The newest iPhone comes out soon; the Android OS continues to deploy on better and better hardware; and both operating systems roll out exciting new features and innovations with each release. So which deserves your hard-earned cash?
A Starting Point
You can evaluate iPhone and Android devices from countless angles, so rather than pretend that we've got the One True Comparison, it only seems appropriate to highlight that we're not necessarily your average user. For more specifics on how we judge these devices, read this footnote.
For our purposes, we're measuring each phone OS against a list of features we care about most, declaring a winner (or a tie) for each category, and adding it all up. The extent to which our measurements match up with what you most care about may vary, but we suspect that many of you share similar values when it comes to your smartphone.
Note: The table below indicates the device we think "wins" each category. A happy Android means we think Android is better in that category; an Apple means iPhone outperforms Android; categories with both an Android and Apple are ties.
Artwork by Adam Dachis
Below, we've broken down the categories above and explained whey we chose the winners as we did.
Ease of Use; Winner: iPhone
Android has come a long way in a short time, but from an ease-of-use perspective, the iPhone wins out. You can pick up any iPhone and quickly, easily understand what's going on. It's got one main button on the front of the device, and everything you do consists of tapping app icons from the home screen. Android devices have several buttons on the front of the device that perform a variety of functions, and once you unlock the screen (and depending on which Android device you have) you're confronted with many different possible home screens and ways of doing things from those home screens.
Openness; Winner: Android
We really like that the Android operating system open source, but what's more important to most end users is openness in terms of what you can run on these devices. The operating systems themselves are clearly important, but one thing's abundantly clear: the applications make the phone. And while Google has yet to get in hot water for rejecting apps based on anti-competitive fear or censorship, Apple's has. A lot.
Battery Life; Winner: iPhone
Apple has taken battery life extremely seriously in their careful development of the iPhone, and it's shown. While Android devices get a kitchen-sink's worth of features that you may consider to be a fair tradeoff for battery life, there's little question that the iPhone's battery life outlasts that of most Android devices. Battery performance definitely varies from Android handset to Android handset (the recently released EVO is taking big hits for its poor battery performance), but the iPhone's battery performance — particularly the new iPhone's performance — generally outlasts Android's.
It's a big deal that the iPhone is finally getting some multitasking support in iOS4, and while it's still not true multitasking as Android users enjoy, the tradeoff in terms off battery life improvements is important enough that, overall, we'd consider multitasking to be a wash.
Software Keyboard; Winner by a hair: iPhone
If you talk to anyone who's used both the iPhone and Android with some frequency, the general consensus is that the iPhone's software keyboard is a good deal better than Android's default keyboard. That's unfortunate for Android users, but the consolation is that you can install any custom keyboard as your default keyboard on Android, and we've seen some solid keyboard alternatives. Still, the advantage, if only by virtue of being better out of the box, goes to the iPhone.
System-Wide Search; Tie
Apple's implementation of Spotlight on the iPhone searches contacts, media, email, applications, notes and calendar. Android searches most of that (but notably not email), but also integrates with auto-suggest web searches; it also lets other applications plug into it, so the more supported apps you install, the more robust the universal search becomes.
Notification system; Winner: Android
This may seem like a silly thing to care too much about, but the iPhone's modal notification system is particularly user unfriendly, especially for a device as friendly as the iPhone. You have to act on a notification, and you can only see one notification at a time before the next one dismisses the previous one entirely. Android's brilliant pull-down window shade notification tray, on the other hand, is a beautiful thing that could make any iPhone owner jealous.
Voice-to-Text; Winner: Android
Nearly every text field on an Android device can be filled with a few words from your mouth, and it works surprisingly well. You can respond to emails by voice, send long text messages by voice while you're walking around Target, respond to your editor's IMs while you're at a graduation ceremony and so on, as long as you're comfortable talking to your phone (it is a phone, so you should be). Apart from voice-to-text in third party apps, iOS doesn't support voice-to-text at all.
Syncing; Winner: Android
iPhones can be incredible standalone devices, but they're surprisingly old-fashioned when it comes to syncing, requiring users to plug into their computers and connect to iTunes to do all sorts of syncing and activating that could be more conveniently done wirelessly. Android phones support pretty great over-the-air syncing with your Google account, so much so that if you were to lose your previous Android phone, simply entering your Google account into a new one can get you up and running with a usable phone in a jiffy.
Non-Google Sync; Winner: iPhone
Android's great at syncing seamlessly with Google's servers, but it's not so keen on syncing with other popular sources of data — like, say, Outlook, Address Book or iTunes. If you're a heavy user of any of those applications, the iPhone is the easiest option.
Tethering; Winner: Android
The cost of tethering on Android devices varies depending on the provider. It's still a close race on this point, but Android edges ahead with the ability to turn your handset into a Wi-Fi hotspot that can deliver wireless to you and seven of your closest friends.
