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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  • superflex - Friday, November 1, 2013 - link

    You can cherry pick timeframes to make their stock look good.
    Over the last year, the stock is down 12%.
    Reply
  • Janette - Saturday, November 2, 2013 - link

    @dsumanik: Yeah, what @John2k13 said. Reply
  • whatsa - Sunday, November 3, 2013 - link

    John,
    you didn't do to bad yourself- lmao
    Reply
  • peterfares - Monday, November 4, 2013 - link

    I'm sure if Apple implements NFC plenty of people will use it. So many people have Apple devices and you won't need to guess or remember if you can send things to each other. NFC is a bit of a mess right now. For contacts and URLs it's standard and should work between any device. But the big use case --files-- is a mess. On Android you basically can only send files between devices of the same manufacture. WP has file transfer standardized but it doesn't work with Android.

    Plus Apple users love to show people they have the latest Apple device and will love to beam things back and fourth.
    Reply
  • Walkop - Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - link

    You accuse this guy of bias (which he obviously is, alongside being totally ignorant to one of the best tech reviewers out there (MKB does incredible videos). But you have no idea what you're saying yourself with some areas, and you very clearly have a bias towards the iPad.

    Touch ID is the more of a gimmick than Haptic Feedback. I've used it on the Nexus 10; it makes a BIG DIFFERENCE in the feel of the onscreen keyboard. NFC is very useful if you know others with Android devices; I've used it on various occasions. Wireless charging is extremely convenient, especially if its on your desk and you use your phone on-and-off.

    As for software; yes, the iPad hardware is considerably improved. But on the base level, the OS hasn't really been updated in years save for iOS7. That update added a lot of foward-facing changes, but not really too much functionality that hasn't been around already. iOS multitasking just got bumped up to be closer to Android, but still isn't nearly as flexible. Sharing is still difficult. You can't Bluetooth a group of PDFs to a friend (which I do weekly on my Android device), even!

    Gesture Type. I CANNOT give this up. I can't stand typing on an iPad because the keyboard experience is so sub-par compared to my Nexus 10, and it will only improve with KitKat where you can swipe through the spacebar to combine multiple words in a single gesture.

    You have apps, but so do Android tablets. There are many fantastic applications in every field that do their jobs admirably, and Google's set of tools are fantastic for writing, accessing information, sharing, and editing many formats of information. There aren't as many, but there are a lot of GOOD ones and even phone apps scale very well on a 10" display.

    And the Nexus 10 2013 will very likely bring the most powerful non-Apple SoC to the table: Snapdragon 800. It matches or beats the Apple A7 in many areas, although it is defeated in others. Simply put, it is a VERY competitive chip with the A7 and, really, they are basically equal.

    So please, stop bashing features that really DO matter to a lot of people, and I won't bash the iPad's lack of functionality (at a base level) when compared to Android devices out there. The iPad isn't the "perfect" device, neither is my Nexus 10. But we can't act like either is.
    Reply
  • Brakken - Thursday, November 14, 2013 - link

    Love your response.

    So tiring having thoughtless and random posts!
    Reply
  • ivan256 - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    That's a pretty uninspired list of proposed features.

    IMO, wireless charging is pointless. Is it really that hard to plug it in? How do you wireless charge while you're using it? It's added cost and size for trivial levels of added convenience.

    USB3 sync would be fine, if it actually sped things up. I'm sure they'll get around to it. Who doesn't wireless sync these days though?

    NFC would be another "me too" for a bandwaggon that is already slowing down. Really, think about the few places where NFC is catching on, and tell me you'd really use a 10" tablet in those situations. It would be almost as bad as the iPad-as-a-tourist-camera people.

    Here are some better ideas:

    Relaxing the iron fist - Let us install our own apps from outside the app store. If Apple wants to sign them first and charge a nominal fee so that they can "prevent piracy," so be it. But I want to install my own stuff. I want iOS to be able to participate in things like the Humble Bundle. I want more iOS OSS.

    Location Spoofing. Let us set location services to lie to apps temporarily. This is useful for a variety of reasons ranging from development to privacy.

    Home screen icon sizes. No further explanation needed.

    Put the good camera on the front. Nobody should be using the rear facing camera in most situations, but you want good low-light performance in FaceTime and Skype. If they could figure out how to center the camera in the middle of the screen through some optics magic, that would be incredible.

    Front facing speakers....

    Most of this boils down to just making the thing something I don't feel like I need to jailbreak. It's hard to improve a device that is almost perfect.
    Reply
  • dmunsie - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    "Location Spoofing. Let us set location services to lie to apps temporarily. This is useful for a variety of reasons ranging from development to privacy."

    Developers can already do this, so what you are really asking is for privacy reasons. And in that case, Apple allows users to turn off location services on a per app basis already. I can tell you already that Apple is not going to allow users to spoof location data to any apps -- either you give an app accurate location data or no location data. Anything else puts their relationships with developers at risk -- for example, MLB would almost certainly pull their app if users could say they were in a different location since they wouldn't be able to enforce the blackout rules (I personally hate the blackout rules, but since they are legal agreements, MLB has to abide by them).
    Reply
  • tigmd99 - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    NFC? Dude, get updated! NFC (and Google Wallet) is a dying technology!!

    iBeacon and AirDrop are killing NFC.
    Reply
  • algalli - Wednesday, October 30, 2013 - link

    NFC is a dead issue. Most people have IBeacon which should be far more useful to stores and customers than NFC was ever intended to be. It is innovative if not yet widely recognized. Reply

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