Head to head: iPhone vs. Android

Two PCWorld editors face off in the battle of the smartphone platforms.

With the recent announcement that, at long last, Apple's iPhone is coming to Verizon Wireless's CDMA network, arguments are blazing over which smartphone operating system reigns supreme. Many Verizon customers are asking themselves whether they should stick with the carrier's Android devices or jump ship to iOS.

PCWorld editors Tom Spring and Robert Strohmeyer both have strong views on the subject, and they're ready to present their arguments. First up, senior editor Tom Spring explains why he's had it with Android.

Hasta la Vista, Android; Hello (Again), iPhone

In the beginning, turning on my Droid X for the first time felt triumphant, exciting, nearly revolutionary in the face of the omnipresent iPhone minions. My new Motorola Android phone croaked a baritone "Droid" as its freakish red eye blinked and looked into my eyes for the first time. It was love at first sight. Now, seven months later, the honeymoon is over.

These days, pulling the hulking smartphone from its charging perch makes me wince -- will it freeze on me today? Thanks to Verizon, my wireless carrier, I can now flee to the iPhone. It's a new dawn.

Should I switch to the iPhone? No question about it!

Here are seven reasons I'm ditching my Droid X (and maybe even Verizon) for the iPhone.

Core Apps Are Too Buggy

Too often, trying to view images I've imported and taken with the Droid X camera produces the message 'unsupported file type'. I reboot my Droid X, and bingo: Images and videos are suddenly viewable. I have the same problem with audio files; as I gear up to listen to music, the dreaded 'unsupported audio type' message appears. Pressing Restart solves the problem.

Then there are the Android OS lockups in which the only solution is either a reboot or pulling the battery from the back of the phone to force a reset. I also would love to use the Voice Commands app bundled with the phone, but the application takes 10 seconds (an eternity in smartphone time) to load and prompt me to 'Say a command'.

If such occurrences cropped up only on a monthly basis, I could live with it. But I'm running into these types of errors weekly. It's gotten so bad, I'm thinking one of these days a Blue Screen of Death will appear and I'll have to press Ctrl-Alt-Delete to reset my phone.

Think I'm alone? Multimedia bugs are some of the most frequently complained about topics on DroidXForum.com and Motorola's troubleshooting support forum.

My Droid-centric colleague Robert will try to counter this argument, but he is conveniently sidestepping the fact that my criticism concerns preinstalled and core apps that are frozen onto my Android phone. It's one thing to gripe about apps I download from third parties, but this is another matter entirely. My current iOS devices and my past iPhone had core apps that were far more reliable. I'm not imagining things, either: Check out Motorola's support forums, where the petition to remove the Droid X's preinstalled apps has garnered 108,000 views so far.

Tax on Accessories

Want to buy a speaker charging dock for your Android phone to listen to all the great music on it? Good luck tracking one down. If you do find one (let me know), you can bet that the pricing and selection will be discouraging. In the meantime, you'll have to snake wires from your phone's audio-out jack to a sound system's audio-in.

The problem, of course, lies not with the Android OS, Motorola, or Verizon. The issue is that Apple has cornered the market in third-party audio-dock devices. I don't like this fact much myself -- but I certainly like the options that the iPhone affords.

According to my buddy Robert, I should be content with the stereo jack and the Droid's built-in DLNA streaming capabilities. Earth to Robert: I'm a big fan of wireless DLNA -- the only problem is the paucity of affordable multimedia players that support it. The fact that both of our Droids support micro-HDMI is great, but we still have hardly any multimedia docking and charging stations for Android phones to choose from.

Video on Android Blows

There has to be a better way to get great-looking video on my phone. I have several movies and television shows that I'm just itching to get onto my Android handset. With iTunes I'm forced to jump through several hoops, but the end results are great (thanks to VLC Media Player for iOS). No matter how hard I try with my Android phone, no matter the video encoders I use or the video players I download from the Android Market, I'm left dissatisfied.

