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Tech review: iPad Pro 10.5 edition

Anna's iPad Pro

Anna’s iPad Pro

Every new January for me means the coming of my birthday! This year, since I got a nice yearly bonus from the day job, I treated myself to a birthday present: a new iPad Pro. Today on Here Be Magic, the group blog I participate in, I’ve got a post up about what it’s like to use this device to write on. Here on my own site, I’d like to expand on that somewhat and talk about what I like about this device so far, and why I decided to get it.

Long post is long! The rest is behind the cut.

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Heads up, fellow owners of i-Things: UPDATE YOUR DEVICES NOW

iOS 9.3.5 has just been released, and it’s a very important security update. Important enough that it made the news–because it’s fixing newly discovered security flaws that had the potential to give a remote attacker pretty much complete control of your phone. So jump on this ASAP and get your devices updated, mmkay?

The BBC has covered the story here:

Apple tackles iPhone one-tap spyware flaws

(If you own an older device that’s running an older version of iOS, better check and see if a similar update has been released for your version, too. If your device is capable of updating to iOS 9, you might want to put serious consideration into doing so. If it’s not capable of updating to iOS 9 and Apple hasn’t yet released a security patch to your version, go get on them about that.)


Initial impressions of iOS 8

I installed iOS 8 on both of my iThings this week, so here’s a quick roundup of things I’ve noticed so far. In general, iOS 8 looks a LOT like iOS 7, and the stuff that interests me the most won’t really kick into play until Yosemite drops and I can update my Mac. But that said, there are some points of interest.

The Good:

The new Health app has a tab in it where you can fill in medical data about yourself that might be critical in an emergency–allergies, important conditions of note, meds you’re on, that kind of thing. This strikes me as super-helpful, and certainly in both my and Dara’s case, there are important things that medical personnel might need to know if we’re in an emergency situation. This data is accessible from the phone’s emergency screen, the same screen from which you can dial 911. Excellent idea, Apple.

I am pleased to note that not only have the recurring Smart Playlists bugs that have plagued me through the last several iOS releases not returned this time, but a few other bugs new to iOS 7 appear to have been fixed as well. Notably, I’m not seeing weirdly missing album art anymore. And I don’t have to restart the Music app after syncing now to un-stick the Not Recently Played smartlist as I play stuff on it. AND, they fixed the bug where my Not Recently Played playlist wasn’t showing me brand new stuff. So now that playlist is behaving like I originally expected it to. Good.

Playlists in the Music app are now showing a count of songs and a run time in minutes. This is helpful to have, particularly for my smart playlists like Not Recently Played, where I can see at a glance how big the playlist currently is.

The bug with setting wallpapers appears to have been fixed–this bug being the one wherein you were unable to actually zoom a photo to the size you wanted when setting a wallpaper. This was annoying and I’m glad it’s fixed. Let’s hope it stays that way as this rev of the OS gets minor updates.

On my iPhone, battery life seems like it’s better. I haven’t burned through the battery nearly as fast the last couple of days, even if I play music through a good chunk of the day.

The Not Bad Per Se But Not of Interest to Me:

Two things got added that I immediately turned off when I discovered them.

One is predictive text, where they show you example possible words in a bar above the keyboard as you type to try to anticipate what you’re actually about to say. I found this visually distracting. Fortunately it was easy to turn off in Settings > General > Keyboards > Predictive.

The other is that in the app switcher that they put in with iOS 7, when you double-tap the Home button, they’ve added a list of your recently accessed Contacts. I found this visually distracting as well, and turned that off too. You can find the setting in Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars > Show in App Switcher.

The Bad:

I’ve had apps hang unexpectedly a couple of times since the upgrade, requiring me to kill them in the App Switcher. This isn’t happening often, but it IS new behavior, and it’ll be something I’ll have to keep an eye on. The apps I’ve noticed this on so far have been Plants Vs. Zombies 2 and Friendly+, my Facebook app. I don’t know if this is a fault of the OS or of the apps not quite having been updated correctly for the new OS, though.

The Stuff I’m Still Investigating:

Apple’s handling of podcasts has been a mess in the last couple of revs of iOS, ever since they split podcasts out of the main Music app and off into their own Podcasts app. I’ve had recurring issues with certain podcasts duplicating themselves in my listing, and podcasts I’ve listened to still showing up in my list even though they’re supposed to have been deleted.

