REVIEW: iPhone OS 3.1 and iTunes 9 Update Is Compelling, Despite Relative New-Feature Paucity

Apple's iPhone OS 3.1 with the updated iTunes 9 provides only a few new features, but frequent App Store users and those using the iPhone device with Microsoft Exchange Server will appreciate the update.

Immediately following its live event in San Francisco this week, Apple released iPhone OS 3.1 with the updated iTunes 9. While the new point revision of the iPhone OS offers only a few new features, frequent App Store users and those using the iPhone device with Microsoft Exchange Server will definitely appreciate the update.

For heavy App Store users, the most welcome new feature in Version 3.1 is the ability to adjust application placement on the iPhone home screen panels from within iTunes. Previously, users had to organize applications on the device itself, an onerous time-waster, particularly after performing a restore on the device. With Version 3.1, users can instead perform this customization from their desktop PCs.

Click here for eWEEK Labs' gallery of iPhone OS 3.1 images.

With the device tethered to a PC running iTunes 9, I could select applications from my inventory and drag the icons onto the representation of the intended target screen. This customization is done per device, so users with multiple iPhones or iPod Touches won't be forced to have the same application layout on every device that syncs to that their iTunes instance. Unfortunately, this also means that the device must be connected to iTunes to perform the layout customization.

Apple has made a few modifications to the App Store layout within iTunes, but the changes didn't do much to lead me to new, relevant applications. Users are still presented with highlighted apps via Staff Favorites and New and Noteworthy distinctions, and users can look at the Top Paid, Top Free or Top Grossing applications. Within these last few screens, however, I could now organize the lists by name, rank or release date.

Improved guidance to new content will likely come from the Genius recommendation engine, which Apple has updated to include applications. At this point in my testing, I have not yet seen the results of my Genius recommendations, but, given the underwhelming recommendations I've received from iTunes during the last year, I don't hold out a lot of hope that I'll get many compelling suggestions for applications.

With iPhone OS 3.1, Apple has done some behind-the-scenes work to improve synchronization and invitation handling in conjunction with Exchange Server calendars. In my experience with previous versions of the iPhone OS, the Exchange calendar would not synchronize in a predictable manner unless data push was enabled. With the new version, synchronization occurred much faster.

With a pair of iPhone 3GS units placed side by side-one running Version 3.1 and the other running Version 3.01, and both connected via Wi-Fi to manually pull from the same Exchange account-3.1 reflected a calendar change made in Outlook within 15 seconds while 3.01 remained unchanged for 5 full minutes. (With 3.01, I finally gave up and checked e-mail, which seemed to trigger the calendar synchronization.)

Since iPhone OS 3.0, iPhone 3GS users have been able to trigger voice dialing or voice-enabled media controls by holding down the Home button or the Action button on a corded headset. However, Bluetooth users could not utilize the feature.

This capability was supposed to have been added in Version 3.1, according to the release notes, but I was not able to get the feature to work with either my BlueAnt Supertooth 3 speakerphone or a Motorola MotoROKR Bluetooth headset. Holding down the call button on either Bluetooth device would only initiate a redial, rather than activating Voice Control.

Finally, the iPhone's Accessibility features are now easier to turn on-I could configure the Home button to activate the Accessibility feature when pushed thrice.

Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at [email protected].