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iOS could learn a lot from Android

Intro

Android vs iOS is an argument as old as time. It’s the tech version of the pizza vs burger argument, both with equally staunch fans that are willing to defend their side of the fence until their dying breath. It’s an argument neither side can win because there’s no such thing as a true winner.

I’m primarily an Android user. I’ve always used Android smartphones for two big reasons: 1. I like how customisable the OS is; 2. Android smartphones are just far more accessible than their pricier rivals. However, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t occasionally wonder if the grass was greener on the other side. Then, the day finally came, and I got my hands on the brand new iPhone 8.

I was finally in the promised land, the utopia of simplicity and elegance that was supposed to be the pinnacle of mobile operating systems. But after spending a few days with iOS 11, the initial impression I came away with was actually one of frustration.

Unlike Android, Apple has full control over both the software and hardware of their devices. This means that they can optimise iOS to work perfectly for the iPhone. In theory, with the R&D and genius behind Cupertino’s software team, iOS should not have any big design flaws because it’s designed to work for a far smaller subset of smartphones than something like Android.

And yet big design flaws were aplenty.

The back button, for example.

You must be wondering, “What back button?”, and I don’t blame you because one of the more fundamental differences between the way users navigate the two operating systems is that iOS “doesn’t have a back button” while Android does. But if you’ve ever used iOS for an extended period of time, you will know that there is a back button and it’s often at the top left of the screen.

Yes, top left — literally the furthest corner from your thumb if you’re holding your phone in your right hand. What’s the deal here? Even on the small iPhone 8, I still have to adjust my grip just to reach it. On the 8 Plus, it’s an ergonomic nightmare without Reachability. With how wide iPhones are, even with Reachability it’s still a stretch.

Things are made even worse when you consider that the “back button” frequently changes. Sometimes it’s an arrow with the name of the previous page while other times — in-app browsers, for example — it changes to “Done”. Even as someone who reviews phones for a living, I hesitated a little before hitting it, not knowing for certain what would happen if I did.

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Where’s back?

“Oh you don’t need the back button, just press the home button!”. Don’t be an idiot, if you’ve ever used an iPhone at all, you will know that there are times where you absolutely need to hit back because what you need is on the previous screen. And hitting home is not going to take you back.

For all of the talk around iOS’ simplicity and flat learning curve, it seems a little out of character to not have a fixed back button (or fixed gesture) to go back in an application. On a mobile OS that prides itself on having everything where it should be, it seems downright conflicting to have a crucial navigation tool that frequently changes its guise.

What’s up with the Personal Hotspot blue bar?

Speaking of UI elements that live on the top of the iPhone’s screen, what’s up with the blue bar that pops up when you have a device connected to your personal hotspot?

Now, I’m pretty sure I can live with how ugly it looks — even though it looks utterly hideous — but I simply can’t live with the fact that it actually blocks UI elements on the screen. Instagram, for example, doesn’t adjust to compensate for the obtrusive blue bar, so your search bar is sliced in half. What’s worse, is when you navigate away from an app into another app — Facebook to Gmail, for example — the button to bring you back to Facebook is completely blocked by this insufferable blue bar.

Oh, and if you thought Reachability would help the situation, I did too:

Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Who did this? How could Apple, a company that’s so meticulous about so many things, let such an obvious flaw in their UI design go live? It absolutely baffles me.

Speaking of Reachability, there’s a known bug with the notification centre on iOS 11 where you can’t pull notifications down from the middle of the phone even when you engage Reachability. Instead, you still had to reach all the way to the top of the phone to pull it down. Apple acknowledged this bug and says that they’re “fixing it“.

And then we have the camera settings

I’m sorry, but why is it in the smartphone settings menu and not in the camera app? In the past, I guess you could make the argument that there weren’t a whole bunch of camera settings that needed frequent tweaking, so you just set it once and you’re good to go. But on the new iPhone 8, things are completely different.

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It’s easily one of the most capable camera smartphones in the market right now, especially when it comes to videography because of the inclusion of 4K video recording at 60fps. That’s something no other phone out now can do and it’s truly an impressive feat.

But 4K 60fps may not be a video format you always want to shoot in, as Apple themselves state: 4K at 60fps playback may not be supported on all devices. Plus, 4K 60fps video files are much larger than 4K 30fps files, and that space saving could be crucial when you’re shooting on a device that you can’t simply swap in a fresh SD card when space is running low.

One fascinating change they did make to the camera settings on iPhone 8, buried the toggle for Auto HDR in the smartphone’s settings app (Settings > Camera) where in the past it was located in the camera app. Yep, they made it more inconvenient to tweak settings.

Oh, notifications are a mess too

I remember a time when notifications on Android were ridiculously messy. They were poorly organised and would give me a headache if I even looked at them. But now, Android’s notifications are awesome. They’re neatly grouped by app and also give you the option to pull down on each banner to view more details.

One nice touch in the Nexus 6P’s stock Android Oreo would design the Spotify notification banner in the same style as the album cover for whatever song you were currently playing. It’s sweet.


Left:iOS, Right: Stock Android

Then I move to iOS and my head starts hurting again. Why are notifications like this? Why does each WhatsApp message in the same group gets its own banner? Why is simply swiping them away not a thing?

Notifications on iPhone are approaching Fitbit levels of nasty and let me tell you, Fitbit’s banner notifications — i.e. those on the Blaze — are absolutely awful.

Since we’re on the topic of notifications, where is my notification LED? I’m not asking for an always-on display or anything fancy like that. All I want is a tiny LED somewhere on the front of my phone that tells me whether I have new notifications since the last time I checked, or whether my smartphone is charging without forcing me to wake the phone’s display.

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Then we have the underutilised 3D Touch

OK, I’ll admit that this isn’t something that iOS could learn from Android, but I still want to mention it here because 3D Touch is easily one of my favourite input features on iOS. It’s infinitely useful but, in my opinion, deeply underutilised.

3D Touch is a simple but powerful gesture that takes the touch interface to the next level, yet I don’t feel that iOS is really making full use of it. Sure, on iOS 11 you can 3D Touch various elements on the Control Centre to bring up more control options (great!) but then I can’t 3D Touch the WiFi icon to view available networks. What gives?

Y’know how iOS’ volume controls don’t give you the option to manually adjust notification and media volume when you use the volume rockers? Why not let us 3D Touch the volume icon that appears to manually do so? It won’t change the way casual people interact with iPhone, it just adds another layer for those of us who want more control.

If you’re an iOS user, you might also have noticed that Apple even removed 3D Touch and swipe from the left to switch to your last app on iOS 11. Why are they removing more 3D Touch functionality when it’s already so underutilised?

Finally, why can’t I choose where to put my icons on the home screen?

I loathe how locked down the home screen is and I loathe how every icon gets auto-arranged to the top left side of the screen, the segment furthest from my thumb when the phone is in my right hand. Why can’t I place an icon at the bottom of the screen? Or to the right? Or anywhere else on the screen?

And no, Reachability doesn’t feel like an elegant solution at all. Why force me to have to double tap the home button just to reach an app that could have easily just been moved to the bottom of the screen?

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