Beta testing: iOS 7 release 2

Recently I became part of the Apple Developers network through work which is odd since I do not really develop for any Apple product. I do, however, use Apple products everyday and I like to be ahead of the curve with software and hardware. So, being the daredevil that I am I decided to put the iOS 7 beta on my daily-use iPhone 5.

Look and Feel

Photo Jun 28, 11 01 20 AM

iOS 7 Dialpad with flat “buttons”

Photo Jun 27, 2 04 11 PM

iOS 7 home screen with a notification

One work comes to mind when looking at iOS 7, clean.  It’s a lot cleaner than previous version of iOS and because of that it feels more like an Apple product.  The soft colors, thin lines, and animations, all make it feel like a more grown-up operating system.  Gone are the skeuomorphic buttons and application skins, they’ve all been replaced by what Apple is calling “flat” designs.  It looks like it’s borrowed a lot from Android 4.0, Windows Phone 8, and even WebOS…and that isn’t a bad thing!

Android 4.0 was a really nice update for Android, the look and feel was more refined, modern, more consistent, easier to use on the hardware, it really felt better.  Windows Phone 8 uses very simple shapes and buttons in their design, the smooth transitions it has make it more pleasurable to use than the old WinMo.  I don’t think Apple created anything really NEW here, but they certainly showed that iOS has definitely come a long way.  I still think that a company that focuses so much on design should have changed the look a long time ago but I suppose they didn’t want to mess with what “worked” or wanted to “get it right the first time.”  They were right to wait.

As for the feel of iOS 7, right now in it’s beta form it actually feels a bit sluggish, not all of the time, just here and there it drags itself along.  I feel as if I am running an older Android phone sometimes.  However, when it’s not hanging it’s really fast.  Apps load quickly, the camera snaps right up, the movements are fluid, it runs nicely on the hardware.  I won’t complain too much about this yet because it is still a beta after all.

New Features (Control Center, AirDrop, UI Changes, etc.)

There are a few “new” features in iOS 7 that are worth discussing.  This update seems to have focused not only on the look and feel but also on adding features to make everyday use of the device easier and faster.  There are many small improvements to the UI that were needed very badly and I am thrilled to see them finally in iOS.  One of my favorite examples of “small” UI updates is the ability to call a person while in the messages app without having to scroll all the way to the top of the messages (just press the word “Contact” in the corner).  Something so simple helps so much with everyday use.

Simple buttons make things better

Simple buttons make things better

But of course the biggest change to ease of use is the Control Center.  This is the sliding “drawer” that comes from the bottom of the screen and allows you to change device settings on the fly as well as a few other things.  Now, a lot of Android phone and jail-broken iPhones have had this for a long time, so it’s not revolutionary in any way.  It definitely looks like an Apple designed menu, and the functionality is limited to what Apple puts in there (for now), but it is really a nice step forward for iOS.

Control Center on the lock screen

Control Center on the lock screen

I can toggle phone functions off and on, change my screen brightness, volume, control music, turn on the flashlight, use a calculator or camera, and use AirDrop between other iOS devices.  Again, very limited at the moment, hopefully Apple will open it up a little, but past experiences usually show that they probably will leave it locked.

The Control Center can be used on the lock screen, a feature that can be disabled, but it comes in handy when you just want to use a flashlight or turn off wireless.  Where the Control Center falls short is that you cannot do anything else but toggle things off and on.  What I mean by that is if you hold down the wifi button on an Android phone for example, you will be brought to wifi settings and you can join a network. I would love the ability to customize buttons or apps to put in the Control Center, or even remove parts that I may not use.

The addition of AirDrop to iOS 7 is really helpful.  Currently it seems to only work with other iOS devices running 7 (which of course, aren’t many) but I was able to use it and it’s really handy when you want to send pictures to other phones.  You can limit sending to people listed in your contacts, or to everyone on your local network.  With Mac OS 10.9 in the works, it looks like you will be able to transfer using AirDrop to computers as well without bluetooth or USB or Dropbox.  I’m hoping that they really expand the AirDrop feature to older versions of Mac OS, but I doubt they will.

The search function in iOS 7 is also different from previous versions.  In older versions you swipe your screen to the right to get to the search screen, in iOS 7 you simply swipe down from anywhere on the screen (not the very top of course that brings up the notification center still).  It’s built into the icon screen better and it feels more natural to me.

Speaking of icons and the “desktop” of the phone, you can now have more than 12 icons inside of your folders.  There are only 9 shown at a time instead of 12, but you can keep adding icons to them and at the moment i don’t see a limit.

