Smartphone OSes compared (photos)

Shopping for a new smartphone and confused by all the different operating systems? CNET offers a comparison of the various platforms to help you decide.

Bonnie Cha
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
Bonnie Cha
1 of 15 Bonnie Cha/CNET; Samsung

Smartphone operating systems compared

More and more people are adopting smartphones these days, and we live in a time where there's a great variety to choose from, not just in terms of design but also in mobile operating systems.

Of course, all this choice can also make the buying decision a bit confusing and overwhelming, so to help you out, we've put together this photo gallery of the different OSes: iOS, Android, Windows Phone, WebOS, and BlackBerry. In it, we offer a look at each platform's home screen, notifications and multitasking system, mobile Web browser, and app store, so you can compare and contrast in one place.

Though we still recommend going into a store to try out the devices firsthand, we hope this will help give you a better idea of what to expect from the OSes and help you in your buying decision.

Home screen: iOS vs. Android
iOS (shown left throughout slideshow): Ease of use is one of the hallmark features of the iPhone and iOS. As soon as you turn on the phone, you're presented with a simple but beautiful grid view of all your different apps. A quick tap of an icon and you're off and running.

You can rearrange the icons by doing a long press and then dragging it to the desired spot; iOS also supports folders so you can group similar apps together. That said, aside from the ability to change wallpaper, iOS doesn't offer much in the way of customization out of the box.

Android (shown right throughout slideshow): On the other hand, the openness of Android allows for a lot more customization, not just on the user's side but on the handset manufacturers' and carriers' side as well. This is why you'll find different user experiences on Android phones, depending on whether you get an HTC handset, a Samsung phone, LG, etc.

Shown here, however, is the stock Android experience on the Samsung Nexus S 4G. Android usually offers five to seven home screens that you can personalize with various app shortcuts and widgets. There's a bit of a learning curve, but nothing to be afraid of.

2 of 15 Sarah Tew/CNET

Home screen: Windows Phone vs. WebOS

Windows Phone (shown left throughout slide show): Microsoft recently revamped its mobile OS, and the result is a huge improvement over Windows Mobile. Windows Phone 7's metro UI is fresh, gorgeous, and functional.

The Start screen features "live tiles" that act as both shortcuts and small windows of information. You can pin apps, as well as favorite contacts, Web sites, even maps, to the Start screen for easy access. Once the Mango update is released this fall, you'll be able to see more real-time information in the tiles, such as a contact's status update or current weather if you have a weather app on the home screen.

WebOS (shown right throughout slideshow): HP's (formerly Palm) WebOS goes for a more minimalistic look. Unless you have apps open, the home screen features just a small launch bar at the bottom and the Just Type search bar at top. By default, the launch bar offers shortcuts to the dialer, contacts, messages, and calendar, but you can replace (except for the last, which takes you to the main menu of apps) and add your favorite apps by doing a long press and dragging and dropping.

Also, don't feel like you have to use the dedicated search bar. As the name suggests, you can just start typing a search term from anywhere on the phone, and WebOS will search through your contacts, e-mail, apps, the Web, Google Maps, Wikipedia, Twitter, and the Palm App Catalog for results. It's one of the great features of WebOS.

3 of 15 Bonnie Cha/CNET

Home screen: BlackBerry

Research In Motion overhauled its BlackBerry operating system about a year ago, and another update is due in the coming months. For now, BlackBerry OS 6 is the most current version, and it brought about a big change to the platform, while still keeping some of the familiar for longtime BlackBerry users.

Here on the home screen, you get a navigation bar at the bottom where you can swipe from left to right and vice versa to access apps and content based on five categories: All, Favorites, Media, Downloads, and Frequent. In addition to swiping sideways, you can tap on a category to expand it and see the full list of associated apps. Though OS 6 was designed with touch interfaces in mind, it works just as well on non-touch devices, such as the BlackBerry Style.

4 of 15 Screenshots by Kent German, Bonnie Cha/CNET

Smartphone OSes compared

iOS: Currently, the iPhone uses a push notification system that alerts you to new messages, voice mail, and notifications from third-party apps through a series of alerts, sounds, and badges. It's not very streamlined and can be pretty disruptive, especially if you have notifications enabled for a number of apps.

