Head to Head: iPhone vs. Android

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Robert Strohmeyer Makes His Case for Android

My esteemed colleague Tom Spring has presented his argument against Android phones and made a case for iPhone supremacy. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion, however puerile and ill-considered it may be. Allow me now to present my observations on the matter.

Robert Strohmeyer defends Android
I won't try to convince you that iOS is a bad mobile platform. It isn't--in fact, I think it's pretty great. I use an iPad daily in my work, and I have an absurd fortune invested in apps for the thing. But as a Verizon customer, I've already run through the pros and cons of the two OSs, and, for phones at least, I prefer the sophistication and versatility of Android to the limitations of the iPhone.

Tom has discussed a number of problems--a few of them valid--with Android phones, but he has failed to argue convincingly for the iPhone's superiority in most of those cases. He has criticized his Droid X for unstable apps, lame multimedia tools, and what he views as a poor selection of downloads in the Android Market. He has painted a picture of a phone plagued by weak security and sloppy implementation issues.

But on each of those charges, I don't believe the iPhone is appreciably better. A few of Tom's complaints have nothing to do with Android at all, and owe entirely to Tom's choices as a user. I'll explain why. I'll also explain why the trade-off for greater control over the OS and the device itself is well worth whatever minute gains the iPhone can offer in some features.

OS and App Stability

Buggy apps are a drag, to be sure, and I hate crashes every bit as much as Tom does. But iOS isn't immune to crashes, either.

Just last week, the Epicurious app (one of the most popular downloads in the Apple App Store) crashed repeatedly on my iPad. Every time I tapped the app's icon, it would load to a blank, black screen, and then suddenly drop me back to the iOS home screen without so much as an error message or acknowledgement that something was wrong. I did a hard shutdown on the device and started it up again, and then the app worked fine. This is far from an isolated incident. iOS crashes are so common that our sister publication Macworld has no shortage of how-tos for dealing with iOS hang-ups and crashes.

In the past year I've probably experienced about a dozen crashes like the one mentioned above on my iOS devices, and roughly a similar number (including that unbelievably irritating 'unsupported audio type' message that Tom mentioned) on my Droid. Both platforms can be infuriatingly buggy at times, and if we're keeping score, neither platform gets a point in this round.

Tom makes some hay of the fact that several of the apps that give him trouble are core apps that came with his phone, but I'm not moved by that argument. Not only do his claims ring untrue in light of my experience, but every single one of the Droid X's core apps is replaceable with a good alternative from the Android Market. Compare that with the App Store arrangement, in which Apple has spent the last three years aggressively defending its turf and preventing great third-party apps from competing with its included ones.

Tom also links to a petition to Motorola to remove the Droid X's core apps, which implies a complaint about the fact that you can't delete the Blockbuster app and a few others that you may not (and I certainly don't) want. I agree that the inability to delete apps is annoying, and I loudly second the motion to pressure Motorola to knock off the shenanigans. But have you ever tried to remove a core app from the iPhone? The complaint applies equally there.

Of course, I'm not at all trying to defend apps that crash, regardless of the platform. I just don't see the evidence that Android apps crash so much more than their equivalents on iOS.

Optional Accessories

You want a speaker dock for your iPhone? You have plenty to choose from, but they range in price from $60 to $1000 (most cost well over $150), and few play nicely with anything but an iPhone, which means they're single-purpose devices designed to keep you locked into Apple's ecosystem. Tom rightly points out the dearth of options designed explicitly for the Droid X, but this strikes me as a hollow victory. After all, both the iPhone and the Droid X (as well as a bunch of other Android phones) offer plenty of other multimedia output options that make expensive speaker docks look about as absurd as they actually are.

On iPhones and Android phones alike, you'll find a standard 3.5mm stereo jack. And both platforms support wireless streaming over DLNA. My Droid X has the advantage over the iPhone here, though, because it boasts a standard micro-HDMI port rather than a proprietary Apple connector. So I can buy a $5 micro-HDMI cable at any electronics store to hook my phone up to my HDTV, while Apple offers only composite and component cables for iOS devices at $39 a pop.

I do sometimes wish that we had more choices for Droid X cases and such, but I'm also glad they're not necessary just to avoid the call-ending grip of death that has plagued the iPhone 4.

Video Playback

There's no denying it: iOS devices are great for multimedia. You can buy and rent movies and TV shows straight from the devices through iTunes, and they work beautifully. By contrast, the lack of a stand-out source for video rentals and purchases on Android makes a Droid phone look like a poor choice for the video-on-the-go set. But let's examine this notion more closely.

According to Tom, no matter what video player he uses or what encoder he tries, he can't get decent video playback on his Droid X. I'm baffled by that statement, because I have lots of home movies on my Droid X, and they play great. I shot most of these with my Flip camcorder and simply dragged them to the Droid X's SD Card via USB with no extra effort or special encoding whatsoever, and the audio is synced perfectly. What could Tom possibly be doing wrong?

I don't have much interest in watching movies or TV shows on my phone, but for the sake of science I decided to try ripping a feature-length movie from DVD using the free HandBrake utility and copying that to my Droid. Again, it worked beautifully. Tom questions whether users should be expected to use a free download like HandBrake to put movies on their phones, yet he sees no problem with using a remarkably similar utility (VLC) for the same purpose. I don't get the distinction. It's not as if iTunes will rip a DVD movie to your iPhone.

Unlike Tom, I did give the Droid X's included Blockbuster app a try. After a quick registration process, I downloaded an item for $4. It works fine, and the video looks about as good as any iTunes download does on an iPhone, but I still don't see why Tom's so fired up to watch movies on his phone. (Fortunately, I have an inexpensive HDMI cable for my Droid X, so I watched most of the movie on my HDTV.)

Android still lags behind iOS in its selection of streaming video services, but that appears to be changing. VLC is coming soon for Android, as are Hulu Plus and Netflix.

Once I scratched the surface of Tom's whole video argument, it quickly crumbled. I give both platforms a point here. And I'm giving Tom a demerit for his inability to make video work (seriously, this stuff is virtually effortless on both platforms).

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