Choosing a smartphone operating system

How to… choose a smartphone operating system

Buying a smartphone should be easy, and you probably already have an idea about what you want. But with so much choice on the market, it’s important to take a step back and assess your needs and look at what the current crop offers as well as the crop of the near future, as there is always a smartphone just around the corner that boasts more speed and a sleeker design.

But the biggest consideration when buying a smartphone should be the operating system it runs on. You are essentially buying into an ecosystem, an ecosystem dominated by apps, cloud services and home-grown syncing. This is the most important consideration because some operating systems won’t have the apps you need and some operating systems won’t offer the features you need – which is why we have written a handy guide on choosing a mobile operating system below.

Have a read and make sure you buy into the right mobile ecosystem.

Smartphone operating systems – the basics

There are three main operating systems to consider:

  1. Android;
  2. iOS;
  3. Windows Phone.

Each of these operating systems has its pros and cons, so let’s run through them:

Android

This is the most customisable of the bunch. You can choose an unlimited number of keyboards, launchers, themes and you have free reign to root your device (and in turn run apps that require certain system settings). The current version of Android is Lollipop, and the version before that is Jellybean. If you are buying a new smartphone in 2015, you ideally want to have either Lollipop pre-installed or Jellybean pre-installed with a view to your manufacturer rolling out the latest version of Android for your device soon.

Android in a nutshell:

  • Intuitive;
  • Smooth and fast;
  • Customisable;
  • Phones to suit every budget;
  • 1.3 million apps on Google Play.

Market share (2014)*:

80% Complete

iOS

This is Apple’s home-grown OS. It can only be found on iPhone and iPad models and it has remained largely consistent in its design since its launch in 2007. The current version of iOS is iOS 8. iOS lacks the customisation of Android but it offers a more consistent user experience and more polished stock apps such as Messages and Photos. It offers a smooth, reliable smartphone experience that’s on-par with Android Lollipop however like-for-like, older versions of iOS are superior to older versions of Android overall.

iOS in a nutshell:

  • Polished;
  • Smooth and fast;
  • Exclusive to iPhone;
  • Not very customisable;
  • 1.2 million apps on the App Store.

Market share (2014)*:

30% Complete

Windows Phone

This is Microsoft’s OS. It’s about as customisable as iOS but it has a more modern user interface based on ’tiles’, which are the same tiles used in Windows 8. It offers an intuitive user interface that’s largely suited to professionals rather than private users, but it’s a neat operating system regardless. It’s slick, fast and doesn’t require a powerful processor and GPU to run properly, which makes it the ideal OS for budget smartphones. Windows Phone is a powerful alternative to Android and iOS, and well worth considering.

Windows Phone in a nutshell:

  • Excellent design;
  • Fast and slick;
  • High quality stock apps;
  • Unique features such as Live Apps;
  • 300,000+ apps in the Windows Store.

Market share (2014)*:

5% Complete

*market share bars are rough estimates based on IDC data.

Choosing a smartphone operating system

The differences between operating systems basically come down to three things:

  1. Hardware;
  2. Customisability;
  3. Apps.

Hardware

With regard to hardware, Apple have proved with iOS that you don’t need a lot of devices to succeed in the mobile market. As of now, there are only four iPhone models on the market – the iPhone 5C, iPhone 5S, iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. ¬†Google’s Android meanwhile runs on hundreds of devices currently on the market, not to mention the hundreds of devices that are no longer available to buy. Windows Phone is like Android in that respect, but it’s only available on around 15 devices on the market compared to hundreds running Android.

Customisability

Android is the most customisable operating system by far, followed by Windows Phone. Android lets you change practically everything about your device while Windows Phone has some fun personalisation options. Apple’s iOS meanwhile is much more rigid and you can’t change the look of your phone all that much, aside from changing the wallpaper. Unless you Jailbreak your iPhone, but even then you’re stuck with that grid like app view that iOS has become known for.

Apps

The ecosystem you tie into is a big deal. Android has the most apps with 1.3 million, closely followed by Apple with 1.2 million. There used to be an argument that apps on iOS were a higher quality than on Android, but that is no longer the case. Windows Phone only has around 300,000 apps in the Windows Marketplace, but of those apps many are important ones such as banking apps and social media apps. If you want lots of choice though, Android or iOS are your best bet.

How to choose a smartphone OS – last words

You should play around on each of these operating systems before you buy any hardware that runs them. Pay close attention to OS versions and only buy a smartphone that’s going to be supported with updates for two to three years at least – and that applies to tablets too.

Editor’s note: We have omitted BlackBerry from our article. The reason for this is that we do not believe that BlackBerry OS 10 is a viable alternative to Android, iOS or Windows Phone for 99% of consumers. There’s too few high quality apps and while we respect that it’s a stable, intuitive and much-loved platform among the faithful, it’s not as good as the main three in our opinion.

The Editor

The editor is the person who manages techlech. operations. Who is this mystery person? Could it be Chuck Norris? The only thing you need to know is that he (yep, it's a guy, and that's your only clue) loves technology.