The battle for dominance of the smartphone world is one that has been raging for a few years. With the migration of consumers from feature phones to modern wonders such as the iPhone 5 and the HTC One, or even the cheap as chips offerings like the Nokia Lumia 520 or Huawei Ascend G330, it is clear where the money, and the future lies.
We've seen some impressive hardware come and go, quad-cores grace most flagship devices (i.e. Sony Xperia Z or HTC One) and there is even the quad/octa core that sits inside the Samsung Galaxy S4, dependent on your location.
Needless to say, all the big guns in the tech industry have some level of input into the mobile OS world. Apple has iOS (just about to reach iOS 7), Google has Android, the most recent version being 4.2 Jelly Bean, Microsoft has Windows Phone 8, leaving BlackBerry with its hopes pinned on BB10.
The iOS 7 interface is a radical new look compared with previous iterations. Although with a clean and modern new look, the formula based upon simplicity is one that has been stuck to. Icons have had an overhaul, and there is transparency through apps, giving iOS devices a more unified feel.
Users familiar with previous iOS versions may be in for a bit of a shock, with elements such as the lock screen taking a new look. Elements now seem more rounded, and much brighter than before. On the face of it, things seem very different with iOS 7, but the real changes go deeper.
Android is currently sitting at version 4.2, which is another iteration of the popular Jelly Bean OS. Jelly Bean built upon the work done by 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, with everything being much smoother with 'Project Butter', and the introduction of Google Now.
Pretty much every OEM has placed a skin over the top of Android, take a look at HTC's Sense, Samsung's Touchwiz or Huawei's Emotion UI.
That said, nigh on every version builds on the use of multiple home screens populated with widgets, and apps being kept tidy in a 'drawer'.
Microsoft's offering bases itself around a system of 'LiveTiles'. These are used in a similar way to widgets on Android, providing information at a quick glance. Users of Windows Phone 7, or Windows 8 on tablets or desktops will feel right at home.
Out of Canada comes BB10, with BlackBerry pinning pretty much all its hopes on the OS. In a similar way to Windows Phone 8, BB 10 allows 8 'Active Frames', of which only 4 are visible at one time.
These show the most recent apps used, as well as any information that app may offer, be it weather or calendar events.
Being a totally different OS to prior BlackBerry OS iterations, BB10 is at first a little confusing to use. Closing apps by running your finger up from the bottom of the screen feeling a little unnatural.
The BlackBerry 10 lock screen comes complete with notifications, calendar events and ability to quick launch the camera.
With the Camera app being one of the most widely used features on the modern smartphone, it is only natural that every OS has given the camera a certain level of attention. One feature we are very fond of, that appears on iOS 7, pretty much every Android UI and BB10 is the ability to launch the app directly from the lock screen.
- Read our in-depth Android Jelly Bean review
iOS 7 brings in a raft of changes to the camera app. There isn't a whole load of changes deep down, these being limited more to photo effects; varying lens shapes and live photo filters giving you the Instagram look, without having to use the app. Elsewhere, the interface has become more swipe-friendly.
The Gallery app has also had a few tweaks, meaning that photo's are arranged by location, being titled 'moments'. Pinching to zoom will re-draw your library, highlighting days out or holidays. Pinching further shows an overview of the year's photos, complete with location tags.
Android's camera app is one that gets a lick of paint with each UI that is placed over the top. Also, with the incredible variation in Android devices, each camera is different, the HTC One being most notable for camera tech with UltraPixel and HTC Zoe, or there is Samsung with Burst Mode found on the Galaxy S3 or S4.
That said, there is an underlying theme that graces Android's camera and gallery app. Photo filters are common place, even the basic Android devices offer Sepia, Monochrome and Negative effects. Gallery apps are a little more varied, however most can pull down images from the cloud, from Picasa/Google+ web albums, with some going so far as Facebook albums too.
Being a unified OS across all devices, Windows Phone 8 camera settings are common. Pinch to zoom has been brought in, and the ability to take photos by tapping the screen making the app feel a little more natural. There is also the idea of 'lenses', that allow you to use camera tools that you have downloaded, rather than via a separate app.
BlackBerry was keen to show off their camera at the BB10 launch. The reason for this is something that the Canadians are terming 'Time Shift'. This is a nifty piece of tech that, if selected, allows you to go 'back in time' to find the perfect smile. It even works on multiple faces, however needs good lighting.
BB10's other features include standard scene and shooting modes, as well as the ability to use the volume keys as a shutter button.
Media, Apps and Storage
The original iPhone launch in 2007 put media on phones very much back in the spotlight. iOS7 continues that, given that it will be available on the 5th gen iPod Touch, as well as later iPad versions.
iOS 7 now incorporates your iCloud stored media, allowing you to see all your tracks in one place, with a wall of album art in Landscape mode adding a nice look to things.
