March 5, 2013

SMARTPHONE OS COMPARISON


There was a time when buying a smartphone was easy. You had a couple of platforms and a handful of models to choose from. Things have changed a lot today. You now have over half a dozen platforms out there with hundreds of different models between them, priced very close to each other. It doesn't help matters when several phones are identical to each other but simply running a different brand of operating system.

You can decide what features you want in your phone but what about the operating system? There is no way you can choose between them looking at the spec sheet alone. Being in a position where we get to use all the latest smartphones on all the different platforms, we think we have answers to your operating system related questions.

What follows is a brief comparison of the top four smartphone platforms - iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7 and Symbian ^3 - where we try to find which one is the best, ultimately narrowing down your number of options while buying and helping you choose better.

Aesthetics

iOS is the oldest of the four platforms here. Even though it is four-and-a-half-years old now and has barely undergone any major UI makeover, it still looks great. The UI design has a sense of timelessness to it and no matter how many times you look at it it does not look boring. Apple has also designed it in a manner where it is out of your way most of the time so that you can concentrate on your applications. This means there are no unnecessary animations and transition effects and whatever little is there looks natural and is functional.

Android on the other hand has gone through considerable changes since its first iteration and has only got better with age. Having said that, over the years it has lost some of its simplicity and picked up some UI design elements that seem overdone, such as the 3D image gallery or the live wallpapers, which serve no functional value whatsoever and just consume resources for meaningless eye candy. This behavior is at odds with the usual Google way of designing things, where functionality takes precedents over attractiveness. Still, overall it is an attractive OS and although it lacks the timeless beauty of the iOS or the contemporary look of Windows Phone 7, it manages to look pretty good. Too bad you rarely get to see the real Android below the custom skins.

Symbian ^3 borrows the basic UI design of its predecessor and improves upon it. Despite that the end result is not something that one would call modern. You can see the roots of the operating systems, such as the soft keys at the bottom of the screen that were necessary for devices with buttons and a scroll bar for when there was no kinetic scrolling. It does not look bad per se, but it is not in the same league as others. Luckily, it is skinnable, so you can give a new look to it with a custom skin, although don't expect to make a swan out of a goose.

The latest entrant into the world of smartphones, Windows Phone 7 took the world by surprise when it was first announced, partly because no one expected Microsoft to come up with something that was so fresh and modern. The beauty of the UI design on Windows Phone 7 is unlike anything that you have seen before on other smartphones.

Unlike other operating systems here, especially Android, which borrowed heavily from iOS initially for their UI design, Microsoft came up with something that was completely original and yet incredibly good looking. So good is the UI design that most people would be seduced into buying a Windows Phone 7 device based on the look itself.

Ease of use


Designing a good looking interface is one thing. Designing a good looking interface that is also easy to use is another and no one does this better than Apple. If you don't believe us just search online for videos where kids are given an iPad or an iPhone and within minutes they manage to figure out the basics.

In our experience iOS has turned out to be the easiest mobile operating system, where everything was so clear and obvious that anyone who used it for the first time, regardless of age, could figure it out without having to refer to a manual. The reason for this is that it does not assume that the user knows how to use it and because of that you can go around doing basic things without any help. It is incredibly intuitive and makes you wonder why others haven't figured out a way to make their software work this way. It feels as if it was designed with regular human beings in mind, not robots or geeks. We loved the keyboard especially.

Next in line of intuitiveness is Android. It does not have the same level of simplicity as iOS, were you can detach you brain and still manage to work the interface, but it is still very easy nonetheless. Unfortunately, you would rarely get to use stock Android on every phone you use, which means if you are someone who's not a geek and are used to, say, an HTC Android phone, you will be lost when you pick up a Samsung Android phone. 

So even though Google and the OEMs try to make the UI user friendly, the fact that there are so many different types of them is bound to leave a layperson confused.

Using the early versions of Symbian S60 5th Edition was as much fun as amputating your arm with a dull blade. The UI was designed for phones with keypads and Nokia had done little to ensure that it was usable, if not a pleasure. That's not the case with Symbian ^3, however, which feels miles ahead in terms of usability.

Things now work the way they should and there is no longer a doubt in your mind whether clicking something will just highlight it or launch it. We still don't like the way the applications are scattered across the menu and the on-screen keyboard could have been better. But overall the latest version of Symbian is pretty user friendly, and unlike Android, you don't have to worry about different interface layouts on different devices.

