En español | Just as computer shoppers must decide from among Windows PCs, Macs and Chromebooks, you've got alternatives when looking for a new smartphone.
Essentially it boils down to this: iPhone or Android.
"Most of the core functionality, though, will be the same regardless of the phone you choose,” says Dan Ackerman, editorial director for computers and gaming at CNET, one of the most popular online tech resources. “Most phones make calls, browse the web, take photos and so on, but some phones have specialized features like folding screens or extra camera lenses.”
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Although the two camps have many similarities in hardware and software, the two operating systems — Apple's iOS and Google's Android — have different looks, feels and feature sets. Price, screen size and weight also can vary greatly.
Choice is good, but it can also be overwhelming. So how do you know which phone will best suit your needs?
“A good first step is to see what your friends and family have, not just so you can try out a phone to see if you like it,” Ackerman says. “But you may want to stick with the same operating system, as some widely used apps are exclusive, like iMessage” for iPhone.
Putting your hands on a device is always a great idea. Go to your mobile phone provider’s store or kiosk or a big-box store to play around with something.
Hold it; pretend to raise it to your ear for a call. Swipe among apps. Look up something on the web. How does it feel and look to you? Your comfort with it is key.
Phone screens with any operating system and price point have gotten bigger through the years with many topping 6 inches diagonally. That can be good news for aging eyes. iPhones make up nearly 60 percent of the U.S. market; most of the rest are Android phones.
“We are living in the mobile-first era,” says Stephen Johnston, cofounder of Aging2.0 and founder of Fordcastle innovation consultancy. Today product developers and service providers assume that you own a smartphone.
“The phone is the hub of a digitally connected life,” he says. “For whatever people need, whether it’s a smart collar for their pet or a security device, it’s all going to be coming into the phone.”
The following is a closer and somewhat subjective look at the pros and cons of each major platform — including the software, hardware and services you can expect from each of the two major players.
A look at the operating systems, apps
iPhone. Of all the phones available, iPhone, which runs Apple's iOS operating system, is the easiest to use. If you're not very tech savvy, look here first.
"Everything is designed to work together well since Apple creates both the software and hardware,” Ackerman says. “Many like Apple's ‘walled garden’ approach, which is a more closed and protected platform."
Apple's App Store has more than 2 million apps, many free or close to it. Almost everything you download for iPhone will work on iPad, too, because they run on the same operating system.
Simply tap an icon to launch an app — short for application, which is what programs are called on mobile phones — and swipe left or right on the screen to see additional apps. Swipe down to search for something by keyword.
But iPhone isn't the runaway choice.
“Interestingly, I’d argue iPhone isn’t as intuitive to use as it was, say, five years ago, as they’ve added many more features," says Daniel Bader, content director at Valnet. His company owns publications including Android Police, Make Use Of and Screen Rant. "Samsung, conversely, has done a much better job over time to make its devices easier to use.”
Android. Because Android is from Google, the mobile operating system is conveniently bundled with Google apps such as the Chrome web browser; Gmail; Google Maps for maps, directions and local search; and YouTube videos, to name a few. Like iTunes, Google also lets you download or stream media such as e-books, games, magazines, movies, music and TV shows to your devices.
These Google-owned apps are also available to iPhone owners but must be downloaded individually.
The Android operating system is also ideal for those who like to play around with the phone's interface, layout and app selection. Sure, iPhone now lets you add widgets, but it happened 10 years after Android offered it.
"If you're a tinkerer, Android phones let you get under the hood and truly customize the experience,” Ackerman says. The Google Play store has an estimated 3.48 million apps, the most of any mobile operating system.
You need to be aware of security concerns and be careful where you download apps because you're not limited to the Google Play store. Apple lets you download only from its own App Store.
Comparing virtual assistants, multitasking
iPhone. To talk to your iPhone’s virtual assistant, Siri, press and hold the side button, or if enabled in Settings, simply say, “Hey Siri,” followed with a question or command. You’ll hear a human-like voice respond.
Android. Similarly, a built-in Google Assistant lets you talk to your phone like a personal assistant ("Hey, Google,” or “OK, Google"). And with your permission it also learns your patterns, such as leaving home every day at 7:30 a.m. for the gym, and will alert you to traffic on your route and other contextually relevant information.
In fact, Google Assistant is a smarter assistant than Siri and is compatible with many more smart home devices.
Android is also great for those who like to multitask. You can split your screen into two apps — such as a video playing on top and email open on the bottom — or you might opt for a picture-in-picture option, such as browsing the web but having a TV show playing in a small window.
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Great cameras no matter your choice
Both. iPhone and Samsung tend to have the highest-rated cameras, so you really can’t go wrong with either choice. And Google Pixel phones are gaining some accolades, too, including how they leverage intelligence to help make your photos better.
