The State of Android Apps, Part One: The Big Names

Daniel Bader

June 2, 2013 9:57 pm

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It’s been awhile since we looked at the “state of Android apps” and how they compare to their iOS equivalents. The situation has improved drastically in the past year or so, with most big-name companies overhauling their Android apps as the quality of development tools improved alongside the visibility of the platform.

In the first part of this series, we’re going to look at seven popular apps from major startups. These are all free apps for services that are either offered without fee, or in the case of Evernote, as a “freemium” model. The impetus for this post came from my transition to Android from iPhone, and the realization that there are fewer “core” experiences I miss going from Apple to Google. In the second part of the series, we’ll look at the areas in which Android finds itself at a disadvantage, namely “exclusives” such as Letterpress, Vine and Tweetbot, as well as some smaller brands that have yet to really take Android all that seriously.

The takeaway from this brief experiment is that, in most ways, the feature sets and performance of each Android app listed here is identical to its iPhone equivalent. If you’re trepidatious about switching from an iPhone to a Galaxy S4 or HTC One and are happy to search for a few lesser-known equivalents to some high-profile exclusives (for example, Draft for Drafts, Falcon for Tweetbot) you should find yourself without too much angst.

All screenshots below are taken with an HTC One (left) and an iPhone 5 (right).

Rdio

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Rdio is a good example of an app that has focused on platform equality through the ages, even on less popular platforms like BlackBerry and Windows Phone.

Recently, the company released an update to both its Android and iOS apps that bring the two within pixels of one another, even using the same left-side control scheme and colour palette between them.

Functionally, the two are the same, though the Android version supports in-line controls through the notification shade. The iPhone version does have a prettier “hold for more” menu — when you hold on an album or song, it takes you to a separate page with a lovely textured background — while the Android version sticks to a simple system popup to add music to your Collection or search for more.

Curiously, the Android version sticks the Search action in the top Action Bar, along with the Refresh icon, whereas the iPhone version employs the popular pull-to-refresh and sticks the Search panel in the sliding menu.

Twitter

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Twitter for Android recently received a pretty significant visual overhaul, bringing a more Google-approved “Holo” look along with an extended Discovery experience. Twitter for iOS remained ahead of its Android equivalent in terms of features and design for a long time, but these days, aside from the lack of an Android tablet version, the two are quite equal.

Android differs in some aesthetic ways, putting the four-button navigation row below the top action bar, where it’s on the bottom in the iPhone app. Twitter also recently added an easy way to switch between accounts on Twitter for Android when it added a three-dot menu button to the app.

Twitter for Android suffers from a few performance issues, especially when inputting text. The situation is vastly improved over a year ago, but we wish the company would put as much effort into making the app run smoothly as it did to overhaul its design.

Instagram

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Instagram for Android does everything its iPhone counterpart excels at, but feels clunkier all the same. It could be something to do with the different camera workflows, which is not quite as intuitive as it is on iOS, or it could be the fact that the app’s design just works better on the iPhone, but Instagram for Android, like Facebook, is in need of a visual overhaul.

That being said, Instagram has taken to updating its Android app around the same time as the iPhone version, and it contains all of the same filters and features. It performs very well on modern Android devices, and was recently updated with a new camera interface, doing away with the traditional cropping feature in favour of a simpler grid-and-snap lens.

Now all we need is Vine.

Flickr

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This post was largely inspired by the new Flickr for Android, which did away with the interminable legacy app in favour of a cleaner, more image-focused alternative. Flickr for Android is probably the most unlike its iOS counterpart in terms of navigation, opting for a left-side sliding menu over a permanent five-icon bottom dock.

It takes a little more work to snap a photo in the Android version, as tapping on the camera button at the top right will ask whether you want to take a photo or choose from the Gallery. Once you’ve taken a photo or chosen one or many from the Gallery, both versions allow you to add preset filters or use the integrated Aviary plugin. The main issue with the Android version is that once you’ve selected your photos (which are very small thumbnails) you cannot delete them. You must return to the photo selection screen is choose the photos over again, omitting the one(s) you don’t want. Because the thumbnails are small and hard to differentiate from one another, especially if you’ve taken a lot of similar photos as users are wont to do, this omission is extremely frustrating. The iOS version allows you to hold down your finger on a photo and delete it from the set.

Otherwise the apps are extremely user-friendly, photo-focused (EXIF data is available on both if provided) and relatively powerful. Thankfully, Flickr for Android takes advantage of a user’s native camera app, which oftentimes is superior to the limited built-in versions.

Foursquare

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Foursquare has iterated quickly on the designs of its various mobile apps, trying to work with the OS makers directly (in the case of BlackBerry and Microsoft/Nokia) to take advantage of platform-specific features.

