What I want from iPhone OS 4.0

So it’s Thursday for the details on iPhone OS 4.0. What I’d like to see, not what I expect to see:

  • Multitasking. Let me run programs in the background. Make it easy to swap between running programs. Let me kill the battery life if i want to. To be fair, there’s probably only a handful of times that I’d find this useful for things like 1Password. In fact, it’s probably of more benefit on the iPad.
  • Unified Inbox. I connect to 9 different accounts and nothing annoys me more than Mail telling me I’ve new mail and I need to go back to accounts to see which one has the new mail. So frustrating. Unified Inbox, similar to Mail on the Mac would solve this problem.
  • Notification App. Notifications are a fudge to get around lack of multitasking. It works for one app but doesn’t scale. All notifications look the same, can’t recall old ones and if you get a few in a short timescale it just doesn’t work. One other thing – let me switch off notifications across all app’s, like during the night for example. So frustrating when you get pinged during the night.
  • Springboard improvements. Current front end doesn’t scale. Adding search helped but feels a work around. Gesture support to launch app’s or some sort of Expose would certainly help.

As ever with Apple, rumour doesn’t always lead to actual features and they are masters at delivering just enough, which to be fair as a strategy has consistently paid off. However competition is hotting up. Their iPhone/iPod hardware is starting to look/feel behind the competition. Hopefully Thursday will demonstrate a step change for iphone OS 4.0

Google Public DNS

Google made a big splash last week when it announced Google Public DNS. By changing your DNS settings on your Mac, PC or router you can take advantage of Google’s DNS service and speed up your internet experience. That’s the theory but does it work? First off, what is DNS?

DNS takes the meaningful domain names that you type in your browser and turns that into a numerical identifier that computers understand. An analogy that is often made is DNS is the phone book for the internet. Wikipedia has more if you want to delve deeper. With that out the way onto some testing. My current ISP is O2 but I actually use OpenDNS for DNS lookups. They’ve proven to be faster than my previous two ISP’s but I was interested in comparing O2, OpenDNS and Google Public DNS. To do that I followed the advice on TechSutra and ran the following code:

for i in "rememberthemilk.com" "digitaloutbox.com" "apple.com" "google.com" "flickr.com" "bbc.co.uk" "iand.net" "twitter.com" "digitalspy.co.uk"
for j in "" "" ""
echo $j $i `dig @$j $i | grep Query | awk -F ":" '{print $2}'`

This basically compared the lookup time for the three DNS providers for a variety of sites that I used daily. The results of the test can be seen in the table below:

Domain O2 Google OpenDNS
rememberthemilk.com 111ms 69ms 29ms
digitaloutbox.com 179ms 36ms 27ms
apple.com 28ms 36ms 27ms
google.com 28ms 55ms 29ms
flickr.com 28ms 34ms 27ms
bbc.co.uk 28ms 35ms 27ms
iand.net 160ms 38ms 28ms
twitter.com 28ms 35ms 30ms
digitalspy.co.uk 29ms 35ms 28ms

As can be seen OpenDNS provided by far the best speeds out of the three I tested. I ran the test a few times and took average times to rule out any issues but the results were fairly consistent. Another method of testing is to try Namebench. This is a Google 20% app for Mac, PC and Linux. It compares a list of known DNS providers against your current DNS provider and provides a set of graphs and charts allowing you to benchmark any potential gains. It’s very slick.

My findings which seem to be backed up by others is that OpenDNS, for UK users, is a better option for speed than Google Public DNS. Do remember though that OpenDNS does redirect certain sites to protect from malware and domain misspellings, serving up adverts at the same time. In comparison Google offers no redirects at all which many people prefer.

The speed differences you do see may look small but remember that every little bit helps to improve your browsing experience and switching to a fast and reliable DNS provider can make a noticeable difference in your day to day usage.

So did you change your DNS after testing? We’d love to hear who you switched to and your findings – leave a comment below.

