I’ve been an iOS user ever since I got my first smartphone in 2008, an iPhone 3G. I had paid just $99 for the brand new iPhone, on contract with AT&T. And I was completely blown away. Since then I’ve skeptically but faithfully upgraded my iPhone over the years and my ‘latest’ iPhone is a now aging iPhone 6 Plus. With iOS 11 really killing performance on this device (more later), I’m looking at an upgrade. Usually, I’d just get the latest iPhone and be set for the next 2-3 years but Android Oreo seemed interesting, so here are my pros-and-cons as I consider switching.
I tested iOS 11.1 (latest) on my own iPhone 6 Plus 64 GB, released in Sept 2014. The entry level model is a $750 LTE phone with a 1.4 GHz dual-core Apple A8 processor (ARMv8 64-bit instruction set) and 1GB RAM. For Android Oreo (latest), I used a spare OnePlus X, released in Nov 2015. It’s a $250 4G phone with a quad core, 2.3Ghz Qualcomm Krait 400 processor (ARMv7 32-bit instruction set) with 3 GB RAM.
Basically the latest OS’s were tested. Yes, the Android phone is a year after iPhone 6+ but you can buy THREE Android phones for the price of one iPhone. Everyday usage on the Android is significantly faster than my iPhone 6+. I suspect it’s the tiny amounts of RAM Apple puts on its devices that cripple them on future iOS upgrades. Apple, think ahead.
- Just works: All core applications come with the OS, backups are reliable (everything in all apps gets backed up), upgrades are trivial (because backups and restores are solid)
- Privacy: Apple makes it’s money directly from you. You pay for the device, software and services. In return you have the entire might of Apple’s engineering team working hard for you.
- Security: Apple’s security architecture – from secure boot, to App sand-boxing to App store policies – ensures that all iOS software and apps undergoes Apple’s scrutiny.
- Updates: Apple has legendary support for their devices – for far longer than other vendors. Considering your phone has your most sensitive data, it’s great to have ongoing security updates. You also get new features with OS updates, but that sometimes excessively burdens older devices (see below).
- Unethical business practices: Apple and Qualcomm mutually get into a formal business agreement. Then Apple decides the deal they themselves agreed to is no longer fair. And then stops paying while continuing to use Qualcomm’s chips and relevant technologies. That’s like you waking up and deciding “my rent is unfair!”. So you squat in the rental place and stop making rent payments. And it’s not like Apple doesn’t have money – it’s on track to be the first trillion dollar corporation! With the latest lawsuit it also seems that Apple was intentionally stealing Qualcomm’s intellectual property and source code. There are reports that they asked Qualcomm engineers for deeply invasive, proprietary technical data and then forwarded that to Intel engineers. As a software guy myself, these allegations are deeply disturbing.
- Siri isn’t as smart as Ok Google: Honestly, compared to “Hey Google”, Siri and Alexa are both idiots. AI assistants should be like Apps – I should be able to replace Siri with Cortana or Alexa or Hey Google. Right now, Apple won’t let me do that.
- OS upgrades slow performance: Any iOS user will confirm that by the time you do 3 major OS upgrades (e.g. iOS 8 -> 9 -> 10 -> 11 for iPhone 6+) your device will slow down dramatically. Apple could separate security updates from OS updates (like Linux or Windows), so you could still be secure without upgrading to an OS that your hardware runs poorly. Or Apple could be more aggressive in trimming new OS features on older devices. It’s insane that it takes my iPhone 6 Plus on iOS 11 more time to respond with a simple text message than my 10+ year old Motorola or Nokia phones for the same task.
- Photos suck, Music sucks: During Jobs’ era, these were the shining stars. But Google’s offering – even on iOS – are now superior. I’ve switched to Google Photos and Google Music myself. It’s that good and it just works. Yes, this means Google’s AI algorithms will mine my photos but in this case, I feel I’m getting a better part of the deal.
