Frustrations with the iPhone, from an Apple admirer

I got my first “smart” phone, a BlackBerry Pearl, in 2007. I got it from for $0.00 with a 2-year AT&T contract. It was EDGE-only – no 3G – and certainly had a lot of problems, but I loved it. At some point the ball fell out of it and it became unusable. The iPhone 3G was out by that time and I ended up getting my wife an iPhone 3G for Mother’s Day in 2009 and one for myself a few weeks later. I pretty much fell in love with the iPhone, and my concern about the on-screen keyboard was negated by having a real web browser after suffering with Blackberry’s for so long. And 3G was an amazing step up from EDGE speeds.

My Blackberry Pearl in its final days
My Blackberry Pearl in its final days

One of the reasons I was reluctant to get an iPhone was my hatred of iTunes. iTunes is a bloated, huge, slow piece of junk. I know it has fans, mostly among people whose primary environment is Mac, and it certainly runs better there than on Windows. Prior to iOS 5, you had to connect your phone to your computer and back it up via iTunes periodically, and also had to connect via USB cable to copy movies or MP3s onto the device. This isn’t something I do that frequently, though, so it wasn’t a big deal, and as I said, the iPhone was so amazing that it was worth the pain. (And, with iOS 5 doing backups to iCloud I haven’t really had to touch iTunes much over the past year).

But the list of “cons” for the iPhone is still pretty long and the “pros” haven’t really grown at all. It’s always bothered me that the iPhone uses a proprietary data/charging cable, and with the iPhone 5 Apple doubled down on this idea by introducing the “Lightning” connector – with the added bonus of obsoleting all devices designed to work with previous generation iPods & iPhones, such as the Sony clock radio we have, or the 500 watt stereo that’s “made for iPhone.”

Another annoyance is that I can’t simply plug the phone in to any computer and have it show up as a hard drive and copy music files onto it – I must still use iTunes for that. Sure, I can do the actual transfer now via wifi rather than via the USB cable, but it still requires iTunes, and can only be done from my “main” computer – not either of my two other home computers or my work computer.

Videos are even worse, since they have to be in m4v format using a proprietary codec. A downloaded .avi will need to be converted to an Apple-compatible format, and that’s not trivial – or quick. To get a video onto my phone I need to

  1. Download it
  2. Transcode it to iPhone format (~20 minutes on my laptop for a 60 minute video),
  3. Copy it to the one computer that my phone is “bound” to via iTunes
  4. Copy the video to the phone.

There are other quirks with the OS that I find annoying, but lately it looks like Apple’s just been putting all its money on Siri as its killer feature. Personally I hate Siri and have disabled the feature on my phone – it didn’t work about ¾ of the time when I tried it and was more an obstacle than a convenience. It kept activating randomly when I’d hold up the phone to my face, so I disabled it and haven’t looked back. The Maps debacle in iOS 6 is common knowledge at this point, but thankfully I never upgraded to iOS 6, and at this point I don’t ever plan to, since the only new feature in it of any use to me is Do Not Disturb, which Apple didn’t even implement properly (see below).

I like my iPhone a lot, but there are some basic features I would like to see in it, many of which seem to be available in many Android devices already. Ars Technica recently posted an article on this subject and the realization that there are other people feeling these frustrations is what prompted me to write this.

Number 2 on their list, customizing “do not disturb,” seemed so unbelievably obvious that I can’t believe it wasn’t included as part of the feature in iOS 6 – you can schedule DND, but you can’t set different schedules per day? WTF? And the default weather app always shows it’s 73 degrees and Sunny? Why? Surely by now they could make that live-update. And why can’t the phone be smart enough to enable wifi only when I’m at home or at work, and disable it the rest of the time? Android can do that… iPhone has geofencing already, so there’s really no reason they couldn’t do it, they just choose not to. Disabling wifi on the iPhone is a 6-step procedure: Unlock phone, enter passcode, find settings app, open settings app, click “wifi”, move slider to “off.” Then repeat to turn it back on when you get home.

While I’m not crazy about the all-glass construction, the 4S is a nice piece of hardware, and for the most part it “just works.” Personally I’m not a big app user – I spend almost all my time using the built-in default apps. The things I do on my phone, in order of decreasing frequency, are email, web, Twitter, Facebook, phone, weather, music. But iPhone isn’t the only game in town anymore, and the Samsung Galaxy line of phones is looking very attractive, if for no other reason than I can stop looking for “discount” iPhone cables for $3 each from shady Hong Kong stores and just use standard USB cables. Since Apple decided that upgrading to an iPhone 5 would render my current $300+ worth of accessories worthless anyway, I don’t really have any incentive to stay with the iPhone platform. I mean, I’d like to, but I’m not seeing anything compelling coming down the pipe from Apple, and Samsung has hardware that’s arguably as nice (or nicer) and features like a removable battery, a micro SD card slot for added storage (without having to buy a completely different phone for $100 more…), and the aforementioned MicroUSB charger. Plus you can just mount the phone as a hard drive and drop your MP3 or video onto it and play most standard formats without any ridiculous transcoding – things I was able to do in like 2005 on a “personal media player” device. I haven’t seen any real improvements in iOS since 5.0, and as I said, Apple appears to be pushing Siri as the “killer app,” . One of the bullet-point features for iOS 6.1 is the ability to buy movie tickets through Siri. Yay…

