iOS 5, Apple's latest update to its mobile OS, was released this week, and with it came a load of great new features for iPhone and iPad owners. If you own an Android phone and wish some of those new features can be yours, they're closer than you think. Here's how you can get some of them, like Wi-Fi sync, cloud storage for music and documents and free messaging right now on whatever Android phone you have.
This guide isn't meant to shoehorn iOS 5 on your Android phone. If you wanted iOS, you would have purchased an iPhone. The goal here is to show you how to incorporate a few features into your device that may have made you the tiniest bit jealous when you saw some of the iOS 5 feature demos.
Feature: iCloud; Solution: Google Apps/Dropbox
What it is: iCloud offers iPhone users the ability to synchronise and store information in the cloud. It's essentially a beefed-up version of MobileMe, and synchronises everything from documents created on a mobile device to photos taken, contacts and calendar appointments. Plus, the service is completely free.
How you can get it: Much of what iCloud offers to iOS users is already handled by Android natively. Your contacts and much of your account preferences are already synchronised with Google's servers (you can verify this by going to Settings > Accounts and tapping your Gmail or Google account to see what's being synchronised.)
However, Android does fall a little short when it comes to documents, photos and files. That's where Dropbox comes in. Dropbox's Android app integrates well, and because the files in your Dropbox account only take up space on your Android device when you specifically download them, it makes for a great way to see and have access to your data without worrying about the amount of storage you're using. Dropbox also inserts itself into the "Share" menu of just about every Android application, including your photo gallery and favourite camera app, making it easy to upload files. It's not quite as easy as the hands-off approach that iCloud promises, but it's close.
The one drawback to this combination is that Dropbox is a little clumsy when it comes to photo uploads. You can create galleries by uploading to your Dropbox Photos folder, but if what attracts you to iCloud is its seamless photo uploads, consider the Google+ Android app, which instantly uploads your photos to Google+ as you take them.
Feature: Notifications Menu; Solution: Already Available
What it is: When we got our first look at notifications in iOS 5, more than a few people sat up and took notice that iOS 5's slide-down notifications screen looks like Android's default notifications pane and is accessed the same way. The addition of weather to the notifications pane and organising notifications by type or application are a nice touches.
How you can get it The way Android handles notifications works pretty well, and Apple clearly built on that idea in iOS 5. Depending on the ROM you're using, you already get access to valuable information like your power controls and weather in the notifications pull-down, and it's already organised based on ongoing alerts and those that are spawned by specific applications, each with their own icon to tell them apart.
Feature: Wireless Sync; Solution: AirSync
What it is: In iOS 5, you can sync your device with iTunes without connecting it to your computer, backing up your apps, account preferences, and all of your phone's data easily and seamlessly. It's a great and hassle-free way to make sure your photos, music, apps, and everything else are safely synchronised and backed up before you head out on the town with your iPhone, and it's a long time coming in iOS 5.
How you can get it: If you get your apps through the Android Market or Amazon App Store, they each keep a record of what you've downloaded. As for your music, videos, photos, and other files, we've mentioned ways to completely back up your phone before, whether you're planning to migrate to a new device or just want complete, automated backups. However, in this case, we don't want to sit around waiting for everything to back up, we want to sync some new music and be on our way. Here are your options:
AirSync ($US4.99) - This utility works with DoubleTwist to synchronise apps, photos, videos, playlists, music and more wirelessly between your Android device and your computer. It's the closest parallel to iOS 5's Wi-Fi Sync. Plus, it supports AirPlay, so you can stream video to an AppleTV in your home.
Feature: iMessage; Solution: Google Talk/Google Voice
What it is: iMessage in iOS 5 lets you send text messages to your friends with iOS devices without paying the SMS charges imposed by your carrier. You can communicate with any other iOS device, including iPads and iPod Touches, for free with iMessage, as long as they have some connection to the internet. It's a great way to stay in touch with friends and cut off your carrier's texting plan entirely -- assuming all of your friernds have iOS devices, that is.
How you can get it: Just by virtue of having a Gmail account and an Android device, you have access to Google Talk. In fact, you may already be signed in to Google Talk on your Android device. As every Android user has access to Google Talk on their Android phone, as long as you exchange phone numbers or Gmail addresses, you can send any Android user text messages for free.
Google Talk for Android also supports video chat, and while it's not our favourite video chat app for Android, it's definitely a good one. Plus, you can use the Android app send messages to Google Talk users on their desktops or laptops. Best of all, all of this is completely free (exlcuding data charges, of course.)
