Small Business Buyer’s Guide: Smartphones

By Joseph Moran | Posted December 15, 2014

When you’re in the market for a new piece of technology, hardware specs and price typically weigh heavily in the decision-making process. But when choosing a smartphone, those aren’t the only considerations, nor are they even necessarily the most important ones.

You also have to factor in the characteristics of the phone’s ecosystem (i.e. the environment encompassing the operating system and app store). In short, when you buy a phone, you’re also buying into an ecosystem that will have an outsize impact your day-to-day use of the phone.

iPhone 6

Figure 1: Apple's newest models, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. 

The two dominant ecosystems—Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android—share many similarities, but they also have major differences. No matter whether you’re eyeing your first smartphone, or you already have one and you're thinking about moving from one ecosystem to the other, you need to be aware of the differences.

Broadly speaking, if you had to sum up the raison d’etre of each ecosystem in just a few words, iOS would be simplicity, consistency and ease-of-use, while Android would be choice, flexibility and features. We’ll examine this in a bit more detail, but we'll start with the hardware first. Hey, we didn’t say it was unimportant.

Smartphone Hardware

One of the benefits of choosing Android is the enormous choice of phones from numerous different vendors. Aside from the popular marquis models—Samsung’s Galaxy S5, HTC’s One (M8), Google’s Nexus 6, and LG’s G3, to name just a few—you can choose from dozens of other phones available in all shapes, sizes, and prices. (OK, not shapes—they’re pretty much all rectangles, but you get the idea.)

With iOS, you have a choice of four phones—the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, as well as holdovers-from-last-year iPhone 5s and 5c. (Technically the iPhone 5c is two years old, since it is essentially 2012’s original iPhone 5 with a plastic rather than aluminum shell.)

Another important hardware difference: iPhones do not offer expandable storage. You get between 8 and 128 GB depending on the model you choose; use it up, and you’ll need to supplement it with cloud storage or a wireless mobile storage device like this one. Or else, buy a new phone.

By contrast, the majority of Android phones (though not all—the aforementioned Nexus 6 is a notable exception) include a Micro SD card slot which allows you to cheaply and easily double or triple the phone’s storage capacity.

Smartphone Operating System

One of the hallmarks of iOS is a very simple and straightforward user interface that’s easy to learn and use, even for technophobes. Apple achieves this, in part, by limiting the number of available features—as well as the extent to which you can customize the phone (because more customization ultimately means more complexity).

Samsung Galaxy S5

Figure 2: Samsung's Galaxy S5 Android phone

Apple also keeps the iOS experience relatively consistent; it looks and works pretty much the same regardless of what version you have (notwithstanding a significant aesthetic refresh in last year’s  iOS 7) or what kind of iPhone it runs on.  Grab any random person’s iPhone, and you’ll find it looks pretty much the same as yours.

On the other hand, Android prioritizes flexibility over pure ease-of-use, which results in a more cluttered, less intuitive interface. To help hide some of Android’s underlying complexity, many Android phone manufacturers include their own custom interfaces (also known as "skins").

Android also offer many more customization options: live (animated) wallpapers, and Android widgets, which can take up part—or all—of the screen, will deliver real-time information and the ability to interact with an app without having to open it first. For example, a weather widget that displays the always-current temperature and forecast, or a news widget with a scrolling list of top stories.

Android’s flexibility comes at a price, however. Apps crash more in Android than iOS, and it’s not uncommon for a wayward Android app to destabilize your phone and slow its performance to a crawl, sometimes even overwhelming the phone’s processor, which can cause the phone to heat up and the battery to drain more quickly than normal.

Apple and Google periodically update iOS and Android with bug fixes and new features, but the two ecosystems handle these updates very differently.

When Apple releases a new version of iOS, it’s made immediately available to every iPhone (Or at least every current or relatively recent model of iPhone. For example, you can get iOS 8 on an iPhone 4s, which was launched back in 2011, but not the iPhone 4 which came out the year before.)

Operating system updates on the Android ecosystem are decentralized. Google develops them and makes them available to phone manufacturers and mobile carriers, and then those companies decide when or if to disseminate them to user’s devices. When a new Android version comes out, you won’t know when you'll get it. You might be able to get it in a week, or in a month, or in three months, or six, or never.

Smartphone Apps

Considering that Android represents an overwhelming share of the global smartphone market (nearly 85 percent according to the latest available data from IDC), you’d think there would be lots more apps in Android’s app store, Google Play, than in the iOS App Store. In fact, the number of apps available in each ecosystem is about the same (with significantly more than a million apps in each). Chances are if you’re looking for a particular app, or an app to do x or y, you’ll find it in either store.

There are some notable exceptions to this, however. For example, MetaGeek’s excellent inSSIDer Wi-Fi diagnostic tool is available on Google Play, but you won’t find it (or any app like it) in the iOS App Store, because Apple doesn’t allow developer access to the hardware functions necessary for such an app.

Similarly, you’ll find lots of NFC tools to available for download on Google Play, but you won’t find any in the Apple App Store. Although the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are the first iPhones to have NFC chips, they’re off limits to developers, at least for now. (Apple uses them as the foundation for Apple Pay.)

Another thing that differentiates the two ecosystems is how apps get to the store and onto your phone. For starters, short of jailbreaking your iPhone (and we don’t recommend doing that), you can’t download apps from anywhere but Apple’s App Store. Moreover, as alluded to earlier, Apple keeps its App Store on a tight leash by closely vetting each app—governing what it can do, ensuring that it functions as described by the developer and that it doesn’t harbor any hidden or malicious capabilities.

HTC One (M8)

HTC One (M8) Android Phone

Things are quite a bit different with Android. Although it’s not turned on by default, Android phones give you the option to download apps from "unknown sources"— (a.k.a. from outside the Play store), which greatly increases the risk of installing malware. Beyond that, Google’s approach to policing app submissions is more laissez faire than Apple’s. Although instances of this are on the decline, malware does pop up in the Play store from time to time. There have even been cases of Android phones shipping with malware pre-installed, albeit not in North America or on any mainstream phones.

That's not to say the iOS is invulnerable to malware, because it’s not. But the risk is definitely lower—in part due to Apple’s tighter control of its ecosystem, and also in part because it’s smaller market share makes it a less attractive target than Android (in much the same way that malware is much more prevalent on Windows PCs than on Macs).

If you frequently use a lot of Google services, it’s worth noting that, not surprisingly, Android phones provide better integration with them. To give just one example, if you like the way Gmail automatically categorizes incoming mail (Primary, Social, Promotions, etc.), you don’t get that when you check your account with the standard iOS Mail app.

Although you can get a Gmail app for iOS that does that categorization, the catch is that you can’t make it the default mail app, and only the default mail app lets you share pictures, articles, Web pages, etc. via email.

Smartphones: The Bottom Line

If you’re interested in maximum flexibility—a wide choice of phones, the ability to add extra storage, and the option to customize your phone’s look-and-feel eight ways from Sunday—and you don’t mind higher complexity and an increased risk of malware in order to get it, Android is the way to go.

But if you’d rather have the stability and security that comes with a more tightly-controlled ecosystem, and you don’t mind the trade-off of a more homogeneous user interface and small selection of (non-upgradable) phones, iOS is probably right for you.

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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