In addition to iTunes 8, this week also saw an upgrade of the iPhone OS to 2.1, a release primarily intended to improve performance and fix some problems with the previous v2.0 release.
The update is installed in the same way as any other update: Connect your iPhone to iTunes and click the “Check for Update” button. iTunes will notify you that a new update is available for your iPhone, and prompt you to either download it for later or download it and install it right away.
Beginning the process displays an information dialog box where Apple has chosen to provide a bit more information than their usual “Bug fixes” description:
Proceeding with the installation will take about 15-20 minutes. This update should not erase any data from your iPhone in the process.
So what’s new in this iPhone firmware release? As usual, Apple only highlights the major new features in their update description, but there are always a few subtler changes.
The first and probably most important fix for most people is going to pertain to the iPhone’s general performance. Several of the described features indicate various performance and stability enhancements, and from our testing noticeable improvements have been observed. In general the iPhone OS seems faster and more responsive when switching applications, and as described in the release notes, users with large numbers of contacts and SMS messages will see noticeable speed improvements in this area as well.
The release notes for iPhone 2.1 also indicate that battery life has been “significantly improved … for most users.” Look for an update with more information on this after we have performed further battery life testing.
Probably the most significant performance increase can be found in the backup to iTunes procedure. Apple indicates that this update provides “dramatically reduced time to backup to iTunes” and the use of the word “dramatically” is very appropriate here.
On iPhone OS v2.0, a full backup of an iPhone could take up to two hours in some cases, particularly for users with a lot of large applications. The reason for this was that iTunes insisted on backing up everything, including installed applications. Some of the larger games applications, such as Texas Hold’Em, Super Monkey Ball and Brain Challenge (to name a few), not only were large in overall size, but also contained several hundred individual files. While iTunes would only back up “changed” data, the act of simply opening one of these applications flagged it as “changed” and iTunes would back the whole application package up during the next synchronization.
The result was often inscrutable backup times, since the average user rarely keeps track of which applications they’ve used between backups, and would seldom have any way of knowing which ones are likely to make more or less of a difference.
The good news is that with iTunes 8 and iPhone OS 2.1, only the data for your applications is now backed up, resulting in backups that are not only faster, but which also consume significantly less storage on your computer. To provide an illustration of how significant this change is, we compared backup times on iPhone v2.0.2 and iPhone 2.1 using one of our more heavily-loaded personal iPhones containing approximately 40 apps including some of the largest games on the app store. To ensure that we were comparing full backups, we erased the backup folder entirely before beginning each backup.
The differences really were dramatic. On iPhone v2.0.2, this full backup took just under 90 minutes, and the resulting backup consumed approximately 565 MB and just under 5000 files.
After upgrading to iPhone 2.1, but making no other changes to the iPhone configuration (ie, adding or removing applications), the same full backup procedure took 3 minutes and the resulting backup consumed a mere 33 MB and approximately 650 items.
While these tests were done by erasing the backup folder to force a full backup to run, users upgrading to iPhone 2.1 will not need to worry about this. iTunes cleans up the backup folder in the process of performing its incremental backups, so the first backup after iPhone OS 2.1 is installed should immediately result in a noticeably smaller backup folder.
So what about restoring? Obviously making backups is only half of the solution, and some of our more astute readers may be wondering if they can still get a reliable full restore since iTunes is now being more selective as to what it actually backs up. Well, the reality is that the applications themselves are much like your media content—they should be in your iTunes library anyway, so iTunes avoids backing them up simply because it would be redundant to do so. Although one might wonder why this approach wasn’t taken in the first place, the problem is that applications present a more unique situation, since they would still need to have their data restored. Since each application lives in its own “sandbox” with its own data workspace, this creates a chicken-and-egg scenario: If you haven’t installed the application (thereby creating the sandbox), you have nowhere to restore the data to.
With iPhone OS 2.1, Apple seems to have worked this out by having the restore create the basic application sandboxes for all apps that were installed so that it can restore data as necessary. The actual applications themselves follow during the normal first sync process, although quite notably iTunes shows them as “Updating” rather than “Installing”
Since no backup solution is complete unless you can actually restore it, we did several test restores to ensure that they would work as expected, including third-party application data. In this testing, no problems were found restoring any of our test iPhone units with various application configurations.
iPod Features – Genius Playlists
Probably the most significant new features in iPhone 2.1 are contained within the iPod application. iPhone 2.1 brings the Genius support found in iTunes 8 onto your iPhone as well as a few other interface enhancements.