Their Android version has gone through some significant changes in the past few months, and is now close in functionality, if not design, to its iOS counterpart. Both apps employ a sliding left menu bar, but the iPhone version’s mainstay check-in icon floats in the bottom middle of the screen, while on Android, likely due to the typically-larger display real estate, the same button is permanently affixed to the bottom left.

The ‘Explore’ sections of both apps have been upgraded together, so various features, such as ratings and filters, work identically. Foursquare even takes advantage of Google’s newest Maps SDK in the Android version, so vector-based navigation is smooth and arguably more accurate than the Apple Maps integration on iPhone

Facebook

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On the surface, Facebook for Android seems to be almost identical to its iOS counterpart, but there are fundamental differences in architecture that make the former a far worse experience.

Even on high-end hardware, Facebook runs poorly on Android, and newer features often roll out for iPhone first. This was true of VoIP calling and a number of other features, but at the end of the day it’s the fact that Facebook for Android still feels like it was built for Froyo-based devices that irks the most.

Whereas so many other apps take advantage of Google’s new design guidelines, and are optimized for newer devices, it seems that regardless of how many cores, how much memory and how fast a connection, Facebook for Android is slow, ugly and unwelcoming.

Perhaps it’s the fact that the company has put so much effort into its (largely-useless) Home launcher — which is surprisingly beautiful and smooth — but Facebook for Android is ripe for an overhaul.

Evernote

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Lastly, Evernote looks drastically different on Android than on iPhone, though the company states it has optimized both versions for their respective users.

It’s hard to see how the Android version is superior in any way, and Evernote has a history of iterating its iOS versions before others — see the main branch of Evernote in addition to Hello and Food — but eventually Android sees these improvements.

But Evernote for Android has a fundamentally opposite design to iOS: it employs a left-side sliding menu as opposed to the iPhone’s layered “cards” system, which provides quick access to more features. At its core, the app is functionally similar throughout — take text-based, voice- or picture-based notes; append location data and rich text formatting — but the iPhone version generally feels smoother.

In its latest iOS update, Evernote included a reminders feature, which is sure to come to Android in the coming weeks. While the Android version feels at times a little clunky, it can still integrate with important features like Page Camera — OCR from a photo — and Dictation.

  • MSEV777

    You should try comparing the same apps to Windows Phone 8…. You would get some interesting results. For Instagram, use Instance.

    • vannumber1

      except what would be the point, wp8 is about 2% of the market share.

    • ITCanWork

      I hate this mentality, so we shouldn’t care about learning about another OS or software unless it magically blows up by its own and have a bigger market share and THEN pay attention? Im an Android user, but it would be nice to have a comparison to wp8, i haven no idea what the apps look like or even if they’re are available, probably because of this same mentality.

      Look at MAC OS X market share in the desktop world, should we completely ignore it cause what, 5-10% of desktops have it? On a side note, i use Ubuntu on my TV, and all my friends/visitors always ask me “What is that??” and they all love it, especially the way I have it setup. And it didnt take any special linux knowledge to get it to work either, yet Linux has 1% market share.

    • Guest

      On a side note, i use Ubuntu on my TV, and all my friends/visitors always ask me “What is that??” and they all love it, especially the way I have it setup. And it didnt take any special linux knowledge to get it to work either, yet Ubuntu has 1% market share.

    • ChrisPollard77

      These days it’s surprising Linux hasn’t seen more uptake. I have Ubuntu running on an old laptop that couldn’t handle Windows acceptably any longer. An example of where it has overtaken Windows is a Bluetooth dongle I picked up to use Bluetooth headphones. After an hour of driver installs and updates, win 7 have me headphones that sort of worked in a couple of programs. And then crashed the machine. The Ubuntu machine installed the drivers in seconds and I had working headphones in under two minutes – including pairing. Also funny how many people have no idea Android is Linux.

    • vannumber1

      blah blah blah, don’t even get me started on apple, and their whole, we know what you want more than you do holyier than s**t attitude.

    • Olerius

      You’re using old info; WP8 is now closer to 5-6% of (world-wide) market share. Still not intense, but potentially over double the potential customer base than you thought.

    • vannumber1

      lol still a drop in the bucket.. almost nobody uses that platform.

  • JBR

    Also, one thing that is lacking from the review, probably because iOS has no comparable feature is the ease with which Android users can navigate these same apps using widgets. A great example is Evernote’s button bar from which I can chose to create a new note without even having to first open the app and the way that I can scroll through my newsfeed right on the home screen.

  • Zed

    it boggles the mind how facebook can be as bad as it is right now, though it was worse. My first app, pretty much an experiment, is better organized than FB.

