Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 5 vs. Google Android OS

How Google's tablet 'Honeycomb' and smartphone 'Gingerbread' OSes fare in the battle with iOS 5 on the iPad and iPhone

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Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts
If you look at the specs, Android (both "Gingerbread" and "Honeycomb") and iOS 5 appear evenly matched: Both can connect to Exchange, IMAP, POP, and Gmail accounts; make and synchronize appointments; and manage contacts. Both allow for "push" synchronization with Exchange. Both preserve your Exchange folder hierarchy for mail and make navigating among folders a snap. Both iOS and Android also try to autodetect your mail server settings wherever possible, though iOS is much better at handling nonvanilla settings.

Basic email usage. Android "Gingerbread" has a poorly chosen visual scheme for email lists: It uses white text on a black background, whereas iOS 5 and Android "Honeycomb" go for the easier-to-read, black-on-white color scheme. In sunlight, it's all but impossible to read the screen on an Android smartphone, while under the same conditions, an iOS device's or Android tablet's display of the email remains readable, if somewhat washed out. You won't be checking email on the beach with an Android smartphone.

I'm not a big fan of iOS's UI for mail, which iOS 5 leaves unchanged. There's a unified inbox for all your email accounts, then a separate list of your accounts so that you can go to their traditional hierarchy (for Exchange and IMAP accounts). I don't know why Apple had to break these into separate lists; for someone like me with four separate email accounts, the result is extra scrolling to switch accounts based on the mode I want to see. Android "Honeycomb" has a nicer arrangement whereby you see all your inboxes and can expand them in turn, rather than open them from a separate section of the main mail application window.

iOS 5 does bring in a very welcome capability to email not available in Android: the option to apply rich text formatting, including boldface, italics, underlining, and indentation. I only wish I could apply the character formatting while typing, such as through keyboard shortcuts or formatting buttons, rather than have to select the text first and then apply the formatting via the contextual menu.

The "Gingerbread" version of Android lets you view attachments in Microsoft Office and PDF formats, as well as the common Web graphics formats, but "Honeycomb" requires you to rely on a third-party app, such as the basic version of Quickoffice included with some tablets. "Gingerbread" shows an attachments list in your email, but "Honeycomb" makes you first tap the Attachments link to get a list of attachments and an option to view or save each one. iOS's native Quick Look viewer handles a nice range of formats (the same as Android, plus Apple's own iWork formats), and it opens attachments with one tap, even downloading them if needed at the same time. And, unlike Android tablets' Quickoffice, the iPad's Quick Look in iOS 5 gives you quick-nav icons of each page in a multi-page PDF.

iOS 5 -- still! -- doesn't open Zip files without the aid of a third-party app such as ZipBox Pro ($2) and Unzip ($1). For that matter, neither does Android "Honeycomb"; you need to use an app such as Quickoffice, though opening Zip files is a standard capability on Android "Gingerbread." Go figure.

Email management. Once you're in your folders, iOS is easy to use for most operations, such as deleting messages and moving them. And only iOS 5 lets you add and delete mailbox folders from your mobile device. Android's folder navigation in both "Gingerbread" and "Honeycomb" isn't exactly friendlier, but you don't have to wade through the double lists. On a smartphone, by default you get an all-message view in "Gingerbread" and iOS. If you want to go to a specific folder or see just the inbox, you must use iOS's navigation buttons at the top of the folder and account lists, whereas in "Gingerbread" you must click the Menu button and tap the Folders icon to get a list of folders. Both iOS 5 and Android "Honeycomb" take advantage of the larger tablet screen to make these controls visible in the mail message windows.

In both Android and iOS, you can easily search for mail, as well as reply to, forward, delete, and select multiple messages, though you can't select or deselect all messages. Android forces you to conduct your search from the OS's universal search facility; you can't search directly in the email client, as you can in iOS.

iOS 5 adds the ability to mark (flag) messages, which Android has done for some time. Android still does it better: It shows in your accounts list a section for flagged messages, so you can see them easily. By contrast, iOS 5 has no way to view just your flagged messages, reducing this feature's utility. (iOS 5's and Android's flagged messages appear as flagged in desktop clients that support the features.)

