Apple vs. Google: Replacing Apple's stock iOS apps with Google apps

Google makes so many apps for iOS, we thought maybe we could live the Android life on our iPhones. And you know what? A Google life ain't always easy on iOS.

google calendar iphone
Credit: Derek Walter

For about a year now, I’ve been joking that it’s entirely possible—if you want—to have the Android experience on an iOS device. Why not? While Apple keeps its own app offerings pretty strictly tied to its own devices (Apple Music being a forthcoming exception to the rule), Google is more willing to take customers wherever it can get them. Don’t have an Android phone? That’s fine: Google has an app for many of the things you already want to do on your iPhone, like email, instant messages, news, streaming music, and of course maps.

So I wondered: How well could I survive for one week just using Google apps on my iPhone?

Here were my ground rules: First, I would clear my phone of apps and shuffle the native, un-deletable stock iOS apps off into a folder. Then, I’d download all the Google apps I thought I might use in the course of my daily business. Then, just for fun, I decided that if I needed an app that wasn’t a Google product, I’d at least make sure it exists in the Google Play store for Android users. And if a Google app could replace a third-party app, I’d try to use the Google app instead.

The apps I downloaded: Google, Calendar, Chrome, Docs, Inbox, Maps, Google Play Books, Google Play Music, Google Play Newsstand, Google Photos, and (ahem) Google+.

What did I find out? Google works hard to provide alternatives. But it can’t—in part because of Apple’s rules—provide an entire ecosystem across iOS. Overall, some of the apps were pretty good. Some of the apps were merely OK. And one was Google+. (Suffice it to say: It wasn’t long before the Facebook and Twitter apps reappeared on my phone.) 

Flip a coin

There are some areas where Apple’s and Google’s offerings run neck-and-neck on iOS.

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Google Play Music is a solid streaming service, but you’ll have to head over to its website and sign up to take advantage of all of its in-app offerings. 

Apple Music made its debut just a couple of weeks before my experiment, and there’s a lot to like about the new service. Before that update, though, the current iteration of Google Play Music might’ve beat it handily since it already offered a Spotify-style streaming service. The problem? If you just use the mobile version of the app—and for a week, that’s what I did—you can come away not knowing that streaming service even exists and thinking Google’s music offering is more of a Pandora competitor. Why? Because there’s no in-app signup for the service.

Go to the service’s website and sign up for $10 a month, and suddenly your mobile music choices are much broader. It has Sonos support (which Apple Music doesn’t have yet), comes with access to YouTube Music Key beta, and you can upload up to 50,000 tracks a la iTunes Match for no extra fee. I still like Apple Music more, for two main reasons. First, Beats 1 radio is awesome, and Apple appears ready to expand on that success. Second, for $15 a month, I can share my Apple Music account with my entire family. It’s a nice option that saves me money. 

As for Chrome: While it’s my default browser on my Mac, it’s iffier on iOS, thanks in part to Apple’s mobile browser restrictions. The advantages: Chrome had better voice search options than Safari, and it has a Notification Center widget. But I like Safari’s ability to save bookmarks as app icons. A toss-up, but I lean Safari here. 

Finally, Google Docs is in many ways inferior to Pages, which offers more sharing options (including AirDrop compatibility) and more templates for starting precisely the kind of document you want to create. If you’re wanting to collaborate with other people on a document—a feature both services offer—well, more of your friends and colleagues are probably using the Google option. Because so much of what I do is straight-ahead text composition—no fancy newsletters for me—I’ll stick with Google Docs, but if you’re an advanced word processing app user, Pages might be the way to go. 

Where Google beats Apple

There are places, though, where you can see Apple’s future in Google’s work.

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Google Play Newsstand is awesome. We’ll see if Apple’s forthcoming News app stacks up when it launches with iOS 9.

The most obvious spot is Google Play Newsstand. It looks less like Apple’s about-to-be-defunct Newsstand—which was a container for separate apps for each periodical—and more like Apple’s forthcoming News app that will launch with iOS 9. Publishers feed their content directly to Google, which standardizes the layout and fonts across all the publications. Now that Google Reader is long dead, this is a pretty handy newsreader—and it’s staying on my phone, at least until iOS 9 debuts and I can see how Apple’s new offering performs.

