Breaking Down the Signal – The Android, iOS, and WebOS Comparison

There’s no shortage of criticism, complaint, or praise of the various mobile operating systems. The iPhone, Android, the Pre, or even Blackberry and Windows Mobile – no matter which phone you review you’re bound to find someone who either absolutely loves the device they own or completely hates those that do. I tried to make this known in my previous article on my preference towards iPhone, stating the features I liked about it and showing why, despite connectivity issues I thought it was the best phone I’ve tried. I thought it was worth stepping back even further though.

I realized very quickly after my previous article that nothing I said was going to sway those that had already made the Android choice, or the Pre/WebOS choice, to switch back to the iPhone. So I decided not to fight it – here I’m going to take some time showing you the different devices I’ve spent significant time with, what I liked about them, and what they lacked.  Then I’ll let you make the choice on what phone works best for you.  You might notice there aren’t many articles like this – that’s because they take a lot longer to write and involve a lot more research.  This one is no exception.

The Experiment

I’ll admit, my experiment wasn’t the most scientific one could muster.  But I will tell you I own 3 phones currently.  The first, my work phone, a Palm Pre, which I’ve now owned since March.  Secondly, is Apple’s iPhone 4, my main phone where I forward most of my calls now, and recently replaced an iPhone 3GS (my wife having previously owned the iPhone 3G).  Lastly, I have the HTC Evo, a test phone I borrowed for a month or so from work so I could understand Android better.  My hope was to try to play with the Android products my employer creates in order to design and build Social architecture and end-points into that experience (which is what I do for a living).  I am also forwarding all my calls to that phone, through Google Voice.  In addition to that, I have access to a Droid Incredible which gets passed around at work, as well as a Blackberry, which I admit I’ve never really touched (nor do I have much desire to play with – I’ll leave that for others to review).

So, the three phones I put to the test were the iPhone 4, the HTC Evo, and the Palm Pre.  The minimum amount of time I’ve used any of them has been 2 weeks (the Evo, just barely newer than the iPhone 4).  I have carried each for a significant amount of time, playing with them, answering calls, making calls, and trying to get to know the features.  I’ve also been trying to get to know the development environments of each as I try to learn the advantages to each development environment.  I think I’ve given each phone a fair amount of time to try to have a good understanding.  So let’s go into the features, and I’ll let you be the judge:

Palm Pre

Hardware Features:

Let’s face it, the Palm Pre just feels good.  When you hold it, it naturally feels good in  your hand.  Being one of the only mainstream Smartphone devices with a keyboard, I admit that’s an advantage, not a weakness.  I have yet to find an on-screen keyboard that you can type on and know what keys you’re typing without looking at the phone.  With the Pre, you can almost do that.  The Pre, when you slide it open to reveal the keyboard (without, it just looks like a smooth eggshell), has a mirror that you can use to either look at yourself, or see yourself if you need to take a picture of yourself.

The Pre doesn’t have a front-facing camera, and the rear-facing camera is far from what the Evo or iPhone 4 can provide.  The other failing part of the Pre is that due to its plastic casing it wears down after about a year or so.  I have several friends all with Pres and each one of their phones after a year or so starts to show a lot of wear, and even issues when sliding the case open and shut.  That’s part of the problem, the more moving parts you have.

The battery on the Pre is also pretty good.  With little use, you should be able to get away with charging it only ever other day or so.  Using it as a hotspot, you’ll have to charge it much more frequent.  It definitely lasts much longer than my Evo.

As for signal, Sprint in general provides a pretty good signal.  The building I work at has repeaters throughout so it’s a tough comparison, but at home I haven’t had many issues, and even taking to the Bay area I always treat it as my backup phone because I know I can always guarantee a signal there.  The Pre is a pretty reliable phone, in terms of hardware.

The other thing I really like about the Pre is you can also purchase the charging stone that works with it.  With that, you can simply place the phone on the stone and it charges, without any need for connecting wires.  This saves countless charging cords and keeps its smooth look as you don’t have to open the little charger opening on the device.

