With Windows Phone 8.1 Microsoft’s OS finally became as full featured as its rivals, which along with its stylish, unique design means it’s a very tempting alternative to iOS or Android.
But with Android 4.4.4 KitKat Google has improved on its OS in numerous ways too and while it’s since gone even further with Android 5.0, it’s KitKat which is still running on most Android phones.
Both operating systems have been thoughtfully designed and undergone years of polish to reach the point they’re at now, but there are numerous differences between them, so if you’re wondering what’s different and where each excels, we’ve got the answers.
Windows Phone 8.1 is arguably the most stylish mobile operating system around and it certainly stands out, with its vertically scrolling interface full of Live Tiles, each of which is essentially a miniature widget. It’s colourful and has far less empty space than Android, which could risk leaving it looking cluttered but as the tiles all line up neatly and are generally colour coordinated it never does.
Many Windows Phones apps and the stock ones in particular are also designed to fit with the look of each other and of the interface as a whole. Menus tend to consist of white lettering on black backgrounds and everything has a clean, minimalist look.
Android on the other hand has a more conventional interface. Or at least it’s more like other mobile OS’s, notably iOS. There are rows of tiles along the home screen with quite a lot of space between them, there’s also a bar at the bottom which displays the same tiles no matter which screen you’re on and it scrolls horizontally rather than vertically.
The apps in Android are static icons but there’s also proper widget support, which means that you can have for example a large clock or calendar on your screen, or perhaps a news feed. It makes it a lot more customisable and in fact almost anything on Android can be changed or altered, from the keyboard to the entire look and operation of the interface.
So you can make it look and work more or less however you want if you put the work in, but stock Android 4.4.4 KitKat is less stylish and distinctive than Windows Phone 8.1.
Android apps are more varied in their appearance than on Windows Phone, especially when you consider that different manufacturers put their own overlay and apps on the phones, but the stock apps tend to have a fairly unified look. They’re a little more cluttered than their Windows Phone counterparts, but still have a clean, simple design, so they’re rarely confusing to use.
There’s no getting around it, Windows Phone 8.1 has an app problem. The number of available apps has been steadily growing and includes many popular ones like Facebook and Instagram, but there are still well under 400,000 available apps compared to over 1,300,000 Android apps
So if you’re happy to stick just to big names then Windows Phone will for the most part serve you well, but if you want a wide selection of apps then Android still has an advantage. Although as you'd expect Windows Phone has native support for Microsoft Office products with greater features which is something business users should consider.
Keen gamers should consider that Android has a much wider and more polished collection of games available, but Windows Phone is the only operating system with Xbox built-in so you can view your trophies and keep in contact with friends wherever you are.
One recent addition to Windows Phone is Action Centre. This is an overdue feature which is a lot like the notification screen on Android, allowing you to access notifications and commonly used settings toggles from a pull down bar. It makes general operation of the phone a lot faster than it once was and is both similar to and a match for the Android equivalent.
Windows Phone can go blow for blow with Android in a number of other ways too. For example with Windows Phone 8.1 there was a word flow keyboard added, which lets you glide your fingers over letters rather than tapping them and is a match for Swype on Android.
There’s also a basic battery saver and battery monitor like you’ll find on Android and like with Android your apps don’t have to live on the home screen, instead you can tuck the ones that you don’t use much away in an apps list / drawer.
Windows Phone 8.1 finally brings a speed dial function to the OS too, which again makes it a match for Android.
Windows Phone 8.1 also adds a Wi-Fi Sense feature, which will automatically connect you to public networks, saving you time when out and about.
Android has largely been focusing on performance in the last couple of years, making the OS slicker than ever and allowing it to run well even on low end devices, but Windows Phone 8 has always been able to do that.
In fact overall the core Windows Phone 8 experience has debatably now got Android beat. But you’re better able to make Android your own and with the wealth of apps and customisation options tech-savvy users can easily outdo almost any Windows Phone feature.
Cortana is the biggest recent addition to Windows Phone 8 and it gives the OS an answer to Google Now.
There are a lot of similarities between the two and both are impressive in their own ways, but they’re not identical. Both services gather information about you and use it to give you tailored information and advice. For example they might give you a traffic warning in the morning because they know a road you take to work has a problem.
Cortana seems a little more adept at gathering information on you though and importantly it’s also easier to keep track of what Cortana knows and delete information that you’d rather it didn’t store.
Other than that they’re very similar. Both respond to voice or written commands and can interact with features on your phone, for example setting a reminder, or perform a web search and whenever possible they’ll speak the answer back to you. Here Cortana again has Google Now beat, as its voice is a little more natural and less like a robot, but it’s no better at actually understanding and carrying out commands.
One area where Google Now has the upper hand is how hands free it can be. If you have your screen on then it will respond to the phrase ‘Ok Google’ at any time, without you needing to press a single button. You could be browsing the net, watching a video or even on the lock screen and you can issue voice commands instantly.
Before Windows Phone 8.1 it would be hard to argue that Android wasn’t the better OS, but with the addition of Cortana, Action Centre and other more minor improvements Windows Phone has caught up.
Now it more comes down to what you want from your mobile OS. Both deliver the basics and even more advanced features like virtual personal assistants, but while Windows Phone is slick, stylish and intuitive, Android has more features and more options.
Android is better suited to those who are tech savvy or want to make the phone their own and those who want a large app and games selection. But if you want something that just works and looks good doing it then Windows Phone 8.1 is arguably the better choice.
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