I’m halfway through my 2-year contract with my current 4S so I have a while yet before I go phone shopping, but as it stands now Apple isn’t offering very much to keep me happy – the $30 “Lightning” cable bullshit is definitely a step in the wrong direction. But I mean, I have a couple episodes of Walking Dead on my computer. They’re .avis and I want to watch them on my morning train ride. I was looking at the Samsung Galaxy Player (which appears to be essentially a Galaxy phone without the phone functionality) but I don’t want to have to carry a second device just to watch videos. It’s really obnoxious on Apple’s part that they stick to their way of doing things despite how much it annoys people, but I guess that’s been the standard Apple complaint for over 20 years. Frankly I didn’t mind it with the iPhone as long as they had no real competition, but if there’s a better product at the same/comparable price then it seems foolish to stick with them.

Updated 2/12/2013: After I wrote this rant I started hunting down reviews of Android phones to see which are the best. I found this great review of the Nexus 4 on Anandtech. It wasn’t really a comparison with the iPhone 5, but taking a look at the benchmark results on that page, it’s pretty clear that the iPhone 5 is the best-performing phone on the market, especially for the things I use most (e.g. browser):

Anandtech Nexus 4 Benchmark

This has tempered my anger with the iPhone 5, but not made the decision any easier. I was hoping newer Android phones would be the clear winner on the hardware front but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Another important factor seems to be the quality of Samsung & LG phones’ screens, which judging by the video reviews I’ve checked on YouTube, are pretty inferior to iPhone’s – much more variation in color, with yellower whites.
Plus, the Nexus 4 basically only runs on T-Mobile in the US, and I don’t have any interest switching to T-Mobile. And, icing on the cake, the Nexus 4 has no SD card slot. So rather than making the decision easier, research has made it harder, because it appears that Android phones’ hardware is still not on par with iPhone’s. Or maybe the performance issues are software-based, but if the Nexus 4 is Google’s latest flagship device I’d expect it to be running a fully tuned & tweaked OS. So if the best they can do is nowhere near iPhone’s current baseline, that’s pretty sad.

Tall Ships – Greenport, NY – May 26, 2012

We decided to go to the Tall Ships festival in Greenport a couple of weeks ago, and I found a deal the LIRR was running where the cost of a round-trip train ticket & admission to the ships cost $10.50, whereas buying the admission ticket alone cost around $15. Plus, this way we could park in Riverhead and not have to worry about parking in Greenport during a fair. Seemed like a great idea.

We boarded the train in Riverhead at 12:15. It was double-decker train with 2 cars and a diesel engine at either end. From Riverhead, the stops are Mattituck, Southold, Greenport. The trip is about 23 miles and was supposed to take about 40 minutes. We pulled out of Southold station doing about 1 mile per hour. This is not an exaggeration; the conductor was walking alongside the train faster than we were moving. This was rather tedious. After a couple of minutes of this, we came to a dead stop, and sat there for several more minutes. Then we started moving again – backwards.

Apparently we were being shunted onto a piece of side track, pictured below:

We then sat on this piece of side track at a dead stop for about 45 minutes. When someone finally advised us what was going on, we were told that, basically, the LIRR had screwed up. Our train had 2 cars, but there was already a train at Greenport with 5 cars. There’s only a single track between Southold and Greenport, and the 5-car train was too long to let us platform at Greenport, so we had to sit on the side track waiting for the other train to come back west. For whatever reason, it was late leaving Greenport and so we were stuck. At least we had air conditioning. However, the train that was supposed to get to Greenport at 12:55 actually pulled in around 2:45, so we missed a big chunk of the Tall Ships (the last train back left Greenport at 6:11, and that one left on the dot).

As we left the train we ran into the engineer, and I said to him, “well that was fun!” and he said, “we told ’em it wasn’t going to work, but they never listen to us…”

Oh well.

Compellent “future proof?” Not so much.

So, I’ve written about Compellent a few times from a price perspective, mostly on the disk side. I was recently contacted by our vendor with quotes for two new Compellent controllers. “What’s this all about?” I asked. “Why don’t we have a call with Compellent to discuss?” he replied. I rolled my eyes a little but figured it was worth hearing them out, since our Compellent SAN is at the heart of our infrastructure.