Still investigating whether handling of this has improved. A new version of the Podcasts app just dropped last night.

The Stuff I Will Play With More When Yosemite Drops:

You’re supposed to be able to share files across iCloud now, and have an accessible drive to put them on, similar to Dropbox, Google, OneDrive, and other such services. It’s about damn time Apple implemented that, and I’ll look forward to checking it out–since it’ll make Pages finally actually useful to me. Pages doesn’t talk to Dropbox, which has been a source of frustration to me.

Continuity will be interesting as well–the ability to answer messages across devices, such as answering a phone call on the Mac. Or starting a mail on the phone and picking it up again on the computer when I get home.

Should You Install It?:

If you have a recent device like an iPhone 5 or one of the newer iPads, yes, go for it. So far this seems like it’s a better than average iOS update.

However, if you have an iPhone 4S, you should read this. According to that article, the 4S suffers noticeable performance hits with iOS 8 on it.


Overall impressions of iOS 7

I had my doubts about iOS 7 when I first started seeing the screenshots for it, but I did go ahead and take the plunge and install it on both of my iThings this past week: my iPhone 5, and my iPad 2. And on the whole, I gotta admit, it grew on me pretty quickly.


First, the things I like.

Once I got used to the new design, I really appreciated that it’s less cluttered. I didn’t like the various screenshots I was seeing of super-bright, super-flat backgrounds with all the candy-colored icons in front of them. But once I set the devices up and chose some of the darker, less gaudy backgrounds, everything looked fine. (Pro tip: the white text labels on the various icons are a lot easier to read if you do in fact choose a darker background.)

I also like how a lot more of the UI is oriented around text now rather than inexplicable buttons. (Although I also am cognizant of the localization challenge, there!)

Definitely liking that I’m finally able to stuff several of the icons for standard iOS apps I never use (e.g., Stocks, FaceTime, Newsstand, and such) into a folder so I can just forget about ’em, and clean up some real estate space on my home screen. Also finally able to put more than twelve icons into one folder. YAY! This is helpful for my folders for games. And I do like the pagination of said folders, though this’ll mean I gotta remember to move the more important icons in a folder forward so I don’t forget about ’em.)

Quebecois Guitarists are an Important UI Element

Quebecois Guitarists are an Important UI Element

The new layout of the lock screen, particularly on a device with a Retina screen like my iPhone 5, is nice–but it meant that the previous pic I was using of myself and Eric Beaudry of De Temps Antan was suddenly unacceptably fuzzy. OH DARN, I said, WHATEVER SHALL I DO IF ONLY I HAD A CACHE OF SUITABLE ALTERNATE HIGH RES PICS oh wait I DO.

And now, the things I don’t like:

Not a fan of the animations of swooping in and out when you unlock the device or when you’re switching back to the home screen. It actually makes me a little motion sick on my phone, though it’s not as bad on the iPad–possibly because there’s more screen to play with, I dunno. After a few days of having the OS on my devices, as I suspected, I am getting accustomed to the motion of app switching. Still though, given my druthers, I’d turn that off.

Also don’t like that the “Reduce motion” setting, buried under Accessibility, does not in fact reduce the animations. There’s no way to turn those off, as near as I can tell. That said, I did in fact turn that setting on because I’m also not a fan of the parallax of the backgrounds. See previous commentary re: don’t really need my phone making me motion sick, mmkay?

ETA: OH YES, I forgot to mention another thing about the parallax–apparently if you have parallax on, it impacts how you can center whatever photos you may be using on your lock screen. I noticed this on my iPad, where I’m using a photo I took of my signed Le Vent du Nord poster as my lock screen photo, and the centering of it went off once iOS 7 was installed. This problem went away once I turned on “Reduce motion”.

You can find this setting under Settings > General > Accessibility > Reduce Motion.


And now that I’ve talked about what the OS looks like, here’s what I like about what it does.

I’m really digging the new task switcher. It’s a lot more elegant, and it’s super-easy to get rid of a task just by swiping upward on it.

The new “Today” screen is very nice. Its arrangement is intuitive and the info it shows is useful, particularly the new layout of notifications.

I haven’t had a reason to find the new control center useful yet, but I’m suspecting I will. Particularly the next time Dara and I go to Canada, at which point quick access to turning wifi off and on will be nice.

