Smart phone OS showdown: iPhone vs Android vs Palm Pre

Hardware's one thing, but the most important part of a smart phone is the operating system running the show, so we compared what powers the iPhone, the HTC Hero and the Palm Pre

Ian Morris
12 min read

The iPhone is the most popular and well-specified smart phone in the world. Like it or not, Apple knows how to make a product that's simple to use and well-loved by consumers. And where Apple goes, everyone else will soon follow -- as soon as the iPhone gained traction, Google announced its Android platform and Palm started work on the Pre.

These are the forefront of a new breed of mobile devices that put consumer-friendly customisation and Web connectivity to the fore, leaving Symbian and Windows trailing in their wake. We don't think the hardware is what makes these handsets leaders in their field, because each phone has a capacitive touchscreen, 3G and all the other bells and whistles. More than ever, the software driving them is the most important aspect of their user experiences.

To decide which was best, we borrowed an HTC Hero (currently the best Android phone), an iPhone 3GS and the UK version of the Palm Pre, and we used them until we could decide which did what better. But will there be a winner? Will one phone -- and its OS -- reign supreme?

It's fair to say the iPhone's OS is the snappiest of all three mobile operating systems here. The Palm Pre's webOS comes in a respectable second, with Android bringing up the rear.

There's a caveat here, however, and it's well worth considering. Android runs significantly better on the Hero than on the HTC Magic (in the UK, the Vodafone Magic has less memory). With new handsets comes the availability of faster processors and thus, slicker operation. Android phones, and to a lesser extent Palm handsets, will appear with much greater frequency than new iPhones.

What both Android and webOS have over the iPhone is that they're both multi-tasking platforms by default. In any environment, multi-tasking is the key to a more pleasant experience. For example, we want to use a Twitter app while having a Web-browsing session open in the background. You just can't do this on the iPhone. Apple made this choice to keep the phone responsive -- and it works.

The question is, what do you value more, flexibility or maximum smoothness? For us, the Palm Pre does a reasonable job of finding a middle ground, offering slick UI components but still managing to multi-task.

Both the Palm Pre and the iPhone are very stable. We had one or two app crashes from the iPhone and the same on the Palm Pre.

Android, on the other hand, is a loose cannon. Some apps on our HTC Hero would run without a hitch, while some would crash regularly. Android is by far the least stable, but it's also the one with the fewest restrictions on third-party apps. In mitigation, our Hero crashed far less than our Magic, indicating that the amount of free memory could be an issue here.

At any rate, on current hardware, webOS and iPhone OS are the winners in this category. Given some time, and hardware with more memory and fewer dodgy third-party apps, we think Android could be more of a competitor.

It's tempting to declare the iPhone the automatic winner in the media category. A direct connection to the biggest music retailer in the world -- how can anything compete? But it's not quite as simple as that. As good as the iPod and, by extension, the iPhone is, it's an inflexible platform and it only really functions if you're prepared to operate exclusively inside the iTunes environment.

The iPhone can play Apple's chosen video and audio formats with ease, as you would expect. It will not, however, contemplate playback of non-Apple sanctioned audio or video. So the likes of DivX and XviD are out, unless you first convert them.

There's another problem with the iPhone -- in order to function, it must be paired to one computer, and one computer only. You can't sync it to a desktop PC and then start using it with your laptop. This is a truly horrible problem caused by iTunes, and so far Apple seems unrepentant.

The Pre and Android, on the other hand, are far more flexible. Both use standard USB to operate and both can be plugged in to any computer you chose.

Android supports SD card memory, which means you can switch cards and upgrade your capacity. Obviously, not all phones will support all cards, but you get much more flexibility than with either of the other two.

Android also wins in terms of its video playback. There are free apps on the Market that'll play a variety of media, and there's support for quite a few different audio codecs too. Oh, and you don't have to use iTunes.

Palm is out at the first hurdle here. It does have a developer programme and a perfectly decent app store. At the time of writing though, it has just 100 or so apps. None of which seems to be especially marvellous. The available Twitter apps are usable, but not especially likeable.