Fortunately, the system is changing with iOS 5, which is due out this fall. As shown here, you'll now be able to swipe down from the top of the screen and see all your notifications in one place, as well as weather and stock information. It's much less obtrusive, and now you won't get pop-up alerts interrupting your game of Angry Birds.

Android: Google got notifications right from the get-go. The pull-down notifications tray was present on the very first Android device, the T-Mobile G1, and it's still present on all Android phones today. Small icons on the top toolbar give you visual cues to alert you to new messages, missed calls, and so forth, at which point, you can pull down the tray to get more info and launch the appropriate apps.

The notifications area is also used to show the status of other activity, such as app downloads, and some OEMs and carriers have gone on to add wireless managers, shortcuts to recently used apps, and more, to bring extra functionality to that space.

5 of 15 Microsoft; HP

Notifications: Windows Phone vs. WebOS

Windows Phone: Currently, the main system of notifications on Windows Phone is the live tiles on the Start screen. The number of missed calls, new messages, appointments, and so forth are shown in appropriate tiles. The addition of more-dynamic tiles in Mango should allow more third-party apps to tap into the feature to push out notifications.

WebOS: Similar to Android, WebOS also got notifications right from the very beginning. In this case, the platform seamlessly alerts you to incoming/missed calls, new messages, appointments, and so forth, along the bottom of the screen.

When there's a new notification, it briefly appears onscreen--e-mails are shown with the subject header, text messages and IMs offer single-line previews of text messages and IMs--at which point you can either tap to expand or ignore it and let it collapse into a smaller alert. You also have the option to accept or ignore incoming calls, all this while you can still see the app you're working in--very well done.

6 of 15 RIM

Notifications: BlackBerry

BlackBerry is another to use the notification tray system. A slim bar appears just below the status area where you can easily see if you have any new alerts. If so, you can then tap on the bar to expand the tray and view more details or go directly to the appropriate app.
7 of 15 Screenshots by Bonnie Cha/CNET

Multitasking: iOS vs. Android

Smartphones can do a lot of things, so it's only natural that you're going to want to use all the different functions, which is why multitasking is an important function. However, each OS handles the process in a slightly different way.

iOS:With iOS, pressing the home button twice allows you to switch between running apps. Only the app in the foreground is actually running, while the rest stay suspended in the background. This is in order to preserve battery life, but don't worry, the system remembers where you last left off and resumes from that place once you switch back to the app.

That said, there are instances where Apple allows third-party apps to run in the background. One of those instances is if an app needs a limited amount of time to complete an action. For example, let's say you're uploading a photo to Flickr. You can move this to the background where it will continue running until the photo's been uploaded or the app has reached its time limit to complete the action; at that point, the app is suspended until you bring back to the front.

The only other way Apple will allow an app to keep running is if it's used for background audio, VoIP calls, or locations services. If an app isn't doing one of those three things, it's put on hold, just like the rest.

Android: Google offers a similar app switcher that you can activate by holding the home button while in another app, but the multitasking function is a little different on Android. The processes for apps continues to run in the background, so if you're downloading a Web page, it will continue to do so. However, if the phone starts to run low on memory, the system will start to "kill" apps that haven't been used recently but even so, it remembers its last state, so if you decide to relaunch it, the app will resume from where you last left off.

Android also allows some apps to continue running in the background indefinitely, but it's not as restrictive as iOS. As long as an app is written with a "service component," it's allowed to keep on chugging along even if you're in another app. This is why services like Pandora can keep playing even while you're checking e-mail.

8 of 15 HP; Josh Miller/CNET

Multitasking: Windows Phone vs. WebOS

WebOS: One of the big reasons WebOS received so much praise in the beginning was because of its multitasking abilities. Each app that you open, even each Web page that you launch, brings up a new "card." Like on a computer, you can then minimize and maximize tasks by using the center button and swiping through the various cards till you find the app that you want to use. All the while, the apps are running in the background.

The only limitation here is memory. At some point, the phone will reach its limit on how many open cards you can have, but we've been able to open at least a dozen apps on the Palm Pre 2 and HP Veer 4G and be just fine.

Windows Phone: Multitasking on Windows Phone will make its debut this fall with the Mango update. We got to try it out during our technical preview of Windows Phone 7.5, and visually, it works similarly to WebOS.

To switch tasks, just press and hold on the back button. The program minimizes the app into a smaller size, so you can then swipe side to side to see the other open programs and tap the one you want. An app in the background is suspended but keeps its memory, so it can pick up from where you left off once you return to the app.

