Apple iOS vs Android vs Windows 8 – what’s the best compact tablet OS?

It’s an unavoidable truth that most of us tend to focus on the hardware when we’re out to buy a new tablet. A high-resolution display, attractive design and fast core hardware tend to dominate our thoughts long before the software running on the device.

To a large extent, this is due to the fact that most of us are simple beasts: we see a device in the shop, we play with it, talk to a salesman, and we fall in love (with the tablet, not the shop floor assistant).

However, we’d advise a more perspicacious approach. Before you buy, consider the software, too; although closer than ever before, there are fundamental differences between the three major operating systems available on tablets today – differences you should take note of.

Design, look and feel

Android, iOS and Windows 8 all have their own visual style. iOS favours a minimalist look (at least it has since version 7) and a simple layout, with shortcuts to launch apps displayed in a grid, on an ever-expanding array of homescreens. There’s a “tray” of persistent shortcuts at the bottom of the screen that’s customisable, and apps can be organised into folders.

That used to be all there was to the iOS front end, but it has progressed in recent times to include a notifications menu, accessible via a pull down from the top of the screen, and the Control Centre with a pull up from the bottom of the screen, which gives quick access to commonly used functions such as screen brightness, rotation lock and flight mode.

Beyond a few, small cosmetic differences, the basic Android front-end looks very similar, hosting shortcuts to apps on a series of sideways-scrolling homescreens, with a pull-down notifications menu at the top. There’s no Control Centre in Android, but these functions are instead built into the notifications menu.

Apple iOS vs Android vs Windows 8.1 – what's the best compact tablet OS?

The Android UI is different in a couple of fundamental ways, though: it allows you to drop widgets (interactive, data rich panels) as well as shortcuts onto homescreens, and to hide less frequently used apps away in the app drawer.

Amazon Fire OS

There’s another operating system that we haven’t included in this comparison: Amazon’s Fire OS, which you’ll find running on all the firm’s Kindle Fire tablets.

At its core, Fire OS is an Android OS, and there are some similarities with standard Android. You can run Android apps and games on a Kindle Fire tablet, you can even sideload apps if you wish, and you can drag and drop files to the device over USB.

However, in other respects, Fire OS is a completely different animal. Instead of putting apps front and centre, Amazon’s OS places content – books, movies, music and so on – at the forefront, and makes shopping online for that content, via Amazon’s services, naturally, as easy as can be.

The downside is that Amazon tablets don’t give you access to the Google Play Store as most other Android tablets do. Instead, you’re forced to buy your books, movies, music and even apps from the online retail giant. Amazon’s tablets miss out on the core Google Apps, too (Maps, Gmail, Google+, and Calendar, for example), although it does replace some with its own versions.

Alas, the Amazon Appstore is a pale imitation of Google Play, with a far poorer selection of apps and games.

Google also gives hardware developers free rein as far as customisation is concerned. Thus, your Android tablet can run plain Android, exactly the way Google intended it; it can look entirely different, like Amazon’s Fire OS (see right); or it can be somewhere in between like the software found on Asus’ recent Android tablets – the Memo Pad 7 ME176CX, for example.

The software that runs on your Windows tablet (unless it’s the cut-down Windows RT) is identical to that which runs on any Windows laptop or PC. In some respects, this works well on a tablet: links to apps and web pages are displayed in the form of a continuous grid of sideways scrolling tiles, which can be moved around, grouped and resized. It looks very different from Android and iOS, but it’s just as fluid and largely as easy to use, once you’ve learned what all the various “edge swipe” gestures do, plus you get the added bonus of being able to run full-fat desktop applications such as Photoshop and Microsoft Office.

Indeed, add a keyboard, mouse and external monitor, and your Windows tablet turns into a full-blown desktop machine; neither Android nor iOS can compete with that level of versatility.

Compared to those platforms, Windows does fall down in some areas. Our big gripe is that there’s no single place where notifications are grouped together; instead you’re reliant on Live Tiles on the homescreen to pass this information on, but since not all apps have Live Tiles, it’s an unsatisfactory way of doing things, and can make it difficult to keep up with what’s going on.

