When choosing a mobile phone, one of the key decisions is what Operating System (OS) powers the phone. Much like your computer may run Windows, OsX or Linux, smartphones also have several different systems. The choice of OS affects many factors: what apps are supported, how easily upgradable the phone is, the security options and more. In this article we’re going to take a look at the 2 main OSs currently available, and run down the advantages and disadvantages of each.
While there is a large selection of phones on the market, there are really only 2 choices of operating system:
iOS - which powers Apple’s iPhone & iPad devices
Android - which is used by pretty much every other non-Apple phone on the market
This is therefore the first big decision when choosing a phone - are you interested in an iPhone, or are you looking for an Android device? To help you better choose, let’s take a quick look at both of them.
Designed by Apple, iOS is the proprietary operating system that runs the majority of their mobile devices - specifically iPhones and iPads. First unveiled in 2007 for the original iPhone, iOS has since seen yearly updates to bring tweaks and new features to users. Unlike Android the new release automatically supersedes all previous versions - so at any point all Apple devices should be running the same version (baring people choosing not to update, or using very old hardware).
The user interface of iOS is carefully structured to be as streamlined and easy-to-use as possible - it’s very easy to pick up an iPhone for the first time and intuitively understand how it all works. Indeed, many of the innovations of the iPhone’s interface have since become the de-facto standard for smartphone design - such as touch-enabled screens and a user interface based around a ‘home screen’ of unique apps. They were also the first company to add a smart assistant (Siri) to their phones.
Apple have continued to add surprising and cutting-edge features to iOS - sometimes these additions can be rather controversial (such as the removal of headphones from modern iPhones to make them thinner).
Despite only being used for a single range of phones, iOS has wide support for programs and peripherals - the vast majority of new apps and devices will offer full iOS compatibility from Day 1.
The Android mobile operating system powers effectively all of the non-iPhone smartphones currently on the market. It was designed from a modified version of the Linux operating system, and originally released in 2008 - a year after the first iPhone was launched. At the start, Android was closer to a desktop user interface than a mobile one: the keyboard-based controls and lack of touch-screen made it far less intuitive compared to the iPhone. Since that point Android has caught up with Apple, adopting many of the standards the iPhone first set. The current generation of Android phones is easily comparable to Apple’s, and the wide range of companies that use Android means there is a wider scope for experimentation - meaning many new features (such as NFC support) have started on Android systems.
While Apple tightly controls iOS, Android is ‘open-source’ and so the source code (the programming that makes up the system) is freely available to tweak and modify as you see fit. This means that while current default Android user interface is similar to the iPhone, there is significant variation dependant on the model. Companies can change everything from the style/colours of the screen, to what apps come pre-installed. There are numerous potential issues with this - modified Android systems can be crafted to perfectly fit the hardware, therefore making them faster and easier to use. On the other hand, if a company tries to fit too much into the system, or sneaks in some… less-than-wholesome software, it could slow down or compromise the phone.
The wide range of Android versions also creates some issues with compatibility - unlike iOS, there are a multitude of different Android installs active on the market at any one point. They may have different capabilities, hardware or tweaks - this means guaranteeing that apps will run on *all* Android systems is difficult, if not impossible.
That said, Android does offer far more flexibility than Android, and for those who like to tinker and customise their phone to perfection, this is the OS for you. Android phones also tend to be cheaper than iPhones - the prestige of an Apple devices adds a large amount of money!
Other Operating Systems
We’ve mentioned Android & iOS, but what of the other mobile operating systems? To be honest, there aren’t that many more in play. According to the most recent stats, iOS & Android make up 99.2% of the global share of smartphones. The remainder is made up of niche systems such as ‘Tizen’ (a Linux-based OS primarily used by Samsung) or ‘KaiOS’ (a fork of the discontinued Firefox mobile system). Blackberry also used to have a respectable market share, but they have become largely irrelevant in the last decade or so. These days, your choice is iOS, or some flavour of Android.
Similarities between Android & iOS
Interface: The touch-screen, app-driven interface first debuted in the original iPhone has become the standard: a ‘home screen’ of app icons, each one linked to a specific program. Most phones use this basic interface, making them easy to use no matter your previous experience.
Size: Smartphone makers have experimented a lot over the years with different sizes of phone. However these changes are largely generational - current trends on both Android and Apple phones have a smaller 5-6” device, and a larger 6-7” model.
Popular App Support: While the App Stores for the devices may be different (see below) the most popular apps currently on the market will support both Android and iOS.
Bluetooth: Bluetooth is an industry standard now, and all modern iOS and Android devices will support Bluetooth for wireless headphones and peripherals.
Battery Life: While exact battery life will vary due to use, current smartphones largely have similar battery life. The apps installed on the phone will make the largest difference to how long the phone lasts.
Differences between Android & iOS
Cost: Android phones tend to be cheaper than Apple ones. While there are some very expensive Android phones, comparatively speaking they are less pricey - especially for the mid-range models.
Charging: Apple uses their proprietary Lightning charge cable, while Android phones tend to either use Micro-USB (if old) or USB-C (newer models).
Peripherals: Certain peripherals - especially smart watches - are only properly compatible with certain phones (such as the Apple Watch). Sometimes they will work, but with limited functionality. This is also true with some Smart Home devices - for instance the ‘Nest’ heating system isn’t fully functional on iOS.
App Store: the Apple App Store is carefully tailored, and therefore has a smaller but far higher-quality selection of apps. The Android store isn’t quite as trimmed, therefore it has more on offer, but not all the apps are of the same quality.
App Compatibility: All apps on iOS are compatible with any phone (excluding very old devices). Android devices may have compatibility issues, depending on the type of Android running on the phone.
While you would think there was a large selection of different types of smartphone, to start off the first choice is either an Android or Apple device. There are fantastic phones to be found in both camps - in the end your choice will come down to personal preference, as well as what you use your phone for. Hopefully this primer has helped give you a basic understanding of the two different operating systems. For a full list of the best smartphones and deals currently on the market, check out our lists of the Best Android Phones & the Best Apple Phones.