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Jan 232010

When you first encounter those iPhone apps which automatically rotate into some form of landscape mode (often with a larger on screen keyboard), you think “Oh cool”. And it seems pretty useful.

Well the landscape mode certainly is, but the automatic rotation between portrait and landscape mode can begin to grate a little – it often seems to activate when you don’t want it to, and refuses to activate when you want it to. Not that it’s the fault of the iPhone really. It is just the our usage of the iPhone is too unpredictable to say that whenever the iPhone is in a landscape orientation that we want to use it in that orientation. We may simply have bent over to scratch a knee and accidentally rotated the iPhone.

It would be nice if the iPhone OS had two additional features :-

  • The ability to turn off the autorotation feature at a global level.
  • The ability to manually switch into landscape mode – presumably with some sort of twist gesture on the screen.

Interestingly it seems that others may also agree as I have come across other iPhone apps that do offer the facility to turn off auto-landscape mode.

Jan 012010

So O2 is giving away free downloads for the 12 days of Christmas (or something like that) and have just given away a free copy of the film “Lesbian Spank Inferno” … sorry I mean “Lesbian Vampire Killers“. Well as it was free, I decided to give it a go …

The first thing to note is that watching films on an iPhone is a pretty bad idea. Ok, it is portable and probably isn’t too bad for watching an old film that you are familiar with for entertainment on the move (although reading a book is probably better). The screen is just too small.

As for the film itself, well you will have to turn off your “PC filters” before watching – the title itself and the first few minutes reveal a misogynistic fear of lesbians (the writers seem to be under the impression that lesbians are that way through a hatred of men!).

After you turn off these filters, what do you get ? Well two principle characters who are pretty repulsive – one pathetic type whose girlfriend  is routinely unfaithful (and with good reason), and another who is even more pathetic and unsurprisingly has no girlfriend.

These two pathetic losers journey to a village under an ancient curse whereby all 18 year old women suddenly turn into lesbian vampires (surely a contradiction in terms). They meet up with an unlikely bunch of history students – all female and all with a predilection for wearing low-cut tops. At which point the “story” (if it can be called such) progresses through an unlikely series of events until our two “heros” with a surviving love interest manage to defeat the lesbian vampire queen.

It isn’t good porn (whatever that is).

It isn’t comedy. And no I’m not being superior – I like simplistic “Carry On” style smutty comedy.

It isn’t a good vampire story. It doesn’t even have much of a story.

All in all, a complete waste of time. One of those “freebies” that cost too much.

Don’t bother.

Oct 032009

It might be a little too much to expect, but it would be nice if there were an option to change the meaning of the little red numbers that show up on the Mail icon, the Messages icon (and other messaging apps) from “unseen” to “not replied”.

I often quickly visit a message to see if it’s something that needs dealing with straight away, and go away if it is not that important. But as soon as I do, I lose the little number that reminds me there’s a message to deal with. The whole concept of changing an icon with a little number to show how many messages there are is brilliant.

And undoubtedly for many more organised people knowing how many new messages there are is just what they need. But some of us would like to know how many messages have not been replied to or dealt with in some other way.

Jul 122009

I’m very fussy about keyboards; perhaps ridiculously so. But I cannot understand the criticism of the virtual keyboard that comes with the iPhone. It takes some getting used to, and the auto correct feature whilst very useful can also be very irritating. Enough so that Apple should probably have a keyboard button marked “turn off auto correct for a while”. But it is perfectly adequate for what it is  – something to do a little text entry from time to time.

So why am I complaining about the lack of a decent keyboard ? Because quite simply if I’m doing any writing (and I don’t at present) on the iPhone, I would like to be able to type at full speed – which for me requires a decent clicky keyboard so I can get up to a reasonable speed (apparently about 120wpm!).

Adding bluetooth drivers to the iPhone should be pretty trivial for Apple after all there are already OSX bluetooth keyboard drivers available, and the iPhone operating system is OSX. So why does Apple not include one ? Sure there’s an excuse for the first release not to include one – Apple wanted to make sure that the phone was rock solid in a totally new market to them. But now?

Surely it cannot be because they feel that releasing such a driver would be an admission that the virtual keyboard is no good. After all, I’m not exactly an enemy of the virtual keyboard, but I want a real keyboard interface for those occasions when one would be useful.

Jul 122009

The iPhone is hardly perfect, although it is quite good for a smartphone. However now we are loading up our iPhones with dozens of added applications, the old swipe-able screen interface needs a bit of care.

The first improvement would be the ability to tag particular screens with names. This would be merely an aid to organisation, but in practice would be very handy. There is plenty of space in the status bar for the “name” of a screen, or Apple could do something funkier involving putting the name onto the background.

