Choosing the best mobile operating system – iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone: Buyer’s Guide review

Smartphone and tablet OS choices explained
Photo of Choosing the best mobile operating system – iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone: Buyer’s Guide

When you’re in the market to buy a smartphone, there’s one choice you need to make before you even think about comparing handset features and specifications: which mobile operating system you want to go for. Faced with the choice of iOS, used on the Apple iPhone 4 and iPad 2, as well as the many flavours of Android, BlackBerry OS, Windows Phone 7 and others, it can be a confusing process. ITReviews will help sift through some of the issues to get a clearer picture.

This guide deals with the mobile operating systems used by smartphones and tablets. For information on the OSes used by desktop and laptop computers, check out our main OS Buyer’s Guide.

Choosing which OS your smartphone is based on is even more important than selecting the OS of your desktop or laptop computer. Making the wrong choice can leave you feeling underwhelmed, unable to take full advantage of the hardware that seemed so promising when you purchased it.

Unlike the desktop OS market, there are a number of big players creating smartphone platforms – but the two biggest are Google and Apple, who are currently fighting it out with Android and iOS respectively.

Each platform has its proponents and detractors. Apple fans point to the polished user interface the massive selection of add-on apps from a wide-ranging developer community, as well as the well thought out feel of the operating system. The Android crowd, conversely, highlight the platform’s flexibility, relative freedom, and power – as well as drawing your attention to the fact that Android has a smaller but rapidly growing developer network of its own.

While there are other platforms worthy of consideration – business users in particular might want to look at Research In Motion’s popular BlackBerry platform, while those who like to tinker with their gadgets would do well to consider a relative also-ran, MeeGo – the vast majority of users will pick either Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android.

To figure out which best suits you, it’s time to examine each platform in greater depth.

Apple iOS
Apple’s platform, originally known as the iPhone OS and rebranded to iOS when the company launched its iPad tablet, is one of the most successful mobile platforms around. When it launched back in 2007, it was like a breath of fresh air in a stagnant market – and while the original version of the iPhone lacked some basic features, it sold by the bucketload.

Like Apple’s computer OS, Mac OS X, iOS is only available on Apple hardware. This gives the company the ability to tightly control the platform in a way that isn’t possible with more open counterparts such as Android. While this translates into an excellent ‘feel’ and an extremely solid platform, some advanced users can feel stifled by the lack of freedom that comes from being under Apple’s thumb.

Although it was originally developed for Apple’s handheld smartphone and mobile Internet devices – the iPhone and iPod Touch, respectively – the most recent version of iOS has also found its way into the company’s tablet, the iPad (and now iPad 2). As a result, Apple has overhauled the way the system works, allowing it to scale easily from small screen devices to the 9.7in display of the iPad 2.

iPhone 4

iOS is at the heart of Apple’s best-selling iPhone 4 handset.

If you’re an iTunes user, iOS is an excellent choice: featuring integration with the iTunes App Store and full media synchronisation capabilities, an iOS-based device will slot into your life like the limb you never knew your were missing. Likewise, Mac OS X users will enjoy a surprisingly familiar – though simplified – interface.

The biggest jewel in Apple’s crown, however, is its App Store. Featuring hundreds of thousands of applications, both free and paid, the App Store allows you to quickly add software to your handset from the biggest selection around.

Gamers are also well catered for under iOS. While Google’s Android is starting to make waves in this area, some of the most impressive mobile games around – such as Epic’s Infinity Blade – are exclusive to the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.

Choosing iOS isn’t without its perils, however. Unlike Android, it’s only available on Apple-approved hardware – meaning your choice of handset is drastically limited. If you want a device with features such as a physical keyboard or high-resolution camera, you’ll have to wait for Apple to make one.

Those who feel stifled by the control Apple exerts over its platform – which even extends to preventing app developers from changing the functionality of keys, to create a physical button for a camera app as an example – do have the option of ‘jailbreaking’ their device. While this process isn’t approved (and is, in fact, fervently opposed) by Apple, it allows third-party applications to be installed – and can dramatically increase the flexibility of the platform.

If you’re a tinkerer, though, you’re likely to be better served by one of the more ‘open’ platforms…

Google’s Android
While development of the Android mobile platform started several years before Apple’s iOS was launched, it wasn’t made public until several months after the iPhone was announced. Many at the time accused Google of releasing a ‘me-too’ mobile platform, but Android has proven extremely successful.

