“Which smart phone should I buy?” This is a question that people ask me all the time. The answer, as it often is, is “it depends.” There are currently four principal operating systems for smart phones:
- BlackBerry 10 from Blackberry (fka Research in Motion)
- Windows Phone8 from Microsoft
- iOS 7 from Apple
- Android 4.x from Google
Blackberry is a former champ but has been losing significant market share, and there are serious questions whether the company will still be in business a year from now. Microsoft has made significant improvements in its smart phone operating system but is still a minor player in the overall smart phone market. This leaves as top contenders Apple, with its iOS 7, battling Google and its Android 4.x operating system.
Not many years ago, Apple was the top contender with a very polished and sophisticated smart phone operating system embodied in its iPhone handset. In comparison, earlier versions of Android were works in progress with hardware that ran the gamut from lackluster to high-end but without the polish of the iPhone. That is no longer the case.
Apple’s iPhone is elegant and seamless without any stutters or pauses when moving between screens and apps. Operation is straightforward and easily understandable, and the end user’s experience has always been highly rated. However, this sophisticated and seamless user experience comes at a cost: in contrast to Android and other smart phone operating systems, functionality for adding apps, transferring files to and from the device, and working with them are all restricted on the iPhone. Users can obtain apps only from Apple through iTunes and the App Store, cannot simply transfer and copy files to and from their iPhone or other Apple devices, and cannot create folders for organizing their information directly on their device. These limitations are by design and are intended to prevent interruptions to the otherwise smooth and seamless operation.
Apple iOS 7
Apple’s latest iteration of its smart device operating system is iOS 7, which was released in September 2013. iOS 7 represents a significant change in both appearance and features for this flagship product from Apple. The iOS operating system was starting to show its age as well as lack of features compared to Android, which Google was constantly updating with new features and stability.
Nerino Petro discusses differences between Apple and Android smart phones and suggests what users should look for when buying a phone.
Even with prior updates, iOS had limitations on multitasking (running multiple apps at the same time), needed more steps to close a running app, and to perform tasks such as turn Wi-Fi on and off, and making changes to the overall look and feel of the operating system itself. iOS 7 is a major refurbishment of iOS rather than just an incremental update, representing an attempt by Apple to address many of the areas in which Google and the Android had pulled ahead in the smart phone arms race.
The most visible change in iOS 7 was the abandonment of the skeuomorphic design (this is the concept that icons resemble real-world objects or materials such as a leather ledger or a notepad) on the screens and menus, which had remained unchanged from its original launch through iOS 6. This design concept resulted in the glossy icons, digital green felt, faux-leather stitching, and cluttered appearance, all of which by 2013 dated the Apple iPhone when compared to Android’s more modern and visually appealing look. With iOS 7, Apple completely redesigned the interface with a minimalist design featuring simple and colorful icons. While this new look has many detractors among long-time iOS users, in its latest iteration, iOS 7 and Android 4.4 are very similar in appearance.
In addition to these visible changes, Apple also made significant changes under the hood. Its latest version of multitasking is easier to use and apps can continue to run and update in the background on iOS 7. Gone are the days of having to double click the home button and then click on an “x” to close a running app; instead, users now are presented with a carousel of apps thumbnails, which can simply be flicked away to close an app. Android has had this feature for some time. People who used Palm OS before its demise will recognize this feature and its concept of using cards to represent running apps.
Other changes have made it easier to use iOS 7 when it comes to doing simple things such as turning Wi-Fi on or off. Before iOS 7, users had to go to Settings and then into Wi-Fi to turn Wi-Fi on or off. New in iOS 7 is the control center, a panel that slides up with a swipe from the bottom of the screen, allowing users to more easily make changes to certain features and settings such as airplane mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth volume, camera, and screen brightness. This brings iOS 7 on par with most of the capabilities found in the latest versions of Android.
Apple has also added AirDrop, similar to Android’s Beam technology, which allows for the transfer of files between iOS devices quickly and easily. Unlike Android’s Beam capability, AirDrop establishes the connection using Bluetooth but then transfers files using Wi-Fi. This makes for speedy file transfers between devices. Changes to the iOS notification center improve its functionality although it still lags behind Android. Other improvements include upgrades to Safari and Siri and a new unified search box, all of which make iOS 7 a significant improvement for users of Apple’s iDevices such as the iPhone and iPad.
Until recently, Google was the underdog in the smart phone war. Taking an approach opposite to that of Apple, Google decided to provide the operating system but allow other companies to manufacture the hardware. While this has the benefit of giving users a lot of choice when it comes to selecting a smart phone or other device, it also results in variations in the amount of memory, CPU, camera quality, and other features from device to device.
To better understand Android, one must understand how Google differentiates its different versions of Android. Android uses both a codename and a version number to differentiate between releases of the Android operating system. Google has used the name of sweets for the different versions of its operating system. For example, Éclair refers to Android version 2.x . Through the end of October 2013, the version in widest distribution has been Jelly Bean, representing Android versions 4.1 – 4.3. Since its initial release, Android has gone through 19 updates, adding features and improvements to functionality and usability each time. Google recently released version 4.4 of the Android operating system, codenamed KitKat, which represents more than an incremental update to Android, although not quite as significant as iOS 7.
