A longterm Windows Mobile user switching to Android – Part 6: OS comparison roundup

It has been more than six months now since i made the decision that it’s time to get an Android device, and switched from my last Windows Mobile device (XDA Orbit II) to the HTC Hero. Up to now my review series was primarily about the HTC Hero and the features Android as well as HTC Sense provides. After getting to know the Android platform much better during the last months, it’s time to compare the core elements of Windows Mobile and Android in this final part of the review series. Hopefully this article will help you evaluating which OS is currently better suited for your needs, and clear up some questions regarding the data migration from Windows Mobile to Android if you decide to give Android a try.

Android vs. Windows Mobile: Hardware

On the hardware front Android and Windows Mobile are very similar, since both OS are designed to run on all different kinds of smartphones. Contrary to the iPhone concept, you will find a diverse hardware offering by different companies like HTC, Motorola, Samsung and many more. While this segmentation has it’s bad sides too (software developers have a much harder time releasing apps with good compatibility), there are still many people who like the option of different formfactors like sliders, touchscreen only devices or QWERTZ devices. The specs of the newest generation of Windows Mobile and Android phones are quite up to par, just take a look at the HTC HD2 versus the recently released Google Nexus One. Windows Mobile doesn’t have native support for capacitive touchscreens, but new devices like the HTC HD2 come with capacitive screens since HTC has implemented capacitive support, and i’m sure that we will soon see more Windows Mobile devices emerge with custom made capacitive screen support. So the pure hardware specs won’t be the real deciding factor when choosing between Android or Windows Mobile, since both provide flagships with cutting edge specs. It’s more interesting to see how those OS perform with similar hardware.

Android vs. Windows Mobile: Performance

There was a time when Windows Mobile was really fast, without the need of 512 MB of RAM and a Snapdragon CPU. To be more specific i’m talking about Windows Mobile 2003 SE for Pocket PC, which was my first contact to Windows Mobile many years ago. Back then i bought an MDA Compact (HTC Magician) and was overwhelmed by the performance, 3rd party apps selection and customizability of Windows Mobile, besides the incredibly good built quality and formfactor. I was coming from an Symbian UIQ device (Sony Ericsson P800) which was also a great piece of hardware, but Windows Mobile still was the most impressing smartphone OS for me at that time because of it’s customizeability, processing power and 3rd party apps. With the introduction of Windows Mobile 5 and all following updates, Microsoft never was able to reach the quality of their Windows Mobile 2003 OS again sadly. The main reason is that they kept most of the Windows Mobile kernel untouched (and still do this for WM 6.5), while adding new features on top of the framework which resulted in high hardware requirements. But even the best hardware can’t hide the fact that Windows Mobile 6.5 needs a complete overhaul to be competitive with the othere players on the market. And that’s what Microsoft is planning to archieve with Windows Mobile 7. If you compare the performance of current Windows Mobile pocket pcs with Android smartphones, you will realize that Android is a much sleeker and efficient OS. This might not be obvious on the first sight, but after working with the device for some time, you will encounter more lag on Windows Mobile devices. Android isn’t perfect too, as you will also find some lags when many apps are open, but overall the OS is still much faster on similar hardware specs. This is especially evident when opening/closing apps, and scrolling through lists or while switching between the homescreen pages. Until Microsoft really modernizes Windows Mobile on it’s seventh iteration, the competition like Android, WebOS or iPhone OS will stay ahead.

Android vs. Windows Mobile: General User Interface

Apple teached the mobile phone industry how a good fingerbased user interface has to look like, when the iPhone 2G was introduced with a big bang. At that time all touchscreen user interfaces on other mobile phones were designed to be used with a stylus. Nobody really thought that a touchscreen based on finger input could be that effective. For a long time i had my doubts too, since i thought that navigating through menus and submenus can’t be effective without a stylus. But the iPhone OS proved me wrong, since it’s really perfectly possible to work with the capacitive touchscreen. Going back to the Windows Mobile vs. Android comparison, this is one of the major drawbacks of Windows Mobile. The general OS has still the same layout as it did many years ago, and therefore is optimized for stylus usage. The slight alterations which have been made in the recent Windows Mobile version are just nothing to write home about, as you will still encounter way too many instances were the layout is not suited for finger usage. This is also the case for many legacy 3rd party apps, which were developed with stylus usage in mind. The Android OS was designed from ground up for finger usage, so every menu and every Android app is optimized for finger input. Now this is still a matter of taste, but as a longterm stylus user i have to admit that the concept of a capacitive touchscreen and fingerfriendly UI is just more effective. You don’t have to pull out the stylus all the time, and it’s possible to interact fluidly with your Android phone. HTC is working on a capacitive stylus, which actually would be a solution to inherit the best of both worlds.