Video transferred to my phone via my PC looks choppy, has out-of-sync audio, and sometimes just won't play. Robert will try to play the it-works-on-my-phone-what-is-the-problem-with-Tom card, but give me a break. What's wrong with my Droid X? Good question. I would like to know the answer -- and so would the hundreds of people who are flocking to support forums such as DroidXForum and Motorola's site, complaining of similar problems.

I could use the undeletable Blockbuster app on my Droid X, but I'm a cheapskate. Blockbuster charges $4 for a 24-hour movie rental, and buying a movie costs $18 per title. I haven't used this service -- but judging from a number of unfavorable reviews in the Android Market and online, I won't be.

Robert will respond by trying to minimize the importance of mobile video and declaring it an unusual or undesirable use case; but I'm a mobile-video junkie, and I don't think I'm alone. Part of the allure of the Droid X was that its display was significantly larger than those of the iPhone and other handsets. That I'm somehow in a minority for wanting an easy and reliable way to put video onto my Droid X is absurd. To expect average users to use the HandBrake utility -- which is no iTunes as far as usability goes -- is unrealistic.

Verizon's Desktop-Software Disaster

As for the bloatware called V Cast Media Manager (a 111MB download), where do I start in describing my loathing for it?

V Cast Media Manager is free, and it's designed to help you download and transfer photos, videos, and music from your PC to your phone via USB cable. It requires a companion app that goes by the same name to be installed on the phone. The desktop program installed itself on my PC when I downloaded updated USB drivers from Verizon for linking my phone to my computer.

Here's what happened when I tried to use it.

I was able to transfer both full-length movies and video clips I shot with my Flip Mino camcorder; both were in the MPEG-4 format, which Motorola says the Droid X supports. But when I transferred each of my video clips, I received a prompt to install V Cast Media Manager onto my phone -- even though that software was already installed.

Worse, a cryptic message popped up on my phone's screen, stating: 'Data transport charges are applicable (depending on your data feature, if any) when using the V Cast Media Manager application on your phone.' But I was connected via USB -- what did that message mean? The app prompted me to create an account, and warned: 'With the creation process you can add a data feature or simply pay as you go at $1.99/MB.'

I had no clue what Verizon was talking about then -- and I've seen the same messages multiple times since. Each time, I take a deep breath and click the Accept button. Next, Verizon hits me with a sales pitch, offering 25GB of online storage for $3 a month. I'm warned that if I choose Continue, I'm agreeing to the charge; if I choose Decline, I'm told that I 'will be exited from the process.'

I press Decline each time, and without fail the app shows me a screen that says: 'Thank you for your interest in V Cast Media Manager. If you decide to sign-up for V Cast Media Manager in the future, please visit Get It Now or Get Apps from your handset to download the application and setup your subscription.'

As lame as iTunes is, at least it doesn't make me put up with this nonsense.

Verizon/Android Upsell Hell

The upsells from Verizon don't stop with online storage. If I want the cool feature of Visual Voicemail (standard with AT&T), it will cost me $3 with Verizon. (By the way, a Verizon sales representative told me that Visual Voicemail will cost $3 for Verizon iPhone users -- ouch.)

In the Android Market, Verizon has carved out its own boutique called V Cast Apps. In it you'll find such apps as V Cast Video and V Cast Visual Voicemail, which are labeled as "free." Technically the apps are "free" to download, but they serve no purpose unless you subscribe to the services (V Cast Video is $10 monthly).

Security

I don't buy the argument that the Android Market has lower-quality apps -- I've had just as many apps lock up on my old iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad as I have on my Droid X. But I am concerned about security.

In the iPhone universe, Apple reviews all apps before it allows them to be sold through its App Store. A similar kind of quality review doesn't exist in the Android world yet. That means we need to trust developers more, read user reviews more carefully, and -- for the paranoid -- buy mobile security software.

Although iPhones and Android-based handsets are both vulnerable to malware and phishing scams masquerading as legit apps, at least for now the iPhone seems to have taller castle walls.

Android Is Sloppy; iPhone Strives for Perfection

Apple is the ultimate control freak, dictating every aspect of the iPhone from the size and shape of the buttons to the selection of available apps. Some people see this as Apple's weakness, overzealous behavior that will forever marginalize the iPhone as a bit player.

