Which Platform is Better? iOS or Android? OS X or Windows?

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There have always been ongoing debates between fans of one platform or another over which is the better one. Back in the day, it was Mac OS versus Windows. Today, the heaviest debate is between iOS and Android fans, with a smattering of Windows Phone users chattering from the cheap seats. I’ve been reading a few blog posts in the last week or so going back and forth on the topic (and I’ve been known to create a few of my own, particularly back in my webOS days), and so I thought I’d weigh in with a few thoughts.

For me, all such debates come down to one simple phrase: it depends. It depends on a user’s level of technical competence. It depends on how willing a user is to learn new things. It depends on how a user will be using a device. It depends on the apps a user needs, for work or for play. In short: it depends on the user.

I’ve made it a goal to own one device running each major platform, at least as far as I can afford it. I have a MacBook Air running OS X Mountain Lion, a Dell XPS desktop running Windows 7, a Lenovo Yoga 13 running Windows 8 (that I’ll probably not keep beyond Costco’s generous return period), an iPad 3, a Nexus 10, and a Nexus 4. I also have Linux virtual machines I can play with, and a Kindle Paperwhite. So, the only "important” devices I’m lacking are an iPhone and a Windows Phone, but I did use the latter for a few months when I was writing for a now-defunct Windows Phone site and I figure the iPhone and iPad are similar enough.

The crazy thing is, I use each and every one of those devices for something. Could I live with just one or two of them? Or maybe three, specifically a notebook, a tablet, and a smartphone? Sure I could, and the biggest reasons I own so many is because technology is a hobby of mine (natch) and because I want to be able to write about each platform without being completely ignorant.

Even so, they all do something better than the others, and so I use them not just to stay current, but because I get value from each one–even given all of their differences and relative strengths and weaknesses. I am, a little, like a microcosm of the market in general. Because, you know, it depends on what I want to do at any given moment. I’ll give a few examples.

The Mother-in-Law
On our weekly visits to my mother-in-law, my backpack is typically chock full of gear for reasons many of you may be able to guess. I have, at least, my MacBook Air, my Nexus 10, and my iPad 3. That seems like overkill, and it would be except for one simple fact. When my mother-in-law asks for a tablet to use (she refuses to buy her own), I automatically hand her the iPad.

The reason is simple: she’s a great lady and definitely not stupid, but she has zero interest in learning about new technology. She wants to see a button and push it, and for all of its advances in user friendliness, Android is still more intimidating for such a person than iOS. I’ve shown her both devices, and she gravitated towards the iPad from the very beginning. She can also use the iPad without my assistance, something I wouldn’t expect with the Nexus 4.

Streaming Video
Simply stated, iOS has long had better and more consistent support for streaming video than Android. This continues today, with a variety of apps including HBO Go, DirecTV, TNT, TBS, and some others simply not working well or at all with Android 4.3. Some work fine, such as the Starz app which hasn’t received a post-4.3 update, and Hulu Plus, and so the reason isn’t perfectly clear why support is so lacking. Android 4.3 does have new DRM baked in, but that doesn’t explain why Starz works and HBO Go, for example, doesn’t. In fact, HBO Go won’t even install. Of course, Amazon doesn’t have an Android app at all for its own streaming video service, which would make perfect sense given their own line of tablets if they didn’t have an app for iOS. Update: Android 4.4 and the various vendors mentioned above resolved most or all of the issues with streaming video on Android. I’d rank iOS and Android as roughly the same at this point.

The iPad, however, has provided an excellent streaming video experience from the first day I bought it. I can’t name a single app that hasn’t worked perfectly, and to this day I turn to my iPad 3 when it’s time to watch a movie or TV show. In fact, this is pretty much the only reason I use the iPad, other than to test things and the aforementioned desire to stay familiar with iOS. But given as much video as I watch, it’s a pretty major reason.

Productivity
At the opposite end of the spectrum from watching video is using a tablet for productivity. Android dominates here, with local access to the file system, the ability to easily change default apps, extensive sharing between apps, widgets, superior notifications, and a whole laundry list of other superior functionality that makes Android a far more productive platform for me.

