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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  • tetsuk - Friday, November 15, 2013 - link

    The Macbook Air is great. However, as you mentioned, iWork is not comparable to Office. Since bootcamp works really well, it could still be an option. Reply
  • syedjalalt - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    AnandTech reviews are so unbiased and true unlike The Verge(iSheeps). They go as much deeper as possible to get the best out of their reviews and articles. This is real journalism. Hats off. Reply
  • johned - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    I have a Nexus 4 (soon to be 5) a Nexus 7 first gen and an iPad 2 (soon to be Air). Sometimes I find all the partisan bickering about this stuff hilarious. I like a good row as much as the next guy but I'm a geek. I just love to play with the stuff. I prefer Android to iOS for my daily driver phone, but come on. Anand seems like he's just like me. He loves the tech, all of it, and if had could articulate the way he does, I probably would've started a website like this myself.
    I will say this, I really don't understand why people think NFC is dead. I use it at least once a day with Google Wallet on my phone. Both major grocery store chains in my area take it. McDonald's takes it. Now, the carrier based service is tanking because they were greedy and botched it. Google wallet I find very useful, though.

    Also, I've never had problems transferring files with it. My brother-in-law has a VZW Droid M and I have Nexus devices and I've sent him files from both my tablet and my phone. The most useful thing about it compared to Apple's Air Drop service is that I can do this without needing a wifi connection.

    I can honestly say, that the one thing keeping me from an iPhone right now is NFC because I use it so much. If the 5s had included it, I would be sporting one right now. Google Wallet is already available for iOS.

    I keep seeing somebody in here sounding like the Apple App Store marketing manager spewing the tired old line about 400blah blah thousand "iPad optimized" apps. This is nice that they are doing that but I observe two things.

    1) Google is trying to standardize apps so that 1 app needs to be made for all devices. Since all current Nexus devices have either a 720p or 1080p display, this is easy. This is simply a different approach than Apple is taking.
    2)This means that I only need to buy every app 1 time instead of buying it once for my phone and again (usually for a higher price) on my tablet. Apple could mitigate this buy shipping a standard hi-def resolution on the iPhone which they seem reluctant to do.

    Back to the original point. We are all geeks here. I appreciate technology. I have opinions about what I like and don't like, but I come to Anandtech because I like to stay current on everything going on. This site also stays largely unpolitical and sticks to the tech, which is why I don't read Ars as much anymore.
    Reply
  • JTravers - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    Not sure what you mean about needing a wifi connection for AirDrop. Is having your wifi turned on an issue? AirDrop uses wifi direct, so although you do need to have your wifi turned on you don't need to be connected to a wifi hotspot. Reply
  • nedjinski - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    but wait - there's more -

    http://www.displaymate.com/Tablet_ShootOut_3.htm
    Reply
  • Mayuyu - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    IGZO display instead of IPS. The chart here is wrong. Reply
  • cheshirster - Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - link

    Windows tablets are going to suppress ipads sales in coming months.
    Still no mention in conclusion. That's hilarious, at some point.
    Reply
  • AngryCorgi - Thursday, November 14, 2013 - link

    Again, you are listing the #s for GFLOPS/core, not the total GPU GFLOPS on the Rogue chips. You need to clarify that. And the older 554MP4 was 21.6 GFLOPS @ 300MHz (14.4 GFLOPS @ 200MHz, as ID'd by Imagination Tech). Reply
  • Atlink - Saturday, November 30, 2013 - link

    I'm truly not trying to stir the pot at all, but I am curious about NFC. I understand what it is, and its possible application, however, I'm not seeing anyone really clamor for it. This whole NFC deal seems like the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray war all over again. Neither side really had a lead until Sony began to tip the scales in their favor due to the PS3's exclusive use of Blu-Ray discs for games.

    I understand that NFC can be used to do some neat things: pay for food, verify a subway ticket, check into a hotel, etc. The problem that I'm seeing is one that anyone without a NFC phone can see: the lack of NFC-enabled terminals. I would say that Apple is dropping the ball something fierce if there were NFC terminals to scan this and that almost everywhere, but like QR codes, they seem almost like a novelty. I *could* scan that code with my phone by either downloading an application that can do it, and then hoping that the code can be read by the program, and hoping that the URL is worth looking at... or I could just type in the URL right below it (yes, I know not everything has a short URL below it). I *could* use NFC by sitting down with my credit cards in advance, creating an account, punching in the numbers, verifying data, opening the app when needed, sorting through the cards I plan to use, selecting the correct one, ensuring the transaction was accepted by the POS... or I could just use my debit card like I have been doing for years now, swipe once, punch in my PIN, and be done with it.

    Like I said, I do think that NFC is a really neat idea, and I would love the saturation to become more prevalent in the US, but as of now, it's kind of a neat idea with no real, practical application. I guess the problem I'm having is trying to understand the importance of having it NOW. Some people use NFC as a selling point, and that just seems odd.

    I think that when NFC catches on, and you begin seeing it almost everywhere, then we'll start seeing it in Apple products. No point in putting something in if you aren't going to be able to use it, right?
    Reply
  • divps - Saturday, November 30, 2013 - link

    I have a Nexus 7 and use an iPhone 5. We also have the iPads, a Nexus 4, a Nexus 5 and a Galaxy Nexus phones in the household. I use the Nexus 7 as my tablet for the things that it is strong at and use the nice iOS ecosystem for Apps that I need and that's generally good enough for me. I like the idea of wireless charging and I'm going to get a wireless charger for the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5. The Micro-USB connector isn't the easiest thing to connect without a little effort and the connector can get fatigued over time. It's also nice if you can just come home and put the phone on the platform and pick it up when you need it. The Apple connector is a lot easier for me to put in but wireless charging would mean that I wouldn't need as many lightning cables at home.

    The Apple ecosystem is generally smoother and nicer. I recently upgraded my Nexus 7 to KitKat and it ran like a dog and I tried a bunch of things and eventually had to do a factory reset which means that I lost a bunch of things and had to re-add them. There are several threads on this on the Phandroid Nexus 7 forums. The iOS 7 upgrade was a piece of cake compared to the KitKat upgrade. I also found UI differences for some simple things between the Nexus 5 and Nexus 7 on KitKat. On the Nexus 7, you do left and right pulldown for notifications and settings. On the Nexus 7, you do one-finger and two-finger pulldowns for notifications and settings. I had thought that the UIs would be the same but I guess not.

    I'm extremely impressed with the Nexus 5 hardware - it's very, very fast, great screen, very thin, good feel in hand. I don't like the layout of the volume control and it has known problems with shutter lag and audio output (which I hope will be fixed with software). It's an incredible value for the money.

    The thing that I like about Android is the ease of copying content over to them. You just plug them into a PC and drag and drop your files and the Apps will find them on the device. With iOS, I have to convert videos to MP4, or documents to an iBooks compatible format.

    I think that the music player and email apps on iOS are far better than the OS provided ones on Android. Google should have done a better job copying iOS Apps there.
    Reply

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