On using a Blank Slate

My current iPhone 5 homescreen

A month ago I wiped and reset my iPhone right back to the iOS 9.1 beta. I then set it up without using iCloud’s ability to automatically restore all of my apps and settings. The only thing that I brought forward were my contacts. I have never done this before as I usually just bring everything forward. I’ve found Apple’s backup system to work well for apps and data each time I’ve used it and people just bring their information forward to the next device.

However, now having used an iPhone from scratch for the first time since 2008, I feel I’ve learned a surprising amount. Here are some of the things I’ve taken from the last month:

I only really use a tiny number of apps 95% of the time

I found the apps I use the most are Tweetbot, Overcast, Mailbox, Facebook Messenger, Runkeeper and YNAB. Other than these, everything else doesn’t get used anywhere near as much. Apps like Day One, Maps, Messages and Music get used infrequently but only for specific reasons and at most once a day.

Before I reset my phone, there were a huge number of apps I clearly kept around for those moments I assumed would eventually come when they would be useful. Apps like Skype or Pages which sat there as examples of well-made applications but only got used once or twice on my iPhone before being left alone in the “Comms” and “Writing” folders, just taking up space.

Since getting rid of most of those apps, there are only a few I have found myself looking for at random occasions. The IMDB and Wikiweb apps were great single-purpose apps for the odd search for little factoids or film reviews. I am considering reinstalling them as they are informative rather than for time-wasting. however I’ve found that a search on Safari solves the problem just as quickly, even if it doesn’t look quite as good.

I wish Apple didn’t bundle so many apps that I can’t get rid of!

So many apps that I can’t get rid of in that Extras folder… wasting space on the phone and on my second homescreen.

Compass, Tips, Voice Memos, Game Center, Stocks, Videos… The list goes on. There are three pages of apps that fill the “Extras” folder on my iPhone. These are apps I’m very unlikely to ever use and they just waste space and storage on my iPhone. I wish Apple allowed what they did with apps like Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iMovie and others — you can download them from the App Store if you want them and ignore them if you don’t. Those apps are far superior to anything already bundled although they are somewhat larger apps. If I was being particularly greedy, I’d love Apple to do the same with all of its apps, but I can understand why Mail or Calendar is fairly integrated into the OS.

The list of restrictions. I wish there were more apps I could do this with!

Interestingly Apple allows you to use “Restrictions” which prevents them from appearing on the Homescreen. However it is a parental control workaround and the list of apps that they allow to be restricted is fairly short. So far I’ve blocked Podcasts, News, the iTunes Store and Apple Music from appearing within the Music app. Sadly, the same could not be said for Stocks and the others, likely because they don’t involve a user making any potentially costly purchases!

Apple’s own inbuilt apps are functional, but often aren’t the best available

Mail. It’s a good start, but doesn’t have the number of functions or ease of use of Mailbox and other third-party apps.

In my previous post, above, I said I was going to give each of Apple’s own apps a good go. I hadn’t used them a long time, finding at different points in the past that third-party developers had created better apps. Returning my phone to a blank slate seemed like a great opportunity to give the iOS 9 iterations of these apps another shot at retaining a place on my homescreens rather than being placed in that folder of PointlessAppleAppsThatComeHereToDie along with Stocks app and the others I mentioned above.

I find Mailbox superior to Apple’s Mail, especially with the better swipe functions available to the user, such as postponing an email until later on.

All in all I found the apps perfectly serviceable, but missing key features which I had taken for granted on those created by third parties. On the one hand, I really enjoyed seeing Mail’s update which had copied Mailbox’s swipe actions, just like everyone else — it was a big upgrade on the last iteration of Mail I had used. However it still wasn’t up to scratch with other email apps as when making a decision when an email is open, you have to press and hold, then release the archive button, after which an option to either “Delete Message” or “Archive Message”. This isn’t as intuitive as Mailbox which always has both options, and a “Postpone” function to temporarily remove the email from your inbox until a date or time you set, or even when you get back to the OS X app. I found I really missed that. For the past few weeks I got by with Mail, but I found myself just waiting until I got back to my computer or iPad to actually open emails, to avoid actually using the app! Perhaps that supports the purest idea of triage but without the same amount of quick functionality. In the end I reinstalled Mailbox as I felt I had served my penance.

Fantastical on iPhone 5

Other applications like Calendar and Reminders I found really good. They have made great strides since I last used them, however I have specific third-party apps I paid money for Fantastical, which has a great natural language function shown above, and Things which are just far better. This is not a knock on either of Apple’s apps, they are both really good at their jobs and would be great for most people. However I’ve got used to having apps with added complexity and functions. These are things that neither app can compete with, nor should they — the added complexity would ruin them.

I have bad app habits that could lead to even more bad habits!

Here you can see the 7 different apps I used to browse to get ideas for purchases. I used to have even more than that!