Android vs. Windows Mobile: Homescreens

As a regular smartphone user, you’ll always start from the homescreen as central hub to any other app. Contrary to the IPhone concept which allows only app shortcuts on the homescreen pages, Windows Mobile and Android provide much deeper customizing capabilities. Out of the box Windows Mobile doesn’t offer multiple homescreen pages, but the so called today screen which can be enhanced by installing plugins. You can find hundreds if not thousands of different plugins for Windows Mobile devices, including plugins to show you live information like upcoming events, tasks, shortcuts to apps, clocks and many more. So there is a much bigger variety than having only app shortcuts. There are also today plugins like UltimateLaunch available, which will give you even more options i.e. multiple today screens. Last but not least many manufacturers out there implement their own UI overlays on Windows Mobile devices (HTC and Samsung built their own Windows Mobile UI addons, to name a few).

Windows Mobile Today ScreenOn the other side you have Android which comes with 3 to 5 homescreens (5 homescreens have been introduced on Android 2.1) which you can customize. Android also supports live information, called widgets, on the homescreens. Widgets are basically small windows which can be placed freely on your homescreens to show upcoming event, tasks, tweets, facebook updates…you name it. Furthermore it’s possible to add folders and of course app shortcuts too.

HTC Sense Home Screen on HTC HeroOn all my Windows Mobile devices the today screen was one of the most important aspects for me, because i wanted to see the most important informations at a glance whenever i was working with my phone. I really loved the flexibility of the plugin approach, and the big selection of plugins on the market. After switching to Android i quickly became accustomed to the homescreen pages concept, since i was already using ultimateLaunch to get a very similar result on my last Windows Mobile smartphone. Compared to my Windows Mobile experiences, the Android homescreens are more fluid and placing/moving shortcuts, folders and widgets on the homescreen with drag-and-drop is really effective. By now you will also find a lot of useful widgets on the Android market, so while Windows Mobile has a huge selection of legacy plugins, Android is getting better day by day.

htcsense_calendar_widget_bigOverall i prefer the Android homescreens over the default Windows Mobile today screen, because you have multiple pages to customize out-of-the-box. And i also think that Microsoft actually did a step back with their Windows Mobile 6.5 today screen, which shows a very bland text list of apps. This is neither effective on everyday usage nor good looking, i preferred the old today screen concept much more (you can deactivate the new today screen on Windows Mobile 6.5 and switch back to the old one). Even 3rd party UIs like HTC Sense seem to be more flexible on Android devices. While HTC provides HTC Sense for Windows Mobile too, it’s just not up to par with their Android offerings. On Android you can really define each homescreen page completely to your liking, while Windows Mobile HTC Sense will give you a fix general layout with a number of tabs which you can customize to a certain degree.

Android vs. Windows Mobile: Customizing

You’ll find different apps like UltimateLaunch on Windows Mobile and openHome on Android devices, which will act like skins on your devices homescreens and come with own icon sets. This is another way of customizing the homescreen UI to a larger extend. Both OS support different themes based on those 3rd party apps, and judging by the number of themes and 3rd party apps i would say that both OS are quite up to par in this regard.

openHome theme app for Android on Motorola Milestone

But homescreens are only one part of customization. There are many other things a user might like to change on their smartphone, and some of them might not be supported by the standard OS configuration options. I remember how i was searching the internet for all different kinds of registry tweaks for my Windows Mobile device back in the days, since you can edit many OS settings on Windows Mobile by changing those values. This is by no means an officially supported way of customizing your device, but the only thing you need is a file explorer like Total Commander to access the registries and a whole new world of customizing options will open up for you. There is no need to “hack” your device, a simple registry editor is enough. Using registry tweaks you can edit i.e. cache sizes, touchscreen sensivity, app priorities, homescreen plugin settings, scrollbars and other UI components. Android on the other hand is not as easy to tweak, because there is no simple way to access OS variables (which are not provided by the standard options) and change them. This is one area were Windows Mobile actually seems to be more open than Android.

