iPhone OS 4.0 (iOS 4) — Run Though, Impressions, and Tips

This morning, I downloaded the latest major software update for the iPhone and iPod Touch — iOS 4 (renamed from iPhone OS). I’ve been playing with it all day on my iPhone 3GS, testing the new features and exploring how it performs and what it can do. I have an extensive run though, some thoughts and impressions, and some useful tips.

iOS 4 is available now for all iPhone 3G and 3GS users, though original iPhone users have been left out and iPad users won’t get it for a few months. To get it, you just need to plug your iPhone into your computer and hit update, but if you don’t have iTunes 9.2 yet you’ll have to upgrade to that version first.

Let’s run through things one at a time:

General Impressions

It’s fast. Rather, on the 3GS the new OS is noticeably snappier than the previous version (3.1.1). Icons seem to fly around and I haven’t run into any noticeable lag, even when running many apps in the background (which I’ll get to below). That said, reports from users of the iPhone 3G are that the new software is not any faster on that device, but it isn’t purported to be any slower either.

It’s pretty. Not only can you select a background wallpaper for the homescreen (you can check mine out in the post image), but the look of the dock has changed to more closely resemble the one in Mac OS X and some of the icons (notably the calculator) have been made a little more attractive. iPhone 3G users are apparently not able to set their own homescreen wallpaper, but it should be noted that these changes are purely cosmetic.

Multitasking

It’s the big, headline feature of iOS 4, and so far it seems to work as advertised. Multitasking allows apps (or rather, specific features of apps) to run in the background while you are doing other things on the phone. For instance, I can listen to a station on Pandora while surfing the internet, or answer a phone call while using a GPS app without losing my guidance. Apps have to be specifically updated to run in the background, so many or most of your non-Apple apps won’t work in the background right off the bat. The first thing to do after updating to iOS 4 is to hit up the app store to see which of your apps have updates and download them, so you can take advantage of the new features right away. It should also be noted that iPhone 3G users won’t get multitasking – apparently the 3G doesn’t have the processing power to handle it.

How multitasking works: When you hit the home button and the part of an app that supports multitasking is running, it will stay running. So, if you’re listening to a song in Pandora, or are getting GPS voice guidance, and hit the home button, it will keep playing (whereas before it would cut out), even if you open other apps. Other apps that don’t actually have something going in the background will ‘freeze’ in place, so that when you open them up they should be in the exact same place they were before you froze them. This means that you can browse the web a little, go check your email, and come back to Safari without fear that you’ve lost your webpage. For that matter, you could start a page loading in the background while you go and check something else.

To see which apps are frozen or running in the background, you double click the home button. This brings up the app switcher, which pops up from the bottom of the screen and shows you the icons for those apps. Clicking an icon takes you directly into the app — this means you can move from one app to another without having to bounce to the home screen first. If you have more than four apps open, swiping to the right will take you to the rest of them. In my experience, once you open an app for the first time it will appear in the app switcher, with the apps most recently being those furthest left.

A few app switcher tips:

  • To kill an app that is running in the background, hold down on one of the icons in the app switcher for a few seconds until it starts wiggling (like you would do if you wanted to remove an app from the home screen). Once the red minus sign comes up, hitting it will close the app and remove its icon from the switcher.
  • Swiping left on the app switcher will provide playback controls for whatever music player you are currently using/were using most recently (such as iPod or Pandora). You will also find an icon there for locking the screen orientation into portrait mode, which could be useful in some instances.
  • Since double clicking no longer takes you to your phone favorites (or iPod if you had selected it in settings), that feature has now been replaced by double click and hold. Double clicking when the phone is locked will still bring up music playback controls, and those controls will operate whichever music player is running or was running last (so no longer only the iPod).

  • Multitasking performance is remarkably good. Switching apps happens really fast (with a neat little animation), and streaming music in the background did not seem to affect the performance of other apps. In fact, even as I opened more and more apps, I did not notice the phone slowing down at all. Now, I haven’t had the chance to use a really heavy duty app, such as a turn by turn GPS program, but so far the phone has handled everything I’ve thrown at it.

    The other big question is battery life. It’s too early for me to tell if running all these apps in the background has really affected the phone’s longevity, since it’s spent most of the day plugged into the computer getting updated.