The Photos and Camera apps both got a much needed and welcome face-lift.  The Camera app has no more “toggle” button for video and photo mote, and now incorporates swiping the screen left or right to change between modes (video, picture, box, and pano). To enable HDR you simply press the “HDR button” on the screen, no more menus. The app seems to take pictures quicker than older versions; press the capture button and it just captures without any animations. You can add filters right from the camera app and it previews all 9 modes in real-time!

The Photos app now breaks photos up into sections.  You can view them like you did in older versions  but now you can see them in terms of location, “event”, and even year. You can add albums or events and organize them yourself as well.  One of my favorite additions to the Photos app is the addition of a panorama album that allows you to see all of your panoramic pictures in wide mode on one screen, really neat!

Bugs

Every beta has it’s bugs, and iOS 7 is not special in that sense. I have come across more than a handful of bugs that have made the testing of iOS 7 on my daily phone a bit frustrating.  The main issue I’ve found was with Siri.  Siri was changed to have a better voice, a nicer look, and to be more responsive but I’ve found it to be dreadfully slow to perform tasks and in fact I’ve had it stop working completely for the entire day for no reason.  The only remedy for that was to restart the phone completely.

The audio controls on the home screen and Control Center have not worked well for me at all.  During my first day of testing I wasn’t able to use them at all, I would push the buttons and it would show tat I was pushing them, but I would get no control of my music whatsoever.  After restarting I did regain control.

Several apps I use do not work or crash when I do things.  A few troublesome apps I’ve found are the Watch ABC app, it crashes when you try to watch live TV and it crashes so badly that you have to hard restart the phone; Wikipanion fails to load at all; and the Podcast app fails to load.

Of course these are all beta issues and will most likely be worked out as the beta progresses and as developers update for iOS 7, but it’s interesting to see which apps do not work well with the new system.

 

A Long Overdue Thunderbolt Review-type-thing

Two months ago I said I would write something about the Thunderbolt..it was only supposed to be about two weeks but life happens I suppose.  Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to cave-in and buy the thing but I found a coupon for $50 off and thought, “well, this might be good!”  I bought the phone only a few weeks after I decided to root my original DROID (which from now on will be referred to as OG, Original Gangsta) and install cyanogenmod 7.  Being the happy owner of one of the best Android phones to ever come out I had high hopes for what was supposed to be Verizon’s new super flagship phone as well as the first phone to use their 4G LTE network.  What I got from it was a mixed set of feelings that make me miss my OG sometimes.

Let me get this out of the way first, I like this phone a lot.  It’s a great device, it’s fast, it’s sexy, it’s big..but it’s not perfect…far from it, and most of the reason is due to the crap software that is on it…let me explain.

The UI and Software

My OG ran stock vanilla Android (what devs call AOSP: Android Open Source Project). This basically means it’s the bare Android OS with no added UI tweaks and no added bloatware crap (with exception to some Verizon apps).  This is the best way to run Android for the most part because it’s not using the CPU or RAM to run some fancy/ugly user interface over top of it, it’s not going to have built-in apps syncing crap in the background, it’s just plain ol’ vanilla ice cream (and I like vanilla ice cream).  And it works!  It doesn’t waste CPU (meaning it’s faster) and it doesn’t background sync unnecessary apps constantly (meaning battery savings) unless you install them.  But of course, HTC and other companies want to change it to suit their own phones and needs.

Stock Android Screenshot from N1

This is a Screenshot from a Nexus 1 running AOSP 2.2

Now, the Thunderbolt (as with many HTC phones) doesn’t do AOSP Android, they use Sense UI, it’s their own user interface which they designed to put on mobile devices for a “sleek” and “unified” look.

HTC Sense UI Screenshot

This is Sense UI

While some people like the look (which I don’t think is terrible mind you) and the feel, I don’t like it, I hate it.  There are several reasons I hate it actually the first and most important being that it’s clunky and slow to respond VERY often; it feels like my OG before I rooted it…this shouldn’t happen on a 1Ghz phone with 700+MB or RAM.  So what I did to “fix” this was install ADW.Launcher and use that as my home app.  It’s faster, and it looks and feels more like a stock phone now.  Second, they package a whole mess of crap in with it; they have a “friendsteam” which gathers your Twitter and Facebook and whatnot into a widget on your screen and displays it and updates it for you; a weather widget (which is actually nice, but i should have a choice to remove it);  and their own Facebook and Twitter syncing built in.  This is stuff I’d like to install on my own and not have running in the background constantly asking me to log in and sync; if I want Twitter and FB, let me install them myself.  They also use their own MMS app which is very slow compared to the AOSP app.

