Beauty and the geek: Windows Phone 'Mango' vs. Android

Microsoft's mobile OS reboot turns out to be a small update that lacks enterprise security and rich apps but is a cleaner alternative to Google's Android for smartphones

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The same dichotomy exists for other kinds of apps, from photo editing to financial management. Android offers both lightweight widgets and middleweight apps, whereas the Windows Phone Marketplace has mainly lightweight, data-feed-oriented widgets like stock tickers, weather checkers, and bill reminders. Widgets are the perfect fit for the whole Windows Phone tile metaphor, where the app "icons" are live tiles that can show status, such as current stock price or current weather. Opening a tile shows more of that data feed, but rarely lets you manipulate it in any deep way.

But even nonfeed apps tend to be more simplistic on Windows Phone; a survey of newsreader apps showed they contained less information generally than their Android (and iOS) counterparts. An exception is the USA Today app; despite Windows Phone 7's markedly different presentation style, the USA Today app proves an information app doesn't have to compromise on depth.

When it comes to games, both platforms have a good selection, including the modern standbys such as Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja.

The native apps included with Windows Phone and Android are comparable, providing email, contacts, calendar, maps, browsers, a music player, a video player, and SMS messaging. Windows Phone also includes the anemic mobile Office, whereas many Android devices include a trial or limited-function version of Quickofffice or Documents to Go. Android also offers a real navigation app, though some Android smartphones come with a trial or limited-function navigation app, and a YouTube app, though that's a free download from the Windows Phone Marketplace. Android smartphones typically have Facebook and Twitter apps preloaded as well, but the basic functionality is built into Windows Phone's People app. Additionally, the full apps are free downloads from the Windows Phone Marketplace.

Android has no native notepad app, a very odd omission for a mobile device. Windows Phone comes with OneNote, its cloud-enabled note-taker. Its version of Word is appropriate for taking notes as well.

Unlike Microsoft's Marketplace, the Android Market is not curated, which makes it easier for developers to get their apps listed but has also let cyber thieves create phishing apps that masquerade as banking or other programs to steal user information. There are few apps as yet in the Windows Phone Marketplace.

App management. A key addition to "Mango" was multitasking: Applications can now run in the background. Android has long had that capability.

Switching among apps is similar in Windows Phone and Android: In "Mango," you go to the Start screen, swipe to the left to see all your apps, and tap an app to open it. You can also pin apps to the Start screen so that their tiles are available for easy access. In "Gingerbread," you go to the home screen, tap the Apps button, then tap an app from the grid of apps that appears. You can also drag an app icon into the home screen for faster access later. But you can't just swipe among active apps as iOS 5 and the defunct WebOS allow.

Android lets you see which apps are running: Long-tap the Home button to see a list of recent apps, any of which you can then tap to open. Windows Phone 7 has no such capability.

Android uses a home screen to store frequently used apps, and it shows all titles in the alphabetically arranged apps screen. Windows Phone uses a similar technique, with its Start screen acting as a home screen. But "Mango" becomes more difficult to navigate the more apps and tiles you have, as you need to scroll further and further to access them. That's a function of the use of tiles and lists, rather than the small icons in Android. The end result is that Windows Phone becomes harder to use the more apps you install. Neither OS supports app folders to help manage a growing collection of apps.

Both operating systems alert you to app updates and let you download them wirelessly.

Android has long offered a notifications capability. Pop-up notifications make it easy to see if you have new email or other alerts, whatever you happen to be doing, and you can pull up a notification pane to see recent alerts. Windows Phone doesn't provide such notifications; it expects that you'll use the Start screen's tiles to track what's happening.

The winner: Android, but only slightly, given its better selection of more-capable apps.

Windows Phone 7.5 vs. Android 2.3: Web and Internet Google is a strong force behind HTML5 and other modern browser technologies, so it's no surprise that it offers capable Web browsers. By contrast, Microsoft has lagged the field in support for the new standards. Based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, though, it's clear that "Mango" has made major strides in HTML5 compatibility versus its competitor. But it still trails all other mobile browsers.

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Browser

From an operational perspective, the main differences between the Windows Phone and Android browsers center on the UI. Their interfaces are both spare, with a persistent URL box on both, an icon button to open a bookmarks window on Android, and an icon button to refresh the page in Windows Phone. Both use their OSes' standard Back hardware button to go back in your browsing history. To add bookmarks, go forward, open a new browser window, or refresh the page in Android, you use the device's hardware Menu button. In Windows Phone, to create or access bookmarks (which it calls Favorites) and to open a new tab (really a window), you use the More icon button to open a menu of options. Windows Phone 7 also lets you pin a Web page to your Start screen (as iOS does); Android can't do that.

Both Windows Phone and Android can share pages via email, but Windows Phone also lets you share the page via your social networks.

Android uses the smartphone's hardware Search button to do a Web search when you are in the browser; Windows Phone uses its physical Search button to open the Bing app. Neither can search your current Web page.

Windows Phone offers a .com button when entering URLs, a significant timesaver. Plus, it pops 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 Windows Phone and Android, you can select text and graphics on Web pages, but only Windows Phone lets you save selected graphics.