Feature: Siri; Solution: Vlingo
What it is: Siri, iOS 5's new voice assistant (only available on the iPhone 4S) is a generational leap in speech-to-speech and speech-to-text technology. Siri's ability to understand common language and the way it is deeply integrated into iOS makes it an excellent tool for hands-free phone operation at home or on the road. Siri can compose and send SMS messages and emails, perform complex actions like calculations, web searches, play music and playlists on your phone, fetch the weather, schedule appointments and more.
How you can get it: We discussed this earlier this week when we looked at some great Siri-like alternatives for Android, and Vlingo was the app we found that came the closest to Siri, complete with voice-activated listening modes, an in-car mode that's sensitive to hands-free operation and an impressive number of commands that the app recognised and could perform when asked to. Vlingo can update your social networks, find the closest cab company, locate a nearby Chinese restaurant, send an SMS to your best friend, and pull up turn-by-turn driving directions for you.
Google's own built-in voice features are no slouch and Google isn't likely to let them be eclipsed by Siri for long. Plus, they're already on your phone. Still, none of alternatives are quite as integrated with Android the way Siri is with iOS, none understand common language to the same degree, or are capable of having quite the same level of back and forth conversation with you.
Feature: Location-Based Reminders; The Solution: ReQall, Astrid, or Remember the Milk
What it is: Reminders is an Apple-provided to-do manager that supports location-aware notifications. As the reminders are location-aware, you can set up areas on a map where certain to-dos are supposed to be completed. When you leave or arrive at one of those areas, you'll be alerted to a to-do relevant to that location.
How you can get it: Android has a wealth of to-do managers that support location awareness. None of them are built-in to the OS, but many of them are more feature-rich than Reminders is. ReQall Pro ($US2.99/mo or $US24.99/yr) is one of my favorite to-do applications for Android, partially because it will alert you when you're in proximity to a location where a task needs to be completed. You can configure as many locations as you want and when you add to-dos, just assign them to a location and the app handles the rest. Astrid is a free alternative, but you'll need the Locale Add-On ($US1.49) for location-based alerts. Remember The Milk Pro ($25/year) is another robust, location-aware alternative.
Feature: Camera Updates; The Solution: CameraZoom FX
What it is: iOS 5 boosts camera speed, and provides a new camera grid that makes lining up and framing your shots easier.
How you can get it: CameraZoom FX, our pick for the best camera app for Android will set you back just under $US5 in the Android Market, but for your money you get the ability to configure which hardware buttons trigger your camera and you get a camera grid so you can line up your shot.
You also get filters to apply to your photos, options to tweak the white balance, the ability to shoot in burst mode, and one-tap uploads to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and other services. If you're looking for a powerful camera app, this is it. If you want to mimic iOS 5's new one-tap access to the camera, previously mentioned Widgetlocker lets you add an icon for the camera right on your phone's lock screen, so you can tap it to go directly to the camera app, even if your phone is locked.
Twitter: Covered iOS 5 finally integrates Twitter in ways it didn't before. You can save your Twitter credentials within iOS and opens the door to other developers to build apps and services that leverage that integration. None of that is new for Android users though: The official Twitter app is already considered a system app on many Android devices. When you log in, the app will sync your Twitter friends and followers with your contacts list (if you choose to) and will keep your Twitter account synchronised with your device -- along with your Google accounts -- regularly.
Newsstand: Kindle App Amazon updated the Kindle app to support periodicals and magazine subscriptions a long time ago, and you can buy and subscribe to magazines in-app. More publishers are considering their own magazine "stores" for Android in the near future. However, periodicals on Android are still touch and go and there's no single Google-authored application to manage them on your Android phone or tablet.
Email Styles and Calendar Views: Covered iOS 5 offers some text formatting in the default mail client, like bold text, italics and underline. The Gmail app for Android, the default mail app for Android, and our favorite Android mail client, K-9 Mail, are all missing this feature. It's not terribly important, but since it's available in iOS, expect it to arrive in Android soon. As for iOS 5's new calendar views, the default calendar apps for Android already have day/week/month views and the ability to manage multiple calendars, as long as they've already been added to your Google account on the web.
A Final Word on Customisation
As we said earlier, this isn't meant to be a guide on how to get iOS 5 on your Android device. There are a number of smaller features that Apple has introduced in iOS that have no direct parallels in Android, or that no app duplicates perfectly. Android die-hards will say "I didn't buy an Android device to have iOS", and iOS fans will say "If you want iOS, just buy an iPhone", but it's never that simple.
As one mobile OS improves and introduces new features that people want to use, all of our phones will evolve and rise to meet the demand. At the same time, if you watched this week's launch of iOS 5 and wondered if there were a way to get some of those useful features in Android, hopefully we've shown you how.
Are there any other features in iOS 5 that you want on your Android device? Perhaps there are other apps you prefer that duplicate the features above. Share your thoughts in the comments below.