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Android vs. iPhone vs. Windows Phone: Pick your smartphone OS

You asked and we answered! Here are our most recurring questions about iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone, plus tips that could help people on the fence find their next smartphone OS.

Josh Long/CNET

With a rush of amazing Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals, this is a great time to buy a new phone for you or for someone else. There are excellent phones flooding the market (here are our top five favorite smartphones), but unless you plan on switching your next handset before your contract is up, you'll want to consider a few points before making any semi-permanent decisions.

OK, so what if you're looking for even more basic guidance, like which mobile operating system to get? Is the iPhone 4S really a better choice than a shiny, new Android phone? What's the story with Windows Phone, and are BlackBerrys even a thing anymore? Believe me, these are great questions, and they've been at the top of your mind. Earlier this month, I helped take your burning cell phone questions in a live chat, and fielded even more queries at our weeklong CNET Gotham event in New York. I expected questions comparing iOS versus Android, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus versus the HTC Rezound versus the Motorola Droid Razr--but what surprised me is how many of you were considering Windows Phone.

So to get you started, here's a quick primer on iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone (sorry, BlackBerry, you've lost your momentum), and a smattering of the most common questions about smartphone OSes I've received from you. (If you've got more to ask, mark your calendars for the next Ask the Editors live chat on November 29!)

iPhone 4S in a nutshell

  • Runs Apple's iOS 5 operating system
  • Available on three carriers: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint
  • Available on three storage sizes: 16GB, 32GB, 64GB
  • Easiest compatibility with iTunes, Apple ecosystem, and products
  • Form factor: One 3.5-inch screen (on the smaller size by today's standards)
  • Interface: Approachable, but not very customizable. Some hidden features
  • Key features: Excellent 8-megapixel camera, front-facing camera, colorful Siri voice assistant
  • Next big release: iPhone 5, release date unknown, but speculated for summer 2012

Android in a nutshell

  • Google's mobile operating system
  • Form factor: Available on all carriers, all shapes, all sizes
  • All capabilities: Range from budget to super premium
  • Not all Android phones are created equal in capability: some have excellent cameras, screens, etc. Some don't.
  • Easiest compatibility with Google services, Google Music, other Android devices
  • Interface: Varies by manufacturers, has a small learning curve for some features
  • Key features: Free voice navigation with turn-by-turn directions, very customizable, voice actions
  • Next big phone release: Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone, Verizon release date unknown, but probably December
  • Next big operating system release: Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Released with Galaxy Nexus, coming to existing handsets starting "early 2012"

Windows Phone in a nutshell

  • Microsoft's mobile operating system
  • Form factor: Available on all carriers, all shapes, all sizes.
  • AT&T has the largest and best selection
  • All capabilities: Mostly midrange, solid performers. Minimum 5-megapixel camera
  • Easiest compatibility with Zune, Xbox Live, Microsoft services like Microsoft Office, SkyDrive online storage
  • Interface: Very straightforward, but some hidden capabilities
  • Key features: Clean interface, built-in barcode-scanning and music identification, Xbox Live integration, voice actions
  • Next big phone release: Nokia Lumia 800 or similar for U.S. markets, probably January
  • Next big operating system release: Unknown. Version 7.5 Mango released in September

Android FAQ

Question:Why there is delay on update for Android devices, and will Ice Cream Sandwich bring the solution for this problem?
With Android phones, we're at the mercy of manufacturers and carriers who need to test the new OS with the additional skins, overlays, or additional software these phones might have. My colleague Bonnie Cha wrote a great story explaining how OS updates work. So the answer is no, Ice Cream Sandwich (or ICS) won't fix this. However, back in May, Google and several key manufacturing partners agreed to work together to bring phones released within 18 months of a new OS updated to the latest OS version. Unfortunately, neither Google nor other manufacturers have been forthcoming with how this is playing out in practice. For now, the surest bet to get the latest Android OS is to get the Galaxy Nexus or Samsung Nexus S phone (available for AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint).