 

You might be thinking, “man, this is cool that it’s all built-in, why are you hating on this?”  Because I like to be able to choose what to have installed on my device.  Because of these built in apps (which mind you, aren’t really apps, they’re more like utilities) I have two Facebook apps, and two Twitter apps and it’s kinda dumb to waste space on stuff like that.  I also find it annoying that they START UP WITH THE DEVICE…even when I DON’T USE THEM.  What a waste of CPU and battery.  Once CM7 is released for the phone (not Alpha-builds) that will be my savior.  Verizon is also guilty of bundling tons of bloatware with this device.  When I received the phone it was PACKED with tons and tons of useless crap..and you can’t remove this stuff!  I’ve written about carriers loading bloatware onto phones before, this shit needs to stop with Android.

The Battery

Smartphones are notorious for having crummy batteries.  My OG was actually pretty great before the last few months of using it.  I used to get over a day with it and I was happy.  When deciding on a new phone every review I read had the same complaint with regard to the Thunderbolt: The battery is terrible.  Now, I’m never far from a power source, and I have around 4 or 5 micro-USB chargers from my older devices and ones that I found around the lab, so this wasn’t too much of an issue for me.  My first day on the phone I got through the entire day of heavy use and texting without it dying, it got to about 5% by midnight (from 8am or so).  The second day, same thing.  On the third day that’s when it ended.  Without using it too much I made it to about 2pm before it started dying on me, I charged it and it was low again by 9pm.  Now I see what the complaints were about.  I tried using task killers to kill unwanted tasks, I synced data less, I lowered brightness, nothing helped.  I read around online and found the best way to get more mileage was to turn off 4G.  I figured, I don’t need 4G all the time, so it’s fine, if I get more battery time out of it this is what needs to be done.  After turning off 4G, I get through the day again.  A few weeks ago an update was released that helped the 4G radio consume less power, so since then I’ve actually been able to leave 4G on and get through most of my day with it…so good on them for fixing that.

The Hardware Itself

This is where the phone really does come out.  This phone has some weight to it (it’s heavier than my OG which was a brick) and it’s got that big bright screen.  The screen makes it so easy to read things on and to watch videos, the rubberized back makes it easy to hold, the weight makes it feel like you’re not going to crush it in your hands.  It is a nice, solid phone.  It’s also fast when you need it to be.  Playing games, running apps, downloading, it just runs fast (especially with ADW.Launcher).  Of course Verizon’s network helps too, I get 4G everywhere in NYC, and the 4G speeds are really good (EVEN INDOORS! Take that WiMax!).  I have plenty of space on the 32GB MicroSD card they give you and on the internal storage (8GB but only about 2.5 are available).  The only complaints I have about the hardware and design: no dedicated camera button, I really miss this, but it’s fairly minor; the bluetooth volume is super low, I’ve read that it only does it with some headsets but my Jabra is so low I cannot use it; and the GPS takes forever to lock on, sometimes 5-10 minutes.  Now, some of this is probably software-based so a fix may be in line (apparently there might be an update in the next month or so to address some of these issues as well as the random reboots caused by the last update) but until that fix is out these problems will remain.

Overall

So to sum this up in a few lines (TL;DR); I really like this phone a lot, it is a great phone by design.  The 1Ghz Snapdragon processor and the large amount of RAM really make this phone fly with apps and games and with Verizon’s 4G it really is a speedy phone in all faces.  However, the phone has many kinks due to some bad software that comes bundled with it and a broken update from HTC.  Most of it’s issues are solely based on the software so hopefully we will see fixes for them in the future.

 

That didn’t last as long as I was expecting…

I decided to upgrade to the Thunderbolt after all.  Main reason: I got $50 off from a web coupon.  I’m going to write a little bit about it after I’ve used it a bit more.

