iPhone or Android: Which is the Best Smartphone?

19 factors to consider before you buy

When it comes to buying one of the best smartphones, the first choice can be the hardest: iPhone or Android. It's not simple: both kinds of phones offer a lot of great features and they may seem to be basically the same. If you look closely, though, you'll find some key differences.

This article looks at 19 of those differences to help you decide whether an iPhone or Android phone is right for you.

Hardware: Choice vs. Polish

iPhone family
The current line up of iPhone models, as of March 2016: the 6S, 6, and SE. image credit: Apple Inc.

Hardware is where the differences between the iPhone and Android first become clear. Apple is the only company that makes iPhones, so it has extremely tight control over how the software and hardware work together. On the other hand, Google offers its Android software to many phone makers (Samsung, HTC, LG, and Motorola, among others). As a result, Android phones vary quite a bit in size, weight, features, user experience, and quality.

It’s common to hear complaints about Android phones overheating or freezing up or that are simply low quality. While iPhones have also had hardware issues, inconsistent quality isn’t an issue for the iPhone.

Apple offers users a single choice—what model of iPhone do you want: 6S series, 6 series, or SE?—not what company’s phone and then what model. Of course, some may prefer the greater choice Android offers. Others will appreciate the iPhone's simplicity and quality.

Winner: Tie

OS Compatibility: A Waiting Game

iOS 10
image credit: Apple Inc.

If you want to make sure you always have the latest and greatest features offered by your smartphone operating system, you have no choice but an iPhone. That's because Android makers are very slow about updating their phones to Google's latest Android OS releases—and sometimes don't update their phones at all.

While it's to be expected that eventually older phones will no longer have support for the latest OS, Apple's support for older phones is generally better than Android's. Take for instance, iOS 10, its latest OS. It includes full support for the iPhone 5 a more than four-year-old phone as of this writing. Because of that, the latest version of the iOS is often installed on almost 50% of compatible devices within the first week of release.

On the other hand, Android 6, codenamed Marshmallow, is running on just 10% of Android devices almost 9 months after its release. The makers of the phones control when the OS is released for their phones and, as that linked article shows, some makers are slow to release it to their users.

So, if you want the latest and greatest as soon as it's ready—to say nothing of crucial bug fixes when they're released—you need an iPhone.

Winner: iPhone

Apps: Selection vs. Control

Android Market logo
Android Market logo. image copyright Google Inc.

While the iPhone App Store offers slightly fewer apps than Google Play—around 2,000,000 vs. 2,200,000 (as of June 2016)—overall selection isn’t the only factor. Apple is famously strict (some might say unpredictable) about what apps it allows and how it changes its policies, while Google’s standards for Android are lax.

Many developers have complained about the emphasis on free apps for Android and the difficulty of developing for so many different phones. This fragmentation—the large numbers of devices and OS versions to support—makes developing for Android expensive (for instance, the developers of Temple Run reported that early in their Android experience nearly all of their support emails had to do with unsupported devices—but they support over 700 Android phones!).

Combine these development costs with an emphasis on free that reduces the likelihood that developers can cover their costs and not all of the best apps make it to Android, and those that do don’t necessarily run on all phones. Key apps also almost always debut first on iOS, with Android versions coming later, if they come at all.

Winner: iPhone

Gaming: A Growing Giant

image copyright Apple Inc.

Just a couple of years ago, video gaming—and especially mobile video gaming—was dominated by Nintendo’s DS and Sony’s PSP. The iPhone has changed that. The iPhone (and iPod touch) has rapidly become a major player in the mobile video game market, with tens of thousands of great games. The growth of the iPhone as a gaming platform, in fact, has led some observers to forecast that Apple is well on its way to eclipsing Nintendo and Sony as the leading mobile game platform.

Beyond that, the general expectation that Android apps should be free (noted above) has led game developers interested in making money (i.e., almost all of them, and certainly all the major ones) to develop for iPhone first and Android second. In fact, due to various problems with developing for Android, some game companies have stopped creating games for it all together.

