Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iOS 4

First announced on April 8th and promised for a worldwide release on June 21st, Apple’s iOS 4 upgrade was officially released for public consumption earlier today. The fourth major release of Apple’s mobile device operating system has also been given a new name: iOS, representative of its place on Apple’s entire suite of mobile devices and not merely the iPhone. Despite this, however, today’s release only encompasses Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch devices; an iPad release is scheduled for later in the year.

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Downloading and Installing

As with all previous iPhone and iPod touch updates, iOS 4 is downloaded and installed via iTunes. Note that you will need to be running iTunes 9.2 to receive the update. Unlike previous updates, iOS 4 is free for all supported iPhone and iPod touch users, however this update also represents the first time that earlier iOS devices have been excluded—iOS 4 will not run on the original iPhone or the first-generation iPod touch.

The download and installation process is relatively simple: Users can use the “Check for Updates” option found on their device Summary page in iTunes 9.2 and it should locate, download and install the iOS 4 update automatically. In some cases, iTunes may have already discovered the update by itself, in which case you will simply see an “Update” button instead of a “Check for Updates” button.

 

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Note that the installation may or may not preserve all of your existing data—as with previous iOS updates it may result in the wiping of your device’s data under certain conditions. In at least one case we received a warning from iTunes that this was going to happen as part of the upgrade process, however the absence of such a warning should not be considered a guarantee that you’re not going to have to reload everything.  As a rule, it would appear that second-generation iPod touch and iPhone 3G devices will require a complete restore as part of the update process, while iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch models may be able to upgrade in-place.

 

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In addition to the backups that iTunes normally keeps, an additional backup of your device will automatically be made prior to applying the update.  Unlike previous updates, iTunes will specifically notify you of this.

 

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This backup may take some time—unlike previous iOS updates, iTunes will backup ALL of the data from your iPhone or iPod touch, including your media content. This ensures that all content can be restored to the device even if it does not already exist in iTunes. Following the update, iTunes will automatically restore all content back onto your device as a separate process, rather than simply syncing it from iTunes in the normal manner.

 

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Model Differences

iOS 4 also represents the first update where some features are only supported on specific iPhone and iPod touch models. While some of this variation existed with previous updates, it was generally obvious due to hardware limitations—for example the lack of a camera on the iPod touch.

With iOS 4, the differences are a little bit more vague, with only the iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch devices supporting the full range of features offered by the new version. The iPhone 3G and second-generation iPod touch will support iOS 4, but users of these devices will find features like multitasking and home screen wallpaper support to be conspicuously absent. Further, the 2007 devices: The original iPhone and first-generation iPod touch are left completely out in the cold: iOS 4 isn’t even available for these devices.

It’s probably also worth noting here that the 8GB iPod touch still being sold by Apple is actually a second-generation model and users of these devices will still experience the same limitations as any other second-generation iPod touch.

General and System-Wide Changes

iOS4 introduces a number of significant changes to the overall operating system, adding significant features such as multitasking for third-party applications, system-wide spell check and home screen enhancements.

Multitasking (iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, 3G iPod touch)

Probably the most-anticipated feature of iOS 4, Multitasking now allows third-party applications to perform certain important tasks in the background and access other new features in the OS to provide better user interaction when running in the background.

What it Does

In computer parlance, multitasking refers to the ability of multiple programs to run simultaneously, and to be clear the iPhone OS has always inherently supported multitasking: E-mail and text messages arrive in the background whether those apps are running or not, the iPod keeps playing music after you close the app, and the Phone app doesn’t have to be active for an actual phone call to be received. The problem was that until iOS 4, multitasking was restricted to Apple’s own core applications, presumably on the basis that only Apple knew best how to manage the resources of the iPhone operating system and preserve the best user experience in terms of battery life and performance.

iOS 4 finally changes this approach and allows third-party applications to multitask, albeit in a limited fashion. Third-party apps can perform certain specific tasks in the background, but they are not allowed to simply continue running in the background. Instead, apps are limited to the following specific functions when not running as the foreground application:

Background Audio: Third-party applications will now be able to take advantage of what Apple’s own iPod application has been able to do for three years: Keep playing music or other audio in the background after the app has been closed. Apple has already demonstrated this with Pandora Radio, and numerous other third-party audio streaming apps will no doubt begin to take advantage of this feature as well. Essentially, this allows third-party audio applications to work in much the same way as Apple’s own iPod application—not only will audio keep playing after the app is closed, but the home screen, lock screen and in-line headphone controls will be used for the currently-playing app.