Some first impressions: This thing is super fast, it’s got a nice feeling to it (not as solid as my DROID but still pretty well built), and the screen is really really nice.  The battery life isn’t as bad as everyone says it it…I got a full day out of it with fairly heavy use…we’ll see if that continues though.  I hate SenseUI…so I replaced it with ADW Launcher right away and I’m waiting for CyanogenMod to come out for it (it’s currently being worked on).  So expect some sort of review in the coming days/weeks…

Getting more from my Original DROID (Part 2: Restoring and Troubleshooting)

In part 1 I described (in little detail) how I rooted my phone and installed CyanogenMod 7 on it to get some more mileage out of it until I upgrade to a newer device this year.  But of course every upgrade and every hack isn’t without it’s issues and every hack isn’t perfect at all.  Cyanogen never claims to be 100% trouble-free, and every users’ experience will vary depending on device and applications installed; after all, it is technically a hack made by third-party developers…and no developer is perfect. The methods for flashing are also different for each user.

I installed CM7 when it was at RC1 for the DROID (still buggy, but still good for everyday use) and I originally flashed my phone by doing a factory reset of the device (removes everything) and then installing the ROM. This gave me an endless boot screen.  What I had to do to fix this was not only do a factory reset, but wipe the cache partition AND the Dalvik cache partition.  This was easy with the ClockworkMod and it was also nearly 100% risk free since I had a complete Nandroid backup.  After wiping the two it booted successfully!

I noticed that in Android 2.3 Google will restore all of your previously purchased and downloaded apps if you want it to automatically on a new device (only the app itself, not the data..like game save data).  This is great, but I already decided to use MyBackup Root for this, mainly because I wanted to have my stuff there with all of the data.  So i just told the phone not to download everything and I’ll just restore everything from my backup.  What this left me with was broken installed apps with no way to update them because the Market links were all hosed.  This sucked, now what was I supposed to do?  I decided to flash again and allow Google to push the apps to my phone.  This process took some time but everything was downloaded for the most part; unfortunately, I didn’t have my app data, so all of my game data and all of my settings were gone…I check MyBackup and sure enough I was able to restore data only!  I did that and bingo, everything worked again with all of my old data!  A few apps needed to be reinstalled or needed their data wiped (Google maps and Facebook I think) but for the most part everything worked just as it was supposed to.

Choose which to restore? Yay!

So now that I had my apps on my phone, I was nearing happiness with my hacked DROID.  I say nearing because I was still having many issues with other things.  I won’t go into every little one but I will talk about the two that almost made me decide to go back to stock.

LED Notifications

The one thing I love about Android phones is the LED notifications.  A simple little LED in the corner of my phone blinks different colors for certain things (texts, emails, etc) so I don’t need to turn the screen on, or unlock my phone to see what I missed or see what that beep was from…I can just look at the color of the LED.  Funny thing happened after installing, it stopped working.  I would look down and nothing would be blinking but when I unlocked my phone I’d notice an e-mail that I missed!  What was going on here?  I looked in the settings and found that CM has basically rewritten the notification system and you can customize colors and blink rate from it if you so desired, but instead it broke the damn thing.  This wouldn’t fly with me, I was about to go back to stock because one of my favorite features was broken…then I found the forums.  I searched the issue on the forums and found a lot of people with the same issue, on different phones even!  Reading through many of the posts they all usually came around to the same solution, un-check everything in the LED settings then check them again then hit “Reset all LED notifications” and reboot. And it worked!  I had my LED back and working and now it was even better because I can change the settings for every program and even change the colors and blink rate for them, pretty neat.

Change color and rate for LED notifications

Missing Messages

Now that my LED notifications worked I was happy that I could look down and see if I missed any emails or (more importantly) text messages…but strangely I felt that I was receiving less messages.  I went an entire day without a text message, which is very odd for me actually.  I looked at my phone, no blinking LED, I unlocked the phone, no notification in the menu, I opened the messaging app and boom, new texts, some as old as a day!  What the hell was going on with this?  I’m missing text messages now?  This used to happen with my EnV Touch, never my DROID!  I tried resetting my notifications for the app, and it would work for a while after I opened the app.  I figured, okay, it’s fixed, but then it would stop later on in the day.  I was getting very frustrated with this now and was again thinking about going back to stock.  I hit the forums again and found one post about the issue with one simple solution:

The solution! Check that box!

Once I checked that, never missed another message.  It locks the message app in the memory so it’s always running.  Sure it uses up memory, but my messages are more important to me than the amount of apps I can run at one time.

