|Android: Is It Still The Best iOS Alternative?|
|2012 is shaping up to be a major year for mobile operating systems. For those fortunate enough to own a smartphone, these are exciting times. Competition is fierce, and the winner is you. Regardless of which platform you're keen on, you can bet that each of the major players are pushing the others to innovate and improve. In just a few weeks, Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference will kick off. While it remains to be seen if a new MacBook Pro or a new iPhone will launch, one thing is very likely: iOS 6 will be showcased for the first time.
WWDC 2011 was where iOS 5 really got its wings, and Siri was brought into the fold last October. iOS 6 is apt to be the biggest iOS release yet, and as the first full iOS release since the Retina-display enabled iPad hit, it'll probably have quite a bit of iPad-specific tweaks, too.
Google, on the other hand, is poised to showcase the next major revision of Android just weeks later at this year's Google I/O. For Google, it's an interesting beast. Android 5.0 (Jelly Bean) will be the main topic of conversation, right alongside the company's recently-finalized acquisition of Motorola Mobility. To date, we haven't heard a lot about Android 5.0 in terms of features, but Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) has had a lot of time to mature. Particularly on the Galaxy Nexus, the pure version of ICS is one of the most fluid, visually appealing mobile OSes -- but is it still the best alternative for those who are shying away from the iPhone for one reason or another?
We ask the question because of Windows Phone's recent successes, however mild they may be. Microsoft's Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) feels like a completely overhauled version of the original WP7 build that shipped with phones like the HD7, Omnia 7 and Samsung Focus. Originally, it felt as if Windows Phone 7 was forced out just in time for the holiday season, but the latest version is a significantly better option. We'll delve deeper on that in a bit. For now, let's look at the existing pros and cons of Android.
One of Google's best decisions was its choice to release the "Nexus" line of devices. These "special" phones run a "pure," un-skinned version of Android. Perhaps not surprisingly, these are also widely regarded as some of the best Android phones to ship. Personally, I've been using Android as my primary mobile OS for the past three years, while still keeping a toe in the water of iOS and Windows Phone (and webOS, while it lasted). If you're looking for compelling reasons to stay planted in the Android universe, here are a few of my favorite Android features:
The Native Gmail App
If you're using Google and aren't using Gmail as your primary mail client, you're missing out. Google created Gmail, and naturally, they created the world's best mobile Gmail client for use exclusively with Android. Only recently, Google created a Gmail app for iOS (iPhone and iPad), but it's little more than a wrapper of the web app. The native Gmail for Android app offers excellent navigation (when it comes to multiple labels, easy archiving, etc.), best-in-class search (on the iOS side, there's really no local storage of recent emails) and an immense amount of control over notifications. Threaded messaging is also top-notch, and since it's woven into the operating system, it's easy to send links from other apps right from your Gmail account.
The Booming Google Play Market
Despite renaming it from Android Market (completely understandable) to Google Play (a little fuzzy), Android's home for apps is large and wildly popular. The amount of apps available to Android users is mind-boggling at this point, and the growth is showing no signs of slowing. Recent estimates peg the app count at around half a million. Google Play has everything from games to productivity to VoIP apps -- you name it, and you can bet that someone has probably submitted an app for it. And with Google's overall ecosystem encompassing hundreds of different devices spread all over the world, there's a hugely diverse developer landscape working on new programs. Yes, fragmentation is a real issue, but by and large the app quality is fantastic considering just how many new programs are being submitted each day.
Google Maps Navigation
Outside of search and email, Google also tends to be really good at mapping, geo-location and navigation. Google Maps has become the de facto guidance service for many, and if you travel any amount at all, you'll certainly love this app. Again, it's an Android exclusive. Other platforms certainly have Maps, but none of them have built-in turn-by-turn voice navigation. With Google Maps Navigation, you can have an actual voice guide you in a vehicle, on foot or even via public transport. Best of all, it's totally free, forever, and Google updates its maps far more frequently than that Garmin or TomTom that's collecting dust in your closet. Your closest bet on iOS? Purchasing a third-party app that probably doesn't integrate as well with iOS.
