Hands on with early iOS 8 Beta Releases

It shows promise; but it’s REALLY buggy…

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I’ve been using iOS 8 Beta 1 for the past couple of weeks and I have to say that I like what I see, but it’s so buggy that it’s hard to really evaluate. Items that you thought would be solid – core apps like Mail and Music, for example – are just north of a train wreck. While this is to be expected in a beta release – especially in an early beta release – it does provide a bit of insight on what Apple is doing.

Based on every issue that I’ve bumped into so far, it’s clear to me that Apple is refining and optimizing code. iOS 7 introduced a lot of new interface options and changes to iOS; and it was the first real rearchitecting of Apple’s mobile OS since it was introduced in 2007. By that point, the OS was tired, long in the tooth and in need of a facelift, despite what everyone – me included – said about the redesign. Yes. It was difficult to get used to, but now that I’m used to it, it feels better than the old, skewmorphic look and feel of iOS 6 and earlier.

With iOS 8, Apple is following its old mantra – evolution, not revolution (again, they caused a revolution last time with iOS 7). Most of the changes will be under the hood, and users won’t see them. I can see evidence of this in the fact that apps that are core to what the iPhone does – like Mail, Music…Settings (yes, even Settings) – often force quit or hard reset the device.

I’ve encountered the following bugs in these programs throughout Beta 1. While this isn’t a complete or exhaustive list, these are the ones that keep me up at night…:
Mail won’t let you multi-delete more than three emails at a time. The app force quits.
Music won’t track back one song after it has moved to the next song in a playlist (so you can’t play the last song over again. Once is all you get.)
Songs often recycle quickly in large playlists when Shuffle is selected as the play method
Badge icon counts often do not reflect the correct number of alerts
The phone app ends the call if you try to take a screen shot of an active call
Settings often force quits when trying to work with Bluetooth settings (there are also multiple problems with the Bluetooth stack when it comes to pairing, playing Bluetooth audio and transferring data via BT-LE)

Because there are bugs in these core apps, it’s clear to me that Apple is optimizing core services as well as code in these core apps (to work with the optimized, core services), too. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. There are also a number of third party apps that just refuse to run or run correctly in iOS 8 Beta 1; but that’s also to be expected.

While preparing this article, Apple released iOS 8 Beta 2. I’ve downloaded the new OS, but haven’t had a chance to install it yet. While I’m certain that Apple is working on insuring that users can upgrade with settings and apps in place, it’s clear based on what I found in Beta 1 (I upgraded with apps and settings in place), that it might be a better idea to set up early beta releases of iOS 8 as a new iPhone rather than restoring the device from a backup. Bringing older settings and plist files into the device configuration may be the cause for some of the issues I am experiencing at this time. It’s likely a better idea for me to set it up as a new device between now and the release of Beta 4 (provided Apple drops a Beta 4 version before seeding the Gold Master to its developer partners).

The release documents for Beta 2 indicate that it provides some bug fixes as well as providing other small changes and enhancements, including the QuickType keyboard for iPad. This new release also has a major update to Apple’s Podcasts app. It’s now part of the base OS installation; and like iBooks, also can’t be removed. Apple also added a couple nice changes to Safari for iOS that prevents ads from automatically redirecting users to the App Store without any interaction; and users can now quickly add a site to Shared Links, or save a bookmark by tapping and holding on the Bookmarks button in the browser.

Other bug fixes of note include fixes to the screen brightness slider. It actually works now; and adding third party keyboards won’t force quit Settings like it did in Beta 1. As far as my Bluetooth issues… I’m going to have to wait and see how things go. There wasn’t a lot of information in the Beta 2 release notes related to anything specific that I was bumping into related to Bluetooth. However, Apple is still listing a number of known issues with core Bluetooth services, so I’m not holding my breath. Apple will likely tweak and make changes to the Bluetooth stack throughout the Beta Period. As Pebble and other fitness devices – including Apple’s (still) rumored iWatch – (will) make active use of BT-LE, I would expect fixes, improvements and changes to this key piece of core code throughout the development cycle.

iOS 8 Beta 2 also comes with a number of bug fixes. For example, the new beta release ensures that the screen brightness slider in Settings now actually works, and also prevents crashes when adding a third-party keyboard. I have no idea if Apple did anything to address the poor battery life performance that’s been reported with Beta 1.

