We pit together iOS 7 and Windows Phone 8 to see which is the best for choice of phones, apps, and look, feel and features. See also: Apple iOS 7 review - a major design overhaul with numerous tweaks and new features.
Now stay with this: the choice between Windows Phone 8 and iOS 7 is interesting principally because Microsoft and Apple find themselves offering a very similar proposition. Yeah, I said it.
Of course, they offer a similar product because of vastly different reasons. Apple set out from day one to product a smartphone and a smartphone platform that it controlled end to end. The iPhone has been a huge success, so now multiple Apple products can operate using iOS 7. But only Apple-made phones.
For Microsoft the story has been very different. One of lack of interest from the general public meaning phone makers have deserted the Windows Phone platform. Despite the continuing interest of other phone makers such as HTC, Nokia is the main game in town for Windows Phone 8. And now that Microsoft has purchased Nokia's consumer phone business, like Apple Microsoft is the main manufacturer of hardware for its own software. Oddly, 20 years after Microsoft- and Apple's ideology clash over software licensing vs 'the whole widget', both Apple and Microsoft are taking the latter approach, with HTC offering a kind of Mac clone alternative for Windows Phone 8.
That's not to say that Windows Phone is all- or even half bad. As we'll discover it is a nice to look at and use, secure platform with some good features. The problem is that it came to the market long after iOS and even Android were established. It offered nothing more to consumers than did either of those platforms. And although it could potentially match BlackBerry in the business space, it never targeted that (and look how well BlackBerry is doing).
None the less, there's nothing wrong with Windows Phone 8. And just because it remains a defiantly niche platform it doesn't mean you shouldn't consider it. Let's go ahead and compare key aspects of iOS 7 and Windows Phone 8. See also: Safari for iOS 7 review - what's new in Safari for iOS 7?
iOS 7 vs Windows Phone 8: choice of phones
This is not iOS vs Android, in which the known quality of the former is countered by the variety on offer from the latter. As we discussed above only Apple makes iPhones, and only Nokia now really makes Windows Phones, with two handsets from HTC, possibly to be augmented by a third (the brilliant HTC One). There is also talk of Samsung and Huawei Windows Phones. So the choice is limited, but sound. And sometimes a curated choice is a good thing, rather than the risk of an open market.
If you step into the Apple Store looking for a smartphone you will find a choice of six handsets, ranging from the 8GB iPhone 4S, through 16GB and 32GB iPhone 5C phones up to the three iPhone 5S handsets in storage options of 16GB, 32GB and 64GB. You know that each iPhone will work well with iOS 7, and offer access to the excellent iTunes- and App Stores.
And, let's face it, iPhones are great. Superb multifunction devices that offer excellent design, brilliant performance and unmatched features. Products you want to own.
Windows Phones are different, but by no means bad. From Nokia there are several handsets, and from HTC currently two. It's possible we'll see other manufacturers chipping in, but my instinct expects this to become a Nokia only market. As with second-hand and refurbished iPhones you'll be able to find other handsets but we'll focus on the main and new ones.
One of the issues with Windows Phone 8 handsets is that their performance, build quality and feature set tends to be very similar, no matter what you pay. This is a good thing in that it means that the minimum level of performance is always good, but it does mean that the Nokia phones in particular are very samey. They offer colourful and solid plastic build and design. A £90 Lumia 520 differs from a much more expensive 720 principally in terms of screen size and quality, and camera quality. And the same is true even as you go up to the top-of-the-range Lumia 1020: it has an amazing and large display and a 41Mp camera, but the general OS looks and feels the same as its much cheaper cousins.
Overall we much prefer the iPhone handsets. But it's fair to say that the Windows Phone 8 handsets, and particularly those of the Nokia Lumia range, offer decent performance and build. See also: iOS 7 Camera review - what's new in Apple's camera app in iOS 7?
iOS 7 vs Windows Phone 8: choice of apps
Here iOS 7 is the clear winner. It's not just a question of numbers, but if it were we'd hardly bother with this comparison. There are at least 900,000 apps in the iPhone app store - it's been around for five years and if there is an app worth having it is in there. In the Windows Phone app store there are around 170,000 apps. That wouldn't matter, of course, if all the important apps were there. In most cases people install and use regularly only a few key apps.
