iPad 2 vs. Android: And the winner is...


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Well, folks, the wait is over: We finally have a fair fight.

Since the launch of the Motorola Xoom and Google's Android Honeycomb OS, everyone's been champing at the bit to make iPad vs. Android tablet comparisons. Until now, though, the comparison had been putting a brand new device up against a year-old product -- Apple's original iPad -- and consequently didn't hold much weight.

With the revelation of Apple's new iPad 2 this week, that's all changed. So grab a front-row seat, battle fans, and let's get ready to rumble.

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We'll start by looking at the most significant changes in Apple's new iPad 2, as outlined by Steve Jobs himself at Wednesday's magical special event. Cutting through the standard flowery-adjective-filled descriptions, the highlights are:

The new iPad 2 is thinner and lighter than its predecessor; it's 0.34 inches thick and 1.3 pounds, compared to the previous iPad's 0.53-inch and 1.5-pound profile.

The iPad 2 is faster than the first, boasting a dual-core 1GHz processor compared to the original's single-core 1GHz chip.

Apple's latest iPad includes two cameras: a front-facing camera for video chat and a rear-facing camera for photo and 720p video capturing. It can also output HD video via an optional HDMI connector.

The iPad 2 has a gyroscope.

In terms of software, the iPad 2 doesn't bring about any significant changes with its launch. An accompanying iOS update will add a new feature called iTunes Home Sharing that lets you access iTunes songs on your desktop computer, and the integrated Safari Web browser is said to have some performance improvements as well.

To boil it down to the basics, then, the new iPad is thinner, lighter, and faster than the old one, and it has cameras. That's pretty much it.

Pitted up against the Motorola Xoom -- the first and thus far only Android Honeycomb tablet on the market -- Apple's new iPad 2 comes out ahead in terms of thickness and weight: The Xoom is 0.16 of an inch thicker than the new iPad, and 0.25 of a pound heavier.

The iPad 2 is either equal to or somewhat behind the Xoom when it comes to raw processing power: Both the iPad 2 and the Xoom (as well as most of the other upcoming high-end Honeycomb tablets) have dual-core 1GHz processors. The Xoom has 1GB of RAM; rumors and recent reports suggest the iPad 2 has 512MB. Since Apple has not officially divulged that detail for the device, it's hard to say anything definitively.

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Okay -- so Apple's new tablet wins in size and weight and more or less catches up in speed and cameras. The Xoom, however, has the higher resolution display (10.1 inches at 1280-by-800 vs. 9.7 inches at 1024-by-768); support for expanded storage via MicroSD cards; and support for USB connections. It will also be upgradeable to 4G in the near future, while the iPad 2 is 3G forever.

Android's strongest advantages, though, come via the innovations found in the Honeycomb operating system -- innovations that will be present in all Android 3.0 tablets, not just the Xoom. Among the most noteworthy:

Widgets. Instead of being limited to simple rows of static icons filling up your tablet's home screens, as you are on an iPad, Honeycomb's widgets allow you to do things like view and actively scroll through your inbox, thumb through your upcoming calendar appointments, and flip through the latest news stories -- all without ever opening anything. To borrow a word from Apple's dictionary, this revolutionizes the tablet experience.

Notifications. When you get an e-mail, an Android Honeycomb tablet briefly flashes the info at the bottom of your screen and then leaves an interactive icon for whenever you want to deal with it. You can customize notifications by service to control what you see and what you don't. It's intuitive and noninvasive, which certainly can't be said for the notification system on iOS and the iPad.

Voice commands and translations. Thanks to Google's voice-to-text technology, Honeycomb tablets have fully integrated support for voice-based input. Anywhere you can type text, you can speak it. You can also use Google's Voice Actions system -- accessible via an icon on the home screen -- to perform advanced functions like conducting searches and making notes.

Multitasking. While Apple has technically offered multitasking since iOS 4.0, it's multitasking with a major asterisk. Apple's form of multitasking is basically just task-switching and a limited amount of background processing. Android Honeycomb tablets, on the other hand, have full-fledged multitasking support. And using it is as easy as tapping an icon in the lower-left corner of the screen; that brings up a box with your most recently used programs, any of which can be opened from anywhere in the system.