However, I would expect Apple to address this – at least in part – in the next Beta release. Apple usually has a two week development cycle with its mobile OS Betas (it was 15 days between the releases of Beta 1 and Beta 2), so I would expect another release before the Independence Day Holiday here in the States on July 4th (but that’s based on past performance, so don’t shoot the messenger, if it doesn’t happen).

I’ll have other reports on iOS and Yosemite as Apple takes us through their Beta and development cycles prior to release of both. Look for updated information on these in the weeks to come. I’ll also have a more formal review of each after the GM version of both is released.

Do you have any questions about iOS 8 (or Yosemite)? Let me know in the discussion section, below and I’ll do my best to answer your questions either in-line or in a separate article.

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Play your multimedia files where and when you want to with MPCStar

Play your multimedia files where and when you want to with this cool Windows app.

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Multimedia is a big deal. Apple’s iTunes is a multibillion dollar business. Apple concurred the world because of the iPod and iTunes, so, having the right kind of multimedia player for your computing preferences and experience is important. This is one of the reasons why I like apps like MPCStar. It’s a freeware multimedia app for Windows.

MPCSTAR is an all-in-one multimedia app. It consists of a video player, an audio player and a number of different audio and video codecs, that coupled with its conversion utility will allow you to put your video where you want to play it, in the format that is best suited for it. You can also download content from the internet and play it with MPCStar. The app is user friendly and can play a number of different type of multimedia formats. MPCStar is also free and doesn’t contain any kind of spyware or adware.

MPCStar reminds me of the multimedia players that I used back in the in the Windows 95 and Windows 98 era, though the app works with Windows 2000 to Windows 7. The big things that you won’t see here are mobile device support of ANY kind and the complete and total lack of any kind of a content store. While MPCStar is good at playing your multimedia files, I wouldn’t expect too much out of it in terms of library management. The app really reminds me of WinAmp and other type players with basic album support for cover art and other file tags.

MPCStar also hasn’t been updated in well over three years, so don’t expect any kind of additional support for the app, either. It is the way it is. Its good at what it does; and the interface is really great, but what it does seems stuck in 1998…

Download MPCStar

 

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US Government Considering Tax Holiday

Of its $156B in cash, $138B (88.5%) is banked overseas…

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Apple has a lot of cash. $156B USD to be exact, and $138B USD of it, or just about 88.50% is kept in banks outside the US. To the unfinancially initiated, like me, this seems curious. However, when you consider the 35% tax hit ($48.3B USD) that Apple would be charged to bring the money back to the United States, it’s no wonder they don’t think twice about it. Spending $$48.3B to bring back just $89.7B isn’t worth the hit. So, the money stays outside the US, and Apple deprives the US of the tax revenue.

Apple needs a place to park the money, and it – like nearly every other large corporate entity – banks a lot of it in Ireland. They have much kinder tax laws, making it more fiscally responsible for Apple to store it there. However, this makes it difficult for Apple to use it the way they want to; and it would be a lot easier for them to bring the money home.

As such, the US Government is currently considering a tax holiday that would allow Apple to make a one-time transfer of its cash hoard back into US banks. The last time this happened in 2004, the government lowered the tax rate to 5.25%. However, at that time, Apple was still three years away from releasing the iPhone and six years away from releasing the iPad. It wasn’t able to take advantage of the tax break.

Recently, Apple has been the target of a US government cash into its tax payments. This effort, and the resulting news coverage on Apple’s – as well as other organization’s – legal use of Ireland’s corporate tax haven, has caused the European Union to take a much longer, more scruitinous look at those laws. While Apple hasn’t broken any laws with its international tax policies – Apple paid over $7.0B in US Federal, corporate taxes in fiscal 2013 – the company wants permanent tax reform in the US.

The US Federal Highway Trust is out of money at the end of August 2014. With major road repairs to major infrastructure – like I-80, which crosses the Continental US from Coast to Coast, East to West – the US government must do something. For its part, Apple is willing to repatriate its large cash hoard, but won’t without a tax repatriation holiday and without permanent tax reform.

This particular issue is going to linger on for quite a while. While I’m not one for financial news, I will update this story if anything interesting develops over the next few months.

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Get your mail and read important articles with Sylpheed

Get your mail and read important articles with this cool Windows-based email client.