Our other issue with Windows on a tablet is that the settings are scattered all over the place: some are accessed via a touch-friendly menu; others must be changed via the desktop settings dialog box, which is a nightmare to operate with just a finger.

Winner: Android and iOS at level pegging, with Windows lagging a short way behind

Apps

The old argument used to be that you went with iOS if you wanted the greater choice of quality apps, and Android for more variety and flexibility. That’s an argument that’s becoming increasingly irrelevant.

In some respects, Apple’s App Store does maintain a lead. Music, photo, video and other creative apps are in more plentiful supply, and they tend to be of superior quality to those on Google Play. Plus, when it comes to apps with tablet-friendly layouts, Apple also has the advantage; the App Store gives you the ability to filter by iPad or iPhone, where Google Play does not. This makes it difficult to weed out those apps designed only with a sparse, phone-focussed UI.

For the core apps, however – stuff like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, iPlayer, Dropbox and Vine – Android is now level with iOS, and with most major developers are now producing both iOS and Android apps simultaneously, it’s likely to stay that way, too.

Apple iOS vs Android vs Windows 8 – what's the best compact tablet OS?

Alas, the same can’t be said for the Windows Store. Although you can run any Windows application on a Windows 8 tablet, the number and quality of apps designed for touchscreens available through the Windows Store simply can’t match Google’s or Apple’s. At the time of writing, the Windows Store had 168,000 apps compared to 1.2 million for Apple and 1.3 million for Android.

A larger number doesn’t guarantee all those apps will be good, or exactly what you want, but at this sort of scale it does increase the likelihood of finding the app you’re looking for.

Winner: iOS by a whisker, for its superior selection of creative and tablet apps, with Android in second place and Windows in third

Flexibility

Android has long been held up as the most flexible mobile OS, and with good reason. Historically, both users and developers have been given much more freedom by Google than they have been by Apple. It’s easy, for instance, to move files around an Android tablet, since the Android file system is visible to all apps; this isn’t the case with iOS, where apps and related storage live in their own silos. iOS 8 is set to improve this situation, but app developers will need time to implement the changes.

And there are all manner of ways you can tweak and fiddle with the user experience on an Android tablet: you can replace the keyboard, install a launcher to get the homescreen looking just the way you like it, or even replace the OS entirely with a customised ROM. With an Android tablet, you don’t even have to use the preinstalled Google Play app store if you can’t find what you’re looking for. You can “sideload” apps, or even run an alternative app store if you wish.

Apple iOS vs Android vs Windows 8 – what's the best compact tablet OS?

Windows is the odd one out. On the one hand, its mobile front end is pretty rigid. You can’t change the keyboard, or customise the tile-based homescreen beyond moving and resizing tiles, adding a photograph to the background or changing the colour theme.

On the other hand, a tablet running Windows 8 is more flexible than one running either Android or iOS. With full Windows 8 on board, you can run any desktop app you like, connect to pretty much any peripheral on the market, from laser printers to scanners to DVD writers, and hook your tablet quickly up to corporate networks and shared network storage.

It’s also worth noting that many Atom-based Windows compact tablets come with a free license for Microsoft Office Home and Student.

Winner: A tie for Android and Windows, with iOS bringing up the rear

Verdict

Each of the major mobile operating systems has something to recommend it. In the case of iOS, we love its outward simplicity: it’s the easiest mobile OS to get to grips with and understand, and the selection of software in the App Store, particularly for tablet owners, gives it another advantage.

Android is more flexible – a mobile OS for the power user – with a selection of apps that’s almost as good as Apple’s, while Windows is good for anyone who just can’t let go of their desktop apps and peripherals, or who need full integration with a Microsoft-based office environment.

For us, iOS just edges the overall win. It’s the platform with the best tablet-specific software, and with the advent of iOS 8, it’s set to shed some its reputation for being restrictive and inflexible. Android, however, comes a very, very close second.

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