There has been quite a bit of discussion and debate of late around the merits of iOS and Android, and this has coincided with my own journey into using Android. In February this year, after thirteen years using iPhones, I bought a Samsung Galaxy S23. I had long been curious about Android and had dabbled with it over the years, primarily as my work phone. I had never really picked it up and used it as my primary day to day phone though, at least not since I spent a month with a Nexus 4 way back in 2016. This time, I genuinely planned to give it a real go. I envisaged myself sticking with it for a full year, before deciding what I want to do next.
For context, while I have some limited vision, I am very much a screen reader user, with VoiceOver on iOS and TalkBack on Android. I have also tried CSR, also known as Jieshuo, on the Android side. I do not use Braille, so will not be delving into that aspect here.
In this blog post, I want to share my experiences to date, and why I’m not so sure I’ll last the year after all.
As mentioned above, I have been an iPhone user for over thirteen years and have generally always been extremely happy with it. I also have an iPad, Mac, Apple Watch and more, so am pretty entrenched in the Apple ecosystem and the benefits which go with that. It’s reasonable therefore to ask why I would want to do this in the first place.
First and foremost I'm interested in tech. I’ve always been curious about Android, dabbling with it here and there. I like the idea of it, a more open and customisable platform, and one that offers a greater range of hardware choices too. Was I feeling a little bored of iPhone, perhaps. Though I am aware how privileged that might sound. Ultimately, we do have choice in the market, and I wanted to know what the other side was like.
I waivered between getting the Samsung Galaxy S23 or a Google Pixel 7, but ultimately chose the Galaxy as it was brand new and running probably the best processor in the Android market, so performance should never be a problem. I’d definitely be interested though to hear if people’s experiences with Pixel differ to mine with the Galaxy.
The purchasing experience
My life with Samsung didn’t get off to the best start. The purchasing experience on the Samsung Ireland website left a lot to be desired. The website had quite poor screen reader accessibility which surprised me. I managed to muddle through, but ended up with the wrong colour device. I was sure I had selected lilac, but ended up with cream. As it turns out I like what I got, but I’d suggest that’s not the point. The post purchase experience wasn’t great either, with a lack of clarity about when I could expect the order to arrive. So this aspect was a bit of a let down compared to experiences with Apple.
On the plus side, unlike Apple, Samsung are good for offering deals. I got a discount for ordering early, plus a further discount when I added in Galaxy Buds.
In favour of Android
This post is not a hatchet job on Android by any means. There is a lot I like, so let’s get into that first.
I really like the general user interface on Android. It’s intuitive and easy to navigate. I especially like the app screen, or app drawer, where I can access all of my apps without cluttering my home screens. Of course iOS does have the app library now, but I prefer the Android implementation. I can access it from anywhere with a simple gesture, and have it laid out as a simple grid of all apps in alphabetical order. Apple’s screen full of automatically categorised groups of apps just doesn’t work well for me, and I wish I could just jump to a simple alphabetical list, without first having to open the search function.
On Android, you can choose how many rows and columns of apps you want on your home screens, apps screen and in folders. This is a very nice touch. In fact, it kind of annoys me that Apple have yet to introduce such a basic customisation feature after sixteen years. Moving apps and creating folders is different to iOS, but no more difficult. In fact I quite like how it’s done, at least on Samsung. On Samsung’s UI, you also have a feature called Edge Panels. This is a slide out drawer accessible from just about anywhere, that acts as a kind of secondary doc for apps, or even favourite contacts. I use it for easy access to utilities such as notes and home automation apps.
If you don’t like the user interface on your phone, you can download an alternative, known as Launchers, from the Play Store. In my experience, most of the main ones offer little difference in functionality, but I’m sure there are more varied ones out there too. It’s not a key point for me personally, but a nice option to have nonetheless.
For many years, VoiceOver was widely considered to have an important advantage over TalkBack, because TalkBack lacked multi-finger gestures. Google has since added those multi-finger gestures, while also maintaining its wider range of one finger gestures. This means that, for me, TalkBack now leads the way in this respect.
As well as having the majority, though admittedly not all, of the gestures that are available in VoiceOver, TalkBack also includes multi-directional one finger gestures. You can swipe up then left in a smooth motion for example, or swipe left then right. What this means for me is that firstly, I have more gestures in total to play with, and secondly, I can carry out more of the key commands I need while using the phone one handed. A great example is Android’s equivalent to the rotor. I have this assigned to the up then down and down then up gestures, whereas on iOS I have to switch to two handed use.
I don’t need to go into detail here, as there has been enough written and said about the gap in capability. Siri currently lags behind Google Assistant, and with the progression of AI technology that gap could widen further. I’m not writing Apple off entirely though. Either way, it’s not a particularly key feature in how I use my phone, plus Google services are available on iPhone, so I’m giving Android the point, but it’s not actually much of a factor for me.
