September 29, 2012
Four years ago I bought my first smartphone: the iPhone 3G. It was empowering to have the internet almost always available, and the phone enabled me to allow my occasional day hikes to explode the following year into a full-blown obsession which thankfully has both physical and emotional health benefits. Having audiobooks and podcasts to entertain me on the road and along my walks, coupled with my TomTom GPS app and later my MotionX GPS trail tracker, encouraged me to take 156 days to hike almost 1,000 miles since July 2009.
I enjoyed the upgrade in 2010 to the iPhone 4, although the reception problems with its around-the-rim antenna made the limitations of AT&T’s rural phone network, my technological lifeline on many travels, even more annoying. I enjoyed the iOS environment enough to buy Apple’s iPad and upgrade my pads with each new release. I use the pad around the house to watch videos, get my daily text-based news, and surf the internet.
So I was very interested in this fall’s release of the latest operating system, iOS 6, for both my iPhone and iPad,, as well as upgrading from my iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5. The standard two-year phone contract means I only upgrade the phone every other year, and I feel I hit the cycle in the right spot: I skipped the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4S and instead my phone upgrades match up to the major product revisions rather than simply hardware speed boosts and refinements.
I’ve never had the vaunted Siri voice-recognition assistant before, and the voice commands for audio playback control on my first two iPhones never worked well enough to bother with. Siri is like the Star Trek computer brought to life with less gear grinding, but I always regarded the talking computer in my favorite television show of all time as more of a dramatic device tailored to the needs of television entertainment than a future necessity.
iOS 6 brought Siri to my iPad, but not my iPhone 4. I’d have to wait a few weeks for the iPhone 5 to have Siri in my pocket. And I’ve only rarely used Siri on the iPad, since voice control seems superfluous when I have my hands free. But having Siri available when I’m driving sounds promising – I know I shouldn’t be trying to read and type on my iPhone while driving, although I do manipulate the TomTom GPS app and the iPhone’s playback controls while driving. With Siri I could hopefully control playback, make calls, send texts, and manipulate turn-by-turn GPS functions without having to take my hands off the wheel to manipulate icons and keyboards, except for pushing the home button a couple of time to activate Siri and then having to confirm some of Siri’s actions. I haven’t had a chance to really try all of that yet since the iPhone 5 only arrived a couple of days ago, but I’m looking forward to it.
VERDICT on Siri: I’m still in the discovery phase and haven’t even gone to trial yet.
10/2 UPDATE: On a trip to and from Oklahoma City, I never used Siri. I’ll need to be driving to unfamiliar locales to put it to the test.
Unfortunately the arrival of Siri marks the departure of both the YouTube and Maps apps which I’ve used for years on the iPads and iPhones. Apple had a deal with Google which provided the back-end for the Maps app but did not offer the voice turn-by-turn driving directions Google added to Android smartphones some time ago. So while I could get graphical driving directions, locate business and points of interests with smart links, and use Google’s Street View to even get an idea of what my destination looked like, the built-in Maps app was not a practical way to navigate when driving alone.
Years ago I bought the then-quite-expensive TomTom GPS app to address this shortcoming. It has been upgraded steadily since then, so the up-front cost no longer stings. Somewhat like when Google updates its various free services, I’m not always thrilled with the changes in my TomTom app, but overall it has improved. I call it Trixie since with the voice I’ve selected it is my navigatrix and also because the inevitable shortcomings of GPS and the on-board maps and database means it sometimes leads me astray.
The TomTom app was greatly improved when it began linking to Google Local Search awhile back. The latest upgrade defaulted to using Facebook’s Places and that fooled me into thinking the Google Local Search was gone, which was a great disappointment. But I find that I can still access the Google database if I press the right icon in my Places search, which is a relief. Google simply has the best database out there, although it does have its flaws, having directed me more than once to a spot a mile or more distant from the actual location of the business I was seeking. It is addresses along the busy highway corridors in smaller towns which seem to be the most unreliable.