The “Genius” feature is an extension of that found in iTunes 8, and will only become available after you have synchronized your iPhone with your main iTunes library at least once after updating it. This is necessary so that the Genius database stored in iTunes can be transferred to the iPhone.
Once enabled, the “Genius” option will appear at the top of your iPod Playlists section, and any Genius playlists you have created in iTunes will also show the Genius icon beside them:
To use the Genius feature, you can either tap the “Genius” option at the top of the Playlists section and pick a song, or you can create a Genius playlist from any currently playing track by tapping the centre of the screen to bring up the track options, and then tapping the Genius icon which appears immediately below the track progress indicator.
Creating a Genius playlist by from the Genius menu will immediately begin playing the selected track while generating a playlist of 25 additional tracks which will play after the currently selected one. Tapping the Genius icon on a currently-playing track will continue playing the selected track, but bring you to the newly selected Genius listing.
From the Genius listing, you can choose to either save the existing track set as a new Genius playlist, create a new Genius playlist from a different track, or refresh the Genius selections from the current track. The current Genius playlist is retained on the iPhone until it is either replaced with a new one or synced with your computer. Genius playlists you have specifically saved will be transferred back to iTunes during the next sync, however the main “Genius” queue is cleared after each synchronization—it does not transfer back to iTunes, so be sure to save your Genius selections before you sync your iPhone if you wish to keep them.
Further, Genius playlists created on your device are limited to 25 tracks. Unlike iTunes itself, there is no way to change the number of selected tracks on your device, although you can edit a saved Genius playlist in iTunes itself and then transfer it back to your device. Note, however, that if you refresh an existing Genius playlist on your iPhone, the refreshed playlist will again be limited to 25 tracks. Further, any tracks that were added to your iPhone as a result of the expanded Genius playlist from iTunes will be removed during the next synchronization, unless they are otherwise included in your device sync selections.
Note as well that since Genius playlists only work with tracks that are actually present on your device, you may encounter situations where there is simply not enough related music present to generate a Genius playlist. In this case, the Genius playlist creation will fail and the iPhone will notify you that you need more related tracks:
In this case, you can still create a Genius playlist in iTunes itself and then transfer that to your iPhone. As with any other playlist, tracks in a Genius playlist from iTunes that are not already on your iPhone will be transferred during the next sync. The same principle applies to increasing the number of tracks in an existing Genius playlist once it’s been synced back to iTunes.
Other iPod Features
The general iPod application user interface has also been enhanced to provide more useful information when navigating your library content.
Most noticeable is that track listings now include additional information such as artist and album where appropriate, similar to Apple’s Remote application for the iPhone and iPod touch, and the most recent Apple TV update.
Movies, TV Shows, and Podcasts now provide an additional status indicator. Where a blue dot was previously used to indicate only content that you had not started watching, a blue half-dot is now used to indicate content that you have started but not actually finished. This is based on a playback position that is at least a few seconds into a given track while the play count itself is still zero.
As long as the track has not been completely watched to the end, you can reset this status from partially-watched to unwatched simply by setting the playback position back to the beginning of the track. This will not work, however, once the play count is greater than zero.
Note that this does not apply to Music Videos, which will display the blue dot until they have been played completely through to the end.
Podcasts and Audiobooks offer additional information when they have been partially listened to, indicating the length of time remaining in each particular Podcast episode:
Another feature that has been added to the iPhone with the 2.1 update is the ability to skip back a track by triple-tapping the button on the wired iPhone earphones or other iPhone-compatible headphones and adapters. This behaves in the same manner as the “Back” button on the iPhone screen itself, in that it will take you to the beginning of the current track if you are paused or have played beyond the first few seconds of it, and take you back to the previous track otherwise.
Most of the settings and options on iPhone 2.1 remain unchanged from the previous version. One notable minor exception is the Parental Controls section, which now includes the ability to lock down the Camera application.
iPhone 2.1 now provides an additional security option to bring the iPhone more in-line with corporate security requirements. In Settings, General, Passcode Locka new option appears: Erase Data. As the description indicates, enabling this option will erase all data on the iPhone after 10 failed passcode attempts.