We currently have two controllers setup in failover mode. The first was bought in 2008 and the other in 2010 to add redundancy. Earlier this year we upgraded to the latest software version in preparation for moving our production DB onto the SAN, to allow us a nice window before we had to perform another upgrade (which would now risk DB downtime… I like failover but I don’t trust it enough to have a DB up during a failover), so I was kind of skeptical about any sort of upgrade to begin with.

On the call, the Compellent reps explained that they’ve dropped Fibre Channel connectivity between the controller and the disk enclosure, and the purpose of the upgrade is to give us SAS. In addition, they no longer sell SATA (!). I asked why we couldn’t simply add SAS cards to our existing controllers and was told that our current controllers are PCI-X, so can only support up to 3Gb/s SAS, while the new controllers have PCI-e and support 6Gb/s. And they want to ensure that we have the best possible performance. Pretty sure someone said the new controllers “have the future built in” to them.

One of the features we really liked about Compellent from the beginning was the fact that it was basically a software solution on top of commodity hardware. They stressed this point repeatedly. “When new technology comes out, we can just add a new card into your existing controller.” I think the example at the time was 10-gig Ethernet, but it seems like the same logic would apply to SAS. I understand that PCI-X doesn’t support 6Gb/s SAS, but it’s a tough pill to swallow that if we want to expand our SAN at all now, on top of whatever the actual expansion costs, we’re going to need to plunk down some serious money to upgrade the controllers, which really seems like a net-zero for us. We’re not going to ditch our existing FC enclosures so we’re going to be limited to 4Gb/s anyway. If they’re only selling SAS, well, that sucks for us, but ok. But why can’t we just throw a $500 PCI-X 3Gb/s card in to expand? So we’re not running at peak performance. I doubt that would be our performance bottleneck anyway. Plus, swapping out controllers is a huge operation for us.

I know at some point we’re going to have to bite the bullet and do this upgrade, but it just irks me. On the bright side, I guess, we don’t have to do a “forklift upgrade,” and the disks/enclosures will all still work. But we have a long way to grow before we need to expand, so fortunately I can put this off for a while.

Verizon stood me up

Several weeks ago, I scheduled the FiOS install for 5/14/2011 and they said it would be between 8am and 5pm. I got confirmation emails (welcome to FiOS) and a confirmation call on 5/12. I waited all day yesterday for Verizon to show, and they never did. I called at 11:58 AM and gave my order number to see if they could tell me roughly what time the tech would be here, since I didn’t want to sit around all day if the tech wouldn’t be there until 4 PM. They couldn’t. They said we were still scheduled for today, between 8 and 5. I asked if they could call the tech scheduled to do the installation and see when he thought he’d get here and I was told they couldn’t.

At 5:45 we called Verizon to find out what happened, why the tech didn’t show, since we’d waited around the house all day. They told us the order had been put on hold 2 days before because Cablevision wouldn’t release our phone number. I understand things happen, but not calling to let me know, and then giving me incorrect info when I called, is inexcusable. The Verizon rep we spoke to afterwards wasn’t even apologetic. Disappointing.

I’m pissed.

Learned something today that pissed me off. Makes me wish I had an anonymous blog so I could actually bitch about it.

I'm pissed.

Learned something today that pissed me off. Makes me wish I had an anonymous blog so I could actually bitch about it.

One reason I hate iTunes.

I’ve always hated iTunes. It’s a huge pile of bloatware and it’s slow as poo. It’s like 100 mb or more for an mp3 player. I remember winamp playing mp3s when it was a 500k download. Anyway.

I keep all my music on a Linux machine running samba. This way it’s available to every machine in the house. When I had Winamp on all my machines this was wonderful. But now that I’m forced into iTunes (thanks to having an iPhone), it turns out to be a major pain. In iTunes I unchecked the box for “let iTunes keep my libary organized” to prevent it from copying the entire library to each computer’s local disk. Initially adding my library of ~4000 tracks to iTunes takes over an hour (100 mbit wire) – it would take about 5 minutes in Winamp, even reading the ID3 tags for each track as it was added (rather than lazily as the song was played).

But the thing that iTunes does that is so annoying it prompted me to write this whiny rant is:

iTunes "Song Not Found"
iTunes 'Song Not Found'

If, for some reason, my M: drive (where the Samba share is mapped) is not connected when iTunes starts, every song in the library gets this “!” exclamation point of doom. If I attempt to play any of these tracks, I am given the option to locate the file. Nice in theory, but locating all 4000 tracks isn’t realistic. If I quit iTunes, reconnect the M: drive, and reopen iTunes, the ! persists. The only solution I’ve found to this is deleting the entire library from iTunes and re-adding it, which as I said, takes an extremely long time.

