Mobile deathmatch: Motorola Mobility Atrix 4G vs. Apple iPhone 4

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Deathmatch: Applications The native apps are comparable on the two devices, providing email, contacts, calendar, maps and navigation, browser, a music player, a YouTube player, and SMS messaging. One strange exception: the Atrix has no native notepad app, while iOS 4 does. That's a very odd omission for a smartphone. As noted previously, the Atrix doesn't support PDF viewing out of the box; you have to download the free Adobe Reader app from the Android Market to view PDF files.

But the Atrix includes the standard Android Navigation app, which speaks directions as you navigate, as well as provides an on-screen live map and written step-by-step directions. The iPhone's Maps app has comparable on-screen navigation capabilities but does not speak them as you drive. The Atrix comes with several apps the iPhone does not, including the Social Networking app that consolidates updates from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social services you configure it to monitor. And if Flash video display is important to you, you can download Flash Player from the Android Market; there is no Flash Player for the iPhone due to Apple's prohibition against it.

App stores and app installation. There are tens of thousands of apps for the iPhone's iOS, from games to scientific visualization tools. Sure, there's a lot of junk, but you'll find many really useful apps as well. Android doesn't have nearly the same library of apps as the iOS, but its portfolio is now in the thousands and growing, with many useful apps such as Quickoffice, for which the Atrix includes a basic version with limited creation and editing capabilities. I find that iOS apps are often more capable than their Android equivalents (such as the New York Times and Kindle apps) -- but not always (Angry Birds, for example).

Unlike Apple's App Store, 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 apps and steal user information; Apple's App Store seems to be less at risk to such Trojans. The Android Market is also slower to load than the App Store and not as easy to navigate within the app details.

You don't have to use the Android Market to get Android apps on the Atrix. If you want to get down and dirty, you can configure the Android OS's application settings to install apps from other sources.

Installation of apps is similar: After selecting an app, you confirm your store account information and wait for the app to download and install.

Both mobile OSes let you know if you have app updates available. On the iPhone, the App Store app indicates the number of available updates. On the Atrix, available app updates are displayed in the notifications bar at the top of the home screen. However, many Android users have had difficulty receiving these notifications or find they get notifications for updates they've already installed. You might want to get the free App Update Notifier App from the Android Market and use it instead of the Android Market app's built-in notification.

The iPhone's reliance on iTunes as its command center for managing media, apps, and documents makes it much easier to manage your device's content than the Atrix's use of the Android Market to remember your paid apps (but not your free ones) and separate sync utility for handling media files transferred from your PC. If you get a new phone, with iTunes it's a snap to get the new one up and running with the same assets as the old one; there's no such easy way to transfer the assets to an Atrix from a previous device.

App management. The iPhone has a simpler app management process. For example, it's easy to arrange your home screens to cluster applications both on your iPhone and on your desktop via iTunes; you can also put them in your own folders. Just tap and hold any app to invoke the "shaking apps" status, in which you can drag apps wherever you want, or tap the X icon to delete them (press the Home button when done to exit that mode). You can also arrange and delete apps using iTunes on your desktop.

Like all Android smartphones, the Atrix lets you drag apps to any of its home screens; you can also long-tap an app to move it to the current home screen. The Atrix's MotoBlur interface provides two locations: a band at the bottom of each home screen, and the main area of the home screen itself. The full list of programs is available in the apps page, which you access by tapping the circle icon at the bottom of the home page. But the Atrix has no groups capability for presenting apps, and you can't rearrange the order in the apps page -- just in the home screens. If you've used another Android device, note that the Atrix's MotoBlur apps management interface differs substantially from the standard Android UI. It's different, not better.

The Atrix supports the Android OS's widgets feature. Widgets are mini apps that you can place on the home screens. Widgets can be very helpful, such as to view the latest email message, Facebook update, or the current time in a large clock. Thus, you can see at a glance the current status of whatever you want to easily track -- one of Android's superior UI capabilities. The iPhone has no equivalent.

The Atrix, like other Android devices, has the notifications bar that makes it easy to see if you have new email or other alerts whatever you happen to be doing. Again, the iPhone has no equivalent.

Multitasking. The iPhone's iOS 4 supports multitasking if enabled in the apps themselves; Apple has made specific background services available for multitasking, rather than let each app run full-on in parallel, as on a PC. As you switch iOS apps, they suspend, except for their multitasking-enabled services, which conserves memory and aids performance. By contrast, Android supports full multitasking, whereby default apps continue to run in the background when you take care of other duties. From a usage point of view, though, these differences aren't apparent: On both devices, apps appear to multitask in the same manner.

The major difference related to multitasking is the UI for switching among apps. On the iPhone, a double-click on the Home button pulls up a list of running apps, making it easy to see what's running and switch among them. On the Atrix, you have to tap the Menu button, tap Manage Apps, and then switch to the Running pane to see which apps are active; the list is littered with various Google services that are also running, which renders it impractical as a daily navigation aid.

