SLIDESHOW

Smackdown: Android Market vs. iPhone App Store

The Android Market has made steady improvements since its introduction. But has it overtaken Apple's App Store? Let's find out.

Android Market vs. App Store

For the past few years, Apple's iPhone has benefited from having the best app store of any smartphone platform. Say what you will about Apple's walled garden, it hasn't stopped users from grabbing apps by the billions. Meanwhile, the Android Market started out as a second-class storefront, but steady improvements have addressed developers' complaints and made the market a more hospitable shopping destination. As Android and iPhone head into another year of what should be huge smartphone growth, which platform has the better app store right now? Let's compare the iPhone App Store and the Android Market head-to-head to find out.

Navigation

On the iPhone, buttons at the bottom of the screen provide access to every section of the store--Featured, Categories, Top 25, Search and Updates--so you're never more than a single tap away from any particular section.

Android makes greater use of its search and back buttons on the phone hardware, so more screen real estate is available--but at a price: In the absence of dedicated tabs for navigation, your only way to get around is via the back button, and you may soon find yourself five layers deep in a labyrinth of subcategories and searches.

Advantage: iPhone App Store

Discovery

Google recently spruced up the Android Market to emphasize featured apps, recommending a handful for each category in the store. But Apple has stepped up its discovery efforts as well, with curated lists such as "Apps for Movie Lovers," "iPhone Game of the Week," and "App Store Essentials." The App Store also provides a Genius tab, which recommends apps based on your existing library and a list of "what's hot" items. Window-shopping on Android isn't as much fun.

Advantage: iPhone App Store

Search

Since Google is a company that specializes in search, you'd expect a better job of app indexing than the Android Market actually provides. Searching for "Twitter" doesn't bring up the official Twitter app on the first page. Searching for "Angry Birds" returns 20 junky results (mostly ringtones, cheats, and knockoffs) before the actual game. The iPhone App Store, in contrast, has an almost telepathic sense of what you're looking for, backed by a powerful auto-suggest feature; and it gets generic searches right, as well.

Advantage: iPhone App Store

App Pages

Google's latest update to the Android Market bulked up the landing pages for individual apps. Users can now see reviews, ratings, related apps, and additional apps from the same developer. The layout resembles that of the iPhone App Store, but with a few clear advantages: The Android Market provides an e-mail address and a Website for each developer, and it allows you to uninstall or update directly from the app page.

Advantage: Android Market

Ease of Updates

The iPhone App Store devotes a separate tab to available updates, with the changes for each app listed directly on that page. You can update apps individually or all at once. Android has an 'update all' option, but the version notes are buried within each individual app page. Still, I'm giving this one to the Android Market because there, unlike at the App Store, you can turn on automatic updates for any app you like.

Advantage: Android Market

User Reviews

The Android Market allows you to mark user reviews as helpful or unhelpful, but it squanders this system by displaying all reviews chronologically. I've also noticed obvious spam, such as ads for DroidSingles.info, among the reviews for several apps. The iPhone App Store's review system isn't much different, but it shows reviews only for the app's latest update, so you don't have to contend with outdated feedback. The App Store also lists the number of reviews an app's rating is based on, which gives you some sense of whether a five-star average is bogus or legit.

Advantage: iPhone App Store

Web Access

The App Store Website has a Web landing page for every app in the store, with a description, version notes, user reviews, screenshots, pricing, and system requirements. The Android Market Website's limited app showcase looks lazy by comparison. Fortunately, other Websites such as AppBrain (pictured at left, where the Android Market screen usually appears in this slideshow) can post QR codes that provide a direct link to the Android Market when scanned by the phone. The App Store Website links only to iTunes software, which is best avoided whenever possible.

Advantage: Android Market

Payment Options

The Android Market offers stingy folks one big advantage: You can download free apps without ever entering credit card information. On the iPhone, you need an iTunes Store account; however, this brings several advantages (in the form of Paypal support and gift cards) to paying customers. You can also send an app to another iPhone user as a gift. Close call, but I'm picking the iPhone's easy payment options over Android's easy nonpayment option.

Advantage: iPhone App Store

Refunds

Having second thoughts about the Android app you just bought? Within 15 minutes of purchase, you can get a full refund by heading to the 'My Apps' section of the menu, selecting the application, and pressing the 'Uninstall & Refund' button. Officially, the iPhone App Store has no refund policy other than for apps that don't download properly. Some users claim to have beaten that system, but I wouldn't count on it.

Advantage: Android Market

App Quantity

Bigger isn't necessarily better, but it does increase your odds of finding what you want. And the iPhone App Store is bigger, with an official count of 280,000 apps as of October 2010. Android's app count is growing fast, as this graph from Distimo shows, but it hasn't caught up to the iPhone's yet. An unofficial count of apps available at the Android Market in late December turned up 200,000 apps.

(Image courtesy of Distimo)

Advantage: iPhone App Store

App Quality

The relative quality of two huge app stores is tough to guage, but I think John Gruber made a good point when he said that there's a shortage of exclusive Android apps that Apple would allow in the iPhone App Store. Most of the highest-ranked paid Android applications of 2010, according to Distimo, are task killers, widgets, rooting tools, and backup utilities. Looking at my colleague JR Raphael's lists of must-have Android apps, those that don't fall into the "not possible on iOS" category are either made by Google or already available on the iPhone.

Meanwhile, numerous must-have iPhone apps aren't available on Android. And 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.

Advantage: iPhone App Store

App Prices

Counting only paid apps, the Android Market is less expensive than the iPhone, with an average selling price of $3.23 versus the iPhone's $4.31, according to an August 2010 study by Distimo. But if you narrow the lists down to each store's top 100 paid apps, Apple's store is less expensive, at $2.15 per app versus $4.57 per app in the Android Market.

For the tiebreaker, we go to Distimo's ratio of free to paid apps. In the Android Market, 60 percent of apps are free, compared with 29 percent in the iPhone App Store. In view of the much higher proportion of free Android apps, you'll probably spend less in the Android Market.

Advantage: Android Market

Verdict

The Android Market has come a long way over the past few years, to the point of beating the iPhone on major features such as updates, refunds, and Web access. But despite recent tweaks to the Android Market's look and feel, it still doesn't equal the iPhone App Store. Apple's storefront is easier to browse and has a wider selection of apps. When you set aside the open versus closed debate, which has more to do with the Android and iOS platforms as a whole than with their respective app marketplaces, Apple shines.

Winner: iPhone App Store