The iPhone has a superb app store, which is integrated with iTunes. It has the most apps of everyone, and most people agree that this is one of the strongest points about the phone. Apple vets every app too, so you've got some measure of guarantee that it works as advertised. Despite the large number of apps, however, we couldn't help but feel demoralised by the annoying phone-based interface. Applications over 10MB can't be downloaded over 3G and that accounts for a large number of them. What's more, it's really hard to search for free applications, especially on the phone.

The winner here, on nearly all counts, is Android. The Android on-phone market is top-notch -- easy to search and well categorised. Android doesn't have half as many apps as the iPhone, but that doesn't actually appear to be a problem in day-to-day use. We were easily able to get all the apps we needed to do everything we wanted.

Take, for example, Twitter apps -- on Android there are two exceptionally strong programs, Twidroid and Swift. Both are free -- although Twidroid has a pro version -- and both do the job as well as any application on the iPhone.

The flipside of the Apple approval process is that apps are often rejected from its store, sometimes for the most spurious of reasons. In particular, Apple doesn't like third parties replicating functionality found within Apple's own apps. The only time Google will refuse an application listing in the store is if it's malicious or in some way endangers handsets. 

While the iPhone has a very good selection, many of the apps require payment of some sort. We don't have a problem with that -- they're generally very polished and professional, and has an amazing variety of games, in particular. But most of the same functionality is available for free on Android, if a little more rough around the edges.

Android is easily the weakest when it comes to built-in email support.

Both Apple and Palm support Exchange out of the box. As of Android version 1.5, there's no Exchange support built in to the OS. HTC bundles its own Exchange client with some of its phones, our test Hero included. Although the Gmail functionality is good, the Google-built app for Google's own mail system is bettered by both the iPhone and Palm systems. There's really no excuse for that.

If you want great email support, we'd have to urge you to look at the Pre. webOS offers a fantastic solution to seeing email from individual accounts, or merging all your mail together and seeing everything as one gigantic mailbox. The Pre also has the hardware advantage of a keyboard, which makes it the overall winner here. It's less quirky than the iPhone system and more comprehensive than the Android solutions.

Most people would assume we'd pick the iPhone as the funkiest. But we think, aesthetically, Android and webOS have more to offer -- this isn't just about what you look at, but how you use it. Ultimately, our favourite is Android though, because it's infinitely customisable. If you want a weather app on the home screen, no problem. If you want dozens of icons on each screen, there's nothing stopping you.

On the iPhone, you've got one way, and that's Apple's way. It will allow you to change the lock-screen wallpaper, and order your apps as you see fit, but that's your lot. You can't even delete the apps it comes with on the first screen (although you can move them off it), because Apple deems them too important to lose. That includes the idiotic compass app and a host of other unnecessary paraphernalia.

The Palm Pre is similar to the iPhone. You can change the background wallpaper though, which is a bonus. Like the iPhone, the visual continuity is excellent on the Pre. All apps respond to the same button presses or gestures, which gives a very smart overall feel.

Android can, at times, be let down by apps, which don't always follow the Android UI aesthetic. That said, the core of the system is very consistent and very easy to use. Each hardware manufacturer can customise the interface any way they choose, which means certain differences will exist between each phone. Even so, the core will always be very Android.

webOS and iPhone OS aren't available on any handsets other than those made by Palm and Apple.

Android, on the other hand, is open-source and available to anyone who wants to use it. That means over the next few years we're likely to see Android handsets take over the smart phone market. Companies such as Sony Ericsson, Motorola and HTC are going to keep releasing phones that use the platform, and that means more choice for the consumer.

So far, we haven't seen an Android phone that hasn't brought something new to the market. Be it a different style, customised UI or simply a better price. However you look at it, for choice, Android wins.

Having said that, it would be remiss of us not to point out that the iPhone 3GS scores higher in our reviews than any other phone on the market at the moment. It's a beautiful device, whose build quality and shinyness stand head and shoulders over all others.

By far the most open is Android. It's an open-source project, which means anyone can take the operating system and modify it to run on their handset, or even a netbook. In fact, we'll wager it'll end up in cars, sat-nav systems and all manner of other things too.

The webOS and iPhone OS rank about the same in terms of openness. Like Android, webOS is Linux-based, with OS X being derived from BSD, which is a Unix variant. So while both are built on historically quite open platforms, they're not themselves open for developers or for redistribution.