Secondly it would be handy to have icons that could “warp” to a particular screen – presumably by name. This would work as a simplistic form of ‘folders’ for the applications.

Finally it would be useful to be able to make certain application icons “sticky” so that they remain available no matter what screen is currently active.

Jul 112009

Apparently the Apple iPhone app store has been open for a year now. It has not been quite a year since I have been using it, but nearly so. It is not really anything new in itself as most smart phones allowed you to download new applications, but it does present the available applications in a very usable way.

The ease of use (which is something Apple are very good at) is sufficiently good that other smartphone vendors are effectively copying the concept. But that is something that is well known, so lets have a look at some of the warts.

The most obvious problem is that there are so many applications available that it is hard to find anything. Browsing for anything and you will find yourself in an endless list of possibilities. Searching is a little unsophisticated and has one very irritating feature – after searching for something, getting a list of applications, you will obviously touch an application to get a closer look at one of the applications. The search then changes what you searched for to the application name! This makes it very difficult to compare applications.

Some observers have criticised the number of applications by saying that they only select a small number – perhaps 4 or 5 that they use on a daily basis. They imply that all those “excess” applications are a waste of space because they do not use them. However they all overlook one thing – everybody’s list of 5 “daily” applications is likely to be different!

Besides which there are applications you load “just in case”. For instance I have “Vicinity” not because I need to know where the coffee shops are where I live or where I work. But because I am sometimes away from home and will need that information. Similarly I have an ssh-capable terminal client installed, because it may be useful in an emergency.

Apart from improving the search function, one other thing that would improve the app store is some method for allowing reviews of applications to be viewed. The easiest way to pick the best application out of a category of similar applications is to resort to what somebody else has discovered. Add a tab for reviews, and allow organisations to publish their reviews to the app store.

But more serious is Apple’s draconian policies on what applications get into the store. I am not talking about “adult content” here (although those who wish such, should be allowed it) but rather more ordinary applications. Applications seem to get rejected for seemingly arbitrary reasons even though very similar ones get allowed through.

That gets more than a little irritating when Apple releases an update to the operating system that breaks certain applications, and then refuses to allow an update to that application to be released. For an example, see here.

Dec 092008

It is probably a little late to write a review of the iPhone that is going to interest too many, but personally I think that too many online reviews cover such things very skimpily. As I have both an original iPhone (8Gbytes) and a new iPhone 3G (16Gbytes), I can also do a little comparison.

Overall, the iPhone is a pretty good smartphone with some peculiar weaknesses but this is allieviated by a superb user interface.

Unpacking the 3G

The iPhone 3G comes in pretty much the same style of box as the original; compact and well styled to give you the impression that you are getting a serious bit of kit. Unfortunately the iPhone dock that was provided with the original is not included here. I guess Apple decided they needed to make us pay extra for it, but the standard iPod cable is included so it is still possible to get connected. Of course it is possible that I got my original with a dock thrown in for free as it wasn’t from a “proper” source.

The new iPhone still feels pretty good. It is slightly curvier than the original which is more noticeable if you look at the back. The colour scheme is also somewhat different, and perhaps somewhat more “plasticy” than the original. But it does not seem to be a cut-price version of the original; it still feels pretty good in the hand. Once minor niggle though – the new one has silvery buttons as opposed to the black buttons of the original, and they can feel ever so slightly sharp or rough to the fingers. Might be worth making the buttons with rounded edges next time Apple.

Holding it gives a feeling of slickness; perhaps a little too much as it feels like it might shoot out of your hands much like a wet bar of soap. For me a case to make it a little stickier is pretty much essential.

One area where the 3G is distinctly poorer than the original is the headphone socket. It may be more compatible (the old one was recessed making standard headphones tricky to attach), but it feels distinctly cheap and nasty.

Putting in the SIM card is just as fiddly as it was with the original. Perhaps AT&T is different and puts the SIM card in for you, but it seems odd that there is not a detailed set of instructions (or perhaps I missed them). Also it would be sensible to include a tool to poke down that hole to get the SIM card drawer open. I would hazard a guess that many older people would have trouble with this; if I had not already done it with my original I would have had to get some reading glasses to be sure I was poking the right place!

Those Peculiar Weaknesses

Most criticisms of the iPhone tend to zero in on the camera as being the weakest point of the iPhone. To an extent that is true, but just how good is any mobile phone camera? The lens is at best rather poorer than average and the sensor is always too small to produce anything approaching the quality of a DSLR. A flash might be useful, but again a mobile phone flash is never going to be much good. If you want a camera, buy a camera, and use the iPhone camera for making visual notes.

