iPhone vs Android: which is the better smartphone platform? And what are the differences between iOS- and Android-based devices?
iPhone vs Android (or iOS vs Android, to be more precise) has been the biggest rivalry in tech for the best part of a decade, long ago eclipsing the desktop wars between Apple and Microsoft, and Apple and IBM. Both sides record some amazing sales numbers. Samsung, the leading manufacturer of Android handsets, sold a whopping 308.5 million units in 2016, while Huawei, Xiaomi and others will add many more to the pile; but Apple, in a comfortable second place at 215.5 million iPhones, made the lion's share of the profits: something close to 80 percent of worldwide smartphone profits.
But which of those two clans should you join? Is an iPhone or an Android smartphone your best bet for value for money, features, security, ease of use, app selection and more?
We'll be honest: here at Macworld we sit unashamedly in the iOS camp, and reckon iOS 10 is the best mobile operating system currently available. But we acknowledge that Android has many advantages of its own, and that for plenty of smartphone buyers, it will be the better choice.
In the following article we list the pros and cons of going for an iPhone or Android phone, as well as the significant differences between the two platforms, to help you pick a team. For an alternative view, take a look at PC Advisor's Android vs iPhone vs Windows Phone 8: what phone should I buy? And we'd love to hear your thoughts, too, so have your say in the comments.
iPhones are more secure
iOS is a more secure platform than Android. iOS isn't impregnable, and it's very dangerous for iPhone users to assume that it is (see how to remove iPhone viruses and iPhone security tips), but far more malware is written for Android - Pulse Secure's 2015 Mobile Threat Report put the figure at 97 percent of all mobile malware, while the US Department of Homeland Security estimated in 2013 [pdf] that just 0.7 percent of malware threats were aimed at iOS - and while this is partly because Android has more users, it's mainly because it's simply an easier target.
The 'closed' platforms - iOS, Windows Mobile and, if anyone out there is still using it, BlackBerry - have very little malware written for them. It's easier to break into Android, and malware writers will almost always go for the low-hanging fruit.
Part of the problem for Android is that so many of its users don't bother to update to the latest version: the DoHS report above found that 44 percent were still on 'Gingerbread', a version of Android which had been released two years earlier. (By contrast, after four months of availability iOS 9 was on 75 percent of active iPhones and iPads.) A family of trojan malware named Ghost Push is still infecting Android phones two years after first emerging because 57 percent of users are running the old version 5 of Android (Lollipop) that is vulnerable to it, even though versions 6 and 7 have come out since.
There are also small differences between the flavours of Android used by the different handset makers. This fragmentation makes it harder to push out adequate security patches on a timely basis.
As we said, there are still dangers out there for iPhone users. In its 2015 Threat Report, F-Secure Labs reports on several instances of malware penetrating Apple's 'walled garden' App Store. Instead of using social engineering to persuade users to download malware directly, hackers have learned to target the app developers, who then use "compromised tools to unwittingly create apps with secretly malicious behaviour".
Multiple apps - anywhere from 30 to 300, and many of them from reputable companies - were removed from the App Store in September 2015 because they contained the XCodeGhost malware. Later that year similar situations arose with apps based on UnityGhost, a cloned and compromised version of the Unity development framework, and on the Youmi SDK.
Don't make the mistake, then, of assuming that the iOS platform and Apple's App Store are invulnerable to attack. They're not. But they are more secure than the Android equivalents. Despite its findings, F-Secure insists that Apple's App Store "remains a tougher nut to crack than the Android ecosystem".
You quite often hear the logically flaky reasoning that, because Apple's OS software products aren't perfectly secure, they're no better than rival products which also aren't perfectly secure. It's easy to explain why this is wrong. iOS (like macOS) is very secure indeed, albeit not completely secure. Android is pretty secure - it's not like Android users are getting their bank accounts emptied and their motherboards fried by Hollywood-style hacking attacks morning, noon and night - but quantifiably less secure than iOS.
