Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iPhone OS 3.0
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iTunes Store and App Store
The on-device iTunes Store and App Store experience has now been expanded to provide access to purchase and rent video content from the iTunes Store directly on the device, including movies, TV shows, and music videos. It is also possible to sign in and out of different iTunes Store accounts directly on the device, rather than relying on a synchronization with iTunes, and to directly access your iTunes Store account and user profile.
The iTunes Store and iPhone OS 3.0 now provide the ability to purchase and download video content directly on the device. All of the content that would normally be available on the iTunes Store from your computer can also be purchased and downloaded directly from the iTunes Store application on your device. Movies can also be rented directly on the device.
High-definition content is available for purchase from the iTunes Store app, however when purchasing high-definition content, only the standard-definition version is downloaded to the iPhone or iPod touch, with the high-definition version queued up for later download directly into iTunes on your computer. High-definition rentals are not available in the on-device iTunes Store.
As with music content, videos can be previewed directly on your device. Individual TV Show episodes are listed in a manner similar to album tracks, and can be previewed with a single-tap or you can read the episode description by double-tapping on it.
Handling of purchased and rented video content works pretty much the way you would expect. Downloads are placed in the appropriate locations within the iPod application on the iPhone or the Videos application on the iPod touch. Purchased video content will automatically be transferred back to iTunes on your computer during the next synchronization, and rented content can be moved to your computer manually using the normal options in iTunes.
A couple of caveats about on-device video purchasing, however: first, the download speeds at this point seem unreasonably slow, even for a slower 802.11b Wi-Fi connection, and second, there seems to be no way to ensure that downloaded content leaves a reasonable amount of free space on your device—it is easily possible to fill your device almost to capacity with a single downloaded item, so it’s always advisable to check available space before downloading any large movie from the iTunes Store. Packed iPods and iPhones can experience performance hiccups.
iTunes Store Account Access
Both the iTunes Store and App Store now provide the ability to access and change your current iTunes Store account from within the applications themselves. You can also access this from the “Store” menu found in the iPhone or iPod touch Settings application. From here you can either sign in with a different account, create a new account or view and modify your current account information.
It is even possible to set up a new iTunes Store account directly from the iPhone or iPod touch, effectively eliminating the need to synchronize your device with iTunes on your computer just to set up your iTunes Store account information. Mind you, the need to actually back up your purchased content means that you’ll likely still want to synchronize your device with your computer at least somewhat regularly for that purpose alone, unless all you’re doing is renting movies.
In addition to music and videos, The iTunes Store app now provides access to Audiobooks and iTunes U content. Default buttons for Music, Videos, Podcasts and Search are shown at the bottom of the iTunes Store screen, with a “More” button on the right-hand side that provides additional options. As with the iPod application, tapping “Edit” from the More screen will allow you to reorganize the buttons on the navigation bar.
Album reviews are also now available within the iTunes Store on the device, and can be found at the top of each album’s track listing. Scrolling down to the bottom of an album listing will also provide an option to display more tracks by the selected artist.
Some additional tweaks to the App Store have also been made, including showing version-specific reviews for individual listings and displaying multiple, scrollable screenshots for applications.
A “Redeem” button has now been added to the App Store for redeeming iTunes gift codes. With the addition of this extra button, a “More” menu now appears in the right-most position on the bottom navigation menu. As with the iPod app, selecting the More button shows additional options, and provides the ability to change the buttons displayed on the navigation menu by tapping the “Edit” button in the top-right corner.
One of the new features announced in iPhone OS 3.0 is the ability to developers to sell additional content such as game expansion packs or new features directly from within their applications. This In-App purchasing system follows rules similar to the App Store itself, but allows developers to more effectively sell enhanced versions of their applications without requiring separate App Store purchases. Note that only paid applications can make use of in-app purchasing.
The iPhone OS 3.0 offers some enhanced parental control features, not only allowing certain features of the device itself to be locked down, but also restricting the types of content that may be purchased or played on the device.
In-app purchasing can be disabled, explicit music content restricted, and movies, TV shows and applications can be restricted by rating, or disabled entirely. Content that does not meet the restriction settings is hidden completely from view.
Miscellaneous App Changes
While most of the other built-in applications have not changed significantly in iPhone OS 3.0, there have been a few other small changes worth noting.
The built-in stocks application now provides the ability to display detailed statistics for a selected stock as well as news headlines relating to the stock. These are displayed in the same section as the stock chart, and selected simply by swiping left to right in the stock chart area.
Turning your device sideways in the Stocks app will display the stock chart in a widescreen view. From here you can tap anywhere on the stock chart to see the exact price at that point, or use multi-touch to tap two different points to measure the change in a stock’s value between two dates.
The YouTube app now allows you to sign in with your YouTube account, providing access to your YouTube profile, including favorites, subscriptions, playlists, history and your own uploaded videos. This carries over to and from your YouTube account on the web and therefore also integrates nicely with the YouTube feature on the Apple TV, which has provided YouTube account support since the beginning.