Noticing a trend here? Google's suite of Android applications are stellar. The recently-unveiled Google Drive takes the place of Google Docs, and it also adds a sophisticated cloud element that will make Dropbox users feel right at home. Any document created or edited within Drive will show up on any other browser, and any photos or PDFs you've hosted in your Drive cloud account will be accessible on your Android device. Yes, an iOS Drive app is coming, but much like Maps and Latitude on iOS, the Android version will almost certainly be superior given that Google can weave it into Android's underpinnings.
Yes, this is nerdy, but if you're reading this, chances are you'll care. Google's Android platform is without question the easiest to customize, and the options are numerous. A highly populated forum by the name of xda-developers is flush with Android skins, mods, hacks and ROMs, enabling users to install all manners of Android on their phone. If you aren't totally pleased with what Google's giving you, chances are CyanogenMod or other custom ROM will do the trick. You'll also be able to add new widgets, install underground applications, run all sorts of metrics and tests -- it's a tinkerer's playground. If you're into hacking, Android remains the best mobile platform for that kind of modification.
Now that we've discussed some of the pros of Android, let's take a look at some of the downsides.
Outside of a select few devices (like the DROID RAZR Maxx), most Android phones have below average battery life. Particularly if you're a power user who tends to keep a lot running in the background, or if you take advantage of Google Maps Navigation. Keeping the nav going and the display on can zap a smartphone's battery in just a few hours, from a full charge. Thankfully, the accessory market is huge, and it's not too tough to find extended batteries for most major Android smartphones. Of course, dealing with the extra bulge isn't something that some folks will like.
For those that are keen on continuity and aesthetics, Android may be somewhat of a letdown. Yes, it's fairly polished, but most would argue that iOS and Windows Phone are far sexier platforms. Android is the most customizable, but it also feels a bit bolted-together in parts because of that. There's rarely a uniform look -- skins can make it look like anything -- and there's something of a cacophony of design ideas going on at any given time.
Strangely, prices for Android smartphones have been rising. Many LTE-equipped Android phones hit the market at $199 - 299 on contract, which is about $100 more than similarly equipped Windows Phone products and the 3G-enabled iPhone 4S. Yes, it's possible to get slightly dated Android phones for less, but somewhat higher pricing is certainly something to consider.
Now, onto Windows Phone...
|Windows Phone 7.5: Is Microsoft's Mobile OS Finally Worth Switching Too?|
|Despite what the marketshare numbers currently say, Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) is a force to be reckoned with. If you have any doubts about that, have a look at our Nokia Lumia 900 review. For all intents and purposes, Nokia's push into Windows Phone marks the first real shot that Windows Phone has had at grabbing any significant amount of market share here in America. In fact, Nokia is kind of in that same boat from a hardware perspective. The company may still sell a great deal of phones globally, but its smartphone market share has dwindled significantly in the U.S. It's strange to think of Nokia and Microsoft as "underdogs," but in regards to mobile tech in America, they certainly fit the description.
Moving from Android to Windows Phone has been something of a shock. But a good one, in a lot of ways. Using the Lumia 900 in place of any number of Android phones has made some things easier, some things harder and some new things possible. Windows Phone is such a refreshingly different mobile OS that it's difficult to even compare it to Android in many ways, but with the Lumia 900 being offered for just $99 (or free, in some circumstances) on a new two-year contract, it has surely tempted many consumers. So, without further ado, let's take a look at some of the most compelling reasons to make the switch to Windows Phone...
