Odd Apple UX decision

I’ve often wondered why Apple inverts the “Stop” button and “Repeat/Snooze” button in their alarm and timer app. I usually end up repeating a timer by accident.

Does Apple really slow your phone down? Perhaps

Lots of  headlines like this in the press this week:

Is Apple intentionally slowing down your old iPhone? The data suggests not

The article reads:

Futuremark collected more than 100,000 benchmarking tests, from the iPhone 5S to the iPhone 7, and averaged the performance of both the processor (CPU) and the graphics chip (GPU) once a month between April 2016 and September 2017 with different versions of Apple’s software from iOS 9 to iOS 11.

According to Futuremark: “iPhone 5S GPU performance has remained consistent from iOS 9 to iOS 11, with only minor variations that fall well within normal levels.”

They’re missing the point. New operating systems don’t get slower because the manufacturer writes codes to throttle down CPUs. The reason new versions of iOS are slower on older hardware is because they do more. To be fair, the article does explain this. iOS 9 on an iPad 2 is almost unusable, it’s certainly a long way from the speed of iOS 4 the iPad two debuted with. Clearly something changes overtime, and CPUs do not wear out over the course of 4 years!

But is it intentional or not? Of course it is. I’m sure there is a business decision made by Apple on how much time to spend optimising software for older devices. It’s a tradeoff. iOS versions are made in less than a year. At some point you have to balance the needs of the ecosystem (having as many users as possible running the latest software), the cost of development, and the needs of users – which includes having a device that runs at an acceptable speed, as well as having the latest security updates and new features.  I’m don’t think it’s a bad tradeoff, but to say a smart company like Apple does this unintentionally doesn’t sit right with me.

Apple just gave me a new smartwatch, for free

Well, not quite, but the latest update from Apple might as well be a new watch. The new operating system, watchOS 3 is one of the best operating system updates I’ve ever seen in the 18 years or so since I’ve been interested technology.

There was a time when a new OS update meant inevitable slowness until you finally succumbed to the marketing and upgraded by either stuffing more RAM into your PC, or shelling our for a brand new machine. This changed in the PC world with Windows 7, which famously had the same operating requirements as it’s then 2 year old predecessor, Windows Vista. Apple hasn’t always been so kind, with new versions of iOS regularly slowing down older hardware, though this hasn’t been so much of a problem since the 64-bit era (2013 iPhone 5S or newer), but even now an iPhone 6 doesn’t feel as snappy as it did 3 years ago.  So it was a nice surprise when Apple announced back in June that its latest incarnation of the operating system for the Apple Watch, watchOS would be focused on performance. This was long overdue. Apple Watch’s main failure was it’s slowness. Unlike a laptop or a phone, a slow smartwatch can be physically painful to use. So for the most part people didn’t it seemed – 3rd party apps were few and far between.

The new version of watchOS achieves this speediness by keeping apps in memory for as long as it can. You now get to choose your 10 favourite apps and place them in a ‘dock’, and they’ll be prioritised over other apps to not only stay in memory but also receive more frequent background updates. Frequent background updates also apply to ‘complications’ (widgets on the watch face). What is striking though is the amount of fit and finish that’s been applied to the system. Now apps do really launch instantly, for the most part. If like me you only use 4 -5 apps of a regular basis, then it’s likely those apps will always be in memory. This results in a much more usable device.

Siri, the voice controlled virtual assistant is now much more efficient at communicating its status as when you ask for something. Instead of having to watch your wrist to see if it managed to understand what you said, you can now drop your wrist and it will subtle tap you when it has your answer, or to tell you if it didn’t understand. A small change, but it makes a big difference to the usefulness of the feature.

You can now draw characters onto the screen to transcribe text. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s a nice way to quickly reply when your phone is out of reach. Reminders are now available on the watch, and stay on the screen for up to 8 minutes after you last used the app, so I can walk round the supermarket checking off my shopping list on my wrist. The watch now feels more useful then it did before, when I was only really using it for notifications and fitness tracking (which are still first class).

On my smaller 38mm machine battery life still isn’t great. It seems to be slightly worse than before. Where I would have previously been at 25% at the end of the day, I’m now at 10%. This may well be because I’m using it a lot more now. I’ve long been in the habit of a post-lunch charge at my desk, so it’s not an issue most of the time.

I’ve always been compelled by the idea of having a computer strapped to my wrist, accessible at any time. This ‘ambient computing’ experience is finally realised with watchOS 3. What is really needed now is a watch with it’s own cellular modem, so the phone truly becomes an optional extra.