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Review: The Apple iPad and iOS experience from an Android users view

We have a handful of interesting mobile OS out there with iOS, Android, Windows Phone and the upcoming Blackberry OS 10 update. And even though all of them have their pros and cons, iOS stands out as the mobile OS that has changed the way people use their smartphones forever. I’m pretty reserved when it comes to overly hyped up products, but have to admit that Apple proved me wrong twice.

The first time when the iPhone was introduced and I wasn’t convinced that touchscreen devices relying only on finger input, without a stylus option like it was usually provided by Windows Mobile phones, would be good enough for all use cases. And the second time when I saw the iPad, thinking that I will never need such a device sitting between the smartphone and my laptop at home. But now I’m using a Nexus 7 and an iPad for a while now, not even touching my laptop at home anymore.

iPad Hardware and Build Quality

Apple doesn’t disappoint in the build quality sector. The iPad feels great and you just can’t deny the premium quality impression. All components fit perfectly as there simply isn’t anything loose or wobbly. And it’s really nice to have a device which uses solid material like aluminium instead of cheap plastic we came to get used to on Android devices from i.e. Samsung.

One problem with the material is the fact that the iPad is a little bit too heavy for my taste. It might be one of the slimmest and lightweight 9 inch tablets out there but at this point it’s not a device which you could hold for an extended time. Furthermore due to the sharp edges the iPad isn’t that comfortable to hold, as the edges might look nice and make the device feel thinner but when it comes to ergonomy I’d prefer more rounded ones. Weight and size are the reasons i actually prefer 7 inch tablets at the moment. And judging by all those iPad mini rumours it seems like i’m not the only one thinking that small tablets can be better suited for specific use cases like reading a book.

The display on the iPad 2 has great color reproduction and good brightness but using it outside in the sun is nearly impossible. All current tablets have this problem as the displays reflexion is just way too distracting. Another issue I have with the iPad 2 is the low resolution which can’t keep up with newer Android models.

As we know Apple took care of this problem by introducing the new iPad which has the highest resolution on a consumer tablet worldwide. I think that resolution is immensely important on a device which is meant for content consumption, so it’s good to see Apple putting out a new standard here.

iOS Homescreen

When the first iPhone came out the iOS homescreen was great as it was simple to use and fluid. Many years later you have new features like folders, but the overall look and functionality hasn’t changed much. Compared to Android I really miss dynamic elements on the homescreen like widgets.

[iOS] [Android Jelly Bean]

Using such elements you can not only show live information directly on the homescreen but you can also give the screen more structure. On my Nexus device I have a big weather and clock widget on the top of the first page. It’s immediately obvious to me when navigating the screens where I am currently. But with iOS I felt a little bit lost as every screen just looks the same and you have to scan the app icons to see which page your on. Using a lot of folders doesn’t help as it can make the screen even more confusing with multiple icons stuffed into one folder.

Apple also requires all app icons to be exactly the same size and squared shape, while on Android the overall size is of course defined, but you don’t have to use square shapes. This makes it much easier for me i.e. to find the twitter app as its shaped like the bird logo we know. On iOS my eyes would first see all those square shaped app icons and I have to look for a twitter logo within that border. This is not intuitive at all IMHO.

iOS Notifications

Android was always very strong with notifications, while Apple used intrusive notifications for a long time and introduced the notification center with the iPhone 4. They took some pages from the Android OS as you can now pull down a notification shade very similar to what we know from Android.

[iOS] [Android Jelly Bean]

Using the app settings you can decide which ones are allowed to use the notification center. The list is grouped by app so you will i.e. see an calendar header with all notifications followed by an email header and so on. The biggest problem with the notification center is the fact that you don’t see any kind of indicator or icon at the top of the screen which would tell you that there is actually an notification waiting. So at the moment I think that Android is still clearly ahead when it comes to the overall notification concept.

iOS Contacts

Contact apps should be fast and give us a good overview of different kinds of information on the given contact. With the iPad you get all features we are used to from other mobile OS, like contact groups and the possibility to sync with services like GMail.

