Review: iPhone 2.0 software update

MobileMe

What if you don’t work in a big corporation but you still want to all your messages, contacts, and calendar information to be shared among all your gadgets? Fortunately, Apple’s got a solution for the rest of us: MobileMe.

Rolled out as replacement for Apple’s now defunct .Mac service, the $99/year service not only gives you access to many of the features of .Mac (iDisk, e-mail, Web galleries), but also supports the same wireless syncing of contacts, calendar, and mail that Exchange servers provide.

Setting up a MobileMe account is just like the set-up for Exchange: You tap Add An Account from Settings -> Mail, Contacts, Calendar, pick MobileMe, and fill in the relevant details. You’ll then be presented with the option to sync four types of data between MobileMe and your iPhone: mail, contacts, calendars, and bookmarks. You can disable or enable any of these individually.

It’s important to note that once you click on the Sync button, all the information on your device will be replaced with the information from MobileMe, so make sure you’ve backed up your iPhone’s data first.

Once syncing is set up, changes you make to contacts, calendars, mail, or bookmarks on your Mac appear almost instantaneously on your iPhone and vice versa. Add an event in iCal, and it appears on your iPhone; change a contact’s telephone number on your iPhone, and it’ll be updated in your Mac’s Address Book. One exception: Despite the fact that MobileMe syncs OS X Mail notes between multiple Macs, there is still no way of syncing information from the iPhone Notes application to your Mac.

Push notifications

Right now, these push services are limited to mail, contacts, calendar, and bookmarks. But Apple says it will launch a push notification system in September that any third-party developer can take advantage of.

If you prefer, you can turn off all push features for both synchronized information and third-party applications in the Fetch New Data section of the iPhone’s Settings; you can also specify how frequently the iPhone retrieves data for services that don’t support push. The less often you fetch data, the better your phone’s battery life, since the network isn’t as active. You can also specify individual retrieval settings for different accounts.

Location services

The iPhone 3G may get the fancy addition of true GPS. But even if you don’t have the new hardware, the iPhone 2.0 software brings its own refinements to the iPhone’s location services.

The location services have been refined in iPhone 2.0, thanks to a new tracking feature.

For example, the iPhone will now locate you using the most commonly useful method first—usually by triangulating cell-phone towers. It will then, if possible, try to locate you via Wi-Fi, and then by GPS.

Using that location information, the iPhone’s Maps application has added an entirely new feature: tracking. When you press the locate button, Maps will continue to track your location until you press the button again. That means that, as you move, the map will update periodically with your new position. This feature works best with the iPhone 3G’s GPS capabilities, which provide virtually real-time location info. But you can also use it with Wi-Fi or cell tower location—the results will just be less precise and update less frequently.

Other applications (including those by third-party developers) can now take advantage of the iPhone’s location abilities. When you enter a location-aware program, or trigger a location-aware feature, the application will ask you if you want to allow the iPhone to use your current location. That information can then be used for a variety of purposes. For example, the Camera application can geotag your photos with the location at which they were taken.

Location Services is pretty smooth when it works, but I did find that on occasion it would hang; for example, pressing the Locate Me button in Maps would cause the waiting icon to appear indefinitely, and no other applications would be able to access my location. Restarting the phone always fixed the problem.

In my testing, I found that a given application will ask you if it can use your location twice; after that, it’ll just go ahead and follow whichever answer you’ve given before. You can disable Location Services, but that will just force the application to prompt you next time you try to use a location-aware feature (although it will save you some battery life).

Wireless options

Earlier iPhone software gave you the option of disabling Bluetooth or Wi-Fi individually, or shutting off all of the iPhone’s radios by switching it into Airplane Mode. iPhone 2.0 refines that a bit: now when you enter Airplane mode, you can turn the Wi-Fi back on without activating the cell phone features. That way, if you’re on a flight that provides Wi-Fi access, you can still get on the Net without violating FAA regulations or using up your battery as quickly.

Users of the iPhone 3G also have the option of disabling 3G networking (under Settings -> General -> Network). If you do, you’ll still have Net access, at the slower speeds of the first-generation iPhone’s EDGE cell connection; your battery will last longer than if you were using 3G.

Parental restrictions

Children are getting cell phones at ever-younger ages these days. With a device as connected as the iPhone, it’s understandable that parents would want some way to restrict what their kids’ phones can do. iPhone 2.0 adds a Restrictions feature (under Settings: General) that can limit Junior’s access to certain applications and content.

After you tap on Enable Restrictions then enter and verify a four-digit pass-code, you can disable access to four different applications: Safari, YouTube, the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, and the App Store. Doing so will remove that application from the Home screen and disable any links that would open in that program. You can also choose to hide tracks and videos in the iPod application that are tagged as Explicit.

