Mobile OS Showdown: Android, iOS, and Windows Phone Compared

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Photography

One thing these platforms all have in common is the ability to take pictures and shoot video — although there are not-so subtle differences in how each platform rises to this challenge.

Android 5.0 camera app

Android 5.0 camera app

Despite the insanely large megapixel count and superior optics found on high-end Nokia Lumia devices, Apple’s iPhone is widely considered the best overall smartphone for photos — if nothing else, it continues to be the most popular device on image-centric social networks like Flickr.

Apple answered the prayers of mobile shutterbugs everywhere with iOS 8, bulking up the built-in Camera app with additional image editing options and filters that can be applied one day and removed the next. The more exciting news is that third-party developers can now make their own app tools available in the default Photos app, and even access images directly from the Camera Roll.

Though improved, Android continues to offer the weakest built-in options, a relatively basic set of features with few notable differentiating features like Photo Sphere and Lens Blur. That situation improves dramatically when it comes to tweaking images after they’re taken, though, with a wide range of filters and other editing functionality that dwarfs the comparatively skimpy tools available on iPhone.

Thankfully, OEMs like Samsung, HTC, and others have either skinned or completely replaced the stock Android camera app with one of their own, so your individual experience varies wildly depending upon who manufactured your smartphone.

Windows Phone devices have historically offered a major plus for mobile shutterbugs thanks to the inclusion of a dedicated hardware shutter button — but this advantage has been cast aside with some recent devices such as the HTC One (M8) for Windows. Windows Phone otherwise features a richer camera experience than competitors.

Search

iOS 8.2 Spotlight

iOS 8.2 Spotlight

Back in the days of the original iPhone, search was primarily app-specific, confined to the likes of Mobile Safari, Maps, or YouTube. Once third-party apps were added to the mix, however, discoverability became an issue as users began installing more and more apps.

Not surprisingly, Android attacked the problem right out of the gate, courtesy of a dedicated Google Search app capable of pulling up Internet results, contacts, events, and data from other built-in apps. By Android 5.0, a search field became front and center across the top of the launcher, while a more robust Google Now experience is only a swipe away.

Apple went the opposite way, moving Spotlight from a separate page at left to now being hidden until summoned with a downward swipe on the home screen. The mobile version of its all-encompassing Mac OS X search tool, Spotlight is capable of turning up content from the company’s own App Store, iTunes, and iBooks stores, Wikipedia listings, nearby places, suggested websites, and movie showtimes, along with finding and opening apps installed on a device with just a tap.

With Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft has chosen to consolidate search into a single place, now powered by a virtual assistant known as Cortana. A search button resides in the lower right corner adjacent to the Start button, but this option does far more than accept simply text queries, as we’ll discover in a moment.

Virtual Assistants

iOS 8.2 Siri

iOS 8.2 Siri

Expanding upon Android’s fledgling Voice Search functionality, Apple became first to introduce virtual personal assistant technology to smartphones. Originally offered as a third-party artificial intelligence app prior to Cupertino acquiring the technology, Siri (Scandinavian for “beauty”) made its public beta premiere with the release of the iPhone 4S in 2011.

That inauspicious debut wound up bringing Apple more press for what Siri couldn’t do than what it was actually capable of, but by iOS 8, the virtual girl Friday has largely found her sea legs and now interacts with nearly every nook and cranny of the operating system.

Siri is called up by holding down the home button, at which point the user speaks their request and waits as the software fetches answers, recommendations, or other data. The technology can be used for more than just voice search, with Siri capable of retrieving turn-by-turn directions, taking memos and reminders, and providing weather forecasts.

Nearly a year after the introduction of Siri, Google Now debuted with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, eventually spreading its wings to the desktop Google Chrome web browser and even the company’s official iOS app. Google Now presents information as a series of cards, intelligently predicting what users might want to see next, based upon recent activity. (For example, a restaurant search in Google Maps becomes a card with turn-by-turn directions to that location.)

Cards can also contain flights and boarding passes plucked from Gmail, entertainment content based on user interests, location-based reminders, and package tracking for products purchased with Google Wallet. True to its roots, search can be initiated without typing — saying “OK Google” while the device is unlocked prompts the software to listen for additional voice commands.

Windows Phone 8.1 Cortana

Windows Phone 8.1 Cortana

That brings us full circle, back to Microsoft’s own impressive entry to the virtual assistant space. Named after the artificial intelligence character from the popular videogame series Halo, Cortana remains in beta with the release of Windows Phone 8.1 as a replacement for the woefully underpowered Bing Search.

At first launch, Cortana conducts a brief interview to learn about your interests and lifestyle, tailoring search results with more relevant information. This data is collected into a virtual notebook that can be called up or customized any time from the upper right corner of the app.

Like Siri, Cortana can be used to initiate phone calls, send text messages, and set up reminders, but goes several steps beyond Apple’s personal assistant with the ability to create contact-based reminders, so you’ll never again forget to congratulate a friend on an accomplishment, for example.

Cloud Storage

Android, iOS, and Windows Phone all come with the built-in ability to store files in the cloud, but not all of these platforms approach this functionality in the same way.

Apple’s iCloud Drive, for one, can only be accessed from iOS 8 devices, Mac or Windows computers, and web browsers, which somewhat limits its utility for cross-platform users. Apple only offers a measly 5 GB of free data, with paid upgrades available in several tiers up to 1 TB maximum.

iCloud Drive tends to be rigid about storing content, which can only be done from apps that have such support enabled in the first place. On iOS, iCloud Drive is accessed from app-specific folders, many of which are cordoned off in some apps. Thankfully, Apple’s iCloud backup, sync, and iCloud Photo Library largely live up to the company’s legendary “set it and forget it” reputation.

Windows Phone 8.1 OneDrive

Windows Phone 8.1 OneDrive cloud storage

Android and Windows Phone take a more open and refreshingly platform agnostic approach. Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive apps are available on all three platforms, along with web browsers and the desktop — with both offering a far more generous 15 GB of free storage, and the potential for unlimited storage. (One of several nice perks for OneDrive users who pay for annual Microsoft Office 365 Home subscriptions.)

Naturally, Google Drive and OneDrive are most at home in their native environments, where files can be opened, saved, and shared directly from connected cloud storage accounts as easily as they can be from the device itself. Compared to iCloud Drive, the Android and Windows Phone equivalents feel like they were meant to be there, rather than simply checking off missing “me too” functionality.

Mobile Payments

When it comes to ditching physical wallets in favor of paying with a smartphone, Google can rightfully shout “First!” in an increasingly crowded arena. Made possible by the inclusion of a near-field communication chip on Android devices, Google Wallet allows shoppers to pay by placing their phones against point-of-sale terminals without ever having to pull a wallet out of their pocket or purse.

Android and Windows Phone users had a similar option with the competing Softcard (formerly ISIS Mobile Wallet), but a recent partnership with Google Wallet effectively shut down that fledgling service. Microsoft built tap-to-pay functionality into its own Wallet app on Windows Phone 8, but relies on support from third-party services to make it useful. (The untimely departure of Softcard leaves the platform without any real equivalent to Google Wallet at this writing.)

Unfortunately, being first doesn’t always mean being the best, and Apple came out swinging in late 2014 with Apple Pay, an improved version of NFC-based technology now standard on iPhone 6 models. Apple Pay does contactless payments one better by increasing security without sacrificing convenience — iPhone owners simply hold a finger over the home button during a transaction without the need to unlock the device.



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