Goodbye Three, Hello EE

A month ago I finally switched away from Three after a couple of years dealing with a number of issues with them. Mostly due to price and unlimited data I stuck by Three but at work I invariably would have limited data or no data connection at all.

The final straw was at the end of March when I couldn’t even make or receive calls at work. I’d leave the office and get a text saying I had a voice message. No missed call, no text or call at the time…hours after a call I’d get notified that I’d got a message. This wasn’t just one day and went on for a couple of weeks. As per the last couple of times I contacted Three’s engineers, no faults in the area and it must be my phone despite others in the office on Three having the same problems. I’d also call voicemail and get disconnected after 20 seconds – constantly. So frustrating.

So after waiting and getting 4G in Glasgow on Three it was time to move on and I went for EE as they had tweaked there prices to make it slightly more competitive and their speeds at my workplace were excellent. Monthly contract, 4GB of 4G data for £23. Unlimited everything else so not too bad.

The initial on boarding with EE was dreadful. I phoned up to see if there were any deals and got a price higher than the website. Mentioned the website price and was told to sign up there then. Charming. The signup on the website was awful. Multiple attempts to try and complete the form which kept resetting back to the start of the process. After 30 mins I’d finally got the application submitted to be told that I’d get a phone call from EE so they can check the order before it can be accepted – whats the point of that?

The phone call was quick and a couple of days later I had my new sim. 4G speeds in Glasgow are excellent and I’ve had no issues at all with connectivity over the last month.

4G speeds at work
4G speeds at work

One issue I did have was the initial transfer of the mobile number. It took three days instead of one and I kept getting text messages welcoming me to EE, then T-Mobile then finally to EE. Hey ho, it all worked in the end.

The last niggle was how much data would I use? The first month saw me use 3.2GB out of 4GB. So not too bad, under my limit although that included a week off work which saw me using less data as I was at home more.

One unexpected positive was a sharp increase in battery life. I’d typically come home from work with around 10-30% battery life and I’d put that down to iOS 7 and my usage of apps during the day. However the shift to EE has seen battery life of 40-70% when I get home. I’m assuming that the iPhone is wasting a lot of battery hunting for data while I was with Three that it isn’t now doing with EE.

So far, so good. Great 4G speeds, a reliable data connection, app’s are snappy on 4G compared to 3G and I can even make phone calls too. Bonus. I really do wish I’d moved from Three months ago but stubbornly I expected the issues to be resolved. They weren’t. If you are with a mobile company and having issues then change providers. Life’s too short.

iPhone 5

After months of rumour and a week of waiting I finally have the iPhone 5. Technically the sixth iPhone (and my 4th after the 3G, 3GS and 4) I decided against queuing up and this time pre-ordered online and waited patiently for UPS to deliver mine on Friday. While it was great for me the UPS guy didn’t share my enthusiasm as they had thousands to deliver on Friday. Interestingly Apple still had phones to sell on Saturday in Glasgow despite the long queues. Seems to be a lot more stock than in previous years. After a few days use here are my thoughts on the iPhone 5.


The all black iPhone 5
Despite all the screenshots and video reviews I was still surprised when I held the iPhone 5 for the first time. It is lighter than expected, much lighter. I’m not sure if thats due to it being slightly taller so the expectation is of a certain heaviness…but it even feels kind of empty when you hold it. It’s remarkable how thin and light these devices are getting.

The metal back should make the iPhone more durable and also helps to reduce weight. The iPhone 5 comes in white or black and I chose black as it’s far less distracting when looking at the screen. It’s also all black. Everywhere. No silver antenna around the edge – all black. The buttons are all black. The Apple logo and text on the back – black. I should really do a fifty shades of black joke right now. No?

Some have described the iPhone 5 as jewel like. This is mostly down to the chamfered edge which does prettify the phone and helps the feel in the hand but one downside is the many reports of nicks and scuffs that the black iPhone 5 is now prone too. I detest scrapes, scratches and marks on my gadgets so I will admit to being a bit nervous about damage over time. Looks like a case is a necessity as I do take care of the phone and I will be looking to sell on in a couple of years time. I’ve been burnt before with cases that also scrape (looking at you iPhone bumper!) so I’ve ordered a sleeve for the iPhone 5 until I can sort out a decent non marking case. Annoying as I hate covering up such a great design.

The move to a slightly taller phone and a 4 inch screen has made the iPhone 5 feel narrower. It is exactly the same width as the 4S and 4 but looks and feels narrower. The screen has moved from 3 1/2 inches to 4 inches but the phone has only grown by 8.6mm. Even writing that makes the change seem small but it’s a noticeable change from the 4. It still fits in the pocket and I’m pleased it’s not got wider. I can still use the phone one handed without having to constantly re-adjust how I hold it.

I’ve said all that without mentioning it’s thickness – just 7.6mm. Not the thinnest phone out there but not far off it. The thickness coupled with the slight increase in height and decrease in weight makes it feel a smaller phone. A smaller phone with a bigger display. Quite a feat.