Side note: But why does the DROID do this with CM7?  The DROID has 256MB RAM, this was a lot when the phone came out and with 2.1 it was fine.  Once 2.2 was released memory was becoming a problem for the phone.  The phone had trouble even keeping the Home app in memory; if you ran a program that was memory hungry and went back to the home screen you’d have to wait for it to redraw because Android’s memory management would kill it.  So in CM7 you can see the two check boxes for home and messaging, this stoped the redrawing(relaunching) and the missing messages…but it took some memory away of course which means you can only do so much multitasking before apps start getting killed.  Android 2.3.3 uses more memory, and the DROID just doesn’t have that much…so CM7 also allows asset purging to free up RAM as well as compucache (memory compression).  These use a little CPU but allow you to multitask fairly well;  it’s nowhere near as good as other newer phones, but it works.

There were some other small odds and ends that I had fixed by tweaking settings and installing updates but I thought that these two were really the most damming for me.  I managed to fix them with help from other nerds at the CyanogenMod Forums who were running into similar issues and there are some I managed to fix by trial and error.  Now, he ROM still has it’s occasional reboots and hiccups (not very often) and they usually happen with two programs; Google Maps and the Camera app, but these crashes happen less and less with each update.

CM7 is now out of RC and was released as Gold…but not for the DROID yet.  It still is very much a work in progress, but the progress is going very quickly, and I really like the direction it’s heading.  They’ve managed to give DROID users Android 2.3 even after Motorola decided it “wouldn’t work” on the phone.  Well, it is working (for the most part) and I’m fairly happy with it.  It has really allowed me to use my phone a bit longer than I was expecting.  I’m probably going to wait until August to upgrade my phone instead of going for the Thunderbolt, but time may change that.  What I do know is that my phone still works well and I will get more time out of it because of the ROMS.

Getting more from my Original DROID (Part 1:Rooting and CM7)

I love my DROID, I have since I got it over a year ago.  But in a year, a lot can happen with technology of course.  My phone was originally equipped with Android 2.1 (the first phone to have it actually) and had an ARM 600MHz processor (underclocked to 550 for battery life), and 256MB RAM.  It was fast, really fast…and it took a while for phones to be that fast…but it didn’t last long.  Soon after the DROID came out every new phone that came out just got faster and faster very quickly..I mean, that’s what technology does, right?  But the DROID looked slow very quickly.

So when Froyo (Android 2.2) came out the DROID got it down the line and that’s when the DROID started to show it’s age; extremely slow…a big drop in performance.  So I decided to root it to get a little more millage out of it before my upgrade.  Mind you, I was waiting for the Thunderbolt to come out to replace it…but decided against upgrading for the time…another story I suppose.  I decided to use SuperOneClick to root my phone, and damn it was simple.  Literally one click and it was done…but what can I do with this root?  Well, first thing was overclocking to see if I can get some more speed.  I overclocked it to 800MHz and really didn’t notice much of a difference besides the fact that I could now have a wireless hot-spot…oh and I could take screen shots now (why doesn’t Android have this functionality built in? Seriously!).

Android Screen shot

Hey look, I need to ROOT to take a screen shot!

So I decided to take it a step further.  My buddy was telling me about CyanogenMod and how he loved it on his MyTouch and basically brought life back into it.  So I said “Why the hell not?”  Not only does it add a lot of functionality, it will give me Android 2.3.3 (Gingerbread)…something the original DROIDs won’t ever see normally.  I backed-up my apps and text messages phone using MyBackup Root then flashed my recovery ROM to ClockworkMod which allows me to install firmware from the SD card and allows me to backup my entire phone to an image just in case anything goes wrong.  After the backup with MyBackup Root I rebooted into recovery mode and backed-up the entire phone using the Nandroid backup (in the recovery) then started to flash CyanogenMod 7 on my phone..this meant I had to do a complete wipe of the phone which is always scary but with the backup I should be cool!

Wiped the phone, flashed the ROM, and booted the phone. It worked! I had the Release Candidate (at the time it was RC1) of CyanogenMod 7 on my phone!

I had some issues with CM7 at first and some issues with getting my apps back (which I’ll talk about in Part 2) but after some initial bumps I was up running as smooth as I could be on a release candidate.  I had some reboots and some programs would crash but reinstalling them from scratch helped for the most part.

After a few updates it became more and more stable.  I am now running RC4 with a new ultra-low voltage kernel (which allows me to overclock to 1GHz and uses less battery power than the stock kernel). which gives me good battery life, pretty good performance, and all around a pretty good experience.

Android 2.3.3 and 1.1GHz!

So if you’re looking to get some more time from your old DROID this seems like a great way to do it.  It’s not up there with the new phones, but it does give your device a nice little jolt until you decide to retire it.

In Part 2 I’ll talk about installing all of the apps from backup and troubleshooting the many issues I had with memory issues and how they were resolved.