Android L vs Windows Phone 8.1: Guess who's catching up
Over the past few weeks, Android L has been one of the hottest topics that we've been covering – not a surprise given the fact that it is an update of epic proportions. The platform's latest version brings along a fresh new design, performance and battery life improvements, and a richer set of developer tools, among tons of other goodies. Windows Phone 8.1 has also been enjoying quite some attention as it is a major boost for Microsoft's mobile OS. The new software introduces welcome features like the Action Center and Cortana, all the while improving the web browsing experience and adding more personalization options. The result is a mature operating system worthy of being stacked up against the dominating forces.
But how do Android L and Windows Phone 8.1 compare? What makes one better than the other? Is there anything they can learn from each other? To provide the answers to these questions, we've decided to put the two platforms side by side for a preliminary comparison. Yes, it a preliminary one because Android L, which is running on our Nexus 5, is still in beta, while Windows Phone 8.1 on our Nokia Lumia is just a trimmed down version. And we can't draw any final conclusions based on experience with non-final software, can we? Alright, now let's get to business.
Widgets are Android's solution to making the most of the available screen space. They come in all shapes and sizes and serve a vast array of functions – some tell the time, display weather conditions, or list our recent emails, others let us control music playback, or tweet on the fly. Windows Phone's alternative are the aforementioned Live Tiles. They're a blend between an app shortcut and a widget – if an app has a notification for us, its tile will let us know. Live Tiles aren't as functional as Android's widgets, however. On the upside, a Windows Phone 8.1 home screen looks very presentable and well laid out, with almost no space left unused.
Android, however, takes matters a few steps further. First of all, it pushes non-important notifications down to the bottom to the list, while high priority ones are placed at the top. Also, some notifications expand and give us extra interaction options – for example, we may archive or reply to an email at the push of a button. And it is cool how if you have an app running and you get a call, the notification pops up from the top of the screen without hiding whatever app you're in. What's not so cool, however, is that in Android L we don't have a way to clear all notifications at once (although this option might return with L's final release). In Windows Phone 8.1, we may dismiss all notifications at once, or just those from a specific app.
Windows Phone 8.1 sticks with a simpler, cleaner lock screen – an approach that's neither better nor worse; it is more elegant, but a tad less functional. At the bottom we have counters for missed calls, new texts, and unread IMs, which is a small touch that we quite like. It is also nice that you may let Windows Phone change your lock screen wallpaper daily with one selected by the Bing team. To access the camera app from the WP lock screen, you either hold down the phone's physical camera button, if one's available, or swipe down to get to the notification panel – a shortcut is placed there.
Speaking of the Windows Phone 8.1 notification panel, also referred to as the Action Center, it hosts toggle buttons for turning Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on or off and for controlling screen brightness. While only four of these can be displayed at a time, you may remove those that you don't need and add other toggles, such as one for internet sharing, GPS, orientation lock, or Airplane Mode. Still, Android L's solution is more versatile. In addition to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth toggle buttons, the Quick Controls present us with a brightness slider, Location and Airplane Mode toggles, as well as with a button for locking the screen orientation, all in the same menu.
In Windows Phone 8.1, the user may pick between a handful of theme colors and apply one of them against a white or a black background. Alternatively, there's the option to set a home screen wallpaper of sorts – some tiles are rendered transparent and an image is layered behind them, which creates a unique and quite nice window effect. One more thing that can be modified is the arrangement of the Live Tiles on the home screen – we can place each right where we want it. Plus, with Windows Phone 8.1, we can enable an extra column of space for Live Tiles from the Settings menu.
In contrast, Windows Phone 8.1 has the Phone and contacts apps (the latter is called People) separated. The Phone app is pretty simple, with our call log, favorites, and contacts listed alphabetically. Using the search bar we can find contacts by entering either of their names. The People app is separate since it is more than just a manager for our contacts. It also serves as a hub listing our friends' activity on social networks and lets us interact with their posts. It is a different approach and definitely not a bad one.
The on-screen keyboard on Android L now has a simpler layout and has retained its great accuracy. It speeds up our typing with its word predictions, and fans of alternative input methods may use the keyboard's swipe mode. The keyboard in Windows Phone has always been a very accurate one, and it is about to get even better in Windows Phone 8.1. The platform's latest version adds Word Flow, which works just like the swipe method in Android. It isn't available on our demo unit, however, so we can't give it a try at this time.
Google Now, Android's virtual assistant, is an intelligent tool that attempts to provide relevant information at the right time. It does that by analyzing the user's search habits, location patterns, and by integrating with core Android apps and services. So for example if you have a flight coming in a day, Google Now will provide you with flight updates ahead of time. If you visit the same place over the weekend, Google Now will give you a traffic update before you even ask for it.
Also, Google Now responds to natural language queries and commands. You may ask it to dial or send a message to a contact, to give you a weather forecast, or to set a reminder or to take down a note, to give a few examples. What's more, Google Now can be accessed from any screen thanks to an always-on voice command. As long as the phone is not on stand-by, that is.
With Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft is introducing us to Cortana – a personal virtual assistant made to respond to natural language commands, much like Google Now. Similarly, she is able to look into the user's contacts, emails, calendar and other personal information in order to perform whatever action she's been instructed to do. For example, you may ask Cortana to initiate a call, to set an alarm, or to read your last email. But she's been also designed to integrate with third-party apps and services, such as Skype, Hulu Plus, or Facebook.
Google Camera, which is the default camera app in Android L, offers little in terms of manual controls. But it is easy to get the hang of and features a handful of cool modes, including panorama, Photo Sphere, HDR+, and Lens Blur. We gave it a review not long ago, so check it out if you're curious to learn more.
The Windows Phone 8.1 gallery is similar to Android's. Images are grouped by date taken and uploaded up to OneDrive where they're safe from being lost. You may easily share images on your favorite social networks with a few taps. The only thing we wish the app had more of are image editing tools beyond cropping, rotating, and an automatic fix.
Windows Phone is catching up. The platform, once regarded as the underdog in the smartphone arena, is now better, bolder, and functional enough to give its rivals something to worry about. It has reached this state by adopting a number of practical features (read: not gimmicks) from its competitors, all the while improving on ones that have already become staples of the Microsoft's mobile operating system. At the same time, Windows Phone 8.1 does not stray away from the platform's roots. It is still that simple to use and minimalist OS that adds some welcome variety in a market dominated by Android and iOS.
Yet while Windows Phone 8.1 brings the feature gap between itself and its nemeses to a minimum, it can't be considered superior to Android L. We'd rather call it... different. It isn't as customizable as Android, but it has a unique, modern look. It isn't as functional as Android, but all that it does, it does it well. Ultimately, we don't see why anyone who's grown up with Android would prefer WP 8.1 to Android L, unless they are just eager to try something new. Those who are less picky about which OS their smartphone is powered by, however, would probably not be disappointed with Windows Phone 8.1 and its smooth, hassle-free user experience.