Now that multitouch smartphones have been on the market for nearly a decade, it's increasingly tempting for users to shake things up and switch to a new type of device. What if you've only ever been an iPhone user, and you're thinking about switching to an Android phone? Here's a little background on what makes each gadget tick, along with what you can expect from the user experience and a few leading phone options should you decide to take the leap.
Let's start at the beginning. When we say iPhone and Android, we're talking about phones (hardware) that use different types of operating systems (software). Apple uses closed, proprietary operating systems: Mac computers run on OS X (soon to be called MacOS) and mobile devices run on iOS (iPod, iPad, iPhone...sound familiar?). Only Apple devices have native iOS or OS X operating systems, so they can be referred to as iOS/OS devices or just "Apple devices" more or less interchangeably.
But non-iOS devices work a little differently. Android phones can be made by any manufacturer – "Android" is actually the operating system. It's an open source software first developed by Google. Some companies, like Samsung, do extra work on the operating system for an experience that's unique to their devices. Other (typically smaller) companies use operating systems pretty close to "stock" Android.
What closed vs. open means for the end user
Take note of the words "closed" and "open" – these differing approaches to software offer a lot of insight on company politics and ultimately manifest in the user experience as well. Apple's software is (mostly) closed. The company doesn't share access to the tool that keeps its devices running, with the exception of limited information for app developers. Android software is open. Google owns Android, but works to develop the software and share it for free (there are guidelines for hardware-makers to use Google's core apps, but the core software itself is distributed without strings attached). (Almost) anyone and everyone can take Android software and make it do whatever they want.
Before shaking your fist at the ghost of Steve Jobs, keep in mind there are plenty of reasons to keep systems closed. Ivory towers don't build themselves. Closed systems mean greater security, since hackers have fewer access points to distribute malware. It also prevents the user from inadvertently messing up their own system. Apple has very successfully used their closed system to provide an intuitive, robust and stable user experience.
On the Android side, there's more room for customization by both the manufacturer and the user. So while an Apple user can pick up anyone's iPhone and know more or less what they're in for, the difference between one Android phone and the next can be jarring.
By now, you know the drill - when your iPhone needs an update, you get a big notification. Once you opt in, there's a download, then the phone restarts. From there, all of the apps need to be updated accordingly. If you don't upgrade your apps, one by one they'll start to cease function. And if your phone gets too old to support the current OS, you're out of luck.
Android updates are rolled out more slowly. Nexus devices (which Google developers in collaboration with a manufacturer partner) get the updates first, and then other manufacturers follow suit. Users don't always know when, if ever, their phone will receive Android software updates, and there's always the option to opt out.
Know that you might get hungry comparing specs for the first time. Android names each version of their software after a different sweet: Right now, most new phones are running on Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but Android 7.0 Nougat was just released.
Apple's App Store contains only carefully vetted Apple-approved products. You can only get content through the App Store, and the App Store contains only Apple content. It's next to impossible to put non-Apple approved content on your phone, with jailbreaking being rarer (and harder) now than it was in the first five years of iOS devices.
Android has one centralized app store: Google Play. The Google Play store sells Android apps, but lots of other stuff too - it's kind of like iTunes and the App Store rolled into one. More importantly, you can also put apps – and even other app stores – on your phone from outside Google Play. So if you want to experiment with different types of (non-vetted) content, you can go right ahead.
Historically, Apple's App Store has been the superior of the two, beating Android in terms of quality and quantity of apps. But that gap, along with many others, is closing.
Cloud storage & backups
"Not enough storage. The iPhone can not be backed up because there is not enough iCloud storage available." If you're like me, you've been ignoring messages like these for weeks. If you're more organized, you've had to jump through hoops to either upgrade your iCloud space or deal with your files like an adult.
Automated backups to the iCloud are great in theory. Your phone backs up to the cloud over Wi-Fi, keeping your files safe without you lifting a finger – until it starts becoming a headache. The small storage capacity of the free tier of iCloud (5 GB) and the iPhone's automatic reliance on it is enough to send users up a wall. Does Android offer a better solution?
Sort of. Whereas iCloud can give a full system restore in minutes (get a new phone, restore your iCloud backup and voila), Android backups are piecemeal. For example, all of your contacts are saved in Gmail, and you can keep your apps and music on the Google Play cloud. Google Photos works similarly. So, while there's no built-in system-wide tool that brings apps and their content back just the way you like them, all of your data exists somewhere.
Gaming & other hardware characteristics
We've gone over major differences between the operating systems, which is the most important difference between iPhones and Android devices. But there are some general hardware trends that persist in the different environments as well. Making the switch from iPhone to Android means countless more device options. That's a pleasure for some, but a chore to those with decision fatigue.
In general, it's easier and more affordable to find an Android phone with more internal and external storage (SD cards). Apple users pay a premium to get the amount of storage that would be entry-level for another manufacturer. Beyond cloud connectivity, iPhones also lack support for external storage. If you've been filling up your iPhone, switching to Android could make your life much easier.
Switching from an iPhone likely means you'll be looking into a different type of display as well. Apple devices have been using IPS display technology. Android phones can have either IPS or AMOLED, but AMOLED is quickly becoming the favorite across leading manufacturers. You'll notice darker blacks, brighter whites and more color saturation.
Compatibility with high-tech accessories also varies among manufacturers. Android devices win out. In this department, the major feather in iOS's cap is the Apple Watch. Not only are there dozens of Android-compatible smartwatches out there, several Android phones are virtual reality-ready as well. Apple hasn't announced any plans for a VR headset.
There are a plenty of other hardware options currently available on Android phones that haven't yet come to iPhone: fast charging, wireless charging, water resistance and modularity, to name a few. If there's a feature you really like, that alone would make the switch worth it.
So if you're thinking of walking out on iOS, where should you look first? Here are a few of our picks. Thanks to the number of options, you can choose a phone that caters to your lifestyle more specifically than any iPhone.
The Samsung Galaxy series is probably the Android option most analogous to iPhone in terms of availability, price, and popularity. It also encompasses some of the best Android hardware perks. The "7" series is the company's 2016 collection, but recent years' models have many of the same features.
Phones in the Galaxy S7 series are Gear VR-compatible, flaunt sophisticated glass bodies with rounded edges and are IP68 water resistant. Full retail price starts at about $670 for a Galaxy S7 versus $649 for an iPhone 6S. Here's a spec-by-spec comparison of the two phones, but keep in mind that's just the base model S7. There are specialty models too, like the rugged S7 Active, or the Galaxy Note 7, a larger option with a stylus and a few new features.
The Moto Z Play is a soon-to-be-released modular smartphone that has clever camera, slideshow, speaker and battery life accessories that make it both fun and utilitarian. Plus, it's more affordable than its big brother, Moto Z.
The HTC 10 is an all-around stellar pick that clearly puts quality over gimmicks. It lacks some of the more headlining features like water resistance, but it's solidly equipped and provides a high-end, focused and premium experience.
Of course, now that you've done background reading on the two types of systems, you might be ready to cast a wider net with your research. In that case, our 2016 smartphone comparison guide is a great place to start.