There are ample comparisons of iOS and Android, but few take into account jailbreak apps and power-users. Jailbroken iOS apps make up for a lot of shortcomings, but if you’re still interested in Android, here’s what you need to know.
A Little Personal Background
I’ve been a smartphone user for a few years. Once upon a time, my AT&T upgrade brought me the Tilt, also known as the HTC Kaiser and TyTN II. It was a really hackable phone – hacked out of necessity to keep things running smoothly – but eventually I went the way of Apple. The iPhone 3GS was the best available phone at the time (in my opinion). Android wasn’t mature enough at the time, and iOS 3.0 was new and finally had some solid functionality. A year later, I took a family member’s upgrade and got an iPhone 4. Android had been coming along nicely, but despite the iPhone 4’s weaker hardware, it delivered a smooth UI experience I haven’t seen replicated by Android until the Atrix.
(Image credit: nrkbeta)
I’m no fanboy and I mean to start no flame wars. I made sure to wait before each upgrade until a compatible jailbreak was released so that I didn’t have to be stuck with stock iOS. Apple’s software has never been enough for me and Android’s openness was always an enticing call. After a few years of playing cat-and-mouse with Apple to get the functionality I wanted, I started to follow Android much more closely. Stock iOS has plenty of limitations and you do away with a lot of them once you’ve jailbroken, but then you become dependent on that. I recently picked up a Droid X to use as a media player just to satiate me while I look for the “perfect” Android phone, and I’ve really fallen in love with it.
It’s in this vein that I’ve tried to replicate functionality between the two mobile operating systems, so if you choose to switch from one to the other, you won’t miss out on much.
Jailbreak App Functionality on Android
SBSettings lets iPhone users swipe the top bar and instantly access tons of toggles, shortcuts, and even a note-taking app. iOS doesn’t have widgets, but with SBSettings, you don’t really need any. The toggles are paginated and you can customize the order and which ones show up.
To get the same functionality on Android, many people use Widgets, but for me, they fall short on their own. Widgetsoid, however, provides a great solution. You can build your own bar of toggles and put them in your drawer so you can access them anytime. An interesting caveat is that not all phones support toggling to occur directly from the drawer, or else the brightness slider pops up under the drawer, but you can configure it so that a tap on the widget leads to a pop up with all of the toggles. It’s a great substitute for SBSettings.
I’m in love with jailbreak apps because of functionality bumps that apps like LockInfo provide. Take a look at my lock screen:
I’ve got a weather view under my clock, a space for notifications (for all apps), a space to check Twitter from, and a favorites bar. I’ve also configured it to pop up in any app when i slide my finger onto the screen from the bottom.
Missed calls, text messages, and voicemails all get their own headings and disappear when there are no notifications waiting. Actually, it’s very customizable and I’m only using half of the features it provides, but it’s really helped me use my phone more efficiently.
Here’s my Android lock screen. Thanks to Widget Locker, I can make any widgets show up and be accessible while locked. I have access to Winamp, my drawer, and sliders for my camera app and Tesla LED (to make my camera LED into a flashlight). It’s smooth, and I can add RSS feeds and the like as well. If you have a security lock enabled, though, you have to disable that to use the drawer and apps, though the flashlight function will still work.
iLock or AndroidLock XT/Pattern Lock
Both iLock and AndroidLock XT bring Android-style pattern locks to the iPhone. AndroidLock XT has a few security issues – it’s a little easy to bypass – but iLock is great. It allows 3×3, 4×4, and 5×5 grids for a pattern lock, and it’s even multi-touch compatible.
I only really use the basic features though, and Android’s built-in pattern lock works fine. If you want something else, you can get other lock screens so there’s no dearth of options. Gingerbread and Honeycomb’s lock screen add-ons are even nicer!
The iPhone has a few amazing text messaging apps available in Cydia. I use BiteSMS which has quite a few nice features like scheduling SMSs and extra emoticons. The real benefit of BiteSMS is QuickReply, however, which allows you deal with text messages in a pop up that goes over any app. I can be in any app doing anything, but I can send an SMS by tapping on the status bar and dragging my finger down.
Android has a ton of different apps that handle your SMSs for you. Handcent is one that works very well and also has the ability to reply to text messages from anywhere just like BiteSMS.
Handcent has a lot of options for the pop up, including brightness, marking it as read, and whether or not the screen should turn on. There are also tons of plugins that offer emoticons, location services, and extra language support!
Launcher Pro (lots of JB-only settings, multitasking menu, Infinidock)
Apple locks down quite a bit in terms of options so in order to tweak extra settings you need to have different apps installed. Backgrounder allowed multitasking before Apple added it, for example, and it still allows true multitasking as opposed to Apple’s fast-switching. This, however, is built into Android very well.
I love Infinidock, a scrolling dock that allows more icons on the home screen, too.
Mine is set to five icons and I can scroll though as many as I like. I also use Multifl0w, an app that works with Backgrounder to see and manage your apps like Cards in WebOS or like Expose on your Mac.
On Android, though, a majority of these options are freely customizable. If you want, you can change your launcher completely!
