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Tech Lab

Apple beats Android in smartphone wars

Apple’s timing was perfect. The new iPhone 5s hit the stores two years after I bought an iPhone 4s, entitling me to a $200 trade-in, and a painless upgrade.

But the contract on my other phone had run out a few months earlier. So I picked up an HTC One, powered by Google Inc.’s Android operating system. And I am delighted with it. Android began by aping the iPhone, but it has evolved into software so good that the flow of borrowed ideas runs both ways, with Apple adding a number of Android’s best features.

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So which is better? After comparing the way each phone handles several important tasks, it was an easy call. Android’s fine; Apple’s even finer.

This comparison was no cakewalk. Android’s features can vary from phone to phone. It has open-source software, so phone makers like Samsung Corp. and HTC Corp. add their own special tweaks. Phones running Apple’s iOS 7 and its older brother, iOS 6, always work the same way. Still, we can make a few worthwhile side-by-side critiques.

Let’s start with utilities — the tools and controls used to set up the phone and get basic tasks done. Android has long done it better. There is no hunting for the settings control. Just pull down the notifications bar at the top of the screen and there it is. Want to add app shortcuts to a screen? Just touch it to view your options.

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The new iOS 7 has caught up in a big way. It now has Control Center, a marvelous menu that pulls up from the bottom of the screen. Control Center allows instant access to a bunch of vital utilities — airplane mode, screen brightness, music volume, a timer, and a calculator. It even has a flashlight mode, so there is no need to download a separate app for that. You can do all these things with an Android, but not quite so easily. Advantage: Apple.

Android came up with the idea of posting notifications of incoming messages on a pull-down menu at the top of the screen, but Apple is perfecting it. The iOS version has always been superior to Android’s and in iOS 7 it has gotten much better. I especially like the today feature, which tells you the day’s appointments, the local weather, and even a preview of what is on tap tomorrow. In this department, Android has lots of catching up to do.

Apple’s iOS 7 has caught up in a big way with its Control Center menu.

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How about device security? The fingerprint scanner on the new iPhone 5s is cool, but a team of German hackers have already figured out how to beat it. Maybe we should stick to the old-school password system that the iPhone uses as a backup. Androids have password protection, too. But what they did not have for a long time was something like Apple’s Find My iPhone feature. This lets users find a lost or stolen phone and remotely wipe the information on it, to protect sensitive data. The new iOS 7 just added a kill switch that can remotely lock the phone to make it permanently useless to thieves.

But Android has closed the gap on security. Last month, it launched Android Device Manager, a website where a user can see their phone’s location on a map. They can order it to blast out a ringtone, or delete stored information. This week, Android added a remote locking feature of its own. With this new tool, my Android phone is as secure as the iPhone.

Both iOS and Android offer excellent speech recognition tools. Android’s Google Now service has actually worked better for me than the iPhone’s vaunted Siri system. Google Now is great for all kinds of online searching, and it even launches the apps on Android phones with a voice command. But the iOS 7 Siri upgrade has pushed Apple back into the lead. It is much faster than the previous edition, with a more pleasant, human-sounding voice (female or male). And it has a heap of features that Androiders can only dream of. You can ask Siri to read your e-mail aloud, play a favorite piece of music, or run a hashtag search on Twitter. I have no doubt that Google will soon pull even, but for now, give it up for Apple.

I still prefer my HTC One. It runs fast as a laser, its screen is much bigger than that of the 5s, and I’m addicted to HTC’s custom-designed screen interface, which displays the latest news headlines and Facebook messages. With help from a few good apps, it can do nearly anything the iPhone 5s can do. Yet the iPhone’s combination of beauty and efficiency is as magical as ever.

The 5s is not my favorite phone, but it is better.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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