Wednesday 20 August 2008

iPhone 2.01 Firmware Update

So just as I get ready to recap on my iPhone 2.0 firmware review with some comments on whether the 2.01 release was any good, Apple comes out with version 2.02. Anyway I’ve decided to hack away with my impressions of 2.01 and I’ll come back in a week or so with a more comprehensive look at 2.02. Basically I noticed some improvements in 9 of the 15 areas I’d tagged as buggy in 2.0 which isn’t a bad hit rate for a 0.01 point release. I still have some problems though and 2.02 hasn’t fixed the worst of them for me at any rate.

The Good:

EDGE Performance. This might just be due to O2 improving their network but EDGE download speeds have definitely improved. Overall latency\responsiveness of web pages doesn’t appear to be improved but I just downloaded a 1.6Meg Excel Spreadsheet and it only took about 60 seconds (say 200kbps, possibly helped by being nicely compressible) which is way better than I’d expected. I can’t say when exactly this happened but four weeks ago I was seeing 50-100kbps when I checked. Latency still sits in the 100’s of milliseconds range so most web pages take an age to handshake through all the ads no matter how fast the download rate is but 200kbps is a respectable rate for EDGE.

SMS\E-Mail Typing Speed. Fixed ! Yay! Well mostly fixed at any rate, I’ve seen it happen again but I suspect that was due to the  app installer problem detailed below.

Sluggish Contacts. Mostly fixed – there is still a 2-3 second start up delay if you have Exchange Contacts enabled but the general bowl of jelly effect is fixed.

Network Roaming – haven’t been able to test international roaming but my iPhone has been much better at handling cell-cell handovers since V2.01. That might be O2 improving their network but I think it might be the iPhone. Either way I’m happy.

General System Speed. I think this has been improved a bit but it’s a subjective thing and I can’t be certain.

General System Lock ups. Definitely rarer but not eliminated. At a guess we’re back to V1.14 firmware levels of stability which is a step in the right direction.

Safari Crashes. Full crashes don’t appear to be as common. Basic Safari page Amnesia behavior is unchanged.

App Crashes. Rarer but that may be the updated versions of the apps and not 2.01. The crashes may well have been entirely due to the app developers to be fair.

Push Mail Battery Life. I haven’t exhaustively tested this but it does seem to be better – getting more than a full working day from the iPhone now.

The Bad:

2.01 was only a bug fix release so it’s no surprise that the major features that were missing as far as I was concerned, are still missing: Cut and Paste, Contact Groups, Password\Credential Management, SIM Card Contact Export, Background apps, landscape view for built in messaging apps.

WiFi Hotspot Compatibility. No real change but the release of a helper app for Eircom WiFi Hotspots might go some way to resolving this for me and others in Ireland.

Time Zone Detection: No change, but this is a minor problem.

 

The Ugly:

App Store – Installation is now significantly worse. Apps lock up during the “installing” phase and can take anything up to 5 minutes to transition from “Downloading” to Installed. I’ve seen a handful of resets happen during installs too which is very poor. Overall the iPhone Application Installer has to be the worst example of a platform software management service that I’ve ever come across – Windows 1.0 did a better job of it. God help you if you need to make or receive an urgent call while an app is installing. Note – just checked this with 2.02 and it looks like I still have an issue - Bejeweled 2 (8.6Meg) took 30 seconds to download over Wifi and has now been “Installing” for 20 minutes with no sign of any genuine progress, I suspect I will have to “reboot” the poor beastie yet again.

General App Store\App Management issues remain.

Sync Speed – No change, total pants.

iTunes 7.7. Well that hasn’t changed and it’s still a pig. That said when combined with the TuneUp plugin I was able to clean up and polish my entire music library so that everything is now sorted, correctly named, displays with the appropriate art work, fully tagged with accurate metadata in mp3-tags and all the dupes have been removed. So while it is a pig, and an unforgivably slow pig at that it’s got some good points.

