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

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iOS 4 had a basic notifications capability: Apps using the notifications API could be set to sound an alert, indicate the number of open messages via a badge on their home screen app icon, and/or display an alert window. iOS 5 has copied the Android-style notifications-tray capability in what it calls Notification Center, but Apple's version is better. In iOS 5, you pull down from the top of the screen to get a pane of notifications, and tap any to open it within its app. You can also delete groups of notifications -- such as for mail messages -- by tapping the X icon to the right of the group's name. I like iOS 5's notifications better than Android's because iOS's notifications are much easier to read, and Notification Center shows individual messages and tweets, whereas in some cases Android shows only a group alert, such as "5 new mentions," rather than list them (iOS lets you specify a max number of notifications per type to display, by the way).

iOS 5 can also display notifications on the lock screen, and by sliding a specific notifications icon, you can open the app and the relevant notification item, such as an email. Plus, unlike Android, iOS 5 lets you decide which apps may present notifications on the lock screen and elsewhere -- you're not restricted to a predetermined set. Not only does iOS 5 let you turn notification on or off on a per-app basis, but you can specify whether the notification sounds a tone, whether it appears in the lock screen, whether its badge updates with the number of relevant notifications, and how the notification appears onscreen (as an overlay in the middle of your screen, as Calendar does by default for appointments, or just in the Notification Center pull-down pane). You get to choose when and how you are interrupted.

iOS 5 adds a new storage management API that will ease file handling when you want to free up space. The Settings app's Usage pane now shows how much storage each app consumes. If you tap a compatible app in that list, you get a sublist of all its document files, which you can delete individually as needed. Non-compatible apps show only their total data usage; you'll need to manage their documents within the apps themselves or via iTunes' file management facility. Android can show how much space apps and types of data (such as music) take, but it has no file manager nor a facility like iOS 5's. (You can buy file manager apps in the Android Market.)

The winner: iOS 5, by outdoing Android's notifications capability, improving its app switching capabilities, and adding automatic document syncing and Apple TV-mediated presentation. Plus, Apple's app catalog is large. If you use a smartphone or tablet for work, and not just for Web surfing and content consumption, iOS takes you very close to being able to work without a PC. Android's capabilities are pretty strong, especially if your business needs are minimal, but simply not as good as iOS's.

Deathmatch: Web and Internet

Both Apple and Google are strong forces behind HTML5 and other modern browser technologies, so it's no surprise that both offer capable Web browsers. Based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, Safari in iOS 5 has taken a major leap forward in HTML5 compatibility compared to its previous version, as the chart below shows. Only desktop OSes -- Chrome, Firefox, and the beta Internet Explorer 10 -- support more HTML5 capabilities than iOS 5's mobile Safari browser. By contrast, Android, WebOS, and BlackBerry lag significantly.

OS

Browser

HTML5 score

Mobile browsers

iOS 5.0

Safari

296

iOS 4.3

Safari

217

Android 3.2 "Honeycomb"

Chrome

222

Android 2.3 "Gingerbread"

Chrome

184

BlackBerry OS 7

BlackBerry Browser

230

BlackBerry Tablet OS (QNX)

BlackBerry Browser

257

WebOS 3.0

HP Web

229

WebOS 2.1 (Palm smartphones)

Browser

155

Windows Phone 7.5 "Mango"

Internet Explorer 9

140

Windows Phone 7

Internet Explorer 7

25

Desktop browsers

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, Windows 7

Chrome 14.0.835.202

340

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, Windows 7

Firefox 7.01

313

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, Windows 7

Safari 5.1

293

Windows 7

Internet Explorer 9

141

Windows 8 preview

Internet Explorer 10 preview

300

I experienced that HTML5 advantage firsthand in iOS 5 Safari's newfound support for the contenteditable attribute in HTML5, and thus its ability to work many of the capabilities In WYSIWYG AJAX Web-editing tools such as TinyMCE, used by Drupal and countless other sites. Hallelujah! (Item dragging doesn't work, perhaps because iOS's drag gesture starts with a tap, which opens the drag handle's internal URLs, thus blocking any drag action.) I now can do most of my work on InfoWorld content directly in our content management system from my iPad. It's not 100 percent -- text selection in AJAX floating dialog boxes often grabs the content underneath, for example -- but it's at least possible now.