One continued beef I have with Android is that it uses a separate app for Gmail accounts -- an unnecessary division of labor.

Both iOS and Android remember the email addresses of senders you reply to, adding them to the database of contacts they look up automatically as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields. But Android has no quick access to your local address book, as iOS does. Both operating systems let you add email addresses to your contacts list by tapping them.

iOS provides a message-threading capability, which organizes your email based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicking to go through messages, but makes it easier to find the messages in the first place. (iOS lets you disable threading if you don't like it.) Android has no similar capability.

Android "Honeycomb" is a close second to iOS 5 when it comes to email capabilities, with iOS 5's integrated search and rich text formatting capabilities providing the edge, despite Android's better flagging capability. Android "Gingerbread" suffers from its ill-chosen, white-text-on-black color scheme, which makes email harder to read than it should be.

Contacts and calendars. You can easily switch calendar views in iOS in the main calendar screen, both on tablets and smartphones. Android "Honeycomb" also lets you easily switch the calendar view in the main screen with simple taps, but switching in Android "Gingerbread" requires using the Menu button's suboptions.

Both iOS and Android let you send invites to other users for non-Exchange calendars. In iOS, your invitations for Exchange accounts show up in your calendar as a pop-up; you can accept them there within the full context of your other appointments. For both Exchange and other email accounts, you can open the .ics invitation files in Mail, then add them to the calendar of your choice. On Android, the Calendar app automatically adds Exchange invitations to your calendar with Maybe status, which is not apparent until you open the appointment. You can open Exchange invitations in the Email app, as well as accept or decline the invitation. But you can't open .ics invitations sent to POP or IMAP accounts.

A nice addition in iOS 5 not available in Android is the ability to set the default alert intervals for calendar entries; there are separate settings for regular events (those with start and stop times), all-day events, and birthdays. Another new iOS 5 feature Android doesn't have is the ability to set the time zone for each appointment you add -- a very nice tool for those of us who travel across time zones or set phone conferences with people in other time zones and have difficulty figuring out how to translate the time to our current time zone or our calendar's default time zone. (iOS lets you specify a fixed time zone for your calendar or set it to change automatically to the current time zone as you travel.)

Both iOS and Android have capable Contacts apps, but it's easier to navigate through your entries in iOS. You can jump easily to names by tapping a letter, such as "T" to get to people whose last names begin with "T," or search quickly for someone in the Search field by tapping part of the name. On Android, a gray box appears as you begin scrolling your contacts list, and if you drag it, you can scroll through the letters of the alphabet that appear in the box to move to names beginning with that letter. It's not as simple as the iOS approach, and its "secret handshake" nature means many users won't know it exists. Also in Android "Honeycomb" and "Gingerbread," you can search your contacts if you click the Search button (or, in "Gingerbread," if you click the Menu button and then tap the Search icon).

In Android, you can also designate users as favorites, to put them in a shorter Favorites list. iOS's Favorites capability is different: You can designate a person's specific contact info -- say, a phone number or email address -- as a favorite, which puts it in the Favorites list in the iPhone's Phone app (if a phone number) or FaceTime app (if an email address). iOS's take on Favorites is useful for the iPhone, but not for the iPad or iPod Touch, especially because you can't see your list of favorites in Contacts or Mail.

iOS 5 lets you sync local calendars and local contacts from your desktop PC or Mac via iTunes if you connect the device via a USB cable or Wi-Fi -- or a over an Internet connection via a free iCloud account. That way, you can get your Outlook or Address Book contacts into your device easily and even keep them in sync with your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. Server-based contacts (and calendars and email addresses) are of course synced through the relevant server: Exchange, Google, and so on.

Android has no such local syncing capability; you must sync through a Gmail account -- a no-no for many corporations -- or, for Exchange data only, through an Exchange account. You can import and export contacts to an Android device via an SD card (if it supports external storage), so you could export your computer's contacts to a file and then move it to an SD card -- a fine work-around for initial setup but not for ongoing synchronization.

