Android is an amazing success, a mobile operating system that has persisted and flourished where its competitors have died out. Now, Android is one of two major mobile operating systems on the planet, used by thousands of devices and home to untold innovation. However, Google’s unique approach to developing the OS means it has distinctive strengths and weaknesses, and that’s what we’ll cover today. Let’s get right into it, starting with a big strength: freedom!
My favourite feature of Android is the freedom that it provides. In contrast to Apple’s locked-down and locked-in ecosystem, Google basically give you the tools to do what you like. You can turn off the safeties and install strange apps or stranger app stores, rewrite the very code of the operating system or download someone else’s custom ROM.
There are thousands of tutorials online of how to do this, and a supportive community that collectively works to unlock restrictions and extend what is possible with a smartphone. If there’s something you want to do with an Android smartphone, it is almost certainly possible with the right know-how. This is a refreshing outlook, but Android’s freedom does come with a downside.
The most obvious disadvantage to Google’s open approach is security - or rather, the lack thereof. By opening your device and turning off features designed to keep you safe, you run the risk of installing malware, programs designed to subtly or overtly steal your personal information, hold hostage your data or simply ruin your phone. There are also unintended harms, poorly written apps and custom operating systems that can turn a happy, healthy smartphone into a buggy, writhing mess of missing functionality.
That means, more so than on an iPhone, you need to understand what you’re doing and make careful choices. Don’t click on those confusing ‘Download here’ ads, don’t plug your phone into a public USB port and don’t install a new ROM without backing up your data first. The ongoing Facebook privacy debacle proves that data misuse is common on all platforms, but by being sensible you can at least avoid the worst of it.
Next up, choice. There are so many Android phones, with dozens of manufacturers making hundreds or even thousands of models per year. The bulk of the sales are claimed by a few major players - Samsung, Oppo, Xiaomi and Huawei - but even within these four manufacturers, there is a great depth to be found.
There are high-end flagships with amazing cameras and bleeding-edge processors, quirky mid-tier phones with unique features and budget marvels that provide last year’s performance at a fraction of the price. If you look further afield, you’ll find Android smartphones specialised for all kinds of niche activities, from gaming to working outdoors to simply being incredibly rich or privacy-conscious.
Whatever your preferences, there is sure to be an Android smartphone for you - and with many more models to choose from, there are phones at dramatically lower price points than any iPhone.
However, all of that diversity means that choosing the right phone can be a challenge.
Yes, the Google Pixel 3 XL has the best camera and good performance, but its hardware design is boring. The Oppo Find X boasts an incredible all-screen design, but its software experience is middling at best. The Galaxy Fold is a truly next-generation device, but it costs nearly £2000. All of these phones might be the best phone for someone, but none of them are obviously the best phones in each category.
By comparison, Apple make it easy: there are two or three phones each year, pick the size you want and leave it at that; there are no other options to consider.
The Galaxy Fold is also a good example of the speed at which the Android ecosystem moves. If Android phone makers aren’t copying Apple at break-neck speed, they’re trying all sorts of new designs, features and software interfaces to see what sticks.
If we consider display technologies, we’ve seen traditional screens be replaced with notched screens, notches replaced with sliding designs, sliders supplanted by hole punch camera cut-out - and all of this in the past two or three years. It’s a similar situation for login methods, with fingerprint sensors going from the front to the back, to the side, to under the screen, to ultrasonic or gone entirely, all in the past eighteen months.
While Apple have debuted their own innovations, Android phones invariably get there first and iterate much faster than a single company can copy, bringing these once-premium features down to the mid-range and budget models in months or years. If you want the latest and greatest, Android is the place to be.
However, that rapid pace of adoption and the vast number of Android smartphones means that their manufacturers are ill-incentivised to support each individual phone for very long at all. Despite Google’s drive to guarantee long-term support, even security updates can arrive late, post-launch feature additions are few and far between and major Android revisions may never arrive, even on last year’s flagships.
Over in iPhone land, the latest iOS 12 can be installed on phones all the way back to the iPhone 5S, which was released six years ago. Its chief competitor at that time, the Samsung Galaxy S4, was last updated in 2014 with Android 5, making it five years and four major revisions behind.
Android phone makers continually promise improvements in this area and community developers work to bring new Android versions to old devices, but the desertion of older phones remains a massive issue in the Android ecosystem.
These are my takes on the strengths and weaknesses of Android - but what do you think? Let me know on Twitter @wsjudd. Thanks for checking out the article and we’ll see you here once again for the next one!