The biggest revolution it brings is iTunes Radio, Apple's much rumoured and talked about music streaming service, previously dubbed iRadio. We are unable to comment on the exact release, with availability confirmed for 'this fall' in the US, with the rest of the world left waiting for news. We can say that there will be both a free (ad-funded) and premium service, though.
- Read our in-depth Windows Phone 8 review
As for apps, Apple's App Store is by far the most famous of all app stores/markets across all OS'. iOS7 brings in some updates, such as being able to search for apps based on age range, or the 'Apps near me' feature, which shows you the most popular apps in your location. Apps can also update in the background.
Storing all this media, and all your apps is done in true Apple fashion, with varying sizes of internal storage available. MicroSD is still unsupported, although we never expected, nor ever expect that to change.
Playing catch up in the media department, Google has launched its Play Books, Play Magazines, Play Movies and Play Music apps. Whilst nowhere near as popular as the iTunes version, media downloading is now a lot easier on Android devices.
Downloading apps is also very easy, as Google's rebranded Play Store has become a very attractive and very functional marketplace, with different sections and lists of apps for you to peruse. Auto updating is available, and disable-able too.
The Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry app stores are far less populated in comparison to both the Google and Apple offerings, although we would be doing them a disservice by calling their offerings sparse (BB10 has 120,000 apps compared to iOS' 900,000), especially given that the Microsoft OS has Xbox compatibility.
Since Android 2.2 Froyo, apps to microSD has been a standard feature, alongside its long supported media storage feature. App installation on microSD is also supported via Windows Phone 8, with standard microSD support also being available in BB10.
With NFC slowly becoming more prevalent across devices, it has been noticed on the lower end handsets that we have reviewed (LG Optimus L5 2, Huawei Ascend G510, Samsung Galaxy Fame to name but a few), OS support is vital.
NFC wasn't something that wasn't explicitly mentioned with the launch of iOS7. Until now, previous iOS devices haven't come with NFC chips. We could look into this and say things about upcoming iOS touting devices, such as the unlikelihood of NFC inclusion, with the claim that there's 'No need to wander around the room bumping your phone with others.' That said, apps will be able to share information via Airdrop, provided that it supports Share Sheet.
Android has supported NFC for a while. Android Beam has been used on devices to share data since Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Certain manufacturers have taken it a little further, with Samsung adding it's S title to create S Beam. Google's wallet application is also likely to make use of NFC as mobile payment becomes increasingly popular.
Windows Phone 8 also packs in NFC support, with its very own Microsoft Wallet app to rival Google's version, and BlackBerry has long had NFC in its handsets so it's no surprise BB10 also makes use of the technology.
Notifications and Control
Notifications are something that are very important across devices, giving quick access to Calendar events, Emails and Text messages. Device control is equally important.
iOS 7 makes a big deal out of both notifications and Control. The notifications centre that was accessed by swiping down from the top has become a full-screen affair, also available via the lock screen.
The Control Centre is where the real innovation lies, however. Previous iOS versions had a very basic centre, however now quick settings such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can be enabled or disabled, as well as controlling screen brightness, music being played, and access to AirDrop and AirPlay controls.
Android has had its notifications bar longer than Apple, so it has come on in leaps and bounds. Jelly Bean also brings in expandable notifications, showing more information about the top event, as well as being able to swipe to dismiss.
Many custom UI's include access to the quick settings (Touchwiz has gotten this nigh on perfect) in the notifications bar. Android also include a Power Control widget that can be placed on home screens, giving quick access to a lot of important settings.
Notifications aren't something that ever made it over to Windows Phone 8, however there are strong suggestions that there is a notifications centre making it over in Windows Phone 8.1. Notifications are viewable from the lock screen.
- Read our in-depth BlackBerry 10 review
With BB10, there is a dedicated Notifications hub, accessed by swiping from the left hand side of the screen, as well as notifications that can be seen for individual apps such as Email, Texts or social networks.
Given the kerfuffle surrounding the launch of iOS Maps on iOS 6, there was a disappointing lack of map based announcements with iOS7, although 'developers have been making great improvements to Maps', which will bring features such as being able to push mapping info from a Mac of MacBook to an iDevice.
There has been no such problems for mapping on Android, given that Google has managed to port across its Google Maps desktop browser application so successfully.
Google maps provides one of the most comprehensive mapping apps available, as well as being able to provide information through its Local app, and sat-navving via the Navigation app. Google's recent acquisition of Waze is going to throw in user based traffic updates as well.
Microsoft has also got a decent map app. Bing maps brings over many features that were prevalent throughout Nokia phones of old, including Nokia's turn-by-turn directions from Nokia Drive. Other useful features include downloading maps for offline use, pinning favourite locations and Local Scout (similar to Google's Local).