Spotify Launches Offline Mode

Spotify launched a new feature today to it’s desktop client – Offline Mode. Premium users selecting a playlist will now have the ability to click an ‘Available offline’ button which will download the tracks locally for playback when not connected to the internet. I tried the service this afternoon and the results can be seen in the video below.

Spotify are really stepping up and offering something different to the current digital music stores. Stream for free in lower quality with ad’s or pay for great quality music that you can access from anywhere, offline or online. Not only that but with the addition this week of PayPal as a payment option they are making it easier than ever to subscribe to their service. Couple that to 4 million tracks available via search and many great playlists available online and you’ve got a very compelling service. It’s enough to keep me subscribing for another month after the launch of their iPhone app a few weeks ago. Over to you Apple?

Spotify iPhone App

Spotify PlaybackToday was the day that Spotify finally landed on the iPhone. Many thought that when Spotify announced they had submitted an app to Apple that they had no chance of getting it approved. The many were wrong. I fired up the Appstore this morning, saw the app and thought I need to try this. So I updated to Spotify premium and downloaded the app. 5 minutes later I had access to over 4 million tracks as long as I had a wi-fi or 3G signal. Wow.

Trying this at work meant relying on a 3G signal. Luckily I usually get a really good signal. On firing up the app for the first time I signed in and my playlists were sync’d. Not only were they sync’d, but really quickly too. I could easily spot collaborative playlists due to the difference in colour. I selected one of the Pitchfork top 100’s, hit Shuffle and four seconds later the track started. The audio quality was excellent. Selected next track and a couple of seconds later it started. I was really impressed with the speed – none of this content was stored locally and audio quality wise it was better than Last.fm although I felt caching speed was much the same. I’ve embedded a video from Spotify that shows off the app in action (if only you could record video on the iPhone as easily as taking a screenshot – do you hear me Apple?).

In practice the app is easy to use, quick and feels like an Apple supplied app. Some of my thoughts so far:

  • Swipe to change tracks is lovely. Far easier than reaching for a button.
  • Song position and iPod volume control in the same place and look the same. Confused me today.
  • Play/pause on headphones doesn’t work in Spotify but starts iPod instead. Grrr. Hopefully a future update will support this.
  • Unplug the headphones, no pausing off track like the iPod. Not a biggie but nice to have.
  • Resuming Spotify resumes exactly from where you shutdown – in a playlist, searching or in the middle of playback of a track. Remember that when your listening to Girls Aloud and you shut the app down. Potentially embarrassing demo next time you start Spotify.
  • No artist information, bio, lyrics etc. Missed opportunity or room to grow in future versions of the app.
  • Creating playlists or adding to existing playlists is easy. Updating to/from Mac/PC client is also fast. However you can’t add multiple tracks to a playlist easily i.e. search for U2, finding lot’s of tracks but I can’t select multiple tracks and add them to a U2 playlist. One at a time only.
  • No Last.fm scrobbling.
  • Sharing of tracks or playlists form the iphone isn’t possible yet.
  • The biggest issue is nothing to do with Spotify. Apple won’t allow background applications so if you want to surf, check twitter etc then you need to close Spotify. The excellent resume features soften the blow but the built in iPod app which does run in the background has a big advantage.
  • Offline playlists works a treat – very impressive. From digging around I understand there’s a limit of 3,333 tracks that can be stored offline. Thats a lot of tracks!

Reading through that list could leave you thinking the app isn’t very good but that would be the wrong conclusion. It works really well, so much so that it’s made me seriously consider Spotify premium as great value for money. £120 a year for that much content is a bargain, especially at the quality and speed it’s available. Firing up search and looking for an artist, any artist, and seeing the myriad of songs available returned via a quick search is very liberating and a great demo of where cloud computing could take us. Spotify is a digital distribution model that works that people are willing to pay for.

I still wonder about Apple though. Everyone said they wouldn’t approve Spotify. It’s an iPod killer, who would use the iTunes store instead of this? The fact they approved it seemed to be at a time when the FCC investigation into Apple, Google and AT&T was underway. This was a different Apple. A changing Apple. I wonder if it is changing, and that they too will have a streaming option available in iTunes 9 and a future iPhone upgrade. If they did then the appearance of Spotify would make a lot more sense. Apple needs to do something with their new datacentre.