Background VoIP: Applications such as Skype will be able to stay online in the background so that users can receive calls while using other applications or simply while the iPhone is in standby at the lock screen. In-progress calls using VoIP applications should appear with a status indicator at the top of the screen similar to the one used for the built-in Phone app.

Background Location: Navigation and other location-based applications will be able to poll for location information in the background so that they can provide voice guidance or update location-based online services. This mode will use cellular tower information whenever possible to save on battery drain from regularly accessing the GPS hardware. Apple has already demonstrated this with TomTom and Loopt, and Navigon has indicated that it will be adding support for this in an update to its Mobile Navigator app.

Local Notifications: With iPhone OS 3.0 last year, Apple introduced a new “Push Notification” feature that allowed network-based services to send notifications to iOS devices. Although this feature was great for services such as Facebook and AIM where notifications were coming from the Internet anyway, it was of less use for applications that resided natively on the device such as task management and reminder apps. This forced some developers to set up their own servers and synchronization systems merely to be able to provide reminders to their users. Local Notifications address this by allowing third-party applications to schedule notifications directly on the iOS device. These work in the same way as Push Notifications in that the notification can update a badge on the icon, display an alert and/or play a sound, however you will not need an active Internet connection to receive a local notification.

Task Completion: iOS 4 will now allow applications to take up to 10 minutes to complete tasks in the background after you exit the app. This will be particularly useful for applications that upload or sync information with online services. For example, an application could finish uploading photos to a service like Flickr in the background after the user exits the app, saving the user the trouble of having to leave the app open and wait for the upload to complete.

Fast App Switching: Applications can suspend in the background when the user leaves the app and return to the exact same place when the user loads the app up again. Applications will not actually run in the background, but merely freeze in their current state, allowing them to be quickly reloaded so the user can pick up where they left off. Any iOS 4 native app should take advantage of this feature automatically.

What Multitasking Won’t Do

As already noted, iOS 4 doesn’t introduce a “carte-blanche” multitasking environment where third-party apps can simply stay running and do as they please. Apps will be limited to the specific behaviours described above and nothing else. Apps cannot launch or perform any background tasks by themselves until the user specifically launches the app—Task Completion lets the app finish what it’s doing after the user closes it, but it doesn’t allow the app to keep running indefinitely. Likewise, Local Notifications can only display information that has been scheduled by the app when it was last run, they can’t actually launch any background processes. One significant limitation of this is that applications that sync with online services will still not be able to sync up and download current content until the user actually opens the app.

How it Works

iOS 4 only supports multitasking on the iPhone 3GS, third-generation iPod touch and upcoming iPhone 4. The multitasking features are inherent in the OS and although applications must be updated by their developers to support the new multitasking features, there is nothing the end user needs to do—the multitasking features for a given app should “just work.”

To facilitate quickly switching between applications, however, Apple has introduced a new recently-used apps dock. On devices that support multitasking, double-clicking the Home button from within any app will slide up the current screen to reveal a dock displaying the four most recently opened applications. You can open these applications by tapping on them in the usual manner, or swipe to the left to display more recently-used apps, four at a time.

 

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Note that ALL recently-used apps are displayed here, regardless of whether they support any iOS 4 multitasking features or not. Pre-iOS 4 apps will simply behave and launch from here in the same way as they did from the home screen in iPhone OS 3.x. Keep in mind also that you don’t have to launch apps from here to take advantage of fast-app switching or any other iOS 4 multitasking features—you can still launch apps from their normal home screen position in the same way that you always have. The app switching dock is primarily there to provide a convenient way to move between apps.

The app switcher does provide one additional hidden feature: If you tap-and-hold on an app icon in the dock area, a red button will appear over each icon. Tapping on the red button for an application will terminate that app and remove it from the recently-used apps list.

 

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Note that unlike other mobile platforms, iOS 4 is supposed to handle memory and resource management automatically, and most applications won’t actually be running in the background—this “task-killer” functionality is included for cases where a specific application needs to be restarted rather than situations where a user needs to close a bunch of apps for performance reasons.

On multitasking-capable devices a double-tap of the home button is now hardcoded to open the app switcher. Older devices that do not include multitasking capabilities still allow the home button to be customized for other functions as before.

Playback Controls & Rotation Lock

With the home button double-tap reassigned to the app switcher, the pop-up iPod playback controls are no longer available in the same way on multitasking-capable devices. Instead, swiping to the right from the app switcher will reveal a set of media playback controls.

