Beauty and the geek: Windows Phone 'Mango' vs. Android

Microsoft's mobile OS reboot turns out to be a small update that lacks enterprise security and rich apps but is a cleaner alternative to Google's Android for smartphones

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Windows Phone 7.5 vs. Android 2.3: User interface
The difference between Windows Phone and Android is stark when it comes to the user interface. The Metro UI in Windows Phone is clean, elegant, simple, and inviting -- you quickly figure out how to do things in it. By contrast, the Android "Gingerbread" UI is messy, confusing, and awkward. The more I use it, the less I like it. Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" promises a major overhaul, but the demos shown by Google indicate it may be prettier and more consistent, but not simpler.

But Windows Phone's simpler UI reflects its simpler capabilities; it's hard to imagine how the "Mango" UI could handle sophisticated, multilevel interactions, for example.

Operational UI. Windows Phone is highly consistent in navigating -- swipe to the right for more, and press the More icon button for features not displayed. Android relies much more on its bevy of hardware and icon buttons for navigation, and less on gestures, so you do a lot of finger punching for your appointed tasks. Windows Phone's spare design hides more capabilities from the user than Android, though, so you're more likely to turn to its More icon button than the Android Menu hardware button. However, Android apps are inconsistent in this regard.

Android smartphones have a Search button, but it's not always functional. If you press it when, say, reading an email, it does nothing. However, if you press it when viewing a contact, it lets 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 Email that are searchable. Fortunately, the Home button always works. By contrast, Windows Phone's Search button does just one thing wherever you are: Open the Bing search engine as its own app.

I have two big beefs with Windows Phone's UI, despite how much easier I think it is overall than Android's:

  • Windows Phone consistently uses thin, small text that most adults will not be able to read without reading glasses. Worse, it favors low-contrast text display (such as gray-and-white) in everything from its on-screen keyboard to its email messages. Where it doesn't do that, it uses thin colored text on black backgrounds. Both are fundamental design no-nos that a company claiming to be as heavily invested in ergonomics research as Microsoft does should never have allowed. I initially thought older folks who want a simple messaging device, not an app-heavy minicomputer like an iPhone, would be the perfect audience for Windows Phone devices -- but they won't be able to see what they're doing beyond the top-level menus.
  • Windows Phone's tiles and lists fill up the screen really fast, and it becomes burdensome to find them in the ever-longer vertical scrolls that result. In effect, Windows Phone makes you stick to a few core functions, whereas Android's junkier interface at least gives you ways to organize a larger set of capabilities so that you can actually use them.

Both Windows Phone and Android have voice-command capabilities: The microphone icon in various Android apps lets you issue commands or enter text, but it's inconsistently deployed and often does things outside the current app's context. It's a bit of a puzzle figuring out how to use it. Windows Phone's voice command is universal: Long-tap the Start hardware button and it asks you to issue a command. Problem is, "Mango" could rarely understand what I said, whereas "Gingerbread" was much more accurate.

Android "Honeycomb" is less awkward to use than "Gingerbread," as it takes advantage of the tablet's larger screen. But so does iOS on the iPad.

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