WWDC 2011 – Part 3: iOS5

The main new features of iOS5 are the new notification centre, wi-fi syncing and the ability to be PC free and iMessage among others.

Notification centre is definitely the biggest and most significant update. I got my first smartphone a while back, a Sony Ericsson Android phone. It doesn’t run the most up to date version of Android but you can immediately see the difference in notifications between it and the iPhone. You swipe down from the top of the screen and see all of your notifications. Apple have clearly neglected this important area of the device for some time now but thankfully they look to have done a great job in updating it.

Now, instead of being greeted by one notification at a time, each in a big blue bubble, now you see a sleek list of individual notifications. Each of which you can swipe to go straight to the corresponding app. It’s so much more functional now especially if you get a lot of notifications that you don’t want to miss. Like android, you can access the list when the device is awake by sliding your finger down from the top of the screen. It’s far from revolutionary, but to be fair, they do implement it well even if they did copy from Google.

PC free and wi-fi syncing is also a great addition. It, combined with all of the iCloud features will finally stop the critics who say that the iPad is not a true tablet computer but an oversized iPod Touch. It can now plainly go head to head with any traditional tablet in terms of functionality. This also is available on iPhone and iPod Touch, where it’s welcome but not as necessary as it is for iPad.

The wi-fi syncing is also welcome. If you can plug it in to charge using any device or better yet unplugged, then this could be very useful for me, but regardless, it’s nice to see something people have been requesting for a long time now being added.

iMessage is an interesting one. On one hand, surely we already have enough methods of communcation. Texting, email, twitter, facebook etc. You would be forgiven for thinking “why do we need another one?” I’m struggling with this question myself. It would be nice to have a method of communication between iDevices, but how confusing will it be for iPhone users who already have an identical looking texting app? It takes away the simplicity and speed of texting, as you’re relying on 3G or wi-fi, both battery draining. The jury is out on this app I think. We’ll just have to see how it pans out when we get to use it.

News Stand is an interesting idea, and looks to be the fourth separate store Apple are starting, this time dedicated to all newspaper and magazine subscriptions. I like the idea of integrating it directly into the home screen. It makes you wonder why they didn’t do that with iBooks but are here. It’s a bit inconsistent. If it is built into the OS by default as opposed to a download like iBooks then it would be further adding to that inconsistency.

Other improvements of note include Safari, which now has an instapaper clone built in that syncs with iCloud, the reader feature that the desktop version has had for a while and tabbed browsing on iPad, all nice improvements but not earth shattering.

Reminders is pretty self explanatory and looks nice, although I’m so used to Google tasks by this point. You can now use the volume up key to take photos and it’s quicker to jump into the camera app which is a nice touch. The photos app allows simple editing such as cropping, red-eye removal and auto-enhance. Again, all welcome additions.

There are other new features, but most are not really worth talking about, especially Twitter, which seems a bit pointless from where I’m sitting, since you can do all of the things they advertise, albeit slightly less well integrated, by using the official Twitter app which many have already.

Overall though, I think iOS5 is a pretty impressive update and a step forward in many ways. WWDC in general was a triumph. I love iCloud and iOS5 especially and I don’t think they could have done much better with anything they showed on that day.

I’m keenly looking forward to the next Apple event to hear about new iPods, that new iPhone everyone’s speculating about and of course some new computers.

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Skype – How it changed everything, and mobile video calling

Image representing Skype as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

When I come to think of it, Skype has become an indispensable tool for me recently. I mostly use it to keep in close contact with someone very special to me, and the fact that it’s free to talk to someone in another country for hours every day in perfect sound quality is amazing to me still. I guess it’s only when you really find a practical application for something like this that it really makes you realise how truly useful it is.

Imagine a world without services such as Skype now. Phone bills would be a killer, especially from mobiles. Even text messages to international numbers are ridiculously expensive considering how simple it must be for carriers to transmit that data by this point in time. I know first hand how much international text messages drain your phone credit. You have to strike a balance between wanting to communicate with the person in question and how much you’re willing to give to your rip-off phone network.

Until recently I think I was paying around 20p per message. I then looked at Skype’s SMS charges and found that they only charge 6p per message internationally. I then decided I would use Skype credit for texting whenever I can avoid using my phone. The coolest thing about this service is that you can even validate your phone number with Skype. This allows you to send texts from any Skype app, desktop or mobile and they appear to the person you’re sending them to as just a regular text message from your number.

This is the only Skype premium feature I make use of currently but it’s all I really need right now. They offer a vast selection of cost saving services and while it can appear confusing upon first glance, I think most internet users, especially those comfortable with VOIP should be able to make the most of it with relative ease.

Before I wrote this post, my original plan was to just talk about the new mobile video for iPhone and iPod Touch. It’s something I was hoping they were going to add as soon as I saw Apple unveil FaceTime on iPhone 4 with the front facing camera. It was an obvious next step for mobile Skype that I’m glad we now have.