 

Additional things about the iPhone that bug me, a lot.

Yet again I have to emphasize that I love my iPhone but you have to be open and honest with the ones you love and well the iPhone, it has some warts and I was reminded of a couple more since my last post

E-Mail Attachments. You can view a range of attachments (Word, PDF, Excel, Powerpoint (?), MP3, AAC, TXT, HTML …..) but you can’t do anything with them beyond look. I got sent an MP3 that I wanted to use as a ring tone and all I could do was play it within the e-mail client, I couldn’t even save it into my music library for later playback as part of a play list. You have no way of saving an attachment for later use, or for making any real use of any attachment apart from viewing it while it’s still in your inbox. That’s just basically ridiculous.

[Not] Running apps in the Background. Apple may have an argument against leaving apps run CPU or other resource intensive threads in the background but I’m getting really sick of having to completely re-launch apps just because I wanted to quickly check a new e-mail, answer a call or some other typical activity that I need to do quite often. Good old fashioned DOS used to handle this better. This behavior makes the Windows Mobile way of doing things (ie never really shut anything down) look inspired, and while I hated that approach when I had to work with it I have to say it is vastly superior to the iPhone’s policy of killing anything that loses focus. I’m certain that virtually all iPhone app developers are screaming with rage over this, I know that as a user I’ve begun to stop using some apps because they just take too long to restart after being unloaded due to my needing to attend to an incoming e-mail or call.

Ringer Volume. Can’t remember why I forgot this before – I often miss calls because I don’t hear the iPhone ringing even when it’s on max volume+vibrate. The 3G apparently fixes this and it’s probably a hardware issue.

Reboot Time. I did this a good few few times because the whole phone appeared to have died during application installs. As it turns out the phone wasn’t completely hung, it was just that the app installer takes forever to do its thing and it basically prevents you doing much else while it’s busy. Anyway a “reboot” AKA a soft reset takes anything up to 5 minutes on my iPhone and that is so bad it’s laughable. I’ve never seen any other personal computing device take anything near as long to boot when it was healthy. Hell, I can hard reset and fully rebuild most Windows Mobile devices with an array of applications from scratch in less time.

WiFi Security Defaults. The iPhone’s WiFi work very well and are so good that you tend to forget about them but they are awfully promiscuous if you are not careful. You can turn them off but frankly I think that its WiFi should be a lot less “open” to connecting to what it thinks are “friendly” WLAN’s. The recent DefCon conference had a special call out wall for iPhone users who’s credentials were stolen by the various “unfriendly” but entirely open WLAN’s that were specifically set up at the conference to snarf victims who were careless enough to leave WLAN enabled devices running in any sort of open mode, and the iPhone was top of that list this year. Now the iPhone’s WiFi stack is amazing for the most part – it’s the best WiFi client for usability that I’ve come across on any computing platform of any type and it’s superbly power efficient – but it needs to be a bit more cautious about its approach to open networks, especially since Safari’s handling of cached credentials is so poor.

Safari. Selecting links has one behavior and it’s stupid by default – your focus is stolen and a new “tab” is opened so you sit staring at an empty page for 30-60 seconds while it downloads. This needs to be controllable and it must be possible to select a link (or links) and have them spawn and populate in the background so that you don’t lose focus and can keep yourself entertained while the links download. That said the current version of iPhone Safari appears to be able to complete the download of tabbed content even when they don’t have the focus so this does appear to be halfway to where I’d like it to be.

Also I really like to be able to download and save arbitrary files to local storage. Seriously Steve, I don’t care if you don’t want to save CrispyFries.MXR on your iPhone but I’d like to be able to save a copy on mine if I choose to, thanks all the same.

World Clock. Why can I set a time zone for Cork  (population 200 thousand ) but I can’t set it to “Johannesburg” (population 10 million) ? Is it that hard to do an online lookup ?

