Smartphone buyers can choose from four operating systems.
It’s a tough decision. After spending time with all four I can report they are all worthy of your attention. None performs badly or has fatal flaws.
While that doesn’t mean every one will be a perfect match for your needs, it does mean you won’t get left with something unusable.
Android 4, iOS 6, Windows Phone 8 and Blackberry 10 deliver basic smartphone services in style. Each comes with its own communications apps, address books, calendars and social media tools.
All handle photos and allow you to view web pages.None of them will let you down in these departments, although some handle certain task better than others – there’s no clear winner when it comes to basic OS functions.
OS follows smartphone hardware
For most people hardware determines their smartphone operating system. Apple’s iOS only runs on iPhones and Blackberry 10 only runs on Blackberry handsets.
A handful of brands make phones using Windows Phone 8, but Microsoft’s hardware specification is so tight the difference between models is relatively slight.
In contrast Google’s Android operating system runs on a wide choice of phones ranging from cheap and nasty throwaway devices all the way to swish flagships like Samsung’s Galaxy S4.
Just to confuse matters, there’s as much variation between different Android versions as there is between the four main operating systems.
Putting hardware aside, the other issue for most buyers is the choice of apps. It’s easy to get hung up on this, but you’ll find almost all the most important apps are either available in their own right on each phone OS or there’s a functional equivalent.
Beyond the most popular apps, it comes down to your specific needs. Apple and Android have the biggest choice of apps, but frankly the difference between the 800,000 or so apps they offer and the 120,000 or so Blackberry offers is meaningless. You’re not even going to explore one percent of any range.
Having said that, many important, useful or, to some people, essential apps, are only available in one operating system. If that’s the case, your choice is made. Buy a phone and an OS that will run your must-have apps. These people can stop reading this story now.
Cathedral or bazaar?
Most people don’t want to customize their phones. Those who do should choose Android. It’s relatively easy to get under Android’s skin and change all manner of things. Geeks love Android for this reason – it’s open. You can tinker a little with the look of Windows Phone 8 but getting inside the phone is harder – you can’t easily open folders and hack files.
Changing the iPhone is harder again. You can ‘jail-break’ the phone, but that’s beyond the scope of this comparison.
Again, it’s easy to get hung up on customisation. In practice, hardly anyone – maybe 10 percent of users – hacks their Android into shape. If that matters to you, buy an Android.
There’s also a pay-off, the more rigid operating systems are easier to use and less confusing. Or to put it another way, it’s harder to screw-up an iPhone than an Android.
In a nutshell
iOS: Simple and stylish mobile OS. Everything is beautifully designed, things always work as expected.
Apple’s operating system blends seamlessly with the hardware. You’ll get the best choice of apps and Apple-only built-in software like the excellent Facetime app for video conferencing along with baked-in cloud back-up.
On the downside, Apple’s phones are expensive and lack the latest must-haves such as large screens. Apple can be high-handed and annoying at times, remember when it dropped Google Maps and moved to its own alternative? Some users don’t like be corralled in what they see as Apple’s walled garden. Others think this is far better than the alternatives.
Android: Can be a mess at times but offers the greatest amount of freedom.
Android is most popular phone OS by far. Feature-wise Android matches iOS, although things don’t always hang together as elegantly. And because Android covers a range of hardware, you won’t necessarily get the same Android experience on two different phones.
Be careful which version of Android comes with the phone you pick, avoid anything less than version 4.0 if you want the full choice of applications.
Phone makers often layer their own software on top of Android which may or may not be a good thing depending on your taste.
Windows Phone 8: Elegant and smooth, integrates beautifully with desktop Windows and Microsoft Office. Good social media integration. A well-designed user interface. Less freedom to tinker than with Android, more than with iOS.
Windows Phone 8’s live tiles give the OS a distinctive look, these are programmable icons which you can rearrange on the phone’s home screen to pull certain information to the front.
On the downside, WP8 uses Microsoft’s Bing search engine which many believe is inferior to Google, And Mac owners report poor compatibility with the phone OS. You’ll see fewer and different apps when compared to iOS or Android.
BlackBerry 10: Puts communications front and centre. There’s a universal inbox giving instant access to all incoming messages and the operating system and hardware are optimised for communications functions. Nice keyboard, features to endear the phone to corporate IT departments and easy multitasking.
BlackBerry’s main weakness is the lack of apps – fewer than the other three phone operating systems – and less room for customisation. Some people find the user interface a shade too minimal.