The Operating System:

The Pre is hands-down the most beautiful operating system out there right now.  Even Steve jobs gave note to it in their recent press conference.  The Pre has just one button (other than the default volume controls and mute switch), which shows you all the programs open at once when you press it.  However, it also has a gesture where if you swipe backwards, it always goes back to the previous screen you were on, and if you swipe forwards, it goes forward to the next screen.  This works in applications as well.

Let’s not forget that the Pre and WebOS was the first operating system to support true multi-tasking on the phone.  Even today its interface is the one that seems to make the most sense.  At any time you just press the main button on the phone and all your open applications pop up as windows on the phone.  If you want to go to one you just select it.  Want to surf through the open applications? Just swipe left or right and you can see all the open “screens” for your applications.  If you want to close any, just swipe the screen up and the application gets flung off the canvas, closed forever.  It’s a very natural interface that anyone can get used to.

As for the rest of the operating system, well, it’s all based on Linux so it’s very open and very customizable.  I have a friend who completely removed his default browser and other apps in the phones he gave to his kids so they couldn’t access the internet.  It’s that open.

They’ve taken developers to heart, and even enabling “developer mode” on the phone is a matter of just typing in the Konami code (“upupdowndownleftrightleftrightbastart”) in the search bar.  Doing so enables a whole host of features, enabling you to get access to a shell and the heart of the phone.  There is also an entire “homebrew” community of applications not officially in Palm’s app store that you can easily install on your phone.  My coworker even showed me how to view the source code on these applications – the entire experience is very open to the very core, something not quite the same as Android, also Linux-based.

With developer mode enabled you can also enable tethering on the phone.  Searching for it reveals all sorts of articles on the subject, not requiring much effort.  The great thing about it is neither Palm nor Sprint seem to object to the hack and openly encourage the homebrew apps such as tethering.  The entire experience is, well, beautiful.

Applications:

As I mentioned, the entire application experience on the Pre is a very open experience.  Palm makes the entire developer SDK free (normally $99 to closed-source apps) to developers willing to developers willing to make their code open source.  Developers of such apps are then required to release their code to the community under open source terms they specified.

The application experience, while not quite as consistent as the iPhone’s (iOS), still makes fairly nice apps.  With the surrounding OS, they still look beautiful – the OS makes everything on the phone look beautiful, so ugly or not, the application should not affect the overall experience.

The main problem I saw with applications on the Pre was the lack of them.  While in general, I was able to find something for every need I had, the main vendors weren’t always producing my favorite apps for the phone.  Things like TomTom, Sling, and others may not ever provide apps for the phone, so the high quality apps may never make it unless there is a viable amount of competition.

In addition, because the Pre no longer supports iTunes (previously they had found a hack to be able to make iTunes recognize the phone), there is no default music player for the device.  Therefore if you’ve bought all your music on iTunes you’re out of luck syncing with it.  It does work well with solutions like DoubleTwist, so there are alternatives, and I didn’t find the lack of iTunes support to be that big of a deal.  It will be less of a deal if cloud-based apps like Spotify start supporting the OS.  That said, the apps were my biggest turn off for the Pre.

Development Environment:

Pre had my favorite development environment of the 3.  Since most native apps support plain HTML, CSS, and Javascript (that’s why it’s called “WebOS”), it’s dirt simple to learn how to develop on the device.  You can use the HTML/CSS/Javascript model, or even port your C/C++ apps into the phone, making porting of heavy OpenGL apps to the phone from iPhone and other devices simple.

The SDK doesn’t have an incredibly powerful IDE experience like the iPhone’s InterfaceBuilder, but it is still sufficient, and since it’s just HTML and Javascript, not a very difficult thing to manage.

HTC Evo

Hardware Features:

The Evo is a machine.  From its huge size to its heavy processor, it’s built to run things fast.  Out of the box it comes with a 1GHz processor, an 8MP camera, 1.3 MP front-facing camera, an FM Radio, and more.