Where Android falls a bit short, Windows Phone excels. In fact, I'd argue that Windows Phone 7.5 is the most beautiful mobile OS on the market. There's just nothing out there that looks and feels as smooth and polished in the hand. Microsoft's "Metro" user interface is well crafted on smartphones, and not only is it a solid proving ground for Windows 8 (at least on portable devices), but it's just an efficient (and addictive) way to use a smartphone. Metro's design cues aren't just good looking, they're useful. It's extremely easy to flip and swipe through Windows Phone, and particularly for users who are more interested in ease-of-use than hack-ability, Microsoft has put together a nice package. Also, the live tile feature -- which allows app "tiles" to flip over and present up-to-date, glanceable information -- is a huge leap above the simple notifications available elsewhere.
Nokia is still a huge player in the smartphone space, and still makes some of the best hardware on the market. While not every Windows Phone is a Nokia device, having access to their products is big plus. Nokia's cameras are top-notch, and moreover, those that grab a Lumia will have access to an exclusive niche inside of the Windows Phone app marketplace. In there, you'll get access to Nokia Drive, Transport and Maps. These are the only navigational applications that even come close to rivaling Google Maps Navigation, and in fact, Nokia Drive does Google one better by providing offline map guidance in many countries. Just download the country maps at home, and boom -- offline turn-by-turn guidance on your phone. For travelers, it doesn't get much better.
Microsoft's Windows Phone is the only OS on the market that was built from the ground-up to accommodate social media. Yes, Facebook was around when iPhone OS and Android launched, but it wasn't the juggernaut that it is now. The "People" Hub in WP7 is superb. It'll pool updates beautifully from any number of social networks, giving you a quick glance at what the important people in your life are up to. Yes, there are social aggregation tools on Android, but none are as nice and WP's People Hub. And moreover, its baked into the underpinnings of the OS, enabling you to reach it from a variety of other applications.
You've heard the pros, now for the cons…
The sad truth is that the Windows Phone app marketplace is woefully understocked compared to Android's Google Play market. Many of the more popular productivity apps aren't available on Windows Phone, and givin the sub-10 percent market share, it's unlikely many ever will.
Microsoft is not only battling a market share issue -- why would you develop for WP7 when so few people use it? -- but it's also battling an even bigger issue. The WP7 app marketplace is littered with unbecoming applications and general "junk" apps. The filter is seemingly not working. There are hundreds upon hundreds of X-rated apps and apps of terrible quality. All of these culminate in a subpar app experience.
Limited hardware options
Microsoft has very rigid specifications on what a Windows Phone can or can't be. This impacts screen resolution, among other things. From a developing standpoint, these rigid specifications are good; it's tougher to develop for Android simply because there are so many possible screen resolutions to take into account.
Huge disparity versus rival ecosystems
At least on Android, you can generally find most iOS apps, and they work quite well. On iOS, even Google generally tries to make its best applications available for iPhone users. These benefits really don't translate across to Windows Phone. There's no decent Google Voice app for Windows Phone 7, for example, and if you're considering future access to Drive, Maps, etc., you're probably going to be out of luck. Few of the other big players are extending olive branches toward Microsoft's mobile OS, so if it's vitally important to you to have mobile access to Apple or Google-related products, WP will probably fall short of meeting those expectations.
After a few months switching from Google's Android to Microsoft's Windows Phone, we think the switch would be painless and welcome for some, yet impossible perhaps for others. It's hardly a black-and-white issue, though. It all boils down to what kind of user you are. If you're a power user, are into customization, or someone that relies on Google's suite of products on a daily basis, it's going to be difficult to abandon Android. If you're a more casual user that has grown frustrated by some of Android's and its associated device's shortcomings, however, Windows Phone may be an ideal choice.
Windows Phone 7.5 is a great looking mobile OS that makes its competitors looked dated in many respects by comparison, but it's also quite intuitive and easy to enjoy once you've learned your way around. In the end, it's great to have multiple options at our disposal, and hopefully by the year's end, we'll be able to reevaluate the situation once more with Windows Phone 8 and Android 5.0.