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Living with the iPhone 2.0 Firmware

I love my iPhone so the following complaints need to be read as the constructive criticism of an avid fan but that being said there are some major headaches with the initial release of the iPhone 2.0 firmware. I’ve had to rely on my iPhone heavily as both a phone and as my only connected computing device over the past 10 days and by and large it has performed the job superbly, far better than any other phone I’ve ever owned could have I should point out but some of the issues have begun to seriously get under my skin.

Glaring Omissions:

The lack of “Cut and Paste” and basically any significant text editing capability (selecting large blocks of text for deletion or other actions) is just plain stupid. I’ve been reduced to using a pen and paper to make use of phone numbers sent to me by text message, and had to resort to the same stone age approach when trying to make use of other data sent to be via e-mail when I needed to use it elsewhere (passwords for my eReader account and Funambol for example).

The lack of structured contacts that correspond with the structured e-mail account layout. If you set up Exchange E-mail then your private contacts will be deleted unless you have jumped through some hoops first to make sure that you can recover them.

The lack of Groups (Distribution Lists) within Contacts…

The inability to save contacts to your SIM card or to somewhere else. Funambol have sorted that out pretty well but it’s a major flaw especially since the iPhone carrier here in Ireland, O2, provide a contact back up service for all phones apart from the iPhone.

The lack of a landscape view in any of the messaging apps, the places where a larger keyboard would be most useful.

Password\Credential management. My iPhone has about 50 of my username\passwords for web pages stored somewhere in it now but I have no way of checking out which ones they are, selectively or entirely deleting them, or any way to set a master password for the browser to prevent someone with access to the phone itself from accessing the places those passwords control access to. The only option I have is to set an overall password for the iPhone itself which I don’t want to do as it seriously impacts usability.

Apps that can run in the background. Apple’s excuse for this is feeble and they clearly don’t allow it because it might enable classes of applications that would impact Apple’s own product offerings or those of some of their partner carriers. I think it’s very poor form on their part not to admit to that.

Bugs.

General System Speed. 2.0 is noticeably slower than 1.4 at almost everything. It feels as if the device has had it’s CPU slowed down by about 25%.

General system lock ups. These were always an intermittent problem but thankfully I’ve seen only a handful on the original firmware over the three months I used it. With 2.0 I see a total system lockup once every day or so and they are a major pain to clear as the iPhone attempts to restore it’s working state when you shut it down completely and restart it.

Safari now crashes more than it used to. Safari has always had a tendency to just disappear if it hits a page it dislikes, and had major problems remembering your history if you drilled down through a sequence of links. This was most obvious, and most irritating, in Google Reader where Safari would forget the contants of your Reader view if you clicked through a link to read a full article or just follow an embedded link. Once you return to Reader you find that the article you were reading has now disappeared since Google reckons you’ve read it and Safari has forgotten you had it open so it just reloads the current state from Google.

The Safari crashes that I’m now seeing are more severe though – it locks up totally regularly and I’ve seen a situation twice now where the small thumbnail view used for browsing between actively open pages gets stuck permanently as an overlay. This can only be cleared via a full reset.

Application crashes. These are probably the app developers fault more than Apple but since Apple provide almost no diagnostic capability with regard to what’s running on the iPhone at any one time it’s hard to tell. There you are either launching or using an app and suddenly it disappears. In some cases it appears that the app has simply vanished into the background but in most cases it has completely died.

Push Mail battery life. Apple have managed to implement a push mail capability that delivers mail exactly as instantly as it should but it murders battery life even when you are receiving no e-mail in a way that the native Direct Push capability on Windows Mobile does not. Microsoft’s approach of keeping a session open by creating a huge TTL on the connection between the phone and the server while at the same time allowing the GPRS\UMTS\CDMA radio to suspend itself has clearly not been shared with Apple and it means that the Push service is not really usable. I get about six-eight hours of battery life with Push mail enabled without using the phone for anything and with no email being delivered, if I make a few short (<10 minute) calls and get a handful (say 20) e-mails then that time drops down to about 5 hours. Very poor.

