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This smartphone showdown pits customization against performance.
If you’re buying a new smartphone you’ll find yourself thrust into the ongoing battle between iPhone versus Android as they duke it out for a spot in your pocket. While both tech giants have refined their mobile software year over year for an equally speedy and smooth performance, they differ in key ways.
Android’s PC-like interface is more open for developers and manufacturers, giving you more choice in both hardware and software options. Third-party companies like Samsung and Motorola produce different tiers of cell phones, some starting as low as $149. However, there are dozens of models to choose from, and prices climb as high as $1,899 when pushing the envelope with new technology like folding displays. On the other hand, Apple keeps a tight grip over its devices by manufacturing its own software and hardware in-house. The company produces just four types of iPhones, but each is optimized to squeeze out the most performance and battery life. Read on to see how they stack up.
A smartphone isn’t smart without a capable operating system (OS). These handsets run either Apple’s proprietary iPhone Operating System (iOS) or Google’s open source Android platform. This is, at its most basic level, the main software from which you interact with your phone and launch apps.
Android and iOS look similar at first glance—they consist of a lock screen that opens up to a home menu with app shortcuts, widgets, and notification centers. Each has an official App Store for downloading more software like games or social networks. And while the primary functions of a phone, like texting and calling, seem to have fallen to the wayside for smart features over the past few years, they’re just as smooth and easy to navigate across devices by touch or voice commands.
Apple’s control over the production of its iPhones means the company knows how to push every component to its limit with minimal power. An iPhone may cost more than an Android, but often pays off in computing strength and longer stretches without needing a charge. Because developers don’t have to account for dozens of phones’ specifications, every app is tuned for the same processing chip so even Apple’s budget SE can surf the web and switch between apps as fast as its flagship Pro Max.
But a death grip over Apple’s ecosystem limits what you can do with the phone. Even in the latest version of iOS 15, the layout is locked to six rows of apps per page with a permanent row at the bottom of the screen that docks your four most important apps for quick access. It’s easy to navigate, but the lack of customization is showing its age after a decade. Apps are also limited to what Apple has approved for its App Store. You can’t sideload software from different sources, so tinkerers and power users may be turned off.
But forced cohesion makes for a tightly integrated ecosystem among Apple devices. If you use a MacBook or Apple Watch, your data, apps, and notifications seamlessly transfer among all devices. Because developers target similar frameworks for a handful of devices instead of dozens, you won’t see strange gaps in performance or frequent crashes. Apple’s exclusive features, like iMessage, AirDrop, and the H1 chips that instantly pair accessories like headphones and hands them off between devices, have been a sore spot for Android. Add the fact that even six-year-old iPhones are still receiving updates, and you can see iPhone’s penchant for long-term reliability.
Android is a Linux-based and open-source platform that encourages outside developers to toy with it. Android 12 is the latest version with the core experience centered around customization and privacy. Applications can be downloaded from the included Google Play store or from other app stores or sources. Android supports multitasking so you can pull up two apps at one time on the screen, which iPhone lacks. Once installed, each app shortcut is lined in rows on the home screen and submenus. With a third-party app launcher like Nova (another option not available on iPhones), your home screen interface can be completely customized, from the way apps are laid out to animated wallpapers.
Android phones consistently beat Apple to the punch with hardware advancements like better displays, cameras, and even features as basic as app widgets (iOS just got these in 2020). But because so many different companies can produce Android phones, apps aren’t as well optimized as they are on iPhone, photos can be compressed, and updates aren’t as frequent.
This sandbox is best suited for stronger specced mid-range or flagship phones since those systems target providing the smoothest experience. All of this freedom comes at a cost—Android devices can potentially be infected with malware, the Google App store is filled with low-quality apps, and software doesn’t run the same across all hardware types. But Android’s open-source approach allows for the most tailored experience—you have phones specifically made to excel in areas like photography, productivity, and even mobile gaming.
Budget phones are often fine for basic functionality but rarely pack a punch when it comes to features. This year’s iPhone SE and Pixel 6A flip that notion on its head. Apple only offers the $429 iPhone SE (2022) in the sub $500 price range. For comparison, we’ll take a look at the $449 Pixel 6A. It’s similar in size, features hardware and software made by the same company, and also serves as a capable, value version of its more expensive sibling.
