Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 5 vs. Google Android OS

How Google's tablet 'Honeycomb' and smartphone 'Gingerbread' OSes fare in the battle with iOS 5 on the iPad and iPhone

After months of hype, Apple has released iOS 5 for current iPhone 3G S and 4 owners, for iPad and iPad 2 owners, and for third- and fourth-generation iPod Touch owners. I survey its key new features in the slideshow "iOS 5 and iCloud: The InfoWorld visual tour," but the fact is that iOS doesn't exist in isolation. It competes with Google's Android OS, and the group of smartphones running Android now significantly outsells the iPhone. (It's a different story in tablets, where the iPad is trouncing everyone, including Android.)

You can see the effects of the healthy competition in one of iOS 5's major new features: Notification Center, clearly based on Android's well-regarded notifications capability that allows users to access alerts and notices from any application. But iOS 5 largely advances the groundbreaking iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch in its own ways, as well as adapting recent enhancements to Apple's latest desktop OS, Mac OS X 10.7 Lion.

[ See iOS 5's and iCloud's new features in "iOS 5 and iCloud: The InfoWorld visual tour." | Get the best apps for your mobile device: InfoWorld picks the best iPad office apps, the best iPad specialty apps, the best iPhone office apps, the best iPhone specialty apps, the best Android office apps, and the best Android specialty apps. | Learn how to manage iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys, and other smartphones in InfoWorld's 20-page Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF special report. ]

Apple delivers a unified mobile OS for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, whereas Google has two Android tracks: one for tablets and one for smartphones. Google does plan on unifying the two Android OSes into a single one later this year, in Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" now under development, but for now, Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" for smartphones and Android 3.2 "Honeycomb" for tablets are the ones competing with iOS 5.

Note that "Gingerbread" is a fairly minor update to Android 2.2 "Froyo," which most Android smartphones still run. "Gingerbread" adds an improved onscreen keyboard design, the ability to amend auto-correction suggestions when typing, a new universal menu shortcut to the Manage Applications preferences, support for multiple cameras, an updated downloads manager for the browser, and support for near-field communications (NFC) radios. (I tested "Gingerbread" on a Google Nexus One, which doesn't support NFC or have multiple cameras.) Note too that most Android tablets -- including the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 used for this review -- still run Android 3.1, and that the 3.2 update adds very little to the 3.1 version: a zoom mode for better display of smartphone apps and better apps-sizing support for 7-inch tablets.

Without further ado, here's the head-to-head comparison.

Test Center Scorecard

Web and Internet support

Business connectivity

Application support

Security and management

Usability

Overall score

20%

25%

15%

25%

15%

Apple iOS 5.0

9

8

9

8

9

8.5 Very Good

20%

25%

15%

25%

15%

Google Android 3.2

"Honeycomb"

9

7

7

7

8

7.6 Good

20%

25%

15%

25%

15%

Google Android 2.3

"Gingerbread"

8

5

7

5

7

6.2 Fair

Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts

If you look at the specs, Android (both "Gingerbread" and "Honeycomb") and iOS 5 appear evenly matched: Both can connect to Exchange, IMAP, POP, and Gmail accounts; make and synchronize appointments; and manage contacts. Both allow for "push" synchronization with Exchange. Both preserve your Exchange folder hierarchy for mail and make navigating among folders a snap. Both iOS and Android also try to autodetect your mail server settings wherever possible, though iOS is much better at handling nonvanilla settings.

Basic email usage. Android "Gingerbread" has a poorly chosen visual scheme for email lists: It uses white text on a black background, whereas iOS 5 and Android "Honeycomb" go for the easier-to-read, black-on-white color scheme. In sunlight, it's all but impossible to read the screen on an Android smartphone, while under the same conditions, an iOS device's or Android tablet's display of the email remains readable, if somewhat washed out. You won't be checking email on the beach with an Android smartphone.

I'm not a big fan of iOS's UI for mail, which iOS 5 leaves unchanged. There's a unified inbox for all your email accounts, then a separate list of your accounts so that you can go to their traditional hierarchy (for Exchange and IMAP accounts). I don't know why Apple had to break these into separate lists; for someone like me with four separate email accounts, the result is extra scrolling to switch accounts based on the mode I want to see. Android "Honeycomb" has a nicer arrangement whereby you see all your inboxes and can expand them in turn, rather than open them from a separate section of the main mail application window.

iOS 5 does bring in a very welcome capability to email not available in Android: the option to apply rich text formatting, including boldface, italics, underlining, and indentation. I only wish I could apply the character formatting while typing, such as through keyboard shortcuts or formatting buttons, rather than have to select the text first and then apply the formatting via the contextual menu.

The "Gingerbread" version of Android lets you view attachments in Microsoft Office and PDF formats, as well as the common Web graphics formats, but "Honeycomb" requires you to rely on a third-party app, such as the basic version of Quickoffice included with some tablets. "Gingerbread" shows an attachments list in your email, but "Honeycomb" makes you first tap the Attachments link to get a list of attachments and an option to view or save each one. iOS's native Quick Look viewer handles a nice range of formats (the same as Android, plus Apple's own iWork formats), and it opens attachments with one tap, even downloading them if needed at the same time. And, unlike Android tablets' Quickoffice, the iPad's Quick Look in iOS 5 gives you quick-nav icons of each page in a multi-page PDF.

iOS 5 -- still! -- doesn't open Zip files without the aid of a third-party app such as ZipBox Pro ($2) and Unzip ($1). For that matter, neither does Android "Honeycomb"; you need to use an app such as Quickoffice, though opening Zip files is a standard capability on Android "Gingerbread." Go figure.