 

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The standard play/pause and track navigation buttons are here. Conspicuously absent compard to the previous playback controls is a volume slider, presumably redundant as all current iOS devices now include hardware volume buttons. To the right of the playback controls is the icon for the currently playing application—this defaults to the iPod icon when no music is playing, but will be replaced with any application currently providing background audio such as Pandora Radio or even the Safari icon when streaming audio in the browser.

 

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To the left of the playback controls is an orientation lock button that can be used to lock the screen in portrait view. When locked in a portrait orientation, a lock icon will also appear in the status bar beside the battery meter.

 

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Note that these new playback controls are only available on multitasking-capable models. The older non-multitasking capable devices still display the pop-up playback controls in the same manner as before.

Home Screen

iOS 4 adds a few iterative enhancements to the home screen. Although the same basic layout is used as in prior iOS versions, users can now replace the black background with a custom wallpaper and organize applications into folders.

Wallpapers (iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, 3G iPod touch)

First introduced with the iPad back in April, iOS 4 now gives users the ability to specify a wallpaper for the iPhone or iPod touch home screen. As with multitasking, this feature is only supported on the iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch, as well as the upcoming iPhone 4. Users of these devices can specify a wallpaper for their home screen simply by visiting the Wallpaper setting in the Settings app. In the wallpaper settings, screen previews of both the lock screen and home screen are shown with the currently-selected wallpaper for each.

 

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Tapping on these previews will take you to the standard wallpaper selection screen, where you can choose from a pre-installed wallpaper or select one from your own photos. iOS 4 has also bundled several new wallpapers that provide suitable textured backgrounds for the home screen.

 

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Selecting a wallpaper is handled in much the same way as in prior iOS versions, excpet that when actually choosing a wallpaper, you will be prompted for where you want to use it.

 

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Setting a wallpaper from other applications, such as directly from within the Photos app, will produce the same prompt for whether to set the wallpaper on the Lock screen, Home screen, or both.

Note that iOS 4 doesn’t provide any way to remove the Home screen wallpaper and return to the default black background. If you prefer basic black you’ll need to create your own 480 x 320 black image and store it in your device’s photo library to use as a wallpaper. That said, the textured backgrounds included with iOS 4 provide some nice alternative options without appearing too cluttered.

Folders

Although iOS 4 contains the same limit of 11 home screen panes, you can now organize your applications into individual folders. A Folder can appear anywhere that a normal application icon can, and is represented by a collection of app icons representing those apps stored in the folder. Each folder can contain up to twelve applications. The use of folders increases the number of applications that can be accessed from the home screen from 180 to 2,160.

 

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Unlike many other systems, there is no separate step to create a folder in iOS 4. Instead, you simply tap-and-hold to reorganize your app icons in the usual manner and then drop one application icon on top of another. The two application icons will be grouped together into a folder which will be given a default name based on the category of the applications.

 

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While in edit mode you can tap on the name field to type in your own name instead of the default. Additional applications are added to an existing folder in the same manner: Simply drag-and-drop application icons on top of the folder while in home screen editing mode. To remove appliations from a folder, simply open the folder, tap-and-hold to enter edit mode, and then drag the apps out of the folder. While in edit mode within a folder, you can also rename the folder simply by tapping on the name. The entire process is relatively seamless and intuitive. Folders can also be moved between home screens in the same way as any other application. Note that folders cannot contain other folders.

iTunes 9.2 also allows folders to be created and managed from the iTunes “Apps” sync settings in much the same manner. See our iTunes 9.2 Article for more information.

Spotlight Search

The system-wide Spotlight Search introduced in iPhone OS 3.0 can still be found to the left of the first home screen. In addition to the content previously available, SMS/MMS messages can now be searched from here, and at the bottom of the search results additional options now appear to search Wikipedia or search the web using the device’s default search engine. Selecting either of these options will open the Safari browser and initiate a search accordingly.

 

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Spell Check

First introduced for the iPad with iOS 3.2, iOS 4 now brings a system-wide spell check to iPhone and iPod touch devices. Incorrectly spelled words are highlighted with a red underline, and tapping on an underlined word will provide suggested corrections.

 

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This is a system-wide text entry function that not only works with the built-in iOS 4 apps but should also work in all third-party apps that use standard text-entry controls.

Wireless Keyboard Support (iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, 3G iPod touch)

First introduced for the iPad in iOS 3.2, iOS 4 adds support for external Bluetooth keyboards for the iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch. Keyboards can be paired from the Bluetooth options under Settings, General and once paired can be used in place of the on-screen iOS keyboard, which will not be displayed by default when a Bluetooth keyboard is available.