Enabling the option will present an additional confirmation warning just to ensure that you are aware of what you are doing. Once enabled, ten failed passcode attempts will immediately perform an erasure of all data on the iPhone.
Note that by default, the iPhone will begin disabling logins for a one-minute interval after five failed passcode attempts, with a successively increasing interval for each subsequent attempt (note that connecting the iPhone to its “home” iTunes library will reset the counter, although you will still need to enter the correct passcode to access the iPhone).
While this behaviour has been in place since the original iPhone release, the key point is that even with the Erase feature enabled, with the passcode lockout increasing to an hour by the ninth attempt it would require a fairly determined hacker to reach the point of erasing all data on the iPhone, and more importantly there is little risk of a legitimate user accidentally reaching this limit without realizing it.
iPhone 2.1 will now provide two additional notifications of a pending incoming SMS message. The first additional notification occurs after five minutes, and the second 15 minutes later. This occurs automatically and is not user-configurable.
One other minor cosmetic change in iPhone 2.1 is that the cellular network indicators for 3G, EDGE and GPRS are no longer displayed in a rectangular icon. Instead, only the appropriate indicator is shown in blue or white text against the normal iPhone header, in much the same way the WiFi signal strength indicator has traditionally appeared:
Another small change is that with iPhone 2.1 and iTunes 8, the Capacity bar in iTunes now shows applications listed in a separate category shown in green. Previously, third-party apps were simply lumped in under the orange “Other” category.
Also worth noting is that a previous bug in the iPhone calculator app regarding calculations using constants such as Pi has been fixed. In iPhone OS v2.0.2, entering a calculation such as “2 + π X 5” would result in the incorrect answer of 10 (the value of Pi was being ignored). With iPhone OS 2.1, the correct answer of 17.70796326794897 is shown.
What hasn’t changed…
One of the most significant limitations of using your iPhone with iTunes remains the inability to use “manual mode” on more than one computer. With this latest round of updates, it was hoped that this issue might have finally been addressed, but at this point even with iTunes 8 and iPhone 2.1 the existing manual limitations remain the same: You can set your iPhone to manual mode, but can only load and manage content on it from a single iTunes library. In our opinion, this defeats one of the most important purposes of manual mode, and we continue to hope that this is an oversight on Apple’s part that they merely haven’t had time to address yet, rather than a deliberate limitation, since this behaviour is counterintuitive to Apple’s other portable media devices, including the iPod touch, and since none of the dialog boxes or documentation provide any indication that this should be the way the iPhone works.
Another limitation of the iPhone that some users have been concerned with is the tendency for YouTube videos to play in degraded quality when using the 3G network, regardless of the actual network speed. There is no reason that users on faster 3G networks should not be able to view YouTube videos in the same quality as over WiFi, or that there should not at least be an option for this. However, the limitation remains: YouTube videos and even QuickTime videos from certain sites (ie, Apple’s QuickTime Trailers site), will play in lower resolution when viewed over a 3G connection, regardless of the actual connection speed. The fact that this limitation also applies to QuickTime videos, but only from certain sources, implies that it may be a bandwidth throttling issue at the source, rather than a limitation of the iPhone OS, which may simply report its connection speed. Either way, users will see no difference in this behaviour in the iPhone 2.1 update from what they have experienced previously.
Update or Wait?
Although iPhone OS 2.1 offers only minimal new features, the performance and stability improvements alone make this a highly recommended update, particularly for users with a lot of third-party applications. Many of the issues we have previously observed with instability caused by third-party applications appear to have been rectified, and the application synchronization and backup performance alone is probably well worth the update.
For users without a lot of third-party applications who are not otherwise having problems with their 2.0.x iPhone units, there’s probably less of an incentive to upgrade unless you’re specifically interested in some of the iPod enhancements. That said, however, this update appears to be a stability improvement over the v2.0.x series, and while there are always the possibility of new bugs having been introduced, our testing thus far seems to indicate this is a relatively stable update.
Of course, updating the iPhone is never without risks, so as always ensuring that you have a full and proper backup before doing the update is highly recommended. Although v2.0’s backup performance is much slower, it’s worth taking the additional time if you’re concerned about the data on your iPhone.