On the hardware front, there is no infrared port so this is probably just about the only smartphone to lack one. Which is fair enough on a modern phone where they consider bluetooth to be the replacement (although it makes it kind of hard to have third-party software to control the TV without one!). But the bluetooth stack is also astonishingly crippled! You can just pair the iPhone to a headset, and not an advanced A2DP one!

That means no syncing over bluetooth, no file transfers, and no bluetooth messaging. Why? I mean it would be sort of understandable with a new phone product, but it is time this was sorted out.

And no picture messaging (MMS) ? I know it is supposed to be pretty unpopular in the US, but it has caught on in Europe, so it seems odd not to have it on the iPhone.

As A Phone

The iPhone is probably the best phone I have ever used. The killer feature? Whilst in a call, all of the extra features like speakerphone, mute, hold, keypad (for navigating those machines), adding an extra person to the call are all available on screen as easy to access buttons.

The only downside ? It could do with a slider to lock the screen whilst on the phone … more than once I have terminated a call by accidentally pressing the “end call” button. It is supposed to lock automatically when raised up near the ear, but I usually use it hands-free when the lock is not supposed to operate. Turns out I was missing a feature – hit the power button during a call and the screen will lock., Apple

The “Smart” Bit

The user interface for getting into software “apps” is a simple grid of icons. If you have too many for one screen you can swipe between screens of icons. This is a moderately sensible way of getting to things; no getting lost in a hierarchy of applications, but it may become somewhat clumsy if you install many applications. I find it helpful to have rough categories on separate screens … PIM stuff, Reference, Toys and Games, System and unused.

Most of the builtin applications tend towards the simplistic which isn’t necessarily a bad thing providing that a replacement for an application you use heavily is available. Two “showcase” applications are particularly fun – the Youtube application and the Google Maps application. Some observations of the standard applications :-

  • The calendar application is slightly weak and does not support synchronisation with anything other than Exchange. Other vendors have code ready to go, but Apple doesn’t allow this for some inscrutable reason – a kickback from Microsoft ?
  • The calculator application very cleverly switches to an “advanced” mode with extra functions if you rotate the screen to landscape, but I do wonder why on computer calculators so slavishly emulate stand-alone ones. It would seem worth making a few minor improvements.
  • Who decided that font was a good idea for the Notes application? A “handwriting” font is cute for about 30 seconds before you realise it is difficult to read. At least give us the chance of changing the font!
  • The Safari web browser is surprisingly effective with two fingered zooming allowing you to quickly narrow down to read the smaller bits and to zoom out to give you an overview.

The App Store and Third Party Applications

The app store which is where you “buy” new applications is rather swamped by the number of applications now available. Fortunately there is a search facility that will let you quickly find something that you have found from elsewhere. It is perhaps just a little too easy to spend money in the app store although the prices are generally pretty reasonable and added to your mobile phone bill.

As to the applications themselves, it is as expected, a mixed bag. Some tend towards the gimmicky or totally useless – the beer application comes to mind which allows you to use your iPhone to pretend to drink a glass of beer. Others are pretty good; even fantastic such as Vicinity which will determine from your location nearby bars, restaurants, etc. Having once spent an hour wandering around Birmingham at night looking for a convenience store, I’m a devoted fan of this one!

The odd thing is that Apple seems to have a curious tendency to be a little inconsistent in what applications can make it to the app store. This pushes one in the direction of jailbreaking a little more given that gives you access to all sorts of interesting applications!

Overall, the iPhone deserves to be as popular as it is, but perhaps doesn’t deserve to be worshipped as much as some do. Still it’s an Apple product and as usualy some people will like it more than it deserves.

Jul 192008

I have just changed the root password on my iPhone from the default (really dumb of Apple to give every iPhone the same root password; it would not be much work to set the default root password from the IMEI or something). Before doing so I googled for appropriate instructions.

Nothing wrong with the technical side of the instructions out there, but none I read made a point of what I would consider basic safety for dealing with changing the root password on a Unix machine. Keep a session open in case things go wrong!

My own instructions for doing the change went along the lines of :-

  1. Open two terminals
  2. Create a new password hash with openssl passwd -crypt -salt "XX" "xyzzy" (obviously change the salt (“XX”) to two characters of your choice, and pick a better password than “xyzzy”!). Keep the output stashed somewhere safe.
  3. In both terminals ssh to the iPhone (ssh root@iphone).
  4. Copy the file /etc/master.passwd to a safe copy /etc/master.passwd.original
  5. Edit /etc/master.passwd and put the stashed has into the second field of root’s entry.
  6. Now exit from the ssh session in one window and try to reconnect with the new password.

If things have gone wrong you will have an open session available to fix things (cp /etc/master.passwd.original /etc/master.passwd would be worth trying) whereas without you are kind of stuck.

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