Once restrictions are enabled, any further attempts to access the Restrictions section of Settings will prompt you for your pass-code; you can also find out how many incorrect attempts have been made to enter it. Be careful, though: forget the passcode and you’ll have no choice but to restore your iPhone to its defaults.

International support

The iPhone has supported foreign languages since it first went on sale outside of the US. With the iPhone 3G’s planned rollout to 70 countries, that support has expanded considerably. The iPhone 2.0 software now speaks 16 different languages—English, French, German, Japanese, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Korean, Simplified and Traditional Chinese, Russian, and Polish—and offers 21 input methods.

While most languages use the standard touch keyboard with different layouts, Asian languages such as Japanese, Korean, and Chinese allow for alternative input methods. Japanese users can pick from a QWERTY layout or a Kana keypad, with both options allowing them to pick from suggested syllables. Korean users get a 2-Set keyboard for typing Hangul letters. Simplified and Traditional Chinese users can either use the Pinyin input method to input characters via a QWERTY layout or use a handwriting recognition method to enter characters by drawing them onscreen with your finger.

The little things

In addition to these major changes, iPhone 2.0 is rife with little but welcome improvements.

For example, when you enter a password, the field now shows you the last character you typed in plain text, making it easier to notice when you’ve hit the wrong key.

Apple has also solved one major headache for anyone who troubleshoots or writes about the iPhone: You can now take screenshots of your iPhone’s interface by pressing both the Home button and the Sleep/Wake button. The screen will flash to white and the resulting screenshot will be stored in your Camera Roll. This could also be handy for those looking to snap a picture of a Google Map to send to a friend.

The iPhone 2.0 software also makes it easier to navigate lists such as mail messages, SMS conversations, or your contacts. You can now tap the status bar at the top of the screen (where the time is displayed) to return to the top of the list.

That’s convenient, because both the phone application’s contact list and the new Contacts application, which has migrated from the iPod touch, now incorporate the ability to search your contacts, but the search box is located at the top of the lists (you can also jump to it by tapping the magnifying glass icon at the top of the alphabetical index on the right hand side of the list).

Hold down the .com key on the keyboard in Safari, and the iPhone software will show you options for other top-level domains.

Like Mail, Safari can now also save images from the Web. Tap and hold on a picture and a message will pop up asking you if you want to save the image; as with Mail, it’ll show up in your iPhone’s Camera Roll. Safari has also added a handy shortcut for entering URLs: if you hold down the .com key on the keyboard, it will pop up options for the other common top-level domains: .edu, .org, and .net (this also works in other places when the .com button isn’t on the keyboard but the @-sign is, such as addressing emails; in that case, you hold down the period key to get the options). But Safari still lacks any sort of password management features, which may irritate those who frequently have to enter account information for multiple sites.

For those who criticized the iPhone’s original Calculator application as being too simplistic, you can now rotate the phone into landscape mode; the calculator will then become a scientific calculator, allowing you to sine, cosine, and tangent to your heart’s content. Apple still hasn’t fixed one of my lingering problems in the standard calculator: try dividing the largest number you can enter (999,999,999) by 2.

And as part and parcel of its newfound syncing abilities, the iPhone’s Calendar at long last lets you manage multiple calendars, color-coded so you can easily tell them apart. (Unfortunately, while calendar names and events sync between iCal and the iPhone, the color of calendars do not). You can set a default calendar for events created on the iPhone (under Settings -> General -> Mail, Contacts, Calendar), and you can browse different calendars by tapping the Calendars button at the top left of the Calendar application. However, the Calendar still does not allow you to manage To Do list items or sync them between the iPhone and iCal or Mail.

Stability

With new software always comes bugs, and the iPhone 2.0 update is no exception. While my experience has included the occasional glitchy behavior as well as application crashes, on the whole I have found that the iPhone 2.0 software is relatively stable. What problems I have encountered have usually been solved by restarting the phone or, in the case of third-party applications, removing and reinstalling the application.

However, many of my colleagues have not been so fortunate with their updated phones. Several of them have had consistent problems with applications crashing or, in some extreme cases, restarting the entire iPhone. In particular, carrying out tasks while the App Store is downloading and installing an application seems to be one scenario where instability is extremely common. But the severity and frequency of such issues seem to vary widely among users. 

Macworld’s buying advice

The iPhone 2.0 software is full of the kind of refinements that you’d expect from a second-generation Apple product. The iPhone OS still isn’t perfect, and we wish Apple has addressed some lingering shortcomings, but it’s a welcome step-up for what was already arguably the best mobile platform on the market.

And support for third-party applications and the ease of distribution via the App Store means many of those gaps will likely be filled—eventually.

[Dan Moren is an associate editor at Macworld.]

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