Where iOS falls surprisingly short is in its lack of support for creation of groups. It supports email groups created on your computer or available on your server, but you can't create them on an iOS device. Also, you can't pick a group in iOS's Mail address fields. Instead, you select a group, then open it up to select just one member, repeating this step to add more names -- a really dumb approach. What you can do in iOS is link contact cards to create virtual groups; for example, if you have separate entries for a couple, you can link their cards so that each person's contact information appears in both of their cards.

Android "Honeycomb" both supports groups and lets you create them, though the process is unintuitive: When you add or edit a contact, there's a field in which you can select or create a group. You can't start by creating a group, then adding contacts to it; instead you have to go to each contact in turn. Also, the groups capability is not available for Exchange-based contacts. And you can't send email to groups, so this feature has little value. "Gingerbread" doesn't support groups at all.

Corporate email, contacts, and calendar support. Android "Gingerbread" is significantly inferior to iOS 5 when it comes to corporate email capabilities. That's mostly because "Gingerbread" supports a very limited set of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies, so most corporate Exchange environments are unlikely to permit access. The biggest omission is support for on-device encryption, which is a basic EAS requirement. You can tell Exchange to ignore such policy misses, but that lets any noncompliant device onto the Exchange server -- not a viable option for most businesses.

If you want to use an Android smartphone on a secured Exchange server, you'll need to use a client app such as NitroDesk TouchDown that provides a secured EAS-compatible Outlook-style functions or a mobile device management (MDM) server/client combo. The beta Divide app from Enterproid looks very promising for such management: It creates a separate "partition" on Android with its own EAS-managed email, contacts, calendar, tasks, and messaging apps, so corporate and user environments are kept separate. Plus IT can wipe and set EAS policies on the Divide environment, in the same way TouchDown allows within its app despite the lack of native Android support for those policies. Divide is expected to ship in 2012. Also in 2012, Google subsidiary 3LM will offer on-device encryption and richer EAS policy support to device makers as essentially an add-on layer to the Android OS, so special client software won't be needed for devices using it. Already, Motorola Mobility offers smartphones with such added security.

iOS, by contrast, has all of this baked in, so there is no special software needed nor any waiting required; it's securable now.

Unlike Android "Gingerbread," Android "Honeycomb" does support on-device encryption (though setup is a pain, as I describe later); it easily connected to InfoWorld's corporate server and passed our Exchange ActiveSync policies. I particularly like how "Honeycomb" let me know specifically what permissions I was granting IT over the device -- details not provided by iOS 5. Overall, iOS 5 has a slight edge in Exchange policy support over Android "Honeycomb," but both should work natively in moderately secured Exchange environments.

Also, Android doesn't let you automatically sync Exchange folders; you have to go to each folder and manually update them. By contrast, iOS lets you designate which folders are automatically synced as part of the mail settings.

Both iOS 5 and Android integrate Exchange contacts into their mail apps, so they look at your Exchange contacts database as well as your local database when you enter a person's name in a To or Cc field. (Of course, for Android smartphones, this assumes your Exchange server welcomes noncompliant devices.) Neither iOS nor Android automatically puts Exchange contacts into their Contacts app; you have to add them manually from within an email. This is not a bad thing; it means that departing employees don't have your entire company contacts database on their mobile device, and it keeps the Contacts app from being filled with contacts a user probably doesn't need.

Both iOS and Android support multiple Exchange accounts.

If you use Lotus Notes, you can work with IBM's Lotus Notes Traveler app on iOS or Android if you're also running the Notes 8.5.1 server with the Traveler extensions. Novell likewise offers EAS support for its GroupWise email client via the Data Synchronization Mobility Pack server add-on, allowing access to iOS and Android devices. Again, Android "Gingerbread" access is limited by its small set of supported EAS policies.

The winner: iOS 5, though Android "Honeycomb" comes fairly close overall. But Android smartphone users are very much out of the corporate loop due to the poor native EAS support and lack of on-device encryption in "Gingerbread."

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