By picking iPhone you give yourself a large security advantage.
iPhones are more private
There's two main strands backing up the above statement: the privacy measures built into Apple's smartphones (and particularly the most recent generations of iPhone), and the statements and actions that Apple has made in support of user privacy.
iPhone privacy measures
We're not just talking about passcodes and fingerprints, although these things can help to protect your data (one element being the way that the iPhone locks up for successively longer and longer periods the more times you get the passcode wrong, in order to prevent would-be hackers from 'brute-forcing' the passcode; get it wrong 10 times and the phone locks down forever). Nor are we talking about the end-to-end encryption Apple has added to iMessage. There's something better than all this, in the more recent generations of the iPhone.
As well as introducing Touch ID, the iPhone 5s was the first iPhone to feature a security measure that Apple calls the Secure Enclave, a sub-section of the processor chip that stores the fingerprints and other security-critical data. It is also a crucial part of the encryption setup.
"The Secure Enclave uses a secure boot system to ensure that the code it runs can't be modified," explains Mike Ash, an expert who has done his best to piece together the principles behind the closely guarded technology, "and uses encrypted memory to ensure that the rest of the system can't read or tamper with its data. This effectively forms a little computer within the computer that's difficult to attack."
The Secure Enclave means, in effect, that Apple itself cannot break into an iPhone if it's a 5s or later and has been protected with a passcode. This fact came to light near the end of 2015 when the FBI asked Apple to open up the iPhone 5c that belonged to one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attacks in America. If this had been one generation later, it simply wouldn't have been possible, Apple said - but because it was 'only' a 5c, the firm's engineers could in theory have created and installed a custom build of iOS without the security measures that ordinarily prevent brute-force bypassing of the passcode.
(Bear in mind, however, that very little is known about the Secure Enclave by anyone outside Apple, and some have argued that it isn't as secure as Apple makes out. It was claimed, early in 2016, that a police-contracted hacker had successfully broken into an iPhone 5s, Secure Enclave and all, in order to obtain information for a murder case. Although it is significant that the device in question was running iOS 7, an outdated OS with less comprehensive security measures.)
Apple refused the FBI's demand to open up the iPhone 5c, however. Which leads us to our next section.
Apple's pro-privacy behaviour
As previously outlined, Apple got itself into a standoff with US law enforcement in the first months of 2016, because it refused to create a back door into a phone involved in a high-profile shooting attack (the company felt that this would both leave millions of iPhone users around the world vulnerable to attacks if and when the custom build was leaked or replicated, and set a legal precedent for less publicised cases in the future).
"We did not expect to be in this position, at odds with our own government," Tim Cook said at the iPhone SE launch event a month later. "But we have a responsibility to help you protect your data and protect your privacy. We owe it to our customers and we owe it to our country. We will not shrink from this responsibility."
Apple hasn't just talked a good game on protecting privacy. When the chips were down, it demonstrated a real commitment to the principle.
Read more on this: How private is your iPhone data, and how to protect your privacy
Android is more customisable
We often call Apple's software ecosystem a 'walled garden', and this is because Apple fiercely controls what can come in… or leave, for that matter. The company is less controlling than it used to be (they even let you install a third-party system-wide keyboard these days) but it's still much harder to customise the user experience in iOS than in Android.
There are lots of handset manufacturers working with Android, and each of these has their own slightly different take on the operating system, and this allows you to pick the software flavour you prefer. But Android is also far more accommodating when it comes to changing the look of the interface, installing widgets in the middle of the home screen (iOS does allow widgets these days, but they're kept in the lock screen and today view), change default apps, delete things you don't like and so on.
Apple doesn't exert iron control over its software interfaces because Tim Cook is a control freak (on the contrary, by all accounts the man is a superb delegator!). Rather, the company's motivation comes from a desire to deliver the best possible user experience, and it thinks that a consistent and curated platform is the best way to do that. Often that will be true, but if you're confident, tech-savvy and opinionated about the way you want software to work - and who wouldn't put themselves in that category? - then Android allow you more scope to mould the experience to your tastes.
You get more choice with Android phones
This applies to both hardware and software.
In terms of the handsets, in one case you're choosing between the phones made by one manufacturer, albeit the most successful mobile manufacturer in the world. And in the other you're choosing between the phones made by dozens - maybe hundreds - of companies. Samsung, LG, Motorola, Huawei, Sony, HTC, Google itself (sort of)… the list goes on and on. Microsoft and BlackBerry each have their own mobile OS but they, too, make Android handsets as well.
