphunter42
      • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

        @Pete "athynz" Athens I was also an Atari 1040 ST user for quite a while, but unlike rphunter42, I used it for the simple reason that it was the best I could find that didn't use a CLI interface. Oh, and wasn't a Mac, I stayed with it till Win95 became usable! Now I've gone to Mint 12 as Ubuntu messed a good thing up! You use what does what you want at a price you can live with, anything else is stupid! Do the research, check things out and get what works for YOU!
        leopards
      • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

        @All Posters That Disagree
        I agree with you all. That's the wrong way to decide on what to buy BUT, remember how the decision to buy PCs versus Macs went. I constantly heard "well so and so bought a PC" or "isn't everybody else buying PCs," etc.
        This is human nature. To go with the herd. Pete just didn't mind admitting it...
        rpollard@...
      • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

        @Oknarf [b]So I assume that when you shop for a car you only look at vehicles with a majority of the market share?[/b]

        Not at all - such an assumption would be ridiculous and your analogy redirects from the point I was responding to. You make the claim [i]Windows Phone 7 Mango is the real winner[/i] and yet it's really not. I never said it was not a decent OS, I never said it was a failure, or whatever line the anti WP7 boys are throwing out this week. But it's not a "winner".

        As for my shopping habits I get what seems like will work for me and company loyalty does not factor in. I have 1 Apple product, an iPhone 4. I also own a Samsung Galaxy S Fascinate, a Nook Color (dual booting), a Dell XPS, and an HP Pavilion (both the Dell and HP running Windows 7 and loving it... best OS ever IMHO)... and I drive GM and Dodge vehicles. Personally I do not care about the whole Android vs iOS vs WP7 pissing match but I disagree with the statement that WP7 is winning. Microsoft's management [i]could have[/i] made it a winner if they had taken their heads out of the sand when the original iPhone was released.
        athynz
      • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

        @rphunter42 "I hung onto an Atari 1040ST for NINE years, as the small puddle dried up, and got smaller and smaller."

        You are my new hero. My new, insane, hero. :-) I only held out with my 520STFM until Nov. 1995.
        jgm@...
      • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

        @Oknarf for the last (almost) two decades we???ve heard that marketshare was the only factor in determining a winner. Now suddenly it is nit even a factor? The Windows fanboys can???t have it both ways one i wrong, but which one?
        Rick_Kl
    • I *LOVE* my Windows Phone

      @Oknarf

      It's by far the best phone I've ever owned. I think the interface is great, it's fast, it's smooth, and it doesn't crash. I have any app that I really need on it and most that I would want.

      That said I bought my wife a new phone for Christmas. I'm on Verizon so my only choice is the Trophy, which is nearly a year old, and they still sell it for $200. That's tough to swallow. So I bought my wife an iPhone 4S. I didn't go Android because I didn't like having to babysit my own Android phone. I'm certainly not interesting in getting my technologically illiterate wife a phone like that. So my choice came down to $200 for dated technology for WP7 or an iPhone 4S. Not exactly dated technology, even if the OS is a little too simplistic for my tastes. But it will work great for my wife.

      So, I bought her an iPhone 4S and I'm sure she'll love it. If they had a newer WP7 like the Focus S on Verizon it would have been a no brainer.
      LiquidLearner
      • Not dated anymore.....

        @LiquidLearner
        @OhTheHumanity <br>Samsung Fusion and since the upgrade to 7.5 I love it more. It and Zune make work easier.....<br>You can change the color, lrg.
        But....To each his own!
        NettJS
      • RE: I *LOVE* my Windows Phone

        @LiquidLearner carrier support is a bit mixed at this point, clearly. Verizon only having the Trophy is a bit comical at this point. CES should be interesting and some Nokia 4G LTE product at big red could make some ripples in the pond. We'll see...
        Oknarf
      • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

        @LiquidLearner

        I'd take a Trophy over any iPhone anyday. I think you've done a disservice to your wife. Verizons' website currently has the Trophy for $29.99, so you paid $170 extra for a face time camera?

        Gerwitz is obviously still suffering from illusions of grandeur.
        StillLearnin
      • RE: How to decide: should you buy an iPhone or an Android phone?

        @Oknarf

        CES? @LiquidLearner said he bought the iPhone 4S for Christmas. CES is January 10-13, next year.
        ManoaHI