Usability & iOS 7

The iPad Air remains one of the best consumer tablet experiences around. The OS and Apple’s first party applications are both extremely well suited to the tablet, and there’s a very healthy ecosystem of third party applications to fill in the gaps left by Apple.

Lately Apple has been doing wonders to limit those gaps. Both iLife and iWork suites are now free with the purchase of any new iOS 7 device, including the iPad Air. Previously each of the three iLife apps set you back $5 a piece ($15 total), while the iWork apps were priced at $10 a piece ($30 total). Apple has truly embraced its role as a devices and software company and is using the latter to help sell the former. On the one hand this is an admission that the market is growing more competitive, as tossing in free software is a great differentiator. On the other hand, freeing up iLife/iWork is a vote of confidence in Apple’s ability to continue to demand a premium for its hardware. Neither suite comes preinstalled on the iPad Air, but upon a visit to the App Store users are reminded that they can get all six of the apps for free if they should desire to. I suspect part of the reason that they’re not bundled by default is to avoid eating up space on the devices with less NAND by default.

The core iOS apps are quite approachable and easy to use. Applications like Safari and Mail make great use of the high resolution screen. Obviously the same can be said for things like Photos and iPhoto. The virtual keyboard experience is great on the large display (especially in landscape mode). Honestly, if there was a good Google Hangouts app (the Android version is much better in my experience) for iOS 7 I think I could be very comfortable and productive on the iPad Air.

I find that task switching is far better on the iPad than it is on the iPhone since multitasking gestures are supported. A four finger swipe left/right between applications or up/down to bring up the task switcher is so much quicker for me than a double tap of the physical home button. Similarly a five finger pinch to get back to the home screen from any application is significantly faster. The new iOS 7 multitasking UI feels so much more at home on the iPad’s large display as well.

My only complaint about task switching on the iPad Air is that UI frame rate will regularly drop below 30 fps during some of these transitions. The added GPU performance on the A7 doesn't seem to really impact things compared to the A6X, so I’m fairly convinced at this point that the solution to the problem will have to come in software. It’s quite reminiscent of the Retina MacBook Pro UI frame rate issues under Mountain Lion, although not nearly as bad (and I’m hoping it won’t take a year to get these ones resolved).

The release of iOS 7.0.3 addressed (at least partially) some of my concerns around the OS. As I already mentioned, stability on 64-bit platforms seems somewhat improved - at least compared to the initial release of iOS 7. The other big improvement in my mind is the ability to turn off/reduce the transition animations. The impact to usability on the iPhone 5s is huge, but it’s also pretty significant on the iPad Air. The animations themselves are pretty but I find that they get repetitive after continued use.

Memory Size & The Impact of 64-bit Applications

The iPad Air, like the iPhone 5s, ships with 1GB of LPDDR3 memory. Apple frowns upon dissection of review samples but I think it’s a safe bet that we’re not talking about a PoP (Package-on-Package) configuration but rather discrete, external DRAM here. It’s also probably a safe bet that even the iPad mini with Retina Display will ship with 1GB of memory as well.

Something I didn’t have time to address in my iPhone 5s review was the impact of 64-bit applications on memory usage. I actually ran some tests after the 5s review hit but never got the chance to share the data, so I figured now is as good a time as any to do just that.

Unlike traditional desktop OSes, iOS doesn’t support paging to disk (or in this case, NAND). Application data can either reside in memory or the associated process is terminated and has to be reloaded the next time you request it. It’s a decision likely made to both maintain user experience and limit the number of program/erase cycles on the internal NAND.

The good news is that iOS was architected to run on as little hardware as possible and as a result tends to be quite memory efficient. There are also power implications of going to larger memories. The combination of these two things has kept Apple on the conservative side of increasing memory capacity on many iDevices.

The move to a 64-bit platform however does complicate things a bit. Moving to a larger memory address space increases the size of pointers, which in turn can increase the footprint of 64-bit applications compared to their 32-bit counterparts. So although there’s clearly a performance uplift from app developers recompiling in 64-bit mode (more registers, access to new instructions), there’s also an associated memory footprint penalty. Since the iPad Air and iPhone 5s don’t feature a corresponding increase in memory capacity, I wondered if this might be a problem going forward.

To find out I monitored total platform memory usage in a couple of scenarios. Before measuring I always manually quit all open apps and performed a hard reset on the device. Note that the data below is reporting both clean and dirty memory, so it’s possible that some of the memory space could be recovered in the event that another process needed it. I hoped to minimize the impact by always working on a cleanly reset platform and only testing one app at a time.

I looked at memory usage under the following scenarios:

1) A clean boot with no additional apps open
2) Running Mobile Safari with 4 tabs open (two AnandTech.com tabs, two Apple.com tabs, all showing the same content)
3) Infinity Blade 3 (64-bit enabled) sitting at the very first scene once you start the game
4) iOS Maps in hybrid view with 3D mode enabled, with a WiFi assisted GPS lock on my physical location
5) Google Maps in the same view, under the same conditions. I threw in this one to have a 32-bit app reference point.

In general you’re looking at a 20 - 30% increase in memory footprint when dealing with an all 64-bit environment. At worst, the device’s total memory usage never exceeded 60% of what ships with the platform but these are admittedly fairly light use cases. With more apps open, including some doing work in the background, I do see relatively aggressive eviction of apps from memory. The most visible case is when Safari tabs have to be reloaded upon switching to them. Applications being evicted from memory don’t tend to be a huge problem since the A7 can reload them quickly.

The tricky part is you don’t really need all that much more memory. Unfortunately as with any dual-channel memory architecture, you’re fairly limited in how you can increase memory capacity and still get peak performance. Apple’s only move here would be to go to 2GB, which understandably comes with both power and financial costs. The former is a bigger concern for the iPhone 5s, but on the iPad Air I would’ve expected a transition sooner rather than later.