9 of 15 Blackberry Cool

Multitasking: BlackBerry

BlackBerry has had multitasking for a long time. The system features an app switcher that you can call up by holding down the BlackBerry key, and it was recently updated in BlackBerry OS 6 to offer a larger view of all your running apps. When you've found the app you want, you just tap on the icon and it's brought to the front, while the others remain running in the background.

Like WebOS, BlackBerry is limited by the available memory, so it's best to close out of programs when you're done using them to optimize your phone's performance.

10 of 15 Screenshots by Bonnie Cha/CNET

Web browser: iOS vs. Android

iOS: The iPhone uses a mobile version of Apple's Safari browser that's quite capable and does a swift job of rendering Web pages in full HTML format. It offers pinch-to-zoom support, the ability to save and sync bookmarks with your computer, as well as the option to add them to your home screen. With iOS 5, you'll also get a Reader option that takes text and images from multipage articles and presents it in a more readable format without ads and irrelevant information.

Though a bit of a polarizing topic, we should mention that there's no Flash support, so you won't be able to view some content on the iPhone.

Android: Android's browser is great in its own right. For one, it can handle Flash content. You can also open multiple windows, share links, search for text on a page, download straight from a page, and more. There are constant debates and tests being done to see which browser is faster--iPhone or Android--but the fact is they're both speedy and should make most people happy.

11 of 15 Microsoft; IntoMobile

Web browser: Windows Phone vs. WebOS

WebOS: HP's WebKit-based browser renders sites onscreen as you would see them on your desktop, and fairly quickly at that. With multitouch support, you easily zoom in/out on pages with a double-tap or by pinching your finger together or apart and you pan pages by touching a point on the screen and dragging your finger in any direction.

Recently updated, the browser also offers integrated Flash and more HTML5 features, including geolocation support.

Windows Phone: The Internet Explorer browser on Windows Phone offers support for up to six windows and thumbnail views of all open pages, so you can easily toggle back and forth. You can also bookmark sites, and if you feel like it, you can pin pages to the Start screen for easier access.

Currently, there's no support for Flash, Silverlight, or HTML5, but we know support for the latter is coming with Internet Explorer 9 and the Mango update. The improved browser also includes hardware acceleration that should render content faster and more efficiently.

12 of 15 RIM

Web browser: BlackBerry

For a long time, using the BlackBerry browser was an absolutely frustrating experience. It was slow and limited in functionality, but luckily, RIM made some big improvements with OS 6. It simplified processes, such as a cleaner start page and easier bookmarking, and added new and improved features like tabbed browsing and enhanced URL sharing.

The browser also included better HTML and JavaScript rendering, and partial support for HTML5 and CSS3 (no Flash, though), to improve the speed and performance of the browser. Still, it feels slightly sluggish compared with the competition, but RIM is promising faster performance with BlackBerry OS 7. We'll see.

13 of 15 Screenshots by Bonnie Cha/CNET

App store: iTunes vs. Android

iTunes: Apple gets a lot of praise for the quality and quantity of titles in the iTunes App Store, and it's well deserved. The company's rather stringent approval process keeps out some of the flotsam, and with more than 425,000 apps to choose from, you should have no problem finding what you're looking for.

Android Market: The number of apps in the Android Market is nothing to scoff at, either, with the last count around 200,000. Google just updated the store with a new look, along with new products for purchase, including books.

14 of 15 Microsoft; HP

Windows Marketplace vs. HP App Catalog

Windows Marketplace: Windows Phone first launched in November 2010, but there's been a steady stream of titles being added to the catalog every week, more so than some older platforms. Recent estimates have the store to have around 25,000 apps, but what's also impressive is the quality apps and Microsoft's smarter approach to integrating them into your phone.

HP App Catalog: When the Palm Pre first launched, users complained about the lack of apps. Unfortunately, not a lot has changed since then. The HP App Catalog only features around 4,500 titles, and a recent survey of developers found that interest for writing applications for WebOS is lagging behind the rest of the competition.

15 of 15 RIM

BlackBerry App World

BlackBerry App World features around 25,000 apps in its catalog. Not bad but also not great, considering that it's been around for two years and has the same number of titles as Windows Marketplace, which isn't even a year old. Though you'll find the most of the major apps here, RIM will need to continue to prove to developers that its platform is worth developing for.

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