While Android has its fair share of hit games, the iPhone has the clear advantage here.

Winner: iPhone

Integration with Other Devices: Continuity Guaranteed

Handoff in iOS 8
Image copyright Apple, Inc.

Most people use a tablet, computer, or wearable in addition to their smartphone. For those people, Apple offers a more cohesive option.

Because Apple makes computers, tablets, and watches along with the iPhone, it offers somethings that Android—which is primarily a smartphone platform, though there are a few tablets that run it—can't. Apple's Continuity features let you unlock your Mac using an Apple Watch, start writing an email on your iPhone while you're walking and finish it on your Mac at home, or have all of your devices receive any call coming in to your iPhone.

Google's services—Gmail, Maps, Google Now, etc.—work across all devices, but because there are so many manufacturers of Android devices there's no unified experience.

Winner: iPhone

Support: Ever Seen an Android Store?

Make Genius Bar Appointment
image credit: Artur Debat/Moment Mobile ED/Getty Images

Both smartphone platforms generally work pretty well and, for day-to-day use, don't present too many problems or malfunctions. But everything breaks once in a while and when that happens, how you get support matters.

With Apple, you can simply take your device to your closest Apple Store, where a trained specialist can help solve your problem. (They're busy, though, so it pays to make an appointment ahead of time.)

Have you ever seen an Android Store? Samsung Store? Google Store? Sure, you can get support for Android devices from the phone company you bought your phone from, the phone's maker, or maybe even the retail store where you bought it, but which should you pick? Having a single source for expert support easily gives Apple this category.

Winner: iPhone

Intelligent Assistant: Google Now Beats Siri

Artificial Intelligence
image credit: PASIEKA/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

The next frontier of smartphone features and functionality will be driven by artificial intelligence. On this front, Android has a clear lead.

Google Now, the most prominent artificial intelligence/intelligent assistant system on Android, is extremely powerful. It uses everything Google knows about you and the world to make life easier for you. For instance, if your Google Calendar knows you're meeting a friend at 5:30 and that traffic is terrible, Google Now can send you a notification telling you to leave early.

Siri is Apple's answer to Google Now for artificial intelligence. Siri is improving all the time and gets even more powerful in iOS 10, but it's still limited to fairly simple tasks when compared to Google Now. 

Winner: Android

Battery Life: Consistent Improvement

Battery life

Because of the greater variety of hardware used in Android phones, Android’s battery life is more varied. While early iPhone models had batteries that required a charge nearly every day, that’s no longer true. With recent models, it’s easy to go days at a time without needing a charge.

The story is much more complex with Android, thanks to the large variety of models that run it. Some Android models have 5-inch screens and other features which burn through much more battery life.

Combine the advanced hardware with battery-intensive apps Android phones run (including some in the background that the user doesn’t necessarily know are there), a charge every day (or less) isn’t unheard of.

That said, there are some Android phones that offer ultra-high capacity batteries. If you don't mind the extra bulk, they'll work much longer than iPhones on a single charge.

Winner: Android

User Experience: Elegance vs. Customization

Apple logo
Apple logo. image copyright Apple Inc.

People who like complete control over the customization of their phones, and want to be able to fiddle the lowest level functions, will prefer Android thanks to its greater openness. (One downside of this, though, is that each company that makes Android phones can tweak them, sometimes replacing default Android apps with inferior tools developed by that company). Android customization can also require some complex technical skills that the average person rarely has.

Taken as a comparison of features alone, the distance between Android and iPhone doesn't seem that far—and it seems that Android is ahead in some areas. And while that's true, the experience of using a phone, a device that's with you all day long, doesn't boil down to what boxes get checked. It's driven by quality and attention to detail, how the device works and how you feel about it. There's a reason people feel passionately enough about the iPhone to wait hours to get one when a new model is released. This happens sometimes with Android phones, but less often and at lesser scale.