Android vs. Windows Mobile: PIM apps

One of the main reasons why i used Windows Mobile devices for all those years was the great PIM support. Having a flexible today screen with all important data at a glance, a good calendar app, tasks, emailing and messaging all in one device was a great help for the daily work. Furthermore there are a lot of incredible apps out there, which take personal information management to the next level. Whenever i think about PIM apps Pocket Informant for Windows Mobile comes to mind. Pocket Informant is a good example which shows what the difference of a professionally developed PIM app is, when comparing it to the available calendar apps on Android. It’s just no competition, since you can clearly see that a company like WebIS is lightyears ahead of any hobby developer who is creating a calendar app for Android. This might sound exaggerated, but the Android market really has one major problem, which is the missing professional 3rd party PIM apps. Surely you have a huge amount of apps in the market overall, but if you want to have an in-depth solution then there are many Android apps which will fall short. Let’s take the existing calendar widgets (due to the lack of real calendar replacements i have to take widgets for this comparison), none of them comes near to the functionality and the huge configuration options that Pocket Informant provides. And while WebIS has already released Pocket Informant for IPhone, there is sadly still no official announcement for Android. Another example is personal money management. On Windows Mobile i was using an app called Cash Organizer Pro, which is still one of the best personal money management tools available on any mobile OS. Again you will find quite a lot of money apps on the Android market, even some very good ones like EasyMoney, but Cash Organizer Pro does go way beyond the feature-set of any Android money app (example: MS Money sync, and budgeting and cost/income forecasts). But not everything is bad on the Android front. Astrid is a very powerful personal task manager, and it provides a nice UI and rich featureset. Overall Android has still some ways to go in order to compete with the PIM apps legacy on Windows Mobile. Speaking about the preinstalled apps like contacts and calendar, Android is not bad out-of-the-box and gets the job done. In this regard Windows Mobile isn’t much better or worse.

Android vs. Windows Mobile: Multimedia apps

On the multimedia front both OS support all broadly used media file formats, and you can find apps for all important use cases like music playback and picture viewer. Just don’t expect the same level of polish and usability like on the IPhone, because Apple has without a doubt the most experience in this area. For a user who wants to migrate from Windows Mobile to Android the difference is not big, you will neither be overwhelmed by the media apps on Android nor disappointed.

Android vs. Windows Mobile: App Marketplace

I’m not a person who is easily impressed by number games like “10.000 apps on the Android market” or “100.000 apps in the IPhone appstore”, when more than 60% of the apps are nonsense like wallpaper “apps” or some kind of stupid minigames. Having 2000 really useful apps is more worth than 100000 apps overall. Of course i understand that having a huge number of apps also increases the possibility of finding good ones, but i still think that Windows Mobile has the more professional solutions compared to Android. Especially for business users. But you won’t be assisted in finding the best Windows Mobile apps though, since Microsoft still struggles to get their app marketplace going. At least the last time i checked there were only a handful of apps available in the german marketplace and a lot of apps i knew were still missing on the app listings. Android has the better marketplace concept compared to Windows Mobile, but Windows Mobile has the much better business apps legacy with hundreds of professional solutions.

My conclusion after having the HTC Hero for more than 6 months is that it does bug me sometimes, that the Android market still isn’t were it should be regarding professional 3rd party apps. Especially in the PIM sector. But i also learned that i can get along with the current apps situation, since there are still a lot of really effective apps available. Hopefully we will see the Android market evolve further, not only in quantitiy but also in quality. Taking a look at the current Android flagships like the Motorola Milestone or the Google Nexus One, as well as the long list of announced Android devices for this year, i’m very sure that 2010 will be the year in which the Android market will transform from a mostly hobby programmers platform to a place for professional paid solutions besides good and functional free apps.

Android vs. Windows Mobile: Community

Of course the community is an important part of every OS, as in example customized ROMs which have been cooked by community developers can greatly enhance the smartphone experience. A cooked ROM is basically an inofficial customized compilation of components taken from multiple official ROMs. One of the most important communities for HTC devices is XDA Developers which was born out of the desire to optimize and tweak the Windows Mobile HTC devices many years ago. You can find all kinds of ROMs for HTC devices (Windows Mobile and Android) on those message boards. But this kind of customizing is primarily suited for advanced users, since you can easily brick your device by flashing it incorrectly. So you should make some research on this topic, in order to know exactly what you are doing and what the risks of flashing a smartphone are, before trying to flash your device for the first time. Overall you won’t have any problem finding plenty of customized ROMs especially for HTC Android devices, so this won’t be something you’ll miss from old Windows Mobile days.

Google services integration vs. Microsoft service integration

One of the unique selling points of Android is the great Google services integration. While some may dislike the fact that you need a Google account when setting up your device, since your account is tightly connected to the smartphone, avid Google services users will be extremely happy with the great Google apps integration. It’s possible to sync your Google mail with push services (getting real-time notification when receiving a new email), contacts and multiple calendars. Android 2.0 also introduced the much asked for support for multiple gmail accounts. Combined with the great notification system of Android, the gmail support is really a killer feature for me, since it provides everything you will find on the web app like labels and conversation views. While you can use gmail IMAP with other smartphones like the IPhone or Windows Mobile phones too, the ease of use and perfection of the native gmail app on Android is just so much better.

