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This story has been updated. It was originally published on February 4, 2019.

We’re so far into the mobile platform wars—both Android and iOS have been with us for more than a decade—that most users have chosen their team and are sticking to it.

But Google and Apple have borrowed so much from each other over the years that these two mobile operating systems are more alike than ever. For the most part, they carry the same apps and include a lot of the same features.

And while the two platforms are converging to offer similarly splendid offerings, large differences still exist between Android and iOS. Here’s how to tell the two platforms apart, and why you might consider swapping in the future.

Android vs. iOS customization

Evie Launcher on an Android phone.
Launchers like Evie let you change every pixel of the Android interface. Evie

Android has always given users more customization options than iOS, though Apple has made major leaps in the latest versions of its system. Android phones have always been able to sport widgets like calendar boxes and weather icons, while iPhones only got this ability in 2020 with the introduction of iOS 14.

But Android goes further when it comes to personalizing your device by supporting launcher apps, like Nova and Evie. They completely reskin the look of Android, allowing you to squash more icons into the dock, have wallpapers that change over time, or even use custom swipes and gestures to navigate around the phone interface.

Android also lets you set default apps for things like emailing, web browsing, and navigating, so you can choose whichever browser you want when you tap a link in an email, but Apple has gotten on board with this too. On an iPhone, open Settings, find your preferred browser or mail app, and tap whatever option has “default” in it. Choose your preference, and iOS will remember.

Don’t like using Apple’s own Messages app on iOS? Tough luck, because you can’t replace it. On Android, you’ve got dozens of different messaging apps to pick from, and you can easily set them to take over texting duties from the default app.

From the home screen to the lock screen, from default apps to the app drawer, you’ve got more flexibility with Android. Of course, not everyone wants all these extra choices and options: Many users are quite happy with the way Apple has set up its operating system and the native apps you get with it. But it’s fair to say that if you want to customize your phone and play around with the interface, Android is the better choice.

Android vs. iOS privacy

Apple's privacy mantra next to a hand holding an iPhone.
Apple is keen to emphasize how its privacy approach differs from Google’s. Apple

Privacy on Android and iOS is a hotly debated topic: Both Google and Apple promise to have your best interests at heart, and you’ll hear arguments from both sides that they’re superior in terms of data privacy. You can make up your own mind by reading Google’s and Apple’s official privacy policies.

[Related: How to protect your smartphone privacy]

Where Apple clearly differentiates itself is in how much data processing it does on your device as opposed to in the cloud: That means it knows less about your habits and your preferences than Google does, because information like the restaurant you visit every week is locked away on your iPhone, rather than being stored on the company’s servers.

Google would argue that knowing more about you and where you like to eat every week gives it the power to make your life more convenient—so that restaurant appears near the top of your search results when you search on the web as well as on Android. This allows them to provide a more personalized service across more devices and apps more easily, but it also makes you an easier target for Google’s advertising.

On the iOS side of the coin, a lot of the data your device sends back to Apple (such as what you’re searching for and where you are) is anonymized, so it can’t be tied to you personally. Google, meanwhile, is happy to build up a bigger profile of you, but it’s a question of whether you trust the company to use your data as responsibly as it promises.

While Apple also collects information like phone location (for Find My iPhone for example) and installed apps (to recommend new apps), it is more restrained in the data that it gathers, according to its privacy policy. It also builds more security into its own apps—cross-site tracking is built into Safari, while iMessage is tightly encrypted at both ends of the conversation.

Overall it’s a win for Apple if privacy is a priority for you. Some users will happily trust Google and not be too worried by advertising that is tied to a recent location or web search, but there’s no doubt that Google’s whole business model is based on knowing as much about you as possible.

Apple vs. Android ecosystem

Three Macbook Air laptops against a white background.
Think about what other devices you’re using. Apple

Choosing between Android and iOS is no longer just a choice between one or the other: It’s a choice between all the apps, services, and other gadgets you can get from Google and Apple. If you’ve got an Apple TV in your living room, for example, it’s going to work much better with an iPhone than an Android phone.

A lot of Google’s apps are web-based, which means you can use them on Android and Windows just as easily as on iOS and macOS (some of that is possible thanks to the less-restrictive privacy policy we mentioned above). If you do a lot of swapping between devices and platforms, Google (and Android) might be the better bet.

That said, if you are all the way invested into the Apple ecosystem, with Macs and iPads at home and in the office, you can get stuff done faster on an iPhone. Apps like Safari and Pages can automatically hand over sites and documents between devices, for example, while cut and paste works on every Apple device using the same Apple ID.

[Related: How to copy and paste seamlessly across your devices]

You’ll need to give some careful consideration to the other devices you have at home or want to get in the future, too. Is your living room geared up with an Apple HomePod mini or a Google Nest hub, for instance? Or if you’ve got a Chromecast plugged into your TV, remember it’ll take video from most apps on Android and iOS, but it won’t play anything you’ve bought from iTunes.

Your close ties to one of these ecosystems might be the reason why you can’t switch between Android and iOS. But if you’re starting fresh or starting again from scratch, then you have to factor in everything that comes along with Apple’s and Google’s mobile operating systems.

Fragmentation, and why it matters

The Google Pixel phone on a gray fabric surface.
Unless you’ve got a Pixel phone, you might be waiting a while for the latest Android update. Blocks / Unsplash

If Google wins out in terms of having its apps and services available on more devices, Apple is definitely in the lead when it comes to fragmentation—iPhones get the latest updates more quickly than Android devices do, which means you’re more likely to be running the latest software on your smartphone.

That’s important for all kinds of reasons—from staying protected against new security threats to getting the latest and greatest features on your phone. At the time of writing, more than 72 percent of devices are on iOS 15, while—as of November 2021—Android 11 (the next-to-last version) was only running on a quarter of all compatible devices worldwide.

Google has tried to minimize the damage done by allowing some system updates, including a lot of security patches, to roll out separately as part of Google Play Services. What’s more, unlike Apple, Google updates its apps (like Gmail and Google Maps) separately from the operating system as a whole.

When it comes to getting the very latest headline features though—like the digital wellbeing tools included in both iOS 15 and Android 12—you’re going to be better off if you’re using iOS. Apple also has a strong record for supporting older devices with the latest software updates too.

Part of the issue is the large number of manufacturers out there making Android phones. Samsung, OnePlus, LG, Asus, Huawei, and others give users a wider range of options when it comes to price and design, but they all want to put their own spin on the operating system  before pushing out software updates.

Google Pixel users, however, don’t have this problem, and if you go for one of these handsets, you can minimize the fragmentation problem, as they get new versions of Android as soon as they appear. Overall though, a win for Apple.

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