I tried to get into Apple’s iPhone after years as a happy Android user, but even in 2022 there are significant areas where the Android UX is just better than the best that Apple can offer on iOS. This post outlines some of the observations I’ve made since switching from my iPhone 12 Pro to this year’s Google Pixel 7 Pro.
My Smartphone History
Not to say “I was there before it was cool”, but I was into smartphones before the iPhone debuted in 2007. I had the Nokia 3300 that was an MP3 player, an email client, and WAP internet browser way back in 2003. After that, I bumped up to a Cingular-branded Windows Mobile phone made by (then unknown) HTC.
I got the first iPhone in 2007. Shortly after getting my second, the iPhone 3GS in 2009, I rage-quit the iPhone, mostly due to the need to jailbreak the device (in an escalating arms race with Apple) every time there was an update if I wanted to use any of the native apps developed by the iPhone’s enthusiastic fan base. At this time, there was no App Store, and the only “apps” you could use with Apple’s blessing were web applications running within Safari. Meanwhile, there was a wonderful ecosystem of user-created native apps that added huge value to the young iPhone.
After that, I switched to (and really enjoyed) the Palm Pre with its open source WebOS for a couple years, then into Android with the HTC Evo 4G followed by its successor, the HTC Evo 3D. From there, the Nexus 4, then the OnePlus One followed by the Samsung Galaxy S7, then back to OnePlus for the OnePlus 6.
I loved being on Android
While on Android, I loved getting new features years before Apple added them to the iPhone. I loved being able to customize every single aspect of my phone to optimize it for the ways I like to work and play. I loved that the phones were less expensive, so I could upgrade more often. I loved being able to swap out custom keyboards so I could do glide typing, and set default browsers like Vivaldi and Firefox that added great privacy and productivity features to my web browsing. I would loudly trumpet all the great things about Android to my Bay Area friends who mostly defaulted to the “best” platform, Apple’s. I had a hunch that these tools were truly innovative and worth the switch to Android, but my Bay Area friends (and the world at large) has steadily migrated to iPhones as the default smartphone platform.
Android’s Big Caveat Emptor
Android is available on a much wider range of devices than iOS, from a wider range of manufacturers, so there’s a huge variety of Android phones, with user experiences ranging from industry-leading to truly awful.
It’s still far too easy to get an Android phone whose user experience seriously lacks in some area or another. Some are loaded with carrier bloatware, some have weird skinned interfaces covering up the stock Android UI, but many are just built with cheaper components to sell to unsuspecting bargain-hunters for a lower cost than any Apple phone would sell for. And your local carrier store loves to sell older and low-spec Android phones to people who can’t tell the difference for more than they’re worth.
If you do your homework and read the reviews when you’re about to buy, you can always find a nice Android flagship device that provides competitive performance to the best iPhones for a few hundred dollars less than Apple’s device. However, if you’re not careful, you can easily get stuck with a phone that feels “janky” in some way or another, and I think this has hurt the Android ecosystem as a whole, and given it a reputation as a second-place player in smartphones.
The cameras and audio performance on my Android phones have sometimes been underwhelming, though, and as my work became more and more about media creation, I thought I should get an iPhone for its industry-leading camera and wide range of professional audio and video creation apps. Besides that, my whole extended family is on iPhones, enabling everyone to use iMessage for a fun rolling chat that keeps everyone connected.
The iPhone Malaise is Real
I bought the iPhone 12 Pro in 2020 — which happened to be the very worst year to switch to a phone that can only be unlocked with your un-covered face. 😷 While the camera and audio were nice, I was instantly struck by how little, fundamental things about using an iPhone are still light years behind Android. Now that I’ve thankfully switched back to a Google Pixel 7 Pro in 2022, I’m reminded of many things that are clearly superior on a high-quality Android phone.
Why, in 2022, can you not set your own default apps to handle your email, your maps, your web browser, or your home screen? Apple makes it only possible to have its own apps as the defaults on iPhones, forcing the user into unnecessary gymnastics to use anything else. Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Chrome (among others) are extremely popular apps in the marketplace that people would set as their defaults if they could. I don’t understand how this isn’t considered a blatant anti-trust violation, as it severely limits users’ choice of how they want to compute on their own devices.
Editing and writing text on the iPhone is far clunkier, with poor autocorrect, inaccurate gestures for moving your cursor and selecting text, and inferior one-finger “glide typing” to what’s possible on Android with GBoard. Even though Apple has recently allowed alternative keyboards like GBoard on the iPhone, it still mysteriously switches your keyboard to the Apple keyboard constantly, depending on which app you’re using. WHY?
Siri has been proven in tests to be an inferior digital assistant to Google’s in 3rd party testing, and her incompetence with simple requests hampers the overall experience of using the phone.