But the TomTom app has been a godsend for my travels and will remain so for now, even though iOS 6 finally brings built-in audio turn-by-turn GPS navigation to the iPhone 4S and my new iPhone 5. That’s because Apple ditched Google Maps for its own solution and, as evidenced by the recent apology by CEO Tim Cook, its maps product has significant shortcomings. My limited use has shown that it is not nearly as powerful as the old Maps app in regards to search and it lacks Street View. But the new Maps app is far from useless: it had no trouble finding a Tulsa restaurant location listing last night and allowed me to quickly phone in for reservations. I’ve downloaded the Live Street View Free app so I can use Street View if needed, although the experience is far from seamless.
But on my frequent road trips I often am in rural areas with slow or non-existent cellular data service, so I wouldn’t rely on the new or the old built-in Maps app anyway, since it needs access to an online database to function. My TomTom GPS app has its maps built-in and many points of interest (POIs) to boot, although its on-board database of POIs is a pale and skinny shadow of Google’s robust online database. So I’ll continue to rely on my TomTom GPS app for road trips and only use the built-in Maps app for quick searches and directions in metro areas.
VERDICT on Maps: Use the TomTom GPS app for road trips for its on-board maps and database; Apple Maps will do for quick searches in metro areas until Google offers something better or Apple catches up. Try Live Street View Free as an enhancement when needed.
10/2 UPDATE: I used Apple’s turn-by-turn directions on the drive home from Oklahoma City. The visuals were attractive and the directions accurate, but the estimated time of arrival was not as accurate as my TomTom and I could not zoom very far out on the view without switching to Overview mode. I will be happy to use the Apple Maps app for quick turn-by-turn directions but for longer trips will rely on my TomTom app.
The biggest disappointment in iOS 6 has been the loss of the YouTube app on my iPad. Apple wrote that app years ago and hadn’t updated it, but it worked very well for my needs, allowing me to quickly access new video podcasts I had subscribed to in YouTube. And the app allowed me to quickly flip my viewing from the iPad to my large HDTV by using the AirPlay service and my Apple TV box. The new operating system deletes the old built-in YouTube app and offers no suitable replacement for the iPad.
I presume Google was caught off-guard, since their only response thus far has been to release a YouTube app that works okay on the iPhone, but is annoying on the iPad. Their new app insists on listing videos only in portrait mode, and I only use my iPad in that orientation when reading a long text article or my Tulsa World. Since my iPad is usually sitting on a surface using the great ZeroChroma Vario case with built-in stand, it is most annoying to have to pick it up and turn it to portrait orientation to pick a video to watch, and then have to rotate back to landscape mode to watch the video full-screen.
Even worse, the stupid app does not support AirPlay nearly as well as the old one did. The new one can only display video through the Apple TV in mirroring mode, which means you have to dedicate your iPhone or iPad to playing the video. The old app would send video and audio to the Apple TV via AirPlay and keep working in the background when you switched to a different app. Google needs to get that functionality back, pronto!
I’ve tried some alternatives, from Frequency to Squrl to Vodio, but each of them had significant drawbacks. So for now I’m watching all of my TWiT network technology podcasts using their own TWiT iPad app, which supports AirPlay in the background. But I’m stuck using the lousy YouTube app to watch the wonderful model-building videos posted by Steve Neill and other YouTube videos.
VERDICT on YouTube: Watching YouTube videos on the iPad or iPhone has taken a significant step backward in the new release. Google’s YouTube iPhone app needs to be “plussed” to offer landscape mode on the iPad and needs to add background AirPlay capability.
10/2 UPDATE: Chrystal Cain Shiarla recommended Jasmine, an iPhone/iPad YouTube client app that supports background AirPlay. I’m back in business on my iPad!
Welcome Changes in iOS 6
Siri is the most obvious new feature of iOS 6 for my iPad 3, but a few other new features of iOS 6, independent of the new iPhone 5 hardware, have stood out for me.
- I’m glad that I no longer have to put in my iTunes password when I just want to install a free app update.