Most people want a phone that works well, lets them run the apps they want, and is easy to use. On that front, the iPhone wins hands down. Apple’s intense focus on ease of use, quality experience, and things just working, makes it the clear choice for most users.

Winner: iPhone

Pure Experience: Avoid Junk Apps

iPhone in nature
image credit: Daniel Grizelj/Stone/Getty Images

The last item touched on the idea that Android's openness means that sometimes manufacturers install their own apps in place of higher quality standard apps. This gets even worse on Android when you consider that phone companies do the same thing. As a result, it can be hard to know what apps will come on your Android device and how good they'll be.

You don't have to worry about anything like that with the iPhone. Apple is the only company that pre-installs apps on the iPhone, so every phone comes with the same apps (most of which are fairly high quality). 

Winner: iPhone

User Maintenance: Storage and Battery

Android logo
image copyright Google Inc.

Apple prizes elegance and simplicity in the iPhone above all else. That’s a major reason that users can’t upgrade the storage or replace the batteries on their iPhones (it’s possible to get replacement iPhone batteries, but they have to be replaced by a skilled repairperson). Android, on the other hand, is open to user customization, meaning that users can change both phones’ memory and battery.

The trade-off is a bit more complexity and a bit less elegance, but that might be worth it compared to running out of memory or needing to pay for a battery replacement equal to a large percentage of the cost of your iPhone.

Winner: Android

Peripheral Compatibility: USB Is Everywhere

USB Ports
Image credit: Sharleen Chao/Moment Open/Getty Images

Owning a smartphone usually means owning some accessories that work with it. Whether those are speakers, battery cases, or simply extra charging cables (a worthy investment to keep yourself juiced up), we all have a few extras. Android phones offer the widest choice of accessories.

That's because Android uses USB ports to connect to other devices and USB ports are available practically everywhere.

Apple, on the other hand, uses its proprietary Lightning port to connect to chargers, computers, and some accessories. There are some pluses to Lightning—it gives Apple more control over the quality of the accessories that work with the iPhone—but it's a bit less compatible. And if you need to charge your phone right now, people are more likely to have a USB cable.

Winner: Android

Security: No Question About It

smartphone security
image credit: Roy Scott/Ikon Images/Getty Images

If you care about the security of your smartphone, there's only one choice: iPhone.

The reasons for this are myriad—they have to do with Apple and Google's philosophy about how to use data and how each company makes its money—but consider these two facts:

I think that says it all.

Winner: iPhone

Screen Size: The Tale of the Tape

Samsung Galaxy Note 5
image credit: Samsung

If you're looking for the biggest screens available on smartphones, Android is your choice—but not by much.

In recent years, there has been a trend towards super-sized smartphone screens, so much so that a new word has been coined—phablet—to describe a hybrid phone and tablet device. Android offered the first phablets and continues to offer the most and biggest options. Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 has a 5.8-inch screen, for instance.

With the iPhone 6S Plus, Apple has its own phablet with a 5.5-inch screen. Still, if it's raw size you're after, Android's the choice.

Winner: Android

GPS Navigation: Free Wins—For Everyone

GPS Navigation
image credit: Chris Gould/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

As long as you've got access to the Internet and a smartphone, you never have to get lost again thanks to the built-in GPS and maps apps on both the iPhone and Android. Both platforms sport third-party GPS apps that can give drivers turn-by-turn directions and, thanks to Apple's Maps app, both platforms now have free, built-in, turn-by-turn directions.

Apple Maps is exclusive to iOS—and while that app had some famous problems when it debuted, it's getting steadily better all the time and is a strong alternative to Google Maps for many users. Even if you don't want to try Apple Maps, Google Maps is available on both platforms so the experience is roughly identical. 

Winner: Tie

Flash: No Longer a Choice

flash player for iphone
Adobe Flash logo. image copyright Adobe Inc.

