Opinion: Comparing Apples And Androids

The iPhone 4S has copped a lot of flack for being a 'catchup' product, but I think that ignores a key Apple advantage.

After the iPhone 4S launch, Gizmodo US’ Mat Honan wrote how he was disappointed with the iPhone 4S. At the time, I was too. The iPhone 4S launch was itself a little flat, and the phone wasn’t quite the hit for six that might have been expected after 18 months of development time. Slowly, however, my opinion is changing.

As rapidly seems be becoming the norm, I should launch into this with a couple of simple starting caveats and requests. Firstly, if you could kindly keep the troll/fanboi comments to a minimum, I’d appreciate it. In one sense, knock yourself out, but really, hasn’t it all been trolled before? More pertinently, I’m making the below observations with no hands-on time with an iPhone 4S yet. Believe, me, I’m working to rectify that any way I can, but it’s an important caveat for reasons that should shortly become clear.

There’s been a lot of criticism and comparison made between the iPhone 4S and existing Android handsets, given that one of the selling pitches for the iPhone 4S is the use of a dual-core A5 processor, and dual-core on Android is nothing new. Some of that’s fair comparison — we are, after all, talking about smartphones in the smartphone market — but some of it misses what might be a critical point — optimisation.

If there’s one trait that defines Apple, it’s control. Just as Google’s all about information (its, yours, mine) and Facebook’s all about being social (and privacy be damned), Apple’s a company that works from a central control mantra. Apple knows exactly what’s going into its products at every single level, and it’s a key reason why there aren’t that many Apple product lines at any one time. To draw things back to last week’s launch, one of the most surprising things to emerge was the fact that the iPhone 3GS didn’t become obsolete. It’s pretty clear that this is solely so Apple can have a “$0” phone in the States; I wouldn’t advise anyone to rush out and buy a 3GS today. I figured the one thing you could have put money on last week was that the 3GS was about to be made redundant, because usually, Apple has relatively few product lines so that it can focus its development efforts on that hardware alone.

There’s a reason why Mac OS works well on Mac hardware; it’s because the hardware is entirely predictable from Apple’s viewpoint, and that means they can write very specific optimisations around that hardware. It’s a benefit that Windows doesn’t entirely have, simply because the variety of hardware on offer means it’s all but impossible to program efficiently for all of it. No, I’m not saying Macs never crash. They do. But the Mac OS experience on an actual Mac versus that on a Hackintosh is quite markedly different.

The same is true in the iOS sphere as well. Only a couple of iPods and iPhones to code for with a simple set of code bases? That gives you lots of room to code in ways that only make sense to that hardware, because it’s never going to run on other hardware. That gives Apple a potential edge when it comes to any processor, including dual core ones, and especially when using a processor they’ve used before. They can tweak the operating system to work as seamlessly as possible with the hardware, and it’d be foolish to think that there isn’t code sitting in iOS 5 right now directed right at that purpose.

That’s why a direct comparison between a dual core Android phone and a dual core Apple one isn’t quite as cut and dried as it might seem. Yes, both platforms have dual core options, but the way that the underlying code approaches them can be radically different; Apple’s control over its hardware platform means that it may be able to eke out more performance on its platform than the specifications suggest. If we were talking an iPhone running Gingerbread, it’d be an entirely different story. But to compare dual core phones for a second, if I was offered a Galaxy S II, HTC Sensation or LG Optimus 2X — all dual-core Android phones — I’d pick the Galaxy S II in a heartbeat, because in my own experience it’s the phone that gets the most out of its dual core processor. Same underlying operating system, but there are differences that change the eventual end user experience.

Optimisation is an argument that naturally enough cuts both ways; Apple’s control is both a blessing and a curse. They may get better performance out of a dual core part because they’re only writing for a limited set of hardware specifications, but at the same time the open nature of the Android platform allows for tweaking under the hood that’s harder to achieve with iOS. The work of teams producing custom ROMs does allow hardware to be tweaked for better performance and that shouldn’t be overlooked either. But to write the iPhone 4S off as simply playing catchup ignores one of Apple’s key market advantages.

Image: incredibleguy

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