UI responsiveness: OSX vs. Windows, iOS vs. Android



I started using Apple products since 2007, when I started college. I used all my savings to order a custom 15″ Macbook Pro mid 2007 model with glossy screen (back then it was default to matte). And I then adopted iPhone trend beginning with iPhone 3G. Before that I had been a long time Windows user, starting all the way from 3.1 til XP. On the mobile side, I tried all kinds of smartphones including S40,S60,WM6.0,WM6.5,WinCE, even Linux phone.

For a very long time before the Mac and iPhone, I have never had the feeling of “this is it” for any laptop or phone that I owned. But once I embraced Apple product, it just felt right. And I always find it’s hard to explain or convince someone with simply “just right” reasoning.

A few weeks ago, I came across a post on Engadget and that really helped me to put all the pieces together and explain this phenomenon. The video in the article shows a vast difference in the user experience between a 100ms and 1ms lag time. That sparked everything else in my mind for this post.

Windows vs Mac OSX, the keys

Coming from a long history with Windows, I was very surprised to see how fast OSX was. Not in term of very demanding task but in term of extremely simple and common daily tasks such as opening a folder, file, copy, moving stuff around the screen. My very first impression was that the interface never freezes on Mac. Compare that with the infamous ‘cloned dialogs‘ bug on Windows.

So I did a bit of research, trying to understand why. Turned out the problem is much deeper than I thought: Fundamentally, Windows is meant to run on as many combinations of hardware as possible, while Mac was only meant for Apple hardware. I’m not an OS-engineer but my guess is that the number of abstraction layers in Windows has to be a lot more than in Mac. Because of that the overhead is a lot more for simple tasks like user input. And so that could have lead to more processing cycles.

Until today, having to switch daily between Win and Mac on the same machine running SSD, I still feel the lags of immediate responses in Windows UI. I’m a power user, doing stuff mainly with shortcuts and seldom with mouse. Many of the times the OS couldn’t keep up with quick window switching, key presses and sometimes typing ‘stucked’ for a few seconds and then the letters just spit out all at once. It doesn’t mean these don’t happen in OSX, they do, but much less frequent and the ‘freezes’ are much shorter. That brings me to the next point.

I do think that this is extremely important because on Windows, I always have that feeling“what I typed did not seem to be registered” and makes the whole OS seems to be unreliable although it is not. However, on OSX, I don’t have this same feeling of uncertainty, instead, I have a great feeling that no matter how fast I typed or used the shortcuts, they are always executed correctly. This is partly why I always felt ‘just right’ working on Mac.

iOS vs Android, the touches

iOS was built with all the principles of OSX and back in 2007 when the original iPhone was launch it created such a long-lasting wow impression for any one coming in touch with it. While Android was introduced not really long after but the initial impression was not as successful.

There are many reasons to that but personally I would love to credit that success to how responsive the UI on the device was compare to others at its time. As I mentioned, I was early adopter for many mobile platforms and the common (bad) trait of all of them was the huge delay of the interface, from the time you touch the screen to the time something happens.

Despite being a now-dead-slow device, the original iPhone has two extremely important features that are still very fast compare to today’s standards: touch response and responsive scrolling. The device immediately shows something, either a change of color or a glow effect when you touch the screen; and continuous dragging on the screen maintains the same pixel position relative to the finger. Both of these were poorly implemented in other mobile platforms and I would say in the early Android 1.x platforms as well.

That’s why I think Apple nailed it and started the mobile device revolution that are easy to use and great to the touch.

My UX principle: show something, anything

Among many UX principles that I derived from years of using Apple products, there is one that is directly related to this post and it’s not very hard to do: Show something, anything!

What that means is for any user interaction event, on web or mobile or desktop app, you need to show a change in interface. Anything. As long as it gives the instant feedback to the user that their action has been acknowledged and the system is processing the request.

This is even more essential in mobile app or handling network requests because they are always slow. Changing button color, showing an animated indicator, faking partial result list, … are all interface tricks that gives the impression of a fast application.

In one of my applications (Denso), I did use a lot of these tweaks to make the app feels a lot more snappier. Being an internet app, it has to make many network requests to different servers, no matter how fast the device could get, network latency is always a tough issue to handle.

Windows 8 could be something

I’m not bias against Windows or any OSes, I’m just stating my observations as a power user.

In fact, the Microsoft prototype video above was very impressive, not only that, just a day before this post, another Microsoft video became trending : Microsoft explains why Windows 8 touchscreens will be better. It is definitely a great showcase and I think Microsoft, with Windows 8 coming soon, is getting somewhere this time.

Also, Windows Phone 7 is a big step up for Microsoft’s mobile platform. I was very impressed with the responses of UI on the Lumia 800. I have not been using WP device extensively but I think finally MS got it right to the touches.

— Kent Nguyen —

(Jack of All Trade – Silicon Straits Saigon)

SSS Full-stack Engineer

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on August 21, 2013

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