The system’s babysitters?

I was reading this article on Macworld yesterday — Mac users say Yosemite 10.10.1 update did nothing to fix Wi-Fi — and a comment in particular got my attention, by user “BlueToronto”:

Most issues, if not every single one, that people are having with OS X updates & upgrades would be eliminated if you did a clean install. i.e. back up their Mac hard drive, initialize/erase it, re-install from scratch a clean OS X 10.10 from a bootable USB flash drive installer, then copy data back from backup.

DO NOT use Migration Assistant utility, as it brings back corrupt preferences and settings. (Apple includes it to make it easier to restore your data, but it brings with it a slew of issues.)
Hard drives, with age, get corrupt zeroes & ones. You want to eliminate corrupt files by not re-introducing them to your new clean Mac.
Yes, you will have to re-type passwords for wifi networks and email and instant messenger applications, but it’s a small price to pay.

I’ve never experienced any of the issues people complain about in the support forums, with a brand new Mac bought at the Apple Store. Why? Because they have a brand new clean installation on them without previous corruption.
(Now granted, if you buy a brand new Mac, then use Migration Assistant from your old Mac you’re replacing, some issues will still crop up because of corruption from your old Mac.).

Same thing with iOS8.
I had clients complaining that the iOS8 upgrade made their iPhone 5 & 5S virtually unusable.
But once I did a Restore Update (after backing up their iPhones first), wiped out the old data & initialized the iPhone’s flash drive, and installed fresh iOS8, all the issues, including speed issues, went away.

I had clients with mouths wide open in disbelief after seeing their Mac computers and iPhones/iPads working like brand new, nice & fast, no issues!

As someone who has done a lot of freelance tech support in the past, I do understand this point of view and I do agree that it’s possibly the best practice to follow if you want to keep your system tidy and your Mac in working order.

Your Mac is a tool, and like any other tool it works at its best if it’s properly maintained and taken care of. Yet, more and more often lately I’m wondering if perhaps the burden on users’ shoulders isn’t getting a bit too much to bear.

Back up the whole main drive, reformat it, perform a clean install of OS X Yosemite, copy back the data from the backup manually to avoid any issues… These are all sensible steps to follow, but part of me can’t help thinking: It’s 2014 — shouldn’t an operating system be smarter than that? Do we have to proceed like we used to do in previous decades, always babysitting systems and machines — the same systems that are supposed to make our lives easier?

I have approximately 350 GB worth of data on my MacBook Pro’s main drive at the moment. To upgrade to Yosemite following the ‘safe route’ outlined above means losing at least one day. It’s a slow, time-consuming, tedious procedure. Again, I agree it’s the most sensible from a pragmatic standpoint, but I feel this should be more like a last-resort, paranoiac scenario. Instead, especially with all OS X versions following Snow Leopard, this has become the best way to avoid surprises.

I don’t know if this kind of preventive measures before performing a system upgrade are needed now more than ever because Mac OS X has got worse (i.e. in the QA department) or simply more complex (therefore with more underlying bugs), or because the last releases of Mac OS X support many more Mac models and configurations than before; but while I previously felt comfortable upgrading to a newer Mac OS X version without having up-to-date backups or having to worry about possible side-effects, since OS X 10.7 Lion I’ve grown increasingly careful and wary. And I still haven’t upgraded to Yosemite because I’m really worried it could negatively affect the good performance I’m currently experiencing under Mavericks on my mid-2009 MacBook Pro.

What is worrying me with Yosemite more than previous OS X versions is that now, for the first time, a lot of people I know who already do a great job at maintaining their Macs and generally at babysitting their systems have experienced some issues after doing a simple upgrade to Yosemite (no clean install or anything). And the simple upgrade — open the Mac App Store, download Yosemite, and install — should be the way things ‘just work.’

Instead, some well-optimised Macs after Yosemite have been having serious issues with Wi-Fi connectivity, a marked decrease in battery life, a progressive performance worsening of the whole system after a few hours of usage (OS X getting more and more sluggish), random freezes and hangs… Very few people I know have told me their upgrade to Yosemite has been completely hassle-free, and a friend who said everything was alright told me yesterday that the update to OS X 10.10.1 actually screwed up his Mac’s Wi-Fi performance.

Having measures in place and good practice to protect our data is the least we can do today, and not having at least a Time Machine backup is just reckless and inexcusable. But I’m still convinced that one truly innovative thing would be to have more reliable, less finicky, operating systems’ installation processes. Users who have perfectly working Macs should be able to just click ‘update’ and wait for the process to complete without biting their nails in trepidation. But most importantly, users shouldn’t have to approach their computers as system administrators. It shouldn’t be up to the user to prepare the best possible ground for the system to update and work — the system should be smart enough to install properly, or at least to detect conflicts or data corruption during the installation process, alert the user about any problem encountered, and ideally point the user to a possible course of action to remedy the problem.

(I’ve focused on OS X Yosemite a lot in this article, but this applies to all current operating systems out there, whose installation/update procedures and maintenance are probably even more convoluted than OS X’s. I know a few Windows users who were basically forced to either reinstall their current system or upgrade to a newer version of Windows simply because one of Windows’ weakest elements — the Registry — got corrupted in a way that was beyond simple repairs or fixes. And my own recent experience with Android has left the impression that it’s a system that needs constant care and attention on the user’s part to guarantee a decent performance and user experience.)