 

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As with the iPad, when using an external keyboard, basic keyboard shortcuts are available for text selection and cut, copy and paste. The brightness, volume and media playback controls on Apple keyboards also work as expected, and the Eject button can be used to show or hide the on-screen keyboard.

Settings

There have been a few enhancements to the general iOS device settings as well. Application-specific settings are highlighted later on in the changes to the applications themselves.

Network Settings (iPhone)

An option is now available to enable or disable cellular data entirely. Toggling off the “Cellular Data” option disables all 3G and EDGE data access over the cellular network, essentially turning the iPhone into a Wi-Fi only data device. This can be useful in situations where you don’t have a data plan on your device or are coming close to exceeding your data cap. You will still be able to make and receive phone calls with cellular data off.

 

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AT&T users may also notice that the “Internet Tethering” option has finally appeared here as well. Although new to AT&T, this is not an iOS 4 specific feature—other carriers have supported tethering since it was first released in iPhone OS 3.0, and there have been no changes in iOS 4 in terms of how this feature works.

Location Services

iOS 4 provides more granular control over location services. Previously only available as a global on/off toggle, you can now control which specific applications have the ability to determine your current location.

 

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Applications that have requested your location data within the past 24 hours are indicated with a small compass arrow next to them. iOS 4 also provides a similar status indicator by the battery icon to indicate when location data is being used.

 

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Passcode Lock

You can now choose to use a more complex alphanumeric passcode to secure your device. This option was available in iPhone OS 3.x, but only by creating a profile through the use of Apple’s iPhone Configuration Utility. The “Simple Password” option is enabled by default which uses the same four-digit password option as before; toggling this option off will prompt you to instead enter an alphanumeric password using the normal iOS keyboard.

 

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You can also now access the passcode settings screen without having to set a passcode first. Most options will appear greyed out and a “Turn Passcode On” button appears at the top of this screen. This allows you to specify whether you want to use a simple or complex passcode before having to actually set it.

Restrictions

Austria has been added to the list of countries that ratings can be selected for. The actual Movies, TV Shows and Apps restrictions screens also now include checkmarks beside all allowed ratings and not merely the highest one. This makes it more clear which specific ratings are allowed.

 

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Home / Spotlight Search

As noted earlier, on devices that support multitasking, a double-click of the Home button is now hard-coded to display the app switcher. As a result, the Home button configuration screen is no longer available on these devices. The “Search Options” sub-menu previously found under the “Home” section has been renamed “Spotlight Search” and is now displayed directly under General settings on these devices. Older iPhone and iPod touch models that do not support multitasking and the app switcher still include the “Home” settings and place the “Spotlight Search” option in that section as before.

Spotlight Search

Search Options has been renamed “Spotlight Search” and adds “Messages” to the list of data types that can be searched.

 

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Further, as noted above the location of the Spotlight Search option now differs depending on whether the device being used supports multitasking and the app switcher.

Keyboard Settings

The keyboard selection and settings screens in iOS 4 have been redesigned to provide additional options. Prior iOS versions simply provided a list of keyboards with ON/OFF toggles beside each one. iOS 4 on the other hand provides a list of the currently active keyboard layouts with an “Add New Keyboard” button displayed below to add additional keyboards.

 

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Keyboards can be removed or reordered from this list by tapping the “Edit” button in the top-right corner.

 

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Some keyboards have more detailed options, indicated by an arrow to the right of the keyboard name. Tapping on the keyboard will bring up an additional options screen allowing you to set the layout for software and hardware versions of these keyboards.

 

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As with prior iOS versions, when more than one keyboard is configured, a small globe icon will appear to the right of the spacebar in the on-screen keyboard. With iOS 4, tapping-and-holding on this button will provide a pop-up list of keyboards.

 

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iOS 4 also adds several additional keyboard layouts: Catalan, Chinese-Simplified Stroke, Chinese-Traditional Cangjie, Chinese-Traditional Stroke and Vietnamese. Keyboard layouts are also now sorted alphabetically based on the current language and not on their native language (ie, “Spanish” now appears in the S section and not the E section).

International Settings

Languages have also been added to match the new keyboard settings, including language support for Català, Magyar and Vietnamese.

New Regional Formats include: Slovenian, Portuguese for Guineau-Bissau and Mozambique, Spanish for Equatorial Guinea, Russian for Moldova, Romanian for Moldova, Armenian, Mauritius and French for Cameroon, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Guadeloupe, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Maritnique, Niger, Réunion, Saint Barthélemy and Saint Martin.

iOS 4 now also supports multiple calendar formats which can be selected from the International settings. Formats include Gregorian (default), Japanese, Buddhist and Republic of China.