updated 06:10 pm EDT, Mon June 21, 2010
iOS 4 not perfect but much more effective
Although many Apple device owners are already updating to iOS 4, the question remains for many whether they should make the leap. That's especially true if you're either running a jailbroken device or if you're coming from another smartphone platform and want to know what you'll miss. We've taken a first look at iOS 4 on an iPhone 3GS to see what's gained -- and what's still missing.
By far the biggest change is the ability to keep apps running in limited form in the background. The feature has been around on other smartphone platforms for years, but Apple has until now been very resistant to the feature for its effects on battery life and performance: on mobile processors, allowing an app full privileges is still a drag on battery life and speed. Anyone who has used a Symbian S60 or Windows Mobile phone can attest to having to reboot the phone frequently, and Android owners have turned multitasking into an art as they download specialized task killer apps.
Apple's implementation is relatively limited, but it focuses on common scenarios where a live task is genuinely needed: audio players, location-aware apps, VoIP and anything that needs either to finish an active task or send a local notification. Only iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4 and third-generation iPod touch owners get the feature; Apple claims the experience would be poor on any weaker hardware, where RAM and processor speed could play a part.
Using it is fairly simple; a double-tap of the home button brings up a tray that shows all apps that are considered active, even if they technically don't support multitasking. Tapping an app once switches to it; a tap-and-hold brings the option to close it. One caveat is the orientation. Even in apps that force landscape mode, the app switcher always appears at the bottom of the device screen.
For every tasks, it's convenient. You no longer have to reload every app whenever you're done in a given environment. Even in older apps that can't exit gracefully, it still usually brings you back to where you were through fast switching, rather than beginning fresh.
There are also specific UI additions if you're using apps that are properly aware of iOS 4. Our favorite is audio: a swipe to the left in the app switcher shows audio controls that are relevant to whatever is the current audio app, whether it's the official iPod player or a third-party app like Pandora. Apple's software no longer gets special treatment in this regard; you can skip to the next song in a radio stream, and likely a third-party app with caching such as Rhapsody or Slacker, without having to either keep the app in front or to jump back in. Others use the same expanded title bar as active phone calls or tethering do when they're in the background to let you know something important is going on, such as audio recording in Evernote or an upload to Dropbox.
What's not there, however, is complete control over background tasks. An iOS app can't start a download all on its own, for example, or receive notifications that weren't either created online or while the app was open. In this sense, Android and veterans like Symbian still have the edge; it's not uncommon for an Android user to find out about a direct Twitter message as soon as it arrives or RSS feed updates on a set schedule. As such, anyone who's expecting to juggle several apps at full strength will no doubt be heartbroken, but it goes a long way towards addressing the actual situations where background tasks are ideal.
The other, more glaring catch is simply time. As of this writing, very few iOS apps support fast app switching, let alone the full multitasking features. Your initial experience may be to switch, only to have an app reload some of the information it had previously loaded. That will change, but for now it's not quite the predicted paradise.
Organizing apps on earlier versions of Apple's mobile OS has been a pain: it usually involves treating home screens as de facto folders and requiring several swipes to get to an app from one end. Virtually all of that trouble goes away in iOS 4, as it's now possible to group several apps together in a folder and to have as many app folders as you like.
The interface is arguably the best one could hope for to sort apps. Creating a folder just requires dragging one app on top of another, picking a name (one is suggested based on the app type) and saying you're finished. From then on, adding apps just requires subsequent drags on to the same folder; it's possible to rename folders and reorder the apps inside. Opening one just requires a single tap that 'pulls' it open to show the contents, and notification badges will appear on the folders containing relevant apps.
What we liked most was simply consolidating our home screens; we shrank our test iPhone's home screen count from about six pages full of apps to four with just a few minutes' work. Thankfully, you can edit these from the app layout pane when the device is docked with iTunes, but in either case it no longer has to be a nuisance to have seldom-used apps occupying space.
