Features and data integration
No surprises here: Google services such as Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Maps are the center of the Android universe, MobileMe and iTunes take center stage with the iOS, and Microsoft tools and services are the focus of Windows Phone 7. Beyond that, Android is the most feature-rich operating system, although iOS does have some goodies that Android lacks, such as built-in Outlook integration. Windows Phone 7 is missing some important features, such as cut and paste.
If you live in a Google-centric world, then Android is the mobile operating system for you. Out of the box, it automatically integrates and syncs with various Google services, notably Gmail, your Google contacts and Google Calendar. In fact, you typically set up a Google device by entering your Google account information, and Google does the rest.
The news isn't quite so good if you're not Google-centric. If you use the client version of Outlook, for example, there is no direct way to synchronize your calendar and contacts with an Android device -- you'll have to pay for a third-party app such as CompanionLink to do that. Like the other two mobile operating systems, however, Android syncs with Exchange. And if you have multiple e-mail accounts, you can check them all simultaneously with a universal in-box.
On the other hand, if you want to synchronize music files between an Android device and a PC, you're stuck with using Windows Media Player, which isn't the most elegant media player around.
When it comes to features, Android offers a number of capabilities that competing smartphones don't. It includes built-in voice search and voice control features, so you can do things like initiate phone calls, search the Web, compose messages and send e-mail by talking rather than tapping.
And the latest version, Android 2.3, features support for Near Field Communication (NFC), an emerging short-range wireless technology that's designed to allow for new ways of communication between smartphones and other devices and objects in the immediate vicinity -- for example, you might be able to swipe an NFC-enabled smartphone near an NFC tag on a poster to download a related app, open a Web page or launch a video.
There is a plethora of built-in widgets, which are smaller than full-blown apps and tend to live on one of the home pages; they perform targeted tasks or display information from the Web. My favorite is the power control widget, which has tappable icons that do things like put a phone into airplane mode or turn Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and automatic syncing on or off. There are many other widgets for a variety of apps, such as Google Search, YouTube, news apps, weather apps and links to Google Calendar.
Android also features tethering via Wi-Fi, USB or Bluetooth, so you can use it to share your Internet connection with other devices, such as a laptop, a tablet or another smartphone. Typically, you'll have to pay your service provider an additional fee, often $20 per month, to enable this capability.
Keep in mind, though, that just because tethering is built into the operating system, that doesn't mean that it will necessarily be available on every smartphone. Some device makers and wireless providers choose not to offer tethering features.
Clearly, Apple fans and owners of other Apple devices will be attracted to iOS because of its tight integration with a variety of Apple software products and services, such as iTunes, Mail, Apple TV and MobileMe. If you've got a Mac, there's a good chance you'll want to use an iPhone.
iOS beats Android when it comes to Outlook integration -- it can sync contacts and calendar information with Outlook 2003 and later versions. Like Android, the iPhone has a unified e-mail in-box for checking multiple mail accounts.
Apple has some goodies built into the iPhone 4 that are lacking in both Android and Windows Phone 7. Notable among them is the video-calling feature FaceTime, which uses the front-facing and back-facing cameras for video calling. You can either directly initiate a FaceTime call, or you can switch to a FaceTime call while you're talking.
The iPhone's music player, with excellent support for podcasts and audio books, is superior to Android's and Windows Phone 7's, and the eye candy of the 3D interface for flipping through albums and photographs beats the competition as well. Getting music onto and off of an iPhone is far easier than doing the same thing with an Android or Windows Phone 7 device.
Whether you love iTunes or hate it, it's simply the best way to sync music between devices -- and it's the best way to download and use music on a smartphone. The process is far easier and better on the iPhone than competing smartphones. Apple added the iTunes Home Sharing feature to iOS 4.3; it lets you access iTunes media on a Mac or PC from an iPhone on the same Wi-Fi network. And if you have an Apple TV media player, you can use the AirPlay feature to wirelessly stream photos and videos from an iPhone to a TV for big-screen viewing.
With the recent release of iOS 4.3, iPhones offer tethering (which Apple calls Personal Hotspot) via Wi-Fi, USB and Bluetooth, but only from the iPhone 4. As with Android, this capability carries an additional fee: Both Verizon and AT&T charge an extra $20 per month for tethering.
Windows Phone 7
Windows Phone 7 has clearly been designed to be the centerpiece of a Microsoft-centric world, both for applications and for cloud-based Microsoft services. That becomes clear when you start the phone for the first time and you're asked for your Windows Live ID.
There's a version of Outlook built into the operating system, and it works and syncs as you would expect -- seamlessly. The browser, naturally, is based on Internet Explorer. But the real news is Mobile Office, which includes mobile versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and SharePoint. They're not the full-blown Windows versions, but they do the job very nicely. Neither the iPhone nor Android phones have anything comparable built into the operating system.
There's also excellent integration with Microsoft's cloud-based services, including Hotmail. The People app integrates with the cloud-based Windows Live very nicely. Windows Live, in turn, integrates nicely with Facebook, so you get Facebook feeds and information delivered to you that way.
I've also used Windows Phone 7 with the beta of Microsoft Office 365, a suite of cloud-based services including Exchange, SharePoint and more. No surprise here -- Office 365 integrates more easily and cleanly with Windows Phone 7 devices than it does with iPhones or Android devices.
But Windows Phone 7 doesn't always play nicely with services from other companies. For example, it recognizes only one Google Calendar, so if you've got multiple ones, you're out of luck. And you may also run into glitches with Google Calendar synchronization.
Windows Phone 7 is also missing some important features, notably copy and paste. (Microsoft says this will be fixed in the first update to Windows Phone 7.) This feature isn't absolutely vital for a phone; if you're mostly using it for entertainment or keeping in touch with friends, you won't need to use copy and paste that much. But it's a surprising and serious drawback, given that the platform includes Office Mobile, which is clearly designed for business.
Also missing is a universal in-box. Unlike Android and the iPhone, Windows Phone 7 can't show you all your e-mail messages from multiple services in a single location. Instead, you have to check each account individually, a decided drawback for people who want to use their smartphones as universal communications hubs.
Missing as well is any ability to tether via Wi-Fi, USB or Bluetooth.
You have to sync music to Windows Phone 7 devices using Microsoft's Zune software. Zune has its fans, but I don't count myself among them. I find setup and syncing initially confusing, although once you do find your way around it, it's serviceable.
There is no winner here -- it all depends on what operating system you like and what applications you use. Google fans will clearly want an Android phone because it offers the best integration with Google's services. Those who live and die by Microsoft will instead prefer Windows Phone 7, although they may be put off by the lack of copy and paste (which is expected to be fixed this month). As for iOS, there's no surprise here -- Mac fans will want it.