It’s much bigger than the other phones.  I don’t know if it’s the size making it a psychological thing, but it feels much heavier, too.  That’s probably one of the biggest downsides in my opinion.  It’s a clunker.

The phone reception is pretty good, and boasts 4G speeds on Sprint’s 4G network if it’s available in your area.  I was able to get up to about 5Mb/s on mine, and the web experience is very snappy.  In fact the entire experience is very snappy due to the speed of the processor.

If anything, I’d say the hardware is the main reason to get this phone (minus the size), except for one thing: the battery.  The battery life is horrible!  It makes the phone unusable, and goes dead by noon each day when you enable 4G on the phone.  When 4G is off, it only lasts until about 2pm each day before having to recharge (my measurement of battery life is by what time you have to recharge it after the time it is fully charged in the morning when I disconnect it from the charger in the morning).  Unless you’re willing to carry a charger around with you, this phone will be very difficult to use.

The Operating System:

The Android operating system, like the Evo, is clunky.  Everything is very boxy and not very smooth.  When you scroll the UI is shaky.  I get error messages from the operating system about applications crashing all the time.  While the hardware may make up for it on the Evo, the operating system really ties down the potential of the hardware.  I hear much of that will be changed in the Gingerbread version of Android, which I have yet to see.  At the moment the user experience is far behind its two rivals I’m reviewing here.

The one thing I really like about the Android operating system is the tight integration with Google products.  It works seamlessly with Gmail.  It works seamlessly with Google Voice.  Many of Google’s other products are all integrated tightly into the operating system.

In addition, Google includes deep integration into Facebook and Twitter and other social networks, right in the operating system.  However I think you will find greater benefit from dedicated social clients like Seesmic or Tweetdeck or the Twitter app.  I don’t think the Social Integration is enough to push one over the edge, at least not yet.

The Android OS, like WebOS, is very open.  Being Linux based, you can do many things as a result, offering many customizations you can’t get from the iPhone.  That said, whatever you do, you’re still tied to the flavor of Android your provider has given.  I’m not sure if Sprint has blessed hacking the Evo or not, and how tightly they’ve locked it down.  That’s all up to the phone manufacturer and the cell phone provider.

Applications:

Android has a very rich application environment.  While there are still not near as many high quality apps as the iPhone, the number for Android is steadily increasing at a rate faster than the iPhone, and will probably exceed the number of applications the iPhone has at some point.

That said, the application experience on Android isn’t nearly consistent as the iPhone’s.  Applications are bulky, crash often, and don’t have nearly as beautiful a UI as the iPhone.  The approval process for Android’s store isn’t nearly as strict, so you’re likely, when searching in the app store to find a kid’s app right next to a porn-related application.  You’re likely to find very amateur applications, and my bet is at some point the majority of applications built for Android (if that is not already the case) will mostly be those types of applications.

I find the Android’s application experience to be sub-par to that of iOS.  That’s not to say it will always be that way – it’s just the way it is now.

Development Environment:

I really like the approach Google took with the Android application development environment.  It’s a Java-based environment, something just about every programmer has had some experience with since they teach it in most schools as the beginner class.  The development environment will be very familiar to most developers.

In addition, there aren’t near as many hurdles a developer will have to go through to get their application in the app store.  It’s a relatively pain-free experience, and Google is making that even easier with their recent Scratch-like App Builder that anyone can use.  It will be very simple.

Registration for the app store is $25 – there is no open source program like WebOS.  However, the SDK is free for download to anyone, and the entire operating system source code is also made available online.  It’s a very developer-friendly operating system.  Perhaps that’s its greatest weakness, though.

Apple iPhone 4

Hardware Features:

The iPhone 4 is simple and sleek, plain and simple.  Similar to the Pre (with the exception of the Open Source part), since Apple also controls the hardware, they have the added advantage of seamlessly integrating the entire hardware and software experience to work well with each other.  It’s hard to not talk about the hardware without mentioning the software, and vice-versa.