The implementation could theoretically expand to include sub-folders, labels or other items to make organization even more thorough, but right now this is still the best implementation we've seen yet. As any Android owner can attest, having to scroll through a giant library of apps can be a serious deterrent. BlackBerry owners see folders, but even they have more work involved in organizing their apps; they won't even have multiple home screens until BlackBerry OS 6.0.
Many iPhone users will tout e-mail as one of their favorite experiences, and in some cases it's even been championed as superior to BlackBerries; anyone who has tried to selectively move or delete e-mail on a Bold will know how slow it can be. That said, iOS 4 represents a significant amount of catching up for Apple and solves some of the more longstanding quirks.
A unified inbox is the biggest improvement. If you like, you can now pool all your mail accounts into a single inbox view. That saves time clearing messages and just launching back into the app once it's closed. Apple could stand to better label messages, though. It's not as evident which messages belong to which account, so the slight risk exists that you might start a new message without realizing you're in the wrong account.
Threaded conversations are also new and are welcome for anyone who's had a detailed business discussion and wants to be aware only of the messages involved. Again, Apple has made it very simple: a number at the top of the inbox shows how many messages are in the conversation, and tapping in will show just the messages related to that chat.
Apple's slow crawl towards a file system has also borne some fruit in the handling of mail attachments. Files that aren't covered by iOS' built-in utilities can be launched by a third-party app set up to handle that format. It's not a true file system, but it's enough that third-party readers and other tools can be useful outside of their own confines.
There are a handful of updates with narrower utility. Gmail users can now archive messages instead of deleting them. Notes are now linked to a particular e-mail account and sync wirelessly through e-mail. Workers with more than one Microsoft Exchange account can check all of them instead of picking and choosing which account to use. Neither is a particularly large change, but for some it could mean the difference between using the company-issued BlackBerry or buying a personal phone.
Media changes: camera, iPod, photos
A handful of features have rolled out to cater to media capture and playback, though some of this is catching up to the iPad or rival smartphone technology. In the camera, the most significant add-on is digital zoom. Like some other camera phones, it's now possible to zoom (here, up to 5X) digitally. It works quickly, by tapping the screen and moving a slider, but like with point-and-shoot cameras we find it has limited utility. A digital camera can't invent image data that isn't available in the full-resolution shot, so the zoom has to interpolate and produce a blurry shot. Taking a screen cap of the feature while keeping the phone steady is also a challenge, as you'll find here.
What's more interesting is the photo viewer app, which now recognizes many of the organization features that have been in Aperture and iPhoto starting from last year. Events, not just albums, show up in the list. Faces and Places now show up if your photos are tagged accordingly. And if you attach photos to mail, you can now shrink them to one of three reduced sizes if the original would take too long or strain your e-mail server.
Music has hardly received any treatment, but Apple did take one step closer towards device independence with playlists. Visiting the Playlists section now lets you create a playlist from scratch, and it's possible to edit both new and existing playlists.
Although it's not really new, iBooks has been made into a universal app that works with both iPads and smaller devices like the iPhone and iPod. Anyone who has used the iPad app will be very familiar with the interface, down to the ability to curl the page with your finger. The screen size is, literally, the only difference on either side.
Thankfully, the launch of the iPhone-ready edition does bring features that put iBooks much closer to rival readers from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and others. Highlights and notes work much as you'd expect and, thankfully, sync from device to device. You can also now read unprotected PDFs, an important factor for anyone who has previously had to turn to a third-party reader app to get documents.
Of course, the same restrictions also apply. You can't use iBooks to read just any formatted document. If it's not an unprotected ePub, an iBookstore ePub or a PDF file, iBooks won't work. In that sense it's no worse than the Kindle reader, but the Balkanization of e-reader apps doesn't get much better with Apple's contribution.