- “Ok Google”: Sure, saying “Ok Google” makes you look like a total dork. I mean humans talk most naturally to other entities using names like “Alexa” or “Siri”. But leaving aside the “Hey <brandname>” strangeness, Google’s software is far more intelligent than both Alexa and Siri. Combined. I’d say it’s easily a generation head and Google is clearly flexing it’s muscle as an AI leader. Their system is able to understand and respond intelligently. In my testing with “Ok Google”, Alexa and Siri, the last two would often stumble on complex queries and commands while Google breezed through effortlessly.
- Customized defaults: On Android you can swap out ‘system’ default software with your app. Don’t like Google’s text message app? You can replace it. Same with contacts, calendar, phone dialer and a few other “core” phone features. Good luck with that on Apple’s iOS. Heck, Apple won’t even allow a non-safari browser engine on iOS – so “Firefox on iOS” uses the Safari engine under the hood.
- Customized OS: Android is open sourced and the emergence of Android Open Source Project (AOSP) means it’s now realistically possible for skilled developers to modify the OS and release customized “ROMS” (i.e. customized Android OS) cleansed of tracking software or bloated vendor-ware. Advanced users can then install these customized Android “ROMs”. I really like this level of customization – especially since our phones are highly personal. Apple won’t even let me downgrade their own iOS from 11 to 10 for speed!
- Diversity: You have many manufactures competing, so plenty of good choices at many different price points. This does add complexity when deciding on a device but it’s better to have more diversity than less. I must note that for the number of handset vendors in Android, the levels of innovation are low. In other words, most of the Android innovation happens only with a couple of vendors (e.g. Google, Samsung, sometimes LG) – the rest are just followers.
- (Google’s) Android exists only for data collection: Google makes most of it’s revenue from selling ads to businesses – not from you. Despite paying hundreds of dollars for the latest Pixel phone (Android flagship), it’s an insignificant source of revenue (<1%) for them. Google is basically an advertising company with very talented software engineers. If you don’t believe me, read their SEC 10-K report. Instead of putting ads between TV shows, it puts it in between web pages and app screens. For Google to exist and grow, their ad’s must sell at higher prices. For that it needs more of your private data to profile you more accurately. So you exist only for Ads. And that’s a bad start. Other vendors like LG, Samsung etc have a LONG way to go in replacing the entire Google software and app stack (Gmail, Calendar, Maps, Ok Google, Backup, Google Drive etc) while still delivering a top-notch mobile phone experience that respects privacy. So for most people Google’s Android is the only Android they’d experience.
- No privacy: To me, privacy is an offshoot of dignity. Because of #1 above, you’re always encouraged to use more of Google’s services. And every Google service is designed to do a certain job AND read your data for a better “I know you” ad profile. Example: Chrome will load pages quickly BUT it will also send information to Google’s servers to better profile you. Yes, there is private mode and yes you can delete historical data but those aren’t the defaults so practically, privacy is severely compromised. Note that you can never delete your ad profile (output of data collection) – just the history (input of data collection). So once you’ve trained the neural network with your data, removing historical data doesn’t really delete the results of the profiling – that will always live till you delete your Google account. Compounding this data grabbing ethos is that Google’s engineers make really good apps, which are also the defaults on most phones. It’s very easy to fall into a trap and use them. Bottom-line? Google ends up having your entire Android backup (i.e. e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. on your phone!), emails via Gmail, text messages through Google Messages, browsing history in Chrome (private mode isn’t the default) etc. Everything just to support #1 above.
- Creepy: #1 and #2 work to make things downright creepy. Before test driving my Android for a week I thought privacy advocates were nut job alarmists. However my own experience has been rather eye opening. Want a concrete example? Let’s begin by noting that even on the latest Android OS, apps can just have location permissions as On or Off. On iOS you have an additional choice, the most sensible in my opionion, “While using the app”. I mean if I invite guests for dinner, it’s only for a specific date and time. I don’t expect people to come in as they please and stay for as many days as they want. It’s time bound around a specific activity, like dinner tomorrow night. Same thing, I need location services to go from place A to B – not to track me 24/7. This isn’t theoretical, Android apps you likely use systematically abuse this (intentional?) loophole. The one day I had Facebook on my Android, I ended up re-visited a popular bar just to pick up my credit card forgotten from the previous night when I was there with my wife and friends. When I returned home with my forgotten VISA, Facebook asked me “Hey, you just went to this bar – how do you rate it?”. I was there for less than 5 minutes with my Android in my pocket – untouched. I never launched Facebook at that location. This highly invasive, 24/7 data collection is quite dystopian. Like 1984’s Big Brother or Minority Report’s personalized advertising. Sadly, as long as #1 and #2 are valid, there will always be economic incentive for this practice to grow. Makes me value the simpler agreement I have with Apple – I pay you for the phone and it works for me.
