Mobile OS Showdown: Android, iOS, and Windows Phone Compared

by Reads (7,144)
Android 5.0 home screen

Android 5.0 home screen

Not so long ago, the software powering a cell phone had very little to do with which one we purchased. BlackBerry, Palm, and Windows Mobile enthusiasts aside, shoppers based such decisions primarily on what the hardware looked like, giving little thought given to the operating system. After all, what else did one need to make phone calls and send the occasional SMS?

What a difference a few years make: Since around the arrival of Apple’s iPhone in 2007, smartphones have done an about-face. Sure, attractive hardware is still essential, but these rectangular slabs of metal, plastic, and glass are now windows into a far richer mobile experience.

Journey with us as we compare the three dominant mobile operating systems — Google’s Android 5.0 Lollipop, Apple’s iOS 8.2, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8.1 — in an effort to learn about their similarities, individual strengths, and maybe a few weaknesses as well. We’ll update this guide as the inevitable tweaks and changes to all three arrive, but for now, let’s take a step back and run through the basics.

User Interface

On the surface, this trio of mobile OS candidates offers the same basic functionality: Finger-friendly icons made for tapping, and gestures used to scroll, swipe, pinch, and flick various menus and screens. This is particularly true of iOS and Android, which feature home screens full of colorful icons and folders that can be used to organize them.

iOS 8 home screen

iOS 8 home screen

Windows Phone carves out a distinctly different path, one that replaces scrolling rows of icons with interactive live tiles, which can be resized into a potentially endless number of configurations. (Once referred to as “Metro,” the same look eventually found its way to the Start screen of Windows 8.) This unique approach alone helps Windows Phone stand out from the crowd.

A user’s first interaction with any device is the lock screen, which displays time and date information and more generally, banners for incoming notifications, which can usually be acted upon in one or more ways with a swipe. All three platforms maintain the traditional “menu bar” approach popularized by Apple’s Macintosh computers, with battery level, time, network connectivity, and other options displayed across the top of the screen.

Apple chose to center the time of day on iOS, using the left-hand side for cellular and Wi-Fi signal strength, and the right-hand side for location, Bluetooth, and battery level. Android differentiates itself somewhat by relegating all system-level data to the right side, leaving the adjacent space available for notifications from installed apps. Windows Phone blends the two approaches, placing battery and time at right, and everything else on the left side.

On all three platforms, a swipe down from top of the screen calls up a central repository for notifications, an early advantage held by Android before competitors adopted the feature. The same trick also provides a shortcut to widgets of information like weather and news, plus one-tap control over wireless connectivity, brightness, rotation lock, and other hardware-based functions.

Windows Phone 8.1 home screen

Windows Phone 8.1 home screen

Apple’s Notification Center is comprised of two tabs: Today (for event data and app widgets), and Notifications (for everything else). Unlike Google’s Quick Settings and Microsoft’s Action Center, Apple chose to relegate shortcuts for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, and Do Not Disturb to a separate Control Center, which is called up with a swipe from the bottom of the screen.

App Stores

Apple first popularized the term “apps” with the launch of the App Store in 2008. Google soon followed with Android Market, which eventually became Google Play as the search giant consolidated separate storefronts for apps, music, and ebooks into a central hub. Microsoft didn’t catch up until a couple of years later with Windows Phone Marketplace (now just Windows Store, thanks to the arrival of universal apps that work on both desktop and mobile devices).

Google Play isn’t the only place where Android owners can purchase apps: Launched in 2011, Amazon Appstore can be installed on any Android device capable of sideloading from unknown sources (you’ll need to flip the appropriate toggle switch under Settings > Security first). The same trick allows Android users to install apps for beta testing, as well as titles that wouldn’t otherwise be permitted in the official store.

Regardless of name, all three stores offer essentially the same experience, with free and paid apps sorted by genre and the ability to purchase in-app content at additional cost. Windows Phone has a unique advantage in its added focus on trials for paid apps, allowing potential buyers to test-drive time-limited or feature-locked versions prior to purchase.

Microsoft also has a clever method for managing apps: A swipe right across the Start menu reveals an alphabetical list of everything installed on the device — a tap and hold calls up the option to “pin” that item as a tile on the home screen, while the same method can be used to uninstall apps as well. Windows Phone 8 also introduced the ability to push one title onto another to create folders on the Start screen.

iOS 8.2 App Store

iOS 8.2 App Store

By comparison, iOS automatically dumps new apps into the first available space on a user’s home screen — though it at least conveniently shifts the focus to that page during the download, making it somewhat easier to find. Apps can be organized into folders by tapping and holding any icon until it starts to wiggle, and then dragging it on top of another app; while the app is still wiggling, a tap on the X in the left corner will delete it instead.

Android attempts to circumvent app clutter by tucking all available apps (in alphabetical order) across however many windows are necessary. Individual icons can then be dragged onto the launcher and arranged to the users’ liking.

This approach is similar to Windows Phone, and has the advantage of keeping favorite or most-used apps front and center, at the expense of possible confusion: Apps can be removed by dragging them to the “Remove” option at the top of the screen, but this doesn’t actually uninstall the app — for that you’ll need to perform a similar task from the “all apps” window instead.

App Selection

No matter how good a mobile platform might be, virtual shelves full of unpopular or just plain bad apps won’t encourage customers to buy those devices.

After years of being a second-class citizen despite selling more devices around the world than anyone else, Google Play Store finally eclipsed the App Store by the end of 2014, with nearly 1.5 million apps on its virtual shelf compared to more than 1.4 million from Apple. Microsoft also made impressive strides, but remains in distant third with just over half a million apps at this writing. (Amazon Appstore, meanwhile, offers more than 330,000 apps, although the majority is duplicates of Google Play content intended for Kindle Fire tablet and Fire Phone buyers.)

Android 5.0 Google Play

Android 5.0 Google Play

One of the more widely publicized examples of Windows Phone’s app deficiencies is Instagram — Nokia famously lobbied for an official app prior to unloading their Devices & Services business to Microsoft, and Facebook eventually relented. Still in beta, the Instagram app has languished without an update for a year at this writing, lacking support for new features like video upload, which rolled out first on iOS and Android.

That’s just one example. Other high-profile apps suffered a similar fate on Windows Phone, with major banks Chase and Bank of America unceremoniously dumping support for the platform, citing lack of interest from users. (Although Chase reversed their decision following outrage from Microsoft fans.) While official versions do exist, Windows Phone apps typically offer a less robust set of features compared rival operating systems. Some third-party alternatives exist, but few manage to live up to user expectations, or are handicapped by API limitations.

Despite developer complaints about “discoverability” and Apple’s occasional heavy-handed approach to curating the App Store, the iPhone generally offers the best app experience available. Software makers generally continue to embrace an “iPhone first” philosophy, so titles tend to arrive earlier on iOS than they do Android or Windows Phone.

Android only continues to grow, however, and there are definite signs  that developers are putting it closer to the same level as iOS. Microsoft itself recently launched mobile versions of its popular Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps on Google’s platform after debuting them on iOS, for instance.

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