Category Tech Life Tags ,

iOS 8.1.1 on iPad 2/iPad 3

The latest iOS 8.1.1 promises, among other fixes, to improve performance on older devices, such as the iPhone 4S and the iPad 2. Since we have an iPad 2 and an iPad 3 with iOS 8 in this household, I was eager to install the update and see for myself.

Back in September I wrote my initial impressions of iOS 8 on the iPad 2 and iPad 3, and concluded that, all in all, the experience wasn’t significantly different than iOS 7 on these devices. There was the occasional stutter, and sometimes the transitions in the interface were a bit slow, but nothing that made the update to iOS 8 an intolerable experience.

Things worked well under iOS 8.0 and 8.0.2. What I’ve failed to mention is that the update to iOS 8.1 wasn’t as smooth, and since updating to iOS 8.1 the stuttering and the slowness in transitions and animations were more pronounced. In particular, the transition from waking up the iPad and sliding on the lock screen to access the springboard had lost all its smoothness. At times the iPad seemed unusually stuck for a few seconds on the lock screen even after sliding to unlock, or the sliding was recognised but the lock screen simply budged a little. And entering the springboard was often jerky and the transition played like a video that keeps skipping frames. Same when exiting particularly resource-intensive apps.

I’m happy to report that, after updating both iPads to iOS 8.1.1, everything’s back to normal. Transitions and navigation are smooth once again. Swiping from screen to screen feels even smoother than under iOS 8.0 to 8.0.2. All the issues described in the previous paragraph are gone. Entering and exiting apps offers again a pleasant transition. Waking the iPad, sliding to unlock the lock screen, and entering the springboard — same story. My iPad 3 feels generally better and slightly more responsive. My wife’s iPad 2 feels less sluggish than under iOS 8.1. I’m really happy with this update, and if you own these devices and have experienced these issues, I do recommend you update to iOS 8.1.1 right away.

Category Software Tags , ,

Android as seen by a long-time iOS user

The necessary introduction

Before I even begin to share my observations on Android, there is one important premise to consider: my experience is based on hardware that is three years old, and on an Android version that is rather dated by today’s standards: 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s important and fair to emphasise this because later versions of Android have made significant progress with regard to user experience, so I may be complaining about details and issues that have been addressed and/or solved in the meantime. In general, from what I’ve seen, I’d say that with Android your mileage definitely varies, and your experience with this mobile operating system heavily depends on which hardware and OS version you’ll use.

My test unit

Sony Xperia Neo V

My wife recently upgraded to an iPhone 5, and this is the phone she was using before. Since she no longer uses it, I borrowed it and have used it as a secondary phone for the past month and a half or so. It’s a 2011 Sony Xperia Neo V smartphone, and these are its main tech specs:

  • Display: 3.7 inch, capacitive touchscreen, 854×480 pixels, 16 million colours, 265 PPI.
  • Rear Camera: 5 megapixel with auto focus, 16x digital zoom, LED flash. Video resolution: 720p.
  • Front Camera: Video resolution: VGA.
  • CPU: 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon (single-core)
  • RAM: 512 MB
  • Storage: 1 GB of internal storage (320 MB free); supports up to 32 GB of external storage via MicroSD card
  • Wi-Fi: 802.11b/g/n
  • Bluetooth: 2.1 + EDR
  • Cellular: GSM, UMTS, HSPA
  • Ports: Standard 3.5 mm headphone jack, Micro USB, Micro HDMI
  • Sensors: Proximity, Ambient light, Accelerometer

Software-wise, this is what I’ve done:

  • Rooted the phone.
  • Installed a customisation-free version of Ice Cream Sandwich.
  • Performed a small hack to have applications installed on the MicroSD card by default (instead of the phone’s internal memory).
  • Installed the free version of the Nova Launcher to spruce up the phone’s UI a bit.
  • Uninstalled or deactivated a bunch of apps and features that were useless to me (many little apps and services Sony installs by default, Facebook integration, etc.)

First impressions

This article wants to focus on the software, on my experience with Android, so I really haven’t got much to say about the hardware. The Xperia Neo V is a decent-enough phone. It’s made of plastic, but doesn’t feel too cheap when holding it. It doesn’t feel particularly luxurious either, though. The on/off/wake button, positioned on the top of the right side of the phone, is a bit too small and recessed for my tastes, and the Volume Up/Down rocker is too thin. The typical trio of Android buttons — Back, Home, Menu — positioned on the bottom is better, and the buttons, while thin, are clicky enough. As a long-time iPhone user, I’m accustomed to having the rear camera on the top left of the plate, and the central placement of the camera in this Sony smartphone feels awkward and I often placed my fingers on the camera lens involuntarily while holding and handling the phone.

Responsiveness: in general, using the camera app, and scrolling

I guess that a modern Android smartphone is usable enough out of the box. This phone, when new, shipped with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich is the last version you can officially upgrade to. Considering the phone’s responsiveness when I started using it right after my wife passed it to me, I’d say it’s wise not to try to install anything newer. The first impression I had was that the phone had become increasingly sluggish upgrade after upgrade, and that it needed some significant spring cleaning to gain a bit more speed and responsiveness. That’s why I proceeded with the customisations mentioned above.