Email management. Once you're in your folders, iOS is easy to use for most operations, such as deleting messages and moving them. And only iOS 5 lets you add and delete mailbox folders from your mobile device. Android's folder navigation in both "Gingerbread" and "Honeycomb" isn't exactly friendlier, but you don't have to wade through the double lists. On a smartphone, by default you get an all-message view in "Gingerbread" and iOS. If you want to go to a specific folder or see just the inbox, you must use iOS's navigation buttons at the top of the folder and account lists, whereas in "Gingerbread" you must click the Menu button and tap the Folders icon to get a list of folders. Both iOS 5 and Android "Honeycomb" take advantage of the larger tablet screen to make these controls visible in the mail message windows.

In both Android and iOS, you can easily search for mail, as well as reply to, forward, delete, and select multiple messages, though you can't select or deselect all messages. Android forces you to conduct your search from the OS's universal search facility; you can't search directly in the email client, as you can in iOS.

iOS 5 adds the ability to mark (flag) messages, which Android has done for some time. Android still does it better: It shows in your accounts list a section for flagged messages, so you can see them easily. By contrast, iOS 5 has no way to view just your flagged messages, reducing this feature's utility. (iOS 5's and Android's flagged messages appear as flagged in desktop clients that support the features.)

One continued beef I have with Android is that it uses a separate app for Gmail accounts -- an unnecessary division of labor.

Both iOS and Android remember the email addresses of senders you reply to, adding them to the database of contacts they look up automatically as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields. But Android has no quick access to your local address book, as iOS does. Both operating systems let you add email addresses to your contacts list by tapping them.

iOS provides a message-threading capability, which organizes your email based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicking to go through messages, but makes it easier to find the messages in the first place. (iOS lets you disable threading if you don't like it.) Android has no similar capability.

Android "Honeycomb" is a close second to iOS 5 when it comes to email capabilities, with iOS 5's integrated search and rich text formatting capabilities providing the edge, despite Android's better flagging capability. Android "Gingerbread" suffers from its ill-chosen, white-text-on-black color scheme, which makes email harder to read than it should be.

Contacts and calendars. You can easily switch calendar views in iOS in the main calendar screen, both on tablets and smartphones. Android "Honeycomb" also lets you easily switch the calendar view in the main screen with simple taps, but switching in Android "Gingerbread" requires using the Menu button's suboptions.

Both iOS and Android let you send invites to other users for non-Exchange calendars. In iOS, your invitations for Exchange accounts show up in your calendar as a pop-up; you can accept them there within the full context of your other appointments. For both Exchange and other email accounts, you can open the .ics invitation files in Mail, then add them to the calendar of your choice. On Android, the Calendar app automatically adds Exchange invitations to your calendar with Maybe status, which is not apparent until you open the appointment. You can open Exchange invitations in the Email app, as well as accept or decline the invitation. But you can't open .ics invitations sent to POP or IMAP accounts.

A nice addition in iOS 5 not available in Android is the ability to set the default alert intervals for calendar entries; there are separate settings for regular events (those with start and stop times), all-day events, and birthdays. Another new iOS 5 feature Android doesn't have is the ability to set the time zone for each appointment you add -- a very nice tool for those of us who travel across time zones or set phone conferences with people in other time zones and have difficulty figuring out how to translate the time to our current time zone or our calendar's default time zone. (iOS lets you specify a fixed time zone for your calendar or set it to change automatically to the current time zone as you travel.)

Both iOS and Android have capable Contacts apps, but it's easier to navigate through your entries in iOS. You can jump easily to names by tapping a letter, such as "T" to get to people whose last names begin with "T," or search quickly for someone in the Search field by tapping part of the name. On Android, a gray box appears as you begin scrolling your contacts list, and if you drag it, you can scroll through the letters of the alphabet that appear in the box to move to names beginning with that letter. It's not as simple as the iOS approach, and its "secret handshake" nature means many users won't know it exists. Also in Android "Honeycomb" and "Gingerbread," you can search your contacts if you click the Search button (or, in "Gingerbread," if you click the Menu button and then tap the Search icon).

In Android, you can also designate users as favorites, to put them in a shorter Favorites list. iOS's Favorites capability is different: You can designate a person's specific contact info -- say, a phone number or email address -- as a favorite, which puts it in the Favorites list in the iPhone's Phone app (if a phone number) or FaceTime app (if an email address). iOS's take on Favorites is useful for the iPhone, but not for the iPad or iPod Touch, especially because you can't see your list of favorites in Contacts or Mail.

iOS 5 lets you sync local calendars and local contacts from your desktop PC or Mac via iTunes if you connect the device via a USB cable or Wi-Fi -- or a over an Internet connection via a free iCloud account. That way, you can get your Outlook or Address Book contacts into your device easily and even keep them in sync with your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. Server-based contacts (and calendars and email addresses) are of course synced through the relevant server: Exchange, Google, and so on.

Android has no such local syncing capability; you must sync through a Gmail account -- a no-no for many corporations -- or, for Exchange data only, through an Exchange account. You can import and export contacts to an Android device via an SD card (if it supports external storage), so you could export your computer's contacts to a file and then move it to an SD card -- a fine work-around for initial setup but not for ongoing synchronization.

1 2 3 4 Page 1
Page 1 of 4
IT Salary Survey: The results are in