I use Launcher Pro because it allows a scrollable dock, customizable home screens, and a home screen overview via pinching. You can also call up a recent apps menu via long-pressing Home on Android.
In short, there are plenty of apps that can do what you’re looking for that don’t need root privileges to work, unlike on iOS.
There’s a nice automation app called iScheduler from Cydia (not to be confused with the schedule-managing app iScheduler from the App Store). You can set profiles, launch apps, and so forth based on rules such as time of day and the like.
Tasker for Android totally blows iScheduler out of the water. The amount of fine-tuned control you get on Tasker is amazing, and it’s super powerful because of the various programming functions it supports. While it does have a learning curve, I challenge anyone to find something that’s this powerful on iOS.
Warning: The screenshots below may contain spoilers for the Wheel of Time series. I’m midway through the second book, so be cautious when zooming on these images!
While technically not a “power-user” or jailbreak-only app, the lack of a good ebook reader would be a deal-breaker for me. I’m a big ebook fan and I use all of my devices to read books and articles. On iOS, Stanza is one of the best. I have yet to see another iOS app so feature packed; it supports bookmarks, annotations, look ups, fast flipping through both chapters and books, inverted viewing modes, and even downloading from remote Calibre libraries.
I’ve used a lot of apps to use ebooks, and this one was my favorite. After digging around a bit, I’ve found one for Android that is near flawless and has even MORE features!
Moon+ Reader Pro has every feature of Stanza and then some. Considering this was a really important necessity for me, I’m delighted to find something that has more functionality.
Because space is limited, I use Subsonic to wirelessly sync my music collection to my devices.
iSub on iOS works well and has a good player, but can become laggy in certain circumstances. It’s not as fluid as the iPod app, the native iOS player.
Subsonic works great on Android, too, with full functionality.
You can even use the web player if you want, since it works with Flash.
On Android, you have plenty of choices of music players. The traditional criticism that none are as good as the iPod app has changed, at least in my opinion. I’ve been a Winamp user for a decade, and I prefer Winamp on Android as well.
The best part about Android’s lack of strict library is that all apps can use music downloaded by any other app. I can download songs from my server through Subsonic but play them through Winamp. iOS finally allowed other apps to access the iPod library, but you can’t add music from other apps to the iOS library without synching through iTunes.
I use LockInfo and BiteSMS to handle notifications better. LockInfo even allows you to suppress any or all of the annoying pop ups that are iconic of iOS. In addition, there’s a great, free app called MobileNotifier on Cydia that provides Android-style ribbon pop-ups that are unintrusive. You can even manage your notifications via a list that appears on the multitasking screen, so it’s always available.
There are two other programs that do this well, Open Notifier and NotifiedPro. Most of these are made to emulator WebOS or Android’s notification systems.
Android’s built-in notification drawer is easily the best I’ve used, no contest, so no need for extra add-ons.
Gaps and Inequalities
There are a few things that don’t have proper alternatives on both platforms, so here’s where things can break down. Pay close attention to any deal-breakers you may have, and there caveats for both sides.
Customizable Universal Gestures
Activator on iOS allows you to configure gestures that can be called from anywhere – from the home screen, lock screen, or within any app – and associate actions to them. Here are a few screenshots from the settings:
You can configure these gestures or button presses to be used in specific cases or universally.
Music Controls Pro lets you use advanced controls for your music and offers support for an ever-growing list of apps. The big-kicker? It lets you use gestures while the screen is locked and off.
I’ve found nothing that lets me do this on Android, and while the cost is battery-life, it’s indispensible while in the car. Launcher Pro supports some gestures, and individual apps as well as Tasker can bring some of this functionality back, but not everything. Android allows a lot of things, so why the lack of comprehensive gesture customizability?
Remotely Controlling Linux
It’s no secret that How-To Geek loves Linux support. HippoRemote on iOS, while not a jailbreak app, works flawlessly and even has downloadable macro functions for specific apps or OSs. No proprietary server is needed, either, as it can use VNC.
For me, personally, I’ve yet to find an app that works well as a touchpad and keyboard substitute for Linux computers on Android. There are many that provide remote input functionality, but few are customizable and multi-touch compatible. Fewer still provide full keyboard keys like Alt, Ctrl, Super, F1-F12, etc. Those that do meet these requirements don’t support Linux. HTPCs that run on standard Linux distros can pose a problem in this way.
On Android, if you don’t have a rooted phone, it’s a significant process to take screenshots, something that would have made this article very difficult to write. iOS doesn’t have this problem.
One really useful function I have on iOS is “high contrast mode.” I can triple-click the Home button and the entire OS has inverted colors.
This helps me squeeze 24 hours (or more!) of battery life out of my iPhone 4 because anytime I browse a page with a white background, it’s now black with white text.
This is not a theme for an app or the home screen. Plenty of Android apps have this functionality built in, but not all of them, and you can’t do it wherever you like. I’ve looked long and hard for this functionality in Android and it just doesn’t seem to be there.
Voice Commands powered by Google
On the other side of the fence, Apple’s voice command feature feels really incomplete. It’s mostly for basic commands like changing tracks and calling contacts. On Android, you can dictate to text messages and do anything. The fact that it’s well-integrated to the OS makes a huge difference. There are rumors of changes coming in iOS 5 due to Apple’s acquisition of Siri, but as of yet, there’s nothing that competes with Google’s offering.
