Why should I buy an Android Smartphone?
When you're considering a new smartphone, there are four key types to choose from: smartphones running Android, smartphones running iOS, smartphones running Windows Phone, and smartphones running BlackBerry OS. Of the four, Android is the most popular - so what is it, and what do you need to look out for?
What is Android?
Android is Google's operating system for touch-screen gadgets such as phones (although it's also available in devices ranging from TVs to digital cameras too). In addition to standard features such as email, internet, photos, contacts and so on, you can expand Android phones by downloading and installing "apps". The main source for apps, the Google Play store, has more than 700,000 titles to choose from.
Is there more than one version of Android?
Yes, there are lots. Android versions are numbered, but they also have codenames - so for example 1.5 was Cupcake, 2.0 Eclair and so on. The most recent version of Android is Jelly Bean, aka Android 4.1/4.2, but you'll find many devices running older versions such as Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0), Honeycomb (3.1/3.2) or Gingerbread (2.3).
What are Android's key features?
All recent Android phones are very good all-rounders, and the latest models get stacks of useful things including:
- Interactive Notifications, so you can see important information without having to open lots of apps.
- Google Now, which provides maps, traffic information, reminders and other key information.
- Maps, which include turn-by-turn navigation so you can use your phone as a sat-nav device.
- Voice control and dictation.
- Widgets, so you can display whatever you like on your homescreen.
- Face recognition, which you can use to unlock your phone.
- Android Beam, which sends data wirelessly between Android devices.
- Google Wallet, for card-free payments in shops.
- Excellent email and web browsing.
- Live Effects, for adding fun effects to videos.
- Tethering, enabling you to use your mobile as a Wi-Fi hotspot for other devices.
What are the pros of Android?
Recent Android devices are as good as, or better than, any other smartphone on the market, and there are stacks of really great phones to choose from. That wide choice also means a wide range of prices, so you can pick up a good Android device for much less than you'd pay for, say, an iPhone 5, and the contract prices are cheaper too. Samsung's Galaxy phones are particularly well regarded - many see the Galaxy S III as the best phone you can buy at time of writing - but other firms such as Sony and HTC make really nice Android kit too.
Android is more flexible and much more tinkering-friendly than rival systems, and it's second only to Apple in the range of available apps. It also tends to have new technologies before rivals do, so for example the iPhone still doesn't have NFC (Near Field Communications) technology for wireless data transfer and card-free payments in shops. Android's had that for ages.
What are the cons of Android?
Some people find Android a little bit more geeky than other smartphone systems, although it isn't particularly hard to get used to, and while there are lots of apps in the Google Play store there isn't really much filtering going on - so you need to beware of rip-off apps that copy big hits, and you need to watch out for malicious software.
The big problem with Android is called "fragmentation": there are lots of devices out there, and they're running every conceivable flavour of Android - so for example if you buy an Alcatel OT 903, you'll get the comparatively old Android 2.3 Gingerbread. You can't upgrade that phone to the latest version of Android.
Even if an upgrade is technically possible, you can't always do it: Android updates are usually provided by the manufacturer and/or phone operator, so unless you buy a Google-branded phone such as the Nexus 4 you'll have to wait for the manufacturer/network to issue an official update. They don't always do so, so for example in 2012 Motorola said it wouldn't offer Android 4.1 updates for some of its recent phones. That's not insurmountable - if you're reasonably techy you can "root" your phone to update the operating system - but you need to have the right hardware. Don't expect a really old phone to be capable of running the latest Android release.
What's the verdict on Android?
Android appeals to three kinds of people: people who want the most powerful phones around; people who want Apple-style apps but don't want to pay Apple prices; and people who like to completely customise their phone to work their way. Early Android devices weren't as good as Apple ones, but that's changed and the latest Android kit is often more powerful and less expensive than the equivalent iPhone. With a huge range of top-quality handsets to suit every budget and nearly three-quarters of a million available apps, Android should be on every smart smartphone shopper's list.