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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.


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.


Pat C said...

Hmmm, seems like quite some work still to be done - albeit against a good base, and what is rather poor competition. Seems a very similiar development pattern to the original iPod - it really only came together as a package with the 3rd generation. As an aside - iTunes for windows has never given me anything except grief, yet works like a charm on OSx. I used an iPod Touch for about a week, and could sync 8Gb in minutes, all done in the background, without a murmur. Seans Ipod Nano, with 4gb, on XPSP3/Itunes 7.7.....60% CPU for about 10 mins to add a few songs.....!

eVader said...

Very insightful observations. I am not certain if moving from a WM6 Std Moto Q9 to a Apple 3G is a wise decision despite. Although AT&T offer corp voice\data plans your postings and those from Wired, Engadget, Gizmodo and other fan sites complaining of poor roaming, poor 3G throughput and battery life.

Something else that was interesting came from today questioning why Microsoft gets a bad rep when WM devices crash or lock up yet when same happens to an Apple product, it is just part of the "experience" while owning a cool new device. I haven't seen an Apple sucks bumper sticker nor people sticking pins into an effigy of Steve Jobs.

Still...after a 2 week evaluation of a 1st gen iPhone last fall and toying with an iTouch at Circuit City today, I am very tempted to get on and satisfy my geek nature.

Buy or wait?

Joe Mansfield said...

With regard to stability I have to say that most recent WM devices (Samsung Blackjack, Fujitsu Siemens Loox, various Dell Axims, Asus 1210, HTC TyTN..) that I've used have been rock solid. I haven't had to hard reset a device for any reason other than specifically wanting to completely clean it up for quite some time and lock ups requiring a soft reset are very rare. Mind you I tend to uninstall and disable as much of the Cellular provider garbage as possible so that's worth keeping in mind. The new 2.01 firmware seems to have fixed a few bugs but there are still some nasty things in there - application installs are painfully slow and getting worse in my experience. I'm really getting tired of all the waiting around. I can hard reset and perform a down the wire rebuild of a Windows Mobile device (ie installing a bunch of my standard apps, configuring all settings to my preferences and setting up the cellular data\WiFi etc) in less time than it takes to install one small app on the iPhone. Now the iPhone process is technically _easier_ but 5-10 minutes to install a <1Meg app (over WLAN) is pathetic.

The browser is great but like everything else on the iPhone it's only able to support activity in the foreground session so its implementation of "tabbed" browsing is very broken for me - I want to be able to read stuff and tab off interesting links so they can load up in the background and be ready for when I get around to them. On Safari that action hijacks the browser focus and often leads to the originating page being refreshed as Safari has forgotten where you were. It's a lovely looking browser and easy to navigate but behaviours like that are also really beginning to irritate me. That said it's still miles better than any version of Pocket IE.

Battery life on almost all Windows Mobile Professional (Touch Screen) devices is abysmal in my experience even with Microsoft's very frugal (in terms of RF power) push mail tech. Standard (formerly Smartphone) devices are much better and most of the one's I've used got me more than a full day between charges and could manage a weekend if I was being careful. It all depends on your usage though and certainly the iPhone 3G's Battery life is definitely an area of concern for anyone who's reviewed it. If business grade Push Mail is important to you then I think the iPhone will disappoint - it doesn't quite have all the features and when you turn on Push Mail Battery life drops to about half of what it would have been (ie you'll need to recharge at least once during a working day which is very, very bad)

3G coverage is very poor almost everywhere. In most countries (and especially in the US) the Cellular Providers have only rolled out significant blanket 3G coverage in dense urban areas. The "best" 3G phones fake "3G" reliability by hiding the loss of higher speed connectivity from the users unless they are actively seeking to do something where fast speed would be noticeable and desirable. The iPhone 3G appears to get that balance wrong at the moment but part of the problem might well be that iPhone users are just going to notice it a lot more. I certainly notice areas of poor 2.5G EDGE cellular coverage because I use the data on my iPhone much more than most people, but maybe that's just me. It's also possible that the iPhone is just not smart enough to do the handoff from UMTS back to GSM as well as it should - given the fragmented 3G coverage any phone that cannot seemlessly handoff calls from UMTS to GSM (and back) will lead to very disappointed users.