Ben Dodson

Freelance iOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV Developer

iPhone 2.1 Firmware Update Released - Fast? Stable? Fixed?

So the firmware that all iPhone users have been waiting for has finally arrived. Even before it's announcement at Apple's "Let's Rock" event, speculation was rife about what would be included. Many people wanted new features such as copy & paste and MMS support (it's never going to happen!) whereas others be-cried the fact that their beloved iPhone just didn't work that well due to app crashes, slow typing, and painfully long backups.

However, Steve Jobs finally announced that firmware 2.1 would be with us on Friday 12th September and would be a bug-fix only release. He claimed that the phone would be faster, backup time would be "dramatically reduced", would have a "decrease in call set-up failures and call drops", "faster installation of 3rd party applications", would fix a lot of app crashing bugs, and would have "improved performance in text messaging". There are 2 new features as far as I can see which are Genius playlist creation which came with iTunes 8 and a secure wipe of the phone in the event that the keypad lock is entered incorrectly too many times.

So does the update live up to all of the promises listed above? Well, yes it does on this occasion! The whole experience of using the phone is back to how it was with version 1.1.4 in that it's fast, responsive, and doesn't crash every few minutes. I'll go over a few of the key improvements i've seen from my own use over the last few days:

Application Installation / Crashes

I regularly install and uninstall apps on to my iPhone as I love trying out the latest new things to come along. However, in the past it would take an absolute age to install anything on the phone - in fact I gave up doing it via the App Store on the iPhone itself as that usually didn't work (or would take an hour or so by which point the battery was dead) and so had resorted to sideloading apps via iTunes. This still could take a good 10 minutes or so though which wasn't really acceptable. Once the apps were on, they would frequently crash or hang - several times I had to do a hard reset of the phone (hold the home button and power button down together for about 10 seconds). Amusingly, I only learnt about the hard reset after the 3rd time my iPhone crashed (screen wouldn't come on) and I thought the only way to fix it was to do a restore via iTunes.

Anyway, this is all water under the bridge now as I managed to get 26 applications installed via iTunes in less than 5 minutes and have installed several apps via the App Store on the iPhone itself in a couple of minutes. A vast improvement! Additionally, I haven't had a single app crash on me yet which is also much improved on previous performance. Apps seem to be quitting correctly and quickly as well. For instance, in the past if I closed down "Tap Tap Revenge" by pressing the home button, the app would disappear and the home screen would appear but the music would keep playing for another 5-10 seconds or so. Now it just quits as it should have done in the first place.

Location Services

I hadn't seen it reported widely but my location service was incredibly patchy. If I was in my house or at work, then pressing the "locate me" button would just lead to a little blue spinning circle which would never find me. I put this down to the iPhone 3G saying "I've got GPS - Use it even though it'll never work in this building" - there appeared to be no fallback to cell tower triangulation. This is fixed now though as within 2 seconds of pressing the button in my living room, I had been located to within 50m or so. GPS also seems to be a little faster outside but again it does a cell tower triangulation instantly before it even bothers with the GPS locater.

Now it just needs a decent turn-by-turn GPS app to make it really good - I managed to fake this the other day whilst I was lost in Manchester by loading up Google Maps and making it do directions from my current location to my destination. This all showed up fine and then I literally scrolled across the map as the little GPS dot moved. This worked absolutely fine but I couldn't help but think it would have worked a whole lot better if when the blue dot got near the edge of the screen then the map scrolled automatically!

SMS Typing

By far the most annoying bug was that after a little bit of use, going to type an SMS message became painfully slow. The keyboard just had a huge amount of lag for no reason! I eventually found a fix for this which was to quit the SMS app, then open it again and delete a character - it would then go back to full speed. No need for this now though as I've had no laggy text messages in the last few days!

iTunes Backup

Whether this is a fix in the firmware or for iTunes 8 I'm not sure but the iPhone now backs up in about 10 seconds. I have seen the same iPhone (with less apps and music) take an hour and a half to backup before now so this really is very impressive! I had previously disabled my backups by using the following command in Terminal (make sure iTunes is turned off)

defaults write com.apple.iTunes DeviceBackupsDisabled -bool true

This stops the iPhone doing a backup when it's connected to iTunes. However, I've now amended this to:

defaults write com.apple.iTunes DeviceBackupsDisabled -bool false

Now my backups are back up and running and are incredibly fast so I'll be leaving it on for the time being (although hopefully there won't be a need for a restore).

On a separate note, I'm again not sure if this is an iPhone 2.1 update or an iTunes 8 update but when you are looking at your iPhone through iTunes, it actually shows how much space is used up by Apps rather than sticking them under the category of Other. Very helpful!

Passcode Locking / Secure Wipe

Talking about doing backups leads me nicely into a new feature of iPhone 2.1 - the ability to have your iPhone wipe itself if someone enters in the passcode incorrectly more than 10 times. This in response to the controversy surrounding Apple when it turned out that you could bypass the passcode if you had a certain setting enabled. Now most people commented that no-one used the passcode and I agreed with them as I had never had it enabled before. However, now there is a secure wipe option, I have put it back on so that if someone steals my phone I know my data is safe. If they enter the code in wrong more than 10 times then my iPhone will just wipe itself similar to the Exchange Remote Wipe feature. My only bug bear with the process is that 10 times is a long time. I'd like to be able to change that number to 3 - I'm not going to enter it in wrong that many times (and if I do then my fast backup process as detailed above means I can restore it fairly quickly). One commentator said they'd like it changed so it wipes if you get it wrong the first time making each unlock a little like an episode of 24!

Genius Playlists

I haven't had much experience of this on my iPhone as I only have a small portion of my library loaded on to it, but it appears to work in the same way as genius within iTunes 8. The idea is that every time you sync, your library is sent up to the Apple Genius "cloud" where it is analysed and compared with other peoples libraries. it can then recommend you music in your library that goes with other music in your library leading to a nice playlist that blends together quite well. It's essentially the same as recommendations from last.fm but seems to work quite well. It should get better as more and more people use it as the cloud will have more data to analyse. The only improvement I can see to this (which is a long shot and won't ever happen) is if there was a way to get the tracks to mix into each other as you went between them in a playlist. I listen to a lot of dance music and it would be great if genius was clever enough to do a DJ style mix between them. There was an application on Dragons Den a few years ago that did that but I'm not sure what happened to it!

Summary

So the new firmware is a vast improvement and offers a few little extras as well such as secure wipe and Genius playlists. The other thing I've noticed is that the icons for the different networks you are on (e.g. GPRS, Edge, 3G) have been changed slightly - Why I don't know but they do look a little clearer!

If you don't have it already, then upgrade to both iPhone 2.1 and iTunes 8 - you'll be glad you did!

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