In the past month I found that I would intend to use specific applications on my phone if I was particularly bored or in a bad mood. I found myself intending to install the Amazon, eBay or Gumtree app in the hope of spending money on something. There were occasions where I was looking for something specific like a replacement inner tube for my bike, but in most cases I would browse without a clear purpose in mind.

I used to have a whole folder full of apps for this sole purpose! I would spend ages looking for the best deals or the best offers and feel great satisfaction from knowing I got myself a good deal. I was careful to never spend beyond my means, but I have bought all manner of different things that I would say had a purpose, but often were really completely unnecessary.

This consumerist tendency to spend time looking for something to buy is a habit I’m trying to break, and I continue to fight these urges to install these apps and look to buy things from my phone when the impulse takes me. I’m sure I’m not the only person to have them. However at this point, I’m hoping to ‘waste’ time in apps like Lynda.com and Day One, apps that are good for building better habits than those I had before.

Don’t try to do everything on your phone

I found that just because my iPhone can have an app for so many different things, doesn’t mean I should install and use it! I found that not having apps like those for shopping or for long-form writing meant that I would use the phone for quick and simple purposes. I would use Reminders or Things to write a quick note about what I needed to do, like “Screencast iPhone” and “write blog post about 6 months with the Apple Watch”. I can then get back to whatever else I’m doing with the knowledge that the idea is securely saved, synced and ready to be acted upon when I arrive at a device better suited to accomplishing the task.

The Notification Center does allow a quick entry for things like adding items to my todo list.

This allowed me to treat my iPhone more like a quick-action device and coupled with a smartwatch’s triage ability, the two work very well in concert.

On top of this, I now have a greater appreciation of the iPhone’s “Today” widgets in the Notification Center. It provides the things I want rapid access to like adding a new to-do or journal entry. Then I can turn off the phone without getting distracted by another app.

16GB storage simply isn’t enough

I, like a huge number of Apple geeks, had a field day when John Gruber interviewed Phil Schiller, Apple’s SVP of Worldwide Marketing,after WWDC 2015. on 6 June. As well as giving listeners a great insight into the inner workings of the company, Schiller answered some of the questions many people wouldn’t have normally been able to ask an Apple Executive. Gruber asked what is becoming a fairly common refrain for fans of Apple devices — “Why are you still selling 16GB devices in 2015?” Schiller replied: “the belief is more and more as we use iCloud services for documents and our photos and videos and music, that perhaps the most price-conscious customers are able to live in an environment where they don’t need gobs of local storage because these services are lightening the load”.

I understand where Schiller is coming from. If all I used was streaming services like Netflix, Spotify, YouTube or Apple Music and never kept anything on my device, it would be less of an issue. However I don’t thing we are there yet. People still have large amounts of music and take lots of photos. But the main issue is Apple’s iCloud solution isn’t complete or convenient enough for a user to store large amounts of photos, videos and music on it. Perhaps in a few years, but not yet.

I have a 16GB iPhone 5 which currently has 5.9GB free storage. However this iPhone comes with a massive caveat for me. I store no music, no videos, few podcasts, one fitness game, very few apps, and I backup and delete all photos from my phone every month. I use this iPhone with all of these restrictions after having a terrible user experience when it runs out of space and slows to a crawl, or even worse in iOS 7 and 8, when it didn’t have enough space to download and install a new OS update and told me I had to delete apps or podcasts just to do that.

To know that there are plenty of users in 2015 who will likely come up against this problem simply because they bought the lowest-storage iPhone is very disappointing, especially coupled with new camera features which will use up that space even faster than before. These devices are supposed to be the pocket computer that can do everything, but sadly those models don’t have the storage to back up that claim. The user will be constantly juggling different priorities and micromanaging storage, and after spending a not inconsiderable amount of money on a high-end device like an iPhone or iPad, one would have thought Apple could have thrown in 32GB of onboard storage instead of 16GB and perhaps thrown in more free cloud storage as well, as the basic amount of both are looking increasingly miserly. On the other hand, I, like many others, will be forced into a 64GB model, so with that large storage mark-up in effect, Apple is laughing all the way to the bank.


My current iPad homescreens. After applying what I learned from my iPhone usage.

I’m really enjoying my pared down iPhone usage, it feels a lot more focused and involves far less procrastination on apps. Each app I have placed on my iPhone has been a clear choice, a decision I made with a purpose, and I think that’s the way I prefer it. So much so, I did exactly the same thing with my iPad and I am considering doing the same with my MacBook Air and iMac. I’d recommend anyone with a bit of time and patience giving it a go. When you start from scratch and only install the apps you actually use, rather than everything you could possibly need, I think you will have a better mobile experience.

I guess the best conclusion I have found, for my bank balance at least, is that my iPhone 5 seems perfectly capable of serving me for another year with the current iOS beta software running just fine on it. While it continues to run the latest version of iOS and the apps I enjoy, I’m going to continue using it. However, with this on the horizon, I might jump on it in time for the iPhone 7 when Apple brings it to the UK … Watch this space.

Originally published on 12 October 2015 at www.dcxiii.com.

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