In fact, when it comes to working with Microsoft Office documents on the road and away from an Internet connection, I have yet to find a workable solution on the iPad. There’s simply no good way to keep my documents available when I’m not online. iWorks isn’t an option for me, first because I don’t like it and second because I use Office both at work and at home, and so I’ve yet to discover a way to use the iPad productively without jumping through hoops.

Android, on the other hand, works perfectly for me in this regard. I use DropBox to keep my documents in sync with all of my machines, and on my Nexus 10 and Nexus 4 I use an excellent app called DropSync to keep my important DropBox folders synced locally. I can work with these files offline, opening them in any Office-compatible app, editing them, and then saving changes to the local copies. These are then automatically synced when I’m back online. iOS simply can’t compete here given how locked-down it is in terms of managing files.

OS X vs. Windows
I’ve long been a Windows fan, preferring it to OS X by a pretty wide margin. Even with the advent of Windows 8, I still like Windows better for a variety of reasons. At the same time, the MacBook Air was the best "ultrabook” available when I was shopping for a thin and light machine back in 2012, in terms of performance, battery life, keyboard, touchpad, and general build quality. And the fact is, getting the best of these features (other than build quality, of course) requires OS X–running Windows on a Mac means sacrificing that major and minor elegance that the combination of Apple hardware and software provides.

So, I find myself running the MacBook Air in OS X, and running Windows 8 in a Parallels virtual machine. That way, I get the best performance and battery life, while retaining access to the Windows apps I need and the ability to run in Windows when the mood strikes me. I still prefer Windows to OS X, but the combination of hardware and software so far keeps me using OS X as my primary "full-size" OS.

Oddly enough, in this case, the "it depends” applies to me all by myself. Should someone (say, Samsung with their ATIV Q) release a Windows machine that offered the same excellent touchpad experience, performance, battery life, and general smoothness of the MacBook Air running iOS, then I’d switch in a heartbeat. So, my choice of notebook has depended on a variety of factors that, combined, have meant more to me than that platform it runs on.

Conclusion
Of course, those are only a few out of a countless number of possible examples. My point here is really simple. Although it’s tempting, and sometimes downright fun, to assert that one platform is better than another, the definition of "better" is always going to vary from person to person. It may even vary for a given person from time to time, which is why we read blog posts of people switching from one platform to another because of changes in features, functionality, or even aesthetics (witness iOS 7).

Toss in the question of market execution–webOS was an excellent mobile operating system, but it failed because a viable webOS platform never developed and it was never given sufficient marketing support–and you add an entirely different dimension. Apple is excellent at both platform and market development, and yet Android is dominating in terms of market share because of its wide variety of hardware choices and a range of price points. But who knows–an iPhone and iPad refresh or two, and Apple could be back on top. Barring a complete meltdown on someone’s part, or a wildcard like a suddenly resurgent Microsoft, this game of back and forth will probably go on for the foreseeable future.

So, for all those folks out there writing blog posts about how this or that platform is better than the other, keep in mind those two simple words: it depends. Because, ultimately, which platform is better really does depend on who you’re talking to.

P.S. I responded to this article extolling the virtues of Android in a tweet the other day, which I’ll copy below. As I said, I’m guilty of taking sides myself on occasion, but let me clarify my tweet: I agree with most of what this writer said about Android’s strengths. That is, however, definitely my opinion based on how I use smartphones and tablets. My mother-in-law, for example, would most likely, and strongly, disagree.

Tweet

P.P.S. As this gentleman mentions, Google Now rocks. If there were one feature truly capable of making Android objectively better than iOS, it would be Google Now. Doing a search in Chrome on my MacBook Pro, and then seeing new results in Google Now on my Nexus 10, definitely approaches magic. Same thing with looking something up in Google Maps on my desktop, and having the directions waiting for me on my Nexus 4, with navigation a single button-press away–and all that, without my even having to think about it. Seriously, as Google Now continues to develop, it could and probably should make a meaningful difference for any rational person.

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  1. […] is “better” can really be answered with two words: “it depends.” I discussed this in in another post already. And so here, I’m formally proposing the “It Depends” approach to setting disputes […]

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