They actually didn’t break my Not Recently Played playlist this time. Well done there, Apple. I’ve complained before about this–though to be fair, when they’ve broken this before, it’s seemed like it’s always been variants of the same bug, i.e., if you try to use a “Limit” criteria on a playlist. My “Not Recently Played” playlist was previously trying to limit to 200 or 300 songs depending on how long I felt like making it. And since I turned off that criterion on the list some time ago, I honestly don’t know if the bug with it is still in there.

So far the things I don’t like are few. I’m vaguely miffed that they moved podcasts out of the Music app and off into their own thing. Presumably to free up real estate for iTunes Radio, about which I give exactly zero damns since I never use Pandora or Spotify–if I like music, I’m just going to buy it, and if I’ve bought it, chances are it’s already on my phone anyway.

And, while they haven’t managed to break my Not Recently Played smart playlist this time around as has happened on previous major revs of the OS, I did notice that there’s a visual bug involving showing the wrong album art for several of my smart playlists in general.

My personal jury is still out on whether they’ve managed to make the Maps app suck less. I did give it a test run to see how well it’d handle live walking directions, on a walk that took me about an hour. I did follow its directions successfully, but I also noticed lag time several times in how fast the phone caught up with my position along the route. More than once it gave me a spoken direction after I’d actually passed the spot in question.

Other Stuff

Plantes contre Zombies

Plantes contre Zombies

And file this under category “never tried this in a prior version of the OS, but discovered it playing around with iOS 7 and thought it was cool”–just to see what would happen, I changed my phone’s language setting to French, and quite liked that you could do that on the fly. But what tickled me even more was seeing that both versions of Plants Vs. Zombies actually dynamically changed over to French, too!

What ultimately sold me on installing the OS on my devices were a couple of in-depth reviews, here and here–but also, just hearing from Dara and Paul that they were having positive reactions to it installing it on their devices at home. If you’re thinking about going for it, do go ahead and read the reviews first, so you can get an informed idea of what you’re signing up for.

Also, two other things I’ll mention that you’ll want to keep an eye out for. One is that there’s a potential vulnerability with the aforementioned lock screen, described here. I was able to reproduce the behavior it describes, though it does require you to be very quick to make it happen. On the other hand, I also noticed that I could not actually get to any applications in my task switcher which were not themselves accessible by the control panel. For example, I couldn’t get to either my Facebook app OR Echofon (the app I use for Twitter). So be on the lookout for this, be cognizant of what apps you’re running, and if you’re feeling paranoid about this particular thing, you might consider disabling the control panel.

The second thing I’ll mention is that if you’re concerned about privacy settings, go read this article about the various things you’ll want to make sure are OFF. In particular, eh, no, Apple, you really don’t need to know what places I commonly go to in my life.

TL;DR version

On the whole, I’m considering this a win, and certainly a less painful transition than going from iOS 5 to iOS 6 was. On the other hand, I’ve also got a reasonably new phone, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to install this on an older one. My iPad 2 does appear to be handling it well, though.

Drop me your thoughts in the comments on how the upgrade’s working for you!


Plants Vs. Zombies 2: An almost complete review

Finally did grab Plants Vs. Zombies 2 for my iPad 2, and I’ve been playing the hell out of it, pretty much as expected. I was a little dubious going on, since this is a Free to Play game and the whole Free to Play concept does make me sort of make this face: o.O

That said, PopCap was swearing up and down that you’re supposed to be able to complete the game without having to make any purchases. So far, I can attest that this seems to be the case. As of this writing, I’ve completed the three main levels but haven’t unlocked the boss level yet.

So what then is different about playing this game vs. playing the original?

The Free to Play experience is a big one. You will find that a lot of the familiar plants you got for free on leveling up in the original game are now plants that you have to unlock. And by ‘unlock’, I mean, you can either buy them immediately to get them, or else you can play through to the point in the game to which you get to unlock them for free. I found this only slightly annoying–I DO love that Squash that whomps on zombies, I do love it so–and have so far been generally pleased at the pacing of when you get what plants.

Some familiar plants from the first game behave slightly differently than their first game versions, too, so keep an eye out for that. For example, the twin sunflower is no longer an upgrade to the standard sunflower–it’s its own plant. So you can’t plant it on top of a single sunflower.