[iOS] [Android Jelly Bean]

But i don’t understand why Apple is so focused on mimicking different materials on screen. Showing contacts in a notebook like background doesn’t look good. I learned from a reader that this approach is called skeuomorphism. But it’s just not adding anything to the experience for a lot of younger folks that never really used i.e. a real notebook, so I would have preferred a cleaner and more consistent design approach like webOS or Android ICS/Jelly Bean.

iOS Email Client

The email Client is pretty straight forward. You can choose between a couple of webmail provider like yahoo and gmail. In order to use gmail push notifications you have to add your gmail account as exchange server or use the official gmail app for iOS. When using multiple inboxes you will have a combined inbox as well as the possibility to open each inbox separately.

Of course there is no gmail label support when using the exchange server workaround, but I still prefer the iOS email client as the UI and performance is better than the iOS gmail app. This is one example where you see that heavy Google services user will always be better off with an Android device as Gmail for Android is just working perfectly fine with nearly all features we know from the web version.

iOS Calendar

Again you will see some kind of notebook background when opening the calendar app, which I’m not a big fan of. There are five different views available ranging from day view to a list of upcoming appointments.

When touching an appointment you will see an overview with all basic information first with the option to show all details if needed. Even though all functionality is there I can’t help it but find the user interface pretty old school and boring.

iOS Browser

After each Android update there are instantly videos on the web comparing the Android browser to iOS. While general loading times are pretty much on the same level, there is one aspect where iOS is just better: scrolling.

Using the safari browser to scroll though web pages is much more fluid that anything you can see on Android (including the latest chrome version on the Nexus 7). This is were Apple clearly still has the edge. On the other side you have flash on Android which still is an important feature for many people. Killing flash might not be a bad idea, but the web is not ready for this final step yet. There are still way too many websites using flash elements, so not having flash support on your browsers will limit your web experience.

One thing i never understood is why Apple doesn’t provide dynamic text wrapping when zooming into web pages. Browsers like Chrome for Android give you the possibility to automatically adjust the text and linebreaks to the current zoom level, which makes it very comfortable to read any page in the font size that you want without the need of scrolling horizontally. While Safari for iPad still doesn’t have this feature you have a ‘reader’ mode which will reformat a webpage to a magazine like view, where you can change text size and colors. The reader mode doesn’t work on all webpages but it is still a very nice solution.

Other than that there are no huge differences honestly, most users will be happy with any of those browsers, and even though the missing flash support on iOS hurts its a matter of time to see HTML5 take over.

iPad Apps

Apple still has the biggest app selection out there, especially when it comes to tablet optimized software. Every tech blog mentions the big difference of tablet app offerings between iOS and Android. But actually I don’t think that it’s so bad. Android does a better job of upscaling phone apps to tablet screens, so while there are not that many tablet optimized apps out there most of them look fine on bigger screens. With my Kindle Fire or Nexus 7 it’s just not a big issue. Using a phone app on an iPad is a bad joke, as you can either leave the app with native resolution which results in a small window showing the app, or scale it up which will make the UI extremely pixelated and ugly to look at. So the whole comparison of tablet optimization is a little it unfair as its basically not possible to comfortably use phone apps on the iPad, while on Android it works much better.

Another thing you will notice as Android user is the fact that there a much less free apps available, I was expecting a lot of selection but it seems like most developers don’t see any benefit of using the free ad supported concept of Android apps.

It’s still clear though that you will find basically anything on the store. The number of apps is huge and it seems like most big companies like i.e. all those Banks start out with an iOS app first and Android second. Chances are that you won’t miss a lot of 3rd Party apps when coming from Android.

Performance

One of the most frequent things you’ll hear from an Apple user is that iOS devices are always fast while even high end Android devices stutter. This is true as iOS and Android have two fundamental different approaches when it comes to app processes and threads. On iOS the UI basically has the highest priority, which means that you’ll most likely see a reaction to your touch input without delay. And scrolling, opening apps, browsing and going through your home screens seems perfectly fluid. The setback is that the UI process will take priority over other tasks the OS has to handle. Just open safari and browse to a web page. Now start scrolling around the page before its completely loaded. Keep on scrolling without any break and you’ll realize that the web page won’t continue to built up until you stop scrolling around. This is the best way to show how iOS handles user input as first priority and everything else second.

