Thursday, June 24, 2010

Apple iOS 4 Review: Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

article-1277118768752-09EF7EB1000005DC-762335_636x300 Whatever side of Apple’s fence you’re on – anti-Apple zealot, pro-Apple zealot, or the rare realist who reacts reasonably to the virtues and shortcomings of their products – you’ve got to admit that that whole phone thing they did was a pretty big deal.

Since its release in 2007, the iPhone (and its phone-less counterpart, the iPod Touch – for the purposes of this article, assume I mean both when I mention the phone) has received a series of software upgrades to make it more capable. Some of these have completely changed the device – the App Store, arguably the device’s best feature, came with version 2.0 – and some have introduced facepalm-inducing features that should have been included from the beginning. Version 3.0’s addition of copy-and-paste tops this list.

Version 4.0 is somewhere in between these two extremes. A few nice enhancements make the phone a bit nicer to use, but people stuck on iOS 3 (more on that in a second) aren’t missing out on anything life-changing.

No iOS 4 you!

Let’s start with a list of can’ts: the new iOS will not run at all on the original iPhone, or the first-generation iPod Touch. This sets a precedent for a three-year software support cycle that Apple is likely to follow with future updates – iOS 5 will probably drop support for the iPhone 3G, iOS 6 will drop support for the 3GS, and so on.

Next, while iOS 4 is supported on the iPhone 3G, many of its marquee features are missing – there’s no multitasking, no home screen wallpaper, and no external bluetooth keyboard support. For customers who bought the iPhone 3G when it came out, this is Apple’s way of reminding you that you haven’t bought a new phone from them in a little while and could you please pony up for another one. For iPhone 3G users who bought their phones more recently – they were sold in stores until the beginning of this month – this amounts to little more than a kick in the teeth.

In short, Apple would like it very much if you replaced your phone about once every two years, whenever your AT&T contract runs out.

So, what does it do?

So, okay, assume you’ve got an iPhone 3GS, or that you’re the sort of person who camps out in front of Best Buy for a week so you can be the first yuppie on your block to have an iPhone 4. What’s different?IMG_0126Let’s start with the boatload of cosmetic changes. Apple knows from years of Mac OS X development that if you don’t make stuff look at least a little different, it creates the illusion that things aren’t happening. Home screen wallpapering (see above) sounds like (and is, really) an insignificant feature, but it does make the device easier to personalize, which consumers like.

IMG_0127 The next big cosmetic change is more functional – dragging one app icon on top of another one now puts both of those apps into a folder, which can make organization much easier for people with loads of stuff installed.IMG_0129 The iPod app also gets a bit of a facelift, with a prominent Shuffle button and album art now displayed at the top of album track lists. Once you’re actually playing music, though, the app acts basically the same as it did in iOS 3.

IMG_0131 Moving on to some of the more functional changes, heavy email users will appreciate some of the changes to that app. People with multiple accounts can now use the “All Inboxes” feature to see all of their email collected together in one place. Additionally, mail is now displayed in threads by default – an email and all replies under the same subject are now grouped together, instead of as a long, disjointed series of replies. Gmail users are already familiar with this concept. This feature can be turned off, for people who prefer the old-school view.

IMG_0128 The biggest addition to the new software is its ability to multitask – double-tapping the Home button will bring up a list of all apps you’ve launched since you turned the phone on. This capability has always been part of the OS, but only in iOS 4 has it been made available to third-party app developers (this is why you could play iPod music and check your email at the same time, but the Pandora app would stop playing as soon as you left it to do something else).

Some would argue that the feature is only half-baked, and at this point I’m not especially inclined to disagree. Apple still puts limits on multi-tasking in order to preserve the snappiness of its user interface – most apps are simply frozen in place until you come back to them, so videos don’t necessarily queue and downloads don’t necessarily happen when you leave an app to go do something else in another one. The menu, which doesn’t close anything automatically, quickly becomes hopelessly cluttered. App developers also need to add multitasking capabilities to their apps individually, and while I’m sure everyone will be up to speed in a month or two the support at the moment is a bit lackluster. Still, it’s a small step in the right direction.

IMG_0130There is, of course, a laundry list of smaller features that will vary in importance to you based on how you use your iPhone:

  • The iPhone can finally be tethered to a computer for on-the-road Internet access (if, of course, you cough up the extra $20 a month to AT&T)
  • Apple’s iBooks e-reader app is set to make its iPhone debut
  • Wi-Fi network connections now stay on even when the device is asleep
  • Spellchecking is now done in every app system-wide
  • An orientation lock (accessed by double-tapping the Home button and going left, see above) can now disable flipping between portrait and landscape mode
  • The Game Center app looks to bring Xbox Live-style Achievements and friend lists to the iPhone – game apps will need to be updated to support it, of course
  • Microsoft’s Bing search engine joins Yahoo! and Google (the default) as an option
  • The phone’s lock screen now supports alphanumerical passwords
  • The camera now has 5x digital zoom

There are others (see a more comprehensive overview here), but these are the most notable user-facing innovations.


The changes in Apple’s latest iPhone operating system, contrary to what Apple would like to tell you, are mostly incremental. The still-limited multitasking ability is the new software’s biggest advancement, and while being able to play Pandora while you do other things is nice, it won’t fundamentally change how you use your iPhone.

As updates go, though, I’m fairly happy with it. The New Stuff Excitement that I’m prone to wore off pretty quickly, but the changes to the Mail app and the ability to put apps in folders are both genuinely useful features to which I’ve already gotten used.

Do we have any other upgraders in the audience? How has the change been for you? Sound off in the Comments section!