Both the Windows Phone and Android browsers offer settings to control cookies and history, but unlike Android, "Mango" has no option to manage other personal information such as cache, form data, passwords, image loading, autofill, fraud warnings, and debugging. Windows Phone does have the nice ability of being able to tell websites it's a desktop computer, not a mobile device, for when you don't want the mobile-optimized version of a site (which often strips out information and services).

Although not preinstalled with Android, Adobe's Flash Player is available at the Android Market as a free download. 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 and open content via hotspots. Flash games worked sometimes. Windows Phone 7 does not support Flash.

The winner: Android "Gingerbread," thanks to greater HTML5 compatibility and better controls over personal information. If Flash is important to you, Android becomes your only option.

Windows Phone 7.5 vs. Android 2.3: Location support Both Windows Phone and Android support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. They also come with equivalent map apps, which can find your current destination, provide directions, and otherwise help you navigate.

The Navigation app that comes with Android is a nice addition unmatched by Windows Phone (or iOS) unless you buy a separate navigation app.

Both Windows Phone and Android let developers integrate location information in their apps, so location is just another native feature. And both OSes let you control your location privacy, but at only a gross level: by disabling or enabling the GPS and Wi-Fi location services for the entire device. Both Windows Phone and 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.

The winner: Android, thanks to its navigation app. Otherwise, they're evenly matched.

Windows Phone 7.5 vs. Android 2.3: User interface The difference between Windows Phone and Android is stark when it comes to the user interface. The Metro UI in Windows Phone is clean, elegant, simple, and inviting -- you quickly figure out how to do things in it. By contrast, the Android "Gingerbread" UI is messy, confusing, and awkward. The more I use it, the less I like it. Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" promises a major overhaul, but the demos shown by Google indicate it may be prettier and more consistent, but not simpler.

But Windows Phone's simpler UI reflects its simpler capabilities; it's hard to imagine how the "Mango" UI could handle sophisticated, multilevel interactions, for example.

Operational UI. Windows Phone is highly consistent in navigating -- swipe to the right for more, and press the More icon button for features not displayed. Android relies much more on its bevy of hardware and icon buttons for navigation, and less on gestures, so you do a lot of finger punching for your appointed tasks. Windows Phone's spare design hides more capabilities from the user than Android, though, so you're more likely to turn to its More icon button than the Android Menu hardware button. However, Android apps are inconsistent in this regard.

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 are searchable. Fortunately, the Home button always works. By contrast, Windows Phone's Search button does just one thing wherever you are: Open the Bing search engine as its own app.

I have two big beefs with Windows Phone's UI, despite how much easier I think it is overall than Android's:

  • Windows Phone consistently uses thin, small text that most adults will not be able to read without reading glasses. Worse, it favors low-contrast text display (such as gray-and-white) in everything from its on-screen keyboard to its email messages. Where it doesn't do that, it uses thin colored text on black backgrounds. Both are fundamental design no-nos that a company claiming to be as heavily invested in ergonomics research as Microsoft does should never have allowed. I initially thought older folks who want a simple messaging device, not an app-heavy minicomputer like an iPhone, would be the perfect audience for Windows Phone devices -- but they won't be able to see what they're doing beyond the top-level menus.
  • Windows Phone's tiles and lists fill up the screen really fast, and it becomes burdensome to find them in the ever-longer vertical scrolls that result. In effect, Windows Phone makes you stick to a few core functions, whereas Android's junkier interface at least gives you ways to organize a larger set of capabilities so that you can actually use them.

Both Windows Phone and Android have voice-command capabilities: The microphone icon in various Android apps lets you issue commands or enter text, but it's inconsistently deployed and often does things outside the current app's context. It's a bit of a puzzle figuring out how to use it. Windows Phone's voice command is universal: Long-tap the Start hardware button and it asks you to issue a command. Problem is, "Mango" could rarely understand what I said, whereas "Gingerbread" was much more accurate.

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.

The Settings app in Android can be confusing. For example, there are two Wi-Fi options: Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Settings. Tapping Wi-Fi turns off Wi-Fi -- not what I expected. To find a Wi-Fi network, you tap Wi-Fi Settings. After a while I learned the difference, but it was an unnecessary exercise. Windows Phone's settings are much clearer, avoiding any such confusion.

Pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, work equivalently on Android and Windows Phone. But neither OS does much more in terms of available gestures beyond those and swipe -- a real contrast to iOS. Instead, both rely on menu actions after you long-tap objects you want to manipulate.

Windows Phone lets you set custom sounds to various alerts, so you can more easily tell your device from someone else's. Android doesn't allow for such per-alert tone configuration.

For text entry, I find Android's on-screen keyboard to be easier to work with than Windows Phone's, with more readable keys. I wish Android used contextual keys like .com and underscore (_) more often, as Windows Phone does, but Windows Phone's messing with the placement of some basic symbols, such as the asterisk, is really annoying.

Text selection and copying. Android falls short in its text selection. If you're tapping away and realize you've made a mistake not caught by the autocorrect feature, such as when entering a URL, it can be difficult to move the text cursor to the typo's location. If you tap too long, the screen is filled with the Edit Text contextual menu. It took me a while to figure out how to tap long enough to move the text-insertion cursor to a new location without opening that menu. "Gingerbread" has tweaked text selection so that it's more precise than in the more broadly deployed Android 2.2 "Froyo," and there's now a slider to move the text cursor -- but these enhanced controls are not universal across apps.

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