An honest comparison: the pros and cons of a switch to Android

Published by at

Windows 10 Mobile's imperfections are well known, at least around these parts, since we're intensive users. (Ask the wider world and they probably think the OS is dead.) And, while waiting for Microsoft and an all-singing folding phablet, there's a very real temptation to switch over to Android as your phone OS of choice. But is the grass any greener on that side of the fence? In this feature, I present, hopefully honestly, the various pros and cons.

As usual with AAWP features, there's practical research involved. Readers may know already that I have two SIMs/contracts on the go at any one time. Long story, but the benefit here is that I can keep two different phones on the go, on different OS (usually), at the same time, keeping both bang up to date with all apps, all services, everything I want to do. And then see how they both do.

Now, admittedly quite a bit of my comment below is subjective and your opinions and preferences will be different. But there's still plenty to note. You want the short version? I'm equally happy (and frustrated) with both Windows 10 Mobile and Android, both on very latest versions and both on near identical hardware - the pros and cons come thick and fast and which way you lean (at least as an AAWP reader wondering whether to 'jump') will depend on which pros and which cons you choose to fixate on!

The hardware, in case you were wondering, is - in this case, though I do mix it up a bit as part of my job - is the Alcatel IDOL 4 Pro running latest Windows 10 Mobile Fall Creators Update and the ZTE Axon 7, running the latest Lineage OS, based on Android 7. Both phones are fully up to date in terms of production operating system and all application updates.

Both phones have 5.5" AMOLED screens, Snapdragon 820 chipsets, 4GB RAM, 20MP cameras, loud stereo front-mounted speakers, fingerprint sensors on their backs, USB Type C and Qualcomm Quick Charge support, 3.5mm audio jacks. In short, they're 98% the same specification, meaning that the pros, cons, and general differences noted here are almost entirely independent of phone hardware. Which makes things simpler.

IDOL 4 Pro and Axon 7

(As with my direct phone comparison features, I'm going to shade 'wins' in green, for ease of counting things up at the end.)

  Windows 10 Mobile FCU Android (Lineage) OS
General interface, aesthetics Yes, this is AAWP, so you'd expect me to say that I prefer Windows 10 Mobile, and I do. The Start screen and the live tiles are the crown jewel of the interface, of course, but I'd add in the way almost everything also works in landscape, with an intelligent reflowing of controls and UI elements. Whether working in portrait or landscape, with or without a Bluetooth keyboard, there's something clear, professional and familiar about Windows 10 Mobile, especially on the AMOLED screens of the Lumia 950 (et al), IDOL 4 Pro and Elite x3. Lineage is a clean OS and interface, based on stock Android (AOSP) with just a few bells and whistles. It's impossible to hate the Android UI as it's just.... generic. Homescreens on which you can put any combination of icons, folders and widgets, though I've rarely seen people use more than two or three of the latter (I use a monthly calendar widget and a Bitcoin ticker, for example). There's no real consistency to themes or menu placement or hambuger menu placement - yes, even less than under W10M, amazingly. 
Email and PIM  Probably one of Microsoft's strongpoints, Outlook Mail and Calendar is very functional indeed, working best with Microsoft-hosted email accounts but also very usable with Gmail and other providers. And almost all of this can be interacted with in any orientation and with a dark theme - the exception is viewing individual emails and I'd like to see a dark option here too. Lineage OS, being close to 'stock', uses the Google contacts and Calendar applications, plus the usual GMail client, all to good effect. If you only have a Google mailbox then things are quick and simple, though things get more complicated when you start adding in other accounts. Plus almost all the Google code presents a white background/theme, which really annoys me on an AMOLED-screened phone, as it's so inefficient. 
Social media  This is a competent area for Windows 10 Mobile, with Whatsapp still updated and working, Twitter for Windows 10 working (though slightly crippled), Facebook working but bloated, ditto Instagram, the theme continues. Official applications and solutions which work but without any speed or TLC. Even Microsoft's own Skype can be painfully slow sometimes. There are quite a few third party clients that work far better but which you have to seek out. My favourite is Tweetium still, just about the best Twitter client on any platform. Android has 80%+ market share in the phone world and as a result every social network, every interactive service, all have their own native Android applications. In short, although you can just about get by in terms of social interactions with Windows 10 Mobile (and I do), the experience on Android is almost always easier, quicker and better. I use the native Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Whatsapp, and Facebook applications, all without issue.
Imaging capabilities Windows 10 Camera (née Nokia Camera) is still the imaging UI to beat - and has been copied by some manufacturers in the past on Android - it's fast and flexible and the pro mode is unbelievably ergonomic. There are third party camera apps too, not least ProShot, but most people will be more than happy with Camera here. As you'll see below for music, Android is very fragmented here. Lineage OS includes a basic camera application, but every manufacturer has their own app for the purpose. A modern favourite is Google's own Pixel Camera, but this is strictly a 'hack it on if you dare' exercise and only for high end phones. I currently use Camera FV5, but it's still never as enjoyable to use as Windows 10 Camera.
Mapping and navigation  Windows 10 is 95% there, but ultimately falls down in comparison to the competition because of out of date maps and lack of real time traffic re-routing. And, following more extensive testing, I'd add that it has a propensity for routing for least distance, taking you down single-track roads that take twice as long just to save a few hundred metres. Close then, but no cigar. There are third party mapping and navigation solutions, but they're either old or unsupported or clunky. Google Maps and Navigation continues to improve year on year. The routing is flawless, the maps bang up to date, the traffic avoidance up to the second (thanks to crown sourcing from other drivers), and these days you can automatically preload an entire country for offline use (though you still need some online connection for routing and traffic).
Media (video) playback  As with navigation, Windows 10 Mobile so nearly gets 'there', but ultimately proves frustrating. There's no official YouTube client, but the third party ones are excellent; Netflix is an old and slow app that you can't help but feel is about to stop working altogether; it's almost impossible to watch Amazon Prime Video; BBC iPlayer is all handled through Edge, effectively; local videos play fine under Films & TV but the app never remembers where you go to. And Chromecast support is limited to a few specific third party apps. Android, out of the box, isn't in much better shape than W10M, with different variants having different arrangements for playing back local videos (I use MX Player, a third party player) - but things are dramatically better when you factor in third party applications and how trivial it is to add Chromecast support. Netflix is bang up to date, Prime Video has its own Store app now, ditto BBC iPlayer, and all including downloads. Plus YouTube is first party and slick, as you'd expect from a Google OS.