Most of these manufacturers will make more Android handset models than Apple makes iPhones, too. Three iPhones a year? Pah! Samsung designs that many Android phones in a week. Possibly.
Whatever kind of phone you're looking for, in other words, there'll be an Android phone that fits the bill. As long as you're not looking for an Android phone that runs iOS.
iOS is more user-friendly
Personally I think iOS is easier and more convenient and enjoyable to use than Android; and it would appear that a lot of my fellow smartphone users agree, since iOS users are on average more loyal to the platform than their Android counterparts. Once people have tried the iPhone they tend to stick with it.
But quality of user experience is hard to quantify. A better way of approaching the idea might be to think about the respective design processes and philosophies behind iOS and Android.
Apple famously builds both software and hardware, enabling it to create a seamless whole. These days the design teams even overlap for greater collaboration, with Apple design guru Sir Jony Ive bringing his minimalist hardware design aesthetic to the software from iOS 7 onwards. Every aspect of the iPhone, then, has been designed with iOS in mind - not only the current build of iOS but future iterations. In some cases the same people are involved in the design of hardware and software.
Android handsets, on the other hand, are built reactively: hardware and software are designed by separate teams in separate companies (in separate continents, quite often). Expecting the same level of polish would be unrealistic.
A note on the Pixel phones
There is an exception to this. Google, which makes the Android operating system, has announced two smartphones of its own: the Pixel and Pixel XL, which look like really nice phones except for their disappointing water-resistance ratings.
Google doesn't do everything itself - it apparently partners with HTC for manufacturing and some of the design work on the handsets - but the Pixel phones should nevertheless offer superior integration between hardware and software than any previous Android devices. They will feature Google's new Assistant before any other phone, for one thing, and Google is likely to have the Pixel hardware in mind whenever it brings new features to Android.
iPhones get better apps, earlier
The mighty Infinity Blade 3, which is not available on Google Play because of piracy concerns. Infinity Blade II isn't available on Android either - in fact, there are no genuine Infinity Blade games on there at all, despite the presence of a few knock-offs
Google Play has more apps than the App Store, but both passed the million mark some time back, so sheer numbers aren't really relevant. What is relevant is quality, and the ability to find high-quality apps among the dross. Neither company does this particularly well, but it's clear which is doing better.
Apple 'curates' its store in the sense that developers are obliged to follow stringent rules before getting their software approved for release. (Sometimes, indeed, Apple takes this too far, with its generally admirable stance against distasteful content sometimes leading it into areas that seem politically partisan - or creating a climate in which publishers censor themselves.) This means that everything you'll find on the store has been subject to some degree of quality control. At the start of September 2016, indeed, Apple emailed developers to let them know about an imminent clean-up, in which apps that don't work properly with current versions of iOS or haven't been updated in a long time will be given 30 days' notice and then removed if they don't shape up.
Now, we're not saying that making it into the App Store is like Nintendo's Seal of Quality; there are still bad apps, and boring apps, and ethically iffy apps, and plagiarised apps (and even a few that tick all four boxes) that make it through the net. But the proportions of these are vastly lower than on Google Play.
It's easier to find good apps as an iOS user. And discoverability is no small issue in a store with well over a million apps. Apps are cheap and numerous, and individual buying decisions are much easier than simply finding the stuff worth considering in the first place.
What's more, quality apps are more likely to appear on iOS that on Android, and if they appear on both they tend to appear first on the Apple App Store. Why? Because on average, Android users are less inclined to pay for apps, which means developers have less incentive to put the effort in. It might seem unfair, but by joining the platform with the more spend-happy consumers, you're earning yourself preferential treatment from software developers.
One example back when we first put this article together illustrates both the extra wait Android fans are subjected to, and the dangers they face of downloading something dodgy. As of 29 August 2013, Plants vs Zombies 2 - a very high-demand game - had been available for iOS for a fortnight, but Google Play still hadn't got it. But more worryingly, a dodgy game had appeared on the Google Play store claiming to be Plants vs Zombies 2. It was actually a hoax designed to get you to download more apps.
PvZ 2 did eventually appear on Google Play. Sometimes you just have to wait a bit longer than people on iOS. Sometimes, like the Infinity Blade games, it never arrives at all.
