Apple iOS 4 Is Good, but Not Perfect

UPDATED: The updated operating system for Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch brings a raft of new features to these mobile devices; iPhone 3GS users in particular will be able to congratulate themselves, knowing they finally have an OS that pushes the smartphone to its limits.

Rule No. 1 when upgrading devices with new software is, "Your mileage may vary," and that seems to hold true for early adopters of iOS 4, the updated Apple operating system that became available for download on June 21. After experimenting with the new features for a couple of days, I'm ready to label my experience with iOS 4 as "relatively painless."

But not everyone agrees with me; a colleague of mine with an iPhone 3G is disappointed by his device's post-upgrade behavior, as he has experienced repeated application blackouts that eventually dump him back to the home screen. Perhaps more troubling, his phone now hesitates when executing tasks, in a way that reminds him of a beaten dog. This less-than-rosy view seems to be shared by other iPhone 3G owners. The device is undoubtedly being pushed to the edge of its capabilities by the new operating system.

For a look at the new features in iOS 4, click here.

Although some reports indicated that customers were experiencing problems when downloading the OS update, I must have been one of the lucky ones, as my download of iOS 4 (for an iPhone 3GS) at high noon of release day passed without incident. Because I'm the cautious type, I'd made sure the phone was fully charged, and that I could replace anything on the device without undue stress.

Apple is playing up the multitasking features of iOS 4, which only work on the iPhone 3GS and the latest iteration of the iPod Touch (and on the new iPhone 4, of course), but it's going to be the applications themselves that determine whether multitasking is useful. Depending on exactly what functions an application uses, taking full advantage of multitasking may be as simple as a recompilation or difficult enough to require a complete reworking.

Between them, iOS 4 and iTunes still lack features that I've taken for granted on other devices, such as the ability to maintain multiple backups of a device and Bluetooth access to files on the device. These are things I've been able to do on my now-ancient Sony Ericsson p910 from the first time I used it in 2005.

The 5x digital zoom for photographs taken by the camera of the iPhone 3G and 3GS may be welcomed by some, but in reality, it doesn't accomplish much. After all, digital zoom in effect stretches what was already an image of mediocre quality, creating a close-up that looks to my eyes like I left my glasses at home. Users of the video camera mode on these devices will appreciate the ability to focus the camera by simply tapping the screen.

Which iPhone apps are ready for iOS 4? Click here to see eWEEK's picks.

The automatic spell-checking in iOS 4 will come in handy for many users, and if you're like me, you'll benefit from the added support for Bluetooth keyboards on the iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod Touch. These models also allow users to lock the device orientation in portrait, and to customize the wallpaper on home screens and the lock screen with images of one's choice.

Security has received attention in this release as well; it's now possible to encrypt all the data on the device, although running the complete erase-and-restore cycle that's required to do so may be nerve-wracking. Location services in this release can now be turned on or off for individual applications, and users can see a list of apps that have requested one's location in the last 24-hour period.

All users of updated devices will appreciate the enhanced mail client, which includes a unified inbox and message threading. I was able to easily set up multiple Exchange e-mail accounts that were fed by an Exchange 2007 server in the eWEEK lab; Exchange 2010 support is also included in this release.

But Apple is facing some challenges to do with the way iOS and Exchange interact; the company has already suggested that users experiencing Exchange server overloads after device upgrades should reconfigure the ActiveSync polling interval for those devices.

Unfortunately, Apple points end users to a Web page where they can download an unsigned profile, rather than updating the iPhone Configuration Utility to allow the updated setting to be applied in a managed fashion. Apple's chosen method may get the fix out quickly, but it's a reminder that end-to-end management is not the company's strong suit. One alternative, hand-editing the XML-based profile, has the virtue of preserving a degree of control, but is far from convenient.

For many users, iOS 4 will be an upgrade worth having, and I plan to spend as much time as I can in the weeks to come examining how well it works in an enterprise setting. Since third-party tools can now use the operating system's Mobile Device Management service, there will be companies looking for an opportunity to establish themselves as maker of the tool of choice for iPhone management. To what degree Apple will let them do that is another story altogether.

Editor's Note: This review was updated with information about the update's effects on the iPhone 3G and Apple's update approach.