A Month Inside Apple's Walled Garden: It's Not as Bad as You'd Think
When you buy an Apple device, you agree to a bunch of restrictions. You don't have as much control over your phone, third-party apps don't have access to all the features that Apple's software does, and they ban tons of other apps from their store. But if you agree to live under their roof you have the benefits of faster, super-integrated apps. So what's better: going your own way, or life as Apple intended?
I decided to find out if using an iPhone, as Apple intended it, worked better than resorting to crippled (but still awesome
You Gain Seamless Integration (in Most Cases)
When you sign up for the Apple ecosystem, most everything in it works together. The company designs their software with numerous advantages so third party apps can't really compete with them. Apple reserves a variety of APIs-that's application programming interfaces, for the uninitiated-just for their apps and, until iOS 7, only allowed their own software to fully run in the background. You just can't get these features if you go with a third-party solution.
Let's take a look at what you gain with the default apps:
Email integrates with everything. When you want to send a photo, apps naturally call up Apple's default interface. They don't request Sparrow, Gmail, Evomail, or whatever else you prefer. Even if you use a third-party email app, you still kind of have to configure your accounts in iOS anyway because you'll have to use it for sharing within apps no matter what. Sticking with it as your default mail app eliminates jumping around.
- Apple's apps integrate with Siri out of the box. Siri is actually a much faster way to add notes and reminders to your phone, start navigation, or perform other tasks. Unfortunately, Siri only works with Apple's built-in apps, which means you have to resort to typing in lots of third-party alternatives.
Your settings sync everywhere Apple approves, which works quite well if you buy into their entire ecosystem. If you only have iDevices and Macs, you're covered. If not, you just don't get that benefit. Of course, if you just care about syncing your personal data (more on this later) you can access it on any device through iCloud.com.
Now, let's take a look at what you lose:
You have to use Safari. If you sync browser data with Safari, you can't use it on your Android tablet (or other device). The same goes for most browsers, and you certainly make a similar sacrifice by using something like Chrome, but at least Chrome gives you access throughout all platforms and it's actually a great browser. Safari works really well as a mobile option, but doesn't provide important features you get with Chrome on the desktop or even on the iPhone. However you approach it, you lose out somehow with Safari.
You lose native app support on non-Apple platforms. Other apps, like Notes and Reminders, don't have native apps on Windows or Android. Of course, Apple provides access to your data on iCloud.com so you can grab it from anywhere if you need to. While not ideal, they don't lock you out (which makes this a pretty minor disadvantage).
Apple Mail doesn't like Gmail as much as some apps, so you lose out on a bunch of Gmail-specific features and paradigms. I don't consider this a downside, but die-hard Gmail fans tend to hate the built-in Mail app because it lacks the option to archive or delete (you have to choose one), stars (flags instead), labels (folders instead), priority inbox, and pretty much any other special feature Google offers.
I found the advantages often outweighed the problems here. Apple provides a well-integrated experience and it doesn't require that you sacrifice too much. While I prefer Sparrow as a mail app, I like using one Mail app instead of two. The same goes for the web browser, but even more so due to so many links automatically opening in Safari. Third-party app replacements require a balancing act, and if you just want a phone that handles the basics elegantly it just isn't worth the trouble.
Apple Doesn't Understand the Internet, and You Suffer For It
Apple doesn't understand the internet. It can't handle synchronization as well as Google and other companies. Mind you, synchronization isn't easy. You'll boggle your mind if you try to think up an algorithm that can account for any possible change in a file and then figure out which one to keep across all your devices. Even still, Apple tried to oversimplify the problem, which just made things worse. They keep local and cloud-based copies of your data, and you can turn synchronization on without that data ever leaving your device because you accidentally stored it in the wrong section.
Let's take a look at what you gain with Apple's internet-based services:
iMessage. While not perfect-something we'll get to shortly-iMessage makes communicating much easier if you have iDevices and Macs. If you hate texting on your phone and prefer to type things out on a keyboard, you can use your Mac to respond. If you forego Apple services, you have to poke away at your iPhone or go through something significantly more complicated like Google Voice.