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Believe it or not – and despite what other people might say about email dying – its not. In fact, most of what I do every day evolves around my email client both here at home and at the office. The biggest problem with email is finding an app that does what you need it to do without clogging up your computer with a bunch of stuff that you don’t want or don’t need. Its why Sylpheed is a good choice for a Windows mail client and RSS news reader.

Sylpheed is a mail client and news reader that runs on the X Window System. It has a 3-paned display similar to the popular e-mail clients for Windows such as Outlook Express and Becky. In fact, after taking a look at it, that’s exactly what I thought – it looks a lot like Outlook Express. To top it off, its easy to use right out of the box.

The app is very stable. You can have tens of thousands of messages in your inbox. The app protects your data and still functions well regardless of how large your information store is. If something does go south and the app does forcibly quit, you won’t have to worry about the state of your data. It won’t get corrupted.

Its also easy to search for mail with Sylpheed with its filtering engine. You can also refer to messages matching your search criteria by saving the query to a search folder.

If you’re looking for a decent mail and news only app, then this is a decent choice. The app is easy to use and is basically rock solid. If you’re looking for an Outlook replacement, don’t come here, though. The app doesn’t do calendar or to-do’s at all, though it will handle your address book. It also won’t sync with your smartphone.

Download Sylpheed Free

 

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Bring down Wikipedia to your hard drive for offline viewing with Xowa

Bring down Wikipedia to your hard drive for offline viewing with this awesome app.

When I was growing up (I graduated from high school in 1984), my parents had a set of Britannica Encyclopedias THEY used when they were in school circa 1950-blah, blah, blah. Its what I had at home to help me with homework – a 25-30 year old, out dated set of reference books…and it was far better than most anyone else had at home. Google didn’t exist yet. In 1984 when I graduated from high school, Sergey Brin was in the 4th grade. That, my friends… is TOTALLY depressing.

Today, with the advent of Google and other search engines, the world is your oyster. Students today have access to information that I could only dream about back in the day…that is, as long as they’re online. Well, until now. XOWA is a cool Windows app that downloads any Wikimedia wiki to your hard drive for offline use; and unlike my stale set of smelly encyclopedias, can be updated at will.

XOWA is a free application that lets you download Wikipedia and Wikimedia compatible wiki’s to your computer. With it, you can access all of Wikipedia offline, meaning without an internet connection. You effectively rip it to your hard drive and then access Wikipedia via the app.

It works with any Wikimedia wiki, including Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikisource, Wikiquote, and Wikivoyage. It also works with other specialized wikis such as Wikidata, Wikimedia Commons, Wikispecies, or any other MediaWiki generated dump. Also works with any non-English language wiki (French, German, Dutch, etc.) compatible wiki.

When you search or find what you’re looking for, you can search for any page by title using a Wikipedia-like search box, browse pages by alphabetical order using special:allpages, or find a word on a page. You can also access a history of viewed pages and bookmark your favorite pages.

This application is really cool. Its something that every high school and especially college student should have, especially if you have a laptop, have to do some kind of a research paper and know you’re going to be some place that doesn’t have Wi-Fi (and you don’t have mobile broadband to burn – which is a very common state, especially among students here in the States).

With XOWA, you surf, download, storage and go. The app will even store data on a storage card or thumb drive, so you don’t have to eat up precious hard drive space. The app is also VERY difficult for first time users to get set up. You have to do a LOT of reading of instructions in order to actually get the app to rip something to your hard drive. Don’t expect to be able to flip a switch and start using it out of the box. Its going to take a bit of work to get going.

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Smartphone 101 – Prerequisite 2: Setting up a Sync Relationship with iPhone

I’ve been working with mobile devices since 1996. I’ve had nearly every kind of mobile device from near every manufacturer on nearly every mobile OS…ever. The iPhone is by far the easiest to setup and configure. Like the other two mobile OS’ in use today, we’ll run through the default configuration and then see about adding another sync account to your iDevice. Apple makes this pretty easy…

Please note that these instructions were done using and iPhone 5 running iOS 7.1.1. As I don’t have an iPhone 5S, you won’t find instructions on using Touch ID, here. However, as you will see from the screenshots below, the configuration process is very easy. You shouldn’t have any problems configuring it if you simply follow the process and then work with the device when it wants to read your finger prints.

