iCan’t sync with iTunes; iCan’t sync without iTunes…
OK, so that’s a horrible stretching of a song to cover a point, but it’s kind of the way I feel right now – torn between a rock and a hard place.
Some time ago now, I let you readers know that I’d won an iPad at the Black Hat security conference, and that I’d be trying it out to let you know what I thought.
First, let’s consider my usage case, and what I am comparing it against.
The iPad is, to my mind, a potential killer device for a few things I like to do:
- Watching movies and TV shows on the bus on my way to work
- Reading comics and books
- Using Twitter and Facebook to keep up with people around me
- Skype to my parents in England
- Surfing the web in places where my laptop is too bulky
In checking out these behaviours, I’m implicitly comparing them to not only my own Windows Phone 7, but also my wife’s Kindle Fire.
Movies and TV shows
In common with many people, I have a lengthy commute – at least 40 minutes each way of which is on a bus, so I can happily watch videos. My comparison device in this use case is my Windows Phone – an HTC HD7 (I’d link to it, but apparently it’s not being sold any more).
The iPad is bulkier, for certain, and I can hold my phone in one hand comfortably for some time. However, making up for this is the fact that the iPad is a larger display and therefore easier to see at a comfortable distance. But watching on the phone isn’t bad either.
Syncing to the iPad is accomplished through Apple’s piss-poor iTunes software (of which, more later), which seems to require that my videos be already in a suitable format for the iPad. Syncing to the HD7 requires the Zune software, which is configured by default to convert video and audio in the background without any further assistance from me.
Note that – Zune converts the videos to the right format automatically when necessary, the iTunes software simply shrugs its shoulders like a Frenchman and refuses to cope.
Because of this, I can sync to the HD7 from more sources, and more easily and automatically than to the iPad.
However, the winning step that the iPad has for me comes from a combination of its viewing size, and the fact that it can play the audio from my videos to my Bluetooth headset, something that the HD7 currently does not. I have to use a Bluetooth dongle on the HD7 to hear my videos – and that’s not right, when I already paid for a phone with Bluetooth support.
It’s worth noting, however, that because the iPad seems to pretend to be a phone, I can’t have the appropriate level of Bluetooth support, allowing incoming phone calls to pause my video and let me answer the phone.
So, a narrow win for the iPad there. But keep reading. [Add Bluetooth support for video watching, and the Windows Phone will easily surpass the iPad]
Reading comics and books
Killer app, no doubt – the size and colours make the iPad superior for reading comics. For other books, you can’t really beat a Kindle, because it’s the size and shape of a book. The iPad does seem to suffer in daylight as well, not that we get much of that around Seattle – but we clearly get enough for this to be a noticeable problem for me.
The Kindle Fire is a more subtle device than the iPad in this use as well, since it doesn’t take up as much space. The battery life, as well as the use of standard charging cables (read: I already have dozens of the things, as opposed to having to look for the one wonky, too short cable that came with the iPad) makes the convenience factor that much greater.
However, I’ve even read my comics on the Windows Phone. It’s not that bad a format, because the display is so high a resolution.
Winner: Kindle Fire. Of course, I would say that. But since the Fire has no Bluetooth audio, I can’t use it on the bus as comfortably for my videos.
Using Twitter and Facebook
The iPad is certainly convenient for this, with free Twitter and Facebook apps, as well as a web browser to use the online versions. The iPad’s desire to keep pushing text further and further to the right of the screen, in ever-decreasing strips of window, make it incredibly difficult to read some items.
In comparison, while the Windows Phone does have a free Twitter and Facebook app, and access to the web, it doesn’t actually need any of these, because there are the “Me” and “People” tiles, through which you can read notices from all your social media sources (Twitter, Facebook, Linked-In, MSN Messenger in my case). This gives a more natural, integrated feel to the communication, and it feels more like I’m sharing with my friends than I’m using this or that app.
