Apple makes a great operating system and a solid phone, but some of their apps leave a little to be desired -- especially the disaster that is iCloud. I've replaced all my usual tools with Google apps, and even on iOS, it's a remarkably seamless experience. Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Not all Google users are Android users. Maybe you're just the type of person who likes Google's services, but Apple's hardware, customer service, and general usability have won you over. Maybe you're sick of paying for iCloud when it fails to sync, and just want an easy experience that combines the best of both worlds.
Wherever you lie on the spectrum, Google-on-iOS is a pretty decent setup. I decided to see just how seamless it is to replace most of Apple's default apps with Google's alternatives. Spoiler alert: it's super easy to do, and if set up properly, you'll almost never need to tap an Apple default app again.
The Apps You'll Want
First things first, let's get to downloading all the apps you'll need to live the Google life on iOS. Google has a ton of iOS apps, but we'll just be sticking with the ones that make sense as alternatives for Apple's default apps for this article.
- Gmail/Inbox by Gmail
- Google Maps
- Google (this app includes Search, Google Now, and Weather)
- Google Drive, Docs, Slides, and Sheets
- Google Photos
- Google Play Music
- Google Play Newsstand
- Google Calendar
- Google Keep
There are more, of course, but the above should replace the bulk of Apple's default apps and well on your way to getting deep into Google's system.
How to Fix the "Default App Problem"
Apple still doesn't allow you to pick the "default app" for a specific service. For example, if you click a link in an app, it will go to Safari by default, not the browser of your choice. Google has implemented a pretty genius trick to get around, this, though. All of Google's apps (and many third-party apps) have an "open in" setting that gives you the option of opening links in the applicable Google app, like opening a URL from Gmail in Chrome. You'll have to tweak this setting for every app that supports it, but it essentially allows you to make Google's apps the "default", even though the OS doesn't recognise them as such.
If you look at the settings (usually by tapping the hamburger icon > Settings) in just about any Google app, you'll find the option to enable opening files, links, and whatever else makes sense in other Google apps. For example, in Hangouts, you can set it up so you open links in Chrome, addresses in Google Maps, videos in YouTube, and so on. The most important of these is Chrome, which has the setting to open up links in pretty much every Google app so you never have to leave the Google ecosystem. Nearly every Google app has this setting to some extent, so hop on in and enable it where you want it. Once you do, you'll never need to leave Google's apps.
Many third-party apps support this feature too. For example, Tweetbot has a setting to choose between Safari or Chrome as your browser of choice. Many others have the same option, effectively making it possible to almost never open Safari by default. You still can't change things like your default email or calendar app, but if you completely buy into Google ecosystem of apps, you don't have to. Beyond that, you can also use an app like Workflows to create custom share sheets so you can always open up your Google app of choice from any other app.
Where Google Beats Apple
Google's apps weren't always great on iOS, but these days, they pretty much destroy Apple's default offerings. The best of these include Google Maps, the Drive suite of apps, and surprisingly, Photos.
Google Maps is so great that even if you don't care about the rest of Google's apps, you probably still use it daily. It offers better driving directions than Apple's Maps app, as well as cycling and transit directions, two things Apple's left out for a long time (unless you happen to live in one of the 10 cities transit directions exist in). Likewise, Drive (along with Docs/Sheets/Slides) is much easier to use for storage than iCloud Drive, and you can access any of your files without jumping through any of iCloud Drive's weird hoops. As you'd expect, Drive will automatically open any files stored there in the corresponding Google app, skipping over Apple's default app entirely.
I was most surprised by Google Photos. I hate Apple's various photos solutions, instead relying on Dropbox and Flickr as my two photo backup solutions. Google Photos is a fantastic replacement to the clunky, expensive, and hard-to-properly-use iCloud Photos. You get unlimited storage (not full resolution, but it's fine for most of us), a bunch of editing options, a powerful search engine, and a dead-simple sharing system. Once you enable automatic uploads (Settings > Back up & Sync), it will automatically back up all your photos from your camera roll as you take them, just like iCloud.
Another surprise is Play Newstand, which does what Apple News does, but a little better. It works the same way: you add sources, read news as it happens, and customise the app with the type of news you want. Unlike Apple News the news topic (health, tech, etc) is prominent on the first page, so it's easy to bounce between topics. And yes, as you'd expect, Play Newstand makes it easy to open all those links in Chrome.
Chrome is decent on iOS, and if you use Chrome on desktop, you'll likely want to use the iOS version so all your browsing syncs up. Likewise, apps like Calendar and Keep are much better looking than their iOS counterparts, and happen to work well to boot. They're lacking Siri integration (which includes the location-based reminders of Reminders), but otherwise they do everything Apple's apps can do, but better.
Where Google Fails
The biggest issue I ran into in my experiment came with Hangouts and Google Voice. Simply put, they're not up to snuff on iOS and while they might be serviceable if everyone you know uses an Android phone, that's an almost impossible situation. Hangouts has an uncanny knack of failing to send notifications sometimes. Google Voice fails just as often with notifications and has the added benefit of being horribly out of date in its design. No matter how much you love Google, Hangouts and Google Voice are borderline unusable. Which isn't all that different from the experience on Android, since Google Voice seems to be all but dead in most ways as it is.
Google also tends to update its iOS offerings much later than its Android apps. Unless you desperately need to be on the bleeding edge, this isn't really a big deal, but it means they won't integrate with the latest iOS features right away. Many of Google's apps don't have Notification Center support, and none of them have 3D Touch support so far. Even Hangouts is lacking the basic "reply from notification" feature found in just about every messaging app in existence.
There's also a few places where Google fails that don't bother me, but might annoy others. Using Google Now in place of Siri is exactly as cumbersome as you'd expect. Personally, I use voice control so rarely that it made little difference to me. Still, if you want to replace Siri with Google Now, you're out of luck. Google's apps are solid, but they can't get into Apple's ecosystem deep enough to replace core functionality.
Google's apps still don't beat out their Android counterparts, either. On Android, you can add Exchange accounts to Gmail, but that's not possible on iOS. So, the Gmail app is only useful if you have an @gmail.com address. Inbox works the same way. Similarly, on Android, Hangouts handles all your instant message and SMS needs, while the iOS version can only do the instant messaging portion. This means that no matter what, you'll be using multiple messaging apps to talk with different people.
I've always been a bit sceptical of Google's offerings on iOS. For a long time, they were poorly ported resource hogs that didn't work as well as Apple's default apps. Now, they're all a pretty easy recommendation as some of the best alternatives to Apple's apps. If you're deeply ingrained in Google's ecosystem, but you're not a fan of Android, Google and iOS are living pretty happily together right now. Of course, you'll miss out on some of the Android-specific features, like Google Now integration, but overall, it's a surprisingly pleasant experience.