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  • iOS 7.1: Don’t Expect Miracles

    March 12th, 2014

    According to tests run by Ars Technica, the 2010 iPhone 4 at last delivers adequate performance with the iOS 7.1 update. It wasn’t so good with the original iOS 7 release.

    That’s no mean achievement when you consider that, in the smartphone world, a product that’s over three years old is positively ancient. Consider it the rough equivalent of trying to set up a ten-year-old Mac to run OS 10.9 Mavericks. Of course you can’t, because Apple doesn’t support anything that old, but you get the picture.

    It would seem that offering support for an iPhone 4 was done, in part, because that product was still being sold in some parts of the world when iOS 7 first came out. Sure, some of the fancier animation flourishes and resource-hungry features were set aside. But users still reported slow application launch times, ragged scrolling and other symptoms that were more in keeping with what you might encounter with a midrange Android smartphone.

    So perhaps some iPhone users felt abandoned by Apple, or were just willing to put up with the situation since downgrading is not an official option. Perhaps it made the prospects of buying a new iPhone all the more tempting. But it’s clear from the iOS 7.1 update that Apple did not give up in fine-tuning the OS.

    According to those performance tests conducted by Ars Technica, an iPhone 4 exhibits improved application launch times, sometimes refreshingly close to iOS 6, sometimes just a tad slower. So-called user interface “jerkiness” appears to be reduced. So those tempted to somehow hack a way into returning to iOS 6 may not be so inclined after all.

    But the performance improvements aren’t restricted to the oldest iOS gear. Even on an iPhone 5s, iOS 7.1 seems a tad snappier. Zooming effects are faster, and instant screen refresh seems more instant. All those zooming effects clearly contributed to the perception that iOS 7 was really slow, and those complaints surely impressed Apple enough to do something about them.

    For the iPhone 4, this is clearly the end of the line. iOS 8 will probably work on nothing older than an iPhone 4s, but that only makes sense. Apple can only look backwards so far while adding features that exploit the power of the latest and greatest chip technology. Unlike the Android platform, where developers may have to ignore new OS features to provide support for the vast majority of users who will never be able to upgrade, Apple encourages upgrading and makes it easy. A developer wanting to take advantage of iOS 7 goodies can be assured that the vast majority of the user base is ready.

    With OS X Mavericks, Apple probably did something above and beyond the call of duty. Essentially the same Macs that ran Mountain Lion are fully compatible with OS 10.9. Sure, some features may not extend to older models because of hardware limitations, but that makes sense too. It also makes sense in encouraging developers to look forward rather than worry about legacy equipment in delivering updates.

    The limits for Mavericks aren’t severe. AirPlay Mirroring works with a second generation Apple TV or later, and most Macs released in 2011 or later. PowerNap also has restrictions because it requires newer hardware. If you don’t care about either, you can be assured of nearly the full Mavericks experience on a supported Mac with decent performance. Mavericks is the rare breed of an OS that runs more efficiently, and, on some equipment, faster.

    Yes, I grant there are probably hacks out there to induce older Mac hardware to take a Mavericks installation, but the tradeoffs in performance and compatibility may just not be worth the bother. That won’t stop some people from making the attempt. After all, there are also ways to install OS X on white box Windows PCs with a little hacking here and there of the setup files. We call them “Hacintoshes.” But it’s not something you should want to depend on for anything other than just seeing if it can be done.

    Sure, Apple would rather have you buy new hardware. But OS X and iOS are still backwards compatible with tens of millions of devices and, for the most part, will deliver decent performance. You can hardly expect more from one of those greedy multinational corporations. Even better, OS X has joined iOS in becoming free.

    Of course, there is that argument that the changes in iOS 7.1 should have been there already in the original iOS 7 release. But that’s the sort of argument that has no practical value. So it’s true that some of the interface excesses have been tamed. In some cases, thin type isn’t quite so thin, and most of the changes appear to have been viewed positively.

    So far, I’ve only found one app that doesn’t like iOS 7.1: Time Mobile. When I launch the app, I get a “Hierarchy Download Failed” warning with a request to tap OK to try again. Only that step delivers little more an endless spinning wheel. So one hopes the developers at Time Warner will stop spinning their wheels and deliver an update real soon now.

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