Mobile Deathmatch: Motorola Atrix 4G vs. Apple iPhone 4

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Operational UI. I've noted earlier how the Atrix's Google Android OS 2.2 makes you click the Menu button and go through one or more levels of options to access most capabilities in its apps. This really slows operations, even though it is consistently implemented. Apple is smarter about bringing common capabilities to the top level of iOS apps' UIs, so they are accessible through a quick tap -- yet they don't clutter up the screen.

Another example of Google's poor UI choices: Devices have a Search button, but it's not always functional. If you press Search when, say, reading an email, it does nothing. However, if you press it when viewing a contact, it lets you search your address book. It's not clear why the Search button is available in some contexts and not others, especially for apps like Email that have a search capability. Fortunately, the Home button always works.

The Android OS's Settings app can be confusing to use, and the white-on-black text makes it nearly impossible to use in bright daylight. For example, there are two Wi-Fi options: Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Settings. Tapping Wi-Fi turns off Wi-Fi -- not what I expected. To find a Wi-Fi network, you tap Wi-Fi Settings. After a while I learned the difference, but it was an unnecessary exercise. Apple's iOS doesn't let you confuse turning Wi-Fi on or off with selecting a network, thanks to a single location with clearly designated controls.

The good news is that pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, works equivalently on the Atrix's Android OS 2.2 and iPhone's iOS 4. For text entry, I find the iPhone's on-screen keyboard to be easier to use than the Atrix's, with clearer keys and better deployment of extra keys such as @ and .com in Web and email applications.

Motorola Mobility's MotoBlur UI overlay both hurts and improves the Atrix's Android experience. As I described earlier, MotoBlur adds quick access to folders in email accounts, but also prevents some email accounts from being properly configured to send email. The multiple email apps also create unnecessary confusion. And the nonstandard UI for displaying apps in MotoBlur was a superfluous change. Fortunately, MotoBlur's flaws are concentrated in these two areas (email and apps page access), and once you understand what's going on, you can operate the Atrix easily.

Text selection and copying. Where the Atrix's Android OS falls short compared to the iPhone's iOS is in its text selection. If you're tapping away and realize you've made a mistake not caught by the autocorrect feature, such as when typing a URL, it can be difficult to move the text cursor to that error's location in the text. If you tap too long, the screen is filled with the Edit Text contextual menu; it took me a while to figure out how to tap long enough to move the text-insertion cursor to a new location in text without opening that menu.

On the iPhone, you tap and hold where you want to insert the text cursor (sort of like using a mouse); a magnifier appears to help you move precisely to where you want to go. You then add and delete text at that location. Plus, the controls for text selection also appear, so you can use those if you'd like -- there's no worry about some screen-filling menu appearing.

Along these lines, copy and paste -- and even basic selection -- is often not available in the Atrix's Android OS 2.2. In some fields, tapping and holding brings up the Edit Text contextual menu that lets you copy or paste the entire field's contents; in others you can't even do that. Although the browser lets you select and copy text, this ability is not universal. For example, you can't select text in email messages. On the iPhone, any textual item can be selected, and you can adjust specifically what text is selected by using little sliders. It's easy, intuitive, and universal.

The winner: iOS 4, by a significant length. If you've never used an iPhone, the Android OS with the MotoBlur overlay will be appealing. But if you're familiar with the iOS or Mac OS X, the Atrix's UI will feel clunky and a bit awkward, as if you were being forced to use Windows or Linux. But the Atrix's UI provides more immediacy and accessibility to email, social networking, and similar activities thanks to its widgets and notification functionality -- in that area, it's the iPhone UI that feels a bit backward.

Next page: Which has better security?

At a Glance
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