Such customisations involved quite a bit of time spent visiting blogs and forums. Android is certainly an operating system for tinkerers, and if you’re looking for the best OS customisations for your phone, you’re going to lose yourself in a maze of forum threads, ROM variations, often hastily-written install instructions. (A lot of Android enthusiasts tend to assume you’re familiar with the slang, but if you’ve just entered the Android world and you’ve always used your iOS device without jailbreaking it, you’ll have to get accustomed to the various procedures to apply such modifications and customisations to your Android hardware, and sometimes you’ll stumble on install instructions that feel a bit cryptic.)

At the end of the process, and after a few restarts, the phone was overall in better shape, as I had practically wiped it and reinstalled the OS from scratch (on iOS, it would be like restoring an iPhone to its factory settings, and setting it up as a new phone). The UI was more responsive than before, but not everywhere. The two places where this Android phone keeps being sluggish no matter what I do are scrolling (especially inside apps; menu and interface navigation is okay) and the camera interface. The latter is especially frustrating because it produces an impossibly long shutter lag. The usual shooting experience is as follows: you launch the Camera app, you frame your shot, you tap the on-screen shutter button, there is an awkward pause where you don’t know whether the button tap has been registered, you finally hear the shutter sound. If, during that awkward pause, you moved the phone slightly to check whether the tap was registered or not, your photo will come out blurry. Sometimes I tapped the shutter button twice or three times, then I heard two instances of the shutter sound, thought that the phone had actually taken two or three shots of the same scene, but ended up with only one (bad) photo.

This particular phone has a dedicated hardware button that acts as camera shutter, and gives a comparatively better shooting experience. The problem is that it’s a tiny, mushy button: at first, what you think it’s the fully depressed position (the ‘shoot photo’ position) is actually the half-press position used to focus on the subject. To take the photo, you have to exercise a stronger pressure on the button which, in turn, makes you move the phone a bit, often leading to blurry photos. In short, to take decent photos with this phone, you’ll need to be patient and have very steady hands. Oh, and the hardware camera button works best in landscape mode, of course, since it’s positioned in such a way that it only makes sense when you hold the phone horizontally.

As for scrolling, it’s always been one of the most problematic features in Android. I’m sure modern phones with the latest versions of Android have achieved a certain smoothness when scrolling, but this phone, with Ice Cream Sandwich, performs noticeably worse than my three iPhones — the 3G, 3GS and 4 — which are all older hardware than the Xperia. The annoying bit is that the smoothness in scrolling actually varies from app to app: the built-in browser is jerky, the Gmail app less so, and the Twitter and App.net clients I’ve chosen (Tweedle and Dash, respectively) are definitely better and smoother. But even these different performances may vary according to the background processes going on at any given time, so that the performance is often unpredictable or even degrading the more you use an app.

Things that surprised me positively

Just in case you’re still reading and thinking that this is one of those pieces written by an iOS aficionado with the sole purpose of bashing Android, my experience hasn’t been completely negative.

  • True, the camera software’s responsiveness is disastrous, and scrolling is sometimes jerky, but the overall responsiveness of the system has been, so far, better than I had anticipated. My previous brief experiences with older Android devices and OS versions made me develop a certain degree of prejudice towards Android. I still think iOS’s has an unparalleled level of smoothness and responsiveness, but I honestly thought Android would be much worse, and I stand corrected.
  • I was similarly prejudiced towards Android apps, but in my Play Store explorations I’ve stumbled on a certain amount of polished apps, and those few I have installed (Google apps, the aforementioned Twitter and App.net clients, the Dropbox and Evernote clients, the IMDb app, Spotify, and an app called TV Show Time to keep track of the TV series I follow, are all great apps with clean, elegant interfaces.
  • Speaking of the Play Store app itself, I think it’s actually better designed than iOS’s App Store. Search and navigation are often better, and I also like how the information for a single app is presented in more detail.
  • Say what you want about Roboto, the system font. I’ve found it to be quite readable and functional.
  • Another pleasant detail, but this is also related to the hardware: the notification light. This Xperia smartphone (like many other Android phones) has an indicator light near the on/off/wake button which lights up when charging the phone, but that can also be used by apps as a blinking notification light. I think it’s very useful, firstly because you can receive notifications in a subtler way, and secondly because you don’t have to wake the phone every time to check if you’ve received notifications while you weren’t looking or were otherwise busy.
  • There are certain customisation aspects in Android that I do like, such as placing useful widgets directly on the screen. iOS has got widgets and extensions in the latest iOS 8, but they’re placed on another layer of the UI, a layer you actively pull down every time you want to see a widget or interact with it. On Android, widgets can be permanently visible, and for certain applications and use cases, this makes a lot of sense.

Some aspects of Android I keep finding baffling

The status bar — I don’t know in version 5, but all the Android devices I’ve seen and interacted with so far are plagued by a status bar that gets messy and crowded with icons rather quickly. The problem with Android’s status bar is that it’s used to display both permanent and temporary bits of information. You have the time, the battery indicator, the signal strength indicator, the Wi-Fi icon when connected to Wi-Fi networks. But then you have transient icons that appear on the status bar after a notification and remain there until you pull down the notification sheet and see what it’s all about.