When I reviewed the iPhone SE earlier this year, I was impressed by its ability to hold its own against the iPhone Pro in task and navigation speeds thanks to the shared A15 bionic chip. Sure, the pricier flagship model’s sharp OLED screen and cameras outshine the budget hardware on the SE, but this system won’t lag while browsing through apps, loading games, and performing everyday tasks like responding to text messages. The SE’s 5G connectivity provides a reliable modern network while the classic rounded design fits comfortably in hand. Its single 12-megapixel camera can even craft portrait shots with a digital bokeh effect. Where the SE falters is for those looking for more out of their screen or camera. Its small 4.7-inch Retina HD screen suffers from distractingly chunky bezels, the single camera isn’t top quality and limits shot options, and the battery is small, which can be a no-go for creatives or those who live on their phones.
Google’s Pixel 6A is powered by Google’s Tensor chip for processing speed and power that’s as good as most mid-range Android phones that come at double the price. While not as powerful as the A15 bionic, it helps the 6A do some neat things, from cranking out AI-optimized images from its 12.2-megapixel camera to powering a vibrant 6.1-inch OLED screen that puts the iPhone SE’s to shame. Since Google makes both the hardware and software, it runs the purest version of Android for buttery performance that rarely crashes (the biggest downside of Android phones). That’s in addition to offering exclusive built-in features like Magic Eraser to can cleanly cut unwanted objects from an image. Overall the Pixel 6A is a sleek device that works even better than it looks while using minimal power for all-day battery life. If that doesn’t win you over, then the fact that it’s often on sale for much less than its list price probably will.
Mid-range phones offer the best balance of the latest features at a digestible price. For this section, we compared the two top-selling smartphones, the iPhone 13 and Samsung’s Galaxy S22, which both share a $799 price tag for their 128-GB base models.
If you value specs for the price, the S22 is the clear winner. It’s jam-packed with stronger components like a 120Hz OLED screen, triple-camera array, and 8 GB of RAM, all of which Apple reserves for the $1,000-plus iPhone 13 Pro. This display doubles the 60Hz refresh rate the iPhone 13 is capped to, so whether you’re simply scrolling through pages or playing games, everything looks much more fluid. That’s in addition to reaching higher brightness levels and providing more screen space since it doesn’t have a notch at the top of the display like an iPhone. The S22’s triple camera array also includes a telephoto lens for capturing detailed shots at a distance.
Hardware is half the battle. Everyday use, longer software lifetimes, and better battery optimization make the iPhone last longer and work better over time. Its powerful A15 chip processes tasks faster, from transcoding 4K video to reaching the highest frame rates in games. This is good news because the 3D gaming on iPhone lasts twice as long as on the S22. That’s thanks to optimized battery life that outpaces Android. Plus, this chipset is less likely to crash or stutter, outperforming the S22, which has double the RAM. While its dual cameras lack a third telephoto lens, the system holds its own with more natural colors and lighting that brings out highlights and textures just as well, if not better than, the S22. In addition, it takes better portraits and offers cinematic video that can focus on a subject and blur the background.
Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with either phone in this range. The choice comes down to your preference for advanced hardware or stronger performance.
Once you’re spending over $1,000 on a phone, you’ve entered flagship territory. These phones offer the strongest hardware and performance with prosumer features. We looked at the flagship 13 Pro Max for its larger 120Hz OLED screen (an iPhone first) and bigger battery. It starts at $1,199. We compared it to the Android’s most high-end phone, the Galaxy Fold 4 for $1,799, which can fold out into an 8-inch tablet and condense down to a 6.2-inch candy bar–sized smartphone.
Samsung’s Galaxy Fold 4 is a premium 6.2-inch Android smartphone that unfolds to reveal a spacious, 8-inch interior screen. Its 120Hz refresh rate provides sleek visuals while watching videos and playing the latest games and supports the S-pen for accurate sketching. The hinge is nearly seamless compared to previous Fold devices and provides plenty of space to read, watch, and multi-task easier while on the go. Beyond this party trick, it uses the same sharp triple camera array as the S22 above, 12 GB of RAM, and the strongest SnapDragon 8+ Gen 1 processor of all Android phones. However, as the iPhone 13 Pro Max proves below, bigger isn’t always better.
The 6.7-inch Pro Max amplifies the iOS experience with the largest screen on an iPhone, better battery life, and a stronger camera array. Its body straddles the line between phone and tablet, so it is a powerhouse for productivity and everyday tasks. No, it doesn’t fold, but if you really want a tablet-sized screen, spend $500 on an iPad and you’ll still come out ahead of the Fold 4’s price. The A15 Bionic chip runs circles around Android’s latest and greatest SnapDragon 8+ in processing and power efficiency. That means you can do more for longer. Its triple lens array bests Samsung in color accuracy, sharpness, and AI optimizations. This is the strongest mobile phone on the market and at this price offers some serious value to boot.