I'd agree, but the flip side is dealing with nonstandard hardware, temperamental software (read above), and the chaotic Android Market. I'm okay with a porn-free App Store if that means I don't have to wade through 200,000 poorly organized and hard-to-navigate apps, as I currently do on the Android Market. As our colleague Jared Newman points out in his Android Market-App Store comparison: "Searching for "Angry Birds" returns 20 junky results (mostly ringtones, cheats, and knockoffs) before the actual game."

Robert will say that few significant apps are missing from the Android Market, but I have an eight-letter-word response: Scrabble. Not only is my favorite iOS game not available on my Android, but other iPhone apps have yet to become available on Android, too. And as Jared previously pointed out in his comparison, some apps "that exist on both platforms lack certain features in the Android version. PayPal, for example, can cash checks on the iPhone but not on Android."

When Verizon announced that it would offer the Droid X, which at the time blew the doors off the iPhone in terms of specs, I jumped at the chance to upgrade. But now I'm seriously reconsidering my choice.

Verizon's Droid X has no one fatal flaw, such as a faulty antenna. Rather, my gripe with my Verizon, Motorola, and the Droid X is that the phone's problems are more akin to water torture -- with each bug, glitch, and hiccup being another agonizing drop.

Next page: Robert Strohmeyer defends Android.

Robert Strohmeyer Makes His Case for Android

My esteemed colleague Tom Spring has presented his argument against Android phones and made a case for iPhone supremacy. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion, however puerile and ill-considered it may be. Allow me now to present my observations on the matter.

I won't try to convince you that iOS is a bad mobile platform. It isn't -- in fact, I think it's pretty great. I use an iPad daily in my work, and I have an absurd fortune invested in apps for the thing. But as a Verizon customer, I've already run through the pros and cons of the two OSs, and, for phones at least, I prefer the sophistication and versatility of Android to the limitations of the iPhone.

Tom has discussed a number of problems -- a few of them valid -- with Android phones, but he has failed to argue convincingly for the iPhone's superiority in most of those cases. He has criticized his Droid X for unstable apps, lame multimedia tools, and what he views as a poor selection of downloads in the Android Market. He has painted a picture of a phone plagued by weak security and sloppy implementation issues.

But on each of those charges, I don't believe the iPhone is appreciably better. A few of Tom's complaints have nothing to do with Android at all, and owe entirely to Tom's choices as a user. I'll explain why. I'll also explain why the trade-off for greater control over the OS and the device itself is well worth whatever minute gains the iPhone can offer in some features.

OS and App Stability

Buggy apps are a drag, to be sure, and I hate crashes every bit as much as Tom does. But iOS isn't immune to crashes, either.

Just last week, the Epicurious app (one of the most popular downloads in the Apple App Store) crashed repeatedly on my iPad. Every time I tapped the app's icon, it would load to a blank, black screen, and then suddenly drop me back to the iOS home screen without so much as an error message or acknowledgement that something was wrong. I did a hard shutdown on the device and started it up again, and then the app worked fine. This is far from an isolated incident. iOS crashes are so common that our sister publication Macworld has no shortage of how-tos for dealing with iOS hang-ups and crashes.

In the past year I've probably experienced about a dozen crashes like the one mentioned above on my iOS devices, and roughly a similar number (including that unbelievably irritating 'unsupported audio type' message that Tom mentioned) on my Droid. Both platforms can be infuriatingly buggy at times, and if we're keeping score, neither platform gets a point in this round.

Tom makes some hay of the fact that several of the apps that give him trouble are core apps that came with his phone, but I'm not moved by that argument. Not only do his claims ring untrue in light of my experience, but every single one of the Droid X's core apps is replaceable with a good alternative from the Android Market. Compare that with the App Store arrangement, in which Apple has spent the last three years aggressively defending its turf and preventing great third-party apps from competing with its included ones.

