Like it or not, for the present, we’re locked in a duopoly when it comes to mobile operating system choice.
But that’s not necessarily such a bad thing; at least this two-way competition has driven what can only be described as polished, feature-packed, and technologically potent software.
They’re both so highly tuned that, fan-boy assertions aside, it’s difficult to pin down which one is better, as the ratings of our reviews (displayed above) show.
A lot of your choice of smartphone OS isn’t based on any of the software’s technical capabilities or user features: You’re likely to simply use what your social and family circles are using.
If everyone you know uses Apple’s Facetime for video calling, you don’t want to be left out of the party, and you wouldn’t want your messages to have green bubbles instead of the standard blue ones.
Of course, there are cross-platform options for most functions—you could install Skype or Google Hangouts on both iPhones and Androids—but built-in functionality and consistency usually trump third-party options.
Below we step through the various aspects by which smartphone OSes can be judged, choosing a winner or declaring a tie for each category.
At the end, we tally up the final score. Keep in mind that both are mature and magnificent works of software at this point, and you’re unlikely to be disappointed with whichever you opt for. Feel free to correct us on Twitter or Facebook if you take issue with our method or conclusions or think we left something out.
Your choice of device options for running iOS versus Android is similar to the choice between macOS and Windows computers: With the Apple system software, you have a choice of just one hardware vendor, albeit a top-tier one.
With Android and Windows, you can choose from dozens of hardware makers with a large range of price, quality, and performance levels. Because Android is open-source (compared with iOS’s closed source) it means that any phone maker can use it. And that has resulted in a profusion of Android handset choices.
You can get a very usable Android phone for as little as $149. Our budget Editors’ Choice, the Motorola Moto e is a fine choice. Contrast that with the cheapest new iPhone you can buy, the iPhone SE, which costs $399. On the other end of the spectrum, you can actually pay significantly more for an Android phone than for any iPhone: Some configurations of the Samsung Galaxy Fold (itself a great example of the variety available with the Android platform) sell for north of $2,000, and a Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G can set you back $1,599.
The most expensive Apple handset, the iPhone 11 Pro Max, costs $1,449 with 512GB storage. One final Android exclusive hardware feature: You can add storage on some Android phones with a Micro SD card; with iPhones, you’re stuck with the storage limit you originally bought.
Interface and Usability
It’s probably still fair to say that Android tends to present more complexity—more burrowing down menus to get to the setting you need, multiple home screens, and more variation among different phone model interfaces. With iOS, because of Apple’s famed love of limiting users to its way or the highway, interface layout and settings are more consistent and uncomplicated.
Yes, you can customize your iPhone screen to some extent, choosing which icons get top billing and choosing the widgets that appear on the right-swipe screen. And with iOS 13, you can customize the home screen with widgets that span larger spaces than the traditional icon grid ever allowed.
Android offers significantly more customization options than iOS. Simply the fact that Android lets you choose among dozens of launcher screens is a level of customization that iOS simply can’t match.
Considering that Android is made by Google, it seems strange that the search function on iOS is superior. I especially find this when I’m searching for apps installed on the device. Apple nicely groups results into apps, emails, contacts, and even shows apps not installed, with links to the App Store.
New wireless tech standards appear every year like the spring bird migration, and in the last few years, Android has been first to welcome these new specs, almost always preceding their iOS support. Android is the first with 5G network support; previously it beat Apple with support for wireless charging, 4G LTE, and touchless voice commands. That said, Apple tends to wait until the new technology is useful and reliable: For example, 5G service and promised speeds still aren’t ubiquitous. Yes, you can buy a handset that connects to 5G—but can you find any 5G service to connect it to?
Android has also added support for foldable and dual-screen phones, and since it’s open-source, third parties like Microsoft can add functionality to support devices like the upcoming Surface Duo, an Android phone that features two-screens, each displaying tailored content, rather than just being a single screen that spans the two. Again, these technologies haven’t always proven to be particularly robust yet (to say the least) but there’s no doubt that Android handsets are pioneering them.
