Apple has been making small, iterative improvements to iOS over the years, but this time around it’s different. With the latest version, iOS 7, Cupertino has pulled out all the stops to rethink the way its mobile OS looks and behaves. Android has traditionally metamorphosed quickly, peeling off layers of awkwardness to become something truly usable. However, this trend is also reversing. Android hasn’t changed much in the last year with a few small bumps, all called Jelly Bean.
So is this Apple’s chance to level the playing field when it comes to features? Skeuomorphism is over, and users demand advanced features. Let’s take a look at how Android 4.3 and iOS 7 stack up.
Sharing is caring
Apple added AirDrop file sharing to OS X a while back, but now it’s coming to iOS. AirDrop is a way to easily send files between iOS devices over Wi-Fi. Two devices negotiate the file transfer over Bluetooth, then push files across Wi-Fi, which is much faster. Apple is clearly promoting this feature as a priority by giving it a prominent position in the Control Centre slide-up panel.
Apple will probably face some challenges with AirDrop early on as app developers slowly add support for it. Android’s sharing features are generally more robust than iOS, but definitely less consistent. Apps can easily plug into the universal Android sharing menu.
So what’s the parallel to AirDrop on iOS for Android? It’s called Beam. This is a feature that pushes files between devices by negotiating a connection via NFC. Simply tap two phones together, and you’re done.
Android 4.3 improved the stability and usability of Beam on supported devices, but some phones still have buggy NFC chips.
Unlike AirDrop, Beam doesn’t need Wi-Fi. The files are pushed directly from one device to the other with Bluetooth. It’s a bit slower, though.
Samsung has its own take on Beam called S Beam which uses Wi-Fi Direct to do the same thing, but much faster. This can be replicated on other Android devices with an app (Wi-Fi Direct is supported by Android).
This has long been a sore spot for iOS users, even after Apple relented and added limited multitasking way back in iOS 3. Double tapping the home button used to produce a small tray of app icons down at the bottom of the screen, but no more. With iOS 7, users get a big, scrollable carousel of screenshots for running apps. Closing apps in the old interface was a super-tedious process of long-pressing then tapping tiny flags in the corner. Now you can just swipe apps off the screen to close them.
The other side of multitasking is the way apps run in the background. Apple added a strictly prescribed form of app multitasking a few years ago, but it is expanding in iOS 7. Apps will be able to update in the background based on intelligent scheduling at the OS level. If you always use certain apps at certain times, iOS 7 could allow them to be ready in the background. That sounds great, if it works.
Android has always taken a laissez faire approach to multitasking. You want to run that app in the background? Cool, it’s done. Hit the home button? No problem, the app is still there. This has led to some battery life concerns in the past, but more recent versions of Android have improved matters. You definitely have more power with the Android system, but there is potential for apps to abuse this system.
Notifications and Control Centre
It’s no secret that Apple aped the Android notification shade when it created Notification Centre – it just didn’t do a very good job. With iOS 7, Apple is fixing thing up a lot. The pull-down is now organised into sections for Today, All, and Missed. The Today tab has a kind of Google Now vibe – showing the likes of weather, appointments, and stock updates. It certainly doesn’t do any of the cool predictive searching that Google Now does, though.
Android still has excellent notifications, but it goes a bit further than iOS 7. Android notifications are dynamic and can live update to display new information. Apps can produce expanded notifications with graphs, images, and other bits of data. There are also buttons that act as action triggers in notifications. However, notifications are just in one long list on Android. Clearing notifications is done with a swipe, which is easier than Apple’s two-tap solution. Lastly, Android will add important Google Now items to the notification bar, which is very handy. The notification situation is essentially universal on Android.
Apple is finally saving us from digging into the settings just to turn off Wi-Fi. Control Centre is a new slide-up panel in iOS 7 that has toggles for various radios, brightness control, playback controls, and app shortcuts. Android devices have various ways of doing the same things. Many Android handsets have Quick Settings, which has some toggles and shortcuts. Samsung has a toggle bar in the main notification shade, as well.
Control Centre improves things hugely, and it’s probably a match for Android’s approach to exposing settings. Well, if you ignore home screen widgets.
Camera and photos
Apple has been consistently in the lead when it comes to snapping pics, and iOS 7 doesn’t really do anything to threaten that. The camera app now has a lot more options like square format and slow motion capture. You can also apply live filters while taking pictures.
Android’s camera app is different on every phone. The stock 4.3 version is light on features, but it does have a vastly improved settings UI. Stock Android does have Photospheres, though, which are awesome. OEMs like Samsung and HTC have more modes and come closer to replicating Apple’s experience. While live filters aren’t on most Android devices, the Gallery app usually has the necessary editing features.
Modern UI controversy
Almost everyone agrees that it was time for Apple to rethink its UI approach – the digital green felt and leather stitching wasn’t working anymore. iOS 7 has done away with skeuomorphism on Apple’s mobile devices, instead favouring a flat, colourful look. Not everyone is happy with the look of iOS 7, though. It has caught some flak for being inconsistent and overusing the frosted glass effect.
Android 4.3 is just as much a chameleon as past versions. OEMs get to tweak the look and feel, and overlay their own features. It’s definitely not a consistent experience from one device to the next. Stock Android is a very good looking platform these days, though. It has a clean UI and the Holo design guidelines are applied rigorously in Google’s apps.
These two operating systems look more alike now than they ever have before. Android could be due for a big UI update when version 4.4 KitKat is finally unveiled, and that might turn the tables on Apple.
Apple’s iOS 7 is the biggest step it has taken in years. The features are being brought up to parity with Android in many cases, and the UI is at least something fresh and new. Of course, there’s one more important difference between iOS 7 and Android 4.3. Most iDevices will soon be running iOS 7, following its release late yesterday – whereas only the tiniest sliver of the Android ecosystem is on 4.3.