BB10 provides a basic mapping option as well, covering turn-by-turn and traffic updates. The app is a fairly basic affair, with fewer features than the other options available on other devices.
You would expect, given that it was the key to revolutionising mobile browsing, that Safari on iOS7 would be important. You wouldn't be wrong. The URL bar is now resizable, you can swipe through the history, and the bookmarks and tabs have had an overhaul.
Bookmarks now sit on the home screen, drawing in data from your Twitter feed. Tabbing is no longer limited to 8, and is synchronised across multiple Apple devices through iCloud.
Since Ice Cream Sandwich, Google has mobilised its Chrome browser, which now interestingly sits alongside the native Android Internet app. We've not understood why both browsers are run side by side, but it provides a little choice. Google bookmarks can be synced across, and incognito browsing is available too.
Internet Explorer is available on Windows Phone 8 devices, with the version being nearly identical to IE10, even if it looks a little different. Internet Explorer is a very accomplished mobile browser overall, and comes with the Do Not Track feature by default, as well as SmartScreen phishing protection.
BB10's browser is a minimalist design, with the URL at the bottom of the page, akin to IE on Windows Phone 8. BB10 does pack in some useful features, such as a Reader mode that lifts text and images, making it more readable. We also found that the BB10 browser was lightning fast, which is a major tick in anybody's book.
iOS7 brings more changes to the Multi-tasking window as well. No longer does a swipe from the bottom bring up recently used apps, but a newer interface that shows information from the app screen, as well as the app icons along the bottom.
- What to know more? Check out our iOS 7 release date, news and features
Google's multi-tasking has been handled for a long time through the long press of the home button, if the device has one, or through the dedicated button on total touch screen devices. This brings up a quick window of what was last on the app whilst you were using it, and can be swiped to dismiss.
Windows Phone 8 has a similar method of bringing up its multi-tasking window. Long pressing the back button brings up the multi-tasking screen, allowing users to flick across to the app they wish to use.
RIM have implemented a multi-tasking action, which is vaguely reminiscent of cards on WebOS. The Canadians call this 'Cascades', accessed by swiping left to right. BB10 also uses the multi-tasking screen on the home page we mentioned earlier, that gives access to your eight most recently used apps, shown four at a time.
Apple have said that iOS7 will be available on a large amount of its iDevices, from the iPhone 4 upwards, iPad 2 and up, iPad Mini and iPod Touch 5th generation. iOS7 is due to launch 'this fall', and we would highly expect it to launch alongside at least one new iDevice, the iPhone 5S/6, iPad 5 or iPad Mini 2.
Android Jelly Bean has been around for two years now, available on devices from multiple OEMs, and with devices now being launched 4.1 or 4.2. There is a lot of talk of Android 4.3 Jelly Bean also being released at some point this year, and rumours of the Key Lime Pie (Android 5.x) also being launched this year.
Windows Phone 8 is also available on devices from different OEMs, with Nokia Lumia devices being the most talked about. HTC, Samsung and Huawei also have their own devices out and about.
Talk of Windows Phone Blue, or 8.1 has also been bandied about, with an expected release alongside Windows 8.1. Current devices span the market, again from a variety of OEMs, with the high end Nokia Lumia 925, or the low end Lumia 520.
BB10 is unavailable on all new BlackBerry devices, the BlackBerry Z10, Q10 and Q5. Being a whole new OS, it is unavailable on previous BB7 toting devices.
As for BB10 on the PlayBook, your guess is as good as our at this point, with BlackBerry's 2012 annual conference stating that it would make its way across, although 12 months later, there is still no update. Being an all new OS, BB10 is now available on the BlackBerry Z10, BlackBerry Q10 and announced BlackBerry Q5.
The iOS7 launch is arguably as important to the Cupertino-based firm since Steve Jobs first took the stage in 2007 to launch the original iPhone.
A number of previous devices (iPhone 4, 4S, 5, iPad 2, 3, 4, iPad Mini and iPod Touch 5th generation) will be getting the update, with the OS also being a major precursor to the upcoming iPhone 5S/6, iPad 5 and iPad Mini 2.
Apple therefore has a very large existing customer base ready to upgrade, with those on earlier iDevices also potentially looking to the launches of the next line of products. iOS is also highly successful in the business market, as well as the personal market.
It is therefore almost impossible to say that iOS7 will be a flop, after all the trouble that Apple maps gave iOS6, it is still very popular. Android is Apple's biggest worry, with Windows Phone 8 and BB10 making strides through the mobile market, yet still not as firmly established.
Android handsets are still the most popular on a world wide scale, but only just over a third are actually running Jelly Bean, with the fragmentation the major negative point against what is a highly versatile platform.
iOS7 will be massive, but don't forget it is really just the first OS refresh to launch this year, with Windows Phone 8.1, Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and/or 5.0 Key Lime Pie likely to arrive later in 2013. Expect to see the competition really heating up.