I’m also a big fan of Google Calendar, mostly because, well, it looks pretty. My default is to use the app’s “agenda view,” which just shows me a list of my upcoming appointments—a feature that isn’t available in my iPhone’s default Calendar app. Google Calendar also automatically overlays some types of items with appropriate artwork, making organization a bit more fun to peruse.

It won’t surprise you, perhaps, to discover that Google Maps is still more useful than Apple’s native Maps offering, especially for city-dwelling public transit users. In Google Maps, I can click on my location and see what buses are coming by that corner and when. When I tried to discover similar information in Apple Maps, the app helpfully showed me other apps that could help—including Google Maps. I don’t need to be told twice. Apple Maps will be getting public transit support for 10 major U.S. cities when iOS 9 launches—and my home town of Philadelphia made the cut—but in the meantime, I’ll stick to Google Maps. 

One thing that did surprise me? How much I liked using Google Photos. I’ve never been much inclined to use iCloud, in part because of the expense: Flickr’s terabyte of free storage is too good for me to pass up. Google Photos will store unlimited photos at what Google calls “high resolution,” which tops out at 16 megapixels—plenty for iPhone photos, with the exception of big panoramas. Or you can opt to store your photos at their original resolution, which Google recommends for people who shoot with a DSLR, for example. That option will hit your 15GB of free Google Drive storage first, and once that’s gone you’ll pay $2/month for 100GB or $10/month for 1TB.

I’m fine with the free unlimited tier—and perhaps as a result, Google also seems to upload photos much more quickly. I’m also tickled by Google’s “assistant” feature, which automatically creates pictorial storybooks and short videos out of the images your capture. You can edit them, discard them, or share as-is.

Where Apple wins

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Google’s Inboxs organizes your email, but it’s not completely intuitive.

Where Google fell short the most, interestingly enough, was in the realm of communications. Apple’s default Mail app makes it easy to sort good communications from bad—just award a VIP star to your correspondents whose missives you can’t miss. Google’s Inbox app tries to separate good from bad, but does so by dividing your mail into three inboxes: Inbox (where your important mail is supposed to live), Updates, and Promos. That leaves you shifting between boxes more often, which is kind of a pain. If it or the regular old Gmail app in iOS behaved more like its Android counterpart—that is, if it let you tie in Exchange corporate accounts—I’d be tempted to use it. One advantage it has over the native app? It opens links directly into Chrome, if you have it, instead of insisting on Safari.

Apple’s Mail, meanwhile, is also more likely to work with your work email: It’s compatible with Microsoft’s Exchange system used by many large companies. During my Google Week, I made my company’s Outlook account forward emails to my Gmail account, but it was far from a perfect solution when you know an integrated email app is available. (Better yet? Microsoft’s Outlook app does incorporate Gmail, and does a terrific job of separating priority email from less-important stuff.)

Email is not the only way to communicate, of course. In truth, I’ve long preferred Google Hangouts’ video-chat feature to FaceTime, if only because so many of my relatives and friends use Android phones, making FaceTime untenable. My mistake? Thinking I could use Hangouts to replace SMS messaging on my iPhone. I turned off SMS and missed a few texts from my wife. (Sorry, honey.)

Who’s better, who’s best

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Google Chrome and Google News are the only Google apps that have a Notification Center widget.

Where Google fell short the most—on iOS anyway—was with its plain old Google app. It’s clearly meant to replace, or at least be an alternative, to Siri. You can leave reminders to yourself on this app, and you can do voice-enabled searches on the app. It wants to be an assistant, letting you know when your next flight is, or how the weather it is today, or even your favorite team’s score. 

The problem: There’s no widget for Apple’s Notification Center, which limits the Google app. You have to click through to do a search or to see your reminder. Which means if you’re trying to use Google instead of Siri or Reminders or for searching, you’re moving a bit slower.

Here’s the thing: Google would prefer you do your business on all of its apps—the company builds its business on all the information you generate when you interact with it. Apple, too, has reasons for wanting to create a seamless ecosystem so you’re never tempted to leave iOS-land. A smart user doesn’t have to let either company get the upper hand, though—and based on my week with this experiment, there’s no reason to. 

There are some things Apple does better than Google—certainly, at least, on iOS. But there are some things that Google does better, even on Apple’s own platform. Me? I don’t mind having a hybrid Apple-Google ecosystem to reach my max productivity, with just a touch of Microsoft thrown in.

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