Tom also links to a petition to Motorola to remove the Droid X's core apps, which implies a complaint about the fact that you can't delete the Blockbuster app and a few others that you may not (and I certainly don't) want. I agree that the inability to delete apps is annoying, and I loudly second the motion to pressure Motorola to knock off the shenanigans. But have you ever tried to remove a core app from the iPhone? The complaint applies equally there.

Of course, I'm not at all trying to defend apps that crash, regardless of the platform. I just don't see the evidence that Android apps crash so much more than their equivalents on iOS.

Optional Accessories

You want a speaker dock for your iPhone? You have plenty to choose from, but they range in price from $60 to $1000 (most cost well over $150), and few play nicely with anything but an iPhone, which means they're single-purpose devices designed to keep you locked into Apple's ecosystem. Tom rightly points out the dearth of options designed explicitly for the Droid X, but this strikes me as a hollow victory. After all, both the iPhone and the Droid X (as well as a bunch of other Android phones) offer plenty of other multimedia output options that make expensive speaker docks look about as absurd as they actually are.

On iPhones and Android phones alike, you'll find a standard 3.5mm stereo jack. And both platforms support wireless streaming over DLNA. My Droid X has the advantage over the iPhone here, though, because it boasts a standard micro-HDMI port rather than a proprietary Apple connector. So I can buy a $5 micro-HDMI cable at any electronics store to hook my phone up to my HDTV, while Apple offers only composite and component cables for iOS devices at $39 a pop.

I do sometimes wish that we had more choices for Droid X cases and such, but I'm also glad they're not necessary just to avoid the call-ending grip of death that has plagued the iPhone 4.

Video Playback

There's no denying it: iOS devices are great for multimedia. You can buy and rent movies and TV shows straight from the devices through iTunes, and they work beautifully. By contrast, the lack of a stand-out source for video rentals and purchases on Android makes a Droid phone look like a poor choice for the video-on-the-go set. But let's examine this notion more closely.

According to Tom, no matter what video player he uses or what encoder he tries, he can't get decent video playback on his Droid X. I'm baffled by that statement, because I have lots of home movies on my Droid X, and they play great. I shot most of these with my Flip camcorder and simply dragged them to the Droid X's SD Card via USB with no extra effort or special encoding whatsoever, and the audio is synced perfectly. What could Tom possibly be doing wrong?

I don't have much interest in watching movies or TV shows on my phone, but for the sake of science I decided to try ripping a feature-length movie from DVD using the free HandBrake utility and copying that to my Droid. Again, it worked beautifully. Tom questions whether users should be expected to use a free download like HandBrake to put movies on their phones, yet he sees no problem with using a remarkably similar utility (VLC) for the same purpose. I don't get the distinction. It's not as if iTunes will rip a DVD movie to your iPhone.

Unlike Tom, I did give the Droid X's included Blockbuster app a try. After a quick registration process, I downloaded an item for $4. It works fine, and the video looks about as good as any iTunes download does on an iPhone, but I still don't see why Tom's so fired up to watch movies on his phone. (Fortunately, I have an inexpensive HDMI cable for my Droid X, so I watched most of the movie on my HDTV.)

Android still lags behind iOS in its selection of streaming video services, but that appears to be changing. VLC is coming soon for Android, as are Hulu Plus and Netflix.

Once I scratched the surface of Tom's whole video argument, it quickly crumbled. I give both platforms a point here. And I'm giving Tom a demerit for his inability to make video work (seriously, this stuff is virtually effortless on both platforms).

Carrier Nonsense

Wireless carriers use all kinds of dirty tricks to squeeze extra pennies out of their customers, and Verizon is shooting par for that course. Although I have to give Apple props for tying its carriers' hands with respect to lame add-on software and services, I don't think Verizon's crappy optional (and completely unnecessary) software offerings are particularly germane to the Android-versus-iPhone debate.

Case in point: I agree with Tom's assessment of V Cast Media Manager, which exists primarily as a tool for Verizon to make a few extra bucks off of ridiculous additional services for nearly every phone in its lineup. Unlike Tom, however, I would never have thought to use it. In fact, other than Tom, I don't know anybody who has ever used it beyond the purposes of testing it for an actual software review.

