Ware Wars: Which Smartphone OS Comes Out On Top?

With the recent launch of the iPhone 4S, Samsung-produced Galaxy Nexus and Windows Phone-powered tour de force from Nokia, the Lumia 800, three new mobile operating systems have entered the fold, harboured by flagship devices and each competing against each other for the mantle of number one mobile platform.

Android’s Ice Cream Sandwich iteration, Apple’s iOS 5 and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7.5 Mango update all have their own USPs, and whilst it’s traditionally Android and iOS that do battle for the OS top spot, could the new entrant to the smartphone OS fray herald a new tripartite era for mobile platforms and the Microsoft effort shape up as a genuine contender?

Of course, the new devices chosen to exhibit each OS will be a deciding factor in which emerges triumphant, with Android champions, vehement supporters of the Apple stable and Nokia’s long-suffering yet unshakably loyal supporters each trumpeting their manufacturer’s handset as the one to push its platform to the fore.

However, there’s a lot more to take into consideration than the hardware, which is why we’ll be taking a look at each of their strengths and weaknesses to determine if there is a clear leader in terms of user experience.

User Interface

A clean, uncomplicated user interface is a boon for heavy users of smartphones as time is generally of the essence when it comes to performing functions such as replying to email, keeping on top of social networking accounts and checking the web. Thankfully though, each of the platforms featured manage to incorporate ease-of-use rather impressively, all going about it in different ways.

iOS 5

The beauty of Apple’s iOS is that even the biggest novice will be able to use it almost instantaneously, regardless of whether they’ve picked an iPhone or iPad up before, such is its intuitive nature. A clean, icon-based homescreen greets users and organising apps is simple with the ability to pin 16 icons across 7 homescreens or create folders containing up to 12 apps. The recent iOS 5 update has brought with it some extra functionality not so easily accessed but in the main, you can to get what you need from within just a couple of taps.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich

Google’s latest iteration of their hugely successful open source operating system has seen enhancements to the user interface in the form of some streamlining to navigation. Many of the extraneous layers and sub-menus have been stripped back and now certain functions, most notably the widget screen, is reached by a permanent tab displayed within the main app screen. The act of closing apps has been refined somewhat thanks to the inclusion of an easily accessed screen which brings up all running applications and allows users to shut them down by swiping the relevant thumbnail off the side of the screen.

In addition, the ability to create app folders also brings the OS in line with its Apple rival. Although Android is infinitely more customisable than its locked-down counterparts, users often fail to exploit customisation options to their full extent because they’re not always so evident. Ice Cream Sandwich remedies this to a point, but there’s still room for improvement.

Windows Phone 7.5 Mango

Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7.5 update brings with it a wealth of new functionality with much of it incubated by the innovative tile-based interface it employs. The simple interface presents oft-used functions in the guise of brightly coloured slabs, some of which, such as the People Hub, are customisable and animate to display information such as picture uploads and status updates. Tiles can be dragged and positioned to where the user sees fit and users can create a tile for a particular contact, pin it to the homescreen and watch as it updates with the latest activity from that person. Whilst some might argue that the tiles’ garish colours don’t help aesthetics in any way, the unique take on a menu system does provide a refreshing change to the over-done icon approach taken by other platforms.

Whilst it’s clear that each of the operating systems has its own foibles, we’d say that for sheer ease of use, iOS comes out on top at this juncture.

Elsewhere …

The title of this category may seem slightly vague, but considering the vast array of features crammed within each platform, and the constraints of a word count, it’s probably the best we can do. Either way, let’s take a look at the software-based components that constitute the ‘bones’ of each OS …

iOS 5

Depending on where you stand, Apple has cracked the mobile music problem and iOS integration with iTunes has now had some of the pain taken out of the procedure with the OS now allowing syncing over the air. The music player function presents an easy-on-the-eye console to deal with playback although music and video are now housed within their own separate sections and represented by separate icons, again improving ease-of-use.

A vastly populated (and strictly regulated) app store featuring a range of high quality apps means that a wealth of extra functionality can be added just by paying even the most cursory visit to the App Store.