Android allows proper file management. There are jailbreak file managers available that let you works with, view, and edit files on your system.
I use iFiles, but even with that you can’t do as much because native apps don’t support choosing files in this way. Android’s got a much better system for this, especially because it’s easier to use your phone as a USB storage drive. I like Astro File Manager, personally.
Having better file system access works well for downloading files and working with Dropbox.
I love Hoccer because it’s a really easy way to trade files with other devices. Let’s look at what kinds of files iOS and Android allow to be shared.
Big difference, isn’t it? Android even allows you to share an App name by providing a Market link to the other Android user. Again, this has a lot to do with file management and access to the file system. Dropbox is much more useful on Android for this same reason.
Android allows real widgets, so you can see news tickers, tweets, and calendar entries at a glance. Launcher Pro lets you resize them, Widget Locker allows them to show on the lock screen, and there’s a lot you can do with them besides. iOS has a few projects in development that seek to provide this functionality, but not without a significant performance hit. LockInfo comes as close as possible, and while it’s already been mentioned as a great tool, it can’t do everything that the Android widget system can.
Buttons and Battery Life
(Image credit: mcclanahoochie)
One of the simplest and biggest issues I’ve had with switching to Android is that I need to use buttons again. I love physical buttons – they’re great for many things where touch falls short– but having used iOS for two years, it’s a little tough to get used to. I instinctively look for options that are on the screen, forgetting that the menu button is what offers access to settings/preferences. It’s not a good or bad thing, I was just really surprised at how used to on-screen navigation I am. You may find yourself surprised, too.
Battery life is another issue. iOS devices don’t have a user-replaceable battery, so power-users are trained to either have a charger on them or to squeeze out every last drop of juice by being stingy with brightness and other settings. This served me very well when switching because Android devices have a notoriously shoddy battery life.
To be honest, though, I’d like to challenge that notion. With the settings as low as I could make them, I found myself getting comparable battery life for the most part. Having extra batteries is great when I’m out and about, but you have to be careful when buying them because counterfeits are common. Newer devices, such as the Droid Charge, are getting excellent battery life, so if you plan on switching a little further down the line then this probably won’t even be an issue.
Cat and Mouse
(Image credit: Emmanuel Alanis)
The main problem for so many users is this game of cat and mouse, and neither iOS nor Android has conquered it. I rely heavily on jailbreak-only apps to provide improved functionality or add features that are missing in standard iOS. I have to wait for new versions to be jailbroken, then wait for the tools to be updated. Not every version is able to be jailbroken by one click, and having to restore images via iTunes is torture for me because I can’t stand iTunes on Windows.
(Image credit: quinn anya)
Android’s not so different. While the platform is touted as “open,” there’s a lot of functionality that is only accessible by rooting. Every rooting method is dependent on an exploit, just like jailbreaking. It’s nice if you have a device that has a “permanent” root that lasts through updates, but those are few and far-between so every OS update requires a new root. Hopefully, that will change.
Companies like Motorola even lock the bootloaders down so you can’t put new kernels on their devices. This is somewhat tempered by the fact that iOS doesn’t have any alternate ROMs at all, I suppose, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Jailbreakers do a good job of adding new iOS functionality to older Apple devices, at least to the extent that it’s possible. If you’re stuck without the hope of an OS update on an older Android device and you’ve got a locked bootloader, you’re worse off.
(Image credit: claudia rahanmetan)
As a power-user, Android seems to have a bit of an advantage. Once you’re able to switch ROMS and install a better bootloader, you won’t have to worry too much about re-rooting. You get a lot of bang for your buck because custom ROMs, like CyanogenMod, offer a lot of functionality that stock Android can’t compete with. You do have to wait for changes to get adopted by ROM cookers, but you often get features before carriers push down official updates. On the other hand, iOS has a lot of changes coming that remain to be seen, and you get a monolithically streamlined experience, despite the wait for a jailbreak becoming longer as newer Apple devices come out.
(Image credit: chuck falzone)
Looking at the differences here really makes you appreciate the amazing people out there doing the jailbreaking and rooting, developing those advanced applications, and putting together those amazing ROMs. The vast majority of smartphone users don’t often mess with stuff like this, but as power-users we’re indebted to them.
In the process of learning and loving Android and being frustrated with iOS, I’ve come to the opinion that neither platform is perfect or significantly better. Both have gaps, and it really depends on whether your needs really are affected by them. Both require you to keep up with what’s going on with updates, rooting/jailbreaking, and moving beyond the stock experience. It makes you wonder if WebOS and Windows Phone 7 are any better, but since it seems that the “app war” is dominated by Android and iOS, we’ll have to see what the future brings.
But, for the record, I think the Linux geek in me is ready to take the plunge into Android waters.
Yatri Trivedi is a monk-like geek. When he's not overdosing on meditation and geek news of all kinds, he's hacking and tweaking something, often while mumbling in 4 or 5 other languages.
- Published 05/27/11