With iOS 4, Even the Dinosaurs Get a Few Bones
You don't have to have an iPhone 4 or even a 3GS to enjoy the new features present in iOS 4, Apple's latest update to its mobile operating system. While the original iPhones have to sit out this upgrade, old fogies like the 3G can enjoy at least some of the newer features. There's no multitasking, but the ability to create folders and use a unified email inbox count as some of the more useful new features.
The great thing about Apple and its iPhone ecosystem is that the company is predictable: Every June, we can expect a new iPhone, as well as a new version of the iPhone operating system, which will also work with iPod touches. In this way, Apple users who aren't going to upgrade to a new hardware model can still get in on all the Apple love and feel as if they aren't getting left too far behind.
This year, it's a bit different for a couple of key reasons. First, Apple sensibly renamed iPhone OS to "iOS" to better include any mobile Apple device (iPod touch and iPad). The new release is iOS 4. Great name.
On Monday, Apple released iOS 4 as a free downloadable upgrade for iPhone 3G, 3GS, and second- and third-generation iPod touches.
Savvy readers will notice that the first-generation iPhone and iPod touch is not on the list above, which brings up a second issue: A lot of the key goodness jammed into iOS 4 is limited to the latest hardware. Inevitably, as Apple innovates, some customers will still get left behind. But what about the iPad? It's slated to get the iOS 4 update this fall, so while it does have a hot new Apple processor, iPad owners will have to wait.
No Multitasking for Older Hardware
The biggest bummer for iPhone 3G customers -- like me -- is that the long-awaited multitasking feature is only available for the more recent iPhone and iPod touch hardware. This means, iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touches get multitasking -- but the iPhone 3G and second-gen iPod touch does not. This isn't terrible for me personally because I'm looking forward to getting a new iPhone 4, and I suspect, based on the pre-ordering mess that crippled Apple and AT&T's servers, quite a few iPhone, iPhone 3G, and even 3GS customers will be upgrading to iPhone 4 as well.
The multitasking is as powerful as a Mac or PC's multitasking, but with iOS 4, you can now double click the home button to get a list of currently running applications and easily swipe your finger through them to find the one you want to move to the forefront. So if you're on a Skype call now, you can continue with the call and still fish through your iPhone to find a piece of information without losing the Skype call you're one. Pretty cool. There are a lot of other ways to use multitasking, of course, but we're focusing on the iPhone 3G -- so what do 3G owners get?
Not so fast. One of the other little features I was looking forward to was wallpaper for more than the starting lock screen. iPhone 3G customers don't get it, and word on the street suggests that its processors aren't fast enough to nicely handle icon shadows that are created to help distinguish app icons from (possibly hideous) user-chosen background images. If the icons remained completely flat, they'd blend too much into the wallpaper. So rather than give us something that wasn't perfect, Apple seems to be disabling the feature.
We Still Get Folders!
There are, however, a few great new features that everyone can enjoy, and my favorite is the ability to create home screen folders. If you're like me, you've already been grouping your apps together based on your own rudimentary style. Mine happens to group the most-used apps in the first two screens, followed by types of apps on a screen each after. So news and media apps get a screen, while mapping applications get a screen, followed by a few game screens.
Now, by simply tapping and holding on any app, you can start the screen jiggle, which then lets you drag an icon on top of another to create a folder. Then drag another icon into the folder, up to 12. You can let iOS 4 choose a likely name, like "Games" or "News" based on the type of apps you threw in a folder, or you can manually choose your own name. The folder icon then shows you some tiny icons of the contents, which no doubt will look a lot sharper on the new iPhone 4 "Retina" screens.
When you tap a folder, it brings up a nice dark-gray texture background with the contents highlighted, and the remaining apps on the screen fade in the background.
Much Improved Mail Inboxes
Another excellent addition is the unified in-box for mail messages. With iOS 4, users can view email messages from multiple inboxes at the same time -- and I'm assuming that most users have more than one email address here. In addition, the main Mail screen also includes a list of the inboxes of your mail accounts so that you can easily tap an email inbox and go straight to the inbox. Previously, you had to back out of one inbox, choose a new Mail account, then choose its inbox.
The other account information and folders are still available below the unified inboxes and inbox "shortcut" links, of course, but these features and spots tend to be accessed far less often than most inboxes. An added benefit is the ability to organize by thread, which, on the small iPhone screen, makes it easier to track previous messages that all relate to each other.
Overall, the new unified method is a very welcome addition to iOS 4.
Integrated Spell Checker
Most Mac users are familiar with the ubiquitous red underline below misspelled words in most Mac apps; now that handy red underline comes to iOS 4. This spell checker runs automatically while you're typing, and it's in addition to the autocorrect feature that fixes common misspellings with common words.
If you confuse iOS 4 enough to generate the red underline, all you have to do is tap it to get some suggested fixes. Obviously, iOS 4 doesn't always figure out your mistake, but still, it's nice to be able to glance at a message and even manually fix spelling errors before sending it along. Plus, this spell check is found throughout iOS 4 -- for instance, if you're typing in a search field in Safari, it'll still give you a red underline for misspelled (or unknown) words.
Search the Device, Search the Web, Plus Icons on Glass
Speaking of search, the built-in Spotlight search feature -- the one to the left of the main home screen -- now gives users the ability to search their iPhone or iPod touch, in addition to searching the Web or Wikipedia with suggestions generated from the search term you enter. It's quite handy, and it helps promote the use of Spotlight, which seems to be a slightly faster way of searching the Web than tapping Safari to open up a browser page first.
There are several more little tweaks here and there for iPhone 3G owners, like the ability to create music playlists, which isn't much different from the On the Go playlist features found on the iPod nano. (After Genius recommendations, I haven't even missed the ability on my iPhone anyway.) I do, however, like the new four icons on the glass shelf at the bottom of your home screen in iOS 4. It looks a lot like the Mac OS X dock these days, and it's a sharp look -- a nice little update to the look and feel is all.
Don't Freak Over the Super-Slow Upgrade Process
Here's one last important note: It can take a long time to upgrade an iPhone 3G to iOS 4. For me, it took a couple of hours, and plenty of users have posted to online message boards complaining about the long process. The initial download went quickly, and I had to upgrade to iTunes 9.2 first, which was also fast, but the backup and sync process seemed to drag on and on, sometimes with no discernible progress before the little blue bar would shoot forward onto some new backup task.
It's worth the wait -- even if it's only to snag the new folder and unified inbox features.
MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.