Apple iOS 4 Tried and Tested

One day after the release of Apple’s new mobile operating system, iOS4, it’s time to examine whether it really lives up to the hype.

As I have a second-generation iPod touch rather than an iPhone, there are a few features which aren’t available to me. I’ll start by summing up the general online response to those, but do let us know in the comments section if your experience differs.

Multitasking: This is largely the flagship feature of the update. Technically it’s not multitasking as such, but rather a case of being able to freeze applications rather than close them when switching to another app. It’s a little early to come to any conclusions about how it works in practice as it’s down to each app developer to decide how they implement the feature, so there may be a lot of app updates in the coming weeks.

Wallpaper: You can now change the background wallpaper on the home screen. This isn’t a major deal to me either way as I’d imagine the plain black background offers the best contrast for the app icons, and it’s not as if you have plenty of empty space as with desktop operating systems.

Bluetooth keyboard support: Those who’ve used it may feel otherwise, but I can’t see many combinations where the benefit of typing on a real keyboard isn’t outweighed by the small screen of an iPhone.

Now to the features which are available to me:

Folders: You can now organize app icons in folders, as with most desktop icons. From what I can tell, this is probably more of a benefit to people with a lot of apps installed. The process certainly works pretty smoothly (though it’s slightly easier to rearrange the icons in iTunes on your computer), and apps are automatically put into categories, though you can rename a folder. It takes a little while to feel the benefits as you have to relearn where every app is positioned, but after that, it feels as if it saves time. The changes mean the menu screens can now cope with 2,160 apps, which sounds somewhat excessive to me.

E-mail: The two main changes are that you can bring several accounts into one inbox, and that messages are threaded. As I use my iPod to access a Gmail account, this doesn’t really bring anything new to me.

iBooks: While it’s nice to have it on here, the prices for new books are far too expensive for something I’ll be reading on a small screen. I also find the app runs noticeably slowly compared with third-party rivals such as Stanza. The PDF support is certainly useful, but is very reliant on the design and text size of the document: anything which isn’t large enough to be legible in full-page mode becomes too fiddly to read pleasurably. If anything, the shortfalls of the app are a fantastic advertisement for the iPad.

Spell checking: I was quite impressed to see this pop up in third-party apps such as TweetDeck. At the risk of tempting fate, this probably isn’t a feature aimed at me as, being a professional writer, I tend to use spellcheck only when using word processors rather than e-mails or status updates.

Wi-Fi: It wasn’t until researching this piece that I realized this change had been made, though I had noticed the effects. The iPod touch now stays connected to Wi-Fi in sleep mode (not, of course, when switched off), so some features such as e-mail can stay active and new message notifications will be up to date as soon as you re-open the device.

Other new features include the ability to give apps as a gift, photo tagging if you use iPhoto on a Mac, and custom playlists on the iPod touch. I’ve not explored the latter except to establish that it certainly doesn’t seem intuitive, but it’s certainly a positive that this is the only feature change where I’d need to look up any form of instructions.

Overall, there’s nothing revolutionary here; but there appears to be a few useful benefits along with what feels like a minor drop in speed. Given the way Apple portable devices are as much about how using them feels as the raw performance specs, that minor drop may be very significant to some users.

Apple claims there are more than 100 new features in iOS 4. That may well be true, but some of these are very minor changes such as relocating the airport mode setting to a more prominent position in the settings menu or choosing a password rather than PIN on the phone lock.

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