The two issues I have with these transient icons are: 1) Sometimes they’re obscure — at least for someone who’s accustomed to iOS. The other day I saw a small rectangle in the far left of the status bar and had no idea what it represented nor why had it appeared, until I pulled down the notification sheet (it was a warning that the SD card was not mounted). 2) Sometimes they repeat themselves, and that produces unnecessary clutter on the status bar. For example, the other day I woke the phone, and since I had received two mentions on Twitter and two on App.net, there were two Tweedle icons and two Dash icons in the status bar.

An additional, mildly annoying detail is that in my experience, apart from the clock and battery icon, the icons on the status bar don’t have a fixed position. They load on boot in a manner that reminds me of the right side of the Windows taskbar, where the icons of memory resident programs appear from right to left as they load. In both scenarios, icons don’t always appear in the same sequence. I’m accustomed to iOS’s status bar, where icons have a generally fixed position, so I get the information they display with just a quick glance. On Android, I often feel I need to pay more attention to what happens over there in the status bar.

The Back hardware button — It’s both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes an app misbehaves or hangs, and you usually manage to get back one screen thanks to the Back hardware button. Or the app hasn’t the clearest of UIs, you really don’t know how to go back one step, so the Back button comes to the rescue. The problem is that it works inconsistently throughout different apps. One behaviour the Back button should not have, in my opinion, is to let you go so far back as to quit the app. There’s the Home button for that. The Back button should just take you back in the hierarchy of screens or menus inside an app as far back as the main screen/menu/state; that’s it.

The Menu hardware button — Again, it’s very useful and predictable 90% of the time. In my experience exploring the Xperia phone, pressing the Menu button has generally meant invoking a context-aware options menu. The problem is that there are apps where pressing this same button invokes the app’s main menu. It’s not a big deal, functionally: you wanted a menu, you get a menu. But it’s not consistent from a GUI standpoint. Most of the times the invoked menu slides up from the bottom of the screen, and it has the graphical appearance of a system menu, but there are instances where, as I said, the menu you get is just the app’s main menu, the same you would obtain by swiping right or tapping the Hamburger icon.

The handling of background processes — I don’t know if this has got better with newer Android versions, but on this phone and with Ice Cream Sandwich, this has been possibly the single most infuriating thing of my whole Android experience. It all seems quite random and I haven’t been able to reproduce the issue but, long story short, sometimes one or more processes go rogue, keep the system occupied in the background, and the result is the fastest battery drain I’ve ever seen. I’m talking from full charge to 28% in less than an hour. This despite setting up Gmail to check for email manually, having turned the GPS off, having turned off account syncing, having turned on the Don’t Keep Activities and Show all ANRs options in the Developer options menu and having limited the number of allowed background processes.

Sometimes this excess activity that results in battery drain appears to have something to do with the Internet connection, because as soon as I enter Airplane Mode, the draining stops. Other times it happens anyway: last week I charged the phone overnight, checked it was charged 100% in the morning, then picked it up a few hours later and the phone wouldn’t wake from stop: the battery had drained completely and the phone had shut down. Checking in Settings > Battery usually reveals abnormal resource usage by “Android OS” and “Phone idle” processes. I searched the Web and, again, lost myself in a maze of forum threads; I’ve tried the occasional trick, but nothing really seems to be a definitive fix. I’m sure it can be fixed, but I’ve lost patience and just use the device for brief periods, keep an eye on battery drain, and put it on Airplane Mode or recharge it as needed. Needless to say, I couldn’t rely on this phone to be my primary phone unless I brought the charger along as well everywhere I go. And I’m a tech-savvy user — imagine what would happen to a regular person who doesn’t even know where to look.

Multiple default apps that basically do the same things — On this Xperia phone, I have three default apps to see photos: “3D Album,” “Gallery,” and “Xperia Gallery.” I have a “Clock” app and an “Alarms” app that appear to be just two different shortcuts to enter the same app. Then there are two camera apps, “Camera” and “3D Camera”. Then two “Calendar” apps (same name, slightly different icons). Then an “Email” and a “Gmail” app. I’m sure there were more, but I must have deleted them.

The whole internal memory / MicroSD card storage division and storage handling — Again, I don’t know how current Android phones handle this, but on this Sony Xperia Neo V this division drives me nuts. The phone comes with an internal memory storage of 1 GB, and the operating system takes at least 2/3 of it, leaving you with roughly 300 MB free. In theory, this is all the free space you have at your disposal to install new apps. With a MicroSD card inserted, you can of course move certain apps from the internal memory to the card (not all of them indiscriminately, though), but even when you move the largest apps to the MicroSD card, the internal storage appears to be used anyway by the active apps as a sort of swap space. Despite the two hacks I performed to avoid this bottleneck in storage handling — rooting the phone allows me to move more stuff from the internal memory to the MicroSD card, and setting up the MicroSD card as default destination lets me download large apps from the Play Store and install them on the card directly — I am presently stuck with only 47 MB free of internal memory, and I can’t install the 6 pending app updates because I get the “There is not enough memory on this device” error — and I have 4.6 GB free on the MicroSD card!

The irony is that from what I’ve seen in my experience using this device, Android apps tend to be a bit smaller in size than iOS apps on average, and the Android OS takes up less space than iOS. Yet, this bizarre way of handling internal/external storage severely limits the amount of apps I can install — or simply update — despite having plenty of unused space. (On my iPhone I can’t expand the internal storage with a MicroSD card, but at least the 16 GB I have are handled uniformly and can be used to install apps, store photos, music, etc. all in the same place.) When I asked my wife how she handled this situation when she used the phone, she told me that she had basically given up installing new apps, that whenever she found an app she wanted to install, she had to delete another to make some room for it. I hope Android has got better at handling storage in newer versions because as an iOS user, all this really seems insane to me.