- More careful setup: Of course, if you want privacy, you’ll want to avoid all Google applications. Considering Google leads Android development and most phones default to Google’s apps, this is much harder to pull off than you’d think. It doesn’t help with Google constantly nagging to enable data collection if you were wise to control it before. For example: “Ok Google” wants me to turn on browser history (?!) when I asked it directions to a nearby restaurant! If you decline, you’re given a giant middle finger and the app shuts down. Google pretends to be pro-privacy by saying “(You) Take control of your privacy“. But it’s just an insincere way of putting the truth which is “Want privacy? You do all the difficult work! But we’ll always nag you to get to your data“. To stand any fighting chance, you need to search for alternatives for every app – browser, text messages, dialer/phone, email, contacts etc. There are many websites that show how this can be done but it requires an investment of time and patience on the user’s part.
- Inconsistent backups: I helped a relative move from one Android phone to another and the backup process was inconsistent. Some apps backed up, some didn’t, some lost their data etc. Android allows you to setup a new device if your old Android is nearby – but that’s inconsistent too. When I attempted it, it didn’t migrate over Outlook accounts. But I do wish Apple could have this sort of peer-to-peer migration instead of hopping through iCloud – it’d be a lot faster.
At a technical level, Android is amazing. But in most practical configurations and use cases, there are massive privacy concerns.
So for now it’s still iOS for me – despite the Apple-Qualcomm battle that I disagree with. I guess I value the ethics of my personal privacy more than ethics in a corporate feud. I’ll still keep my Android phone for tinkering but on’t be sign in to any Google account.
So you don’t like Google? Not true …
My relationship with Google is compartmentalized. It’s a massive organization and the Alphabet restructuring is a step in the right direction. Among other things, this allows new ventures to be independently explored without their integrity being compromised by the giant Google ad business. Only time will tell how it evolves…
When it comes to Google, I’m a fan of Google’s search engine, Google Cloud Platform, YouTube, Google Photos, Google Music. And when I’m advertising, Google Adwords too.
Ok, back on topic. What about phones?
Phone are the most important piece. That’s when you go from something abstract like operating system software to something more concrete you hold and use everyday. Ignoring the iOS choice above for a moment, I see a few candidates:
- iPhone X:
- [pros] good cameras, small form factor with great screen, monstrously fast processor
- [cons] fragile, no touch ID, face ID isn’t very secure, battery is ok, thousand dollars … for a phone?!
- iPhone 8 (not the bulk 8 Plus):
- [pros] monstrously fast processor, optical stabilized camera (same as X and 8 Plus), perfect size, less fragile than X, cheaper than X, has TouchID
- [cons] boring form factor as older phones (dated), large areas top and bottom of screen, LCD screen instead of OLED screen, lower resolution screen (for VR headset viewing distances).
- Google Pixel 2 XL
- [pros] Great camera, should be update friendly
- [cons] larger than iPhone X, screen burn issues, more work to “un-Google” for privacy.
- Samsung ???:
- [pro] Competition?
- [cons] Isn’t out yet. I had hoped that Samsung would have something to outdo iPhone X and Pixel 2 XL. Nothing so far 🙁
Note on prices
I had to mention this. My $0.02 is that smartphones should be priced in the $200 (low end) to $700 (high end) range. Moore’s law ensures that we can manage prices at escalating performance levels. To me, some of the $800+ phones come off as irresponsible purchasing decision. This is especially true when looking at industry projections that indicate a downward trend for the average smartphone prices. Yes, I understand I’m comparing the premium trend to the average trend – but still. Still, in my quest for the best camera on an iOS device (I love my kids’ photos!), I might end up buying an iPhone X (and hating myself for it).