Release and Update Consistency; Winner: iPhone
These days, your mobile OS is just as important (if not more) than mobile hardware, and Apple has set the consumer expectation to expect that their device will receive new feature updates even if it isn't the latest phone. To that end, it's extremely easy to keep track of what's going on in the iPhone ecosystem. Apple releases one new phone a year, and one major update each year. When an update rolls out, every phone receives the update at the same time (unless it's particularly old; the original iPhone won't upgrade to iOS4, for example). In contrast, Android runs on a lot of different devices, and when Google pushes out a new update, there's no telling when or if it's going to make its way to your phone. In the future Google is planning to change to yearly Android updates similar to iPhone OS updates, which will likely help this situation, but in the meantime, it's a source of frustration for Android users.
A lot of people may disagree on this assessment, given that Apple's App Store has around four times the number of applications the Android Market does, but there's also a lot of crap in the App Store, and at this point, most popular, mission-critical applications have been developed for both the iPhone and Android. What's more, some potentially very popular applications end up locked out of the App Store for, if we're being generous, arbitrary reasons. At the end of the day, it may be a big deal that your must-have application X is missing from the Android Market/App Store, and those may end up to be dealbreakers for you, but overall we'd call them pretty even.
Web browsing; Tie
The iPhone's Mobile Safari browser, while not without its faults, is a very nice, very usable mobile browser. Android's browser, while not as smooth an operator as Safari, supports (or can support) Flash. The extent to which that matters to you may vary, but it's big enough that we're considering it a tie.
Gaming; Winner: iPhone
We're frugal productivity nerds at Lifehacker, so we don't really care all that much about gaming. And while the number of solid gaming options available in the Android Market continue to grow, it's still not on par with what's available for the iPhone.
Music Player; Winner: iPhone
Android may do a lot of things well, but one arena where its users regularly voice complaint is with its default media player. Where the iPhone comes with a very solid iPod app, most Android users quickly go looking for alternative players. Google is hyping over-the-internet streaming of all your music from your desktop computer eventually, but until we see something great there, the iPhone still wins out.
Free Turn-by-Turn Navigation; Winner: Android
After the Google Voice debacle from last year, it's looking less and less likely that Google will ever develop another new app for the iPhone. Unfortunately, that means that extremely cool applications, like Google Maps Navigation, Google's free turn-by-turn GPS application, will never make it to the iPhone, and so far there isn't anything as good for the iPhone that's also free. The iPhone does have its share of solid for-a-price GPS utilities in the App Store (and some decent inexpensive-to-free options), but Maps Navigation is built into Android and outshines the iPhone's free alternatives. (It's not yet available in Australia, but it probably will be one day, which is more than can be said for an iPhone alternative at this point.)
Integration with Google Apps; Winner: Android
If you rely on Google tools like Gmail, Google Contacts, Google Calendar and the like, Android just does it better. The iPhone's still no slouch, and can sync over-the-air with Contacts, Calendar and even does Gmail push for instant new message notifications, but if you're a serious Google or even just Gmail user, the iPhone doesn't stack up to Android.
Customisable; Winner: Android
You may be able to add a wallpaper to your iPhone desktop when iOS4 rolls out, but beyond that, there's not much you can do to tweak your iPhone to exactly how you like it — without jailbreaking, that is. In comparison, Android devices are Mr Potato Heads of customisability.
Overall Score: Android: 12; iPhone: 11
Clearly our scorecard is extremely subjective, so take this evaluation with a grain of salt, and consider how important the features we listed (and maybe those we didn't list) are to you and come up with your own assessment. If your priorities are similar to ours, you're likely looking at an Android for your next purchase.
Whichever end of the spectrum you fall on, we'd love to hear more about what's driving your decision in the comments.
Why just Android and iPhone? The iPhone and Android operating systems are not the only mobile OSes on the block, but they're what we're focusing on in this post. It's cool if you're really into Windows Mobile/Phone 7 or webOS or BlackBerry. For the purpose of this post, we're focusing on what we consider to be the most popular options among our readers. [go back up]
How we judge: We consider ourselves power users who care about things like openness, user control and customisability; we also care about ease of use, high quality design, and quality hardware. For better or worse (usually worse), these qualities often end up at odds with one another in the current smartphone market, but they make up the measuring stick against which we're evaluating these devices.
It's also probably worth noting that, Android OS and hardware aside, we're big fans of several of Google's services, and so some of those play an important role in some of the categories above. It may not seem fair to Apple and the iPhone to do so, but in most instances, Apple had the opportunity to accept Google-focused applications to the App Store.
Finally, the state of Android devices can be somewhat confusing because they're released by different carriers and on lots of different hardware. We tried to strike a balance between acknowledging faults on some of the worst incarnations of Android hardware while also keeping in mind the best. To the extent that older iPhones aren't up to snuff compared to the new iPhone, we've done the same thing in discussing the iPhone. [go back up]