iOS 6 is a big update for Apple fans, featuring several exciting updates. But those of us with Android devices don't have to sit back and wait for Google to deliver those features; we can get the best of them right now. Here's how.
What We Have, What We're Missing
Almost immediately after the WWDC announcement, I saw a lot of fellow Android users saying "Android's had these features for years!" It's true that iOS 6 introduces iPhone users to some features that Android users have had for a while, and if you're one of the lucky folks running Ice Cream Sandwich, the picture looks better for you. But iOS 6 also adds features for which there's no easy match in Android. It's a mixed bag, and here's the score:
- Turn-by-turn driving directions: Apple may have ditched Google for maps and introduced driving directions on the iPhone 4S and iPad 2, but Android users have turn-by-turn navigation on all devices already. Nothing new there.
- Unique account signatures: The Gmail app already has this feature. The stock IMAP mail app and K-9 Mail, our favourite Android email client, also support it.
- System-wide Facebook and Twitter integration: When you install a Twitter client or a Facebook app in Android, it adds itself to your default share menu, so this is one Android users have had for a very long time.
- Priority Contacts: Gmail's Priority Inbox duplicates this feature nicely, and it can be turned on for individual accounts in Android so your "Important" inbox is the default inbox you see when you open your email.
Not Available or Only Partially Available
- Do Not Disturb and Reply with Message: In iOS 6, Do Not Disturb silences all of your notifications entirely, and Reply with Message lets you respond to missed calls with an SMS message that lets them know why you're unavailable. Some Android launchers and diallers include this, and some manufacturer preloaded skins for Android include this with their dialler, but it's not uniform or perfect. More on this later.
- Centralised management for tickets, gift cards and boarding passes: Passbook, new in iOS 6, gives iOS users a central app to manage boarding passes, gift cards, itineraries and more. We're sceptical if any of these features will filter through to Australian users in the first release. There's no similar all-in-one app for Android, but it doesn't mean you can't improvise at least some of it. We'll get to some applications that give you similar features in a moment.
- Improved voice control: Siri in iOS 6 can launch apps, look up sports scores, read Yelp reviews and is overall smarter than before. As is the case with Passbook, it's not yet clear how much of this -- if any -- will be available in Australia, though the WWDC presentation does suggest we might finally get Siri's basic capability to find stuff near you. There's no perfect match in Android for Siri in iOS, but a lot of great apps come close, and many of them have picked up upgrades that offer similar features since we last discussed them.
Some features such as tab sync and Facetime over 3G are so easily available in other apps -- for both iOS and Android -- that we don't need to dwell on them. You have several options for 3G video chat on Android and iOS. If you set up Firefox Sync and use Firefox for Android, you can sync tabs easily. If you have Ice Cream Sandwich, Chrome for Android's Chrome Sync does the same thing.
With that out of the way, we can take the features that aren't available -- or aren't well-implemented -- and figure out how to add them to our Android phones. Turns out it's not that difficult.
Upgrade Your Phone App with Do Not Disturb and Reply with Message
Depending on the version of Android and the UI that your manufacturer's saddled you with (or the ROM you're using!) you may already have these features. Almost every Android device can be set to Do Not Disturb by turning on Silent Mode, but Reply with Message is a bit trickier. Android ICS has this feature built-in, but for the rest of us, here's how to get it:
- Mr. Number for Android is a full dialler replacement that gives you both respond with SMS and Do Not Disturb features. You can compose your own response, and the app can even respond to incoming text messages or calls if your phone is in aeroplane mode. Mr. Number calls this feature "Availability", and it can send calls directly to voicemail, tell your friends when you're in a meeting, driving home or just generally unavailable. That's just the tip of the iceberg too: you can check out more features here.
- Auto SMS may not be a full dialler replacement, but it does respond to incoming calls and messages with your own SMS that tells the sender or caller where you are or when you'll get back to them. You can choose simple replies such as "driving" or "sleeping", or you can customise your own.
- AutoReply is a no-frills SMS response tool. Customise one message to go out to your missed calls and incoming SMS messages, turn it on and forget about it. You can toggle whether your response goes to just calls, just SMS, or only auto-respond to a list of contacts you choose.
Improve Android's Voice Control
The last time we looked at Siri alternatives for Android, there were plenty of strong contenders, and the field has only gotten wider since then. Unfortunately, just as we expect the new and improved Siri will have more limited functionality in Australia, Vlingo only caters for US and Canadian users right now.
Ticket, Gift Card and Boarding Pass Management
Passbook looks cool, but it will likely depend on merchants and partners to get on board with it, and some retailers will always insist on paper tickets over on-phone barcodes. It's also unlikely to be made available in Australia, at least with the same breadth that is offered in the US. That said, here's how you can approximate some of Passbook's functionality:
- Travel: If you're looking for an all-in-one app to manage your travel, TripIt does a great job. TripIt already builds a custom itinerary based on your tickets, boarding passes, calendar appointments and more. If you're a TripIt Pro member, the service will even proactively notify you of travel delays, warnings and flight cancellations, as well as help you find alternative transportation or a hotel room if you've stuck somewhere for the night. TripIt can also handle boarding passes, but most airlines that offer electronic boarding passes display them in a browser window, so you don't need a special app for those.
- Rewards Cards: We love Key Ring for managing your rewards cards, and when we discussed how to replace your wallet with your phone (which Apple seems to be headed towards with Passbook), it was our pick to corral all of your rewards cards and the discounts that come with them.
Android doesn't have a perfect match for Passbook, especially for those of us outside of the US, but if you want a way to manage gift cards and boarding passes, don't overlook the individual apps or mobile sites for those services, as well as location-aware to-do apps like Astrid that will remind you to use them.
Change Comes Quickly
While some of us at Lifehacker HQ feel the iPhone is a better device for hacking and tweaking, I would point out that in some cases you don't need to hack and tweak so much on Android because developers have such broad access to the device and can update with new features as soon as they build them. In iOS, those developers would have to either give up or jump ship to Cydia and jailbroken phones.
On Android, if someone wants to add the ability to read the name and average Yelp review of a restaurant aloud to their personal assistant app, or build an app to manage all of your boarding passes, gift cards and rewards cards, they don't have to wait for Google to roll it in to the OS, they can get started right now.
Granted, Google will probably unveil Android 5.0 "Jelly Bean" at Google I/O later this month, and it may have some surprises in store too, but those of us rocking Gingerbread (and patiently waiting for ICS upgrades that may never come) or ICS phones thankfully have more people to turn to than one company to get the features we want -- and most of the cool ones are available right now.