1. Turn on your iPhone for the first time. After the device boots, you’ll be greeted with a welcome screen. Place your finger just to the left of the greater-than sign (>) and slide it over the top of the words, “slide to set up” to begin the configuration process.
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2. Select a wireless network to connect to. If you have Wi-Fi in the house, using it over your mobile broadband bandwidth is preferable. Select your network from the list and tap it.
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3. The wireless network password screen appears. Type the password to your Wi-Fi network and then press the join button.
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4. Turn on Location Services. You’ll want to make certain that they are configured correctly later, but for now, you’ll want them turned on so things like Maps and local search work correctly. Tap “Enable Location Services.”
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Smartphone 101 – Prerequisite 2: Setting up a Sync Relationship with Windows Phone

Now that you have your email account created and your address book populated, let’s get the data on your smartphone.

OK… we took quite a bit of time the other day getting our email account setup on our service of choice. Any of the ones that I gave you instructions for – Google Apps/Gmail, Outlook.com, iCloud – are decent choices and should serve you well. While you’re going to want to make certain you give yourself the best opportunity for glitch free synchronization (meaning it’s not always wise to mix and match devices and services, or more aptly put, I’d recommend using the service that is natively paired with your device – Gmail+Android, Windows Phone+Outlook.com/Exchange, or iCloud+iPhone), it is possible to mix and match if you absolutely HAVE to. If you must put a Google account on your iPhone, don’t be surprised if your experience isn’t as optimized as it would be if you had either Google services synching to an Android phone or Apple services synching to an iPhone. It works, but there may be a couple of glitches here and there…

So, how do you get the information from your email account over to your smartphone? It’s quite simple, really. You have to tell your smartphone that you have the type of account you have and then let the two communicate via the smartphone’s cellular data connection with the internet. As changes are made to either side – on your smartphone or on your email account – those changes will be made to the remaining side so that you’ll always have the latest information, no matter where you look at the data.

The big thing to remember here is that this is likely one of the first things your phone is going to want to take you through when you turn it on for the very first time. It’s going to want to attach itself to your email account so that you get all of your PIM data (Personal Information Management data – Mail, Calendar, Contacts (or address book) and Tasks) to and from your smartphone as the data changes. It will set up a Push Data connection (the same kind as Blackberry made famous, back in the day…); and as a result, your smartphone will always have the latest data and will be considered a “smart” source of information (hence the name, “smartphone”). Any time you want to know who needs to be where at what time, who you can call if for some reason you don’t get the information or can’t make an appointment, or want to message someone about… you can use your smartphone. (This is why we took the time to get your email account set up correctly…). It also makes all of this information portable, mobile and easy to take with you wherever you go.

Ok, so your phone is going to want to setup its default account (if you have more than one email account, you can set up more than one sync relationship) so that it gets all the info all the time. I’m going to take you through some of the default setup steps for Android, iPhone and Windows Phone. This will help you if you have problems.

However, the screens we’re going to review actually take you through, step-by-step and have a pretty good set of instructions. If I gloss over something that you don’t understand or need more information on, let me know in the comments, and I’ll update the instructions.

Please remember that this process assumes that you’re mixing apples with apples. In other words, you’re using the default email account TYPE with a LIKE phone.

Windows Phone+Outlook.com (or your Microsoft Account)
1. Turn your new Windows Phone on for the first time. The Welcome screen below, will appear after it boots.
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2. Sign in to your Microsoft Account on the “Keep Your Life in Sync” screen. If you sign in later, your phone won’t be setup correctly until it has all of this information.
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3. Enter in your Microsoft Account email address. This is more than likely a @msn.com, @live.com, @hotmail.com, or @outlook.com email address, but it could be any email address you have, provided you registered it as a Microsoft Account mail address.

4. Type in your password in the password field. When you’re done, either check or uncheck the “Allow Microsoft to send you information and tips about your Windows Phone,” checkbox. While this will subscribe you to their Windows Phone newsletter, it might have some cool tips in it that you didn’t know about. If you’re new to Windows Phone, I’d check it. You can always unsubscribe later.

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An Experiment in Windows Phone 8.1

I’ve heard that Windows Phone 8.1 is pretty good. I’m gonna take a look…

Windows Phone 8.1

I’ve heard a lot over the past few weeks about Windows Phone 8.1. With the keynote at Microsoft Build over and done with, Windows Phone 8.1 was released into the Wild, Wild West of Microsoft’s Developer community. The cool thing about it is that ANYONE can get their hands on the newly minted beta bits.