All your personal data syncs and backs up automatically. In a perfect world, all your Apple data will sync. If you set it up right, you get everything everywhere-so long as you only use Apple platforms. This can help a lot of people who stick with in the Apple universe, but if you step outside it becomes very restrictive.
iTunes Match eliminates the need to sync with iTunes. It didn't work so well when it began, but now iTunes Match makes downloading the music you want and keeping the rest in the cloud a real possibility. I think this has more to do with Apple's adoption of LTE than anything else. 3G just doesn't stream so well, at least if you subscribe to AT&T.
Now, let's take a look at what you lose by sticking with Apple services:
You sacrifice consistency and reliability. To give Apple due credit, iCloud works a lot better than it initially did and significantly better than its predecessors. That said, iCloud is much less reliable than other solutions. For reasons described earlier, sometimes things just don't work because you didn't set them up right-a very un-Apple-like problem, ironically-and network issues cause all sorts of problems from time to time.
iMessage jumbles things up, causing your conversations to appear out of order on other devices. If you start a conversation on one device and switch to another, you might find certain messages came in at the wrong times, you're missing half the conversation, or you're missing the entire thing. That said, it still beats pretty much any third-party option around and hopefully iOS 7 (and the forthcoming OS X Mavericks) addresses this issue. So far, we have no official word or evidence but just hopeful speculation.
You can't use cheaper, third-party music options like Google Play Music. That said, whatever happened to the Google Play Music app iOS users were promised?
When it comes to the cloud, Apple just doesn't do a great job. I still like a lot of the services and think iMessage justifies its bugs. That said, most everything causes a gigantic headache and you shouldn't even bother. iOS allows you to sync with Google services
Apple's Apps (Usually) Perform Better Than Third-Party Ones
Apple's apps have access to private APIs they don't provide to third-party developers. That allows them to make their apps perform magical tasks other apps cannot. Sure, a developer could find out about a secret API and use it, but then Apple would remove their app from the App Store in the event they found out. When it comes to sheer performance, both in speed and in battery life, Apple's apps will almost always perform better
Let's take a look at the advantages of Apple's performance gains:
In general, you get faster speeds all around. We'll get more specific in a minute, but Apple's apps just perform a heck of a lot better overall. Some developers manage to eke out every last bit of performance and you'd never really know, but certain ones (I'm looking at you, EvoMail), can't seem to grasp it. With Apple, you get solid performance with pretty much everything-even the App Store, finally, in iOS 7.
Apple video apps use less battery and less power because they use hardware acceleration. Other video apps, like VLC, struggle to keep up. On older devices, apps like VLC can't even play HD video-something Apple's video app does just fine.
Now let's take a look at what you lose:
You get fewer features with Apple apps, which means if you want to play an MKV file in VLC or use Chrome because it syncs your bookmarks, you can't. You need to take the time to convert your video and sync your Chrome bookmarks with Safari just to make it work with your Apple solution. This is really annoying.
Apple rarely updates their apps. In fact, Apple default apps tend to only get updates with system updates. Want new features? You have to wait a year.
Fortunately you can easily mix and match here. When Apple apps work better, you can use them primarily and have a third-party app fill in the gaps. That doesn't work in every case (e.g. bookmark syncing with Chrome) but it does with most.
What's the Bottom Line?
While third-party apps may work better, you didn't buy an iPhone because you wanted choice. People buy iPhones because they work well and they look nice. You know what to expect from Apple's mobile darling, and that's pretty comforting if you rely on your smartphone for many daily tasks. You don't have to maintain it like a computer. You know it'll be there for you when you need it. You can get fed up with restrictions and a lack of options, but do you really need your phone to do everything you ever wanted? Do you really need that much choice?
You kind of have to accept the ramifications of going Apple. Your money votes for Apple's walled garden whether you like it or not. You chose a device that sacrifices choice for comfort. If you don't like that, you probably purchased the wrong smartphone. So should you just stop worrying and love the walled garden? Yes, to some extent. When the restrictions make your life complicated and frustrating because a third-party app can't do what you want it to do, let it go. If you can get the experience you want by dumping parts of Apple's proposed lifestyle, go right ahead. In the end, if you can't get what you want with iOS you can always jump ship to Android
Title image remixed from an original by Liewluck (Shutterstock).