Winner: Windows Phone, hands down. [But it would be nice to have Bluetooth keyboard support]
Skype to the UK
OK, the iPad wins hands-down on this one. There’s a Skype app in beta for the Windows Phone, but my HD7 has only a rear-facing camera, and the Fire of course doesn’t have one.
Winner: iPad (but only because I have a 1st-gen Windows Phone)
Surfing the web
The iPad has no Flash support – but then nor does the Windows Phone.
The iPad uses a webkit-based browser, which comes with a fresh batch of security flaws once a month (as does iTunes). The Windows Phone comes with Internet Explorer – but without the same set of flaws that get patched in your regular Windows update. I strongly believe that the Windows Phone gives me the most secure browsing of any device that I have. But it is a little hard to read.
Sounds like we have a clear winner, then?
I got the iPad for free, so I have to bear in mind that for most people, they pay $500 to have it. It’s not that much better than the Windows Phone. I got the Windows Phone for practically free – one cent on Amazon Wireless, with a two year commitment. But then I was going to get a phone anyway, and the two year commitment is common for phones.
As with every Apple product I have ever used, it seems like they skimped a little on the “fit and finish” of the software. This leads to small – but constant – irritations. There have been many times I’ve been tempted to throw it to the floor and stomp on it. So far, the iPad has survived largely because I know that if I want to get rid of it, there are numerous people who would happily take it from me. And then I settle down.
So, what are my irritations?
- User interface
There are some areas where it’s clear that the Apple design philosophy hasn’t been communicated well – even to writers of the native apps.
Delete an item
A clear example – how do you delete an item? In iBooks, you swipe to the right, which causes a delete button to appear. You press this button, and the item goes away. In Videos, you hold your finger on an item until a little “x” appears. You press the “x”, and are asked if you really want to delete the video. I guess videos are more important than books, that you have to be prompted.
I should say that this is how videos are supposed to be deleted. What actually happens is that you hold your finger on a video for a while. The “x” fails to appear, because you wiggled your finger a little (really common on a bus). So you let your finger up, and the video opens up. So you close it down again, and hold your finger on the video again. Now the “x” appears – albeit sometimes in a different place than you expect. So you press it. Damn, missed, because the bus must have hit a bump, so the “x” goes away. Bring it back! Bring it back! Okay, here it is again, so I can press it finally. And then I get asked if I’m sure. Am I sure? Am I sure? I’ve only spent the last ten minutes trying to get the damn “x” up on screen and hit it – of course I’m sure! And I remind myself not to throw the iPad to the floor and stomp on it.
Yes, I know about the “Edit” button, and that shortcuts one part of the process, but makes it more likely that you’ll accidentally delete the wrong video, because it puts an “x” above each one.
[A short note – the “x” appears in one of two places – either immediately on the top left corner, or a good half-inch above that. I can see no logic in why it does this.]
In the Videos app, there are three kinds of video. “Movies”, “TV Shows”, and “iTunes U”. The “TV Shows” and “iTunes U” items all come from iTunes, so all the videos I put on my system end up in “Movies”, no matter what metadata I put on the file. Whereas I never metadata I didn’t like, iTunes clearly never metadata. For the iTunes U and TV Shows tabs, each item is listed with details – length, a title, and a description. This is great, although it would also be nice to see which ones I’m part-way through watching.
For the Movies tabs, however, there’s only two things showing – a thumbnail, which is the first frame of the movie (oh, and so often, that means it is plain black), and the curtailed title of the video. So, “Have I Got News for You: Series 42, Episode 5” is displayed as “Have I Got News for You:…” – as is every episode of every series of that show. Same thing for “The Sarah Jane Adventures…”, or “Who Do You Think You Are…” Yeah, the BBC could choose shorter titles, but the iPad could pay attention to the Subtitle field in the metadata for the episode information. Oh, yeah, that’s right, metadata is to be ignored.
And there’s no details on the video – no duration, no description, no indication of whether or not I’ve been watching this video file at all. I’d like to say “hey, this component of my bus ride is going to take another twenty-five minutes, so I’d like to watch something that length or shorter”.