One caveat is that TalkBack has a tendency to speak over you when trying to talk to the assistant, but I’ve learned to ignore it and generally don’t have issues.
On screen keyboard
I will come back to the less than satisfactory typing experience later, but one area where I prefer Android is the keyboard itself. Firstly, it’s that word customisation again. Support for third party keyboards is better, and I was really happy to find I could change the colour. I’m using Google’s Gboard with black keys, contrasting nicely with the usually white background of apps and web pages. It also has the number row above the QWERTY row, and the full stop and comma keys next to the spacebar. I love that.
Clear All buttons
While I wouldn’t say that the overall experience in the App Switcher, known as Recents on Android, or in Notifications, are better by any means, I do like that both have a Clear All button that is always there and easy to find. iOS doesn’t have this at all in the App Switcher, and you often have to swipe down beyond more recent notifications to find it in the Notification Centre. It’s a minor point, but something I appreciate.
Of all the items discussed in this post, this is probably the most subjective, but I do quite like the sounds when using TalkBack. It would never be a deal breaker for me, but I do prefer its sounds over VoiceOver. CSR goes one better arguably, letting you download a variety of sound schemes. I would love Apple to offer that with VoiceOver. Sighted users can choose different wallpapers etc to personalise their device, so why shouldn’t VoiceOver users have something similar.
Finally, I prefer the Settings app on Android. It’s organised more clearly and logically than its iOS equivalent in my opinion. Plus, if you do go to the wrong section, it has a nice little feature called “Looking for something else”, which suggests other settings which it thinks you might have looked for in that location.
You can also easily get to the settings for any app from the context menu by long pressing on its home screen or apps screen icon.
Pushing me back to iOS
So if Android has all of that going for it, what is pushing, and indeed pulling, me back towards iOS?
Typing on screen
While I mentioned above that I like the keyboard options on Android, the actual typing experience has been pretty painful for me. TalkBack and CSR offer the same typing method as Touch Typing on iOS. You slide your finger to the key you want, and lift to type. However, for whatever reason, it feels painfully slow on Android compared to iOS. Not only can I type faster using this method on my iPhone 12 mini, but even my old iPhone 7 is performing better here. Add to that the fact that iOS also offers the even faster Direct Touch Typing method, which I prefer to use. The experience really is night and day.
This means that I am much less likely to post to a forum, respond to an email, or text my friends and family while using the Android phone. I have become much more reliant on dictation, or occasionally using a Bluetooth keyboard, as well as finding I just have to do more on my laptop instead. It has probably been the single most frustrating aspect of using Android.
Connect to Bluetooth earphones, in my case Galaxy Buds Pro, and the experience gets even worse. It’s like wading through treacle. By comparison, the lag on iPhone when connected to AirPods Pro is minimal.
A key strength of VoiceOver on iOS is the actions menu in the rotor. TalkBack on Android has actions too, available through the TalkBack menu. I have also assigned a gesture to go straight to the actions pop up menu. Pixel phones now also have actions in the reading controls menu, similar to the iOS rotor, but this has yet to reach us on Samsung devices.
While I’m perfectly happy with the mechanics of using actions on Android, the problem is that they have not been widely implemented. Despite being a part of TalkBack for a number of years now, few apps actually take advantage of it. Even some of Google’s own apps, such as Google News and YouTube, which have implemented actions very effectively on iOS, do not employ the feature on Android. Instead, you have additional buttons on screen offering options, cluttering the interface and slowing down navigation. Perhaps there’s a philosophical debate here, with TalkBack on Android giving a more exact representation of the visual layout, but for efficiency, it’s a fail for me.
Third party apps
Whether Google bears responsibility for it or not is debatable, but the reality is that I have found the range and quality of third party apps to be relatively poor on Android compared to iOS. Android fans have understandably been frustrated in the past by Microsoft’s failure to bring Seeing AI and Soundscape to the platform for example, or at having to wait several months while Clubhouse had its day in the sun.
Two of the key apps I needed to find upon switching were a podcast app and a Mastodon app. In both cases, iOS has lots of quality and accessible options, from Overcast, Downcast, Castro and Podcast Guru, to Mona, Metatext, Ivory and Tusker. I downloaded and tried many podcast apps on Android, but only found two fully accessible ones, Podcast Addict and Pocket Casts. I’ve settled on Podcast Addict, which is fine, but I much prefer Overcast. On the Mastodon side, Tusky is very good and fully accessible, but pales in comparison to Mona on iOS in terms of its feature set.