Desktop-like browsing. Honeycomb's browser is as close to the desktop experience as you can get on a tablet. The browser allows you to have multiple tabs, to open pages in "incognito" mode, and to automatically stay synced with your computer's Chrome installation. That means your bookmarks are always available and always up-to-date, wherever you go -- no PC connections or service subscriptions required.

And while the software is still a few weeks out, Honeycomb tablets will soon support browsing of Flash-based content. Mobile Flash loading is done on an on-demand basis, meaning you load material only when you want it (so no, you don't get bombarded with annoying ads). Love it or hate it, Flash is part of the Web -- and having a device that can't access it means you're left with blank holes while browsing.

Full access to your files. You can plug an Android Honeycomb tablet into your computer and browse it as if it were a hard drive. You can drag and drop files from your PC at will -- no limitations, no proprietary software required. You can browse the file system directly from the device, too, making it easy to manage files, share materials, and do what you need to do. The iPad, in contrast, offers an extremely limited method of app-specific file transferring that can be done only through iTunes; you can't directly access or manage the tablet's file system in any way.

Think no iTunes is a negative? Think again. Instead of being forced to rely on a bloated program to manage your music, you can manage it any way you want with an Android tablet. Want to just drag and drop MP3 files without the hassle? No problem. Prefer a graphical interface? There's no shortage of options available. It's up to you; no company is forcing you to use some locked-down program just because they own it.

The freedom to use your device the way you want. Beyond the aforementioned items, Android Honeycomb tablets are free from the Apple-enforced restrictions on how you can customize your device and what you can do with it. While Apple lets you install only programs it has approved -- and we all know how silly and arbitrary the company's app evaluation process can be -- Android devices let you install anything you want. Aside from Apple-banned things like porn and political satire, this includes numerous applications that let you customize your tablet in ways Apple would never allow. You can pick a replacement browser with extra features, for example, or change the way icons are displayed on your home screens. It's your tablet, and it's your choice.

As for those horrifying tales about the big, bad viruses just waiting to attack your vulnerable Android device? Let me ask you this: How many people do you know who have actually been infected? As I've said before, in any open environment, people are occasionally going to try some nasty stuff. That doesn't mean we lock down the Web and require every page and program to be preapproved. That means we take it upon ourselves to use some common sense and be careful about what we do online.

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All this application talk brings us to the current weak point of the Honeycomb tablet ecosystem: the number of tablet-optimized applications available for Android. That number, as Jobs pointed out during his presentation this week, is still small. It's no surprise: The tablet programming kit for Android app developers has been out for only roughly a week now. (You can run most regular Android apps on a Honeycomb tablet, by the way; what we're talking about here are programs created specifically to take advantage of the tablet's larger screen.)

So yes, the iPad does currently hold the advantage in selection of tablet-optimized apps -- but it won't be long before the field begins to level out. Remember, app numbers were a big argument by the Apple camp back when Android phones started gaining momentum in 2009. The growth in the Android Market since then has been staggering, and it continues to climb more with every passing month. Today, Android app development is flourishing. We've seen this story play out before.

There's also the issue of price: At $800 (unsubsidized), the Motorola Xoom is more expensive than Apple's lower-end iPad offerings. It's quite competitively priced, however, with the higher-end (and thus more comparable) iPad models. More important, while Motorola opted to offer only one model of the Xoom at launch, numerous Honeycomb tablet models will soon be available from multiple manufacturers. In addition to creating a far wider spectrum of prices, that'll present a far larger choice in size and form factor -- something Apple's single iPad can't offer.

Finally, let me say this: This comparison is looking at functionality and features; we're talking about what the products have to offer from a user perspective. No one's questioning the fact that Apple's iPad 2 will be a commercial success; hell, after having owned practically the entire tablet market for a full year, it'd be ridiculous if it weren't. Brand name recognition and interface familiarity go a long way, and Apple has mastered the art of making its products almost painfully simple to use. For some people, the iPad's utter simplicity and controlled uniformity are appealing qualities -- and that's fine.

For users who want more robust features, choices, and customization potential, though, the Android Honeycomb tablets are light years ahead. And as Android's tablet-optimized app ecosystem continues to mature, that gap will only grow greater.

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