Media (music) playback 

With recent updates to Groove Music, we've lost the online music store, but gained speed and slickness. It's a beautiful experience with the choice at every stage of artist or album artwork, playing music from local storage or from OneDrive. All very smooth and I'm a big fan, it's possibly my favourite mobile music playing experience - ever.  Music is somewhat fragmented on Android - so many options that it's rather confusing for the end user, in my opinion. Google Play Music is on every phone and works pretty well for local and cloud-based music files, but it uses every opportunity to spam you with suggestions that you should 'sign up' to the subscription service. Then most manufacturers (including Lineage, here) also ship a local player for local music. Then you add in all the various streaming music clients. It's all very flexible but also quite overwhelming at the same time.
Browsing Web browsing is the fallback option for many vertical applications for which there's no dedicated application and Edge is actually very good in my experience, I have a few dozen core favourites and I can nip around the web quickly (note that it's important to keep tabs under control). Edge has no extension support under Windows 10 Mobile and thus no ad-blocking, but mobile ads aren't the pain they are on the desktop, so I'm not bothered. Edge remembers my logins and passwords a lot of the time, just as Chrome does for Chrome desktop users - in each case info is synced through the cloud via Microsoft or Google account. No complaints. Chrome and 'Browser' on Android (yes, the OS ships on most phones with two completely separate browsers - it's a long story!) are both without extensions, so as with Edge I do see ads on mobile web sites. But again, they're tiny (we're talking, typically, of a two inch banner ad that's only a few millimetres high), so never an issue. Chrome as a browser engine is faster than Edge in my experience, but the margin isn't that large and I'm equally happy with either.
Gaming Definitely a weak point of the Windows phone ecosystem and always has been. Yes, there are hundreds of good games available, but some of my biggest favourites (World Golf Tour, Hitman Sniper) are iOS and Android only, and versions of others (International Snooker, Infinite Flight) for Windows tend to be for WP8.1 and old. They still play, but they don't resume smoothly, they're slower than the iOS and Android versions, and it always feels like a second rate experience. It's true that there's the Xbox Windows 10 connection these days, but there's no real overlap in terms of titles, so it's a connection that's wasted. As with social and indeed general applications, the sheer size of the Android ecosystem means that every mainstream game is available. Sometimes a few weeks after the iPhone version, but always pretty current. Quite literally something for every person and every budget. 

Somewhat appropriately, this extended comparison ends up as a 5-5 draw, proving yet again that it's tough to evaluate something as complicated as a phone, OS and ecosystem using just a textual table. That I end up picking up each phone roughly 50% of the time, depending on what I want to do most, and that I'm equally happy (or unhappy) with either combination, is telling.

There's an extra factor that I've not mentioned above and that's stability. This is tough to evaluate, since the exact OS and app versions vary from phone to person to day of the week, but I'd say that in terms of restarts needed (about once every two days!) the IDOL 4 Pro and Windows 10 Mobile have been less stable for me overall, but that Android also has been less than 100% reliable. Some applications just 'close'  in the background with an annoying foreground warning, and I'm still plagued with my Android phone(s) auto-resuming podcasts when I remove my headphones in the morning, waking my wife and getting me into trouble - this is something that's never been right under Android, while I've never had a Windows phone do this. Just saying...

Your comments and data points welcome then - I imagine that most readers have been experimenting with Android over the last year. Have you switched full time, and what do you like and dislike on Android compared to Windows 10 Mobile.

PS. It could be argued that I should do something similar for Windows 10 Mobile versus iOS, but the latter just isn't in the same league as Android in terms of providing viable competition, in my opinion. Yes, there are millions of people who love iOS and iPhone but that's usually a branding or ecosystem thing - even most iPhone users don't love the interface. It took my wife over two minutes to work out how to attach a photo to an email yesterday - the iOS interface can be that obtuse.