Because Android is designed to stand on its own, you have very little reason to ever pair it with desktop software. When I got my first Droid a couple of years ago, I just dragged all my music to the Music folder via USB, and went on my merry way. But if you really want to use a desktop app to manage music and videos on your Android phone, I'd humbly suggest Windows Media Player, which can recognize the device and automatically keep your libraries in sync much the same way iTunes does with the iPhone. It ain't rocket science.

Likewise, Verizon Visual Voicemail is an overpriced add-on service, a pale imitation of the free Google Voice service. Why Tom (or anyone else) would even consider subscribing to Verizon's Visual Voicemail when there's a free app for the free Google Voice service available for free download in the Android Market is a complete mystery to me. Did I mention that Google Voice is free?

Tom goes on to rant about other pointless Verizon upsells, but addressing them in turn is hardly worthwhile. Verizon doesn't strike me as being any worse than other carriers in terms of nickeling-and-diming customers with stupid add-on services, and that's not what we're here to talk about anyway.

Security

Whether smartphone security really matters at the present time is largely a topic of debate. Both iOS and Android have some vulnerabilities; but as far as I'm aware, neither has fallen prey to any particularly damaging attacks. Tom's suggestion that Apple has "taller castle walls" appears to be nothing more than an assumption at this point.

Choices, Choices

Tom argues that Android is "sloppy." I hear variations on this claim a lot, but I'm unconvinced. I've spent my fair share of time in iOS on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, and I have to agree that Apple has gone to great lengths to give the menus a touch of flair and consistency. But there's more to an interface than shiny chrome and faux-lighting effects.

When I look at my Droid X's screen, I get instant access to useful information. My to-do list is readily visible in a widget on the main screen, so I can see what needs my attention next; another widget I keep on the home screen lets me instantly capture notes, pictures, or voice recordings to Evernote.

App notifications appear in the top menu bar, and I can swipe it down to go straight to the most pressing notification. By contrast, while iOS will give me a push notification stating that some app somewhere on the device demands my attention, I then have to go swiping around the device looking for the app. And if I have multiple notifications, I have only the little red notification bugs above the various icons to guide me. I'd expect Apple's engineers to simplify this process, but they haven't.

These functional interface touches are excellent examples of the increased control and customizability that make Android great. iOS offers neither of these incredibly useful features, and I wouldn't trade them for any amount of Apple's design flair. Want to give Apple a point for polish? Fine. But give Android two points for usability here.

Only one company makes the iPhone, and only four versions of the thing have come out. And, as Tom points out, Apple polices its ecosystem through draconian measures. So, frankly, the fact that Apple has had as much trouble with its precious handsets as it has is a little perplexing.

By contrast, dozens of different Android devices are on the market. Each major wireless carrier offers multiple choices, some decidedly better than others. (See our chart of the top 10 Android phones for ratings and reviews.)

Tom tries half-heartedly to imply that the wealth of existing options for Android users is somehow a fault for the platform, but he doesn't get very far. As with the PC market, choice is a good thing, and the lamer options tend not to garner much attention from consumers.

Tom also brings up the App Store and the Android Market, and their respective selections. The Android Market has plenty of great options, and I'm hard-pressed to think of any top-notch iPhone apps that aren't also available in the Android Market (or at least reported to be coming soon). But I disagree that the Apple App Store is substantially better organized than the Android Market. Both are disasters.

What is so difficult about creating reasonable subcategories that would make download listings easier to navigate? In either store, searching for a good to-do list (a significant category in its own right) requires users to surf through hundreds of irrelevant entries for other apps that fall under the general category of productivity. Apple and Google should be equally embarrassed by the unnavigable state of their app markets.

On balance, though, I'll take choice over restriction anytime.

I'm currently on my second Android phone, and I'm looking forward to my third sometime in the coming year (when the first wave of LTE models hits Verizon). As for the Verizon iPhone? Tom can have it.

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Tom Spring and Robert Strohmeyer

PC World (US online)
Topics: Motorola, Apple, apple iphone, consumer electronics, verizon, Android, Phones, Verizon Wireless
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