The experience overall — final observations

I have talked at length about what I don’t like or find problematic. The experience wasn’t a complete disaster, however. Despite the issues, and despite the fact that I used a relatively old device with a relatively old Android version, I found the Android OS to be better than I expected. I was eager to test drive an Android phone because I was worried I was getting too prejudiced in my criticism against Android, so I wanted to experience it more extensively and thoroughly than just playing around for ten minutes with a handset borrowed from a friend. There are many things to like about Android, and its design and UI are definitely getting better version after version. If my iPhone stopped working and I had to resort to a cheaper Android phone for a while, I guess I could switch without too much hassle.

But it must be a current phone, with the latest Android version, certainly not this Xperia with Ice Cream Sandwich. The root of pretty much everything negative about my experience with this specific Android hardware and setup has been this: I’ve often had the feeling I wasn’t dealing with an intuitive, standalone, homogeneous device, but rather with a computer crammed into a smaller interface, having typical ‘computer problems’ to attend to or to watch out for. Remember Windows Mobile 6? That was a complete disaster because even the UI looked like a shrunk Windows computer and you had to delicately tap microscopic targets and menus and options with a toothpick-sized stylus. Android’s UI is much, much better on the outside, but still, the troubleshooting part in particular reminds me all too well of the kind of computer problems I had to deal with when I was doing tech support as a freelancer.

In other words, a smartphone owner shouldn’t worry about stuck or misbehaving background processes that eat up resources, slow down the whole phone’s interface, and drain the battery in a couple of hours. A smartphone owner shouldn’t spend time seeking hacks to make the phone store apps on the MicroSD card by default. A smartphone owner shouldn’t even spend time searching the Web for the shortcut to capture a screenshot. A smartphone owner shouldn’t worry about constantly moving apps from the internal storage to the MicroSD card to save space, space that’ll run out very soon anyway. All these are issues for geeks, tinkerers and power users, not regular people who use their smartphone to do basic tasks and trust their smartphone to perform such tasks with minimal to no fuss.

iOS is far from perfect, but it’s still pretty much ahead on this front. Again, as I said at the beginning, my impressions are based on the specific experience with dated hardware and software. If you’d like me to try more modern Android hardware and software, feel free to send it to me, and I’ll gladly write a review.

Category Tech Life Tags , , ,

Message listing: Unison 2.2 vs Unison 1.8.1

I have been a long-time user of Panic’s Unison application for reading Usenet newsgroups. As of two days ago, Panic has discontinued Unison, but in the greatest way possible given the circumstances: by releasing a new version, 2.2, and making the application free.

I’ve remained on version 1.8.1 for quite a while, not because I didn’t like version 2, but simply because I must have changed Unison’s settings a while back — or perhaps the preferences file got corrupted, I can’t remember — and I went on using the application blissfully unaware of further updates.

So, when the news of Unison’s discontinuation hit the tech sphere, I visited Panic’s blog and realised Unison has got to version 2.2, and that it’s now free, so why not download it and take advantage of the new and improved software? That I did. And I like the UI improvements overall, but there’s one annoying detail that has driven me to go back to version 1.8.1 — the message list font and size aren’t customisable anymore.

Here’s Unison 1.8.1 with my current settings (Message list font is Bell Centennial at 18pt):

Unison 181 ui

 

And here’s Unison 2.2:

Unison 22 ui

 

In version 2.x the message list font and size are fixed to what appears to be Lucida Grande at 11pt. Which makes reading quite uncomfortable for me. When taking a look at message lists in Usenet newsgroups, I think it’s important to be able to skim through the various subjects and threads without effort. Newsgroups messages aren’t personal email — you don’t have to read everything, so you tend to skim often. Unison 2.x default (and fixed) message list font settings err too much on the small side, at least for my eyes. You may not like my font choice in Unison 1.8.1, but you can’t deny it makes the message list much easier to read.

It’s of course too late for a feature request to correct this issue, but I wanted to bring this up because it’s something I’ve noticed in other applications, too — I’m referring to the removal of a certain degree of customisation as applications get updated. Sometimes the freedom given to the user to customise an application’s interface is enormous, to the point that you may spend an incredible amount of time just setting up different fonts for different parts of the interface (think NetNewsWire, for example). Sometimes you get the feeling that many of the customisation options aren’t all that necessary. But in Unison’s case, I feel that taking away the ability to set the font and the font size of the message list was not a wise decision with regard to usability.

Category Software Tags , ,

Much ado about the iPad, Part 2

According to the numbers released by Apple outlining its Q4 2014 quarterly results [Q4 2014 Unaudited Summary Data PDF], iPad sales are slowly receding — 12.3 million units sold in Q4 2014, compared with the 13.2 million units sold in Q3 2014 and the 14 million units sold in Q4 2013.

Never mind Apple sold more than 12 million iPads in the quarter where it introduced new models, the iPad has to be doomed, something must be wrong with the iPad. At least, according to various pundits. I’ve pretty much shared my thoughts on this matter back in May when I wrote Much ado about the iPad, but there are passages in articles I’ve read that rubbed me the wrong way a little, so here are my reactions.