The winner: A tie. The iPhone's selection of apps and strong app quality outshine what's available for Android devices. But the widgets and notifications capabilities of the Atrix's Android OS are very handy, and you feel their absence on an iPhone after you've used an Android device for a while. Plus, the Atrix's Navigation and Social Networking apps have no free iPhone equivalents.

Deathmatch: Web and Internet Both Apple and Google are strong forces behind HTML5 and other modern browser technologies, so it's no surprise that the iPhone and Atrix both offer capable Web browsers. Do note that neither is as HTML5-savvy as their desktop counterparts, however. Based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, the Atrix's mobile Chrome scored 176 out of 300, versus 242 for desktop Chrome (version 9.05); the iPhone's mobile Safari scored 196 versus 208 for desktop Safari (version 5.03).

The main differences between the iPhone and Atrix browsers gravitate around their OSes' UI: Android usually requires the use of the Menu button to access Chrome's controls, whereas iOS 4 makes more Safari controls accessible without such machinations. For example, Safari has a Forward button on all screens; it's buried in the Menu options on the Atrix.

Likewise, bookmarking, sharing pages via email, and switching among open Web pages require several steps in Android but not on the iPhone. I also really noted the lack of a .com button on the Atrix's touch keyboard when entering URLs; it's a significant timesaver on the iPhone. But the iPhone's separate Search and URL boxes are less convenient than the Atrix's unified URL and Search box; you have to be sure to tap the right box on the iPhone.

Both browsers let you select text on Web pages, but only the iPhone lets you select graphics. Both browsers also have settings controls over pop-up windows, JavaScript, cookies, history, cache, form data, passwords, and image loading. The Atrix's Chrome has a few additional controls, such as for opening pages in the background, while the iPhone's Safari has them for autofill, fraud warnings, and debugging.

Using the cloud-based Google Docs on either device is not a pleasant experience. It's barely possible to edit a spreadsheet; the most you can do is select and add rows, as well as edit the contents of individual cells. You can't edit a text document, and all you can do in Google Calendar is view and delete appointments.

Partly, that's because Google hasn't figured out an effective mobile interface for these Web apps; the Safari and Chrome browsers are simply dealing with what Google presents, rather than working through some front-end Google Docs app. It's also because the mobile Safari and Chrome browsers don't support all the capabilities their desktop counterparts do. (If you connect the Atrix to an external screen via its optional dock, you can then run the desktop version of Firefox, and thus be able to use Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365 as if you were on a PC.)

The winner: The iPhone, slightly, thanks to its easier UI and ability to copy Web images.

Deathmatch: Location support Both the iPhone and the Atrix support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. As noted earlier, the Atrix's Navigation app is better than the iPhone's Maps app when it comes to navigation while driving.

Although both the iPhone and the Atrix ask for permission to utilize your location information, the Atrix does not provide controllable settings for location use by the device or individual applications, as the iPhone does.

The winner: The Atrix, for its better navigation app.

Deathmatch: User interface It's often a throwaway comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, though it's not always true -- as the MobileMe service, for example, attests. But the iPhone's iOS 4 is in fact a better-designed UI in many respects, allowing for easier and faster access to the device's capabilities and information. The Atrix's Android OS outshines the iPhone in terms of UI through its widgets and notification capabilities, as previously mentioned.

Operational UI. I've noted earlier how the Atrix's Google Android OS 2.2 makes you click the Menu button and go through one or more levels of options to access most capabilities in its apps. This really slows operations, even though it is consistently implemented. Apple is smarter about bringing common capabilities to the top level of iOS apps' UIs, so they are accessible through a quick tap -- yet they don't clutter up the screen.

Another example of Google's poor UI choices: Devices have a Search button, but it's not always functional. If you press Search 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 have a search capability. Fortunately, the Home button always works.

The Android OS's Settings app can be confusing to use, and the white-on-black text makes it nearly impossible to use in bright daylight. 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. Apple's iOS doesn't let you confuse turning Wi-Fi on or off with selecting a network, thanks to a single location with clearly designated controls.

The good news is that pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, works equivalently on the Atrix's Android OS 2.2 and iPhone's iOS 4. For text entry, I find the iPhone's on-screen keyboard to be easier to use than the Atrix's, with clearer keys and better deployment of extra keys such as @ and .com in Web and email applications.

Motorola Mobility's MotoBlur UI overlay both hurts and improves the Atrix's Android experience. As I described earlier, MotoBlur adds quick access to folders in email accounts, but also prevents some email accounts from being properly configured to send email. The multiple email apps also create unnecessary confusion. And the nonstandard UI for displaying apps in MotoBlur was a superfluous change. Fortunately, MotoBlur's flaws are concentrated in these two areas (email and apps page access), and once you understand what's going on, you can operate the Atrix easily.

Text selection and copying. Where the Atrix's Android OS falls short compared to the iPhone's iOS is 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 typing a URL, it can be difficult to move the text cursor to that error's location in the text. 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 in text without opening that menu.

On the iPhone, you tap and hold where you want to insert the text cursor (sort of like using a mouse); a magnifier appears to help you move precisely to where you want to go. You then add and delete text at that location. Plus, the controls for text selection also appear, so you can use those if you'd like -- there's no worry about some screen-filling menu appearing.

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