I’m not new to iOS itself – I was an early iPad user, just like many millions of people. But, I’ve always had an Android phone. Eventually, primarily due to getting used to SwiftKey on Android, I could no longer really use the iPad and so, gave it to my mom. Of course, it is still an amazing device – but, I type too much to be content with the iOS keyboard!
But, lately, I’ve been itching to really understand the iOS vs Android experience and figured that I need to do it on the smaller screen. After debating if I really need another phone, I decided to compromise and just get the iPod Touch instead. WiFi connectivity is all that I need and it seemed to suffice for what I was looking to do with it.
It’s been a few days and I’ve been doing several side-by-side tests of the ‘i’ device and my ‘A’ device, which happens to be the Galaxy Nexus. I don’t particularly want to write about everything – there are numerous iOS-vs-Android studies out there that go to excruciating detail about each platform and I don’t need to repeat that. However, I did want to write about a few things near and dear to the user experience aspects I consider important.
Some apps that I did side-by-side tests on both the devices are Flipboard, Pinterest, Google+, GMail, Etsy, Pulse, Facebook, Instagram and Chrome.
First about what iOS gets right. When you use the device, you realize that everything in it on the hardware and software front has been designed towards a common goal – a slick user experience. The radios, the processors, the graphics, the memory and how the operating system interacts with each one of these components – it has all been polished and optimized for that single goal of enhanced user experience. This results in amazingly smooth animations, a flawless touch interface and a generally pleasurable experience.
Granted that it is not strictly an apples-to-apples comparison, but I have to say that in every single one of those apps, the iOS experience was better, evaluated on smoothness of scrolling, animations and speed. With WiFi state already active on both devices, a side-by-side test of Flipboard showed it loading and updating its content in <5s on the iOS and sometimes as much as 30s under the exact same WiFi at exactly the same time on the Android device. In fact, I could never get the Android Flipboard loads to happen in <15s in several tries, while the iOS was consistently <5s. The Facebook experience, putting aside the fact that the design elements still need work, was far smoother than my typical Android experience – on Android, the experience is extremely stuttery, photos take forever to load and it is overall, just frustrating! I found those elements were far smoother on the iOS – no stutter on scroll, loads quickly and the back stack operations are consistent. Most other apps had similar experiences – sadly, I thought that the G+ app on the iOS was smoother than that on Android! Pinterest is the one that comes closest on both platforms. It has no stutter on either platform and the load times are not so dramatically different – the Android side is still a few seconds slower – but it is not a factor of 4x different. It is more like 3-4s on iOS vs 6-7s on Android.
I want to be clear that several disclaimers are applicable for this A/B testing I did. My Galaxy Nexus has a cellular radio, for one and has a lot more going on than my iPod Touch has. Further, my Android is constantly running a brand new beta version of the OS and several beta apps. But, on the flip side, the iPod has an 800MHz processor, while the Nexus has a dual core 1.2GHz processor!
To talk about a few more things, the battery management on the iOS is done very well – even with heavy use, I couldn’t manage to drain the battery all that much. The battery on my Nexus is abysmal and I have to charge it multiple times a day. Although the cellular modem does drain a lot more, the iPod has a much smaller battery to its credit!
The sharpness of the display, the beautiful photos and the sleek aluminum frame are among the other things I really like about the iOS side. My Nexus, despite the fact that it has the same number of megapixels (5MP) as the iPod, takes rather inferior pictures.
Okay, now, before you write me off in the converted-to-ios-camp, let me talk about a few things I actually did not like about iOS. I can’t stop talking about the keyboard. In this world of predictive, gesture keyboards that I can use to type almost as fast as I can on a real keyboard, the iOS keyboard is excruciating! I’ve written about this before and I won’t say any more – but, it is a deal breaker. I would have to imagine that Apple is doing something about it very soon.
Next, there is one thing that Android got right – and it is the software architecture around intents. It is powerful and really allows applications to seamlessly share data. I often found myself in a corner when I wanted to share something from an app to someone over GMail or for that matter any other app. I am not a native iOS mail client user and hence, the share to email option in iOS is useless to me! The other options are equally useless – I was sometimes able to copy text and paste it in another app, but come on, that is painful! After a few times of trying to share an image from my gallery directly, I finally got the hang of having to go to GMail and clicking on attachments instead – but, that is not a good experience.
Of course, it never ceases to annoy me how content on YouTube (or other places) that is available on Android is just not available on the iOS. I have not figured out if this has to do with the different video/audio codec needs or something else, but, the exact same searches on YouTube will produce different results on iOS vs Android. And the latter is always richer, just to be clear!
There are a couple of other minor things – such as the lack of a back button on the phone and the apps losing state when I come back to the home screen and go back to them. But, I think this is just about getting used to one style vs another.
It is really hard to say conclusively why so many apps (almost all of them) fare so much better on the iOS. It may be because they are investing more on iOS than they are on Android – clearly, the extent of the gaps in the performance of the same apps is demonstrative of that. Pinterest, for one, has obviously narrowed the performance gap on the two platforms quite a bit. But, unfortunately, if it requires more effort to make that happen, that itself is a problem too! Aside from this aspect, I believe it also has something to do with the fundamental integrated hardware/software optimizations that Apple has done, the ease of programming using the iOS APIs and the simplicity-vs-options tradeoff that the platform has made, leaning more towards the simplicity part of it!
In a nutshell, the one thing that bugs me the most about iOS has more to do with Apple’s business decisions – such as not allowing third party keyboards or other content. The software architecture constraints that lead to sharing state across apps far more challenging is also a problem. These are definitely deal breaking issues for me that I will not be switching over to an iPhone any time soon! But, I definitely have to admit that integrated hardware/software approach that Apple takes comes with a distinct advantage when it comes to user experience. I long for the day when my Android will have as smooth an experience as the iOS – but, it is admittedly a lot harder to accomplish in an open and split ecosystem. Such is the tradeoff that naturally comes with accelerating innovation from the ecosystem at large. And I’d rather stay on that side – Android is definitely getting better and better at the experience and the gap is not that wide to regret it.
And as Android becomes more and more dominant, developers will take the efforts to create good experiences on it. I’m sticking to my Android – although I may dump my Nexus for the HTC One at some point!