Notifications – or scrubbing
When watching a video, you can ‘scrub’ through it by dragging a little slider at the top of the screen. Except when the slider is near the middle of the top of the screen, because then you’re going to actually be pulling down the notifications window. If anyone writing this software actually used an iPad, they’d be experiencing this frustration, and it would have been fixed by now.
Back, back, back – no, store!
To go backward in the user interface of an app, you click the button in the top left. Except that sometimes, the button in the top left takes you somewhere else, like the iTunes store.
Delete doesn’t actually free up space
You can delete videos all you like, bus joggling allowing, and when you’re done, your storage usage hasn’t gone down at all. There is no room for more videos. This one confused me for some time, until I remembered that you never actually close apps when you switch between them. The storage is released, not when you delete the movie, but when you close the app.
That would make sense, if you could actually undelete the movie while the videos app runs, but no. That doesn’t happen.
And on and on…
I could carry on, but I just get angrier and angrier. The difference between editing the list of apps you can run, versus editing the list of apps currently running, for instance. One is dismissed by a tap, the other requires that you hit the home button, and I can’t remember which one.
So, the first complaint I have about iTunes is the one I have made from the beginning – it includes way too much, and it screws up my system way too badly. What do you get when you install iTunes?
Well, first you get a file called “iTunes64Setup.exe”. This installs iTunes into “C:\Program Files (x86)” – uh, yeah, that means the “64 bit” version of iTunes is actually all 32-bit. Then it tells you:
What does iTunes have to do with Outlook? That’s crazy.
And then, what does it install? Only another four applications.
When syncing videos to the iPad with the Windows version of iTunes, they are synced with at least one default setting not correctly set.
That’d be fine if it was an unimportant setting, but no. The setting is “resume from where I left off”. That means that every time I switch videos, or close the video application (see previous discussion of why I need to do this to recover storage), the video I want to watch starts again from scratch.
There is a simple fix to this – for every video I upload to the iPad, I have to go into iTunes, select the video, right-click it, select “Get Info”, open the “Options” tab, uncheck the box that says “Remember Playback Position” (or if I selected multiple videos, set to “No” the drop-down arrow labeled “Remember Position”), hit “OK” (there is no “Apply”), wait for this action to sync to the iPad, then right-click the video(s) again, select “Get Info”, open the “Options” tab, and then recheck the box (or set the drop-down box to “Yes”), hit “OK” and sync once again.
For weeks I’ve been complaining that every USB device on my system has been unreliable – I have to plug and unplug simple USB flash drives a half dozen times before they finally get recognised in Explorer.
Then it finally dawned on me.
One device has been steadfastly reliable, always becoming active and ready to use within seconds of plugging it in. Yes, it’s the iPad.
Acting on this hunch, I removed iTunes, Apple Mobile Device Support, Apple Application Support, Apple Software Update, Bonjour, and even QuickTime (not sure how that got on there). Suddenly all my USB devices connect first time, every time. With the exception of the iPad, of course, which sulks if it doesn’t have iTunes (though the same charge can be leveled against my Windows Phone requiring Zune – although that hasn’t yet caused all my other USB devices to become unavailable).
Adding iTunes back in to the mix, strangely, has yet to reproduce the same unreliable behaviour. I strongly distrust software acting randomly.
If I could just drag my videos into a folder using Explorer without installing iTunes (since iTunes doesn’t actually properly do any of the other things that an intermediate program should do, such as converting video formats, extracting and using metadata, or setting the “resume from where you left off” option), I’d be happy without iTunes on my PC at all.
And other reasons…
There are other reasons not to like the iPad – it’s too trendy, for one; and it’s not really a $500 product. There are, as I point out above, too many areas where it’s clear that the developers have not finished the job.
I use the iPad simply because it’s free, and has a large display.
I’d far rather use a tablet that works in a more predictable and controlled manner, where the applications on the device and to sync the device have the flavour of being finished.
But I didn’t get one of those for free.
I got an iPad.
And I’m grateful.
Even if, once in a while, I want to dash it to the floor and stomp it into pieces.