More important than any hardware concerns when shopping for a new smartphone is establishing which OS is right for you.
Are you a die-hard Apple fanboy? Does Android send you all Googley eyed? Or is Windows more your thing? Maybe it’s time you stepped outside your comfort zone and tried something new. You never know, you might just like it.
We’ve thoroughly tested out each of the big three (or big two-and-a-half as the case may be at present) to see how they stack up – iOS 9, Android Marshmallow, and Windows 10 Mobile. From notifications to apps, quick settings to custom skins – we’ve tried it all.
This is the ultimate smartphone operating system battle. Now, get ready…
Android vs iOS vs Windows 10 Mobile: Design and Interface
In the many years since Android, iOS and Windows for Mobile (as it used to be called) have been powering devices everywhere, the way they each look and function has changed significantly.
Actually, let us rephrase that. Android and Windows Mobile have both gone through numerous makeovers, yet Apple has kept iOS looking fairly similar since its 2007 launch.
Android got its biggest design upgrade in 2014, with the introduction of Lollipop 5.0. This brought a whole new ‘Material Design’ look and feel that cranked up the number of animations and altered almost every part to give it that extra bit of gloss.
Android 6.0 Marshmallow, the newest version, continues with the basic look of Lollipop. Most of its changes relate to the back end.
The basics of Android are the same as they’ve been for years, though. You’ve got a lock screen that displays notifications, then, once unlocked, you’ve got an app-centric home screen. And there’s an app drawer for storing everything else you’ve downloaded.
iOS follows this blueprint too, though Apple ditches the app drawer, instead giving you just the app icon-filled home screens. It’s the simplest of the three, and it’s difficult to argue with its usability – unless you have loads of apps, in which case a provision like Android’s and Windows 10’s app tray would be useful.
Windows 10 Mobile takes a completely different design path from the competition. Its homescreen is a tiled interface, with resizable tiles flipping over to display more information about that app. You can swipe to the left to get to all your apps and just like iOS and Android, you can group apps together in folders.
Live Tiles give you little nuggets of information without forcing you to open an app – the BBC Sport app, for example, gives you a scrolling view of breaking news throughout the day. This glanceable style can also be applied to Android, where optional widgets can be added to the homescreens. Widgets have been a mainstay on Android since the very first version.
Apple took until iOS 8 (it’s currently on iOS 9.2) to add something similar, though it’s not as well integrated as on the other platforms. They’re called Extensions, and rather than sitting on the homescreen they’re found in the drop-down Notification Centre, but they work pretty much the same as Live Tiles or widgets.
We’d like to see Apple give us a bit more freedom over where these handy information gatherers could sit, but the Cupertino company’s reluctance to switch up the overall look of the homescreen makes us think that will likely never happen.
All three also have a couple of neat design tricks up their respective sleeves when it comes to getting more from the home screens. A quick swipe down from the top of each brings up a notification shade, grouping together all your emails, messages and calls, while both Android and Windows give you quick settings here too. These let you easily turn off Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and the like.
Apple added a similar settings shortcut feature in iOS 7 with Control Centre. This time you swipe up from the bottom of screen to get direct access to a torch, a brightness slider, media controls, Wi-Fi, and so on. We’re big fans of Apple’s approach here – it’s become one of our most commonly used functions in iOS.
Now, there’s one big thing that separates Android from Windows 10 Mobile and iOS and that’s skinning. We’ll talk more about this later, but it basically gives OEMs (Samsung, HTC, LG etc.) free reign to turn Android into whatever they want. What Google says is how Android should look in the Nexus 6P is not necessarily what you’ll get if you pick up a Samsung Galaxy S6 or HTC One M9.
Windows 10 Mobile has come a long way since the Windows for Mobile days and it’s rather good looking – we think anyway. It’s actually very similar to Windows Phone 8.1 before it. But it still falls behind the other two. Android is our favourite design-wise, especially when it’s presented the way Google intended.