186 pixels. Thats what the move from 3 1/3 to 4 inch has given the iPhone 5. It sounds a small change but it does benefit one area greatly – video. Finally iPhone users have 16×9 playback of video. It also offers developers a chance to re-imagine their apps to take advantage of the screen. Calendar now show’s a full week view, e-mail and messages show an extra row and most importantly you get an extra row of app’s in the home screen. Joke.

A whole extra row of apps

So the extra pixels will get most attention but the screen quality is much improved. Blacks are blacker. Colour is better. Certainly pops more than previous iPhones but not as vibrant as a couple of Android devices I’ve seen which appear over saturated to me. Going back to the blacks, when an app is running in letterbox mode as it’s not been updated to support the iPhone 5 I can’t tell where the screen stops and the facia starts. The blacks are that good. This is the main reason I’ve stayed away from white iPhones – the black facia disappears but the white one stands out.

A controversial change is the new Lightning connector which replaces the 30 pin dock connector that Apple have used for 9 years. The current connector is everywhere – stereo’s, battery packs, cars, hotels. It’s so pervasive that any change was bound to stoke anger.

New and Old – Lightning vs 30 pin dock connector

What I didn’t expect, even after seeing the new slot in the iPhone, was just how small the new Lightning connector is. It’s tiny! It’s like a lego version of the old connector. It’s obvious when you compare both as to why Apple had to change. It’s a painful and expensive upgrade for consumers though. A Lightning to 30 pin adaptor from Apple costs £25. A Lightning to USB cable costs £15. You get one of those cables with the iPhone but I’ll need another two. I’ll also still need the 30 pin cable for the iPad. Transitions like this are painful but necessary. It also makes me think that docks are a thing of the past and that a move to Bluetooth or Airplay for connecting to cars, speakers etc will be the way forward.

One other oddity – USB2. I’d have thought the Lightning cable would have at least made the jump to USB3 but it’s still USB2 only. Apple even made the joke in the keynote that they now have Thunderbolt and Lightning. Sync and charging speeds have improved though and no doubt we’ll see USB3 and Thunderbolt versions of the cable in the future.

The iPhone 5 is fast. Really fast. I’m moving from the iPhone 4 so it’s much more than a doubling of speed that I’m seeing (thats the improvement over the 4S). Across the board the iPhone 5 has been improved. App’s launch faster, wifi speeds have been improved, web browsing is super quick and if you are lucky enough to have LTE or 4G even wireless broadband speeds are excellent. The preliminary tests from Anandtech are showing the iPhone 5 is the quickest smartphone on the market by quite some margin. The video below shows the iPhone 5 (recorded via Reflection) browsing some web pages and launching a couple of apps. I don’t think the speed will get boring anytime soon.

3G or 4GEE
A surprise but welcome addition to the iPhone 5 was LTE aka 4G. This promises up to 100Mb down and 20Mb up, speeds which a lot of consumers in the UK would love for their home broadband connection. 4G in the UK will launch later this year from EE and it will support the iPhone 5. That left me with a choice – stick with O2, move to Orange in anticipation of EE or move to Three. 4G isn’t yet available and there are no details on the cost of the service apart from it will be more expensive than 3G or if there will be any data caps. Orange currently has data caps and while it will be limiting I can’t see EE offering an affordable but unlimited data plan.

As I wanted to move to iTunes Match and also use the iPhone for tethering moving to Three was the sensible option. As I don’t do that many calls I’ve moved to a low cost but unlimited data monthly plan from Three. If EE ends up offering a competitive service in the UK then I can easily switch. Speeds so far on Three have been excellent with download speeds consistently around 7Mb, uploads around 2Mb. One other point with Three is they support HD Voice with the iPhone 5. The call quality certainly seems to be better than with O2 using the iPhone 4.

Camera, Siri and Battery
The camera hasn’t changed much since the 4S but it does have better lowlight capability and it now supports panaroma’s. While many third party app’s have supported this for a while I’ve not seen one quite so well implemented.

Panorama from Glasgow University

The camera app guides you when panning so you don’t go too fast or slow and also directs you to follow a line when panning to give you the best results. I’ve been really pleased with the panorama’s I’ve taken so far. The shot above was from a sunny Glasgow University overlooking Glasgow. The quality when looking at the full size image is good – it only took a couple of seconds to produce that image as well. I’ve been impressed with other pictures I’ve taken and the speed of launching the camera app and taking a picture on the iPhone is fantastic.

This is my first phone with Siri (been using Siri on the iPad for a couple of months) and it’s working pretty well. Some words I say seem impossible for Siri to understand no matter how slow I say them but in most cases it works well. It’s a shame that third party app’s can’t tap into Siri as that would really make it a lot more powerful but for even just asking ‘what movies are playing’ and seeing all the movies in the local area with playtimes and links to reviews Siri gets a thumbs up from me.

Siri – what movies are playing today?