The meaning of ‘Post-PC era’

The first article catching my eye was Lukas Mathis’ Wherefore art thou iPad?, but before I get to Mathis’ remarks, the article opens with a quote from Dr Drang’s I and iPad:

Finally, there’s the big problem: storage. How does someone on a iPad access all of the photos and music and video and other files that are part of the modern digital life that Apple wants us to lead? None of us can be post-PC until all of our stuff is where we can get at it without a PC. That there’s been no clean, obvious, and reliable solution to this problem is definitely Apple’s fault, and it’s kept the iPad from being a complete PC replacement.

Two things: firstly, to be a bit pedantic, Post-PC era has never really meant Now let’s all get rid of our computers and start using tablets as the sole computing devices. Steve Jobs didn’t say this, either in 2007 or later in 2010. The Wikipedia entry for Post-PC era contains interesting passages on the matter (emphasis mine):

At an interview alongside Bill Gates at the 5th All Things Digital conference in 2007, Steve Jobs further described a concept similar to Gates’ “PC Plus” known as a “post-PC device”; “a category of devices that aren’t as general purpose, that are really more focused on specific functions, whether they’re phones or iPods or Zunes or what have you. And I think that category of devices is going to continue to be very innovative and we’re going to see lots of them”. Jobs felt that despite these developments, PCs would “continue to be with us and morph with us, whether it’s a tablet or a notebook or, you know, a big curved desktop that you have at your house or whatever it might be.” Gates suggested the prevalence of multiple form factors for such devices, including full-sized tablets, small phones, and 10-foot experiences for the living room.

In June of 2010, at the D8 conference, while being interviewed by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, Jobs compared tablets and PCs to cars and trucks, saying “[PCs are] still going to be around. They’re still going to have a lot of value. But they’re going to be used by like one out of x people.” while predicting that the vast majority of people will eventually use tablets as a primary computing device, analogous to the majority of people who drive cars. Directly conflicting Apple’s previous “digital hub” strategy centered around the Macintosh PC, Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s iCloud platform in 2011, which provides cloud storage for data that can be automatically synced between iOS products and PCs. iOS 5, released concurrently with iCloud, also removed the platform’s dependency on a PC for first-time setup, syncing, and software updates. Jobs explained that iCloud would replace the PC as the “hub” for a user’s devices with online servers—all of a user’s devices, including a PC, would be able to automatically synchronize and access media and other files between platforms. Apple’s current CEO Tim Cook continued to elaborate on the concept that a PC would no longer have to be the center of one’s digital life, considering them to be a “device” on the same level as any portable device that a particular user owns. Cook also explained that mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones would be “more portable, more personal and dramatically easier to use than any PC has ever been.”

The concept that a PC would no longer have to be the centre of the user’s personal digital hub was first explained by Jobs at the Back to the Mac Apple event in October 2010, if I remember correctly.

When talking about the ‘Post-PC era,’ this above has always been my takeaway — that in this era, the PC would progressively lose focus/weight as primary device and become just another personal device, along with smartphones, tablets, etc. Not that the PC would be completely replaced by these other devices.

My second objection to Dr Drang’s quote is that, while I think he has a point regarding the lack of a “clean, obvious, and reliable solution” to the problem of storage, we should also see things under another perspective. Let’s consider the ‘iPad as PC replacement’ when it’s given to someone instead of a computer. Or when someone purchases an iPad instead of a netbook (or whatever the 2014 equivalent of a netbook is called). In other words, let’s consider all those people who are not power users or who only use a PC at the office, and who see the iPad as a good-enough alternative to a laptop or ultra-portable-something for their personal use. These users (and there are a lot of them) start accumulating videos, photos, music, and document files either produced directly on the iPad or purchased through the iPad. The typical situation I’ve witnessed is that the user keeps part of these files on the device itself, and the rest is stored online in the cloud. Apart from Apple’s iCloud, the solutions for online storage and synchronisation are many: there’s Dropbox, Box, SpiderOak, SugarSync, Tresorit, just to name the first coming to mind; plus the cloud solutions offered by Microsoft and Google.

In other words, for people who, say, own a smartphone, use a PC at work, and feel that buying a desktop or laptop computer for themselves is a bit overkill, the iPad (or — why not? — a Surface) may be a viable alternative even storage-wise. For those who have always owned a computer and have accumulated gigabytes and gigabytes of data over the years, stored in their computer’s internal drives and in various external drives, leaving all behind and switching to an iPad-only solution is simply unfeasible storage-wise[1], and I’m not sure it’s fair to blame Apple here.

Is an iPhone (good) enough?

Back to Lukas Mathis’ article now. Lukas writes:

Apple’s behavior severely limits the types of apps that are available on iOS. Whether it is due to actual restrictions, or just due to fear on the part of developers, there are a lot of «safe» apps on iOS, but very few apps that try to break the mold of what people expect from their devices. You get a lot of games, podcast clients, todo lists, camera apps, text editors, things like these — but not a lot of stuff that colors outside of these lines.