Typing: Bluetooth keyboards, spelling checks and more
iPad owners are well aware of Bluetooth keyboard support, but for iPhone and iPod touch owners it's still a treat. Once paired, any standard keyboard will provide at least typing and even some shortcuts: on a Mac-ready keyboard, the usual copy/cut/paste/select shortcuts work, and any media key that works with a Mac works with the device, such as skipping or brightness, works here too. It's of course limited to whatever iOS will let you do, as you can't replicate a home button tap, but it will be very useful for students who need to write notes, whether in Notes or an app like Documents to Go.
Spelling checks have been given a lift, no matter how you write text. If more than one suggestion is available, iOS floats the options above the word; tapping the one you want changes it accordingly. And the Messages app has now caught up to Twitter clients with a text counter showing how close you are to the limit, an important warning to avoid splitting messages into two.
Finding content as a process hasn't changed much in iOS, but there are a few notable changes. Spotlight can now search the web or Wikipedia, though it doesn't do this live. It additionally has options to selectively filter content types out if your results are too broad. Spotlight-style suggestions have also now shown up in Safari, so if you're not sure what the result should be, your default engine can provide a clue.
Lastly, Bing is an option for Safari's default search, but we have a hard time imagining many going out of their way to use it, even with HTML5 optimizations. Google has its own optimized search page, and unless you're doggedly loyal to Apple's newfound dislike of Google, the default Google search option is likely where it will stay.
Privacy and security
Steve Jobs has claimed that iOS 4 is a reflection of Apple taking privacy and security more seriously. We're inclined to believe it from the handful of settings. Location awareness can now be selectively turned on and off after it's been enabled for a given app. Developers even get some control over device info, as device data from iAds can be turned off.
Enterprise-class users may actually get the best treatment. E-mail, files and third-party apps can be encrypted with an unlock only possible using the iPhone's PIN. VPN connections can work over SSL, and corporate customers can push apps over the air instead of having to sync with a computer first. While we couldn't test these in our environment, we can attest from experience that many of these features are either recommended or required. No company wants iTunes as a mandatory install on every worker's PC, and it's no longer necessary except for backups.
There are even more features we could describe -- we have to admit that we love setting a custom picture for the home screen -- but many of them are either cosmetic or relatively minor. Suffice it to say that the major updates have a significant impact on how you use an iPhone or iPod. You no longer have to feel trapped in every app you use or bounce constantly between e-mail accounts and home screens.
But how does it compare to a competing OS? It depends on the platform. We'd argue that Android users are still somewhat secure. Google's multitasking is still a pseudo implementation of its own, but it can update on its own and provides a wider variety of notifications. If you're concerned about Apple's app policies, too, this won't do much to change your mind. We also have to urge Apple to take device independence and online sync more seriously. It shouldn't be necessary to download a 380MB firmware update every time an OS revision arrives, and as much should sync as is possible over the air; signing on to a Gmail account or an Apple ID should get all your contacts, calendars and media in sync.
In many ways, though, Android now actually feels somewhat stiff. Trying to navigate quickly to an app that doesn't have a top-level home screen shortcut feels clumsy on Android, even with Android 2.1; whether it's the app switcher or just the app list, it's slower. E-mail has also been left even further behind. As much as Android is outstanding for Gmail access, its third-party and Exchange access trail significantly. Moreover, there are still some areas where Apple has had an advantage for years. Safari is still faster and more intuitive to use for browsing, offline sync with a computer is much more streamlined, and of course media playback is far more advanced without having to turn to third-party apps.
The companies that should fear iOS 4 the most are the aging veterans: Microsoft, RIM and Symbian. All three of these are about to release major revisions of their mobile operating systems, but in many cases these really are just attempts to catch up to where Apple and Google were a year ago, such as multi-touch input or even just having a finger-friendly interface in the first place. There are still a few areas where Apple lags, as it's still not the top pick for a corporate environment and doesn't have widgets or a proper file system, but iOS 4 is now caught up in many of the most important areas and is decidedly ahead in others.
Ironically, Microsoft is even knowingly stepping backwards in some areas to make sure Windows Phone 7 releases on time: it's dropping multitasking just as it reaches the iPhone, for example. iOS won't suit everybody, but the arguments against it have gotten just that much weaker.