New new new new new iPhone

A photo of an iPhone 13 Mini with iOS 15 showing the home screen

Last week, I bought myself a new iPhone 13 Mini. This is the fifth iPhone model I’ve owned:

  • iPhone 4 (black, 16 GB), bought in autumn 2010
  • iPhone 5 (white, 64 GB), bought in autumn 2012
  • iPhone 5s (white, 64 GB), bought in spring 2015
  • iPhone 8 (Product RED, 64 GB), bought in summer 2018
  • iPhone 13 Mini (blue, 128 GB), bough in spring 2023

As you can see, with each model I’ve kept it a little longer than the previous one. Before my first iPhone, I would generally keep a phone handset for 18-24 months at a time, and indeed that was the case with my first iPhone – it was on its last legs by the time I traded it in. Its replacement, the iPhone 5 laster a little longer but I had issues charging it after a while. The iPhone 5s laster slightly longer again, but in the hot summer of 2018 its battery started expanding and the back was coming away from the phone body, so I decided it was high time for a replacement.

I was hoping to get my iPhone 8 to make it to five years, and in late 2021 I even had the battery replaced to give it some extra life. Alas, this new battery was also starting to wear out – I would have to recharge my phone more than once a day to get through.

Whilst I could have had yet another new battery fitted, I suspect that Apple won’t support such an old model much longer with new iOS updates, and they were offering up to two years 0% finance on new models. I’m not eligible to upgrade with my current phone network, as I’m on a 2 year fixed SIM-only contract, so buying the new phone direct from Apple on 0% finance seemed like the best option.

Apple conveniently provides a Compare iPhone models tool, and so I was able to decide between the various models on offer to work out which was best for me. As you may note from the above, my purchases of the 5s and 8 were at times when physically larger models were available, but I’ve generally preferred the smaller iPhone models. That pretty much ruled out buying an iPhone 14, as there’s ‘mini’ version available – and it was also £200 more than the iPhone 13 Mini.

Apple also offers its iPhone SE range, and the current third generation is essentially an iPhone 8 body with iPhone 13 internals. However, that means a smaller screen, and Touch ID rather than Face ID, as well as a more basic camera, slower 5G, less water resistance and no support for MagSafe, when compared with the iPhone 13 Mini.

A photo of an iPhone 13 Mini (left) next to an iPhone 8 (right)

The iPhone 13 Mini is also slightly smaller and lighter (albeit by a mere four grammes) than the iPhone SE. Despite this, the screen is bigger, as the bezel is smaller – it doesn’t need to accommodate the home button for Touch ID.

As for the iPhone 14, as well as it being too large for my liking and more expensive, it’s not much of an upgrade. Again, there’s an even better camera, the ability to make SOS calls via satellite, crash detection and slightly better battery life, but the processor is the same as the 13 Mini and SE; the only benefit is one extra GPU core.

Having had the new phone for a week, I’ve appreciated the extra speed, and the convenience of Face ID which seems to work well, even when I’m wearing glasses. The transfer process from old phone to new also went pretty well and I was mostly up and running on the new phone in a couple of hours – some of which was spent installing iOS 16.4. The new camera is also great and I’ve taken a couple of photos with the ultra-wide aperture lens (giving a fish-eye appearance).

Hopefully I’ll be able to keep this new phone going for the full five years. Whilst it’s always nice to have the latest and greatest device, I also appreciate the cost savings of not upgrading regularly. If everyone held onto their phones for several years, I’m sure there would be wider environmental benefits.

Shiny new iPad

iPad Mini with Retina Display

As I mentioned on Sunday, my birthday present from my parents was a shiny new iPad Mini with Retina Display. We bought it from the Apple Store in Trinity Leeds, since we were going to Leeds for a birthday meal anyway.

This is to replace my old iPad, a first generation model. Although I’ve only had it for a year, it’s now over three years old and no longer supported by Apple. It won’t even run iOS 6, never mind iOS 7. Many apps either won’t install at all, or can only run as an older version. Plus, it’s rather slow and some apps, including Apple’s own like Safari, crash a lot. Whilst the larger screen means it’s better to use than my iPhone for some things, for others it was slow and frustrating – I’d avoid browsing sites like Buzzfeed or Lifehacker because of the risk of crashing it.

Choosing an iPad

I’d narrowed the choice down to the iPad Air or the iPad Mini with Retina Display. I ruled out the older models – the iPad with Retina Display and the iPad Mini (without Retina Display) – because they came with older processors which are much more likely to be deprecated by Apple within a few years. I didn’t want to be in the same situation again with my iPad in a couple of years’ time.

