For those of us with an iPhone or iPod touch running iOS 4, it has been a small torture to switch back and forth between one of those devices and an iPad with iOS 3.2, the version it shipped with (or 3.2.1, a minor update that appeared shortly thereafter). We miss fast app switching, folders, background audio, the unified Mail Inbox, and other features that seemed invaluable the minute they became available. It has felt like a long wait for the iPad to get its due at last—so long that determining what’s new between iOS 3.2.1 on the iPad and iOS 4.2.1 took some research. Here’s our list of the highlights.
Multitasking -- The iPad with iOS 3.2 can handle only a single task at a time, with a few exceptions for Apple apps and activities. For instance, you could play music in the background from the iPod app or audio playing in Safari, or receive data via push (such as new calendar events or email) even if you weren’t running the appropriate app for that data.
Think of iOS 4.2.1 as adding 20 points to the iPad’s IQ, enabling it to keep track of more things at once while an unrelated app is active. Background multitasking comes in a few flavors: audio, location, voice over IP, printing, and streaming. It enables independent apps to play music in the background, update location information for mapping and navigation programs, receive and continue handling an Internet phone call, keep a file spooling to a printer, and streaming audio and video to an Apple TV all at the same time as you’re using another program.
Background multitasking is distinct from iOS 4’s capability to let you switch among recently launched apps. That’s up next.
Fast App Switching -- Fast app switching means no more long waits on splash screens for the same app to launch for the seventh time in one work session. As you might expect, an app must be recompiled for iOS 4 before it can take advantage of the instant-save state. Also, if the iPad runs out of memory, it quietly kills less-recently used apps in the background, requiring a relaunch when you return. (See Matt Neuburg’s more detailed description in “What is Fast App Switching?,” 23 June 2010.)
Pressing the Home button twice quickly brings up the fast-app switching interface, sliding the home screen up to reveal a drawer of recently used apps, shown in order of recency from left to right. Swipe from right to left to view more, and tap an app icon to switch to it.
Because the Home double-press option is now reserved for fast app switching, it’s no longer possible to customize an action for that double press. In iOS 3.2, you could specify that a double-press would take you to the first Home screen, the Search screen, or switch to the iPod app. Double-pressing the button when the iPad is locked still brings up the audio playback controls without having to unlock the device, however.
Audio, Orientation, and Brightness Controls -- The app drawer also reveals options mostly unrelated to switching. Swipe left-to-right with the drawer open and the iPad offers several new controls. A new screen orientation lock button replaces the previous functionality of the hardware switch (which now becomes a sort of mute button, silencing sound effects but not music). A screen dimming slider is a welcome new adjustment, saving a trip to the Settings app whenever you want to dim the screen.
Also appearing are playback controls (previous, play/pause, next) that control whichever app is playing media; this applies not just to the iPod app, but also to others such as Pandora or Apple’s Videos app (which is handy if you’re using AirPlay to stream video to an Apple TV).
Lastly, if you have AirPlay-compatible devices on your network (such as an Apple TV, AirPort Express, or third-party hardware that works with the service), an AirPlay icon appears to the right of the playback controls, next to a volume slider.
Folders -- You can now group apps into “folders” (though visually they don’t look like folders at all). After pressing and holding on an app to enable the app customizing interface—where the app icons all jiggle—drag one app on top of another to create a folder, or drag an app to an existing folder to add it. Don’t forget that you can also rearrange icons and build folders in the Apps screen of iTunes when the iPad is connected and selected in the sidebar; it’s easier to select and move several apps at a time there.
AirPlay -- AirPlay is a new name for Apple’s older AirTunes technology, previously available only within iTunes. Using AirPlay, the iPad can stream audio over a Wi-Fi network to an AirPort Express base station connected to a stereo, an Apple TV (old and new models), and other devices that support AirTunes/AirPlay. AirPlay can stream to multiple devices at once.
