So iPhone users can finally stream Pandora while doing other stuff. Big whoop, right? Other smart phones have been able to do that for ages. Ah, but dig a little deeper and Apple’s latest software update has plenty of goodies beyond multitasking. The new folders feature makes it a cinch to organize similar apps; it’s now easy to switch between inboxes (or combine them); and location-aware apps can now receive updates even when they’re not open. iOS 4 also includes welcome enhancements to Spotlight search, tweaks to the phone and camera apps, and–yes–customizable wallpaper.
So how good is the multitasking, and how much better is the user experience now overall? We took this major software update for a spin on an iPhone 3GS to find out.
The “S” in the iPhone 3GS stands for speed, which is apparently what you need on Apple’s platform for third-party apps to do things in the background. So only this handset and the new iPhone 4 (and the third-gen iPod touch) supports multitasking. Own an iPhone 3G? Sorry.
What does that multitasking really mean though? You can play audio in the backbround using apps like Pandora or continue recording audio with an app like Evernote. You can also receive calls in the background using VoIP apps (a Skype update is coming soon). If you use a location-based app like Navigon, it can monitor your location and bark directions should you leave the app. Apps can also complete tasks in the background, such as syncing files using Dropbox or updating your Twitter timeline.
To make multitasking intuitive Apple has rolled out a new drawer-like interface that you launch by double tapping the home button. Third-party apps that support “fast app switching” appear in a ribbon populated with icons. To dive back into an app, just click it.
To close that app completely, you press and hold any icon in the row until they start to wiggle, then touch the little minus symbol that appears in the top left corner. We’re not sure why the minus symbols couldn’t always be present. It’s just an extra step.
Overall, this presentation is pretty straightforward, and we like that the rest of the home screen dims to minimize confusion. However, you can see only four open apps at a time; you’ll need to swipe to the right to see more. (Why not present a bigger stack in a vertical column or grid?) Swiping to the left presents audio controls–great for apps like Pandora–as well as a one-touch lock for the screen orientation if you want to stay in portrait mode.
We have a few nitpicks here. If your phone’s screen is locked, it takes too long to change tracks in Pandora (or similar apps). You have to unlock your device, then double click the Home button, then swipe left. We’d prefer the ability to just double click the Home button in locked mode and have the audio controls appear for third-party apps, just as they do with the iPod app. As for the orientation lock, it works only in portrait mode, while the iPad can do landscape or portrait.
Verdict: Multitasking is relatively limited on iOS compared to other platforms, and it’s not as intuitive as webOS to close apps or switch between them. But if Apple is better able to preserve battery life, most users will be happy to live with these trade-offs.
We consider most of the improvements here to be overdue, but they’re welcome nonetheless. The biggest fix is fast inbox switching. No longer do you need to back out of your inbox twice to choose a different account. You just click the account name and you’ll see a list of inboxes. Don’t feel like toggling between accounts? Just select All Inboxes and you’ll see a unified inbox. And we mean truly unified. There’s no visual differentiation between messages received using different accounts. So, at a glance, we couldn’t tell whether a given e-mail was coming from our Google Apps or Yahoo account.
For the first time you can follow an e-mail conversation easily on an iPhone. Yes, iOS now supports threaded messages, but Apple’s execution is different than Android’s. In your inbox you’ll know whether an e-mail is part of a thread by the number displayed to the right of the subject line that shows the number of messages in the conversation. Once you click on that message, you’ll see all of the applicable messages listed along with a custom search box.
With iOS, you can either scroll through the latest message to see the whole conversation or back out to see the messages one by one. Android, on the other hand, combines all the messages into one and lets you click tabs to expand and collapse various messages in a conversation. Both approaches are valid; Google’s saves you time while Apple’s minimizes confusion somewhat. It’s really a matter of personal preference.
Last but not least, iOS 4 has smart data detectors that highlight appointment times and dates to help you create events directly in your calendar. Pretty sweet.
Verdict: Less clicks to get stuff done works for us, but we’d like Apple to make it easier to tell which messages come from where when you’re in All Inboxes mode.
Folders for Your Apps
Other smart phone platforms could take some cues from Apple with this new feature. Not only is it a cinch to create folders to organize your plethora of apps, iOS automatically names folders based on the apps that you’re grouping together. For example, when we dragged the Camera app on top of the Photos app, iOS labeled the folder Photography. And you can easily change the file name by just tapping on it.
You can fit up to 12 apps in each folder, but only 9 of the icons are visible in the folder icon from the home screen. Not that you can make out what those tiny apps are, anyway. You’ll just have to remember what’s in each folder. Our biggest beef with folders is that when you select an app and then return to the home screen, you’re put right back into that folder of apps. We would prefer returning to a home screen and being given the option of returning to the folder.
Verdict: Organized and smart, iOS’ folders make it easy to keep games and other apps together with very little effort.