    Folders

    Users can now group the applications into “folders”, which allows them to name them under a shared icon. Clicking the icon (which is a box containing a grid of the apps it contains) opens the folder and lets you click any of the apps it contains. To create a folder, you hold and drag one icon onto another, and name it. For some reason, there seems to be a limit of 12 apps per folder, which I found a little annoying. Also, and this is my opinion, the folder icons do not look nearly as good or distinctive as most of the application icons they’re replacing, which can leave your screen looking boring and make it hard to quickly find what you’re looking for.

    iBooks

    iOS 4 grants the iPhone access to Apple’s ebook reader and store, iBooks. iBooks isn’t automatically included on the phone – you must go into the app store and download it yourself (it’s free). It comes with one book — Winnie the Pooh — and using the built-in store you can buy many, many more. If you have iBooks on the iPad, logging on will automatically sync your library (including your notes, bookmarks, and current location in the books) between the two devices. I will do an entire post with my impressions of the iBooks software — look for it in the next day or so.

    Email

    Many people are really excited about the new email features, which include threaded email (like you see in Gmail) and a unified email inbox for users with multiple email accounts. Unfortunately I haven’t gotten to use those features since I only have one email account and don’t like threading, but they reportedly work as advertised.

    Lots More Tips

  • SMS Character count: Text messages have a limit of 160 characters (stupid, yes, but it is what it is). Up until now, when typing a text on an iPhone, you would have no idea how many characters you were at. If you go over 160 characters, the iPhone sends out two text messages. This means that you are charged for two texts and your recipient sees your message as broken up into two (or more) pieces (unless they’re using an iPhone, which automatically recombines them back into a single message). You can now avoid this by going to settings, tapping on messages, and turning character count to “on”. Now, as you type out a text you’ll see a running count of your characters on the right side by the send button.
  • Zoom in the Camera: The camera now has a 5x digital zoom. To use it, tap once on the screen while in the camera app, and you’ll see a zoom slider which will let you move in and out. It should be noted that with a digital zoom, you’re not actually zooming in. You’re essentially doing the same thing as cropping the image on the computer — moving in on a portion of what’s being picked up by the image sensor and blowing it up, which will detract from the quality of the image.
  • Quick Internet Search: You can now search the internet directly from spotlight. Swipe to the left into spotlight, type in what you’re looking for, and tap “Search Web” or “Search Wikipedia”. It will open your search results in Safari. For web searching it is still probably faster to just open up Safari and type into the search box at the top, but this is definitely faster than actually going to Google or Wikipedia to do a search.
  • Turn Off Cellular Data: If you’re abroad and just want to use your phone on wifi (which is what I did when I was in Europe), you can now turn off the cellular connection entirely. Go to settings, tap on network, and toggle cellular data to off.
  • Home Screen Wallpaper: You set your home screen wallpaper the same way you set your lock screen wallpaper. Either you can select it from the menu while looking at a photo in the photo app, or go to settings and then tap on wallpaper. By default, the phone will automatically assign your lock screen wallpaper as your home screen wallpaper until you change it.
  • Playlists: You can now name the playlists you create in the iPod app. Go to playlists and tap “add playlist”.
  • There are lots of other small changes to iOS 4. For instance, you can now search your SMS messages using a search bar at the top, use a longer alpha-numeric password to lock your phone, and tether your phone to your laptop once you set up your plan to allow for it with AT&T. I have not gotten to try all these features yet, but several of the ones that I have not touched on can be found at this fairly comprehensive Gizmodo post.

    Wrap Up

    So far, iOS 4 has more than lived up to its promise. Multitasking, folders, and all the other improvements seem to work, and work well. Moreover, performance is quick (at least on the 3GS), and I have not had the phone freeze, crash, or even stutter in the one day I’ve been using it.

    My only gripe is that the iPhone 3G is getting a watered-down version of the OS, and the original iPhone has been left out entirely (despite having the same processor as the 3G). I get that Apple wants people to upgrade to the latest hardware, but it seems unfair to their loyal customers who just want to hold on to their still-functioning phones.

    Nevertheless, I feel like my phone has a lot more utility and functionality than it did this time yesterday, and to that I can only give a big thumbs up.


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