Although things seem to have improved with iOS 7.0.3, the 64-bit builds of the OS still seem to run into stability issues more frequently than their 32-bit counterparts. I still see low memory errors associated with any crashes. It could just be that the move to 64-bit applications (and associated memory pressure) is putting more stress on iOS’ memory management routines, which in turn exposes some weaknesses. The iPad Air crashed a couple of times on me (3 times total during the past week), but no where near as much as earlier devices running iOS 7.0.1.

Battery Life Final Words
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  • eanazag - Monday, November 4, 2013 - link

    The innovation that the Thunderbolt people are really waiting for is faster eMMC flash on the iPad. USB 3 or Thunderbolt is not going to help the fact that the flash storage is too slow to even make USB 2 sweat. I completely agree that sync and restore via iTunes is painfully slow. I would also argue that WiFi sync on 2 stream N is useless if the iPad still sports slow storage.

    If I had a request for USB 3, it would solely based on higher power specs for charging or docking. I
    Reply
  • mnbob1 - Friday, November 8, 2013 - link

    Apple has put a lot of emphasis on iCloud and backing up to iCloud. I have an iPad and an IPhone and haven't connected either to my computer for over a year. I backup to iCloud and use iTunes Match to access my music library which also gives me ad free iTunes Radio now. I store photos to iCloud because I take advantage of Photo Stream. My documents are backed up to Drop Box. Earlier this year I upgraded from an iPhone 4S to and iPhone 5. With iCloud all of my device settings were restored within a few minutes and my apps were downloaded in the background so I could still use my phone while that was happening. With iTunes Match I was able to see my entire music library of over 7,000 songs and choose what I wanted to download to my phone when I wanted to. I was able to restore my photos quickly and access my documents from Dropbox quickly. The whole process took me less than an hour initially since I don't bog my phone down with a lot of apps that I don't use and I only download the music as I use it. I trying to figure out why you guys think you need to connect up with thunderbolt or USB 3.0 when the iPad Air also has wifi with MIMO capabilities. Stop tethering your portable devices to the desktop because Apple isn't going to do thunderbolt because it would exclude Windows PC's or upgrade to USB 3.0 because the need for data going across that wire becomes less important and it becomes more of a charging port. Reply
  • IUU - Sunday, November 17, 2013 - link

    I am glad you 're feeling so comfortable having your dafa stored on other people's hds.
    I suppose you feel comfortable, storing your food in other people's refrigerators,
    writing your diaries and personal notes on other people's diaries and notebooks.(Marx and Lenin would absolutely fall in love with you).
    And all this, despite the fact that your "entire music library" is laughably small to what an average local storage could offer. Oh I get it, you do this as a future proof policy, because you somehow know
    e storage won't improve in the future, despite the fact that the known laws of nature allow for much much more than zettabytes to be stored locally.
    Like the ignorant chinese peasant, thanking his lords for offering him 200 dollars instead of 100, you thank your cloud bosses for offering you 50 instead of 25gb. Sorry, but trying to convert the data network to a feudal type traditional energy grid won't work, because it's against the ways of nature.
    This energy grid is going to die soon as well, much to the dislike of the last remaining tyrants.
    Reply
  • pojkeboy - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Ha. I love this comment. Reply
  • pdjblum - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Despite the snap 600, the nexus 7.2 is still a wonderful device for a couple of hundred less than a mini with a reasonable amount of storage, not the pittance they offer in the base model. Not sure how he can recommend a mini at all when it is hundreds more than the nexus 7.2? The Verge will do that because they shit crApples, but a so called objective, highly intelligent reviewer should have a problem with that. Reply
  • akdj - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    The Nexus 7.2 is a POS. I returned mine within 3 weeks. 475,000 optimized tablet apps in the App Store, maybe 15 in the Play store. What a joke attempting to surf on the Nex7 in portrait. Decent performance, yeah....but without apps that aren't 'blown up' phone apps, it's a joke. With the mini, you're not just buying a quality built tablet (that is obviously more powerful than the Nex7), but into an extremely active and blossoming eco-system...now $50+ in 'free' productivity and creative apps optimized for the system...and phenomenal post purchase support. Google is selling their tabs right @ the cost of the BOM. Why? They're in it for YOUR personal info...they're miners, data miners. Your information is what they make their money on, not the hardware.
    While the Nex 7.2 maybe a decent choice for some looking to save a bit of cash, if you've got the money, the iPad is THEE only way to buy into the current tablet market. Period.
    Reply
  • pdjblum - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    crApple makes their money on ignorant, entitled, insecure people who want to pay extra to feel good about themselves. Reply
  • Scannall - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    Bitter much?

    Fact is, I don't mind paying more for a quality product with great service and support. With the added bonus of having apps I actually use, that have NO Android equivalents. Not to mention 16:9 form factor sucks for my tablet usage.

    I don't buy the cheapest car on the market either.
    Reply
  • jopamo - Sunday, November 3, 2013 - link

    "crApple doesn't make any money from me, yet I am equally ignorant, entitled, and insecure as the people I who claim want to pay extra to feel good about themselves."

    There. Fixed that for you. :)
    Reply
  • akdj - Monday, November 4, 2013 - link

    It's YOUR ignorance that shows---using 'crApple' and for YOU to decide folks' insecurities? I'm thinkin' you might be a bit secure---either that or you Mom said "HELL No!"....."If you want one, get a job, save some money---and buy it yourself!"
    Am I close? Certainly nailed YOUR insecurities...lol, always wonder about the ambiguity of the 'net and what these nay-sayers would actually have the Balls to say to an Apple owner in real life, face to face.
    pdjblum----Silly, Silly Boy
    Reply

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