While I’m not the most comfortable person appearing on video, I can say that the technology itself seems to work brilliantly. The quality was very smooth from what I could tell from my end when I’ve had trouble recently with my MacBook camera.

Aside from the recent major outage, Skype is always a fantastic tool for communication and I look forward to seeing them continue to innovate in both free and paid services. It would be a sad day if we ever lose the ability to call anyone, anywhere for free so I hope we never have to now.

Apple Event: iPod Touch

The iPod Touch is probably my favourite Apple device ever, from what I’ve owned. I still have all of my 3 old iPods. Compared to the iPod Mini and 2nd Gen Nano, even my 3 year old iPod Touch is so far ahead in terms of value for money and features that it boggles the mind. This new iPod Touch takes it to a whole new level, and they’ve definitely pushed the boat out on this product.

Apple didn’t need to be as aggressive as they have been with this device. They didn’t need to add a retina display, an HD video camera, FaceTime or an A4 chip to keep sales moving. They have basically taken everything that amazed people about the iPhone 4 that didn’t include phone functions, and fitted them all into this device which is so incredibly thin.

Of course, not everything came over unscathed. The stills quality of the back camera is terrible by comparison, and there is no LED flash, but I have a point and shoot for proper photography, and even a 2mp one for snapping on my phone, so this doesn’t matter at all to me. What does matter is the video ability. They could have easily just added a VGA video camera like last year’s nano to the touch and people would have still been impressed, but they went the whole nine yards and blew everyone away.

I won’t go into every detail of the new touch, but as far as my predictions are concerned, I was essentially spot on with all of them, apart from two which were more my own personal predictions that no one else was really making. These were the addition of an FM radio to the package, as well as a new version of iTunes which would allow you to sync your podcast subscriptions from your computer rather than just the episodes themselves. This would allow quick downloading of episodes on the device that wouldn’t require searching the store every time like you currently have to.

Disappointingly, neither of these happened. The radio will have to wait a while until they finally do that, or I’ll just wait for BBC to release their iPlayer App, hopefully with live radio streaming.  The podcast subscription addition is possible in future iOS updates, but it doesn’t look very likely at the moment.

Apple Event Thoughts: Intro and iPod Shuffle

I’ve been speculating a lot leading up to yesterday’s event where Apple announced most of the things we thought they would do. I just want to go over what I predicted and see what happened and what didn’t, and what that means for the new products.

iPod Shuffle

I made some rather outlandish Shuffle predictions, including turning the device into a necklace type product. In the end, it was a pretty simple refresh. They responded to customer complains over the lack of buttons on the last version, and brought them back accordingly. Where the 2nd gen shuffle had a gap to the side of where the buttons were positioned, this one has seemingly no wasted space. The buttons are also 18% bigger to make them as easy as possible to press. Most importantly, they’ve decided to scrap the 4gb version and focused on having a lower capacity, and more importantly, lower priced player designed to have music swapped around every time you sync.

£39 isn’t as cheap as I would have hoped, but it’s still good and it’s almost . One of the problems with last year’s shuffle was that because the device had no buttons on the device itself to control playback, you were restricted to using the pretty poor default headphones unless you bought a special adapter but that wasn’t ideal. Now, the controls are all on the device itself, including a special new button to control the voice over feature, leaving you free to use any headphones you like, which is nice.

I could actually see myself getting a shuffle at some point as a dedicated podcast or audiobook player, or maybe just to load up a few favourite tracks to listen to when I’m out. It’s so light and simple to use that it’s perfect for wearing while jogging. I don’t know if I trust the clip to keep it securely fitted to clothing and I would probably opt for putting it in a pocket instead.

Another reason why it’s ideal for going out is because I’ve taken my 1st gen iPod Touch out in my pocket many times, practically daily and it is a bit bulky considering I often have my pockets loaded up with my phone, keys, wallet and a pedometer sometimes as well. Not only would using a shuffle save me pocket space and weight but it would also keep my new touch from getting it’s screen slightly scratched as my current one has been.

My brother won a 2nd gen shuffle on a crane game at an amusement park a couple of years ago, and it’s great. It’s 1gb which is ideal especially if I’m only going to have one piece of audio on it at a time. The clip is a disaster though, it got bent badly and won’t go back to it’s original shape. It still clips but not well. The worst part is that the charging dock is designed so that if the device is bent at all, it won’t fit unless you really force it. They fixed this in the more recent models by using simply a cable instead of a dock. I’m glad they’ve solved this problem now as the clips are very easily ruined. I personally would have preferred the clip to be optional, similar to the old iPod Mini which had a plastic clip that you could fit when you required it.

Overall I do like the new shuffle and like the product line in general as I feel it still fills a niche in the market, especially as the price lowers.