Android vs. iOS vs. Windows Phone 7: A mobile showdown

If you’re a first-time smartphone shopper or a current smartphone shopper approaching an upgrade, you may be curious about the mobile platforms that are available. Everyone knows about the iPhone and iPad, and everyone knows about “Droids” (Android is the platform, Droid is one specific brand on Verizon). Often overlooked is the newcomer, Windows Phone. How do the three mobile operating systems stack up?

We broke down the three platforms into some of the most distinct categories so you can better understand the differences between them. Let’s take a look…

Total Devices

Before delving into the specifics of each operating system, one of the most important things to know is how many devices you’ll have to choose from. The freely distributed Android has the most devices by a wide margin, in fact there are so many that it’s impossible to get an accurate number.

At the time of publication, there are just under 100 Android devices from some of the biggest manufacturers: Samsung, Motorola, HTC, LG, Sony Ericsson, and Acer. But when you add Asus, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Toshiba, and a billion generic or near-generic manufacturers, that total is easily into the hundreds.

Meanwhile the younger Windows Phone currently tallies 20 devices, and less-is-more iOS is only available on the 11 models of iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.

Total apps

iOS leads the way with apps. Not only are there more apps in the App Store than in the Android Market, but there is generally more quality and less junk on Apple’s platform (a highly unscientific observation). This could be changing, as the flood of Android devices has led to the lion’s share of the smartphone market. While analysts have been predicting that Android will catch up for over a year now, it hasn’t happened.

The Windows Phone Marketplace is the newest of the three platforms, and hasn’t yet found the mass adoption of iOS or Android. When viewed from that light, 43,000+ isn’t a bad number of apps for Microsoft’s mobile platform.

Tablet-optimized apps

It’s no coincidence that the market-dominating iPad has the most tablet-optimized apps. Android tablets have been stuck in a vicious Catch-22, where they aren’t selling because they don’t have as many apps, but developers aren’t making apps because they aren’t selling. That will likely change soon (thanks in no small part to the Kindle Fire), but right now the iPad’s app library is utterly dominant.

It’s worth noting that the iPad and Android tablets can all run smaller-screen phone apps, but they look better on Android than they do on iOS. The iPad doubles the pixels of iPhone apps, making them look as pixelated as an Atari game (not really, but they definitely don’t look great). While most Android phone apps don’t look so hot stretched to fit a large display, they still look much better than iPhone apps on the iPad. Taking this into consideration, Android tablets have a bit more software support than the above figures suggest.

Windows Phone doesn’t run on tablets, instead Microsoft is preparing Windows 8 for future tablets.

Unapproved 3rd party apps

Casual users may not worry about this stat, but if you want maximum freedom in the software you install, you’ll want to pay attention. Apple and Microsoft both employ the walled garden approach, with apps needing to go through an approval process before being made available for iOS or Windows Phone. The Android Market, meanwhile, allows most anything (aside from malicious content) and you can also install 3rd party apps by sideloading or downloading from the web.

iOS and Windows Phone devices require a jailbreak (hack) in order to install unapproved apps. Some Android apps that need core system permissions will require a rooted device, but Android is the obvious victor in terms of app freedom.

You can argue that Android’s psuedo-open approach also has downfalls, like a glut of crap apps and less protection from malware, but that’s a debate for another time.

4G

Android is the (present moment) king of 4G. It was first to 4G with Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G, first to LTE with Verizon’s HTC Thunderbolt, and has tons of phones available on all 4G networks.

It’s a stretch to say iOS has 4G, but the AT&T version of the iPhone 4S is capable of HSPA+14.4Mbps speeds, same as the Motorola Atrix, LG Thrill, and HTC Inspire on Android.

Windows Phone has three 4G devices, the Samsung Focus S 4G, Samsung Focus Flash 4G, and HTC Radar 4G. Each runs on either AT&T’s or T-Mobile’s HSPA+ networks.

This will change soon, as the next iPhone will probably adopt LTE, and Windows Phone will also eventually expand into that realm.

One downside to consider is that LTE devices aren’t, at this moment, particularly battery-friendly. It’s slowly improving, but runtime is a concern on every LTE device on the market.