The size of the iPhone is just perfect – it’s smaller than the iPhone 3Gs, not much lighter though.  It fits in the palm of your hands just perfectly, and its glass exterior is very beautiful.

The phone comes with a 1.4MP front-facing camera, making it slightly better than Evo’s, and 5MP rear-facing camera.  Despite the camera being lower resolution than the Evo’s 8MP camera, you won’t be able to notice.  In my comparisons of the two side-by-side in various environments the iPhone 4 produced far superior photo and video quality than the Evo.  The difference is very noticeable, and Apple seems to have really compensated the hardware with software.

In addition to the superior cameras, the Retina screen completes the experience, with absolutely the best phone picture I have ever seen.  Using this phone will make you want to read books on it, just so you can see the pristine quality of the text and images on the phone.  It’s absolutely fun to take pictures and video on the device because they look better than most other monitors and TVs I have in my home.  It’s a beautiful device, through and through.

The phone has a similar processor speed to the Evo, however Apple made their own processor so I’m sure there are some advantages there.  The operating system through and through is very snappy and smooth as a result, providing for a very seamless experience.  The phone also comes with 16GB or 32GB of memory that isn’t limited to music or apps, which is different from most Android devices, which only allow you a limited amount of space for apps, leaving the rest for music and data.

The battery life on the iPhone 4 is amazing.  It’s not quite at the level of the iPad, but still the best battery experience I’ve had on a phone so far.  I can keep it running all day with normal use and not have to recharge it until the next day or even later.  You will not be worrying near as much about recharging with this phone.

Then there’s the part that seems to get the most press – the connection.  I noticed the connection problem.  I was able to reproduce it (but I admit it would have taken me longer to notice all this had the media not been all over it).  Very occasionally I see a dropped call which I didn’t see on the 3GS.  That said, it just doesn’t bother me.  The phone is still useable, even without the bumper.  Adding the bumper seems to make most of the problems go away, and in fact, the black bumper almost makes the phone look a little better.  Given the fact that Apple is giving these away free now, it seems like it’s almost a non-issue.  That said there will be people in areas with even less connectivity that will have “the AT&T factor” – this will always be a factor so long as Apple is tied to AT&T and it’s one worthy of considering.  If you normally have issues with AT&T and don’t want to deal with them, maybe this phone isn’t for you.

That said, I think the new antenna actually improves the internet speeds.  When combined with the faster processor, the two seem to work very well together and provide a much faster web experience than the iPhone 3GS.  It’s actually somewhat comparable to the Evo from what I can tell (that’s without detailed experiments).

The Operating System:

iOS is, well, iOS.  It’s the Apple experience.  It’s simple.  There’s not much to it.  You have one button and a bunch of icons to click on.  That’s why people use Apple.

iOS 4 is a very smooth experience, only amplified by the iPhone 4’s beautiful Retina screen and faster processor.  Multitasking, once you figure it out and as applications start to adapt it, makes things much easier.  You open an app and it opens right to the place you left off.  There is a bit of a learning curve in learning the multitasking features though.  Once you learn to double-click that home button you’re in multi-tasking heaven.

Folders makes things much more organized, with fewer swipes if you have a lot of apps.  The biggest issue with folders is figuring out how to add applications to new folders and create new folders (you do so by just swiping an application icon over to another icon or folder).  Once you figure it out though, it “just makes sense.”

The new HD camera features are very slick.  With the still camera you can now zoom and pan.  Zooming reduces picture quality, and one won’t want to do it too often if you’re looking for high quality photos.  However, I’ve found using some of the apps like Pano or auto-stitch with the new camera make for a very beautiful photo experience.  HD video is amazing, and being able to auto-focus by clicking on anywhere in the picture while you are shooting video makes for a very professional-looking video that focuses and unfocuses just like a professional video camera.  The video shoots at 30 fps, which is the same as my more professional Canon Rebel T2i camera.

