Sunday, June 23, 2013

iOS7 Beta Impressions

As expected, at the recent Apple WWDC event, Apple announced a major revamp of iOS, with iOS7. Claiming to modernize the user interface, add updated multitasking, and overall a much more modern and elegant experience, iOS7 was released to developers in a beta at the conclusion of the event, with us unwashed masses promised the final version in the fall (most likely with a new addition to the iPhone/iPad family). But this intrepid iOS user was not to be deterred: I wanted iOS7 now. So, armed with little more than a vague desire, I launched my quest to get. that. damned. beta. This is my story.

So, my first challenge: how to get in the rarified air of Apple considering me a developer worthy of the beta. I expected to have to embark on a crash CodeAcademy course, or a torchlit ceremony of Steve Jobs worshipping. Anything Cupertino could throw at me, I was ready. I'd fool these high priests of code, and escape with the beta prize, with none the wiser. So steeled, I launched my quest with a Google search and a silent prayer to the Holy Steves (Jobs and Wozniak), and began.

And found that anyone can be registered as a developer for $99/year.  Seriously. That's it. An early-early-early adopter tax.

I decided that was simply too easy; after all, I had been ready for a challenge...and I'm notoriously cheap. After a few more Googles, I found there is a slightly sneakier (and cheaper) way. In order to use the beta, you need to have the unique identifier for your iOS device registered with Apple; this is a process that's included with the standard $99/year service. In fact, it gives you several slots you can use for testing on multiple devices. Some enterprising folks realized there were suckerspeople like me who may not be developers, but would want in on the beta, and so they started selling some of their excess slots. The High Priests of Cupertino heard about such indulgences and immediately issued a fatwah on such practices, but in the dark alleys of Twitter, several purveyors still plied their UDID slots in whispered 140 character come-hithers.

After searching Twitter for those that seemed likely candidates (as well as carefully monitoring the tweeted complaints and compliments on such), I chose a seemingly good service, iOSReg. Their tweets were routinely helpful, their mentions almost all positive, and they were transparent about their inventory (i.e. if they actually had any slots, and when you could expect, if ever, to be registered if you used them). So, in the wee hours of the Pacific US morning, the helpful Brits behind iOSReg tweeted they had slots, and 7 pounds and roughly 60 seconds later, I was now hooked up with a registered UDID.

Next step: getting the beta itself. Luckily, the folks at iOSReg were onto my idea, and included a PDF with specific directions on how to hit up a shady notorious Kiwi with the infamous monicker of Kim Dotcom (he of the military raid on his compound, defended by inflatable decoy drones), and his new service, Mega. Minutes later, the coveted prize was mine: My Precious iOS7 beta was downloaded. A few hidden clicks in iTunes later, and my iPhone 5 was sporting Sir Jony Ive's latest flatness. My quest was complete.

So, how have I enjoyed the fruits of my labors? I'll give you my promised impressions, but a word to those who choose to follow my footsteps: it's not a path for the faint of heart. In fact, there is nothing like installing a beta or jailbreaking your phone (mine is not) to make you appreciate what you take for granted with iOS: it just works, without any instability or worry. Go beta or jailbreak, and you are suddenly very conscious of how elegant iOS really is, in that everything. just. works. On the beta, not so much. Which brings me to my last missive: if you use an iOS as a secondary device, this is a reasonable idea, but if you use your iPhone as your primary device every day, you may want to reconsider this approach, unless you are fond of frequent app crashes, reboots, and mysterious app features disappearing.

Also, like all restores of the iPhone, it has the maddening experience of finding some data is backed up to iTunes, some to iCloud, and still some more that just isn't. Before you embark, make sure you know all the apps you had on the phone, and any that use non-cloud based data stores, make sure you have backed up to your computer, or you'll spend the hours I did in reloading them.

On to the impressions:

- The UI is very much the star of this beta. Yes, much has been made of the "flattened" iconography of this version, but it's truly the multilayering as the predominant feel. From the perspective shifting of the wallpaper, to the "bleed through" of the color palette on translucent menus, it's all about emphasizing the layers. Very cool, very slick, and ultimately eye candy. There's a conscious effort to make as many of the apps stretch to the edges of the screen as possible, giving the illusion of more screen real estate in an effective way. There's even three dimensionality to the pulldown menus that adds a satisfying effect. Animations on app laucnching and home screen are satisfying. Overall, very slick.

- There's a lot of white, gray and translucency here. That looks cool and modern, but it almost requires a dark background for many of the apps and photos to actually see the options. Lots of new modern icons for sharing, saving, and reading that are typically inscrutable in Apple's tradition. It will take some adaption, but hopefully Apple will keep the helpful captions on the icons in the final version to help users tell us what the heck some of these mean. See the snapshot of Safari to the right here? Look at those icons on the bottom: you could maybe guess 1 or 2 of them, but overall it's a head scratcher.

- The beta is very unstable, even within the stock iOS apps. Add a reminder? App crash. Try to take a photo of a check to deposit with your favorite modern banking app? Oh, you wanted to see the picture as you were taking it? Nope. Skype works once...and then crashes on every launch, requiring you to delete the app and reinstall it. You get the idea.

- AirDrop is everywhere. For those non-Apple computer users (like me), it's a new approach: you can transfer just about anything to another Apple or iOS device. Photos, links, you name it: AirDrop is pervasively baked in to be the most prominent sharing option. As it's not available in pre iOS7 devices, it seems clear that Apple is quietly telling those Samsung ads that show effortless data sharing to shut the hell up with AirDrop front and center.

- There's a lot of bugginess on dialog boxes. Most text beyond 100 characters is simply truncated, with no way to see the rest. Multiple menu options are messy, pushing outside the boundary of the dialog box. A good beta, but clearly not ready for prime time.