Cloud integration

One of the buzzwords of 2011, the cloud lets you store your data on remote servers. It can save precious flash storage and help you to effortlessly keep multiple devices in sync. Google is no stranger to the cloud, with Gmail and its numerous free web-based services (Google Music, Google Docs, Google Voice). Aside from contact syncing and limited app backups, Android doesn’t have an integrated cloud service. Android users can, however, use third-party apps like Dropbox or Box.net to access cloud files.

Introduced in this Fall’s iOS 5 release, iCloud serves less as direct file storage and more as an invisible syncing of content. Photos, music, contacts, reminders, browser bookmarks, notes, documents, calendar events, and some third-party app content will all stay synced up between iOS devices and Macs. You can also backup your entire device via iCloud. Defined by the lack of effort it requires, iCloud is easily the most advanced — yet simple — cloud service for any device.

Microsoft’s SkyDrive is its cloud service, but it isn’t nearly as seamless as iCloud. It doesn’t even come preinstalled on Windows Phone, requiring a marketplace download. Like third-party service Dropbox, SkyDrive is more of a file locker than an invisible syncing service. It requires manual file transfers, so photos, documents, and other data won’t invisibly sync in the background like they do in iCloud.

Voice control

Android and Windows Phone have had limited voice control for ages, but Apple stole their thunder with the arrival of Siri.

Google is reportedly scrambling to come up with its own answer to Siri, but right now Apple’s assistant is in a different league than Android Voice Commands or Microsoft’s Tellme. While the other two platforms allow for dictation and specific voice commands, Siri lets you speak in natural language. It isn’t perfect, and it will improve over the next few years, but it’s more far-reaching, it creates the illusion of a conversation, and it rids you of the burden of memorizing specific commands.

The only catch with Siri is that, at this moment, it’s only available on the iPhone 4S. By this time next year, though, Siri will likely be on the iPad 3, iPhone 5, and possibly a new iPod touch. It’s unknown whether Apple will retroactively port Siri to the iPhone 4 and other older devices, but we wouldn’t bet on it.

Multitasking

While they use different methods, all three platforms now have multitasking. Power users will insist that only Android offers true multitasking, but for most of us, the app-switching experience will be the same on iOS and Windows Phone.

All offer switching between apps — playing music, GPS navigation, VoIP calls, email notifications, and many other tasks to happen in the background.

Navigation

All platforms offer a variety of voiced turn-by-turn GPS navigation options, but Android has a big advantage. Google Maps Navigation, which is excellent and integrated with Android Voice Commands, is free. There is a growing number of free and cheap navigation apps for all platforms, but few rival Google’s service.

Search

Being Google’s platform, Android is tied to Google search. Few people have a problem with that. Being Microsoft’s platform, Windows Phone is tied to Bing. Many people would have a problem with that.

While those platforms offer search that is integrated into the OS, iOS requires you to open the browser to search. The caveat to add is that iPhone 4S owners can search the web from anywhere by querying Siri to “search the web for ___.’ iOS defaults to Google, but also gives you the option to switch the default search engine to Yahoo! or Bing.

Dual-core devices

In addition to LTE and the cloud, 2011 also saw the advent of dual-core mobile devices. Much like 4G, Android’s greater volume of devices has it leading the charge here too. We could nail down the exact number of dual-core Android devices, but after a week or two the stat would be obsolete. Just know that Android has many more than iOS or Windows Phone.

Apple’s iPad 2 and iPhone 4S both have the dual-core A5 chip. Windows Phone is still waiting for its first dual-core device.

Custom firmware

Most casual users won’t care about custom firmware, but those who want to fiddle with customROMs will gravitate towards Android. There is an active development community with multiple amateur geniuses releasing their own custom versions of Android every day.

Jailbroken iOS devices simply run the same iOS with the Cydia jailbreak app store installed. Windows Phone hacking is still in its infancy, but is more similar to iOS’s jailbreak community than Android’s development scene.

 Third-party keyboard apps

Typing on a virtual keyboard can be a pain. It’s easy to tap out the wrong word, and built-inautocorrect suggestions can sometimes do more harm than good. Having the option of using innovative new keyboards can be a perk.

Right now Android is the only platform that lets you customize the on-screen keyboard. In addition to the default Android keyboard (or default manufacturer keyboard), you can choose to install a trace keyboard like Swype or SlideIt, a prediction algorithm keyboard like Swiftkey, or even a bizarre gesture-based keyboard like 8pen.

