Apple iOS 4 review

Though Thursday's release of the iPhone 4 is getting the most fervent attention, Apple's iOS 4 is just as significant. CNET takes a look at the biggest offerings in this initial review.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
10 min read
Watch this: Apple's iOS 4

Editors' note: Apple made iOS 4 available on Monday, June 21. The download is free for both iPhone and iPod Touch users, but it is incompatible with first-generation models of either device. The iPhone 3G will support most iOS 4 features except multitasking and home screen backgrounds.

Apple kicked off an action-packed week today with the full release of iOS 4, its newest operating system for iPhone and iPod Touch devices. Though we've been playing with the developer's version on an iPhone 3GS since April, we wanted to wait for the real deal before offering our official take. And from what we can tell so far, our original positive impressions hold true. That's not say that everything is perfect, but iOS marks a significant and welcome jump in the iPhone's evolution.

In fact, we'll go so far as to say that iOS 4 is just as significant a development as Thursday's release of the iPhone 4. Naturally, new hardware tends to get the biggest spotlight, but iOS 4 brings a handful of crucial features--like multitasking and a unified e-mail in-box--that Apple's products have lacked for far too long (three years too long, to be exact). Indeed, it's always nice when we can check off a box on our "iPhone wish list," particularly when those additions are commonplace on competing smartphones. We also welcome the smaller changes--iOS 4 is set to offer up to 100 new features--even if they're not particularly glamorous. We'll continue to root around for those tiny things in the coming days and will list additional revisions here as we find them.

Though you've always been able to multitask with native iPhone features like the music player, the option is now available for third-party apps. Your primary access point is a multitasking menu that's accessible by double tapping the Home button. Once there, you'll see a list of currently running applications along the bottom of the display that you can scroll through using a sideways finger swipe. The pop-up menu shows only four apps at a time, and we're still investigating whether you're limited as to how many apps you can open at once.

Hands-on with iOS 4 (photos)

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Managing the multitasking menu couldn't be easier. To open a running app, scroll though the menu and tap its icon once. When you're ready to end an app, first use a long press on the related icon and then click the tiny delete icon in the top left corner. Switching among apps is a simple process as well: as you move back and forth, you'll return to the exact point you left.

But is it real multitasking?
As you'd expect, Apple's multitasking works a little differently than on other smartphones. Instead of having all device resources available to every running app, iOS 4 lets only seven app services run in the background. These include audio (you'll be able to play Pandora radio, for example), VoIP services like Skype, GPS/location for apps like TomTom, push notifications, local notifications (those that don't to have to go through a server), task completion (users get an alert when a process is finished), and fast app switching (apps essentially hibernate not to use the CPU). According to Apple, this arrangement will have less of a drain on resources like battery life and memory than if it gave developers free rein. Also, pausing most background apps will free the system from having to juggle resources and kill stalled applications.

Though some have complained that the built-in limitations mean that iOS 4 doesn't have "real" multitasking, we think "incomplete" is a better description. Granted, you can't run everything in the background, but iOS 4 does allow you to run certain features from multiple apps simultaneously. If that isn't multitasking, then we don't know what is. What's more, it wouldn't be the first time Apple limited features or took longer with development in order to produce a desired customer experience. You may not agree with such a philosophy, but Apple has always been honest about pursuing it. Like with so many other things in technology, it comes down to what works best for you.

Nice, but not miles ahead
On the whole, we were quite pleased with the multitasking experience. As it has a talent for doing, Apple has presented the feature in a slick, easy-to-use manner. It performed beautifully without ever crashing or freezing the phone; it didn't appear to negatively affect our iPhone 3G's battery (we'll follow up with more-thorough testing in that regard once we get an iPhone 4); and it accomplishes what it sets out do. But even with strong points, we wouldn't agree that it's the "the best" way to multitask (a common Apple claim). It may save you a few clicks, but other approaches--such as the "deck of cards" interface on WebOS--continue to impress. Similarly, though limited multitasking may result in more-efficient power management, we'll have to run comparison testing with other smartphones before we can agree.

We also don't share CEO Steve Jobs' view that Apple's solution isn't a task manager. When he unveiled iOS 4 in April, Jobs took a dig at Android and other operating systems that require you to close background applications that might be slowing down the phone. "In multitasking, if you see a task manager...they blew it," he said. "Users shouldn't ever have to think about it." Fair enough, but we think it's a matter of semantics. As with most task managers, the iOS 4 multitasking menu allows you to scan through running applications and close any that you're no longer using. Granted, you may not have to kill frozen applications as often as you would on, say, a Windows Mobile phone, but you still have that option. We also found usability quirks that are common with task manager apps. Pressing the Home button once, for example, simply sends an app to the background; it does not end it completely. To do so, you'll need to open the multitasking menu, find the related icon, and end it there.

Home screen folders
Though we love apps as much as the next person, we've become tired of scrolling through several pages of iPhone home screens. Thankfully, that has changed with the addition of home screen folders. This is another common feature that competing devices have long offered, so it's nice to see Apple stepping.

To get started, use a long press on the home screen so the icons "jiggle." When your icons are dancing (they'll also have a tiny delete icon in the corner) you can take an app and drop it on top of another to create a folder. The folder will then appear as a square with tiny icons of the included app inside. Tap the folder to access the included apps and get an expanded view of the folder's contents. Alternatively, if you want to remove an app, just drag it back to the home screen.