There are also plenty of new plants, several of which are highly entertaining. I like the Snapdragon that spits fire a LOT, as well as the Lightning Reed.

And, of course, this game in theory has an actual plot (above and beyond OHNOEZ ZOMBIES ARE INVADING YOUR LAWN, that is). You’ve been recruited to come with Crazy Dave from the first game on a time travel jaunt to try to locate his missing taco, so he can eat it again! Because of COURSE Dave has a time machine, and of COURSE the whole point of this is to find his taco. It’s really rather adorable. Now how you get from this to zombies in Ancient Egypt, the Pirate Seas, and the Wild West, you got me! But who cares? They’re ZOMBIES and if you played the first game, you absolutely know what to do.

Be on the lookout for zombies with new attacks, too, based on whatever world you’re in at the moment. Ancient Egypt has Pharaoh zombies that can steal your sun, Anubis zombies that can generate new gravestones, archaeologist zombies with torches that can set your plants on fire, and zombies in sarcophagi which are real hard to take down. Over in Pirate Seas, you’ll find the zombies keep saying “BRAINS AHOY”, which totally made me giggle. And be on the lookout there for zombies carried by parrots who can fly over your plants, and the tiny zombie you may remember from the first game as being carried by the Gargantuars now being shot out of cannons. And in the Wild West, I’m deeply charmed by the Saloon Piano Player zombie, who, once he starts tinkling the ivories, gets all the zombies currently on the screen dancing. Also, two words: ZOMBIE CHICKENS.

Music-wise, many of the gameplay themes are familiar, yet with amusing variations and new instruments depending on which world you’re in. Listen for the squeezebox in Pirate Seas and the banjo in Wild West.

They’ve tweaked Crazy Dave’s appearance a bit, as well as the appearance of pretty much all of the plants, yet everything still looks generally familiar. And I like as well that once you finish playing a level proper, you can keep doing side branches of it with interesting puzzles in order to pick up more stars and keys to unlock yet more stuff.

Also: as near as I can tell the whole front-facing camera thing does indeed ONLY come into play if you want to add a photo to your player profile on game startup. Which I didn’t even bother to use. I just tried the UI just to see what it would do, and it gave me a message saying that the photo would only be saved to “this device”–which makes me think this feature is entirely unnecessary. For my money, they should have left it out in order to make the game available to generation 1 iPads as well.

On the whole though this game is definitely entertaining, and while the sheer fact that I’ve seen these game mechanics before does diminish the freshness a bit, nonetheless all the new additions are delightful. Especially the zombie chickens. Here’s hoping the game will be deployed out to other platforms and that a version will deploy to desktops, in particular. I totally want this thing on my Mac, and I want to give them money for their work!

Music, News

Tonight has really required music

You can’t be on the Internet tonight and not be aware that Steve Jobs has died. That hit me bleakly–less because I’m a user of Apple products (Macbook and iPhone and iPad, yo), and more just because I’m a cancer survivor. And even though I didn’t know Mr. Jobs as a human being, his work nonetheless has had a formative effect on my life the last several years. I cannot help but feel for the loss of someone who’s touched my life like that.

I played “Da Slockit Light” for him tonight–by reading the sheet music for it out of the TunePal app on my iPad, which has become a critical tool for my session practice.

And after I did that, I fired up Le Vent du Nord’s “Lanlaire” on my iPhone, and listened hard via the earbuds to try to pick out the first few measures of Olivier Demers’ fiddle solo. Because, again, music, and music delivered to me on a device that wouldn’t have existed–certainly not in its current known forms, anyway–without Steve Jobs.

And I’ve raised a glass to him tonight: Ardbeg, mixed with Blenheim spicy ginger ale.

RIP, Mr. Jobs. Thanks for all you did, sir.

About Me, Writing

Fellow writers who own iPads, represent!

Those of you who follow my personal blog know that my partner userinfosolarbird and I are getting shiny, shiny iPad 2’s!

One of the things I’m thinking of doing with mine is seeing if I can write effectively on it. So if you’re a writer and an iPad owner (first OR second generation model), I’m very interested in hearing about whether you find them effective writing devices! If so, what apps do you use? I’ve kind of liked Documents To Go on my iPhone and I plan to see how well I can use it on the iPad, but I’m open to other suggestions as well!