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 Google to deliver those same features to us; 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 things like “Android’s had these features for years!” That’s not quite true: iOS 6 introduces to iPhone users some features we’ve had for a while. 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:
- Already Available
- 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, but you can try another turn-by-turn navigation app if you’re looking for a new experience.
- Unique account signatures: The Gmail app already has this feature. The stock IMAP mail app and K-9 Mail, our favorite 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 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 (or Only Sort-Of) Available (Aka, The Features We’re Going to Get in This Post)
- 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 dialers include this, and some manufacturer pre-loaded skins for Android include this with their dialer, but it’s not uniform or perfect. More on this later.
- Centralized 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. There’s no similar all-in-one app for Android, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get 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. 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, like 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 in 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 dialer 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 airplane 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 dialer 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 like “driving” or “sleeping,” or you can customize your own.
- AutoReply is a no-frills SMS response tool. Customize 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 or just SMS, or tell the app to only auto-respond to a list of contacts you choose, but that’s about it.
Improve Android’s Voice Control
The last time we looked at Siri alternatives for Android, there were plenty of great contenders, and the field has only gotten wider since then. Still, the big players are still the best:
- Vlingo, which actually powers S Voice on the Samsung Galaxy S III, is free and already allows you to send SMS by voice, search for local businesses and food options, place phone calls, and even launch apps—something Siri is only now learning to do in iOS 6. The new Siri is also much more hands-free than its predecessor—in Android, Vlingo is your best bet for an assistant you can activate by speaking to it, since you can put it in “listen” mode and walk away. If you’re willing to test new Vlingo features as they’re developed, try out Vlingo Labs (ICS only). It’s not a perfect match for Siri, but it’s as close as you’re going to get for the time being, and in my experience, it’s better than nothing.
There are other virtual assistants, like Assistant and Jeannie, that are similar alternatives. Siri may be able to read sports scores and Yelp reviews while these apps open Google and show you the score, or look up a restaurant on Yelp, but sit tight—I guarantee updates are on the way so these tools can do the same, and probably before iOS 6 comes out.
Ticket, Gift Card, and Boarding Pass Management
Passbook looks cool, but it’ll 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, especially at locations without scanners. That said, here’s how you can approximate 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 if your flight is canceled, help you find alternate 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. The app has since updated to help you find new rewards programs to join based on where you shop.
- Movie, Concert, and Event Tickets: Services like Fandango and Flixster already allow you to buy and keep movie tickets on your phone, even though you’ll just have to print them out when you get to the theater anyway.
Android doesn’t have a perfect match for Passbook, 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, and location-aware to-do apps like Astrid that will remind you to use them. For example, the Starbucks app for Android gives you a running tally of what’s left on your gold card, and lets you pay at the counter already. The Target app already lets you cut up your gift cards and pay with them using your phone. It’s not as neat as one single app that has everything, but we’re willing to bet that even when Passbook arrives, iOS users won’t quite have that either.
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.
Basically, 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 likely unveil Android “Jelly Bean” at Google I/O later this month, and they 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.