The iPhone famously doesn’t run Flash—and never will. While Android makers have claimed that they can run Flash, that claim is dying off.

Adobe, which makes Flash, did have a version of the Flash that ran on some Android devices, but the company has ceased development of Flash for Android due to a host of problems.

Some Android devices can use Flash, but only if they're running Android 4.0 or earlier (and remember, Android is now on version 6.0). To further complicate things, Adobe stopped making Flash available for download through Google Play in 2012. So, if Android users want Flash, they'll need an outdated operating system and to find the download—all to get software that wasn't good enough for its developer to maintain it. 

With reports that running Flash on Android was never very good—many reviewers have pointed out that Flash doesn’t work well on Android tablets and that it drains batteries quickly—Adobe's decision validates Apple's original point: Flash is bad for batteries and device stability.

While its lack of Flash once blocked the iPhone from accessing some web content, that's less and less true. In 2016, with the rise of HTML 5 and more open web technologies, it's rare that iPhone users encounter content they can't use because it requires Flash.

Winner: iPhone

Networking: Tied in 4G

AT&T 4G LTE Logo. image copyright AT&T

For the fastest wireless Internet experience, you need access to 4G LTE networks. When 4G LTE was beginning to roll out across the country, Android phones were the first to offer it. It's been years since Android was the place to go for blazing-fast Internet, though.

Apple introduced 4G LTE on the iPhone 5 in 2012 and all subsequent models offer it. With the wireless networking hardware roughly equivalent on both platforms, the major factor in determining wireless data speed is now the network a phone is running on.

Winner: Tie

Carriers: Tied at 4

images copyright A&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon

If you like to have a lot of choices, both Android and iPhone offer the same basic options. Just like there are many Android phones from many companies, you can also get Android phones that work on any of the U.S.’s four major phone carriers: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

For years, the iPhone lagged behind Android's carrier selection for various reasons. When T-Mobile began offering the iPhone in 2013, though, that difference was erased. Now you can get both an iPhone or Android device from all four major carriers in the U.S.

Both options are available through the many small, regional carriers in the U.S., too

Winner: Tie

Cost: Is Free Always Best?

If you’re particularly concerned with what your phone costs, you’ll probably choose Android. That’s because there are many Android phones that can be head for cheap or free. Apple offers a single free model—the iPhone 5S. 

For those on a very tight budget, that may be the end of the discussion. If you’ve got some money to spend on your phone, though, look a little deeper. Free phones are usually free for a reason: they’re often less capable than their more-costly counterparts. Getting a free phone may be buying you more trouble than a paid phone. There are a number of Android and iPhone models under $100.

Otherwise, expect to spend $199-$899 for the newest and best Android phones or iPhones.

Winner: Tie

Resale Value: iPhone Keeps It Worth

iPhone 4
image copyright Apple Inc.

With new smartphones being released so often, people tend to upgrade quickly. When you do that, you want to be sure that you can resell your old model for the most money to put towards the new one.

On that front, Apple wins. Old iPhones fetch more money at resale than old Androids.

Here are a few examples, using prices from Gazelle:

32GB iPhone 5S in good condition: US$85
32GB Samsung Galaxy S4 in good condition: $45

64GB iPhone 6 Plus in good condition: $225
64GB Motorola Nexus 6 in good condition: $115

Winner: iPhone

Bottom Line

iPhone 6S Series
The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. image credit: Apple Inc.

The decision of whether to buy an iPhone or Android phone isn’t as simple as tallying up the winners above and choosing the phone that won more categories (10-5 for the iPhone, plus 5 ties, for those counting). Different categories count for different amounts to different people. Some people will value hardware or carrier choice more, while others will care more about battery life or mobile gaming.

While it should be no surprise that the guy writing an iPhone website might prefer the iPhone, Android phones are good choices for some users. You’ll need to decide what factors are most important to you and then choose the phone that best meets your needs.