To conclude, Spotify on the iPhone is a brilliant addition to an already great platform (I mean Spotify and Apple in this case). More features over time would be welcomed. If your already a premium user this is a no brainer as the app is free. The real test will be how many people will convert from free to premium Spotify. I’ve signed up for a monthly subscription that can be cancelled at anytime. Going on today’s usage I will be keeping that subscription going but only when October hits will I truly know if it’s value for money. I’ll be sure to report back then.

One last thing – playlists. There are quite a few sites that have sprung up to help spread and share playlists. Some of the best are:

We Are hunted (opens Spotify)

If you know of anymore then leave a comment and link. Now, get listening!

iPhone 3GS Review

It’s more than a week since the iPhone 3GS launch so it’s high time to post up a review. Most readers are well aware of the iPhone 3G so I’ll focus on the differences between the two and also on some niggles that I still have with the iPhone.

The S in 3GS stands for speed and it doesn’t take long to feel the benefits of the upgraded processor and ram in the 3GS. Best way to highlight the difference is via video. First up is a test of Safari speed. Comparing 3G vs 3GS both using OS3.0 there is a considerable difference on 3G networks and also wi-fi.

In practice I’ve found the same sort of difference on most sites and it makes a big difference in day to day browsing. More telling though is application launching. On the 3GS application load times are greatly improved especially with games and the larger applications. The following video highlights a massive difference when loading Tiger Woods.

So speed is great on the 3GS but then it should be. The next biggest change is the camera. Now 3 megapixel but it’s the video support that will capture most attention. The video is easy to use and with YouTube support it’s makes it trivial to capture and upload content.

When uploading to YouTube the video is compressed to make it quicker to upload but the quality of the source video is actually pretty good.

The camera controls are a marked difference over the 3G. Click to focus makes it easy to take photo’s and the auto-everything approach Apple has taken to the camera settings again make taking good photo’s trivial. The images below show how the click to focus make quite a difference to your image.

3GS Focus on V Key3GS Focus on BottleiPhone 3GS GardeniPhone 3GS Close UpThe quality increase over the 3G is marked and the ability to take close up photo’s should lead to a range of barcoding and price comparison app’s. I also expect a range of photo app’s that will offer finer quality control over the camera settings – HDR app’s on the iPhone 3GS? Probably.

The voice control is hardly a new phone feature but it is to the iPhone. it does work but I can’t say it’s been reliable. A 2-3 second button press will bring up the voice control app. You can then call one of your contacts, play a track, artist or playlist or ask for more by this artist via the genius feature. When it works it’s good but some words no matter how I prenounce them will register accurately on the 3GS. One trick is to make a playlist that sounds like no other so if you do want to get to some music quickly you can add it to that list and know by using voice control it will launch.

Then there’s the digital compass. It’s a bit of an odd addition really. Hardly one for the masses I actually think it’s a bit inaccurate. North is found but it’s rarely a repeatable North. Rotating also seems to highlight some inaccuracies. I have noticed that the 3GS seems to be greatly affected by magnetic sources around me, more so than the compass I was using to verify how accurate it was. Also odd is how it’s been added to maps – press the location button in maps and then press again to see the direction cone. Even odder – it’s not added to street view which I expected to be a given. Maybe in an update, or shudder, maybe that’s in next years model.

That’s the rub. It’s undoubtedly a great phone but if you’ve got a 3G it’s not an essential upgrade. I’ve no regrets in upgrading as I’m loving the extra room by going to 32GB and I use it so much that the speed increases actually make a big difference but this really isn’t for everyone. Battery life seems to be a touch better but not so great to justify upgrading wither. As we speculated in the podcast, Apple are fond of revolutionary products followed by incremental upgrades and the iphone is following that path. I expect to see some fundamental platform changes every 3-4 years with improvements in between. That might mean that next years model is the one to wait for.