This means if you want to develop for either, you must pay either Apple or Palm to do so. Palm charges $99 (£60) for entrance into its developer programme and $50 (£30) per app submitted to the store. Apple charges $99 per year and both companies take 30 per cent of your app revenues, if you opt to charge.

Google charges a one-off fee of $25 (£15) to developers. It's possible to develop apps and distribute them yourself, although you won't be listed in the Android Market if you do that.

Apple is famous for its App Store, which is part of the iTunes ecosystem. So if you want to download an app, all you need to do is search in the same way you would look for video or music. It's simple, and the same billing process is in place as for media. Android and webOS both have phone-based stores, with no PC software available. Because of this, however, both platforms have a better developed app store.

We actually found using the on-device app store for the iPhone quite a frustrating process. For example, each time you install an app, you're taken out of the app store to see an icon appear, and a progress bar pop up. This is totally pointless, and really seemed like an excuse for Apple to show off its graphical skill.

On Android, installing apps happens in the background, and you can install more than one at a time. The warnings Android gives you are also very specific -- for example, you're warned about every action an application can take. You don't get such specific warnings on iPhone, because Apple simply won't pass apps that are malicious.

But it's Apple's reluctance to pass certain applications that causes frustration among people who want to get the most out of their phone. Tethering, for example, was a big no-no, and when it finally arrived it required you to pay O2 for a separate tethering account.

The Apple App Store also appears to have fewer free apps than Android. Because Android is more open, developers seem happy to develop apps for free. There's often a donations jar though, if you want to help them out. Apple doesn't rush to promote free applications, because it takes a cut of all sales.

The new-look Android Market that arrives with version 1.6 has filters that enable you to browse only free apps. You can do this with the iPhone too, but it's not as easy to apply to sub-categories in the store.

Android wins here, but only by a gnat's hair.

Apple's biggest failure is that you must use iTunes to sync music and backup your phone. Although there are third-party applications available, this isn't practical for most people. Android and Palm both make the process of getting media on to your phone nice and simple. A USB cable connects your computer with your phone, and you drag and drop.

Owning a PC isn't essential on any of the three platforms to sync your contacts, calendar and email. Apple's OS X and Palm's webOS get credit for having built-in Exchange support and sync, which means your contacts, mail and calendar can be synced without a PC. Android gets a black mark here, because it doesn't natively support Exchange, and you have to use a piece of Google software to sync your exchange contacts and calendar to your Gmail account.

It is, however, fair to call Apple out for the appalling iTunes. Mac users say this software runs okay on their computers, but PC users universally hate it. It's slow, buggy and bloated, and if you want to sync music, podcasts and video to your iPhone, you're stuck using it. As we mentioned earlier, you can only sync an iPhone to one computer -- attempting to sync it to a second will cause you to lose the data on the phone. Brilliant. For reasons we can't fathom, Palm wants the Pre to sync with iTunes too, but you do at least get the option of drag-and-drop too.

On Android you can drag-and-drop content, which is, after all, the best solution.

It's truly hard to pick a 'winner' here. We love the open nature of Android, but with that comes inconsistency and unreliability. On the flip-side, we love the way the iPhone and the Palm Pre look -- we adore the slick visuals and beautiful screens -- but with that comes an interface you can't fully customise, and a frustratingly inflexible user experience.

We hate that you have to use iTunes to make the iPhone work, but we adore the way the iPod functionality integrates with everything else on the handset. We really love the fact that buying music, watching video and subscribing to podcasts is just a couple of mouse clicks away. On the other hand, Android lets you do what you want, play pretty much what you want and use a variety of apps to do it, but it's not simple and it can be an annoying experience.

You get the point: all three of these phones are terrific. They use three brilliant operating systems that each have strengths and weaknesses, but are sturdy, powerful and full of potential.

We're sorry to wimp out, but we can't decide this for you. If you want the best email integration, plump for the Pre. If you want a fun, usable experience out of the box, and don't mind paying extra for apps and games, go with the iPhone, particularly if you're already invested in the iTunes ecosystem. We'll give the last word to Android, though. If you want to hack your phone around with as much freedom and choice as you want, Android is your friend -- and it's getting better all the time.