Windows Phone 7 may look great but it isn't the best when it comes to user friendliness. There are some things that aren't immediately apparent, such as the way you have to press and hold on certain items to display additional options. Then there is also the quirky behavior of the search button or the tiny call/end keys and the need to unlock the screen before you can receive a call. But more than anything, it's the lack of basic features such as multitasking and copy-paste for text that really makes things difficult for the users. We do love the keyboard though, which is on par with the keyboard on Gingerbread and almost as good as the one on iOS.

Features

Features was never a strong point of iOS, but over the years Apple has added a lot of functionality to the OS, such as the ability to install applications, multitasking, copy-paste, folders, etc. iOS today leaves very little room for complaint. However, there are some things that Apple is yet to take care of such as Bluetooth file transfers, file manager, mass storage, homescreen widgets and FM radio to name a few, but we have a feeling none of these will ever be addressed.

Fortunately, Apple does add additional functionality with every major firmware upgrade but more often than not these are limited to newer devices, whereas the older ones get the short end of the stick.

Android's biggest advantage over iOS has been the features and with the latest release Android has almost every feature that you could want, whether it is multitasking, widgets, tethering, Wi-Fi hotspot or Adobe Flash support. It feels the most complete out of all the four platforms here in terms of features, and if features are all that you are looking for then you would be happiest with Android.

When it comes to features, Symbian ^3 is no slouch either. You will find almost every feature here that you get on Android, along with some that you don't, such as FM radio and USB On-the-Go connectivity. You even get multiple homescreens (three, to be exact) and widgets for them, which are very handy. Features like multi-tasking and copy paste, something others have just discovered and others are yet to, have always been part of Symbian since the first iteration several years ago and have been executed perfectly. Symbian ^3 has most of the features that you would want and there wasn't anything that we felt it should have that it didn't.

This is one aspect where Windows Phone 7 fails miserably. For an operating system launching in 2010, Microsoft has left out some pretty major things. Although they are saying they will eventually incorporate most of them through updates we feel they should have had them from day one. While it was excusable to leave out on those things back in 2007, Microsoft has no such excuse, considering they were in the smartphone business even before Windows Phone 7. It does have some good features, such as the homescreen tiles, Xbox Live support, Zune pass and Office integration, but we don't think that will be enough to compete against the rivals. 

Performance

When iOS first came out, it wowed the world with its fluid interface that ran perfectly even on the modest hardware of the first generation iPhone. Over the years the OS has become heavier and the proof of this is the way the iPhone 3G struggles with iOS 4.0. But try the same OS on an iPhone 4 and you will notice a world of difference. The UI is silky smooth throughout with no noticeable sluggishness. Even when switching between multiple applications, the UI maintains its smoothness without faltering.

Something similar has been observed in case of Android. As long as you provide it with fast hardware, it runs fine but tends to choke on slower devices. However, unlike iOS, even when running on faster hardware, Android is never perfectly smooth. At times you will notice unexpected and inexplicable slowdowns while going through the UI, which deters from the overall experience. Google has also added unnecessary eye candy to the UI, which also tends to bog down devices with less than perfect hardware.

Also, Android does not use the GPU to render the on-screen images, which means the CPU is overburdened, causing further slowdowns. Still, with some optimization, Android can be made to work pretty well on slower devices.
One of the greatest strengths of Symbian is that it has always been a very light operating system that could be run even by weaker hardware. This is why all the Symbian phones have hardware that seem less impressive than what we are used to seeing on high-end devices, but that is absolutely fine as even on that hardware the OS runs perfectly well.

Since the OS is so light, it removes the need to unnecessarily jack up the hardware and burn more battery in the process. This is why Symbian phones have the best battery life among smartphones. Nokia has also made good use of the on-board GPU to render all the on-screen images, leaving the CPU free to handle other tasks.
When it comes to UI smoothness, Windows Phone 7 is unbeatable. That's mostly because it is always sitting on powerful hardware, but also because the OS is well optimized for it. This is another good example of the kind of performance you get when you know what the weakest device your software would work on and then optimize it accordingly.

This is also why Android does not work well on low-end devices. The UI of Windows Phone 7 is so smooth, it gives you the illusion of moving physical objects around instead of UI elements, an illusion that Android fails to maintain, thanks to the occasional stutter. Unfortunately, the smoothness is only limited to the default applications as third-party applications could not live up to the same standards that Microsoft has set. We have seen Android developers come up with smoother applications even though they had no idea what phone their application would be running on. We hope things get better in future as these applications are updated.