Finally, the camera app has been improved somewhat and the image rendering capabilities of iOS makes for an enhanced photographic experience with the resulting pictures looking resplendent on those iDevices fitted with Retina display screens. However, much of this could well be attributed to the hardware – light sensors and the lens itself both have a role to play.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich

Google has taken a leaf out of Apple’s book in terms of music integration, although the closest anything comes to iTunes is Google Music, a service still very much in beta at present.

Again, a simple and easily used media player is in situ and the open eco system favoured by Android means that its Market is full of many and varied apps. However, quality control is lapse as a result of the platfom’s open source nature and this often makes it difficult to find quality apps.

Where Ice Cream Sandwich excels however is imaging with the camera app presenting a much richer feature set including in-build image editing tools and an impressive panorama shoot mode. However, whilst these features are standard, Google’s willingness to allow manufacturers to make their own additions and alterations means that image quality is likely to vary from handset to handset.

Windows Phone 7 Mango

Microsoft operate a strictly controlled eco-system much in the same way as Apple do and this means that there’s little opportunity for handset manufacturers to tinker with the OS (with the exception of new partners Nokia). As a result, music and media functionality remains constant across the stable of Windows Phone handsets with Microsoft’s Zune software taking care of syncing and file transfer duties.

Unfortunately though, the option of-over-the-air updates is not currently supported by Mango and OS upgrades require the manual plugging in to a PC and syncing via Zune. Similarly annoying is the fact that the Windows Marketplace contains considerably less wares than rival app stores and this limits opportunity to expand functionality.

On the plus side, the camera app is easy to use and this iteration of Windows Phone has seen Microsoft loosen its grip on the APIs meaning that support for front-facing cameras is included and augmented reality apps are now possible.

Of course, each of the three comes with its own native browser – Safari in the case of iOS, a Chrome derivative in the case of Ice Cream Sandwich and IE9 for Mango. Having used all of them, we’d say that none really outperform the other, so it boils down to personal preference. However, only Android comes with Flash support, but with Adobe discontinuing its development for mobile to concentrate on HTML5, iOS and Windows Phone don’t miss out too much.

Unique Features

Much has been made of Apple’s digital voice assistant Siri and for good reason such is the unique functionality provided by the ingenious feature. Ice Cream Sandwich counters Siri via the inclusion of a similar voice-to-speech feature that lets users dictate e-mail, texts, and activate other functions just through speaking, and a similar feature can be activated on Windows Phone Mango devices by holding down the “Start” button and speaking to to place a call, start a text message, open an app or  conduct Web searches. However, neither service as comprehensive as the Apple effort.

Standing out particularly with Ice Cream Sandwich is the inclusion of NFC support, most notably in the form of Android beam – a function that enables content to be shared between to Ice Cream Sandwich devices simply by tapping the two together. A similar service has been available to iOS users via third party app Bump for a number of years now but the functionality offered is not as comprehensive as that of Android Beam. Windows loses out on this front through its lack of such a feature.”

Cloud storage has recently become an influencing factor when choosing a smartphone OS and each of the platforms discussed here features some sort of Cloud solution. Apple’s iCloud offers 5GB of storage and wirelessly syncs files without too much user intervention, whilst the service offered by Mango’s SkyDrive is perhaps more comprehensive, integrating with the Office Hub and connects seamlessly with your data stored on Microsoft’s SkyDrive. Ice Cream Sandwich currently only offers the option of saving images to the cloud via a Google Plus account and the limited functionality of Google Music Beta.

The Outcome?

With the steady demise of Symbian and BlackBerry’s apparent falling by the wayside, it seems that a new tripartite era of smartphone platforms is about to emerge. Of course, each of those featured today has its own strengths and weaknesses as well as foibles and it would be churlish to suggest that there is one outright leader.

In terms of sales at least, Android and iOS will continue their dual at the top of the sales charts but the rebirth of Windows Phone could see a genuine contender emerge should the hardware chosen to exhibit it be of a high enough standard. For now though, we’ll say that it’s a photo finish between iOS and ICS, providing of course that the Apple effort isn’t waylaid by the well publicised battery issues the recent iOS 5.0.1 update promises to iron out.

Leave a Reply