To securely log you into your iPhone or to make purchases online or at retail, the front-facing camera uses Face ID to recognize that it's you — and only you. In other words, your face is your password.
Speaking of your front-facing camera, FaceTime used to be an Apple exclusive, using the front-facing camera so you could talk with friends and family over iPhone, iPad and Mac. But Apple now makes it possible to FaceTime with an Android or Windows user, via a web browser feature.
Wider range of hardware, costs with Androids
iPhone. New Apple phones come in four main flavors today:
The 5.4-inch iPhone 13 mini, starting at $699
The 6.1-inch iPhone 13, starting at $799
The 6.1-inch iPhone 13 Pro, which offers better cameras and battery life, starting at $999
The 6.7-inch iPhone 13 Pro Max, starting at $1,099, also with Apple’s longest-lasting battery at up to 28 hours of video playback
Yes, they're expensive compared with most Android phones. But they’re very well built and tend to last a long time.
Android. Phones and tablets that use the world's most popular operating system come in dozens of brands and models.
“With Android, you have a choice of less expensive larger phones, compared to iPhone, if you want a bigger display to read enlarged text and such,” Bader says. Only Apple makes iPhones and iPads, but Google's Android platform is open and freely distributed.
Perhaps you want a large-screen Samsung Galaxy smartphone with a bundled stylus pen? Or a Google Pixel phone with an amazing camera? An inexpensive Motorola model? All these brands make Android phones, as do Alcatel, Asus, HTC, Nokia, OnePlus, Sony, ZTE and others. Amazon's Kindle devices are based on Android, too.
"The point is this: You don't need to spend a lot of money for a great Android phone,” Ackerman says.
Low cost, highly rated. The 6.4-inch OnePlus Nord N20 5G, starting at $299.99, the 6.8-inch Motorola Moto G Stylus 5G, starting at $399.99
Premium, foldable. The 7.6-inch Galaxy Z Fold3 5G, starting at $1,899.99
Also, unlike iPhone and iPad, many Android devices let you expand the storage by popping in a microSD memory card.
Android phones are generally more innovative than iPhone, including Samsung Galaxy models with foldable screens, as Ackerman alluded to. The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3 5G, starting at $1,049.99, folds up like an old-school flip phone, but it’s one sheet of bendable glass. Plus, many Android phones only have a tiny dot on the screen for a camera instead of the wider and often ridiculed “notch” at the top of iPhone screens.
Other features, updates
iPhone. Apple phones also work with iTunes software on a PC, which you might be using to manage media on your computer. And Apple Mac users can sync their phones and computers with a USB cable or even over Wi-Fi. Plus, iPhone synchronizes with iCloud, where you get 5 gigabytes of storage for free. It is used to back up your important files and wirelessly sync content among multiple devices.
Apple's AirPlay lets you wirelessly stream between supported devices, such as your iPhone sending photos and videos to your Apple TV box connected to your TV. And with AirDrop, you can share photos, videos, documents and more instantly with other nearby Apple devices.
If you're already familiar with an iPad or Mac computer, Ackerman says the learning curve will be low for those who go with iPhone.
When Apple releases an iOS update, you'll be notified on your phone, regardless of what carrier you use. So almost every iPhone user is on the same, newest version of the operating system, which means a more consistent experience for everyone.
Android. Smartphone owners need to be aware that, unlike Apple, which controls its operating system update, Android devices are more fragmented in the version of operating system they are running, Ackerman says. Often your carrier dictates the updates.
Getting support and service
Both. “To me, your choice in phones boils down to either iPhone or Samsung because of the easy availability of service and support you can find in most major cities for both of these brands,” Bader says. “If you need the help, you can simply visit an Apple or Samsung store for someone to look at your phone.”
While Google is making inroads with its own Pixel-branded Android phones, Bader says these devices have proven to have “spotty quality control” for the most part, “and you can’t just walk into a Google store to have something looked at like you can with Samsung or Apple. ... As a result, you may have to mail in your device or bring it to a third-party aftermarket repair center.
“In my opinion, Samsung has the best software maintenance and security record,” Bader says. “Plus, Samsung has done a great job in making their phones simpler to use over the years, including a handy Easy Mode that makes it easier to use the device.”
Still wondering what's best for you?
If you’re still confused on whether an Android or an iPhone is best for you, consider your level of expertise with electronics:
- Ease of use. If you want simplicity, iPhone still reigns supreme. Android has gained ground with its latest operating system update, but Apple knows how to create an easy-to-use, intuitive interface.
- Customization. But for those who want more choice and personalization, Android is for you. Google Play has more apps, but you face greater risks in security as you can download from other stores, too.
- Tryouts. Nothing beats some hands-on time, so whether you borrow one from someone you know or visit a store, play around with any device before you commit.
This story, originally published Aug. 26, 2019, was updated to reflect new phone models and features that have become available.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.