    Also, concerning the article, it’s an interesting idea Daniel. It’s sad that 5/7 most popular apps, at least in your opinion, are social network apps. Glad to say I barely use one :)

  • park kyokeun

    oh look, apps that i never use cuz they all suck and is replaced by better 3rd party apps :D haha just fooling around.. except facebook…. i hate facebook app

  • alphs22

    Some developers prioritize development on iOS for two main reasons:
    1.) Less hardware variation compared with Android, hence faster development and lower development costs; and,
    2.) Apps in Apple’s App Store generate more revenue per user than Android. This gap was significant in the past but Android is catching up.

    Now, if you’re a small time developer with limited development budget, would it not make sense to first develop on iOS before Android?

    I’m an Android user myself and it sucks that we seem to get updates later than iOS apps, but I can completely understand why smaller developers would first go to iOS.

    • Patrick Polish

      and catching up fast, I’ve heared of some major apps like whatsapp that announced that their android version is generating more revenue. Google still has a long way to go, but the sophistication of their SDK that ports most apps almost automatically for all format and versions of phones will help devs get motivation to create on Android

    • gmaninvan

      In addition, Google is starting to provide much more advanced api’s and service tie ins than you can get with Apple. A good example was the new game service and google+ sign in shown off at IO this year. The ability to install an app and have it signed in automatically is pretty awesome. Couple that with the in app youtube and maps integration and it gives developers some toys apple doesn’t offer.

    • Mathieu

      If you decide to only go with iOS first, you must be 100% sure that Apple is going to approve your app.
      Whereas on Android, you can safely assume that Google will not remove your app from the Play store and that, worst case, you can distribute it yourself on your own website.

  • FlipMango

    Maybe it’s because I’ve been with Android for almost a year now, but I personally find Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram superb on my Galaxy S3. In fact I one of the reasons I started using Twitter recently is because I found the application interface very sleek. I really find the Facebook Heads very useful, that iOS is missing out on. Plus one thing Android has way over iOS is widgets. It is one of the main thing I prefer Android apps over iOS. They are incredibly useful. The day iOS starts using widgets is the day I will seriously consider an iPhone.

  • gmaninvan

    I must say, I find this article to be heavily iOS biased with almost every comparison showing favour to the iOS version. It neglects several apps where the Android version and corresponding holo experience are arguably better than their iOS counterpart. Examples include notable apps such as Score Mobile, Google Drive, LinkedIn, Plex, Slacker Radio, Songza, Youtube, and several others. I personally find the design aesthetic of iOS to look dated in comparison to the latest android apps.

  • Chris Carter

    I guess I don’t see it, as I use widgets, but the screen shots look the same to me. Maybe functionally they work different. I never get how IOS ones are “prettier” when they look the same to me. For Foursquare, I check-in with the widget. I have use the Plume and Twitter widgets. I guess I just don’t see the aesthetic differences that IOS users insist are there

    • Krel Adam

      Android users prefer functionality over looks.

    • Philosoraptor

      I see no reason why I can’t have both.

    • Chris Carter

      I’ve never looked at and app and said”wow that’s pretty” or” wow that’s ugly”. Since I have no ideas what the iOS ones look like’ I can’t even compare and say they are a crappy port. I’ve also never had an app on my tablet look stretched or bad. Apparently I’m all about function and that function well.

  • Krel Adam

    A developer take android seriously? Why? So they can have their app pirated within a few hours? Android is a joke. I know a guy who made close to $200 a day on iOS and only $5 a day on android. According to analytics, more people were playing the game on Android but less people paid for it. I wonder why…

  • Eluder

    Hopefully you’ll have a part about the useful apps on Android that iOS can’t touch. Things like Tasker or Locale, Swiftkey Pro, Maildroid Pro and the countless of productivity tools out there that iOS has nothing to compete with.

  • MajikMonkie

    You should really compare each screenshot at their relative sizes (4.7in vs 4in). As “nice” as iSheeps say it is, I can’t get used to the tiny screen. It’s like replacing my HDTV with a 27″. Can’t imagine you spent years watching TV on something that small…

  • gommer strike

    and are you an app developer? who lives and dies by what they code?

  • gommer strike

    Guys it’s pretty obvious that, when you only have to code for a single platform, that the optimizations and so on are all going to be better and nicer.

    One thing that would definitely help is when all devs move over to ICS at the minimum, and leave gingerbread behind.

  • g-off

    This is so biased. The author clearly is in love with apple lol and fails to mention one positive on the android side. How about taking a look at what android phones have that iphones don’t?

    • Krel Adam

      Maybe because there is no positives on the Android side? From what im seeing, Android apps are just an port from the iOS apps and don’t look as good.