Mathis is not the first to voice this complaint. In this whole ‘The iPad is a limited device’ debate, I keep wondering: So, which groundbreaking apps should we see? Which are these apps the iPad desperately needs to find its true identity? It’s a genuine question, because I’ve really seen a lot of different apps that take advantage of the iPad’s form factor and features, especially on the creative front (painting, drawing, music making, etc.) but not limited to it.

None of these app types work substantially better on larger screens. In fact, there are very few apps on iOS that you really need an iPad for if you want to get the most out of them. […] Hence, there is very little reason to own an iPad if you already own an iPhone. Unfortunately, the primary target audience of iPads — people who are inside Apple’s ecosystem — probably do already own an iPhone.

In short, if you have an iPhone, and you want a second, more powerful device, why would it be an iPad? There’s almost nothing you can do on an iPad that you can’t do on an iPhone. It’s just as restricted as the iPhone, and as a result, can’t differentiate itself from the iPhone. But at the same time, the iPad is less portable, and lacks the phone features of the iPhone.

I couldn’t disagree more. In my article commenting what Apple introduced at the September 9 event, I wrote:

Yes, a big phone is certainly more comfortable for things like browsing the Web, handling email, reading ebooks and magazines, consulting maps and directions; being able to see and read more information at a time is a good thing, no doubt. Less panning and zooming, etc. Perhaps the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus will slow down the sales of the 7.9-inch iPad mini, and perhaps more people who currently own, say, an iPad mini and a 3.5– or 4-inch iPhone, will just upgrade to an iPhone 6 Plus and get rid of the small tablet.

And yet I don’t think tablets are necessarily ‘doomed’ or have lost their reason to exist. I’m drawing and painting using apps like Paper by 53 or Procreate. I’m playing games like Simogo’s DEVICE6 or Square Enix’s Hitman GO. I’m editing a spreadsheet with Apple’s Numbers. I’m writing an article or a short story with The Soulmen’s Daedalus Touch. Or annotating a PDF with GoodReader. Or improvising a tune in GarageBand or creating a beat with Propellerhead’s Figure. Or making a mix with apps like Traktor DJ. These are all activities that I really can’t picture myself doing on a big iPhone instead of an iPad (especially a 9.7-inch iPad, but also an iPad mini). Some of these activities, in my opinion, are just perfect for a tablet — not a big phone, and not a laptop either. Even moderate photo editing can be more fun on a tablet instead of a big phone or laptop[2]. The UI is simply better on an iPad. The hardware is more balanced for certain activities such as drawing, sketching, mapping, painting (especially when done with a stylus). The user experience is overall better. Let’s consider this before rushing to the conclusion that tablets are already behind the times.

To me, the iPad’s raison d’être is still the same that urged me to purchase it two years ago: it’s the sweet spot between a smartphone and a laptop. More comfortable than my iPhone for reading, drawing, painting, making music, playing games, writing, watching videos/movies, surfing the Web, and so on and so forth. Less portable than my iPhone but way more portable than my MacBook Pro for doing some of the less complex or convoluted tasks, and way more fun than my MacBook Pro for drawing and painting and playing certain games and reading PDF documents and books, above all.

Sure, in theory Mathis is right: There’s almost nothing you can do on an iPad that you can’t do on an iPhone. But in practice — and I speak from personal experience as owner of various Macs, an iPhone and a 9.7-inch iPad — in practice plenty of what you do on an iPad is undoubtedly more comfortable to do than on an iPhone (no matter how big). Again, assuming a well-designed iOS universal app, the user experience tends to be better on the iPad. Controls are more comfortable, targets are bigger and more reachable, considering you use an iPad almost always with two hands.

I typically use the iPhone for quick tasks, things that don’t take much of my time and are soon out of the way. The few exceptions involve messaging apps, photo apps, Google Maps, listening to music (or radio or the occasional podcast). But there are a lot of other tasks (and apps involving such tasks) that, while certainly doable on the iPhone’s smaller screen, aren’t that much enjoyable, at least for me. Sure, I can browse the Web, do email, read some news[3], even read books or draw a tiny picture, but the iPhone feels too cramped for such things (with the possible exception of the iPhone 6 Plus). That’s why I bring the iPad with me as often as I can when I’m out and about and I know I’ll be staying for a while somewhere (coffee shop, library, someone’s office, etc.). For me, my iPhone is invaluable for checking information or spending brief moments with the occasional time killer, but it’s not ideal for medium or long sessions inside any app. Everything starts feeling cramped soon, I get impatient, and crave for the bigger touch surface of my regular-size iPad.

Finally, as an addendum, Mathis links to Ben Thompson’s The diminished iPad, which is a great piece, but again, I can’t fully agree with certain defeatist tones I felt here and there, especially in the quotes from “SammyWalrusIV”. Take this one, for example:

Why buy an iPad when you could have an iPhone with a screen that doesn’t seem that much smaller than an iPad mini? Why buy an iPad when you can have a more powerful and just as easily transportable Macbook Air?