In its early days, Google took a hands-off approach when it came to imposing requirements on companies that licensed the Android operating system. This resulted in a number of different “flavors” of Android, depending on who manufactured the particular phone. Manufacturers created their own overlay or interfaces, and different tasks were often done in completely different ways between devices from similar manufacturers. Samsung created the TouchWiz interface; HTC created Sense UI. Throw in the different mobile phone providers, and the result was a hodgepodge of devices running different versions of Android, many of which themselves were implemented differently. The results were predictable: an inconsistent user experience across different phones and splintering of the Android operating system. Starting with version 4, called Honeycomb, Google took a much more active role in setting certain guidelines. While different phone manufacturers still use their own interface, many of the common core features of Android are required to be implemented and are consistent across devices and networks.
One issue that still remains a problem is the sometimes extremely long delay between a new version of Android being released by Google and updates being made available by phone carriers. In some instances, phone carriers have announced they will not release updates for some phones. With the recent moves by Google to incorporate more of its core features into the base operating system, the situation should improve significantly.
But this splintering of Android also resulted in some benefits for end users. Android phone purchasers could buy phones that, unlike the iPhone, ranged in cost from inexpensive to hundreds of dollars. On the high end, hardware specifications were as good or better than those of the iPhone, and Android handset manufacturers continue to expand capabilities and options, such as larger screens, additional memory, better speakerphone capability, and more.
Version 4.4 contains both changes in the user interface and new features. Changes have been made in the underlying operating system to further improve performance and usability. These improvements are a result of Google’s Project Butter, which began in the Jelly Bean version of Android. These Project Butter improvements make Android operations run much smoother and perform more seamlessly, resulting in an experience more like that of using an iPhone.
One of the biggest changes has been the addition of the new voice-command feature, which allows you to say “okay Google” and then say commands for the phone to perform operations such as checking the weather, providing directions or sports scores, playing music, making a phone call, and sending a text message. Once this feature is turned on, it stays active all the time, and there are no further buttons to push; just say “okay Google.” Version 4.4 also provides faster multitasking, the native ability to print over the cloud, and the ability to capture real-time video on the phone’s display. The screen recording is saved to the phone in MP4 format. Version 4.4 has been optimized to run using less memory to improve its functionality across a wide platform of smart phones and other devices.
Another significant improvement is that Google Now has been altered from being an add-on to Android to being an integral part of the operating system itself. Unlike prior versions of Android, screens and features used on Android phones are now all extensions of Google Now. For example, even the dialer now becomes a search engine via Google Now: if you type in the word “pizza” and look at the results, you will see not only phone numbers of pizza restaurants saved on your phone but also information for nearby pizza restaurants. Also gone is the arbitrary limit picked by the device manufacturer for the number of home screens the user can have to display apps; Android 4.4 now allows you to create as many new screens as you can use.
Other features remain the same, including the ability to create traditional folder and file structures and access them on your device using the equivalent of the file Explorer that you might find on Windows or a Mac. You can transfer files directly between a computer and your Android smart phone in the same way you would transfer files between an external hard drive and a computer. Android allows you to move files between folders, create new folders, and rename existing folders; Apple does not.
Apple’s iOS App Store still has more apps than the Google play store but more important than quantity is availability of apps that you need and use regularly. In the tablet category, the iPad is tops in terms of availability of law-profession-specific apps. But when it comes to smart phone apps, differences between Apple and Google are fewer, meaning that the number of apps available should not be a major consideration when choosing a smart phone platform. Android users also have more options when it comes to where they can get apps: options include the Google play store, the Amazon Appstore, and even individual developers. However, the larger variety of app providers does raise the risk that malware will be installed on a phone.
At the end of the day, there’s no clear-cut winner yet in the United States smart phone war (outside the U.S., more people use Android than Apple). If seamless operation and performance are more important than being able to change the look and appearance of your device, work directly with files and have the ability to add additional memory to your smart phone or obtain apps from other than just one source, the iPhone is probably your best choice. However, if features such as the ability to try new interfaces and make changes to how your phone looks; experiment with different keyboards and other visual features; work with folders and files just as you do on your computer; use your device without the need to use iTunes; and be able to select from multiple devices depending on screen size and other features are more important to you, Android may be your best bet.
Ultimately, the decision may come down to who your current cell phone provider is and which phones fit your budget. Apple has introduced a lower-cost model of its iPhone 5, the iPhone 5C, to reach a broader audience. Google introduced its own smart phones that are designed to its specifications and run stock Android with the guarantee of getting the latest Android updates, such as the Nexus 5, as soon as they’re available.
Both iOS 7 and Android 4.4 probably have more features in common today than features that differ, although how the companies present these features to the end user will influence people differently. Before you buy a new smart phone, spend some time looking at the different handsets available on the different platforms, do your research, and make an educated decision. And remember, most cell phone providers will give you 14 days to return a new phone if you decide you made the wrong choice.