capsule review

iOS 4 software update

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I ran into one odd bug in Mail, where the first page of a PDF attachment appears inline and I can’t view the rest of the pages. One of my colleagues had an issue where he had to force Mail to quit in order to get it to connect. And, at the risk of sounding like an inveterate complainer, iOS 4’s Mail still lacks a couple features that I’d much like to see, including the ability to flag messages and support for searching the full text of a message. But Apple has shown its commitment to rolling out new features a few at a time when they’re ready, so there’s always next year. Dan Frakes has delved even deeper into all the changes Mail has to offer, and what’s still left to be done.

Private security

The new Location Services preference pane lets you choose which apps can access your location.

If you’ve ever been concerned that a four-digit PIN isn’t secure enough for your personal data, iOS 4 lets you use a real password instead. Just switch the Simple Passcode slider in Settings -> General -> Passcode Lock to the Off position and you’ll be prompted to enter a password.

With iOS 4, Apple also ups the ante on security around your location. Since location services can now be accessed by applications running in the background, there’s now a little arrow icon in the menu bar that alerts you when an app is accessing your location. You can also look in Settings -> General -> Location Services to see which applications have requested your location in the past 24 hours.

Furthermore, in addition to the ability to deactivate location services overall, Apple also added granular controls that allow you to disable location services for specific applications. So if you want to use Maps to get directions, but you don’t necessarily want to geotag all your photos, it’s easy to do so.

Peak performance

While formal benchmarking is tricky on the iPhone, my initial impression of iOS 4 on my iPhone 3GS is that it’s quite snappy—more so than version 3.1.3. The OS as a whole seems more responsive, but there are a couple of places where speed improvements are pronounced: in general, the Camera app running on an iPhone 3GS seems far zippier now than previously. Pictures get taken almost instantaneously, and I didn’t notice any of the sluggishness that has occasionally plagued iPhone 3.0.

Of course, the 3GS is last year’s hardware, so I have to imagine that iOS 4 will really shine on the iPhone 4 when that phone debuts later this week.

The best of the rest

The Camera and Photos apps have new features like digital zoom, tap-to-focus video, and support for Events, Places, and Faces. My colleague Heather Kelly runs down all the associated features elsewhere.

Likewise, our resident media maven Christopher Breen details the updates to the iPod app (on the iPhone) and the Music and Videos app (on the iPod touch), such as new album views, the ability to create and edit playlists, and more.

iBooks has made the leap from iPad to iPhone with iOS 4, adding the ability to read PDF files. We’ll have a more in-depth look at this coming soon.

iOS 4 also adds new enterprise features, led by the ability to set up multiple Exchange accounts and better data encryption. We’ll have more on this later in the week as we put the features to the test.

Hodgepodge

While the capabilities noted above are the most touted features of iOS 4, the update is rife with the kind of little improvements that Apple makes in each successive version.

Swipe from left to right and you'll reveal the new playback controls and the screen orientation lock.

Since multitasking has taken over the double-click of the home button as its own, it means that the previous double-click behaviors of the Home button—bringing up the iPod controls, going to the Home screen, summoning your Phone favorites, and so on—are all now gone. Apple has made an allowance for the first of those; if you bring up the multitasking shelf and swipe from right to left, you’ll find Play/Pause, Forward, and Previous controls and an app icon for whichever program is currently playing background audio. (As a note, the lock screen media playback controls can also now work with whichever app is currently playing audio.)

This permanent set of controls also includes the new screen orientation lock, which lets you force the iPhone’s display to remain in portrait orientation; a small icon will appear in the menu bar when you activate this feature.

The ability to add wallpaper to your home screens, much as on the iPad, has divided users—some see it as tacky and unnecessary, others see it as a great way to make their phone stand out from everybody else’s. I think it depends a great deal on picking the right image, and while Apple provides the usual assortment of nice backgrounds, it is a shame that the company doesn’t at least offer an option for the iPhone’s old basic black. (You can always make your own black image, however.)

Safari now has the much publicized ability for you to choose between Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

Messages, which debuted in last year’s iPhone 3.0 to replace the Text app, gets a couple of nice refinements, including the ability to show a character count (which only appears once your message is longer than one line) and a group messaging option that means that when you text multiple people, any of their replies will show up in the group thread (as opposed to the thread for just that person). And, at last, text messages will appear as results when you use Spotlight on the phone.

Speaking of Spotlight, iOS 4 now lets you use it to kick off a search of the Web (using whatever site you’ve selected in your Safari preferences) or of Wikipedia. You’ll have to scroll to the bottom of the search results to find the options; select one and it will launch Safari and display the query results.

Spellchecking gives you suggestions for misspelled words.

Spellchecking in iOS 4 borrows more from the iPad, displaying misspelled words with a red underline. Tap the word and iOS will offer you suggestions for what you may have meant. Unfortunately, as with the iPad, there’s no way to edit the built-in dictionary, meaning that if there’s a word you frequently use that’s not in the dictionary, there’s no way to make spellcheck ignore it.

Road warriors will be thrilled that Apple has finally added hardware keyboard support to the iPhone via Bluetooth keyboards. Support for keyboards is much the same as on the iPad, allowing you to enter text within applications and use some of the control functions (selecting text; cut, copy, and paste; undo and redo; and a few others). However, the iPhone is clearly meant to be mainly used with the touch interface; the keyboard feels like an afterthought in most cases. Still, adding the option to carry a hardware keyboard is great for those who need to do a lot of typing on the go.

One further iPad feature that’s now available on the iPhone is the oft-criticized file-sharing feature. Supported apps can move documents on or off the phone via the Apps tab in iTunes (or via some third-party computer apps as well).

While you’ve been able to only turn on Wi-Fi since iPhone 3.0, iOS 4 allows to also just switch off cellular data, which means you can both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi running. It’s also handy if you happen to live in a poor reception area that eats through your battery.

Four for four

Of course, there’s much more in iOS 4, and we’ll probably continue to come across new details and tweaks as we spend more time with the software. Through its software updates, Apple has done a marvelous job of not just adding more capability but even making our older devices more capable. And best of all, iOS 4 is finally free to both iPhone and iPod touch owners, so there’s little reason not to upgrade.

However, there are a few caveats. For the first time, Apple has released an update with varying levels of support for its older hardware. If you’ve got a 3GS or a third-generation iPod touch, the update should be a foregone conclusion—all the new features should work fine. For owners of the iPhone 3G or the second-generation iPod touch, you won’t get multitasking, but you will be able to reap many of the other benefits of iOS 4; you certainly don’t lose any capabilities.

Owners of the original iPhone and iPod touch, however, are left out in the cold. Given that the first iPhone is only three years old, it may seem awfully quick to drop support for what was only a short time ago the most advanced phone on the market. But the mobile sphere is moving and changing so fast that it was bound to happen at some point—the fact of the matter is that those earlier devices simply don’t have the horsepower to run iOS 4 updates with acceptable performance.

If you’re really determined to run iOS 4 on your older device, the jailbreaking community will no doubt find a way to do so, performance be damned. But if you’ve been holding out for a compelling reason to upgrade your existing hardware, iOS 4 (and the forthcoming iPhone 4) may provide you with just that excuse.

[Senior Associate Editor Dan Moren has reviewed every major iPhone software update since iPhone 2.0.]

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Multitasking features are a welcome addition
    • Lots of great, smaller refinements
    • Zippy performance

    Cons

    • Holes in multitasking functionality
    • Mail still lacks flagging, full text search
    • Despite folders, app management still feels clunky
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