AirPlay brings with it not just the name change, but the capability to stream video or photos to the new Apple TV announced in September 2010 for playback on a TV; older Apple TV models don’t include the video-streaming feature. Thanks to multitasking, the video can stream in the background while you’re using other apps on the iPad or when the iPad is locked.
The Apple TV has to be updated to version 4.1 of its operating system, which was released on the same day as iOS 4.2.1. On the Apple TV, choose Settings, then General, then Software Update.
AirPrint -- One shortcoming of iOS 3.2 on the iPad for business travelers was the inability to print from the device without third-party software. The good news is that AirPrint adds the capability to print under iOS 4.2.1; the bad news is that the feature is extremely limited.
Currently, the iPad can print directly only to a small set of supported HP printers. Apple originally promised that AirPrint would also work with other printers shared by a Mac on a network, but that capability didn’t materialize with this release. (A great alternative is Ecamm’s $9.95 Printopia, a Mac OS X preference pane that creates compatible virtual printers for printers that your Mac can print to; it also enables you to send PDFs from your iOS device to the Mac or a Dropbox folder.)
Game Center -- The Game Center app was introduced in iOS 4.1 for the iPhone, and it’s new to the iPad with iOS 4.2.1. Although many iOS games have a multiplayer option that makes it possible to play with people across the room or across the globe, Apple’s Game Center app gives you a centralized home for accessing many multiplayer games, all with one login account (your iTunes Store account), one handle, one friends list, and one über-scoreboard. It also gives game developers a single method of programming their user-interaction options.
As with Ping, Apple’s iTunes social-networking service, Game Center isn’t well integrated with other social networks, with your contacts, or with much of anything else. You have to establish friends one at a time in a tedious fashion, although it is at least associated with your Apple ID: the same friends appear in Game Center across multiple iOS devices.
Mail Improvements -- If you manage more than one email account, you’ll be relieved that Mail under iOS 4.2.1 now supports a unified Inbox where all incoming messages appear. Finally, no more multiple taps just to switch between Inboxes in several accounts. Other improvements include:
Message threads are also now grouped together, keeping email discussions together instead of having to peck through the Inbox to find related messages.
If you use Exchange ActiveSync, you’ll be happy to know that you can now sync more than one such account. This includes Microsoft and Google, among others. And, Exchange Server 2010 is supported. You can also set up more than one to use in the Mail app for email.
You can now prevent users of your iOS device from changing email account settings.
You can now move a message from one account to another.
MobileMe aliases are now supported automatically, and thanks to improvements in MobileMe, you can now use your MobileMe account to send mail with a From addresses other than firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
It’s now possible to open Mail attachments in a variety of other apps.
Data Detectors now detect dates and times.
Search Improvements -- Searching has been improved in iOS 4.2.1 as well. Now, when you swipe right on the first page of the home screen to display the Spotlight search screen, your searches can be extended beyond the confines of the iPad. That feature comes courtesy of Search Web and Search Wikipedia options that appear at the bottom of the Spotlight search results; tapping Search Web sends the search to your default search engine in Safari and tapping Search Wikipedia opens Safari and performs the search in Wikipedia.
Also new and welcome is the capability to search within a Web page in Safari, although you may have trouble finding it. The trick is to tap the search field that you would normally use to search in Google, Yahoo, or Bing, and start typing. As the iPad shows suggestions, look at the bottom of the suggestion list for “On This Page” matches. Tap it, and then notice that a new search bar appears at the bottom of the screen with a Next button that lets you advance to the next found match (there’s no Previous button for moving backward), a search field in which you can change what you’re searching for, and a Done button if you want to hide the toolbar (tapping any link also causes it to disappear).
Minor Tweaks -- There are many other small changes in iOS 4.2.1, including the capability to rent TV shows in HD from iTunes, sync notes wirelessly, reply to event invitations from within the Calendar app, change fonts in the Notes app, use over 30 new international keyboards and dictionaries, and take advantage of enhanced features for enterprises.
We’ll be continuing to explore our iPads to see what other changes Apple might have shoehorned into iOS 4.2.1, and if you learn of anything we haven’t mentioned so far, let us know in the comments!