WhatsApp is an example of a mainstream cross platform app where I’ve found the screen reader experience to be simply better on iOS than on Android. It is accessible, but the lack of actions and the way messages are read by TalkBack, especially in groups, makes it harder to use. Other social media apps like Facebook and Twitter suffer from the lack of actions too.
The VeSync app I use to control my Cosori air fryer suffers with issues setting the temperature and time which are not there on iOS. The MoovIt navigation app gives you less information about upcoming public transport stops on Android than on iOS.
While Google’s Lookout app is very good, in general it seems that there are more accessibility specific apps on iOS than on Android. The previously mentioned Seeing AI and Soundscape spring to mind of course, along with Blind Square that have never come to Android. Of course I acknowledge that Soundscape is now gone though. On other occasions, developers seem to go to iOS first, a frustrating situation for android users. Hopefully they will begin to realise that there is a user base there on Android too, and that we want equity across both platforms.
While it’s related to the above, I’ve pulled email management into its own section as it’s a key function I want and need to carry out on my phone, and one that has proved challenging on Android. I’ve tried multiple apps, including Aqua Mail, Edison Mail, Outlook and Gmail, eventually settling on Gmail as the best option for me. None of these though give me the ease of use that I have on iOS with the built in Mail app.
Gmail does at least employ actions, but not widely enough. When focused on an email in the inbox, you can add a star, archive or delete it, but you can not mark it as read or unread, nor move it to a folder. For that, you have to take a longer route which I find more cumbersome than on iOS. I also prefer how you navigate through a threaded conversation on iOS, it’s much quicker and easier. Add to that the difficulties in writing emails due to my aforementioned typing difficulties, and I find I simply can’t manage my emails nearly as effectively as on iOS.
For some time now, VoiceOver has automatically generated pretty impressive image descriptions. Admittedly they’re not as good as what you’ll get now if you share them with the likes of the Be My Eyes virtual volunteer feature, but they certainly do help when you are scrolling through the photos on your phone, browsing a web page, or reading through a message chat where photos have been shared by friends. TalkBack on Android doesn’t have this, and I really miss it. I’m also pretty shocked by it. We know from Google Photos and their work in this space that they have the capability to recognise and understand images, but they chosen not to implement it for accessibility purposes.
While I mentioned my fondness for some of the gestures available on Android, one aspect of navigation I prefer on iOS is scrolling lists or long pages. With Android, there is a general principle that where you have a one finger swipe gesture as standard, this becomes a two finger swipe when using TalkBack. This includes opening the notifications shade and page scrolling, and works pretty well. It means that scrolling is a smooth experience similar to that of our sighted peers, with the aid of additional sounds. On iOS, you use a three finger swipe, but it is not smooth. Instead, the page scrolls in blocks of content. However you also have the benefit of the vertical scrollbar on the right side of the screen. I find this incredibly useful when trying to scroll quickly up or down a page or list. I feel I get the best of both worlds on iOS, precision when I need it, and fast scrolling when I need that.
I’ve often heard mainstream tech reviewers say they prefer the Android approach to notifications over the iOS approach, but that certainly has not been my experience as a screen reader user.
Firstly, there’s verbosity. On every notification, the screen reader first tells you if it is expanded or collapsed, before reading the actual notification. You then have to swipe twice to get past each notification, as you have a collapse / expand button beside each one. This of course goes back to our philosophical debate discussed in the Actions section earlier.
I’ve also struggled to get to grips with groups of notifications. It’s not clear to me when an app has multiple notifications grouped, or how best to manage those. In addition, I find TalkBack often reads only the content of the notification, minus the name of the app, or occasionally, only the name of the app, minus the content. I have to expand it to get the full context. Notifications on iOS on the other hand are clear, easy to understand, and easy to manage with VoiceOver.
VoiceOver settings and customisation
While Android as a platform is generally regarded as being ahead of iOS for settings and customisation, I do feel that VoiceOver is ahead of TalkBack in this regard. First and foremost, VoiceOver simply has far more settings available to customise your experience. Plus, in contrast to the Settings app overall, The accessibility settings are better laid out and easier to follow on iOS. For example, the method for changing the TTS voice is not at all clear on Android.
Even gesture customisation is better on iOS. While both do have it, VoiceOver offers far more assignable actions to choose from. In addition, whereas Android was years ahead of iOS in having the easily accessible TalkBack menu, I get more useful functionality from the VoiceOver quick settings menu.
Apple hasn’t rested on its laurels either. They continue to add features and enhancements, so it feels like google is permanently lagging behind in screen reader capability.
TalkBack has some irritating complexities too. By default, I found TalkBack kept switching the TTS voice to a US English one when on certain types of content, despite me selecting a UK English voice. I had to fiddle around with settings to stop this behaviour. I also found that TalkBack wasn’t as responsive as I’d expect when I performed the double tap to select. I had to discover and flip a switch in the advanced settings to improve it, something I never would have found if it weren’t for help received on the Blind Android Users list.
