For years, I’ve been a loyal buyer of Google’s Pixel smartphones; I switched from an iPhone 8 when the Pixel 2 debuted with its fun colors and impressive camera, and owned the Pixel 3, 4, and 5–all of which were awesome, boundary-pushing phones.
But, when Apple unveiled the iPhone 13 Pro this year, I finally decided to move away from the Pixel and go back. After just a few weeks with my new iPhone 13 Pro it’s shown me what I was missing out on — even though I was a big Pixel fan.
When I switched to the Pixel 2, there was a laundry list of reasons that Android was more compelling as Google started to invest heavily in its own devices for the first time. Computational photography, which used artificial intelligence to deliver incredible photos under even the most challenging conditions, was the flagship feature at the time.
Other things like widgets didn’t exist on the iPhone at the time, so the ability to customize the home screen entirely appealed. iOS didn’t allow users to change their default apps for things like email or web browsing, but Android allowed changing everything from email to the default camera app.
Over the generations of iOS since I switched away to Android, however, Apple has whittled away the compelling reasons to use Google’s platform one at a time over the last few years. iOS 13 brought dark mode and keyboard swiping. iOS 14 introduced widgets to the home screen for the first time and allowed the ability to change default apps, and so on. The iPhone also caught up with its own computational photography improvements, narrowing the gap.
The specific motivations behind my switch back to an iPhone were twofold.
First, in 2021, the only thing that’s kept me sane is making a habit of running, and I’ve been seeking out a worthy smartwatch that would allow me to leave my phone at home. Few compelling options exist for Android devices, and I tried an array of devices including those from Garmin and Samsung, but they leave much to be desired compared with an Apple Watch, which is good at being both a sports wearable and an actual watch simultaneously.
Second, I found it a regular frustration that app developers large and small either ignored Android entirely or neglected their apps, releasing a slimmer set of features than their iOS counterparts if at all.
Twitter, for example, is one of the worst culprits of this. In the last year alone, the company has released almost every new feature on iOS exclusively, promising an Android release later that rarely arrived. Redesigned photos, Audio Tweets, Super Follows, Communities, Twitter Blue, and other features remain iOS-only months after their release.
Perhaps more frustrating, however, is that the company’s Android app is noticeably less polished than its iPhone counterpart. Scrolling the timeline is less fluid, and features like scheduled dark mode, which changes the color scheme from light to dark at sunset, don’t actually work unless you force-close the app.
While I’m picking on Twitter here, it’s not the only company that half-assed its Android counterpart. Instagram users, for example, can tell who among their friends are using an Android phone by how poor quality any videos they upload to their stories are. Snapchat struggled for years globally because its Android app was a mess, but it’s one of the few companies that invested in fixing this, which arguably turned around its fate.
Android is infamously more difficult to develop for than iOS because it runs on a vast, unpredictable ecosystem of devices at all sorts of price points, sizes, and performance capabilities — but these are two of the world’s largest app developers and even they are clearly struggling to make it work. Their stumbling efforts are a good indication of the quality of the wider Android ecosystem–and that even the largest companies appear to put more resources and effort into their iOS apps.
Apple’s third-party apps aren’t just better because developers care more–the company also enforces rules and quality standards as well as encouraging developers to adopt new technologies and visual design styles. It does this by using the App Store and its associated rules, for better or worse, to keep a high quality bar and show off those that take advantage of new APIs or capabilities, like Widgets.
Google, by contrast, does little to encourage or enforce consistency. Widgets, which have been available for years, are a mess of inconsistent, unpredictable sizing, shapes, and layouts. There were few that looked good enough to put on my home screen, let alone multiple together–but on iOS, there are a huge array of visually appealing widgets that actually look at home with one another. Most ironic, even Google makes better widgets for its iOS apps than it does on its own platform.
One of the exciting features of the next version of Android is a new visual language called Material You that adapts the entire operating system to the user’s color, font, and other visual preferences. It’s a fantastic overhaul that feels even more modern than iOS does, however I’m skeptical that developers will adopt it in any meaningful way given Google does little to motivate them.
I didn’t want the experience of switching back to feel so good, but it’s been incredible how big the app quality rift is. While Google’s efforts with the Pixel have improved the overall experience of Android, it’s clear the software ecosystem needs to catch up. Apple’s software ecosystem, with the Watch and tight integration with the Mac just sweetened the deal.
I’d happily go back to the Pixel one day; the hardware is incredible and Google’s efforts with computational photography really shine through when taking photos–but it feels easier than ever to switch between the platforms, so it made sense to dip my toes back into iOS for a while.
For now, it feels nice to be a blue bubble again, and make the most of Apple’s cushy ecosystem that I’d been missing out on.