First Look: iOS 4.2 beta 1

iOS 4.1 is so last week. Along with Wednesday’s announcement of AirPrint came the first iOS 4.2 beta release for registered members of Apple’s iOS developer program. Of the two software updates, iOS 4.2 is arguably the bigger release: not only does it finally bring the features of iOS 4 (and iOS 4.1) to the iPad, but it also finally unifies Apple’s mobile software platform across its devices. Plus it actually brings a couple of new, prominent features along with it.

Macworld has taken a sneak peek inside the next version of iOS and brought you the lowdown on what you can expect when the update hits your device in November.

AirPrint

Safari, Mail, and Photos all now sport print options, usually under their Share buttons.

One of the biggest new features touted by Apple CEO Steve Jobs during his annual song-and-dance in September was the ability to print wirelessly from the iPad. As Apple announced on Wednesday, however, AirPrint will work one of two ways at launch: with a compatible printer from HP (and eventually, we presume, printers from other manufacturers) or with printers shared via your Mac or PC.

Unfortunately, we have neither one of those aforementioned printers nor the requisite software for testing shared printers (it requires Mac OS X 10.6.5) so we can’t regale you with tales of making printouts appear from our iPad as though by magic.

However, we can tell you that the print option appears in Safari, under the Share icon to the right of the Bookmarks button; in Mail, where it lives under the Reply button; and in Photos, where you’ll have to tap the Share button before you get an option to select and print pictures. Tapping print under any of these brings up a popover that asks you to select a printer by searching your network, and a control for selecting the number of copies.

Third-party developers will also be able to build in support for AirPrint into their own applications, finally bringing wireless printing to the masses.

AirPlay

The AirPlay menu in the iPad's iPod app
One of the other major features that’s new in iOS 4.2 is support for AirPlay, a new-and-improved version of the AirTunes feature found in the current desktop version of iTunes.

With AirPlay, you’ll be able to stream media—for example, music or video—from an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch to any AirPlay-compatible device. Initially, AirPlay will work with only AirPort Express units (for audio) and the new Apple TV (for audio and video), although Apple is licensing the technology to other vendors to allow them to sell AirPlay-compatible products—speakers, receivers, and the like. (iHome is one of the first companies to announce an AirPlay product.)

Whenever you’re listening to music in an AirPlay-enhanced app—for example, the built-in iPod app—under iOS 4.2, you’ll see an AirPlay button. Tap this button, and any AirPlay-compatible devices on the same local network appear in a popover menu. Tap a device, and your media is streamed directly to it. (If you’ve ever used Apple’s Remote app to control iTunes on your computer, the process of choosing an AirPlay destination is similar to using the Remote app’s Speakers menu to choose an AirPort Express for streaming music.)

As the new Apple TV is not yet available, we couldn’t test video streaming—if you choose an AirPort Express as the AirPlay destination from within the iPad’s Videos app, for example, only audio is streamed.

Additional iOS 4.2 features

Notes After three long years, our national nightmare of Marker Felt is finally over. Settings now has a Notes section which allows you to switch your font to Chalkboard or, happily, Helvetica. It’ll even update all your existing notes to use your new font voice. You can also set your default account for Notes.

As of iOS 4.2, the iPad's multitasking shelf now features a software orientation lock and a brightness slider.

Orientation Lock Like the iPhone before it, the iPad now has a software screen orientation lock when you swipe to the right in the multitasking shelf. Unlike Apple’s smaller devices, you can lock the screen in portrait or landscape orientations. But wait, what about the iPad’s hardware screen orientation lock? Turns out it’s gone, baby, gone—not the switch itself, of course, as that would be impressive for a software update, but it’s now been repurposed as mute switch, as with its iPhone counterpart. At the moment, you can also still hold down the volume down button for a couple seconds to mute the iPad, which is probably a redundant feature that should be excised.

Brightness Apple also added a brightness slider to the left of the media playback controls, a huge win for those who like surfing their iPads in a dim room, but hate having to navigate all the way into the bowels of Settings to find the control.

Safari now allows you to enter text in the search box that you want to look for on a page.

Safari iOS 4.2 brings a couple of small additions to Apple’s Web browser, but they’re nice ones. For one thing, the pages icon in Safari’s toolbar will now show you how many pages you currently have open. And you can also now search text on a page by entering your query in Safari’s search box, and then tapping the entry under the On This Page section at the bottom. You’ll then be able to quickly jump from result to result in the page, with Safari highlighting in yellow all the instances of the term, just like on your Mac or PC.

iOS 4 and 4.1 features

Users who have updated their iPhones or iPod touches to iOS 4 will be thrilled to see, at long last, most of iOS 4’s features make their way to the iPad.

Multitasking In iOS 4.2, the iPad adds support for the same seven types of background tasks that were introduced in iOS 4. You can double-click the Home button to bring up a shelf that lets you quickly switch between apps (on the iPad, it holds six icons in portrait orientation and seven in landscape mode). You can also play music in the background, make background VoIP calls, and receive local notifications, as long as you’re using an app that’s been updated with support for the relevant features.

Folders work on the iPad just as they do on the iPhone, but they can hold up to 20 apps instead of 12.

Folders Compulsive organizers and those deluged by apps will welcome the addition of folders with open arms. Sure, the feature may have only first appeared with iOS 4’s release this summer, but its absence on the iPad has made it feel like much, much longer. Thanks to the iPad’s larger screen real estate, folders can hold 20 apps instead of the 12 you can fit on the iPhone.

Mail The iPad’s version of Mail gets the unified inbox, conversation threading, and top-level inbox index introduced in iOS 4, and—hurrah!—you can finally tap the iPad’s menu bar to jump back to the top of a message list in portrait orientation as well as landscape.

Game Center iPad users now get their own version of Apple’s new Game Center app, specially designed for the app’s larger screen—there’s even a new home screen for the app that displays icons for Game Center-enabled games; tap any of them and you’ll be taken to that app’s listing in the App Store. Logging in with your existing account shows all of your existing friends, achievements, and games.

Calendar Those with Microsoft Exchange accounts will now be able to see event invitations in the iPad’s calendar application, giving them one less excuse for skipping out on that morning meeting.

iOS 4.2 forever—or at least until iOS 5

We’ll be honest: after checking out iOS 4.2, the idea of going back to 3.2.1 is inconceivable. Multitasking, folders—blessed folders!—and Mail’s improvements feel natural on the tablet and we’re sure that AirPlay and AirPrint will make us even more at home when they finally arrive in full force this November.

[Senior Editor Dan Frakes contributed to this report.]

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