Apple and Google both supply you with plenty of stock apps that appear on your phone from the moment you first power it up. You’ll see apps for email, web browsing, photo viewing and editing, audio playing and recording, video playing, document and spreadsheet editing, and more.
Both include apps that you cannot uninstall even if you wanted to, but both let you replace stock apps with third-party options. One oversight on the Android side is the lack of a task or to-do app—iOS’s Reminders app is slick as can be for this. Google does get partial credit, however, since the Keep app is offered as an extra download at initial setup and does a good job with to-do lists.
Messaging apps are worth calling out, since that’s a top smartphone activity. Apple is way ahead of Android here, with its dazzling Memoji, Animoji, payments, games, and whole iMessage app store.
You can even quickly turn a messaging session into a call or video chat with FaceTime. Even more important to some is that iMessage is end-to-end encrypted, while Android messages are not.
The default Android Messages app is, however, perfectly serviceable, with the standard emoji, stickers, as well as payments. And having the ability to use it in a web browser paired via QR code is brilliant. iPhone users who want to send messages on their laptop or desktop computer must stay entirely within the Apple ecosystem to do so.
Another important included app for any mobile OS is mapping. Google has long been acknowledged as the number-one map service, but Apple has cut that lead down significantly in the last few years.
Google is still more thorough and up-to-date with local information, and it offers full Street View. One personal fave is that it offers biking directions, while Apple Maps only shows driving, walking, and public transportation—though Apple has announced that iOS 14 will finally address this deficiency.
Winner: iOS by a nose
Updates (and Fragmentation)
If you buy an iPhone, you can be assured that it will receive the latest iOS updates for at least several years. Android is getting better in terms of updates becoming more widespread, particularly with its Android One initiative, but it’s still far behind iOS on this count.
Despite both operating systems launching in September of 2019, Android 10 runs on just 8.2 percent of devices that use the OS, whereas iOS is on 81 percent of iPhones—and 92 percent of those purchased within the past four years. iOS update adoption is an actual order of magnitude greater than that of Android.
Security and Privacy
Both mobile operating systems have decent records and safeguards when it comes to security, but Android, being more open, has more vectors for malware to enter your phone.
In particular, apps are more prone to bring trouble in Android, especially if you install from an alternative app store.
Reports of vulnerabilities and attacks have become a regular occurrence, as Android headlines from only the past month show: EventBot Android Malware Steals Your Banking Details, A Wallpaper Can Crash Some Android 10 Phones, New Android Flaw Can Help Malware Impersonate Apps and Take Your Data, and New Algorithm Discovers Hundreds of Android ‘Creepware’ Apps.
Privacy has been a focus in recent Android versions, with a number of new protections against third-party app abuses. But since Google’s entire business model revolves around gathering information about each user, it’s hard for the search ad company to compete with Apple, whose profit model doesn’t involve surveillance or profiling.
PCMag security expert Max Eddy has written about tension between privacy and data-gathering at Google in the column Will Google’s New Privacy Plans Really Protect You From Google? All this is not to say that privacy-compromising apps can’t appear on iPhones, too.
Integration with Desktop and Other Devices
Apple’s Continuity features are hard to beat, but thanks to Windows 10’s Your Phone app, Android can now connect with PCs just as effectively as iPhones connects with Macs.
That even includes making calls, and soon, running apps! Of course, maybe we shouldn’t give Android full points for Microsoft’s work, but one convenient Google feature that Android enables is SMS messaging via the web.
Apple’s device ecosystem includes far more than just laptops and phones, though: iOS ties in neatly with Apple Watch, Apple TV, the HomePod smart speaker, and iPads (which now run their own iPadOS operating system).
