Should I buy an Android smartphone, or an iPhone? The question is asked every day as consumers walk into a store and see the Galaxy S4 sitting beside the Apple (AAPL) iPhone 5s. Which is really the best smartphone?
At this point, more than 80% of people are choosing Android. And if we were only looking at sales numbers, Google’s (GOOG) mobile operating system would be the clear winner for the best smartphone title.
However, just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t necessarily mean you should too. Here are three pros and three cons for buying an Android smartphone vs. an iPhone, to help you decide which is the best smartphone.
Should I Buy an Android Smartphone? Pros: Choice
Want to buy a new iPhone? Well, if you want the latest and greatest CPU and features, there’s the iPhone 5s. It comes in three colors. The iPhone 5c is “new” but is basically last year’s model wrapped in a new plastic shell. In other words, you have very limited options.
Want to buy the latest and greatest when it comes to Android? The world is your oyster! Everyone who’s anyone in consumer tech — except Apple and Nokia (NOK) — makes Android smartphones. Even Google sells its own version, the Nexus 5.
With Android, you have hundreds of smartphones to choose from in a huge range of sizes, finishes and price ranges. There are flagship models like the Samsung (SSNLF) Galaxy S4 — considered by some to be the best smartphone out there — or Sony (SNE) Xperia Z1 that compete head-to-head with Apple’s iPhone. There are less expensive models like Google’s Lenovo (LNVGY) Motorola Moto G and a slew of bargain-priced Android smartphones like the Facebook-themed HTC First — free on contract at AT&T (T).
Android choice goes beyond basics to the point where you can even buy a smartphone like the Galaxy S4 Zoom with a telephoto camera lens stuck on it. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the best smartphone setup, but it’s an option that iPhone users don’t have.
Should I Buy an Android Smartphone? Cons: Fewer Accessories
The downside to this diversity in Android smartphones is Apple’s clear iPhone advantage when it comes to accessories.
It doesn’t matter what color of iPhone 5s you own, every iPhone 5s case will fit. In fact, every case from last year’s iPhone 5 will also fit. Any docked accessory that uses the Lightning port — from cables to speaker systems — is compatible not only with the iPhone 5s, but every other iOS device with a Lightning port.
This homogenous clump of iPhone owners makes it much lower risk for accessory manufacturers to churn out products for the iPhone.
The Galaxy S4, less so. Accessory manufacturers and retailers don’t know ahead of time how many Android fans will be going with the Galaxy S4 and how many will choose one of the hundreds of alternatives instead. So they tend to put out a few Android accessories and double-down on iPhone (the sure bet) to minimize their loses if they guessed wrong.
You can see this if you check a major electronics retailer like Best Buy (BBY). According to Best Buy’s website, it offers more than 1,300 iPhone-compatible cases, but only about 700 for Samsung (the top-selling Android smartphone manufacturer), 200 for HTC and 150 for Motorola. So when it comes to the best smartphone accessories, the iPhone has the advantage.
Should I Buy an Android Smartphone? Pros: More Freedom
Google’s Android is an open operating system. Smartphone manufacturers are free to add their own skins over top of Android, developers are able to access system-level resources and users can freely customize their devices.
Put simply: Android devices are the best smartphones out there for people who like customization.
Apple, on the other hand, locks down iOS — it’s known as the walled garden — making an iPhone virtually impossible for the average owner to customize beyond changing their wallpaper, organizing app icons or adding a new ringtone.
This Android advantage was driven home when Facebook (FB) released Facebook Home in 2012. Android smartphone owners had the option of turning their devices into Facebook-themed social media super devices.
Facebook’s developers can’t integrate their software nearly so tightly with iOS, leaving some iPhone owners frustrated that Galaxy S4 owners could get Facebook Home while they couldn’t.
Should I Buy an Android Smartphone? Cons: More Malware
The downside of having an open system is that not everyone plays nice. Legitimate developers and manufacturers can create apps, skins and customizations that make an Android device the ideal device for you.