The Android "Honeycomb" -- but not "Gingerbread" -- browser also supports the TinyMCE WYSIWYG JavaScript editor widely used in Web forms to allow rich text editing. But I experienced repeated display problems, such as the rich text window not always refreshing its contents after scrolling. Text selection didn't always work either. Other JavaScript windows had display problems, as well as significant typing and scrolling lags; in some cases, the scrolling gesture wouldn't work. None of this happened in iOS 5.

From an operational perspective, the main differences between the iOS 5 and Android browsers center on the UI. All three have persistent buttons or fields for Back, Forward, Bookmarks, Refresh, and navigating tabbed panes. On an iPad, iOS 5 now shows a row of tabs at the top for each open browser window, as does Android "Honeycomb." Both iOS on an iPhone and Android "Gingerbread" make you tap a button to see how many windows are open and then switch to them.

iOS 5 also adds two features that debuted on Mac OS X's version of Safari: Lion's Reading List and Snow Leopard's Reader. Reading List is a separate bookmarking utility meant for content pages you want to read later and then remove from the list, whereas Reader strips out most of the Web page so that you can concentrate on its contents. Android has no equivalent to either feature.

Both iOS and Android can share pages via email, but iOS also lets you share the page via Twitter (iOS 5 has integrated Twitter into many of its communications-oriented services). Plus, iOS can print the page to a wireless printer, either to an AirPrint-compatible printer or to a local unit connected via one of the many printing apps available for iOS. Android has no native printing capabilities, but third-party printing apps are available. These include apps that work with Google's Cloud Print service to send print jobs through your desktop computer or directly to ePrint printers. Note, however, that Cloud Print is still in beta testing after a year.

However, iOS's separate Search and URL boxes are less convenient than Android's unified URL and Search box; you have to be sure to tap the right box on iOS. Android also has a separate search control, if you prefer.

Both iOS and Android "Honeycomb" offer a .com button when entering URLs, which is a significant timesaver. Both OSes pop up a list of alternative domains, such as .edu and .org, when you tap and hold the .com button. Android "Gingerbread" has no equivalent.

In both iOS and Android, you can select text and graphics on Web pages, but only iOS lets you copy graphics. Android can save graphics to the tablet's local storage, whereas iOS can save images to its Photos app.

Both the iOS and Android browsers offer settings to control pop-up windows, search engines, JavaScript, cookies, history, cache, form data, passwords, image loading, autofill, fraud warnings, and debugging.

Using the cloud-based Google Docs on either mobile OS is not a pleasant experience. It's barely possible to edit a spreadsheet; the most you can do is select and add rows, as well as edit the contents of individual cells. You can edit a text document -- awkwardly. Partly, that's because Google hasn't figured out an effective mobile interface for these Web apps; the Safari and Chrome browsers are simply dealing with what Google presents, rather than working through a mobile-friendly front end.

Some of the limitations may be due to the fact the mobile Safari and Chrome browsers don't support all the same capabilities as their desktop counterparts, but given that iOS 5's Safari now works well with many AJAX-based websites, I think the fault lays mostly with the Google Docs team. Things have improved a bit on the Google Docs front this year. For example, you can create, edit, and navigate appointments in Google Calendar in all four of its views (day, week, month, and agenda) pretty much as you can on a desktop browser.

In iOS 5, versus iOS 4, Safari's page cache seems more stable -- you can switch away from tabs, then come back with less chance of the Web page refreshing and losing any changes you may have made in Web forms. This has not been an issue in Android, and I suspect that part of why iOS 5 handles browser caching better is because of under-the-hood improvements related to multitasking.