Google has the Wear Watch OS that’s far less prevalent than the Apple Watch, as Android tablets trail iPads substantially. The Google Home family of smart speakers, however, generally exceed Apple’s Siri-powered devices in PCMag’s ratings, and third-party Google Assistant speakers are available from the likes of Bose and Sonos.
Camera and Photos
Smartphone cameras—and maybe just as importantly, the photo-processing apps that come with the phone OSes—have been a focus for new smartphone and mobile OS releases of late.
In either system, you can find excellent camera options (including multiple-camera systems). Don’t get bogged down in megapixels, however: Even though you’ll find Android phones with super-high megapixel numbers—the Samsung Galaxy S20 can shoot at a whopping 108 megapixels—that number is less important that the design of the camera sensor. For a detailed analysis, read PCMag.com’s comparison of the best smartphone cameras.
Both OSes also have impressive photo enhancement software to make your pictures look even better than the sensor and lenses are capable of by themselves. Both can add bokeh (background blur) to a portrait, and both offer slow motion, panorama, low-light, and time-lapse shooting.
Android does offer some nifty capabilities not found in the stock iPhone camera app: It lets you take photo sphere 360-degree photos, and its Google Lens lets you search for nearby shopping as well as translate text and scan documents.
It can also provide framing hints and offers a low-light mode. Photographers will appreciate that they can save raw camera files from an Android phone, while Apple requires you to use a third-party app that can save raw camera files, such as the excellent Adobe Lightroom app (available on both platforms).
It used to be the case that apps came to iOS first, and then eventually made their way to Android. That’s still the case with some major providers like Adobe, which has launched the Photoshop tablet version only to iOS (now iPadOS); that makes eminent sense, since Android is fairly moribund in the tablet arena, which Apple basically owns.
But other major apps have started appearing in Android first, with the recent Facebook Gaming app appearing first on Google’s mobile platform.
Another important differentiator is that Android actually lets you install software from non-Google app stores, and even to side-load them, bypassing the store entirely.
Another convenience you won’t find in Apple’s store is the ability to remotely install apps onto your phone via the web. Say you come across an app in an article you’re reading on your laptop.
If it’s Android, you can simply go over to the Play store’s website and install it right then and there. But with iOS, you need to go to the device itself to get the app installed.
Winner: Android by a nose
Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant both let you do things with your voice on the phone. Both are easy to invoke and offer a wake word, always listening option (which I’m not a fan of on a phone, which is always with you).
In my experience, Siri often gives an unhelpful answer or doesn’t perform an action that you want done. She’s fine for calling someone, but when you want to open an app, you may see web search results instead.
Google Assistant displays more intelligence if less personality. I do find Siri’s voice options more pleasant than Assistant’s, however.
Siri offers Shortcuts and Automations; the first are multistep action recipes, and Automations trigger actions based on triggers like your location or the weather.
Google Assistant claims over a million actions, including things like asking it to play a particular show on Netflix or order a skinny latte at Starbucks. Both assistants tie into rich smart home ecosystems, Android with Google Home and Siri with Apple Homekit devices, so whichever you have, you can rest assured that you’ll be able to turn up the heat, raise the shades, or open the garage door—assuming you have all the requisite smart appliances.
Google Assistant lets you control a TV with a Chromecast. A 2019 study by Perficient, in which 5,000 questions were asked of five assistants, Google had the most correct answers, and Siri didn’t even attempt an answer on about half the number of questions that Assistant answered correctly.
One final point is that you can use Google Assistant or Google Home on an iPhone, but you can use Siri only on Apple products.
Both OSes have strong parental controls, but the biggest difference among the two is that Android lets you more easily and completely install third-party parental control software, while Apple keeps iOS’s to itself. That said, iOS offers deeper built-in parental controls.
According to Apple’s support pages, you can use its Screen Time feature to “block or limit specific apps and features on your child’s device,” and “restrict the settings on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch for explicit content, purchases and downloads, and privacy.”
