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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Smartphone OS Preview: iOS 5 vs. Android 2.3 Gingerbread vs. Windows Phone 7 Mango vs. Blackberry 7 OS

iOS 5 wowed the friendly WWDC crowds, but how will it fare in the real world when it releases this fall? We pit iOS 5 against its likely competitors, and the results may surprise you.
iOS 5 Sure, Lion and iCloud are big news, but, for the millions of iPhone users out there, the real news at the center of the Apple's WWDC conference was iOS 5, equipped with cutting-edge (though, in some cases, strangely familiar) notifications, messaging, and cable-free connectivity. These goodies—and hundreds of other (unspecified) features—now available in developer release, won't appear until the fall, perhaps at the same time as a new iPhone. It seems like just about all the competition –Android, Windows Phone 7, and BlackBerry—will be releasing new versions between now and then, too.

Using Apple's release as the baseline, I've pulled out 13 of the most exciting new features of iOS 5. The iPhone—and iOS 5—will face three popular challengers this fall. Each of these contenders will a bit sprier by the iOS 5 debut: Microsoft will deliver Windows Phone 7 Mango in Q4; Blackberry OS 7 also ought to be available; and Android 2.3 Gingerbread will be ubiquitous, with Android 3.1 Ice Cream should be served up for the holidays. How will iOS stack up?

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Below I've charted the results as simply as I can, but be advised there are nuances to particular comparisons. For example, in call cases there are plenty of third-party apps that may fill in gaps. Furthermore, when it comes to Android, OEMs tend to skin the phones (albeit with mixed results), often adding additional functionality to the stock version of Android. In order for any sort of comparison to work, I'm looking at what you get out of the box on stock versions of each mobile OS. Check out the table first, and then take a look at my explanations of each category and the caveats that go with it.

Smartphone OS preview: iOS 5 vs. Android 2.3 Gingerbread vs. Windows Phone 7 Mango vs. Blackberry 7

When it comes to unified notification systems, Apple's newly-minted Notification Center bares quite a resemblance to that of Android. As with Android, you can both access notifications from the lock screen or, when using the phone, pull down a tray of notifications from the top of the screen. Blackberry simply pins updates to the home screen. Finally, Windows 7 Mango uses live tiles, which is a bit less unified, but considerably more flexible (I gave it the "check" on account of said flexibility).

Phone-to-Phone Messaging
Apple is clearly watching its competitors. The iOS phone-to-phone messaging system, iMessage, looks a lot like Blackberry Messenger. So much for that iOS app.
Newspaper/Magazine Subscriptions
Newspaper/Magazine Subscriptions
Apple is leading the way into the print subscription market, though it remains to be seen how much users will appreciate reading the New Yorker on the iPhone, as opposed to an iPad.

Advanced Reminder System
All four mobile platforms allow users to set basic reminders, but no one can touch the iOS Reminders tool on account of its geo-fencing location-based notifications.
System-Wide Twitter Integration
System-Wide Twitter Integration
The one third-party software with which iOS consistently integrates is Twitter. Because it's built into the system, once you sign-in, you ought to be able to Tweet from just about anywhere on your phone. The forthcoming release of Window Phone 7 does this and a step better—it includes deep Facebook integration. Finally, while Twitter can appear in the Android Gallery, you must install the app first—so it's not integrated out of the box.

Quick-Camera Access
If you're using your mobile phone as your camera—as more and more people are beginning to do, for better or worse—quick access counts. Both Windows 7 Mango and iOS 5 let users jump directly into camera mode from the lock screen. iOS 5 goes a step further and lets you snap photos without entering a passcode (if you have one). Blackberry does allow users to map a side button to launch a camera, but unfortunately you'll still need to unlock your device.
Photo Editing Tools
Photo Editing Tools
When it comes to photo editing on the go, iOS 5 is a clear winner out of the box. While Android allows some editing (crop and rotate), iOS goes a step further (crop, edit, red eye reduction, composition controls, and auto-enhance).

Tabbed Browsing
Considering how many great browsers are available for Android, it continues to baffle the mind as to why Google hasn't added tabs into its stock browser through an incremental update. Now that Safari has tabs, Android remains the odd-man out.
Reader View
Reader View
Because Apple has essentially rolled Instapaper into Safari Mobile, iOS has a clear edge over the competition when it comes to clutter-free web reading. Add the cloud-based Reading List and it looks even better.

Rich Text Email
When it comes to composing HTML email all mobile OSes except Android rise to the occasion. That said, Android does allow users to receive formatted mail.

PC-Free Setup, Updates
Desktop-free setup and updates is one area where Apple played serious catch up with iOS 5. It now joins all the other platforms in the (sort of) post-PC world. One caveat: remember how Apple used to make you download 400-megabyte files for an incremental update? Now that Apple is rolling out delta updates, all that you'll need to download is what has changed from one version of iOS to the next. Now that you're wireless—and probably on a tiered plan—that could spare you a significant cellular bill.

Wi-Fi Sync
Wireless synchronization is another area where iOS has lagged behind the competiton—except for Google. That said, what Apple has finally delivered is quite powerful: Everything in your iTunes library—including photos and video—can sync over the area. In this respect, iOS Wi-Fi sync tops Blackberry, which handles music, but not video.
Online Gaming Community
Online Gaming Community
Game Center already looked great, but it's even better now that you can download and review games without leaving. The only service that rivals game center is Microsoft's Xbox Live. However, when it comes to actually finding games to play, Apple has the liveliest marketplacee, for the time being.

The Best Smartphone OS?
Any judgement will have to wait until we actually get our hands on the OSes in question and test them out on real-live phones. And it's also worth noting that our feature set for this comparison is pretty heavily influenced by Apple's WWDC presentation. Still, judging by what we know so far, it's clear that Apple's iOS 5 looks to be the smartphone OS to beat this fall.
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