You can also now rate or comment on YouTube videos or flag them as inappropriate directly from within the YouTube app, and read comments from other YouTube users.
Favorites replaces the “Bookmarks” section in previous versions of the iPhone OS YouTube app, although you can still save videos locally if you are not signed in to a YouTube account. When you first log in to your YouTube account, you will be asked if you want to merge/add your local favorites to your online YouTube account.
Not much has changed for iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPod touch users in the Maps application, although locating your current position when first opening Maps occurs much more quickly than in previous iPhone OS versions. From our testing, this would appear to be largely due to the blue location dot being placed on the map immediately based on initial Wi-Fi positioning and then updated as GPS coordinates are acquired. The result is the appearance of a much faster lock-on time, since a reasonable estimate of the current location is provided immediately and then refined as more accurate information is received. In previous OS versions, the iPhone did not display the blue dot until an actual GPS fix was obtained.
Other than this minor improvement, little has changed in the Maps application for iPhone users, however with iPhone OS 3.0, iPod touch users now gain the Google Maps enhancements such as Street View and transit directions that were previously excluded in the iPhone OS 2.2 update. iPhone 3G S users gain additional functionality, map rotation, through the addition of the device’s compass hardware.
What Hasn’t Really Changed
The Weather, Clock and Calculator apps seemingly remain completely unchanged from their prior iPhone OS versions. Other apps, such as Mail, Contacts, Notes and Calendar have minimal changes that we discussed above but otherwise maintain much the same basic features and UI as they did in prior iPhone OS versions.
The Stuff you Can’t Really See Yet—Changes for Developers
In addition to some of the changes we’ve discussed above, such as Push Notifications and iPod library access, iPhone 3.0 offers a number of other under-the-hood changes that we will likely see leveraged by various third-party application developers and accessory manufacturers in the coming weeks and months.
Dock Connector Access
For the first time since the initial release of the iPhone, accessory manufacturers and software developers will now be able to write applications to interface with hardware accessories via the iPhone and iPod Dock Connector. This was previously off-limits to application developers, limiting the viability of many potential iPhone and iPod touch accessories. The ability to now develop software applications that can interface with these accessories will open the door to many new and interesting applications.
One important point to keep in mind, however, is that the lack of any background capabilities or low-level driver access in the iPhone OS means that we’re unlikely to see accessories that would be usable on a system-wide basis. An external USB or Bluetooth keyboard, for instance, could easily be developed to work with specific applications, but there would be no way to develop a standardized external keyboard solution that would work throughout the entire iPhone OS without Apple’s direct involvement in placing support for it directly into the iPhone OS.
This makes this support something of a mixed blessing for potential accessories such as game controllers as well: unless a major accessory maker steps up and tries to produce a standard interface, there is a very real danger of multiple game controller accessories that each only work with specific applications, making the whole exercise rather pointless in the longer term. We are extremely concerned about the proliferation of multiple, incompatible accessories in the absence of a clear standard.
Embedded Google Maps and Turn-by-Turn Directions
Third-party applications will now be able to call upon the Google Maps capabilities to embed and display maps within their own applications, rather than having to rely on other mapping-related services. Further, while Apple will not be providing any turn-by-turn direction capabilities within the built-in Maps app, third-party developers are now permitted to not only develop turn-by-turn apps, but to use the embedded Google Maps capabilities to help facilitate this. At least two major GPS vendors are already reportedly working on iPhone navigation apps, using their own maps and data.
Considering the number of new features added and what is going on under the hood, the general performance of iPhone OS 3.0 is quite impressive. While not blazingly fast, it certainly does not appear to be any slower than iPhone OS 2.x, and in some respects actually performs a bit faster.
The most significant change we’ve noticed in performance is in browsing-related apps. Safari is the most obvious example, but even opening rich-text HTML messages in the Mail application performs much faster than previous iPhone OS versions did. The WebKit rendering engine has reportedly undergone a significant update in 3.0, which likely accounts for these performance increases. Ironically, the noticeable improvement in areas like rendering web pages can make the other aspects of Safari, such as switching tabs or pulling up bookmarks seem slower by comparison, even though these other tasks don’t actually perform any differently from our own testing.
Update or Wait?
If you’re an iPhone owner, the free pricing and sheer number of features in the iPhone 3.0 OS update make this decision an easy one. In terms of stability, the iPhone OS 3.0 has been through more testing than most other Apple software updates ever get, with a horde of iPhone developers putting it through its paces for the past three months. While no software update is ever completely bug-free, the iPhone OS 3.0 doesn’t show any significant stability or performance problems that would justify waiting to upgrade.
iPod touch users have a slightly tougher decision to make, since this is not a free update, and some of the features mentioned above are iPhone-specific. Our buying advice for the iPod touch upgrade is discussed in our review of iPhone OS 3.0; it receives a flat B recommendation for iPod touch users, and a B+ recommendation for iPhone users.
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