However if you have an original iPhone or have yet to move to the iPhone platform, the iPhone 3GS is a great phone and one which you’ll get many hours of enjoyment from. Coupled with the range of app’s available for it and it’s hard to see anything better on the market today. It also makes calls too.

So you want an iPhone 3G S

After last weeks iPhone 3G S announcement there has been a lot of heat, not so much around the product itself, but around the costs involved in purchasing one. This is especially true in the UK, where the cost of the handset and the upgrade costs have sparked a lot of controversy.

Firstly, the iPhone 3G S – worth the cost if you’ve already got a 3G? This is a hard one to call. The improvements are:

  • Jump in size from 16GB to 32GB (assuming you buy the 32GB version)
  • Improved camera – 2 to 3 megapixels
  • Camera functions improved – auto white balance, better low light performance, macro
  • Touch to focus
  • Video recording
  • Video editing
  • Digital Compass
  • Voice control
  • Much improved chip speed
  • Double the RAM to 256MB
  • Screen has oleophobic coating

Not exactly ground breaking but for me it’s enough of an upgrade. We see the future of iPhones, much like the iPod range, to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary apart from a platform reboot ever 3-4 years. So assuming you agree and decide an iPhone 3G S is for you, how much will it cost? This is the real burning issue for 3G owners in the UK. For the iPhone 3G launch O2 allowed existing iPhone owners to upgrade to the iPhone 3G for £100. Everyone was happy and most also assumed that this was the model for iPhone’s upgrades in the future. Wrong!

Like every other mobile phone contract in the UK you would need to buy out your existing iPhone 3G contract before you could upgrade to the new 3G S. This announcement, made first on twitter, caused a bit of meltdown with #o2fail jumping into the trending topics on Twitter for a couple of days. Initially disappointed, in the cold light of day it was fairly obvious that this was the same rules for everyone else, so why not the iPhone – a bitter but expensive pill to swallow and if you don’t like it, don’t buy the 3G S. For me though, a purchase is likely so is there a better way to purchase than to buy out existing contract and start on a new fresh 18 month deal?

The spreadsheet above lists out costs assuming you buy off existing contract. Not cheap. Highlighted in blue is what we think is the typical option for most users which assumes that you will get £230 for your current iPhone 16GB 3G. There’s a few places that will buy your iPhone:

  • MazumaMobile.com will buy your phone for £200
  • Carphone Warehouse will buy it for £160
  • eBay – forums quote £300 for your phone but it’s more like £250-£270. Remember those eBay fee’s too

Considering the potential flood of iPhone’s then £230 for a phone in great condition sounds fair. The issue with this method of upgrading is the new 18 month contract. Assuming that Apple will release an upgrade every 12 months, buying in to an 18 month contract will give you this hassle every year. Taking a 24 month contract will force you into upgrading every second generation which might not be too bad a thing if the theory on product evolution is sound. However there is another way which involves going down the Pay As You Go route.

It’s this route that offers the best cost and flexibility in our opinion. The table above assumes a 32GB purchase on Friday. You then swap the contract sim from your current phone to the new 3G S. Take the new sim from the 3G S and use that in your existing phone which you can then sell on for £230-£250. Let the 18 month contract expire then sign up for either a monthly or 12 month Simplicity contract from O2. This takes monthly costs down from £35 to £20 although you do lose visual voicemail and unlimited wi-fi on this tariff. You can also make a further saving by signing up to the Simplicity contract via QuidCo and you should also be able to leave the 18 month contract at least a month early so that’s another saving.

The monthly average via this route is slightly higher than opening a new 18 month contract but the benefit comes next year and the next iPhone. No contract to pay off and a tidy sum to be made on selling on the 3G S. Well, that’s the theory at least. If you don’t upgrade next year then another 12 months on Simplicity will be a significant saving over the iPhone contracts.

Hopefully that helps spell out some options for this coming Friday. All you need to do now is queue up on Friday morning, pre-order from O2 stores or make an appointment at a local Apple store which is the option I’m doing. Alternatively, chortle at the amount of money this is all costing and enjoy OS 3.0 which has just come out. The choice is yours.