Mobile OS deathmatch: Apple iOS 4 vs. Android 2.2

As the mobile battle narrows, the iPhone finally faces a real challenger

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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.

In the Android Market, you're much more likely to not find an app you want than is the case in the Apple App Store. Of course, you don't have to use the Android Market to get Android apps. If you want to get down and dirty, you can "root" the Android OS to install apps from other sources. It's not quite as drastic as jailbreaking an iPhone, but is in fact a hack.

Multitasking. Until iOS 4, the lack of multitasking was a common criticism of Apple's mobile OS. That has sort of changed: Apps need to be multitasking-enabled in iOS 4 (otherwise, they stop working when you switch to another app as before), and Apple has limited the types of capabilities that can run in the background. By contrast, Android supports full multitasking, whereby default apps continue to run in the background when you take care of other duties.

Very few iOS apps have been multitasking-enabled, so it's hard to judge Apple's implementation. On the other hand, there aren't many Android apps that remain running in the background, either. In my usage, I found no issues relating to memory management with multiple apps running on either platform.

Some iOS users, however, have reported problems with app switching and app loading on the old iPhone 3G model with iOS 4 installed, which seems related to that device's lack of multitasking support. (Apple says iOS 4's multitasking is available only on the iPhone 3G S, iPhone 4, and third-generation iPod Touch, with iPad support planned for release this fall. Some older devices can run iOS 4 but will have multitasking automatically disabled, Apple says.)

The major difference related to multitasking is the UI for switching among apps. On iOS 4, 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. In Android OS 2.2, you have to drill down several levels in Settings to see which apps are active; that list is littered with various Google services that are also running. This Running Services view really isn't meant for daily usage.

App management. Android also makes managing apps a little more work than in iOS 4. Android reserves the home screen for a few preinstalled apps, then lets you add other apps to it by tapping-and-holding and then dragging app icons to the desired location on the home screen, one at a time.

Getting to those apps is where there's extra work: You press a grid icon at the bottom of the screen to get the full set of installed apps. Fortunately, copying apps to the home screen is easy, but the modal switch is still annoying. By contrast, iOS 4 simply adds more home screens as you add apps and easily lets you arrange them by dragging them. (You can't rearrange apps in Android's app screen, just on its home screen.)

iOS also lets you add Web pages to the home screens as if they were apps -- that's great for the many mobile Web pages that are essentially Web apps, such as Android can add bookmarks only to its browser's bookmarks list.

iOS 4 added the ability to create app folders, which can be useful to reduce scrolling among home pages. Unfortunately, the folder icons are too small to make out, so knowing what's in a folder is not always easy. Android has no folder capability.

Both operating systems alert you to app updates and let you download them wirelessly; iOS 4 also lets you manage apps and update them via iTunes, so they are backed up to your computer.

The winner: iOS 4, but not by much. Its app catalog is large, but mainly as a function of its installed user base. The Android Market is slower than the Apple App Store, and the UI for managing and working with apps is clunkier in Android than in iOS 4 -- a common theme in Android. But most users will quickly adjust to each operating system's approach.

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