Now if you do the same thing on an Android device you’ll end up with some stuttery scrolling while the web page will keep building up in the background. Android will try to process your touch input while rendering the web page at the same time. This approach can lead to lags, and this is why many people perceive iOS to be more fluid.

Using the iPad for a while now I can confirm that lags are nearly nonexistent and that this is something where Apple made a very user experience focused decision when creating iOS. Google tries to remedy their lag problem with Jelly Bean and project butter, which performs really well on the new Nexus 7 tablet, but even then it’s not completely up to par with the latest iPad.

iTunes

Why mention iTunes separately? Well, this is the thing you are most likely to hear from an Android fan when asked why he wouldn’t want to switch to iOS. It’s the symbol of the walled garden that Apple has built around its mobile OS.

You can’t just plug your iPad to an computer and transfer data to the external storage, and instead have to use iTunes for such tasks. I can fully understand that this is a hassle and having the possibility of direct file transfer would be very helpful occasionally (i.e. when you want to transfer something to a PC which doesn’t have iTunes). But on the other hand iTunes really helps to keep your media organized. With hundreds of MP3 songs you will be happy to have software helping you out. And iTunes does a good job here. The big difference is of course the fact that you cannot use any other software for your iOS device than iTunes, but looking at the mainstream market most users don’t seem to care as long as they have a working product.

iTunes is also the gateway to all paid media consumption, as you find a healthy selection of movies, tv programs, music, newspapers and books. Google tries to catch up with the Google Play store, but some offers are restricted to the USA at the moment. So if you want all of your media managed nicely within one app, iTunes is a good solution.

Using iOS and Android devices complementary

As a customer you can easily find yourself locked into an ecosystem after using it for a while. You will buy apps, become accustomed to the services of this specific ecosystem, and switching to a complete new product from another company can be very daunting. Taking it one step further i wanted to see if it’s possible to use two different ecosystems side-by-side. I have an Android phone and the iPad for a while now, and even though there are of course some setbacks, it works surprisingly well.

Using the iPad for browsing, reading news, email and some social media activity i found it pretty manageable to get nearly everything syncing between the two devices. Gmail can be either installed as separate app or connected as a regular exchange server inbox, browsing is working perfectly fine with the safari browser and all important social media apps are available for iPad. After some searching i also found some good free RSS readers which support Google Reader sync. With this setup i can switch between Android phone and iPad very comfortably.

But depending on the number of paid apps you use frequently it can be frustrating to buy them twice as most apps have to be purchased again on another OS. Also being a heavy movie/music customer there is good way to sync your iTunes and Playstore purchases.

The Verdict

The iPad is a nearly perfectly built piece of hardware. It screams high quality from all angles and especially compared to current Android tablet flagships like the Nexus 7 (and the pretty widespread display issues) you can easily spot the differences in built quality that justify the higher price tag. And iOS is really fast on this device, no hiccups, no delays. You can see that Apple puts the priority on user interaction without any lag. But iOS needs some UI overhaul, as it looks outdated by todays standards. Old school high-gloss icons everywhere, no possibility to organize your homescreen other than using folders, still no widget support and the ugly fake material (‘leather’) backgrounds on some default apps like calendar. In the end this is a matter of taste but with Android Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean Google leapfrogged Apple in this department in my opinion. Yes, i’m a sucker for Tron aesthetics. And Microsoft surpassed Apple too with their Windows Phone OS which looks incredibly sleek and modern.

Still the good news is that you can use both OS side-by-side, if you are not a heavy paid apps/media user clinging to a specific app store. Using your email account, browser, apps like wordpress, twitter, facebook and so on across Android and iOS simultaneously wasn’t any real problem. So if you can’t stand the current Android tablets (i.e. thanks to those ugly 3rd party skins and update delays), and the Nexus 7 is too small for your taste, you should definitely take the iPad into consideration. Don’t dwell into meaningless OS wars, just try to get the best product you can get for your money. Having a competitive mobile OS market is great for the customer as it will drive the companies to create better products. And it’s easy to see that the iPad is one of the very best products out there.