Oh, then there’s FaceTime.  Yes, there are apps on the Evo (and even the iPhone) with similar functionality, but the deep integration into the operating system makes all the difference.   It’s almost too convenient to video call your friends, and I find myself reaching for that FaceTime button whenever I can and I know my friends have an iPhone 4.  That’s also the biggest problem – knowing when your friends have an iPhone 4.  Hopefully more devices start to integrate with this and it becomes more of an open protocol than it is currently.

The operating system for the iPhone 4, in conjunction with the hardware makes it simply beautiful – it’s something you must experience to gain the full benefit.

Applications:

Applications are Apple’s strength.  The benefit Apple has is it gets to add hardware features that applications can take advantage of as part of the experience.  With the iPhone 4 the photo applications are all going to be better, and I wouldn’t doubt there will be a slough of video editing apps that come out as a result.  Already, you can purchase Apple’s iMovie app and shoot and edit your movies all on the iPhone.

The application experience on the iPhone is always going to be consistent.  Apple reviews all applications thoroughly and ensures they all maintain a somewhat consistent look and feel that is consistent with the Apple brand image.  They are all about their customer and they want that experience to reflect even through to the applications that are installed on the phone.  If you have a bug that they notice, they won’t approve it.  If you aren’t consistent with their standards, they won’t approve it.  That’s simply the Apple way, and if you don’t agree, there’s always the web browser.

That said, some criticize the lack of being open as Apple’s weakness.  Currently tethering costs money because of this weakness.  It wasn’t even available before.  The customer is stuck waiting for Apple to release new features and approve new types of applications as a result.  This is frustrating for some.  For me the peace of mind that the experience will remain consistent is comfort enough for me.

Development Environment:

The development environment is somewhat consistent with the application strengths and weaknesses.  Because Apple wants to remain consistent, developers often get shut out.  If Apple doesn’t like your app, they won’t approve it.  Some developers aren’t even told why Apple doesn’t like it.  Others are left hanging waiting for their apps to be approved.  That said, the majority of applications, assuming they follow Apple’s terms and rules, will get approved.

My biggest beef with the development environment is Objective C – it makes me want to poke my eyes out.  It’s a purely object-oriented language that deals with events and other weird language paradigms most modern-day developers aren’t going to be familiar with.  Its InterfaceBuilder GUI IDE isn’t like visual tools such as Visual Basic.  You have to create a prototype, then re-duplicate most of that prototype in code later.  It’s a pain to deal with.  There’s a huge learning curve.  It’s one of my biggest hurdles towards developing for the iPhone.  That said, once you learn it, you’re in high demand and you’re producing high quality, highly usable apps in a beautiful environment.

The Verdict

Looking at the 3 phones, comparing hardware, software, applications, and development environment, I have to choose the iPhone 4.  It’s the best phone I’ve ever owned. Better than the other phones and barring a few weaknesses, everything just flows together and looks beautiful when you use it.  It feels natural to my every day workflow.  The Pre isn’t a strong enough device.  The Evo is too bulky and cludgy and buggy.  Not to mention the battery life making it practically unusable.

If I had only the choice of the Evo and the Pre, I would probably chose the Pre.  The Pre’s UI and overall experience far trumps the Evo’s.  The hardware isn’t quite as beefy as the Evo’s, but the software really makes up for it, and especially in recent OS updates, doesn’t have many speed issues you notice.  It also feels nice in the hand and is easy to carry around.  I like WebOS far better than I like Android.

If I absolutely had to choose Android, I don’t think I’d go with the Evo.  We have an Incredible laying around the office that is much smaller in form factor and almost as fast.  The battery lasts much, much longer than the Evo’s.  My choice of Android devices, at least at the moment, would be the Droid Incredible.  My iPhone’s battery still lasts longer, amongst the many other advantages it gives me.