On Android’s open ecosystem, the user is free to completely replace the built-in Google Assistant if there’s something they’d like better — say, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, Samsung Bixby, or something else. Even though Google Assistant leads the pack in functionality, it may not be the best thing for you, so you (as the user) have the right and the ability to configure your phone the way you want to. It’s galling to my sense of autonomy that Apple forces users to use its not-too-bright assistant when they’d probably prefer a better alternative.
This is especially true (and dangerous) in the car, where eyes-free performance is critical for safety.
Car Auto Interface
Apple CarPlay is inferior to Android Auto in my 2019 Honda Odyssey. Again it forces me to use Apple Maps rather than Google Maps unless I ask specifically for it, and often will act confused like “I don’t see an app for that”. Way to play coy, Siri. 😜 CarPlay makes it difficult to navigate to the screen where you can even see what song is playing, where Auto gives you a nice integrated interface that blends your map, music controls, and buttons for invoking the assistant. After having used both, I found Android Auto to offer at least a better maps experience and digital assistant (which both led to a safer driving experience), but I also thought the layout was easier to navigate overall than CarPlay.
The notifications on iPhone are far less customizable than those on Android, since they can only be customized per app, rather than for different types of notifications within apps. For example, if you don’t want promotional message from an app like YouTube, iOS only lets you turn off all notifications from that app, while Android lets you turn off only the promotional messages so you can still get updates about your prescriptions. This is called Android’s Notification Channels, and they enable the user fine-grain control over what kinds of notifications each app can send.
The Share menu on iOS is significantly inferior to Android’s, in that it artificially limits your ability to share media and text with other apps on your phone. It tries to “think for you” and give you the choices it thinks you want, and ends up limiting your options to only what Apple or the app developers will allow. For example, trying to share photos I’ve taken into Reddit or Instagram only works sometimes, based on some mysterious calculation of when the Share menu will allow me to. Android’s Share menu lets you do absolutely anything that is technically possible to do without getting in your way or limiting your options. I love it.
Android has historically lagged behind Apple devices in the area of music creation, as its hardware latency has been consistently inferior to Apple’s. Even as the hardware situation is improving somewhat, the app ecosystem for audio creation apps has lagged as developers perceive the platform as not being able to support the kinds of experiences they want to offer. While there are some 1st-quality apps like FL Studio and Roland ZenBeats that run on Android, the platform still lags for serious audio creation, and I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t. Google really needs to step up in this area if it is to attract musicians and content creators to its platform, full stop.
With that said, I didn’t end up doing any more audio creation on my iPhone than I did on my old Androids, so the wide range of audio apps didn’t benefit me as much as I though it would. I still default to my Mac as my main music creation platform, so having an iPhone didn’t significantly improve my mobile music creation like I thought it would.
Apple has been marketing itself as the more secure and privacy-protecting platform for years. In practice it achieves this by limiting the user’s actions to only what it deems “secure”. The greater level of freedoms Android grants its users has opened up the platform to the possibility of malicious apps causing mischief with user data, but also frees knowledgeable users to make even better choices about their privacy than is possible on iOS.
Specifically, the issue of sideloading apps (or “installing apps from somewhere other than the App Store”) is a practice Apple strictly forbids and Google lets users do if they want (though disables by default and warns about the dangers every time). If you’re on Android and only download apps from the Google Play Store, you are as protected as Apple users are, which is ~98+% of Android users.
If you decide you want to sideload an app from a source you trust (which is something we all can do on desktop computers, remember), you are free to do that on Android at your own risk.
Privacy-protecting apps like the Guardian Project are only available on Android due to its freedom to install software on your own device without personally identifying yourself to a commercial entity like Apple or Google.
The sideload-able F-Droid app store lets you install only open source software that does not personally identify you to any 3rd party without your consent.
A leading voice in online privacy, Edward Snowden actually released an Android-only app to enhance your security from hacks where a malicious actor gains control of your phone.
In this way, people who know what they’re doing can actually be more private and secure on Android than is possible within the Apple ecosystem.
Apple has a history of limiting users’ options, loudly claiming that they’re improving the user experience while the same practices secretly enhance Apple’s monopolistic business objectives. Its restriction of any apps from other sources than the App Store can be understood as a monopolistic move to reap 30% of all the money exchanged from within its apps, as the Epic Games vs. Apple lawsuit makes clear.
The Home Screen vs. Android Launchers
Open an iPhone and you’re brought to the iconic grid of app icons (or folders of app icons) as your home screen. Everybody has the same thing, and it’s been mostly unchanged since the first iPhone in 2006.
