Picking a smartphone to accompany you through life isn’t just about choosing between iOS and Android: It’s also about deciding which apps you’re going to pick for your emails, your driving directions, your music and so on. Having used both sets of native apps for years at this point, here’s our definitive verdict on the state of play in 2019.
For the sake of brevity, we’re going to focus on the iOS experience for the Apple apps and the Android experience for the Google apps. Though they don’t stand alone. Google’s apps are all available on both iOS and Android and it is much better at building web apps to accompany their mobile version. Apple lacks broader support but promises to hold a much tighter rein on your privacy.
These extra factors will play into your decision about which apps you’re going to use but we’ll save those discussions for another day. Here we’ll look specifically at what the user experience and feature set is like for each app on its native platform.
It’s hard to see past Gmail here, with its slick sorting algorithms, modern-looking interface, intuitive use of labels, inline attachment previews and more besides. Gmail is full of useful features, like the option to only receive notifications for emails that Google’s algorithms deem to be important to you (Apple Mail has a sort-of manual equivalent with its VIP lists).
Apple Mail is by no means terrible—both apps let you manage multiple accounts with relative ease, group conversations into threads, swipe through your inbox to archive messages, and generally get your inbox business done—but there’s a reason a lot of third-party apps have tried to improve the emailing situation on iOS.
From scheduling emails to go at a certain time to snoozing conversations until later, Gmail has more features, as well as implementing most of the basics (such as adding attachments) in a smarter way. Plus, the searching and sorting are lightning fast, as you would expect from Gmail.
And the winner is... Gmail
All joking aside, Apple Maps is getting better than it used to be—hey it’s getting Street View in September—but that seven-year head start Google Maps has had is still showing. It has quite an extensive list of features that Apple Maps doesn’t, including cycling directions, multi-stop navigation, and manual offline map downloads if you know you’re going to be without an internet connection ahead of time.
Aesthetically there’s not much to choose between the two—greens and blues and browns abound—and they’re both fast to load and responsive. It’s difficult for us to compare the mapping data between these two apps across the entire planet, though both Apple and Google are heavily investing in this. Chances are one works better than the other in your part of the world, and you’ll know which one that is.
Google Maps is better at recommending new places and surfacing extras like warnings of traffic on your commute to work—because it knows more about you, natch—and also lets you leave reviews, photos, and ratings of the places you visit, which may or may not be important to you. This head-to-head is closer than it used to be in the core areas, but Google Maps still offers more overall.
And the winner is... Google Maps
Apple Music has the distinction of being the only Apple app for Android (besides the Move to iOS app...) and after a few teething problems now does a decent job of mixing a local iTunes library with an on-demand streaming one—or letting you stick to one or the other. In terms of recommendations, lyrics, playlist management, online radio and more, it’s one of Apple’s most impressive apps.
YouTube Music is very much a work-in-progress, with Google Play Music slowly getting pushed out. While it’s good enough as a music player, and can now play local files stored on an Android device, perhaps the only area where it beats Apple Music is in support for music videos... as you would expect it to.
It’s the Google Maps and Apple Maps comparison but flipped: Apple has much more experience and expertise in building music apps and working with digital music libraries, and it shows. From the design and feel of the app, to building up playlists and queueing up tracks, Apple Music wins out (even if you don’t pay the $10 a month and stick to your purchased MP3 collection).
And the winner is... Apple Music
Apple Safari vs Google Chrome
We have to confess to having a slight preference for Chrome over Safari on the desktop, just because of the way it looks and works, and how everything is tab-based. It feels more modern than Safari does, even if it is prone to slowing down once you’ve got a few dozen different tabs loaded up.
On mobile, those interface differences matter much less, which means Safari ends up being our favorite on a smaller screen. Everything feels a bit easier to find, from bookmarks to navigation buttons to private mode, and given Safari’s continued push for limiting how much you can be tracked online, Chrome has some catching up to do.
This is one area where your choice really is going to depend on what other apps and services you use—if you use Chrome on the desktop, for example, you’re going to default to it on mobile too—but taking everything but the core of the app out of the equation, we’d say Apple is ahead here.
And the winner is... Apple Safari
This is a head-to-head that comes with numerous caveats—like how many of your friends are also on iPhones—but in terms of the core messaging experience, it’s the Apple app that wins out. If you’ve got iMessage enabled, the difference is particularly stark: End-to-end encryption, Animoji and Memoji, dozens of useful apps... Android just can’t compete at this stage (and has only ever really got close with Hangouts).
