In the first part of our Ware Wars II series of articles, we took an in-depth look at how the user interface of the latest iterations of the three major mobile operating systems stacked up, casting a critical eye over design tweaks, aesthetics and new aspects of functionality introduced by each. Today sees us take a similar approach, this time focusing on a category that may well seem vague in name, but actually encapsulates a wide reaching number of features introduced by the new versions of iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Read on to see how ‘general functionality’ of the new OS iterations fare in Ware Wars II (Part 2)…
To the casual observer, it may well seem that Apple is entrenched in its ways and hasn’t really tinkered with the tried and tested formula that has made the OS so popular. However, after a few minutes spent exploring the platform, it becomes evident that a few subtle but important changes have been implemented, perhaps most notably in the form of the improvements made to voice-activated digital assistant and main selling-point of the iPhone 4S, Siri.
Making its début on the iPhone 4 successor almost exactly a year ago, Siri did capture the imagination of the smartphone-buying public (well, those of an Apple persuasion at least), but once the initial excitement died down, attracted some criticism due to its territorial bias resulting in only being able to provide answers pertaining to the US (where Apple’s servers are ostensibly based).
However, this situation looks to have been remedied by iOS 6 with Siri now able to pull data from even more sources and provide realtime sports scores. Whilst there’s still room for improvement, the fact that users in the UK can now complete tasks such as searching for restaurants and making a reservation, coupled with Siri’s new-found ‘Eyes Free’ ability to interface with car audio and navigation systems, makes iOS 6 a much more attractive proposition.
Also new to iOS 6 is a Do Not Disturb feature, which when activated, will silence incoming calls and alerts when the device is locked and send a notification in the form of a moon icon in the status bar. This useful function can be scheduled for specific times, and users can also selectively filter which contacts breach the defence against unwanted interruptions, as well as specify whether repeated calls override the settings.
Social networking integration has had somewhat of a shot in the arm too and is now more deeply embedded within the OS, most evident in the provision for updating Facebook statuses and tweet directly from the notifications area, not to mention from within many apps. In fact, Apple has even lessened its grip on APIs so that more third-party developers can effectively ‘bake’ in this functionality to the apps they produce.
Apple has also stepped up browser integration within iOS 6 and it now features iCloud Tabs, going some way to unify browsing across the eco-system of iOS and OS X devices. Whilst this is definitely a step in the right direction, the iCloud Tabs do not offer a full cloud browser solution in which a consistent tabbed view is offered across all iDevices, presenting a list of tabs tucked behind an icon or sub-menu, alongside saved bookmarks.
Perhaps the biggest bugbear with iOS 6 however is the Cupertino company’s approach to maps and navigation. Following a much-publicised dumping of Google Maps – a decision pithily described by Dialaphone writer Andy Boxall as part of a “Googlectomy” performed by Apple in iOS 6 – new mapping technology courtesy of sat nav exponents TomTom and Open Street Maps has been incorporated into iOS 6. Whilst the new service offers traffic updates, turn-by-turn navigation and 3D maps (iPhone 4s and upwards only), a lack of public transport info and anything resembling Google Maps’ Street View is a bone of contention.
The introduction of Air Play signals Apple’s intend to develop its closed eco-system even further and allows users to push media from their computer to other iOS devices to AirPlay-approved speakers, Apple TV and AirPort Express routers, and Apple TV, but this sadly isn’t extended to other non-Apple devices. An absence of NFC capabilities also blots iOS 6′s copybook, although the Passbook functionality, which currently gathers tickets, reward cards, debit/credit card details, as well as serving notifications about location-specific deals and flight times, could well be extended to include mobile payments in the not too distant future.
Android Jelly Bean
Google has taken measures to pull together the often fragmented nature of the functionality offered by Android in its latest version and perhaps the most prominent example of this comes in the form of increased speed. Whereas other iterations of Android are hampered in terms of swiftness of operation owing to the various pieces of ‘bloatware’ added by manufacturers and the varying specs of the devices running the OS. However, thanks to Google’s ‘Project Butter’, the way in which the bare bones of the platform operate has been streamlined meaning that users now benefit from increased frame rates and improved graphical performance.
This general slickness is enabled by ‘Vsync’ (vertical synchronisation) which increases the frame rate to 60fps, ensuring smooth transitions across every inconceivable graphical element that the Android OS deals with by coordinating everything from application rendering, screen composition, and display refresh into a 16 millisecond Vsync ‘heartbeat’. In layman’s terms, this means that frames (every visible image per second) don’t lag behind or lurch ahead, resulting in smooth, streamlined visual performance.