Android phones are cheaper
…or at least they start at lower prices. Take a look at our colleagues' chart of the best Android phones and you'll see a fair few flagship Androids at similar prices to the iPhone 7 - but plenty of cheaper options, too. The OnePlus 3 is just £329. The Xiaomi Mi 5 is £263. The Elephone P9000 is £194. The Motorola Moto G4 is £169!
This is another aspect of the choice argument, really. Apple has a small number of very good phones, and they cost appropriate amounts. The Android world lets you pay pretty much what you like, which is great news for mobile buyers on a budget. However…
Higher iPhone prices are usually worth it
A common refrain of Android fans centres on the price differential between Android and iOS handsets, and it's true that iPhones are near the top of the smartphone budgetary scale. It's also true that today's Android handsets are both cheap and beautifully made: sadly, though, to paraphrase an old gag, the handsets that are cheap are not beautifully made and the handsets that are beautifully made are not cheap.
Two of the best Android smartphones are by Samsung: the Galaxy S7 and the S7 edge. They're great, and well worth a recommendation. But to call them a budget alternative is misleading: they cost £569 and £639 respectively, compared with £539 and £619 for the entry-level iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus.
Equally, it's possible to find an Android phone for less than the equivalent iPhone - the Google Nexus 6P is just £449 - but don't expect the same quality or attractiveness of design.
Android phones tend to have better specs for the money
It's usually the screen resolution where Apple really suffers, but you'll tend to find that a given iPhone will have equal or weaker specs in most areas than an Android phone of equivalent price, and that you'd be able fairly easily to match that iPhone's specs with a substantially cheaper Android.
Apple would probably say that it doesn't care about chasing the best specs, and it's true that the real-world effect produced by a product is more important than the numbers on the specs sheet - the general feeling of an interface's speed, its smoothness and slickness and so on, matters more than the number of gigs of RAM that contributed to it - but it's still easy for Apple fans to feel rather shortchanged at times.
We compared the Samsung Note 7 with the iPhone 7 Plus recently and, leaving aside the unfortunate (and now terminal) issue with the overheating batteries, the Note 7 has a 5.7-inch (2560 x 1440) screen with a pixel density of 515ppi, compared to the iPhone's 5.5-inch (1920 x 1080) screen at 401ppi. It also has more RAM and a larger-capacity battery (although the companies' respective battery life estimates - which in Apple's case have historically been very fair - suggest that the iPhone and its lower-powered screen will last longer between charges).
iPhone vs Android: Conclusion
Ultimately the iPhone vs Android debate comes down to a choice: between Android's flawed, fragmented openness, and Apple's quality experience in a closed environment.
Openness sounds brilliant, and if we were talking about a lifestyle or a political philosophy then Android would be hard to beat. But this is about a phone. And if you just want a smartphone that's safe, easy and enjoyable to use, and connected to the best-quality app store around - not to mention sumptuously designed and reliable - then iPhone is the only answer.
And if you feel the same way, then our iPhone buying guide should probably be your next stop.
Poll: iPhone or Android?
So: which side of the fence do you sit on? Have your say in our poll.
Send the writer your point of view, whether pro-Apple or pro-Android, on Twitter or in the comments at the bottom of this piece.
Here are some of your thoughts so far on the iOS vs Android debate:
Well I have to say you are risking a backlash from the Android Fanboys. Luckily for you I'm not one of them… We have plenty of Apple products in our family, a MacBook, an iPad 2 & mini, an iPhone 3GS, 4 & 4S, an Apple TV, numerous iPods, and everything works so well together. marclewis4
Personally I have a Mac Pro, a retina iPad, and an iPhone 5 - the total experience between them is amazing. JimGr
Androids openess is it's flaw, as it is becuase of fragmented hardware all the extra stuff that comes with the open access hardly ever works. [Android fans] bang on about all these features when most of them don't even have the latest Android OS. DaveTheRave137
Problem is, if your comments were true, you wouldn't see iPhone defectors. Several I know are extremely happy S4 owners. @rmagruder
Agree with [the article], and on top of that I also believe Android’s supposed “openness” is misleading. @_mattbrock
Everything.me and SwiftKey blow away iOS. It isn't even a fair fight. Apple's closed ness is dooming it. @Scobleizer