Unfortunately, if you want to use Instagram, Vine, Dropbox, Flipboard, Sky Go or BT Sport - to mention a handful - then you'll need to look elsewhere or simply go without. Furthermore, the Facebook app is still Microsoft's doing rather than the genuine article. Lots of those 170,000 'apps' are merely a shell that offers access to web-based services, too.
Nokia is by far our favoured Windows Phone maker because it adds plenty of its own software which is sincerely useful. But if we are talking about Windows Phone 8 it is a poor choice of apps. A big win for iOS 7. See also: Siri in iOS 7: Siri is improved in iOS 7, but could still be better.
iOS 7 vs Windows Phone 8: look and feel, features
Under the hood, Windows Phone 8 is no longer based on Windows Mobile, but rather shares the same codebase as Windows RT, the 'trimmed down' version of Windows 8 developed specifically for energy efficient ARM tablets. A big advantage that comes with that change is ease of portability of apps between Windows 8 and RT to Phone and vice versa. It also means the hardware support has been greatly improved.
While Windows Phone 7.5 only supported older single core processors and 800x480 pixel displays, Windows Phone 8 theoretically can operate with 64 processor cores and support displays with 1280x720 and 1280x768 pixels. Another hardware feature that is now supported is a flash memory card reader, meaning it is finally possible to have Windows phones with a micro-SD slot, something sorely missed in Windows Phone 7.5 devices.
As mentioned, Windows Phone 8's home screen closely resembles the one found in Windows Phone 7.5, but at the same time it offers more functionality and possibilities. For example, in 7.5 tiles could be either square or rectangular, meaning you could display one or two tiles adjacent to each other. In Windows Phone 8 tiles can have three different shapes. In addition to the square and rectangle, there is a smaller square size available, which is exactly one quarter the size of the 'old' square. Thanks to the new addition, it is possible to have a lot more apps visible on the home screen without having to swipe. Not all apps can use all three sizes; many apps can only be displayed as either a small or normal sized square, but not as a rectangle.
There are more improvements to the way you can customise your phone, and the lock screen also offers new options for this. In Windows Phone 7.5 you could display the time, an upcoming appointment and information on missed calls and new messages. Windows Phone 8 gives you more freedom to customise the lock screen as well as the option to show previews of the most recently received email. You can also show messages from Xbox Live friends and game notifications, for example.
Windows Phone 8 is based on Windows 8 and therefore shares the same Start Screen with adjustable live tiles. The move means that there is effectively a single platform for all Windows smartphones, tablets, laptops and PCs.
New features in Windows Phone 8 include support for multi-core processors, higher resolution screens, microSD cards and NFC sharing. Pre-installed apps will include Internet Explorer 10, Wallet and Nokia Maps. See also: AirDrop review: Apple's iOS file sharing tech makes it easy to transfer documents.
Windows Phone 8 includes extensions to its Live Tiles interface, as well as new features including a child-safety feature called 'Kid's Corner', a tool called 'Data Sense' that will help keep down data costs, and 'People Hub' - via which groups of fellow users can communicate and share content.
While Windows Phone 7.5 already was a fine operating system, Windows Phone 8 offers more options to customise the phone according to your own ideas and preferences. That change is most visible on Windows Phone 8's home screen, but also functions such as groups and simple stuff like being able to select the background colour of the mail app really are an added value. The promised better integration of VoIP services like Skype is also very welcome, while Internet Explorer 10 is a vastly better browser than IE9. It is not just faster and more stable, HTML 5 support is also much improved.