All you have to do is sign up for a free Microsoft Developer account, jump through a few hoops, open up the Microsoft Developer’s App on your Windows Phone and poof! You can download Windows Phone 8.1 before the final bits are made available to the general public. My good friend Paul Thurrott has the full, detailed instructions on how to download the update and install it on your phone.

If you can browse the web, you can install the update. It’s really that simple. However, be advised that despite what Paul says in his article, your phone may want to download and install a few pre-req updates before it actually pulls down Windows Phone 8.1. It’s not a huge deal or anything to be concerned about, just something you might need to know, if you run through the process. It may take a little longer than you might think.

The thing that’s really cool about all of this is that you can get Windows Phone 8.1 on ANY – and I do mean ANY – phone that runs Windows Phone 8. I went and purchased a Nokia Lumia 520, an entry level Windows Phone 8 device, and paid under $80 with tax for the device as an AT&T Go Phone. An unlocked version can be found at just about any electronics vendor on the web for under $150, so if you looking for something cheap that will give you access to the OS so you can at least try it out without spending a lot of money, the Lumia 520 is a good choice.

Information on the Nokia Lumia 520 can be found here. The device is a basic, no frills, entry-level device. It’s got most of the features you might want, but done at a budget. It’s got 512MB of RAM, a 1.0gHz processor, and a 5MP rear camera. It does NOT support AT&T’s LTE network, and while you’re going to get 4G service from the device, carrier locked or unlocked, you’re going to get HSPA/ HSPA+ connection speeds at best. However, there is a plus side to all of this…

You don’t HAVE to pay for any service. If you – uh-hem – go the Go Phone route, while you will need to register the device with AT&T, and will need to pick a service plan when setting up the device, you don’t have to pay for it to use the device, Wi-Fi only. As AT&T Go Phone is a pre-pay service, you won’t be charged anything until you purposefully activate the SIM and pay for a month’s service. However, if you opt NOT to activate the SIM card that comes with the device, it will be deactivated 30 days after you register. This is what I did.

Anyway, with the iPhone 6 and iOS 8 set to be released in the next three or so months, and with the Samsung Galaxy S5 starting to make its way to a carrier near you (as well as my recent review of the HTC One (M8)), I thought it might be a good idea to take a quick look at Windows Phone. I plan on upgrading from the iPhone 5 to the iPhone 6 this fall, and I honestly wanted to be able to say in the blogs and review that I will no doubt be exclusively publishing via Soft32 what is comparatively good, bad and ugly about all three major mobile operating systems available today. (Un/Fortunately – depending on your point of view – Blackberry’s QNX-based mobile OS isn’t a contender any longer…)

Over the next week or so, I will be briefly looking at the following Windows Phone 8.1 components as they present on the Lumia 520:

→ Camera/Gallery – more of a concentration on the Gallery app, as the camera is only 5MP
→ Ecosystem and Multimedia – some interesting surprises await!
→ GPS and Maps
→ Cortana – Microsoft’s Siri and Google Now competitor

I will also follow this all up with a brief, but thorough device and hardware review. I’ll compare it to both the iPhone 5 and the HTC One (M8) (no… I haven’t returned it just yet.. Shhh!) and we’ll see if Windows Phone 8.1 has a chance of making an impression on the market with the right MS Marketing push, or if it’s really just a huge pipe dream.

If there are any specific items you’d like me to cover in this iOS/ Android/ Windows Phone comparison, please let me know in the comments section below. This is going to be an interesting undertaking. I haven’t played with Windows Phone AT ALL. When Microsoft abandoned Windows Mobile for Windows Phone, I left the WM community and dallied with Android for a couple years before heading back over to iOS and the iPhone 5. I’m pretty much a Windows Phone rookie, and will be looking at the mobile OS for the first time.

Windows Phone 8.1 is said to be a worthy competitor to iOS 7 and Android 4.4.x. We’ll have to wait and see, but I’m certain, as with everything, it will be an interesting journey. Again, I’d love your thoughts. Please feel free to chime in and give me your thoughts in the comments section below, especially if there’s something you’d like to see compared and/ or reviewed.

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