- I learned to never leave my iPhone or iPad by my bed at night, because texts, reminders, and unwanted phone calls could make the device light up and make noise, waking me unnecessarily since I am a light sleeper and insomniac. I immediately used iOS 6’s new Do Not Disturb settings to tell both devices to keep dark and quiet during my normal sleep time unless someone in my contacts list is trying to reach me.
- I haven’t used them yet, but I like the various options you can invoke when receiving a call while you are busy.
- I shot my first iOS 6 panorama
on the iPhone 5 tonight. I didn’t have subject matter worthwhile to post the photo, howeverof the orchard along the Pathfinder Parkway. Previously I’ve used the Autostitch Panorama and PhotoSynth apps for such functionality, but having it built into the normal Camera app makes it far more likely to be used. However, the iPhone 5 camera is no match for my Canon superzoom camera; most of the photos I took at a Steve Miller Band concert last night at the Hard Rock Casino in Catoosa were unimpressive; here’s the best of the bunch after some cropping and Photoshop tweaking, and the original photo is shown below, which was shot with the flash on – shots without flash led to massive blooming and oversaturation of the performers on the brightly lit stage.
10/2 UPDATE: Andy Ihnatko also had annoying low-light blurring on the iPhone 5 and speculates that it is switching to a four-pixel blend mode for low light which is causing the loss of resolution, made apparent in zoomed images. Hopefully he’s right and a software update can fix this, reserving the pixel-blend mode for lower-light situations.
The iPhone 5
I was so eager to get an iPhone 5, yet unwilling to suffer waiting in lines, that I got up at 3:30 a.m. to order one an hour after pre-orders began. Even then the demand was high enough that I was told I’d have to wait two weeks after they went on sale in stores to receive mine. Thankfully it came in much earlier than that, only five days after the sales debut. I got a quotation from Gazelle for my iPhone 4 before the iPhone 5 announcement and shipped it off today, so I’ll get back $175 to cover part of the $399 up-front cost of my new phone.
Memory Management and iCloud
I ordered the largest 64 GB model since my 32 GB iPhone 4 had maxed out its memory with my various apps plus my large collection of iTunes-rated songs, audiobooks, and podcasts. I had to set the phone to use 128 kpbs AAC audio files rather than 256 kpbs and to only load the latest 10 unplayed episodes of each podcast to save space. iCloud music management was more annoying than useful, with slow-to-update-or-appear playlists and having to force many songs to be uploaded into iCloud before I could get them on the phone, so I had finally turned it off on the old phone.
I’m trying iCloud music sync again on my new phone, although I was careful to not turn that on until I had synced it with iTunes on my Windows desktop computer to preload over 2,000 rated songs from my collection via USB cable rather than using up over 15 GB of my CableOne internet bandwidth to update the phone via iCloud over WiFi. Then I turned on iCloud and it is now syncing my music and the like.
Sadly the same frustrations with iCloud I had before are recurring, so I’ll likely turn that off and return to manual syncing with iTunes, even though iTunes on Windows is a bloated slow hog. It is supposed to be updated later this fall and I sure hope they slim it down and speed it up!
I like the new design, which is a bit taller than before, enough room for another row of icons on each screen, which is welcome. Apps don’t have to be updated to still look fine on the bigger screen, and the phone is very snappy and responsive. Unlike my iPhone 4, the new phone supports the so-called 4G service AT&T offers in Bartlesville and Tulsa, which is HSPA+. Web pages load noticeably faster than with 3G, let alone poor old EDGE, although I suspect I would get even better results with LTE service. Too bad AT&T’s LTE in the Sooner State is currently limited to the Oklahoma City metro area. I’ll be there in a couple of days and will try to run some speed tests.
10/2 UPDATE: While briefly in Oklahoma City I ran some off-the-cuff speed tests:
|Location||Network||Best Download Speed (Mbps)||Best Upload Speed (Mbps)|
|Bartlesville||My home’s WiFi (802.11n on 5 GHz band to a cable modem’s 10 Mbps service)||8.83||0.97|
|Bartlesville||AT&T HSPA+ at my home||5.28||0.74|
|Oklahoma City||AT&T TLE at my parents’ home||8.51||2.97|
|Oklahoma City||My parents’ WiFi (802.11g to a DSL line)||4.72||0.53|
|Oklahoma City||Bricktown hotel’s WiFi||5.81||2.84|
So, as expected, the TLE cellular data service was very fast (although in my little test it was nowhere near as fast as what some folks are getting with TLE around the country), while my local HSPA+ “4G” data service was nice but not spectacular, albeit noticeably faster than 3G and of course EDGE.