NFC

While Near Field Communication (usually used for mobile payments) hasn’t quite taken off with retailers (yet), it’s a nice future-proofing feature to have on your phone. Android currently has a small handful of phones with NFC chips (including the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S), but it still trumps the number of NFC devices that the other platforms have: zero.

Showcase phones

Reading about the three platforms is one thing, but it always helps to see each in action. If you’re heading to a store to get some hands-on time, you’ll want to compare the best that each has to offer.

For Android, that’s the Galaxy Nexus. As Google’s latest flagship device, it runs the latest version of Android (Ice Cream Sandwich), has a gorgeous 4.65 inch SuperAMOLED display, and it runs on Verizon’s speedy LTE network in the US.

The iPhone 4S is Apple’s showcase phone. While it wasn’t the revolutionary iPhone 5 that many were hoping for, it still offers significant upgrades, including Siri, a dual-core A5 processor, and an 8MP camera.

The Lumia 800 is the flagship phone that Windows Phone has been needing, but, unfortunately, it’s still only available in Europe. Microsoft and Nokia have shown tentativeness in entering the US market, with the Lumia 800′s inferior little brother, the Lumia 710, set to lead the way. If you can get your hands on the Lumia 800, it has solid specs and runs the latest version of Windows Phone, Mango.

Showcase tablets

While it isn’t officially endorsed by Google as a flagship tablet, the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime is, at this moment, the best tablet that runs Android. It packs a quad-core Tegra 3 processor, an impressive display, and it will run Ice Cream Sandwich sometime in January.

Until the iPad 3 arrives in a few months, the iPad 2 is obviously the Apple flagship tablet (aside from the original iPad, it’s the only Apple tablet). It has a slick (and thin) design, the dual-core A5 processor, and Apple’s unparalleled library of tablet apps.

Windows Phone isn’t designed for tablets; Windows 8 will eventually be Microsoft’s tablet OS.

Intangibles

What is that extra something that each platform offers? Each OS has its own unique identity, and these help to define what that is.

Android is often mocked for being “open-y” (basically not as open as Google would like you to believe), but it is unquestionably the most customizable and hacker-friendly mobile platform of these three. It’s the only one of the bunch that lets you install homebrewed versions of Android. You can install homescreen widgets, swap keyboards, use live (animated) wallpaper, upgrade outdated devices to the latest version of Android, and tinker with about a billion other things.

iOS, meanwhile, is on the polar opposite side of the spectrum. Walled Garden is a term you often hear when describing Apple products, and it’s appropriate. Step through the gates of the magic Apple kingdom, and enjoy the simple and intuitive experience that the company has excruciatingly crafted for you.

Apple doesn’t want you to tinker. This means that all third-party apps need Apple’s approval, the UI is congruous and tight, and your experience has been prepared for you. Jailbreaking breaks those walls and lets you tinker almost as much as with an Android phone, but that isn’t the way an Apple product comes out of the box.

Windows Phone, meanwhile, is still searching for an identity. Its stance on open vs. closed is much closer to Apple’s, but if it defines itself by only that it will always be in iOS’s shadow. It arguably has the most attractive UI of the three platforms, but that’s too subjective to be a true killer feature.

One thing that draws (some) users to Windows Phone is the Microsoft Office suite. While Microsoft is reportedly developing the apps for the iPad, Windows Phone already includes the suite for free. Unless you’re a hardcore Office user, we wouldn’t recommend basing a smartphone purchase on an office suite alone (the other platforms have quality suites too). But, at this point in its progression, it’s the biggest thing Windows Phone can advertise as being truly unique.

Summing up

We aren’t here to crown a victor in the mobile OS wars. If anything, sales will determine that. From that perspective, Android handily leads in market share, but the iPhone and iPad are the hottest-selling individual devices. But — apart from sports, elections, and other competitions — we don’t live in a world of universal champions. The best platform is whichever OS works for you.

The two big dogs — Android and iOS — each offers its own clear take on the mobile OS experience. The rivalry closely resembles that of Windows vs. Macintosh: one is closed and tied to specific hardware, the other is licensed and available on everything under the sun. Apple is playing the same part, but Google’s OS has replaced Microsoft in the other role.

Whether Microsoft can rebound and make this a three-way race remains to be seen; it’s a steep hill to climb, and the company’s hesitance to enter the US market with its Nokia partnership doesn’t bode well. But smartphones aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and the company will have years to stage its attempted comeback.

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