- The best new feature of iOS7 for me is one I have longed for since my jailbreaking days: Control Center. A swipe from the bottom brings up a set of invaluable utilities. Toggle Airplane mode, wifi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb, and orientation lock. Adjust the screen brightness. The familiar media player controls. Trigger AirPlay (Apple TV users, rejoice). And a set of commonly used utilities: Flashlight (App developers with their hundreds of versions of this are weeping), Clock, Calculator, and the Camera. Yep, this is a clear winner, and to have it pervasively in every screen of iOS is most welcomed.

- New Smart Mailboxes. iOS 6 gave us the VIP mailbox, so we could be alerted to emails from the most important folks with push notifications, allowing us to ignore the rest. iOS7 takes it to the next level with a variety of Smart Mailboxes, including one for just Unread emails. Now that's helpful.

- Camera is definitely beefed up. Better UI for choosing flash and HDR. A new Square mode for all you Instagrammers. And speaking of that, a selection of several camera filters that you can see the filtered photo before you take the picture. Ability to zoom when taking video, as well as a much more subtle but helpful indicator that you are actually filming.

- For Pebble watch owners (and yes, thanks to the wisdom of the crowds, I am now one of them), some unexpected benefits: all push notifications come to the Pebble now. Yay second screen experiences!

- Being able to swipe to unlock on any part of the screen, instead of the designated slot on the bottom is a very nice touch, and helpful.

- The Notification Center (when you swipe from the top) is enhanced, though I am not sure for the better. It now has a helpful Today mode to show you what appointments are on your calendar today, with a very Jarvis-like summary of the current weather, instead of the graphical representation in iOS6. But there are now three modes: Today, All, and Missed. Those push notifications? Relegated to the latter two categories, which requires an additional click to see. And, sadly, Apple has not improved the UI for dismissing notifications: it's still just as frustratingly easy to miss the miniscule delete button, and instead open the app that triggered the notification. Worse, going back now takes multiple clicks.

- Much has been made of the new Find My iPhone functionality that requires you to enter your Apple ID to use the phone, instead of just popping in a new SIM card. I can't find any controls for this, so I assume that I'd need to go to the iCloud to trigger this. No rush, thanks.

- Multitasking is definitely more robust: a double click of the home button shows you all the running apps, complete with screenshots of the last state of the app. Interestingly, there is an icon for each app under the screenshot, to helpfully remind you of what app each is, but the UI is crowded, and seems to imply there is something different you could do by clicking the screenshot instead of the icon; not the case. Dismissing a running app is a direct steal from WebOS: flick the "card" up, and the app quits. There is also much about the intelligent monitoring of the apps that can be refreshed in the background, but, frustratingly, there is no way to explicitly tell iOS7 which apps you want that to be the case with. In true Apple tradition, you need to trust them that they know best. My limited experience is not showing it to be any different than iOS6, which further emphasizes a setting that allows you to see the status of such.

- Passbook is now on the Lock Screen. Why is this interesting? Well, if you use the Starbucks app, for instance, and have designated your favorite Starbucks within, your Starbucks card is ready to pay without unlocking your phone. Same with boarding a plane: your boarding pass is one click away without unlock. Nice touch.

- One enhancement to iOS6 I was happy about was Apple's poaching of the jailbreak developer who introduced the banner notifications along the top of your screen, instead of taking over the entire screen for every notification. It was slick, elegant, and controllable. iOS7 take a step back in this, making the banner notifications take up nearly twice the horizontal real estate. This is especially annoying, as many apps have important navigation controls that are completely covered by these notifications. Also odd: unlike the rest of iOS7's eschewing of black backgrounds in favor of translucency, the notifications are black backgrounds which makes it doubly annoying.

- Battery use has been dinged hard in the forums, but I've found the opposite.

- Remember that chip Apple added to Lightning chargers? Well, much to my delight those innovative Chinese manufacturers worked it out and I've stocked up on sub $10 charging cords. However, iOS7 now detects non-Apple certified devices, and pops a warning every time one gets plugged in. Nothing like paying the Apple tax, in either $ or annoyance. Thanks, Cupertino.

- iTunes Radio, aka the Pandora-killer, suffers from some serious UI issues. In Pandora, you can "train" Pandora as to the songs you like, the ones you don't, and still ones that you may or may not like but want to skip. In iTunes Radio, it was impossible to figure out how you told Apple this, and trust me, you really want this. I know some have been pleased with the seeming intelligence of iTunes Radio in choosing songs you will like, but that was definitely the opposite for me. In scouring the blogs, I found that the controls were mysteriously hidden under the "star" button; that brings up a contextual menu to allow you to do the things that Pandora does. This is annoying, and needs to be fixed, especially if I am to use in the car. On the plus side, there are definitely less ads and less intrusive than Pandora, but it's a non-starter if I'm shutting it off out of annoyance.

- Messages is...messy. The flattened UI is definitely an improvement, as is the contextual menus for calling the messenger, or seeing the details of the contact. However, new messages are pushed below the last message, requiring a scroll to see them. The cute three dimensional animation on sending messages is just that: cute, but unnecessary. Personally, I would have preferred a choice of views, but hey, I bought in to the Apple walled garden: I can't bitch too much at the feel of the walls on me.

Still lots to experience, but right now, I'd say this iOS beta is not ready for the casual user, something Apple has been quite diligent in stating, and I have been diligent in ignoring. Time will tell if I am to keep this on, as I rely on my iPhone heavily. If all follows past betas, a new updated beta should be due in a couple of weeks; I may try to hold on for that. However, intrepid readers, learn from my experience and decide for yourselves. I'm back to translucent, flat-land...see you there in the fall.

1 comment:

The Geeks said...

hi..Im college student, thanks for sharing :)