Both platforms allow you to independently adjust the system or media volume and the screen reader volume, so in general, that’s fine. However, as soon as I pop in my Galaxy Buds Pro, this no longer works on the Samsung. The accessibility volume controls are still there, but it only changes the system volume setting and not specifically TalkBack. This can be quite problematic when out and about. Adding insult to injury, for whatever reason, this is something I find I actually need to adjust more often on Android than on iOS.
The Samsung Galaxy S23 has two options for biometric unlock; an under display finger print reader and facial recognition. It’s a nice touch that you can have both active at the same time, and either can unlock the phone. According to Samsung’s own documentation though, the facial recognition is not particularly secure. A photo of you can unlock the phone, but perhaps that’s a side note.
The issue I have is with reliability. Despite having these two options, I find I fail to unlock my phone more often on the Samsung than with Face ID on the iPhone. In fact, Face ID almost never lets me down anymore. The under display finger print reader is tricky, as you don’t have a clear tactile spot to aim for, but I’ve slowly but surely gotten better at it. Nonetheless, I’d still take my iPhone’s Face ID over this right now.
This is hardware specific of course, but I wanted to mention it as part of my overall experience. I previously used a Google Pixel 4a 5G for work, and I must say I quite like the physical and tactile finger print reader on the back of that phone.
In taking this journey, I was keen to have the full ecosystem experience, so I got myself a Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 to go with the phone. To say I’m disappointed with it would be an understatement. The performance with TalkBack is simply not what I expected. My Apple Watch series 4, which cane out in 2018, feels faster and easier to get around than the Galaxy Watch 5, which came out in 2022.
Fifty / Fifty
There are some aspects of the experience that I don’t necessarily think have a clear winner on either side.
Historically, the two platforms took different approaches here. On iOS, you got a suite of voices built in at no extra cost, and that was it. The range of voices was good, and I’d argue you should have been able to find one you liked, but if not, you were out of luck. Android on the other hand gave you a fairly limited set of Google TTS voices, and a Samsung engine too in the case of their phones, but you could also download third party engines like Vocaliser, Acapella and Eloquence if you were willing to pay for them. Both approaches have their merits, a good range at no extra cost, versus fewer free voices but the ability to buy more.
As I don’t like the majority of Google’s voices, and there are a few on iOS, most notably Alex, which I like a lot, I’d generally have leaned towards the Apple side if pushed.
Things have though moved on. Google’s range of voices has, I believe, expanded, while maintaining the ability to download third party voices. Eloquence though is no longer available on Android. On the iOS side, the range of built in voices has continued to grow, including the addition of Eloquence. They have also added the ability for third party TTS engines to be downloaded, though few have made it to the App Store as yet. Take your pick.
There’s been a lot of talk on this forum and elsewhere around bugs on iOS, and frustration with them not being promptly addressed. I can’t disagree with that. In fact, for me, one of the things that’s been delightful on Android is no longer having the screen reader focus jumping around. That bug has been frustrating me for years. Android though is not free of bugs itself. Relatively frequently for example, TalkBack just stops speaking. On other occasions, it refuses to read the full content of messages I’ve received. I’ve also had some connectivity issues with the Galaxy Buds Pro, where they will play media, but TalkBack remains on the phone speaker. Neither platform is a haven from bugs.
As mentioned earlier, I find I rely on dictation more on Android than I did on iOS. Given Google’s history and expertise in this space, I expected the quality of dictation to be better on the Android phone, but this has not been my experience. I have tried both Samsung’s and Google’s engines, but don’t find any clear improvement over the feature in iOS. It’s generally pretty good on both platforms to be fair, but I see just as many errors on Android as on the iPhone.
Android clearly has some great features and benefits, and I would love to bring some aspects of its user interface, its additional one finger screen reader gestures, and perhaps its sound scheme across to iOS. However I still feel that VoiceOver has some key advantages over screen readers on Android. There is a greater range of apps, and when it comes to important everyday activities such as messaging, email management and social media, I simply find the iPhone far more efficient. It’s easier and more enjoyable to get things done, and I’m less reliant on my laptop as an iOS user than I am as an Android user.
In summary, if asked could I live happily enough on Android, I’d say I probably could. But do I want to when iOS is an option, right now I’d have to say no. I see a return to iOS and an iPhone 15 in my future. Overall, it just suits me better.
I'm glad that I tried Android for real as my main phone, and I learned a lot from the experience. But for now, I think I'll go back to what works best for me. What about you? Have you ever switched from iPhone to Android or vice versa? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments below.