I think I’ve already answered to the first question. Anyway, here’s a picture of the iPhone 6, 6 Plus and iPad mini, and you can judge their screen sizes for yourselves (I think the iPhone 6 Plus’s screen is still smaller enough when you put it side by side with an iPad mini). Since we’re all basically drawing from personal experience and statistics, I can say that among my friends and acquaintances there are way more people willing to stay with an iPhone + iPad setup rather than go for the iPhone 6 Plus and leave the iPad behind. Again, the plural of anecdote isn’t data, and the only undeniable datum is that iPad sales are receding. I maintain my ‘optimistic’ angle and say that fewer iPads sold doesn’t necessarily mean the iPad is going nowhere. As I said in Much ado about the iPad, “Regular people aren’t likely to upgrade their iPads as frequently as their smartphones — for them, the upgrade cycle is more similar to that of a desktop or laptop computer.” Older iPads keep doing their job just fine, especially with apps that don’t require cutting-edge performance. Add to the fact that, to this day, the only iPad model Apple has actively obsoleted is the original iPad, stuck at iOS 5.1.1… Many people are still making the most of their second-, third– and fourth-generation iPads, all capable of running iOS 8 rather well.

But the new iPad Air 2 has a lot of new characteristics that make for a compelling upgrade for people like me who own a heavier, pre-Air form factor iPad. It’s thinner and much lighter; the sheer CPU/GPU performance is breathtaking; then there’s the much better camera optics; then there’s the Touch ID technology… I’m very, very interested in seeing how iPad sales are going to be in Q1 2015. Perhaps this is the iPad model capable of reversing the trend and urging people to update.

The hardware alone is not enough, and Mathis, Dr Drang, Ben Thompson et al. are of course right on this front (although I keep seeing new apps for iPad that, while not groundbreaking, are certainly much more fun to play with than on an iPhone). But let’s go back to the second question posed by SammyWalrusIV: Why buy an iPad when you can have a more powerful and just as easily transportable Macbook Air?

Well, there’s the price (iPad Air 2 starts at $499, MacBook Air at $899, and yes, there are people out there with tight budgets), but that question has also got me thinking about something else, actually: the missing keyboard.

The missing keyboard

I am absolutely convinced that Apple should produce a thin, hardware keyboard tailored for the iPad Air line. A keyboard that could tightly and uniquely integrate with both the hardware and the operating system, transforming the iPad into a small laptop à la Microsoft Surface (and better). In my experience using my iPad with the Apple Wireless Keyboard (see A week with the iPad-as-laptop setup), I was frustrated by a certain usability friction, mainly because I expected to control specific parts of iOS’s interface with the keyboard, and when that did not happen, the result was an awkward user experience, with things working on the keyboard as expected, and others requiring me to stop typing and start scrolling or swiping via the Multi-touch interface. In my article I wrote:

The frustration came essentially from the generally poor key mapping and user-interaction obscurity.

If Apple bothered more to increase compatibility between iOS and an input device the company itself produces, using the iPad as a lightweight laptop would be a better, more fulfilling experience overall. For instance, why not have the Enter key (or a combination such as Option-Enter or Command-Enter) work the same way it works on the Mac, where it can be used as confirmation in dialog boxes? When using Messages on the iPad, I could write my messages on the physical keyboard, but had to reach the screen and tap on Send every damn time. Having full keyboard support in instances like this could be a time-saver. It’s just natural to hit Enter as confirmation (‘send message’) and I often found myself pausing to remember I had to split the action of writing (hands on keyboard) from the action of sending (hand on screen to interact via touch).

But the best keyboard shortcut Apple could implement when using an Apple keyboard with iOS devices is, in my opinion, Command-Tab to activate the multitasking interface. I believe that, by now, every Mac user’s muscle memory has Command-Tab ingrained as a means to quickly switch between different active apps (and — correct me if I’m wrong — even Windows users have a similar shortcut memorised). I certainly have: while working on the iPad I can’t enumerate the number of times my fingers instinctively hit Command-Tab to switch from, say, iA Writer, to Mail or Safari. Having to reach the Home button and double click it every time became rapidly a pain and another unwanted interruption of the workflow.

Now, imagine a new iPad Air Smart keyboard — maybe even doubling as a cover — much more integrated with iOS and offering a more seamless and consistent user experience overall. A keyboard that, once attached, would interact with the system in a more Mac-like fashion, mapping actions such as the ones I described above in a functional, more predictable way, so that users can keep their hands on the keyboard without having to stop now and again to swipe here, scroll there, or double-click the Home button to invoke the multitasking interface. You’ve finished writing that piece? ⌘-Q and you’re back in the Springboard. Want to check the Today View or any missed notifications while you’re typing inside an app? Tap F12, or ⌥-Down arrow, or better, assign a keyboard shortcut to the action. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. I know, Apple could simply add these functionalities to iOS 8 and that would be enough to increase the compatibility with a lot of third-party keyboards, but you can’t deny the appeal of also having a keyboard for the iPad made by Apple. Who knows, maybe with such an accessory, more people would start considering an iPad Air 2 over a MacBook Air. Just a thought.

Conclusion

We are all overthinking the iPad.

 


  • 1. And yet, this unfeasibility is going to be less and less pronounced as time passes — that’s my hope, at least — because when online storage becomes even cheaper than it is now, all those services I mentioned will offer larger storage tiers and, in theory, allowing users to put their stuff there until [it] is where we can get at it without a PC, to quote Dr Drang again.
  • 2. And now we have Pixelmator for iPad, further corroborating my point.
  • 3. Unread for iPhone made me go back to reading RSS feeds on the iPhone, because it’s an excellently designed app that makes reading a joy. But as soon as the iPad version was released, I went back to reading feeds on the iPad most of the time.

 

Category Tech Life Tags , ,