As its name suggests, you can also keep tabs on the amount of time a child spends in apps and on the web and view detailed reports on all activity the device was used for. Parents can configure limits for children on their own devices using the Family Sharing feature and lock them down with a passcode that only the parent knows. They can also set communications limits, only allowing calls, messages, and Facetimes with set contacts.
The first thing you do when you set up an Android phone is to choose whether it’s a parent or child’s phone. As mentioned, Android doesn’t limit you to its own parental controls, giving third party options like our Editors’ Choice, Qustodio, which works across Windows, Mac, iOS (requires setting up an MDM profile), and Android. Google’s Family Link app lets parents view kids’ activity, approve app downloads, set screen limits, lock their device, and see their location.
Because Apple offers stronger built-in parental features, and Android has the advantage of allowing third-party solutions, it’s a wash.
Gaming, VR, and AR
Apple and Google have both put efforts into games and enabling VR and AR technologies in their mobile operating systems.
Both offer large libraries of casual and near-console-level games. And both now let users subscribe to a selection of games as opposed to having to buy each separately. Apple’s Arcade and Android’s Google Play Pass both cost an identical $4.99 per month.
Both subscriptions feature no ads and free in-app purchases. Play Pass includes some non-game apps from less-known developers.
As if that weren’t enough, Google also offers streaming games through its Stadia service, for $9.99 per month, though PCMag gaming review Will Greenwald only awarded it 2.5 stars in his review of Stadia.
The iOS App Store offers a healthy selection of VR apps and VR games, which you can view on certain VR headsets.
Apple continues to improve its ARKit technology to power augmented reality apps that bring 3D objects into your actual world view. The latest version, ARKit 4, adds Depth API, location anchoring in Apple Maps to place AR experiences at a specific point in the world, and face tracking for more devices.
Google sadly abandoned its promising Daydream VR and Tango AR initiatives, but work continues on ARCore augmented reality technology, and the company still has a dozen VR projects letting developers build apps using the technolog
Two of the previous sections come into play here: Security and Updates/Fragmentation. Both are wins for iOS, but there are other important considerations when choosing a smartphone platform for business.
For some businesses, the open architecture of Android is preferable, allowing them to create apps that go deeper and wider in terms of accessing system features—the parental control/MDM issue mentioned above is related to this, where we noted that Android lets third-party services take over the phone for parental control, while Apple doesn’t.
Either phone plays well with both Microsoft Office and Google Docs, so that’s not a differentiator. Android does integrate better with Windows 10, however, particularly with the Your Phone app discussed above. Since most businesses run on Windows, that could be a reason to choose Android.
Both OS makers have been working on adding features that help people with disabilities use their phones. Android has a Live Transcribe feature that allows people who are deaf to read what’s being said on the spot.
It also offers TalkBack to speak what’s on the screen, Lookout to tell you what’s in view, and Voice Access for controlling your phone. It also supports external switches (from AbleNet, Enabling Devices, RJ Cooper, and Tecla) and lets you reprogram phone buttons.
Apple has a long list of accessibility features, including the VoiceOver screen reader, zoom, dictation, Magnifier, Voice Control, Pointer Control, and more.
A new Sound Recognition feature is similar to a similar Android capability. There are Made for iPhone hearing aids, and the platform also supports external hardware switch controllers, like the AbleNet TrackerPro hands-free mouse that follows head movements.
Both platforms can also take advantage of third-party accessibility apps such as Be My Eyes, AccessAble, and TapTapSee.
The Final Tally
Apple iOS: 4
Google Android: 5
As you can see, this is a very close race, with just about as many ties as wins for either side. Android comes out on top—but by the slimmest of margins.
The near parity is hardly surprising when you consider how the two platforms have been matching features and polishing their interfaces for years.
Both OSes can serve you extremely well. Your decision will likely have as much to do with your social and work circles than with any aspects of the mobile operating systems themselves.