Welcome to the smartphone OS Shootout of early 2014. In this article we take a look at how the 3 largest mobile OSes stack up against one another in various different categories.
But first let’s take a look at the contenders:
Released in September last year, iOS 7 was Apple’s first major OS upgrade in a long time, featuring a design overhaul from the original design which was released together with the original iPhone. Not only did iOS 7 follow the trend of “flat” (well, kind of, but with some gradients) UIs, it also brought us several useful features, including a redesigned Notification Centre and a way to get to shortcuts, the Control Centre, undoubtedly a welcome addition for the many iOS users who have been crying out for years for a way to simply access toggles and apps.
Android 4.4 KitKat
Released the same month as iOS 7 together with the Nexus 5, Android 4.4 was a major OS update, after 3 Jellybean upgrades. Though most of the new features had to do with the new stock design and Google Now interface, there were other features under the hood like Project Svelte, the ability to choose the default messaging app, and printing support.
Windows Phone 8.1
By far the latest major OS release, WP8.1 was announced during Microsoft’s Build Conference in early April 2014, with the WP8.1 Developer Preview seeding to everyone enrolled in the programme worldwide a week later. Microsoft’s latest OS brings significant improvements over WP8 despite its “.1” branding, including Start Screen backgrounds, a new Swype-like keyboard, Action Centre, virtual assistant Cortana (beta) voiced by Jen Taylor herself, and a whole bunch of other improvements under the hood such as deeper social media integration and Dual SIM support.
Style and Design
Design is rather subjective to every consumer’s individual preference, but there are certain objective things that we can compare when it comes to the design language for these operating systems.
All three have adopted a modern “flat” design, though WP8.1 is arguably the flattest (flat as a runway, some might say). With iOS 7, Apple has swayed away from its trademark skeuomorphism to a cleaner-looking design, though there have been many heated debates on which design is better. Android 4.4 KitKat is flatter, cleaner, and comes with larger icons, but unless you own a Nexus 5, you wouldn’t notice much difference.
In a way, WP is the one that stands out from the other two. While iOS and Android have more or less maintained the traditional layout of icons and grids (iOS more so than Android), Microsoft went for the more unconventional “tiled” design, offering a Start Screen of Live Tiles instead of the usual icons. They look gorgeous, especially with the background image and parallax scrolling effect. You just have to pick the right background.
In the past, iOS or Android would have been clear winners, because even though the live tiles of WP were nice to look at, the single colour tone was boring. But with the new backgrounds WP8.1, we have to give Microsoft some credit here. It looks amazing.
So WP8.1 is the winner here, in terms of innovation and looks. Feel free to disagree, but we think Microsoft has done a great job.
Ease of use
When it comes to ease of use we look at several things: accessibility and convenience. Windows Phone was right at the bottom back then, but WP8.1 brought customisable toggles in the action centre as well as other things like speed dial, which helps a lot.
Android is still better in terms of ease of use though. Smart dialer, a more wholesome notification centre, as well as easily accessed widgets and toggles makes it really easy to get about doing the things that you want to do. And with 4.4 KitKat, you get the option to print from your phone and Google Now. Pretty neat.
iOS has the benefit of being so ridiculously simple, even a child could use it. Take the Home Screen for instance. Your apps are all there. Drag and drop one over the other to create a folder, and organise as you wish. That is pretty much the full extent of customisation of your Home Screen on iOS, and it really simplifies things. Meanwhile, Android has apps that are all stored in the App Drawer, widgets on the Home Screen with a still quite complicated method of fixing them to the Home Screen, and arranging the apps on the Home Screen can be more complicated as well. The layout of iOS is basic and easy to use, and many other functions throughout the phone are optimised for simplicity as well. For example, its camera has so few buttons compared to Android, and it’s very clear how to take a picture. True, it does skimp on functionality there, but in terms of simplicity and ease of use, it triumphs.
In short, iOS 7 wins. It’s the most simple, conventional layout that you would expect from a phone, with tones of great accessibility options. Almost anyone can figure out how to use it, as it is intuitive and uncomplicated.
We all know the winner: iOS 7. But still, let’s compare the numbers.
iOS 7’s app store comes with over a million apps, and so does Android’s Play Store. Though Android might have a slight advantage due to the fact that most of the apps there are free (or can be side-loaded as APKs)
WP8.1 on the other hand, only has over 250,000 apps in its Store, out of which only a handful are free (though most of them have a trial version). It is also good to note that the apps are generally of poorer quality, and lack official versions (eg YouTube).
iOS 7 is about as uncustomisable as ever. Take the Home Screen for instance. It has no widgets. That’s a glaring example of its uncustomisability, but there’s also the fact that apps/ folders are all automatically arranged for you. What I mean is, unlike Android, where you can have one folder in the middle of the screen with nothing else around it, iOS arranges apps from left to right, top to bottom. iOS has live wallpapers, but these are all made by Apple — no third party live wallpapers, unlike Android.
Frankly, iOS 7 is just plain uncustomisable. If you don’t want to jailbreak and want customisability, steer clear of iOS 7.
The battle between KitKat and WP8.1 is a tough fight. WP8.1 brought with it new customisable lockscreens, start screen backgrounds, live tile sizes, battery options (aka choosing which apps can run in the background), notification options (choosing which notifications to have for each app and how you want them) and much, much more.
But on the other hand, Android has always been the king of customisability. KitKat brings the option to choose your default messaging app, lockscreen widgets, folders, wallpapers, live wallpapers, interactive live wallpapers, and let’s not forget the countless third party keyboards and launchers and whatnot that you can download.
KitKat wins, unsurprisingly.
In terms of low end hardware, Windows Phone 8.1 wins hands down. The OS can run smoothly on devices with 512MB of RAM, and this cannot be said of Android. With iOS 7, we will never know unless Apple decides to produce a truly budget iPhone (not the iPhone 5c).
Android has made some improvements in this aspect, though. KitKat comes with a new Project Svelte, which promises smooth performance on low end hardware. But low end hardware running on KitKat has yet to be produced.
Ultimately, it also depends on what device you choose. If you’re going for a budget phone, then Windows Phone 8.1 would perform best. Mid range? Windows Phone 8.1 again, but KitKat shouldn’t be too far behind. But at the top, iOS, Windows Phone 8.1 and KitKat are all great, though KitKat can lag on certain high end devices powered by even the SnapDragon 801 (we’re looking at you, S5).
There is no one smartphone OS that trumps all the others overall. Different people have different needs and ascribe different values to different features, and hence require different OSes.
If you are looking at the budget range, forget about iOS. How to narrow it down though? Well, if you want to use the latest apps and don’t mind sacrificing performance, Android is for you, but if what you want is a smooth experience and do not care much for apps, go for Windows Phone. The Redmi, a $169 Android phone, performs admirably well at a low price, and is definitely one of our recommendations for a budget consumer.
If you are looking at mid-range devices, we would recommend Android. Android performs pretty decently on mid-range devices now, and combined with the app selection, which is far more robust than that of Windows Phone 8.1, is a good choice for the mid-range user. Getting an old iOS device, like an iPhone 4s, would be a pretty bad idea because generally, they lag, and will have a short lifespan.
At the high end, Android and iOS are your best choices. At this point, you would do well to consider your requirements for apps, simplicity, and customisability, and definitely consider how invested you are in either ecosystem. Sometimes, it’s just not worth changing to the other OS when you’re already happy with your current iOS or Android device.
And last of all, you’ve got to feel comfortable with it. We recommend you go down to a store and try out each OS, to see what you like or don’t like about it, and if possible, when considering a phone, try that specific model out, and check its features before buying it.