The app store and application delivery. Apple had major problems with the Store when it started but those have now been resolved and it works the way they want to now. While it’s easy enough to use in its most basic sense it’s nearly impossible to find stuff within it as the Search function fails to see many of the applications for some reason. Once you have found what you want it downloads and installs apps cleanly the first time but if you have to reinstall them (say after deleting them or because the developer has released an update) it can get confused very easily. A series of updates to my apps got stuck because I lost WiFi connectivity and then refused to restart after I sorted that out. A full reset didn’t help and it took a sequence of steps where I deleted all apps and then reinstalled them in batches of five to get them all back. The real bummer about this is that once you have said that you want to upgrade an app the iPhone immediately disables the existing copy so I ended up losing access to my favourite apps for about two days when this happened.

Managing Apps. Application Management is very crude – you basically have a single flat list of all of your downloaded and installed applications and you have no way to set up any structure within that.

Sync Speed. Oh my God. Even with no music on the phone and only a handful of apps Syncing with iTunes was taking many minutes. Add in a few gig of music, a decent selection of larger apps and an average contact list and the default sync was taking 10-15 minutes – and it wanted to do that every time I connected the phone to my PC. Very poor.

SMS\E-mail typing speed. From time to time the text entry in SMS messages (and e-mails I think but I’m not 100% sure) slows to a complete crawl – when this bug kicks in it takes about 2-3 seconds for each letter typed to be acknowledged. You can actually continue typing ahead as fast as you like (up to the point where the letter highlight feature on the keyboard starts to get in the way) and it will remember all the keystrokes but it can take minutes to enter a short SMS when this happens.

Sluggish response from Contacts. Contacts seems to be permanently slowed down if you choose to enable Exchange E-Mail. There is an initial 5-15 second delay when you open Contacts up either in the phone, within an SMS or in an E-Mail and once it is open the responsiveness to touching the screen in order to navigate feels like you are trying to stir jelly. If I remove Exchange E-Mail the problem goes away.

Network Roaming. I’ve been doing this quite a bit lately and I have to say that the iPhone handles this very badly. It’s slow to realize that it’s in a new country and occasionally it flat out refuses to connect to any network unless you (once again) turn it completely off and start it up fresh.

Compatibility with WiFi Hotspots. So far I’ve found a sum total of one Hotspot provider (BitBuzz here in Ireland) where my iPhone actually worked and was usable.

Time Zone Detection. Despite having the phone set to automatically detect it’s time zone it completely failed to do so while I hopped across zones recently. On other phones it’s fair to say that this is a fault with the service providers as not all of them correctly send out the automatic Time Zone settings that are usually used for this but frankly a device with a built in location service that works that can’t use that information to correctly set it’s own time zone when the cellular network fails to deliver it is an embarrassment.

iTunes 7.7. What a pig of a piece of software. For some reason it refuses to import my music properly – it seems to barf when presented with a directory structure more than one level deep (I like to keep my music structured in folders by Artist and then Album). Once I get over that it has it’s deathly slow synchronization process which I just can’t understand. It seems to be impossible to easily migrate it from once PC to another (I wanted to shove iTunes into an XP VM all on it’s own and it flat out refused to give me a way to do that that didn’t involve dedicating an entire day to the process). The lack of effective keyboard navigation within the App Store in particular makes it quite annoying to browse around looking for stuff. And on top of it all it insists on making its own copies of my music for some reason even though I’ve asked it repeatedly not to – this may have been my own fault for wanting to keep my own music folder separate from Vista’s defaults but I’m determined to do that as Vista’s home directories (Music\Pictures\Videos etc) are seriously problematic for me because of the way they are built on joined directory structures that make it very difficult to back them up using tools like Robocopy.

 

All of the above referred to the 2.00 firmware release. I’ve just upgraded to the 2.01 firmware release and I’ll give it a few days to see how many of the above have been fixed.