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June 25, 2010

Apple iOS 4 on iPhone 3GS

Reviewed by David MacNeill

Apple has released a major new version of iOS, the operating system formerly known as iPhone OS. Having spent the week working with iOS 4 on my iPhone 3GS along with a bevy of newly upgraded apps, I am pleased to report that it's all good. Simplistic? Yes, but blissfully true. If you have an iPhone 3GS, iPhone 3G, or second generation iPod touch, there is no downside to making the jump to iOS 4 immediately.

The changes are substantial without degrading the elegant simplicity of the iPhone interface. There are over 100 changes in all including some deeply technical bits of interest to app developers, but here I will highlight all the good stuff for iPhone 3GS upgraders like me: Multitasking, fast app switching, app folders, universal mail inbox and message threading, home screen wallpaper, wireless keyboard support, 5X camera zoom and video tap to focus.

Multitasking and fast app switching
Apple has finally allowed app developers to designate a single active program thread that continues to execute when you switch to another app or back to your Home screen. This is not system-wide, desktop OS-style multitasking but a closely controlled capability designed to deliver specific features without compromising performance, reliability, or battery life.

Here's a scenario: Apps that play or stream audio can now continue to do so when they are not in the foreground, as Apple's core music app has done all along. Launch Pandora, select a station - may I humbly suggest David MacNeill Radio? - then jump Home and the music plays on. Double click on the Home button and you'll see a row of your most recently run apps, all of which have been "frozen" in their previous state so you can instantly pick up where you left off. Swipe to the left and you'll see a set of music controls alongside the current music app, flanked by a handy screen rotation lock button.

The new system also allows background GPS tracking for navigation and other location-sensing apps such as the amazing Trapster for real-time notification of speed traps and other road hazards. Voice over IP apps such as Skype can now remain connected in the background while you leave the app to attend to other business. One final multitasking feature that you'll notice is background downloading. The system will now let you start a download, then switch to another app while that file completes its journey to you.

App folders
App Store addicts will love the new folder organization feature on the Home screen. Press and hold an app to get them all dancing, then drag and drop it on any other app to create a folder that can hold up to twelve apps. The folder is automatically named for you depending on the dragged app's type - Utilities, Navigation, Music, and so on, but you can change this name at any time, of course. In my case, I went from eight screens to one displaying nine folders, seven icons for my most often used secondary apps, and the big four core apps in the dock. Took a couple of days to memorize where everything lives but now I love it and I think you will too.

Universal Mail inbox and message threading
With seven active mail accounts to track I found myself swiping constantly to view each account's inbox dozens of times a day. Now I just scan the new One Inbox To Rule Them All and I am a happy camper. The new auto-threading option (on by default, but defeatable in Settings) groups related emails into a single entity that can be viewed and searched folder-style. I don't use threading on my other computers but it makes perfect sense on my iPhone.

Home screen wallpaper
Not a huge deal but still a nice touch for people who like to customize the look of their phones. You can choose from a selection of attractive textures from Apple or use a photo from your library. You can also simply press and hold on an image in a web page, save it, then designate it as your new wallpaper. Some reviewers have found the Apple supplied wallpapers to be a bit on the distracting side and have created their own using more subtle hues and textures.

Bluetooth keyboard support
Writers who like to travel light will love pairing a Bluetooth keyboard with their iOS 4-equipped iPhone or iPod touch, a feature already present in the iPad. Screen keyboards are fine for light to moderate text entry but when it's heavy editing time a real keyboard makes an enormous difference in your productivity and comfort. Most function and navigation keys are supported as well as audio transport buttons if present.

Camera zoom and video tap to focus
The iPhone 3GS' fixed focal length 3-megapixel camera can now digitally zoom up to 5X, though at a noticeable loss in image quality. The reason is that it's a software trick using cropping rather than a true optical zoom. Still, there are times when a close, grainy image is better than none at all. To activate, simply tap on your screen and a slider pops up for your zooming pleasure. A welcome addition to the video camera is one we already enjoy on the still camera side, namely the ability to tap the screen where you want the autofocus to aim.

In addition to these obvious upgrades there are numerous user security improvements, enhanced enterprise support for remote administration and multiple Exchange accounts, and dozens of little enhancements to the user interface across the board, all of which make the iPhone experience more elegant and reliable than ever. In keeping with Apple's uncanny ability to improve performance with each successive upgrade, iOS 4 makes my 3GS feel even more responsive. How they accomplish this while adding so many additional features is remarkable.

Older iPhones and iPod touch devices are not completely left out of the fun, though sadly iOS 4 is not supported on the original iPhone 2G, the first generation iPod touch, nor on the current 8GB iPod touch. Due to performance contraints in these devices, Apple chose to not allow them to be upgraded to the new operating system. For the iPhone 3G and later iPod touch devices, a healthy subset of the new features are provided. And of course, for the full iOS 4 experience you'll want to upgrade to the new iPhone 4, which I plan to do as soon as I can.

And what about the mighty iPad? Not to worry. Apple will release a free upgrade to iOS 4.1 for iPad this Fall. It can't arrive soon enough for me; now that I've gotten used to the unified inbox, background audio, and other productivity enhancements on my iPhone, it's a bit frustrating to go back to my iPad's "old" iOS 3.2.

Apple has provided iOS 4 as a free upgrade through iTunes. What's not to love?

~ David MacNeill (personalmediareview@gmail.com)

David MacNeill produces PersonalMediaReview.com, covering the tools and technologies for creating and enjoying media. He is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Digital Camera Magazine, the first all-digital photography magazine, and executive editor of Handheld Computing Magazine and Pen Computing Magazine.

Posted by dtm at June 25, 2010 05:24 PM