Hands on: iOS 4 review

22nd Jun 2010 | 08:43

Hands on: iOS 4 review

We put Apple's new mobile OS through its paces

Hands on: iOS 4 review

Is the release of iOS 4 really a major milestone? With just a few days to wait for the new high-def iPhone 4, Apple has teased the installed base of iPhone 3 and iPhone 3GS users with the new iOS 4.

Released on Monday, we took a look at the new features and found some true gems.

1. Multitasking that actually works, sort of

Apple has touted multi-tasking as the major new feature in iOS 4. In realty, it's a "program hold" that is not the same as what you can do on a Mac or PC. True multi-tasking means the app keeps running in memory.

On a PC, that means if you download a game in a browser, and switch to Word, the download continues. On iOS 4, the app is actually held in its current state. So, if you start a new email, and then close the app and start the browser, and return to the email (by double-tapping on the Home button and selecting the icon), the email will still be there. In fact, for many apps, the processing continues.

iOS 4 multitasking

In one test, we started downloading an attachment in an email. We switched to another app, then went back, and the download had completed. However, that's not quite the same as actual multi-tasking where that app is literally still running.

You can't quickly switch between two opens apps. As one example, you can't run a sync to your PC and check email. And, you can't see two apps at once - say, run a side-by-side window with a puzzle game and an IM app running. Once a process is started in an app, though, such as a Pandora radio station, it continues to play even when you switch out.

In many ways, this is a major improvement. Keeping Pandora (and other music apps) open means you can do many other tasks, including email and IM, and still play your music. The only thing we miss is the old trusted double-tap on the Home button for accessing iPod and controlling music. It now pulls up the open apps, but you can swipe to the right on the open apps pad to see the music controls.

Overall, it's very cool to run the Nike app, start a run, close the app, listen to Pandora, and then see the GPS is still tracking your run. You can also open an app like Evernote and copy in re-useable data, like your email address or a new Facebook pal, for copy/paste into any other app.

iOS 4 music controls

Multi-tasking is supposed to send notifications "across the divide" so you will see that, for example, an AOL contact has sent you a message while you are deep in an Alive-4ever blood spattering match. In tests, this actually worked really well. We started an AOL chat, and when we went back after 10 minutes, the conversation was still in process. Better yet, the chat messages appeared as notifications. However, despite early reports, Skype IM and calls do not actually work currently with iOS 4 in our tests.

2. The Amazon Kindle Reader killer?

Is there any reason to keep using the Kindle? The iPad supports iBooks, and now so does the iPhone. Unfortunately, while the idea makes perfect sense, and we had a great time reading Neil Gaiman on the iPhone, there does not appear to be an easy way to load iPad books onto the iPhone.

This is a major problem, because for those of us hooked on iBooks it would be wonderful if you could read a few chapters on your iPad, continue reading where you left off on the iPhone, and even finish up the book on your Mac. While the iPad and iPhone are supposed to wirelessly sync the page you've read up to in exactly this way, we found we had to buy new books on the iPhone for testing.

3. Folders help with clean-up duties

For seasoned computer users, the concept of folders on the iPhone is not exactly a wizardly function. You can now group apps together by dragging one on top of another, which folds them into one folder, which you can then name. You can't create folders for data, or folders within folders. However, it does provide a way to seriously clean-up your home screens when you have hundreds of apps installed.

iOS 4 folders

4. Threaded conversations? Yes and no

Threaded conversations are a godsend for those who do a lot of email processing. On iOS 4, it means conversations are bundled together with a small number that shows how many back-and-forth chats you've had.

The catch here is that you only see threaded messages sent to you, not your replies (like you do in Gmail on a computer). However, it's quite an impressive new feature because it automatically cleans up your inbox in one swipe, especially useful if you also tend to use several POP accounts.

In the past, every message in every conversation was listed in the inbox. Now that they are grouped, you might even be tempted not to delete as many incoming messages as they are handily grouped.

Camera improvements and other enhancements

5. Wallpapers that follow you

Every iPhone user knows you can have a custom wallpaper, but just for the lock screen. With iOS 4, your wallpaper now appears as the background image, and not just when you glance at your array of icons (and folders) but also when you double-tap Home to see open apps. It's just another way to customise the iPhone experience with a pic of the kids or an HTC Evo being crunched by a forklift.

iOS 4 wallpaper

6. Dramatic camera improvements

We estimate that the camera app now runs about twice as fast. That's based on the fact that the pics just seem to pop into the camera roll faster - you press the shutter button and the camera just responds faster. This means you might even be able to capture some fast action at a football match (maybe).

There is also a new 5x zoom that works well, and a way to focus the lens during a video capture.

iOS 4 zoom

That option is a good idea but in practice the flat video image does not require a lot of re-focusing. We're not exactly talking HD video on a Canon 7D in 1080p here, with a nifty shot with the background out-of-focus. It's more like you can fine-tune the video focus just a hair for a minor improvement.

iOS 4 video focus

You can also view geotagged photos on a map - this shows you where you took the shots, but there doesn't appear to be a way to adjust these coordinates more precisely. Also, while Apple touted being able to group photos by face, this feature is either hard to find or non-existent.

iOS 4 places

7. Better playlist control

The new OS now lets you create custom playlists. This is handy because it means, as you are traveling away from your computer, you can choose which songs you really like and add them to a new playlist.

iOS 4 create playlist

You can also remove songs from a playlist you have created. (We could not find a way to remove songs from a playlist we created on our computer, however.) This added flexibility means you can create spontaneous playlists for a party or a train journey without having to create them in iTunes beforehand.

8. Other minor enhancements

Apple did a good job of adding a few minor perks, some you may not discover right away. There is a new spellchecker that puts a red underline under misspelled words. It's OK, but we actually prefer that the phone just corrects our mistakes and our recipients realise that we're on a mobile device.

iOS 4 spellcheck

There is now a way to lock the orientation - just press Home twice, swipe left, and click the lock button.

In Safari, you can set Yahoo or Bing as the default engine instead of Google.

iOS 4 change search engine

Ultimately, iOS 4 is a major achievement - both for advancing the platform, showing that Apple is committed to legitimate feature enhancements for older devices, and for a bright iOS future.


Liked this? Then check out iOS 4.0: 10 things to know

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