The phone is noticeably lighter and slimmer, and I’m glad the back is no longer glass. For years I used a very thin plastic case to help with the antenna signal attenuation problem on my iPhone 4, but eventually chucked that and used it bare. I’m using the iPhone 5 uncased as well, a risk since I didn’t buy AppleCare for it, but I’ve yet to break an iPhone. I need to find a nice slim belt holster, since the cheap BlueHarbor ones I’ve used for the iPhone 4 do not fit well.
The phone looks much like the iPhone 4, but the larger size is a give-away. A local patrolman pulled me over today because my car’s license tag had expired (either the reminder card was lost in the mail or wasn’t sent due to budget cuts or a bureaucratic snafu), and as soon as he looked in the car he eagerly asked, “Is that the iPhone 5? Do you like it?”
That helped prompt me to write this review, although I doubt the friendly patrolman will ever know about it. By the way, he let me off with a warning and I promptly drove to the tag agency to get my new sticker, but it was closed on weekends. That prompted me to find out that I could renew my tag online and have a new sticker mailed to me, so I did that and they should now email a reminder to me each summer so I can follow that routine. I also added an annual reminder to my online calendar system.
My “conservation of happiness” principle applies to this hardware upgrade, however. The improved size, weight, and speed are offset by cable connection annoyances. They ditched the 30-pin connector used for years for both iPhones and iPads for a new smaller one, prompting me to order three expensive new cables to make charging my iPhone easier: one for battery pack in my hiking backpack, another for the spot in the living room where I typically place the phone to be charged, and a third one for the car. The cable that came with the iPhone is hooked up to my Windows desktop computer. I could use one cable for everything, but I’m sure I’d lose track of it and don’t need the hassle.
Thankfully when I wired my old car radio with an FM modulator to feed the iPhone audio signal through the car speakers I used a standard TRS audio cable and not a 30-pin connector. But Apple moved the line out jack from the top of the phone to the bottom. I was annoyed when they did that in some iPods years back and truly dislike it on the phone. It means I have to feed the cable in the car up through the bottom of the dashboard phone mount. Gravity tugs down the cable and causes the connection to cut out if the cable isn’t plugged in very firmly. You can’t just put the phone upside down in the holder, because in portrait mode it insists on having the home button at the bottom of the phone and won’t rotate the display 180 degrees. I find all of this annoying and stupid.
VERDICT on the iPhone 5: A faster processor and 4G support while being lighter, slimmer, and longer are all nice improvements, outweighing the annoying port changes.
It will be interesting to see how much I use Siri on my road trips. I hope it proves useful and makes me a safer driver. I also look forward to seeing what I can get out of the iPhone 5 camera on those occasions when I’m not carrying my Canon superzoom camera.
I expect Google will get its act together and release a better YouTube app for the iPad and eventually offer an iPhone Google Maps app. Until then, my TomTom GPS and Apple Maps, combined with occasional use of Live Street View Free, should meet my needs.
I’m glad I upgraded to the iPhone 5, but I had been tempted to investigate the larger Samsung Galaxy S3, prompted to do so by my presbyopia and some nice photos I’ve seen taken with the S3. It has never been fun to be nearsighted, and presbyopia makes it all the more agonizing. I probably need larger bifocal lenses, but decent frames with the Crizal lenses I like are incredibly expensive.
I’ve made a large investment in the iOS ecosystem and know that it is more seamless, if at times more limiting, than Android. So while I’m still using Windows at school and home for desktop computing, my mobile hardware is still all Apple.
The last couple of weeks have been fun with iOS and iPhone upgrades, and later in October I should receive my fourth Kindle: the Paperwhite. Great gadget goodness!