So with all those details in mind, I hope you can see why I chose the iPhone 4.  If I had to recommend one device, it would be the iPhone 4 – it has the best experience, the best hardware, the best software, and despite a few connectivity issues and hurdles into the App store which the end user barely sees, it is absolutely the best mobile device I’ve ever owned.

I want Android to prove me wrong though.  I want HP/Palm to prove me wrong.  Heck, I want Microsoft to prove me wrong.  I hope they produce something better at some point – it could happen.  However, at this point in time, put side-by-side, my overall recommendation would be the iPhone 4.  If you’re a device manufacturer and think your device might be better, send it my way and I’ll do a review of it.  At least now I’ve set the bar and hopefully someone can make something better.  And hey, if you can do a better comparison with the phones you use, I’d like to see.

Disclosure: The iPhone was the only phone I paid for in this experiment.

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13 thoughts on “Breaking Down the Signal – The Android, iOS, and WebOS Comparison

  1. Excellent and comprehensive.

    One thing to remember – there are a number of phone users who do not have any of the devices that you listed above, or a Windows Mobile device. My current mobile phone, for example, is an LG env3. I couldn't find any WAP sites from your employer, but they might want to consider making sure that their content is available to people with “dumb” phones. A smartphone strategy will only get you so far…

    Like

  2. John, thanks – I agree. The future is in smartphones though so it's a wise
    investment regardless. This article was targeted towards those making the
    decision between the 3.

    Like

  3. Given that webOS is at version 1.4.1.1, while iOS is at version 4, I think this is pretty high praise of what Palm managed to accomplish with their mobile OS. Some great things are coming relatively soon (say, by or in the Fall) which will elevate webOS and provide feature parity (particularly in the SDK). That plus HP's financial and supply chain backup should give webOS what developer's are looking for, and while it might be some time before webOS ever comes even close to iOS or Android in the sheer number of apps, we should be seeing the major players making webOS apps before the middle of 2011 rolls around.

    Very nice comparison overall, I think. Thanks!

    Like

  4. Thanks Mark! I don't doubt that at all, and thanks for sharing. I'm
    incredibly excited to play with the next things you guys have in store. As
    I said, if it was the choice between Android and WebOS, I'd already choose
    WebOS, even where it stands. I can't wait to see where you guys go with it.

    Like

  5. The EVO is not a great Android device at all. The only thing it has going for it is that it is big. The price structure of Sprint's plans is also a disadvantage. You have to pay for 4G service even if it isn't available in your area. Jesse isn't kidding when he says the battery life sucks. The battery life seems worse than the first cupcake builds on the G1. Sprint also preloads a bunch of unremovable crapware on the device and you are stuck with the fugly Sense UI.

    Like

  6. Great article! It's nice to see such an objective comparison of these three operating systems.

    Just a couple notes. The webOS SDK is available for free regardless of what you do with it. And even though it used to cost $99/year to get a developer account (so you can publish apps), Palm has done away with that now (as well as the $50 individual app submission fee).

    You also mentioned that there's no great IDE for developing webOS apps. I agree with you, but I think it's worth mentioning the options: There's an Eclipse plugin that does a few things, but there's also a fully-online IDE dedicated to webOS: ares.palm.com. It's not amazing as an IDE in its own right, but it's pretty revolutionary, in that it's entirely browser-based.

    Like

  7. The EVO is not a great Android device at all. The only thing it has going for it is that it is big. The price structure of Sprint's plans is also a disadvantage. You have to pay for 4G service even if it isn't available in your area. Jesse isn't kidding when he says the battery life sucks. The battery life seems worse than the first cupcake builds on the G1. Sprint also preloads a bunch of unremovable crapware on the device and you are stuck with the fugly Sense UI.

    Like

  8. John, thanks – I agree. The future is in smartphones though so it's a wise
    investment regardless. This article was targeted towards those making the
    decision between the 3.

    Like

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