Project Butter also benefits the user experience in terms of responsiveness, anticipating where users will place a finger on the screen and gearing whatever action that command will invoke to load faster. This works in conjunction with the aforementioned Vsync and significantly reduces the time it takes for animations and transitions to whirr into action by pre-empting where contact with the touchscreen will be made at the time of the screen refresh. As an aside, Android is configured to lower processor speed during periods of inactivity to conserve battery charge, but Project Butter instigates a CPU ‘input boost’ when contact is next made with the screen thus ensuring that the processor is working at the correct level ahead of the next touch gesture.
Other benefits to the user experience come in the form of improve speech recognition. Whilst Google has included voice search and dictation in some form across its OS, consistency of performance across different iterations and device varied wildly. Jelly Bean however looks to ramp up this sketchy performance somewhat by giving the feature the ability to call upon Google’s Knowledge Graph – which, according to its creator represents “the critical first step towards building the next generation of search, which taps into the collective intelligence of the web and understands the world a bit more like people do”. Voice recognition has also been dramatically improved and voice search now recognises voice input even while offline. Similarly, the new sound search function adds an extra dimension to search functionality by providing a music recognition service in the same vein as the well-established Shazam. Text-to-speech is also dramatically improved.
Android Beam has also come in for some extending of functionality and now supports video sharing alongside the usual contacts, YouTube videos, weblinks, photos and directions. Whereas this function has in the past been touted as a key selling point by manufacturers producing devices running the previous Android version, the feature didn’t seem to catch the imagination as perhaps hoped owing to incompatibility issues between devices. That said, Android Beam is unable to share bigger files with devices running Ice Cream Sandwich, and attempting to do so only results in an error message warning that large file transfers are not supported.
Security concerns with the Face Unlock feature introduced with Android 4.0 have also been addressed with Jelly Bean’s introduction of Blink Detect, an extra measure which sees the function ask users to blink their eyes to confirm they are an actual human being, as opposed to a static image. Google also manages to match Apple in terms of inherent accessibility options thanks to a new Gesture Mode in Jelly Bean which allows blind and partially sighted users to navigate the UI with only touch and speech output.
Windows Phone 8
As is the case with iOS, Winodows Phone 8 manages to usher in several changes under the radar with Microsoft obviously adhering to the belief that many little alterations soon add up and are ultimately more effective than a rash overhaul. We covered the subtle yet meaningful tweaks to the platform’s sumptuous UI in the first part of the Ware Wars II trilogy of articles, and it seems that this stealthy approach to alteration has permeated throughout the rest of the OS too. Perhaps the most noticeable element of the platform – when compared to the piecemeal nature of those that preceded it – is that any rennovation in terms of functionality looks to have been undertaken with the incubating of Microsoft’s eco-system in mind.
This overarching influence is only too evident when looking at features such as the Game Hub which houses Xbox Live integration, Xbox Music and is closely aligned with Microsoft’s latest digital media enhancing tech , Xbox SmartGlass. Windows Phone 7 was slightly lacklustre when it came to gaming and although the Redmond tech giant attempted trade on its standing in the console arena by overtly branding the feature with the Xbox livery, what was being offered was some way off an authentic Xbox experience.
In Windows Phone 8 however, some measures have been taken to bring the two experiences together, most notably the decision to use the same native code (C++) that forms the basis of the desktop OS the mobile platform is so closely aligned with. This could well prove a shrewd move by Microsoft as it will allow developers to create and port apps, and more importantly, games to the OS, meaning that the same titles (or at least approximations of them) can be enjoyed on the small screen.
Xbox SmartGlass goes even further towards bridging that gap too and via an app, turns a Windows Phone handset (or tablet) into a second screen from which users/players/watchers can glean extra content pertaining to whatever it is that is being imbibed via the big screen, and in some instances, allows the phone to be utilised as a secondary controller.
If we were pushed to pick out one particular area which encapsulates Microsoft’s desire to present a united front across its eco-system it would be Windows Phone 8′s native browser; IE10 – the very same as appears on Windows 8. Not only does this lend itself to engendering the same look and feel as its desktop counterpart, but its inclusion also brings oft-missed functionality such as multitouch pich-to-zoom, find-in-page search, both of which are long overdue additions to the Microsoft mobile experience.
Having considered the approach taken towards user interfaces and surveyed a broad range of expected functions from each OS it’s clear to see that not one mobile platform has dramatically pulled away from the others in terms of what is offered. Whilst it would be reasonable to decree this rundown unfair as a result of our decision to eschew direct comparison between corresponding features, the intention is to provide a broad overview of distinguishing aspects of functionality away from the banal email/camera/messaging elements which have previously been explored in more general articles produced which examine operating systems.
The concluding part of Ware Wars II will be published on the Dialaphone blog tomorrow and will take in unique features and innovations specific to iOS 6, Android Jelly Bean, and Window Phone 8. Be sure to check back then to find out which of the new mobile platform iterations can claim the most innovative features.