Although not preinstalled with Android, Adobe's Flash Player is available at the Android Market as a free download. This beta version worked in my testing on a variety of websites that use Flash, both for videos and for interactive capabilities. I found that the most current Flash Player (10.3) did well with videos and basic Flash animations, such as those that let you rotate views, open content via hotspots, and the like. Flash games worked sometimes. Other Android devices using earlier versions of Flash Player (as well as RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook running the current version) have had trouble running Flash content, but it appears that after years of effort Adobe may be close to finally breaking that string of Flash failure.

iOS, of course, has no Flash support, given Apple's dislike of the Adobe Flash technology. One work-around, for Flash videos only, is the $5 Skyfire for iPad app ($5) or Skyfire Web Browser app ($3) for iPhone and iPod Touch.

Android also offers voice-based search and text input that iOS does not. After tapping the microphone icon and speaking the text, you wait a few seconds for the search term to be transmitted to Google's servers for conversion to text. The results are surprisingly good, and the process usually takes no longer than typing in a term, especially on the constrained onscreen keyboard of a smartphone. (But I can't get into the idea of talking to my tablet; to me at least, its utility is confined to smartphones.) iOS 5 has nothing like it, unless you count the voice-based Siri "personal assistant" technology that will ship as beta software in the iPhone 4S due on Oct. 14. Because Siri will run on just that one iOS device, I can't count it as an iOS 5 advantage, even if it were available for testing.

The winner: iOS 5, by a mile, thanks to greater HTML5 compatibility, its addition of tabbed panes on the iPad, and its ability to copy graphics. If Flash is important to you, Android becomes your only dependable option.

Deathmatch: Location support

Both iOS and Android support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. They also come with Google Maps, which can find your current destination, provide directions, and otherwise help you navigate. But using Google Maps is a bit more work in Android "Gingerbread" than in iOS or "Honeycomb" to switch views, such as from map to satellite, due to the use of nested menus. Android's version of Google Maps also has no print option, unlike iOS 5's version.

The beta Navigation app that comes with Android is a much better navigation app than the Maps app that comes with iOS. On an iPad or iPhone, you'll want a real navigation app such as the $45 Navigon MobileNavigator, whereas on an Android device, you could stick with the free one.

Both iOS and Android let developers integrate location information in their apps, so location is just another native feature. And both iOS and Android let you control your location privacy. However, Android only lets you control whether your location is detected by disabling or enabling the GPS and Wi-Fi location services for the entire device, whereas iOS 5 lets you control location services per application. Android apps can ask if it's OK to use your location, but there's no central way to manage these location permissions as there is in iOS 5. Plus, iOS 5 adds extra controls for system-level services, including iAds, time zone, compass calibration, traffic services, cell network search, and diagnostics. iOS 5 now also differentiates in its presentation those apps currently tracking your location from those that have done so in the last 24 hours.

The winner: A tie. iOS gives users much more control over location policy, but it doesn't provide as good a navigation app as Android.

Deathmatch: User interface

It's often a throwaway comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, and it's not always true (as the soon-to-be-discontinued MobileMe service attests). But in mobile, iOS is in fact a better-designed UI, one that makes accessing capabilities and information easier and faster. iOS 5 doesn't mess with what you already know, but it does enhance the UI further with the Notification Center, improved gesture support, much simpler synchronization capabilities, and a few enhanced settings.

Operational UI. I noted earlier how Android "Gingerbread" makes you click the Menu button and go through one or more levels of options to access most capabilities in its apps. This really slows smartphone operations, even though it is consistently implemented. Apple is smarter about bringing common capabilities to the top level of iOS apps' UIs, so they are accessible through a quick tap -- yet they don't clutter up the screen, even in the screen-constrained iPhone.

Another example of Google's poor UI choices: Android smartphones have a Search button, but it's not always functional. If you press it when, say, reading an email, it does nothing. However, if you press it when viewing a contact, it lets you search your address book. It's not clear why the Search button is available in some contexts and not others, especially for apps like Email that have a search capability. Fortunately, the Home button always works.

Android "Honeycomb" is less awkward to use than "Gingerbread," as it takes advantage of the tablet's larger screen. But so does iOS on the iPad.

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