Android 2.0 Gmail app on Motorola Milestone

Gmail is just one example though, since Google already added more great (exclusive) native apps like Google voice or Google navigation in the U.S. Having an Android smartphone you can always be sure to get the latest Google services, and most of the times you’ll get optimized native Android apps. But all of this shouldn’t come as a big surprise, since everybody would expect a mobile OS made by Google to support their services in the best possible way. It didn’t look as bright on the outlook and exchange server support at first. Prior to the release of Android 2.0 there was no native exchange server support, and you had to use other apps from the market. None of them was really flawless, especially noticable when you are used to Windows Mobile devices and their native exchange server support. Luckily this was adressed by Android 2.0, and while exchange server sync is still not perfect (no task syncing, missing features like accepting meeting invitations, some missing security settings) this still is a major step in the right direction.

On the other hand you have Windows Mobile devices with great exchange server sync, supporting all kinds of security settings for corporate users. Synchronizing your local outlook data is also quite easy by using Microsofts active sync (or Windows Mobile Device Center as it’s called on Windows Vista) software. And as already mentioned you will also get task syncing. There are some native Google apps available like Google maps and Google searchbar, but not nearly as many as on Android. Microsoft introduced their own cloud backup service called MyPhone some time ago, which provides the option to backup contacts, emails, messages, photos, videos, music on the Microsoft servers. You have to install a little app on your Windows Mobile smartphone and setup the sync to the Microsoft server (an MSN live account is mandatory). After that you can view and edit your data via webbrowser too, and sync it back to your smartphone. Of course all your changes done directly on your smartphone will be synced to the Microsoft servers too.

MyPhone startpage
MyPhone startpage

The major setback is that you’ll be only getting 200MB worth of space, which is a joke compared to the multiple GB space Google provides for their websolutions. Some people will have problems to trust Google when it comes to their personal data, but let me assure you this: there is no company on this planet which will not try to gain informations about it’s users in one or the other way. So if you are scared that Google will do bad things with your data, don’t expect other cloud service providers to be much better.

Migrating from Windows Mobile to Android

There are several PIM data set-ups you can have when using a Windows Mobile device. I will explain your data migration options depending on the device set-up.

Setup 1 – You are using your Windows Mobile device as primary system to manage PIM data without syncing to any software (like outlook):

Migrating your personal data like contacts, emails and calendar from a Windows Mobile device to your Google account is not that complicated, since you can use Google sync on Windows Mobile to transfer your data. Just make sure you have a local backup of all your PIM data on your device or somewhere else, since the first sync with Google will sometimes erase all your data on the Windows Mobile smartphone. After restoring the data on your Windows Mobile device from your backup file, the next sync will transfer all data to your Google account. At least this was the case when i migrated my data to my Google account using Google sync one year ago. Maybe this issue doesn’t exist anymore, but i still can’t stress enough that you should have AT LEAST one backup before trying any kind of personal data migration to another system. There are many apps available for this, one of the best freeware apps is called PIM backup which will store all your PIM data within a backup file.
Another way of migrating your data is to sync with outlook first, and then create outlook backup files in csv-format. You can use this files i.e. to transfer your contacts to your Google account. For me the direct Google sync worked quite nicely so there was no need for the outlook workaround.

Setup 2 – You are using your Windows Mobile device with exchange server sync:

In this case all devices with Android 2.0 will give you the option to sync with the exchange server, so you don’t need to migrate anything. Just setup your exchange account on the Android device and you’re ready to go. For older Android versions there are some 3rd party solutions like TouchDown available, which support exchange server sync.

Setup 3 – You are using your Windows Mobile device with outlook sync:

Either use outlook backup files and upload them to your Google account, or any 3rd party app which supports outlook sync. Android doesn’t support local Outlook sync out-of-the-box.

Transferring Media Files

Transferring other data like media files is just a matter of moving the files from your smartphone via USB to your desktop pc, and then copying them to the Android device or storage card. Since Windows Mobile and Android don’t use any mandatory media management tool like iTunes, the file migration is very easy and straightforward.

A longterm Windows Mobile user switching to Android: The verdict

Overall i’m very happy that i made the decision to switch from Windows Mobile to Android. The data migration was easy, and you can really see how much speed the Android development has picked up, while Windows Mobile is still stalling with it’s old architecture. Androids support of Google services is great, and the app market is growing day by day with about 20.000 currently available apps. Even though there are areas like professional PIM apps were Windows Mobile is better, it should be just a matter of time until we will see more of those apps in the Android market. Companies like Motorola are pushing their Android devices with huge marketing budgets, which will help Android to further strengthen it’s position on the mainstream market. So right now the future for Android looks much more promising than Windows Mobiles outlook, since you have a modern OS which is very flexible, open source and has good support from hardware manufacturers. Microsoft has to put all their effort into Windows Mobile 7 to stand a chance in the current smartphone market. They may be able to produce a quality product like they did with Windows 7, but even when that happens we have to see how the platform will evolve, and how Windows Mobile 7 will be embraced by 3rd party developers and the customer when the first devices are released at the end of 2010.

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