Thankfully, you're awarded a fair amount of flexibility for folder organization. You can add as many folders as you like, change the default folder name, and add both related and unrelated apps. Surprisingly, we could even group legacy features like the Weather and Stock applications into a single folder. The process is easy, though we wouldn't say it offers a huge change from the equivalent experience on Android. And really, Apple, we're limited to just 12 apps in one folder?

E-mail changes
Though the iPhone always has been a functional e-mail machine, we never enjoyed switching back and forth among multiple accounts to read new messages. Fortunately, iOS 4 has a new unified in-box that is accessible under the "Mail" option on your home screen. Listed above your individual in-boxes is a new option for "All inboxes," which contains messages from multiple accounts. You can't access individual folders from the universal in-box, but you can delete and move messages. Here again, it works well, but it's not vastly superior to how competing OSes handle the same process.

Other e-mail changes include the capability to add multiple Exchange accounts, organize e-mails by thread, jump directly to individual in-boxes, and open attachments with a preferred app. All are nice, but we'll delve into a couple of our favorites for more detail. E-mails in a thread will now be designated by a small number on the left side of the message header. Clicking the number will take you to a separate screen that lists all relevant messages. It's a nice touch, and we like that you can move or delete messages in the thread. We also like the new option to delete e-mails directly from search results.

Home screen customization
Unlike the previous three features, this change was low on our wish list, but Apple's done a decent job rolling it out. Sure, you always could change the standard black background using a third-party app, but iOS 4 adds the native capability to the iPhone and iPod Touch. First, find the "wallpaper" option in the Settings menu and choose either a provided wallpaper or a photo in your camera roll. After making your selection, you'll have the option to set it as the wallpaper for your home screen, the lock screen, or both.

It's all straightforward, but there are a few troublesome trade-offs. First off, we can't fathom why the iPhone 3G didn't get this option. Also, keep in mind that once you ditch the standard black background, there's no way to get it back. You can take a photo of a black wall, the night sky, or a dark room, but that's hardly the same thing. And don't be surprised to find that some of your native wallpapers have been replaced by new options. Apple giveth, and Apple hath taken away.

Camera zoom
You'll have to wait for the iPhone 4 to get a 5-megapixel shooter, but iOS 4 adds a 5x zoom for the still camera. When taking a photo, just tap the screen to see the zoom bar. Use your finger to pan in and out, but remember that since this is digital zoom, picture quality will degrade as you zoom in.

Spell check
The iPhone has long had an autocorrect feature that changes words as you type, but we've never considered it to be completely useful. That's why we're bigger fans of the new spell check feature that notifies you of unrecognized or misspelled words with a red underline. It works when you're composing both e-mails and text messages, and you get a list of suggested corrections. We'd like more suggestions, but that's a small point.

Tap-to-focus video
On the iPhone 3GS you can use the tap-to-focus feature in the still and video cameras. We've never found that this feature makes that much of a difference, but it certainly doesn't hurt to have it.

Search text messages
You'll now find a search bar for your text messages. It works just like the search option for e-mails.

Photo gallery
You can organize all images from an event or those that feature a specific friend. For both, however, you'll need to have already used the face recognition options in iPhoto or Aperture and sync with iTunes. One expected change appears to have vanished, however: when we played with the initial beta version of iOS 4 we saw an option in the gallery for rotating photos, but we can't find it again in the final version.

The addition of Geolocations lets you view where you took your latest shots on a map and sort your images by location. This is quite a cool feature, particularly for frequent travelers who like to mark their journeys around the world. But if this isn't your thing, you can turn off location services in the Settings menu.

Safari search
When typing a URL in the Safari browser, you'll see not only the URL title of sites you've visited recently, but also the full Web address. That's a nice touch.

Universal search Web and Wikipedia results will now show up in the Universal Search. It takes a couple of clicks to get them going, but it's convenient.

In the iPod player, Apple added an option for creating playlists on the go. We created one in a few steps and added a selection of tunes. What's more, we're always happy when we can do something without going through iTunes.

Bluetooth keyboards
We haven't tested this option yet, but it should be useful for messaging addicts or aspiring novelists.

Birthday calendar
You can keep track of upcoming birthdays with a designated calendar. It's accessible directly from the main calendar option.

Other minor changes
You'll also see a host of other usability and interface tweaks. We haven't located them all yet, but here's what we've found so far.

  • Now that a double tap of the Home button opens the multitasking menu, you can no longer use the control as a shortcut for a designated feature. As such, the option is gone from the Setting menu. A small price to pay for a new feature, we suppose.

  • The calculator icon has been resigned. The feature is the same, however.

  • You can send apps as gifts.

  • Swiping to the far left of the multitasking menu will reveal music player controls and a shortcut for locking the display rotation.

  • The location icon in the Google Maps application has changed from a bull's eye to an arrow.

What remains
We have not tested the remaining major iOS 4 features. Once we get an iPhone 4 later in the week, we will use the new applications and expand this section.

Worker bees will get options like enhanced data protection, mobile device management, wireless app distribution, support for Exchange 2010, and SSL VPN from Juniper and Cisco.

iBooks Apple's e-book reader joins Amazon's Kindle app as an option for bookworms. You will be able to access Apple's iBookstore to purchase new content, and if you have an iPhone and an iPad, you can read your book on both devices (with just one purchase) and sync your current page. It looked nifty when Jobs offered a demo of iBooks during his WWDC keynote, but we'll be sure to test it ourselves.

Game Center Coming "later this year," Game Center will include features like a social gaming network, the ability to invite friends to games, leaderboards and achievements, and the opportunity for "matchmaking" (setting up two people to play).

What other changes have you found in iOS 4? What do you think of the update?