Q: I am looking forward to buying the Galaxy Nexus. However, which phone would you select between it, the Motorola Droid Razr, and the HTC Rezound?
If it's specs you're wondering about, check out my former colleague Nicole Lee's helpful chart comparing the three. If it's the overall look and feel, well, that's just a question I can't answer for you. What do you value most: the camera, the speed, the price, the way it feels in your hand? They're all fast, they're all premium, and they all run on Verizon's phenomenal 4G LTE network.

The Droid Razr and Galaxy Nexus are thin, but the Galaxy Nexus and Rezound have better screens. The Galaxy Nexus has a 5-megapixel camera, but the Droid Razr's isn't my absolute favorite on the market, either. The Droid Razr is more stylish. The Rezound comes with Beats by Dr. Dre headphones and a music algorithm, but the Galaxy Nexus is the first to have the powerful Ice Cream Sandwich OS (the other two will get it as well, but you'll have to wait until early 2012.) Yet, the Galaxy Nexus isn't even available yet, while the other two are. I recommend getting yourself to a Verizon store and getting your hands on the other two devices to see how much you connect with them, then go from there.

iPhone FAQ

Q: With the iPhone 4S out, would it be better to wait for the iPhone 5? My 2-year contract renewal is up in 2012. I am hearing possibly summer 2012 for iPhone 5.
If you're still riding out a contract, keep waiting. The iPhone 4S is a great device, but it's not worth breaking a contract for or buying fresh unless you need Siri or a better camera.

Windows Phone FAQ

Q: Which is easier to use: Windows Phone, iOS 5, or Android 4.0?
Windows Phone has the cleanest OS of the three and is the easiest for getting in and out, at least as far as the main screens go. With only two home screens to toggle between, it's hard to get lost. However, the edgy "metro" look may not be for everyone, and the apps look completely different. There are also a few tricks you need to know about to fully use the OS, like pressing and holding on "live tiles" to pin, unpin, and get more options, and using your finger to pull down the signal strength meter and battery meter while you're on the Start screen (these otherwise disappear from view.) There are other tricks, too--tools in Bing you may not think to look for, and actions when you press and hold the Home and Back buttons.

The iPhone and Android have their own quirks as well, and I don't consider the other two particularly hard to learn, though with its large icons and limit to two screens, it's easier to navigate Windows Phone.

Do you know if WP7.5 is limited to single-core processors and how that would impact the performance of the devices?
Right now all Windows phones are single-core, and I can't complain about performance issues. With the way that the OS handles tasks and task-switching, dual-core processing may not be strictly necessary. That said, as all phones join the processor race, I'm sure we'll eventually see dual-core Windows Phones with much larger screens and many more features advanced as well.

Q: Do you think Windows will have the kind of app choice that iOS or Android do? I have not heard much about what Microsoft is doing to bring in developers or how they will play the app market.
Windows Phone is really ramping up its app presence. In a few months' time, the population of the app Marketplace has shot from 18,000 to 40,000, and is growing. While they need to keep wooing developers to create interesting apps, there's also the danger of choking on too much unnecessary app sludge, an argument one could levy against iOS (500+K apps) and even Android (300K).

Battery life

With battery life being one of the biggest issues, does any one of the operating systems seem to handle that better than the others? If so, which and why?
How a phone's operating system handles resources is part of the equation, but not as key a factor in our opinion as the hardware and the capacity of the battery. If it seems that Android phones experience faster battery draining than the iPhone, that's likely because there's so much variance among different hardware specs and manufacturers. To be fair, the recently launched iPhone 4S has purportedly shorter battery life than several Android phones as well. There are also some Android phones with better battery life than others.

The real question is when we can stop wondering if our smartphones will last longer than a day before needing a recharge. Here's some good news we still have to wait to see: researchers are redesigning the lithium ion battery to charge faster and hold charges longer, up to three days. I, for one, am relieved to know that smart chemists are hard at work, and that a fix is coming.