The two models are basically identical inside – same processor, battery life and features. The only difference is the size of the screen (the resolution is the same), the weight and the price. At £80 cheaper, we decided to go for the iPad Mini.

Personal setup

When you buy a product at the Apple Store, a ‘Personal Setup’ service is offered to get you up and running with the device. As we had some time to spare, I decided to take them up on the offer. This turned out to be a good thing. Because myself, and the member of staff who sold me the iPad, learned the hard way what happens when you try to restore an iCloud backup from an iPad 1 running iOS 5, to an iPad Mini running iOS 7. Suffice to say, it got stuck in a soft reboot loop and was completely unusable.

To their credit, the staff at the store were really good about it, and took responsibility for the problem. I should have been advised that this wouldn’t work. Instead, I should set the new iPad up as a new device, rather than using a backup from an iOS 5 device as a starting point. So the iPad Mini, now essentially bricked, will be sent back to Apple, and I was given another iPad Mini to take away. I decided not to go through the Personal Setup this time, instead waiting to get home so that I could do it at my own pace. It’s working fine, as shown in the above photo.

I’m glad that the reboot problem happened in the Apple Store and not at home, as I’m not even sure that I’d have been able to force a factory reset on the device. But perhaps Apple should have coded this into the iPad setup program, and displayed a warning that restoring a backup from such an old device to a new one is a bad idea.

Anyway, my new iPad Mini is great. It’s so much lighter than my old one, and the screen is only a bit smaller. It’s not quite so good for reading magazines, as the text is a bit small, but at least when I zoom in the text doesn’t become so pixelated as it did on my old iPad. And apps like Facebook, YouTube and 1Password are actually usable now, and others, like Pocket, are much, much faster.

Apple Lossless Encoder

One new iTunes feature that slipped by me was the new ‘Apple Lossless Encoder’. Unlike music formats like MP3, AAC and Ogg Vorbis, lossless encoding results in no loss of quality – the music file sounds exactly like the original. The downside to this is that files compressed using lossless compression are typically quite a bit larger than their lossy counterparts.

With the largest iPod topping 40GB it’s hardly surprising that Apple have adopted this – I’m sure the majority of people will never fill that much (even I have only 6-7GB) so the extra space can be set aside for higher quality files. What is surprising is that Apple chose to adopt their own format, and not one of the (many) other lossless encoding formats.

If you thought there was a format war amongst lossy encoders then you’ll be knocked back by how many lossless ones are out there. There’s at least 14, although not all of them are as good as each other. Thankfully, lossless formats are easier to compare since output quality isn’t a factor, but a good format will have quick encoding, a small output file size, many features, and would preferably be open source too.

The most popular is FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), which is now being steered by the Xiphophorus Foundation who are also steering the Ogg Vorbis format. It’s arguably not the best format out there but it’s good enough and it’s entirely open source. It’s well represented on almost all platforms and is even in some hardware players. Monkey’s Audio is a little faster but isn’t so well supported, being restricted to Windows and a command line encoder in Linux. Although it is open source, development has been a little slow of late, and it lacks some features compared to FLAC. Shorten is another popular format.

Apple Lossless Encoder (or ALE for short – nice acronym), is, sadly, based on none of these. It’s a new format which is closed source and currently only works in iTunes (Mac and Windows) and through QuickTime, although a dBpowerAMP codec is apparently in the works. It is quite well featured, offering streaming and seeking support (which a surprising number of other formats lack), and is obviously supported on the iPod with the addition of the latest firmware update, so on paper it has a similar number of features to FLAC. It is, however, slower at encoding and decoding, and files are typically a megabyte or so larger, according to this comparison provided by the FLAC project, however this HydrogenAudio topic suggests it is faster. I’m guessing Apple may have optimised it for the PowerPC processor, in which case compile times on Mac OS X would be better than in Windows.

It’s just a pity that Apple took the decision to re-invent the wheel when good alternatives already exist, although this Macworld column reckons this is because Apple may want to add DRM to it in future so that punters can buy higher quality files from the iTunes Music Store. AAC was an open(-ish) format and look how quickly that was cracked. On the other hand, I doubt the record labels would be interested in giving away their songs on the internet at full quality, based on their previous boneheaded decisions.

There may also be reasons, such as patents or problems with embedding FLAC in the iPod firmware, but seeing as other hardware manufacturers have managed it this seems strange.

In any case, it’s an interesting development. Any support for lossless audio in iTunes is a good thing, I just wish that Apple had gone with the herd rather than go on a tangent and then confuse people. What I would like to know is whether the WMA import function of iTunes allows you to convert them to ALE, since then you wouldn’t lose any quality – I couldn’t find anything that suggested this in my research for this article.