But compared to iOS 7? Well there is a fair comparison to be made. But on balance - and subjectively we prefer Apple's software. Some of the new features are sure to be universally loved, though. Control Center, which is long overdue in our minds, provides easy access to common settings such as Flight Mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and brightness. On an iPhone you can even toggle the LED on and off, making 'torch' apps virtually redundant.
It's available everywhere, even from the lock screen. We're not convinced Flight Mode should be switchable without unlocking the phone, however, since turning off all comms will prevent Find My iPhone from working.
Other features, such as the parallax effect where your wallpaper moves slightly as you tilt your device, are fun but have no real use. Apple has introduced new 'dynamic' backgrounds, with bubbles that slowly move across the screen as you move your iPhone or iPad.
The jury's out on whether all of iOS 7's animation, 3D and blurring effects negatively impact on battery life.
The 3D effect when opening and closing apps was previously only available to jailbroken iOS devices. In iOS 7, when you tap on an icon, the app zooms in to become full screen. Hit the home button and it zooms out, with the home screen icons flying back into place. This works on folders of icons too, and aids your navigation.
It's a shame Apple doesn't allow you to customise the 3D effect, nor change the simple slide transition between home screens, but the changes are a step in the right direction.
In terms of apps, Apple has been more reserved about changing things, with a few notable exceptions. Generally, features haven't been changed, so everything you could do in iOS 6 you can do in iOS 7.
The Music app, for example, now lets you browse your music via a scrolling list of cover art, with a quick tap zooming onto the album, displaying a tracklist. The Camera app has been overhauled completely. You now swipe to change between modes: normal, square, panoramic and video and, in keeping with the current trend, you can apply filters in the edit mode.
Note that only the iPhone 5S has the burst photo mode and slo-mo video. The iPhone 4 still doesn't get the panorama option, but you can now take square photos.
Safari, finally, has an all-in-one search and address bar, so you don't need to think about which box you tap to search for a website. The old limit of eight tabs has gone and there's a new 3D view when switching between tabs which we like a lot.
Web pages are automatically displayed full screen – as with several apps, including Photos, the controls fade from view when they're not required, giving the content maximum screen real estate.
Calendar, though, is perhaps the best example of how iOS 7 uses colour to draw the user's attention to relevant information. The current date is highlighted with a big red circle, with the same shade of red used to highlight other interactive elements. Yet, many have criticised Calendar for lacking functionality – third-party apps are still your best bet.
Apple's much-maligned Maps app has been updated a lot recently. There are also a few interface tweaks including a scale indicator in the corner, and bookmarks are now saved in iCloud and shared across devices, a handy addition that should have been there in the first place. Mac users can send maps and directions directly to their iPhone using the desktop Maps app in OS X Mavericks too.
Two years after it launched, Siri is no longer a beta product. The interface is slightly changed, but the real update is a wider range of search abilities. Siri can now search Twitter and Wikipedia, while Bing is now the default web search – an indication of Apple further severing ties with Google.
The Newsstand app now runs full screen, with an opaque background that allows your wallpaper to glow through. Also, you can now move the app into that 'unused' folder everyone creates for apps they don't want cluttering up their home screens but can't uninstall.
Talking of folders, there's no limit on the number of apps you can put in a folder, but only nine are displayed at once. If there are more, you have to swipe across to show them, which isn't ideal, but it does mean you no longer have to have multiple folders such as 'Games 1, Games 2, Games 3' and so on.
Double-tapping still lets you switch between apps, but the multitasking interface is completely revamped. There's a thumbnail of each running app displayed above its icon, letting you instantly see what's what, and you now swipe up to close an app.
We like the new (but retro-sounding) ringtones, and the fact that the old ones are kept in a 'classics' folder. If you have custom ringtones, these are also kept.
iOS 7 vs Windows Phone 8: verdict
For us the apps swing it decisively Apple's way. But don't entirely discount WP8. Both platforms are curated and secure. They offer a good-looking environment in which to work and play. And the handsets for both offer guaranteed quality. It's just that objectively and subjectively we prefer iOS 7.