The iPhone, whether you love it or loathe it, has just received its fourth major update, iOS 4. No we aren't talking a software revision like you get with Android, slowly increasing the power and effectiveness, but an overhaul not seen since, well, the one last year. But is it any good? Should you bother, what will you get and what is still missing? Read on to find out.
Download iTunes 9.2 (a requirement), press update on the iPhone panel and then wait. Depending on how regularly you back-up your iPhone will determine how long you have to wait. For us this meant around 20 minutes, but we've already heard of friends taking around 4 hours to update their iPhone or iPod touch (2nd and 3rd gen only).
Install successful, you can now go about using your updated phone and on the surface you'll think that nothing has changed. Why? Well because Apple has managed to overhaul the system, add a stack of new features, giving developers the option to add a stack of new features, all without really changing the core design.
That core design still means a grid system along with a similar interface. This isn't a glowing, all-singing, all-dancing, HTC Sense-like interface that has the weather shining out at you when it's sunny. That's partly down to Apple claiming how simple it is (my 2-year-old can use it) and also because changing it too much would most likely impact the 200,000 apps and the developers that make them. Changing too much also means diverting from what is a strong brand identity.
To help you manage those 200,000 apps you can now put apps into folders to help you manage your home screens. For us that meant going from nine homepage tiles to just two - a healthy saving on swiping left to right. Folders are restricted to holding just 12 apps each, however you can rename them to suit your needs - so Sports games, Racing games, Navigation, Stuart's folder of doom (you don't want to be in there), etc. Creating them is easy once you know how - you just drag one app on to another - however the system lacked the intuitiveness usually associated with Apple, as we had to look it up
Multitasking is also not as intuitive as it could be. While iOS 4 does support it, it is down to the developers to include support for the feature in their app. What that means is that you'll have to update your apps to get them to work in the background. That's fine for native Apple applications, but currently on day 1 of iOS 4 you can count the number of useful apps that can multitask on your fingers. This will change as more and more developers add the feature to their app, but don't expect all 200,000 to switch overnight or necessarily become enabled... ever.
To multitask, all you have to do is quickly double tap the home key at the bottom of the phone and a small dock appears. With no way to close apps when leaving the application all the apps that you've loaded will be sitting here ready to be scrolled through. That's not to say they are running - to save battery life iOS 4 puts them in a suspended state - but that they are there waiting to be called on. It would be nice if Apple had a "close all" option, but alas there isn't. Android fans will be familiar with this, and we'd expect a task-killer app to appear before long. Hidden within the multitasking toolbar you'll also get orientation lock (not on the 3G) so you can stop the screen switching if you are surfing in bed.
Other features of the new OS include the ability to add wallpapers to the home screens as well as an improved Spotlight search, with the option to search the Web and Wikipedia just like you can on webOS from Palm.
But it's not just the overall look and feel that has had an update, individual apps and functions from Apple have too, most notably the Photo and Camera offering. When taking pictures, the camera app now has a digital zoom, tap to focus, and a vastly increased speed boost. Taking a picture is now virtually instant. Video too gets a tap-to-zoom option.
Once you've taken your picture you still get the ability to send it, however iOS 4 lets you resize it before you do, while heading over to the Photos app gives you an approach more like iPhoto on the Mac. Images are now stored in albums, events or places and you'll be surprised with the lack of pin markers across the world if you've had geolocation activated on your iPhone 3G or iPhone 3GS (if you travel of course). It certainly shocked us.
Mail also gets an update. For those business types there is Exchange support, while for the rest of us there is the ability to have multiple inboxes in the same queue - Android has been able to do this for some time - which is welcomed here. You'll also get threaded emails, Gmail style, although they show the first rather than last message in the conversation, which can be confusing. Frustratingly there still isn't a "mark all read" button.
Within Settings there are plenty of new toys to get excited about - Bluetooth keyboard support (and iPad keyboard support as well), the ability to turn off cellular data so you don't go over your data package limits and the ability to restrict which apps you give location access to. There is also the ability to add Bing or Yahoo as your default search offering within Safari.
What you don't get, however, is greater Facebook integration, the ability to multitask if you are on the iPhone 3G and the chance to get key information like weather, email count, or SMS messages on the lock screen.
The iOS 4 update is clearly welcomed and it brings with it a selection of new features that iPhone users have been calling out for. However, as we found with the last major iPhone OS update (July 2009), you can't help feeling that all the new features have been on other handsets for months, if not years.
You could, in Apple's defence, say that's down to its vast mainstream audience, but if Sony and Microsoft can do it with their consoles, why can't Apple move more quickly with its phone OS?
A worthwhile upgrade, but don't expect it to be fully operational (just like the Death Star) until those developers have got on board and updated their apps to make the most of it.