But cyber criminals have that same level of access. It’s much easier to write a virus for an Android device than an iPhone, and with so many more Android users, the target is much bigger too. Which means an Android device isn’t necessarily the best smartphone from a security standpoint.
Apple’s insistence that you can only install apps on your iOS device through its iTunes App Store offers another level of security. With Android, you can install apps from pretty much anywhere. That makes it a lot easier for criminals to distribute questionable apps on the Android side.
If you’re at all concerned about mobile security or hacking, the iPhone is probably the best smartphone to buy. An Android best-seller like the Galaxy S4 lets you do a lot more without restrictions, but with nearly 100% of mobile malware attacks hitting Android, there’s a price to be paid.
Should I Buy an Android Smartphone? Pros: Hugely Improved Apps Selection
This “pro” is less an advantage over iPhone and more of a removal of what a formerly major disadvantage in choosing to buy an Android smartphone.
Apple used to brag that the iPhone was the best smartphone because of its unparalleled app selection. For years, Android users were left fuming because iPhone owners had so much more choice. In 2010 for example, when Google Play finally hit the 100,000 app mark, iPhone owners had 300,000 apps to choose from.
That’s not really the case any more. Google Play surpassed Apple’s App Store as the busiest (i.e. most downloads) in 2013, and they’re pretty much neck-and-neck for overall app count top honors (at last count Apple still had a slight edge of one million vs. 950,000). So the award for best smartphone app store is very much up in the air.
There’s a good chance that Google Play will overtake Apple’s App Store in sheer numbers of apps available in 2014 but whether it does or not, consider the iPhones’s app selection advantage pretty much gone. And Android owners have a huge “pro” compared to BlackBerry (BBRY) or Windows Phone users.
Should I Buy an Android Smartphone? Cons: Fragmentation
It seems as though nothing is ever simple when it comes to Android. And once again, the diversity of the platform — fragmentation as it’s known in more negative terms — can significantly narrow the number of apps an Android user actually can run.
The first part of fragmentation is the operating system. Apple says that 78% of iPhone, iPad and iPod touch owners are running iOS7, its latest mobile operating system.
In comparison, a mere 1.8% of Android smartphone owners are running KitKat, the latest version from Google. Even the Samsung Galaxy S4, the Android hit of 2013, hasn’t received a KitKat upgrade yet. Only 8.9% are running the previous major release, version 4.3 of Jelly Bean. 35% are running version 4.1 of Jelly Bean (an OS released in 2012) and 20% are still using Android Gingerbread — a four-year-old operating system.
Then there’s display size and resolution. For the iPhone, there are very few combinations to support (3.5-inch or 4-inch and Retina or non-Retina). When it comes to Android smartphones, there are almost unlimited combinations to test. Samsung alone offers Android smartphones in 22 different sizes and there are eight display resolutions that could be used including qHD, HD, Full HD and WQXGA.
In other words, between the OS version, display resolution and whether your Android smartphone supports certain hardware standards like NFC and Bluetooth Low Energy, you may only be able to run a small fraction of those 950,000 Android apps. This fact can make life frustrating for Android smartphone owners.
Should I Buy an Android Smartphone? Probably, but it Depends
A few years ago, if you’d been wondering “Should I buy an Android smartphone?” you probably would have been better off with an iPhone.
However, Google’s Android has closed the gap in usability and functionality since then and the huge range of Android smartphones — including flagship devices like the Galaxy S4 — means there’s hardware and a price point for anyone. The app gap has also virtually disappeared. If you want a big screen, the decision is easy since you’re not going to find that on an Apple device (at least not until the iPhone 6 arrives).
However, if you’re worried about mobile viruses and hackers, the iPhone still reigns as the best smartphone, and Apple does the best job of providing a slick overall users experience.
Whether you go with an iPhone or an Android smartphone, you’re likely to stay with that platform for a while (especially once you begin investing in apps) so it pays to look closely at both and make an informed decision.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.