Android enables users to replace this home screen with a wide variety of home screen “launchers” that offer various advantages over the stock home screen. Some offer aesthetic customizations to make the experience look and feel better, some offer gestures to accomplish frequent tasks from the home screen, some require fewer computing resources so they can run snappily on older phones. My consistent favorite over the years is Nova Launcher Prime but I have enjoyed many of the diverse launchers available, many of which bring great productivity and aesthetic advantages over the stock launcher or iOS’ stock interface. Microsoft Android Launcher is great if you use a lot of Microsoft products and services, while Action Launcher and Smart Launcher cleverly save the user time and mindspace through powerful gestures and an uncluttered UI. You can even choose a crazy text-based launcher like AP15 or a 3D morphing app grid like Lens Launcher or a raw info overload like AIO Launcher that can put all the information you care about front and center in your phone’s interface. This wide variety of home screens leads to real gains in productivity every day, as you can surface only the apps and features you use most, and make them optimally easy to use.
The App Ecosystem
While Apple and Google’s App Stores are now much more equal than they’ve ever been, you will still find that the hot new apps the kids are using come to Apple first. This is because it’s always been easier and more profitable for developers to design to Apple’s limited set of device sizes rather than the dizzying array of Android devices.
While iPhones consistently rank high in camera performance, you might be surprised to note that they’re not always #1, and in some respects fall behind other Android phones – some you’ve never heard of. Independent rating house DXOMark publishes its list of the top camera smartphones, and my new Google Pixel 7 Pro currently holds the #1 spot. The top ranks are filled with Chinese Android OEMs you may not have heard of, such as Honor, Huawei, Oppo, and Xiaomi that even beat out Samsung.
My previous favorite Android OEM was OnePlus, that made wonderful and affordable Android phones, but the cameras were always a mixed bag. They could capture gorgeous photos, but only under favorable conditions. My new Google Pixel 7 Pro changes that — it consistently takes great snaps, and then uses on-board AI processing to optimize shots to an amazing degree. Even coming from a two-year-old top-of-the-line iPhone 12 Pro, the photos and video on my Pixel are visually superior in their detail, color, and clarity.
The Relationship between the App and the OS
Android and iOS have a fundamental difference in the way each app relates to the overall operating system of the phone. On iOS, each app is its own closed experience — you open it and interact with it the way the developers of that app intended.
On Android, the features of the operating system permeate the app experience — tools like search, keyboards, sharing, and the launcher screen can actually reach into different apps to enable you to leverage their functionality, even if you’re not IN that app. This provides a greater sense of consistency, as things like the sharing menu are the same in each app, not separately dictated by the various developers of each different app.
This is a difference that has persisted all the way back to the very earliest iPhones and Androids, and speaks to the different paths these devices’ software has taken in its development. I’ve never heard an explanation why it is this way, but I wonder if it’s related to Google’s focus on search to unify the overall experience of the device.
The Relationship between the User and the Manufacturer
I believe that the technology should serve the user, and not vice versa. We are the masters, our tools should be the tools. I was swayed by Anil Dash’s manifesto The Case for User Agent Extremism, in which he calls out large corporations for making our tools work for their interests and against ours:
“The idea captured in the phrase “user agent” is a powerful one, that this software we run on our computers or our phones acts with agency on behalf of us as users, doing our bidding and following our wishes. But as the web evolves, we’re in fundamental tension with that history and legacy, because the powerful companies that today exert overwhelming control over the web are going to try to make web browsers less an agent of users and more a user-driven agent of those corporations. This is especially true for Google Chrome, Microsoft Internet Explorer and Apple Safari, though Mozilla’s Firefox may be headed down this path as well.”
Allowing the maker of your smartphone to dictate what you can and can’t do with your own (very expensive) property is not a situation we have to take lying down. It has real-world ramifications on your ability to repair old devices, use software that makes your life easier, and spend your money (or not) in the ways that you want. I feel those freedoms threatened when I use Apple products, and I feel much less like that when I use Android.
One of the most egregious examples is Apple’s use of iMessage to exclude non-Apple users, creating a broken communication ecosystem where people literally can’t chat with one another without going outside Apple’s default text messaging app. This breakdown of core smartphone functionality preserves and enhances Apple’s dominance of the smartphone market by excluding users from the very conversations they want to participate in unless they buy the company’s devices. This has effectively created a social stigma around using non-Apple devices, and deputized everyone else into Apple’s marketing department to push its products over the competition. Efforts by Google to create one level playing field for messaging across all devices has been actively rejected by Apple in order to preserve their exclusive dominance.
As mentioned above, Apple has a tendency to take away your ability to perform certain actions that threaten their business objectives and those of their corporate partners. The Free Software Movement (that is: “free” as in “freedom”, as well as in “free beer”) is a group of thinkers and technologists who actively rebel against this kind of corporate overreach into our freedoms. Android is (at its heart) free software that can work independently of Google’s intervention in the ecosystem. By being on this platform, I’m brought into closer contact with free/libre/open source software activists that create tools for living an anti-corporate, human-centric computing life.
The Mis-Perception of Superiority
Most people default to the iPhone because it’s perceived to be “the best”. We would do well to sharpen our thinking, asking “the best at what?” “The best for whom?” In the cases above, you will find that Android has clear advantages in several specific areas, and if those areas are interesting to you, I’d urge you to give the platform a second look.
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