Based around an open-source distribution, Android offers extreme flexibility. Any company is allowed to make a handset featuring Android, with the result that the market is flooded with devices from mobile phone manufacturers including Samsung, Sony-Ericsson, Motorola, and HTC.

If you’re looking for the biggest choice of hardware, Android is the platform for you. Not all versions are equivalent, however, so it pays to check the fine print before you buy.

Early versions of Android were extremely rough around the edges. Released more as a proof of concept than a commercial product, Android 1.0 was all-but-unusable. It wasn’t until Android 1.5 that the platform started to gain interest from handset manufacturers.

Google’s smartphone OS now up to Android 2.3 – codenamed ‘Gingerbread’ – and the Android OS has become the biggest selling mobile platform in the world, taking the crown from Nokia’s Symbian in late 2010. With each version bringing new enhancements, it’s easy to see why.

Android 2.3 is cutting-edge, offering the option to use technology that other manufacturers are only just starting to implement. Near-Field Communications (NFC) technology, which is thought to be the next big thing in mobile payment systems, is built into the OS – although you’ll need a handset like the Google Nexus S to take advantage of it – whereas Apple isn’t thought to be supporting it until the iPhone 5 is released.

Galaxy S II smartphone Review

Samsung’s Galaxy S II features the latest Android smartphone OS, version 2.3.

If you’re buying an Android handset, get one with the newest version that you can. Unlike iOS, updates are not guaranteed – if you buy a handset that uses Android 2.0 now it may well stay on that version forever, never benefiting from the enhancements that newer versions bring.

Another reason Android has proven so successful with manufacturers is its flexibility and freedom. Many have developed their own customised user interfaces, such as HTC with its Sense UI. These can make handsets from various manufacturers feel very different. Always make sure you’ve checked out the same Android ‘skin’ as the one you’re going to buy – if you’re used to Motorola’s MotoBlur interface, HTC’s Sense UI will come as a shock.

As with iOS, Android has a massive selection of add-in apps available on the Android Marketplace. While the selection isn’t quite as large as that of Apple’s App Store, it’s growing at a rapid pace – and is likely to soon equal its iOS-based rival.

If you don’t want your choice of OS to limit the handsets available to you, Android is a great option – but try not to buy anything older than Android 2.2 ‘Froyo,’ as that version brought dramatic speed improvements over its predecessors.

Android 3.0
While Android 2.3 is the latest version available for smartphones, pending the release of Android 2.4 ‘Ice-Cream,’ it’s not the highest-numbered version. That honour goes to Android 3.0, code-named ‘Honeycomb.’

Unlike Apple, which has developed a single operating system that it uses across both its tablet and smartphone ranges, Google has forked its Android platform into two streams: the 2.x stream is for smartphones, while the 3.x stream is for tablets.

Featuring multiple tablet-specific enhancements, you’re unlikely to see a smartphone running Honeycomb – but if you’re in the market for a tablet, it’s worth hanging on for.

No-name Android tablets at the very bottom the market sometimes run versions as old as Android 1.5, but Android 2.2 is becoming the more mainstream choice, as seen on models like the Samsung Galaxy Tab. While they offer a variety of features, they can’t match up to Honeycomb for one simple reason: they’re not designed for large-screen devices, and it shows. If you can afford the premium, we’d advise going for a device based on Android 3.0 ‘Honeycomb’ – it offers a significantly more enjoyable experience compared to the smartphone-specific 2.2 and 2.3.

Windows Phone 7
Eyeing the success that Apple and Google enjoyed with their modern twists on the smartphone OS, Microsoft jumped into the game with Windows Phone 7 – a complete overhaul of its ageing Windows Mobile platform.

Launched to great fanfare, Windows Phone devices haven’t taken the market by storm – sales have been good, but nowhere near the level of the iPhone or the various Android devices out there.

Venue Pro Review

Windows Phone 7 handsets such as Dell’s Venue Pro may suit Xbox devotees.

Despite this, it has some interesting features that are worth considering before you make a decision on the platform for you. Boasting a rewritten user interface that offers excellent possibilities for customisation, it’s certainly an impressive beast to look at.

If you use other Microsoft products, such as its Xbox Live gaming platform or its Zune music and video service, Windows Phone 7 is definitely worth looking at: the platform integrates with both services, allowing you to check your Xbox Live friends list, earn achievements in mobile games, as well as streaming video and music to your smartphone from the Zune service.

As with Android, Microsoft has also opened Windows Phone 7 to the OEM market: handsets from a range of manufacturers are available, although the choice isn’t as broad as for Android.