Applications

This is one area where iOS pulls out a massive lead ahead of all the other platforms here. Being around the longest has certainly benefitted it and there are millions of applications available on the App Store right now waiting to be downloaded. Granted that more than half of them are not worth a second look but there are some really brilliant apps here. In fact, the general quality of applications available is the highest among all the smartphone platforms. Some of these apps have truly revolutionized the way we use our smartphones and in a way that not even Apple would have imagined when they made the iPhone. If apps are all you care about more than the device, then iOS is the platform to be on right now.

Although Android is fast catching up with iOS in terms of number of applications, we have failed to come across truly compelling apps that would sway us in favor of the Droid. Most of the great apps on Android are already available on iOS and the remaining ones are Google's own apps. There are very few great apps or games that are exclusive to Android right now. Sure, things would change down the line and once everyone realizes that Android is the better platform to develop for, considering there are no strict restrictions to follow unlike on the App Store, people would eventually make a move towards Android.

With Android already outselling iPhones in the US soon everyone would want to develop for the OS with the most number of users. Right now though, things aren't that great as such and if it's apps you want you should be looking at iOS, not Android. Also, remember that even if tomorrow Android Market does get all the great applications that does not mean they will stop making them for iOS.

There was a time when people boasted about the number of applications that Symbian has. Although it does have one of the best libraries of applications available in terms of sheer numbers, a lack of application store meant it was difficult to have access to them. Now that Nokia has the Ovi Store, things are looking better. When we reviewed the N8 we remarked about the number of applications available for it.

Even though the platform was quite new, the store had decent number of apps available for it. Even now it is growing at a steady pace. But the thing about the Ovi Store is that it will just take care of the basics and you won't be spoilt for choice as on iOS or Android. Want a Twitter client, there is Gravity. Want an IM app, use Nimbuzz. While this does make it easier to choose, at times you wish you had more apps from the same category to choose from.
Windows Phone 7 has the least impressive library of applications available for it and although one can blame this on the short period of time it has been out we must say the Windows Marketplace didn't flood with great apps the way we expected it to be.

Just like Ovi, it has all the basic applications covered, but there is nothing here that isn't available on the other platforms as of now. Also, the applications and especially games seemed unreasonably expensive on the Marketplace compared to App Store or Android Market. The same app as on these stores would cost two to three times more on the Marketplace for no reason.

Perhaps developers are seeing Windows Phone 7 as a premium platform, considering all the Windows Phone 7 devices are high-end and think they can get away with pricing their apps high (the same reason why Android developers either choose to go the ad-based way or through OEMs because they know Android buyers aren't big spenders).

Verdict

You probably expected Symbian to be at the bottom of the chart when you started reading this article, but as surprising as it may be, it isn't. That (dis)honor goes to Windows Phone 7, which has a long way to go before it can play with the big boys. Sure it has the potential to be great with a killer interface that would seduce people into buying this phone (and flame me in the comments section for writing bad about it). But right now there are few reasons to consider buying a Windows Phone 7 handset. Perhaps by the time you are ready to buy your next smartphone, it would be ready for you.

Symbian has gone through a lot of changes over the past years and it has never been in a better shape before. But we feel it has reached the end of its potential and it's about time it hands over the torch to MeeGo, which will take over as the premium operating system on Nokia's smartphones. While there is nothing bad about it, others just seem a generation ahead and although it still has the one of the best feature list around it's not enough in today's world. The fact the Ovi Store isn't exactly brimming with great quality apps is also another reason why it lags behind.

iOS has had a long and successful journey and it still has a long way to go, but it seems too rigid in today's world. The interface design is still top notch and Apple's attention to detail is exemplary. However, you still miss some of those features, such as widgets for the homescreen or a notification system that does not annoy you. More than anything else, iOS's biggest trump card is the App Store, which is undoubtedly the best in the business. But the fact that you can only enjoy this wonderful OS on two smartphones, both of which are high-end devices, does not bode well for those who don't have 'Ambani' as their last name.

Android today is a completely different animal compared to what it was two years ago. It felt rudimentary, to say the least, and although it showed potential it was difficult to predict back then what it would be today. Google has worked hard on the OS and thanks to a steady stream of updates it has completely transformed into this new OS that can go head-to-head with the best of the business. It's still far from perfect though and certain issues such as fragmentation would never be solved. But people have accepted them and found ways to make things work regardless of presence.

Today's Android offers the best combination of features, performance and support from the developer community in terms of application and the fact that it can run on even a sub Rs. 7,000 handset proves that you don't need big bucks to own a smartphone. And it's because of all these qualities that it manages to narrowly nudge ahead of iOS, which has so far been the undisputed king of the smartphone segment. So our verdict is simple, if you don't have the cash to spend on an iPhone 4, get an Android.

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