I have other reasons for hating iTunes, this is a blog, not a book.

A less insidious way to use Facebook?

I deactivated my Facebook account a couple of months ago. I just kind of got tired of seeing silly updates from friends and “friends” – people I’d friended but wasn’t really friends with. I was also frustrated by the privacy implications of using such a service: you tell it about yourself, you tell it about who you know and how you know them, you keep adding more information about you and your friends to its huge brain that it’s free to use or abuse however it wants.

I don’t know if I’m anti-“Social” or just antisocial but most of the info streaming into my Facebook feed was just not interesting to me. I could have hidden those people, but then it seemed like it would make more sense simply to remove the connection to them, if I didn’t want to see their updates. I actually went through my list of connections and started removing people – people I knew from high school and hadn’t spoke to since then until they added me on Facebook, and then continued not talking to them, and other people who I knew but didn’t really interact with, online or offline. I didn’t really care about what they had to say and it occurred to me that they didn’t care what I had to say. Why did we friend even each other in the first place? Well, the friend suggester (suggestor?) makes it easy to friend people who are only tangentially related, since its whole purpose is to find new people for you to add.

I remember there was one person from school whom I hadn’t spoken to since probably 4th grade. This person attempted to friend me 5 times on FB (Soandso wants to be your friend…) and each time I clicked “Ignore,” but on the 6th time I finally relented. After 2 weeks of inane updates I unfriended the person. Within a month I was getting requests to refriend. Why? I don’t know you, you don’t know me, what’s to be gained by us pretending to be e-friends?

So I had some fundamental problems with Facebook. In addition to the friending of barely-friends, the feeding of so much information into the Facebook brain was starting to bother me. This is pretty similar to my worries about Google’s reach; basically every bit of information you post to Facebook to share with “friends” is also being added to Facebook’s marketing profile about you and your friends. The more you use the service, the more they know about you. And all those “Like” buttons all over the internet – a way for you to inform your Facebook friends that you like a blog post or news story – those are just a way for Facebook to know what sites you’re visiting. Whether you click the “like” button or not, your browser is loading the button of their servers, which means Facebook is reading your cookie and knows that YOU visited the page. This annoyed me so much that I edited my /etc/hosts file to redirect to (my own computer) where I’m running Apache, so the Like buttons just render as 404 errors now:

But I’m fine with that. I’ve also set my browser to reject all cookies from * I realize this is just a drop in the ocean of data for Facebook, but screw them. Even with my account disabled they were collecting data about me, and that just pissed me off. But much like Google, Facebook’s tracking ability transcends browsers and computers, since in order to use their service you need to log in, and thus your movements around the internet can be tracked regardless of which computer or device you’re using.

Facebook wasn’t a completely worthless service for me. I found the photo album feature very useful. It was a great way to upload pictures and share them instantly with whomever wanted to see them. In my case this was usually my family plus a few friends. I doubt anything will top Facebook for this because these people are already on Facebook, and for something to come along that’s better at this than Facebook, these people would need to move to the new platform, which as of today doesn’t seem likely.

Photo sharing is the one thing I miss. I haven’t stopped taking pictures but it’s a much clumsier process now to share them with people. I put them in an album in Picasa, upload it to PicasaWeb, set the permissions on the album, send out the invitations. The recipients then have to click on a private link to get to the pictures, and if they want to see them again in the future, they need to dig through their inbox to find the link and click on it again. Not everybody uses Gmail, and even for those who do, this is just a clunky process. With Facebook albums, if the album is shared with someone, all they have to do is click on me and then click on my list of albums to see the pictures. Easy. I’m considering returning to Facebook just to get the photo album back.

So I was thinking that if I could restrict myself to using only the Facebook iPhone app, I’d still be able to take the occasional picture with the phone, upload it for people to see, and not fall prey to the tracking cookie problems I described above, since (I’m assuming) the Facebook app and Safari don’t share data. At least, not yet.

That idea prompted me to write this post in the first place, but as I’ve been writing it it occurred to me that it’s not really a workable plan. If I’m using it I’ll eventually feel the need to login via browser, meaning I’ll have to tear down all the walls I’ve erected – the hosts file entry, the cookie blocking – and I’ll be right back where I was, feeding them all my info and letting them track me everywhere I go. So I guess it’s going to come down to a question of whether or not the costs outweigh the benefits, as it always does.

Unless I can just write a browser plugin to strip the “Like” button from non-Facebook websites. Maybe AdBlock can do this. Hmm… The dog woke me up early today and everyone else is asleep still, and this all sounded a lot better in my head before I started writing it down.