That selection will grow in time, however – and with Nokia announcing that it will transition its Symbian devices across to Windows Phone in the future, it’s worth keeping an eye on it if you’re not in the market for a smartphone right this instant.

Microsoft also offers its own take on the App Store, called Windows Market. The selection of apps on offer is nowhere near the level of the iTunes App Store or Android Market, but it’s growing – and the company is actively working on tempting developers across to the Windows Phone platform.

Sadly, Windows Phone 7 still feels a little clunky in comparison to the latest versions of iOS and Android – so unless you’re desperate for the Xbox Live integration, it’s probably worth looking elsewhere.

BlackBerry OS
Research In Motion, also known as RIM, won the hearts and the minds of the business set with its BlackBerry platform – the first to offer ‘push messaging,’ where e-mail alerts were sent to your handset as soon as the e-mail was received by a server.

Despite attempts to break in to the consumer market, BlackBerry retains its business-oriented image – and many of its more advanced features require expensive server-side software, known as the BlackBerry Enterprise Server.

BlackBerry Bold 9780

RIM’s BlackBerry OS fares best in the business market, on handsets such as the Bold 9780.
It’s rare that a user buys a BlackBerry handset for themselves – traditionally they’re given to employees by corporate communication departments, thanks to their excellent messaging capabilities and powerful security features.

RIM is attempting to change that, however: with the latest version of the BlackBerry OS, the company has launched some consumer-friendly handsets that bring in features users expect from a modern smartphone – including a touchscreen display, something RIM was slow to adopt.

The BlackBerry OS is on its way out, however. With few developers interested in creating apps for a last-generation platform, it can’t offer the wealth of content available for competing operating systems. With that in mind, RIM plans to replace it over the coming years with a next-generation reboot based on a platform called QNX.

The first QNX-powered product to emerge was RIM’s inaugural tablet, the BlackBerry PlayBook. Designed for business users, despite its name, the new platform promised to bring RIM’s devices into the 21st century – but has so far met with near-universally bad reviews. The company has some serious work to do as it moves its smartphones into line, giving developers a single platform to target across all the company’s devices.

The move to QNX will take time, however – and in the mean time BlackBerry handsets continue to struggle along with an ageing platform. If you need the advanced messaging or corporate security facilities the platform offers, it’s worth checking out – but if you’re after a ‘smart’ phone, look elsewhere for now.

Nokia’s Symbian and MeeGo
Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia has had something of a rough time over the last couple of  years. Once a market leader with its Symbian platform, the company has let brash young upstarts like Google and Apple steal its market – and it’s suffering as a consequence.

Supported by handsets such as the Nokia C7, Symbian now appears long in the tooth.

Nokia’s latest mobile OS, Symbian^3, was an attempt to modernise the ageing platform – but it’s an attempt that the market appears to have largely ignored. With a poor development community and lacklustre hardware selections, there’s little left to recommend Symbian these days.

The company did start work on a backup plan, however: MeeGo. Built from Nokia’s Maemo platform and Intel’s Moblin OS, MeeGo was designed to be a flexible, modern, fast mobile platform – a true competitor to the similar Android platform.

Sadly, MeeGo doesn’t look too healthy in the mobile market. While partner Intel is forging ahead with MeeGo devices, Nokia looks set to desert MeeGo after signing an agreement to become a Windows Phone licensee.

Where MeeGo shines, however, is its flexibility. Like its predecessor Maemo, MeeGo is known as the hackers’ OS – beloved of a niche community of coders and tinkerers for the sheer wealth of things it can be convinced to do.

Many of these people, however, are making the move to Android – leaving very little to recommend any of Nokia’s current offerings.

Samsung’s bada
For the smartphone buyer on a budget, Samsung has its very own mobile OS: bada. Announced in 2009, it’s more popular in Samsung’s native Korea than in the UK – but it’s still an option to consider.

Unlike iOS or Android, bada is a ‘new’ platform – and handily avoids some of the legacy concerns that older platforms have to consider. Currently, the only manufacturer to use bada is Samsung itself – something that isn’t helping push its popularity.

Wave 723

The Samsung Wave 723 is one of a the company’s budget handsets to feature bada.

As with Android, iOS, and Windows Mobile, bada has its own app store – but it’s poorly stocked, boasting only a fraction of the apps available on other platforms. As a minority OS – even among Samsung’s own handsets – bada has traditionally struggled to interest developers.

The main reason to be interested in bada is its uniqueness: as a niche platform in the UK, it offers a buyer the chance to own something few people have seen. Whether that makes up for its relatively lacklustre development community is a personal choice.