iPhone or Android: Five questions to help you decide

When people ask if they should buy an iPhone or an Android device, which do you recommend? Donovan Colbert lists five questions to ask prospective buyers that will help them decide.

I think every person who works in IT secretly wants the, "No, I will not fix your computer" t-shirt. Anyone involved in working with PCs comes to dread the inevitable conversation, "Since you're pretty good with computers, I've got this question." I'm sure plumbers, electricians, and auto mechanics all have their own version of this scenario.

Lately, the question I've been getting most frequently is the one that I dread answering the most. "You seem to know a lot about smartphones. I'm thinking about an Android or an iPhone. Which do you recommend?"

You might think my answer would be pretty straightforward, but it never is. I've got a lot more hands-on experience than the average user on both Android and iOS platforms, including rooting, jail-breaking, and fixing bricked devices. I own an iPad, iPod Touch, and several Android devices. I know most people have to live with one platform or the other. This makes a recommendation very difficult to make.

What seems like a simple answer is really a complex situation. Both platforms are nearly indistinguishable from one another in average, day-to-day use. Sure, there may be some features like Siri or Google's navigation that could sway a user one way or another, but for most users, their actual experience won't differ much.

So, what guidelines can you use to help someone pick a phone that won't have them coming back complaining that you steered them in the wrong direction? These points are usually where I start:

1: Are you invested in Google environments already?

Are you using Gmail, Google Docs, and/or Google as a single authentication point for other sites that support it? If you've already bought into Google solutions in your daily PC use, then Android is probably going to be a more seamless experience. It's not that the iOS Google experience is limited, but it just makes sense if you've put all your eggs into the Google basket, that a phone designed around Android will deliver a more rewarding experience than one built by their competition.

2: Are you a Windows or Mac user?

Do you like the "empowerment" of the Windows experience, or do you prefer the carefully curated Macintosh environment? If you like to tinker, explore, and get into the depths of your device, Android might be your best choice. If you want a no-hassle appliance, you'll probably prefer iOS. Apple Macintosh owners might find the iPhone iOS experience more comfortable, familiar, and well-integrated with the rest of their digital life.

3: Do most of your friends have iPhones and other iOS devices, or do they have Android smartphones?

Dropbox, Evernote, Bump, and even Words with Friends don't care if you're on a phone or tablet, Android or iOS. But each platform has unique differentiators. If all your friends use Facetime, you're going to be left out if you pick up a 4G LTE Android device.

4: Do you plan on using this device as a BYOD on your corporate network to access company email or other resources?

If so, the decision may already be made for you. Make sure to check with your IT team to see if they have policies on which devices are supported.

5: What is your experience with spam, viruses, and malware?

If you're the kind of person who constantly finds themselves turning to your local IT guru to fix your infected machine, the odds are that the same things are going to affect you in the smartphone world. In that case, you're probably better of with an iOS device. There's no doubt that iOS limits your freedom, but part of this is actually driven by a real "Apple Knows Best" mentality that seems to work.

If you've given up on Windows because of constant malware infections and you love your new Mac because it has never let you down, don't go Android. If you've learned not to click on that "must see" video on Facebook or that email from the IRS or the European Lottery, and if you've never sent your personal account information to a Nigerian prince, then you'll probably do fine with Android.

A great illustration of the difference between iOS and Android are the way apps are delivered to each device. On iOS, your only official option is the App Store. This is the perfect example of the double-edged sword of Apple's approach. The benefit is that Apple inspects and approves every app in their store. The downside is that Apple controls and approves every application in their store. They can, and have, rejected apps for any reason — and when they do, there's little recourse for Apple users.

Android, on the other hand, has a market where there isn't any real inspection process, which makes it a buyer beware free-for-all. The end user is accountable for the security of their device. If the official Android Market (recently upgraded to the Google Play Store) isn't enough for you, there are about a half-dozen other markets that you can download apps from, as well as the ability to download apps directly via a PC or your phone and side-load them onto your device — all without any risky jail-breaking or rooting of your device. This makes it very difficult for anyone to limit what apps are available.

With Android, I also have access to the file system, so I'm able to create a Kindle document in Calibre and send it via email, download the attachment, and then copy it in the file structure on my Android device to the Kindle directory. Kindle automatically adds the new book when I load the app.

On an iPhone, I have to email the document to my Amazon account from Calibre. I then log onto my Kindle page on Amazon, select the document, and select Deliver To My iOS device from a pull-down menu. It isn't that you can't do all of the same things, but in some cases, the simplicity of iOS can make things a little more difficult. Each of these are examples of "power use" though, where I'm pushing beyond the "appliance-like" mobile experience. Many users would never try these things. However, for people who want to push the limits, iOS can be a stifling experience.

Ultimately, the decision to go with one platform or the other no longer strongly hinges on which carrier you're most comfortable with, and that opens the gates to more difficult decisions for the smartphone buyer. I generally say I can't really make a recommendation one way or the other, that both platforms have strengths and weaknesses, and it mostly comes down to personal preference. However, asking the five questions above can help narrow the field for most prospective buyers — and that's a good place to start.

Of course, these are just a few considerations. How do you help guide buyers to their best smartphone purchase? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.

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Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

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