Besides the problems Google has had getting the SMS successor RCS adopted by carriers, the Android Messages app is clunky and basic by comparison. It’s showing signs of improvement—GIF support, location sharing, and more comprehensive search options are slowly rolling out—but it’s a long way behind still.
The Apple FaceTime vs Google Duo contest is a little closer, with both offering a polished and straightforward video calling experience, with support for group video calls too. Again, FaceTime just about has the edge, but Duo has a few neat tricks of its own (like previews of who’s calling before you answer).
And the winner is... iOS Messages
Apple Photos vs Google Photos
Apple Photos and Google Photos really show the two tech giants playing to their strengths. Apple’s app is neat and tidy, with an increasing number of useful editing options, and some handy features for highlighting your best photos and videos. Google’s app goes big on the search and AI features (like face and object recognition), without as much attention given to edits or visual appeal.
It’s a tough one to call because both apps work well on their native platforms. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that Google Photos offers unlimited storage for free, if you can put up with a bit of resizing and compression, or own a Pixel phone. Neither company charges exorbitant rates for cloud storage, but if you want an online backup without paying anything, Google Photos fits the bill.
Having used both apps extensively, it’s fair to say Apple Photos is the best option for iOS users and Google Photos is the best option for Android (or multi-platform) users. Options like sharing, searching, and editing are pretty evenly matched, or not different enough to make one stand out against the other. Look for a constant barrage of improvements in both these services going forward, as well.
And the winner is... a draw
Apple Notes has been given a series of useful updates over the last few years, and there are more coming with iOS 13: Visual thumbnails for notes, shared folders, improved searching (including searching within images), new checklist options and more. It’s grown from offering the absolute basics to something much more Evernote-esque.
Google Keep has also developed from humble, simple beginnings into a comprehensive tool for note-taking. Features such as note tags, searching within images, support for reminders and shared notes, and an appealing interface have helped make it one of the best apps Google has to its name.
A very close call in this round then, but we reckon Apple Notes just about edges Keep out in terms of overall polish and usefulness. It’ll be interesting to see how Google responds to the changes to Notes arriving with iOS 13.
And the winner is... Apple Notes
Apple Calendar vs Google Calendar
Both Apple Calendar and Google Calendar benefit from years and years of development—they’ve both grown into very capable, very solid calendar apps with all the features you’re going to need, from recurring events to sharing calendars with others to getting alerts when it’s time to leave for an appointment.
We think Google wins it in interface terms, as its Calendar is one of those apps where the Material Design really pops and works well—the use of color and space is a bit easier on the eye than in Apple Calendar, and the use of stock imagery behind months of the year and regular appointments (like the dentist) is a nice touch.
Google Calendar also incorporates Goals (like exercise) and Reminders very neatly, which are features Apple’s developers haven’t gotten around to yet. You may prefer one or the other based on a particular feature or integration with a particular service (such as Gmail or Apple Mail), but taken on their own, Google’s is the better-looking and more functional calendar app of the two.
And the winner is... Google Calendar
Apple News vs Google News
The news apps from Apple and Google continue to evolve and change with the times, both offering up a selection of popular trending stories as well as articles personally recommended for you. You can dig into news based on topic or region in both these apps, though it’s slightly easier in Google News.
Apple News makes more of an attempt to create a Flipboard-style interface that’s pleasing to the eye, and when it works, it works very well—though when it doesn’t work it looks rather ugly. Google News is happier just to lift content straight from the web, which means it’s often both faster and less aesthetically consistent.
It’s another tight round because both Apple News and Google News do a decent job of serving up headlines for you and personalizing content, and both these apps can look stylish on one screen and disjointed on the next. We have a slight preference for Google News, just because it’s more natively welded to the web, and better for it.
And the winner is... Google News
And the rest...
That’s probably enough comparisons for now, but there are several more apps where Google and Apple are directly competing against each other. With its TV app, Apple seems to be moving ahead of Google in terms of how well it delivers movies and TV shows, for example, just as it has the lead in music too.
We can probably all agree that Google Drive is a more comprehensive and capable offering than iCloud Drive at the moment, with Apple still finding its feet in the cloud storage stakes (you’ll actually be able to share an iCloud folder before the end of the year). With apps like Reminders and Contacts, meanwhile, they’re pretty much even.
If you’ve been keeping score you’ll notice that Apple and Google are locked level on points after our rundown of their app offerings, but of course you’re going to have a mobile platform of preference and that’s going to influence your own picks for your favorite apps—you might even overlook a few failings as long as a particular app integrates well with whatever OS your phone runs.
And the final result is... a draw