With all these improvements and a smaller size thankfully battery life is the same if not better than with the 4S. I’m getting around 36 hours out of a charge and that involves quite a lot of activity – streaming music from iTunes Match, gaming, browsing, e-mail, messages and watching video’s. After a few days I’m satisfied that battery life has improved although I would have traded the thinness for a bigger battery.

The new earbuds that Apple now box with iPhones, iPods etc are called EarPods and have taken three years of research and design to develop. They are an improvement over the old earbuds but that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Sound quality was ok but for me missing good bass that I have with my current earphones. The EarPods sit in the ear and don’t need pushing in so initially comfort seemed good but after an hour or so I found my left ear was getting uncomfortable. They also lacked volume for me compared to what I’m used to. So a nice upgrade but if you need to replace your current earphones I’d say there are better earbuds on the market for £25 and The Wirecutter has some great advice if your looking to upgrade your earphones.

Before I wrap this up, here’s my thoughts on iOS 6 which is the most incremental update so far. By far the most controversial change is Maps. Plus points for me are the better graphics and turn by turn navigation. The maps look better (colour and design) when compared to Google maps. They are also vector based so draw and render more quickly than the old bitmap tiles. Turn by turn has been reliable so far for me although the journeys have been fairly short and not the most complex. However it’s clear that the Maps app is serving up maps that are sparse, old and in many cases just wrong. Maps isn’t easy and Google has a many year, resource and data advantage over Apple. However Apple have been building this tool for three years so they don’t get a pass just because the app is new.

It’s a worse user experience and thats what disappoints. Over time the maps will get better. The amount of data that Apple will now be capturing is huge. I can’t see the gap to Google being met anytime soon but it’s clear that maps are a strategic asset for Google, Nokia, Microsoft and now Apple and Amazon. Each have or are developing their own mapping service. Apple’s will improve as money, resource, time and also feedback from users improve the service. I just hope Apple focus on getting the basics right rather than spending effort on gimmicks like Flyover.

Amongst the new features I like are Do Not Disturb. I can finally set a time when I won’t be disturbed by Notifications from games and app’s. Used to bug the hell out of me that I couldn’t set a quiet time. Updated Siri is really nice as are the tweaks to Safari. I like how iCloud Tabs work by sharing whats being browsed on each device rather than syncing the actual tabset. Far more useful than Chrome’s tab syncing. I also like the Facebook integration which works similarly to Twitters. My final notable improvement is on the phone app – you can easily send a call to voicemail, set reminders based on the call or send a quick message that you are busy. Handy.

It’s too early to tell how useful Passbook will be. This should integrate store cards, flight, hotel and cinema bookings into one app. Passbook will then present the appropriate card or ticket based on times and locations. It demo’d really well but in practice there is very little support right now.

Unfortunately it’s time for a couple of grumbles. First up – the status bar changes colour to try and match the currently running app. Who in their tiny little mind thought this was a good idea? It is a small change but to me interferes with the purpose of the status bar. I was used to the change in colour meaning something. Why did Apple spend time implementing this?

iOS 6 and it’s colour blending status bar

The colour change isn’t even consistent across Apple’s own app’s. Grumble grumble grumble.

I also hate the look of the music app and also the dialer on the phone. Very little consistency and it just feels a bit out of place. The phone app could have done a lot more to take advantage of the extra pixels but alas, they just made the top section bigger while slightly increasing the button size. Lame.

iOS 5 vs iOS 6 Keypad – new design is a step backwards

The keypad above shows that in iOS 6 they have kept the same button style at the bottom. Yet in Music, the style has changed. It’s those little details and lack of overall consistency thats becoming more and more frequent. The attention to detail given to the iPhone 5’s hardware is clearly lacking in iOS 6.

iOS 5 vs iOS 6 Music app – totally different look and now inconsistent buttons across iOS 6

iOS 6 feels like a missed opportunity. Why can’t I change the default app’s for Mail, Calendar and Browser? Widgets in the notification screen? Coupled with the Map issues and the lack of Passbook support it all feels a bit of a damp squid. There’s no major usability changes between iOS 5 and 6 and really no innovation thats makes the iPhone or iPad easier or better for it’s users. Disappointing.

The iPhone 5 is a triumph in design and specification. It looks great and in day to day use feels just right. The extra pixels are welcome and do make a real difference to applications. Apple rarely get involved in the performance race but everything points to this being the fastest phone on the market today by quite some margin. The speed of the iPhone 5 is for me the most impressive aspect. Web pages fly, app’s load really quickly and tasks like searching in Evernote or checking in on Foursquare are surprisingly rapid.

If anything it’s iOS that’s looking long in the tooth…even boring, not the iPhone. It’s reached a level of maturity as has the app ecosystem that there is little new here to excite users. Apple has proven in the past with the early death of the floppy disk, the DVD, the switch to Intel and now the move to Lightning that it doesn’t shy away from radical change but iOS is evolving at a slower pace than the hardware it supports. Maybe iOS and the hardware will take yearly turns at making major moves forward? Only time will tell.

I don’t see much if any revolution in the smartphone market but Apple has again produced an update to the iPhone that has produced one, if not the, best smartphone around today.