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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Deathmatch: User interface

It's often a throw-away comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, and it's not always true (as the MobileMe service attests). But in mobile, iOS 4 is in fact a better designed UI, one that makes accessing capabilities and information easier and faster.

Operational UI. I've noted earlier how 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 it when, say, reading an e-mail, it does nothing. However, if you press it when viewing a contact, it does let 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 E-mail that have a search capability. Fortunately, the Home button always works.

Finally, Android'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.

On the other hand, 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 Android OS 2.2 and iOS 4.

HTC's Sense UI overlay makes Android behave more like iOS, so people who appreciate the elegance of the Mac OS or iOS should look to HTC's devices if they decide to go Android. For example, HTC's virtual keyboards are less error-prone than the standard Android OS because HTC has adjusted the sensitivity to tapping to account for the parallax factor -- the optical illusion caused by the layer of glass between your finger and the LCD. iOS does that as well.

Text selection and copying. Where Android really falls short in UI 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, you can't simply move the text cursor to that error's location in the text. You have to backspace to that point, erasing the text in between.

On iOS, 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.

Along these lines, copy and paste -- and even basic selection -- is often not available in Android OS 2.2. In some fields, tapping and holding brings up a contextual menu that lets you copy or paste the entire field's contents; in others you can't even do that. Although the browser lets you select and copy text, this ability is not universal. For example, you can't select text in e-mail messages.

In iOS, any textual item can be selected, and you can adjust specifically what text is selected by using little sliders. It's easy, intuitive, and universal.

The winner: iOS 4, by a mile. Android's poor text-handling features are inexcusable. People used to regular cell phones, BlackBerrys, and Palm OS devices will be thrilled with Android OS 2.2's UI; certainly, the friends and colleagues I showed Android to felt that way. But if you're familiar with the iOS or even Mac OS X, the Android UI will feel clunky and a bit awkward, as if you were being forced to use Windows or Linux.

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