Yesterday Apple released the iPhone OS 3.1 update for iPhone and iPod touch devices. This release builds on the new features added in the major 3.0 update in June by adding a few small refinements and compatibility with iTunes 9, which was also released yesterday.
The iPhone 3.1 update lists a number of new features, including Genius support for the App Store, iTunes 9 support, the ability to use the Voice Control feature over Bluetooth on the iPhone 3GS, non-destructive video trimming, accessibility improvements and more.
Oddly, the iPod touch update has a version number of 3.1.1. The iPod touch update supports all of the same enhancements with the obvious exception of those related to iPhone-specific features such as Voice Control.
As with most iPhone OS updates, an entire new firmware package is downloaded and applied to the iPhone. Expect the update to weigh in at 200-300MB depending upon your specific model of iPhone. The update itself should simply install as an update without erasing any existing data or settings, but as always it’s best to ensure that you have a current backup of your iPhone or iPod touch prior to starting. iTunes should handle this for you automatically, but you can always check the status of your iPhone backups by visiting the Devices page in your iTunes preferences.
So exactly what is new in the iPhone OS 3.1 update? As always, we’ve dug a bit deeper than the release notes. Read on for the details…
Voice Control over Bluetooth (iPhone 3GS only)
The iPhone 3GS introduced the Voice Control feature to the iPhone family, but one glaring omission with the initial release was that the Voice Control feature didn’t work over a Bluetooth headset, making the handsfree dialling aspect less than useful for most iPhone users.
Although in our opinion this feature should have been included in the iPhone 3GS from the beginning, the OS 3.1 update delivers this and now allows Voice Control to be triggered from most Bluetooth headset/handsfree accessories. This feature works pretty much as you would expect: Hold down the call button on most Bluetooth headsets to trigger the Voice Control and then simply speak your Voice Control command after the tone. As with answering incoming calls, the iPhone defaults to routing the audio based on the device that was used to initiate the call; by default any calls initiated from the Bluetooth headset will use the Bluetooth headset and calls initiated directly on the iPhone will be routed through the normal iPhone earpiece.
Further, while all Voice Control commands are available it should be noted that the standard Bluetooth profile limitations apply: If you’re asking the iPhone to play a track from your iPod library, for example, it will still not play through the Bluetooth headset unless you’re using an A2DP-compatible Stereo Bluetooth headset. Regardless, this can still be a very useful way to control music playback in your car, where the iPhone’s normal audio output would presumably be connected to your car stereo system.
Non-destructive Video Trimming
While the iPhone 3GS provided the ability to trim videos that you had captured on the iPhone, this trimming process would overwrite the original iPhone video, resulting in any trimmed pieces being lost. In iPhone OS 3.1, when trimming a video you are now presented with an option to either overwrite the original video or save it as a new clip.
Saving the trimmed video as a copy will simply save it to the Camera Roll on your device. Note that this feature also works for videos you save from other sources (see below), and therefore can be used on other iPhone models and the iPod touch.
Save Videos from Other Sources
iPhone-compatible videos received from other sources such as MMS and e-mail can now be saved to the Camera Roll. Once in the camera roll, these videos can be trimmed like any others. Simply tap-and-hold on a video attachment to bring up the “Save Video” option.
This feature is not limited to the iPhone 3GS – any iPhone or iPod touch model can save and view iPhone-compatible videos, although oddly the ability to actually re-send any saved videos out via e-mail or MMS, or upload them to MobileMe or YouTube is still only available on the 3GS.
Note that by “iPhone-compatible” we’re essentially referring to any video that could otherwise be synced to your device as a video file from iTunes, meaning basically videos in the H.264 format. The iPhone won’t perform any conversion from other video formats—if you can’t play it, you can’t save it.
This feature also appears to be limited to videos that you’ve received through e-mail or MMS—the save option does not appear for videos accessed via Safari, regardless of the video format. In fact, in our tests the same videos that could easily be saved from the Mail application could only be viewed when accessed through a web page in Safari.
Videos in Photo Albums
With iTunes 9, iPhone OS 3.1 now provides the ability for videos stored in iPhoto or a photo folder on your computer to be synced to the photo albums on your iPhone. These videos will appear in the photo album in much the same way as they do in the camera roll and can be viewed on your device in the same manner. Note that unlike videos in the Camera Roll or Saved Photos sections, videos synced from iTunes into albums cannot be trimmed on the device itself, although on the iPhone 3GS you can share these videos via e-mail or MMS or by uploading them to MobileMe or YouTube. Automatic trimming will occur as necessary when sharing videos.
As with the ability to save videos from e-mail and MMS messages, this feature is available on all iPhone and iPod touch models, although iTunes 9 is required to sync the videos themselves. Likewise, only iPhone-compatible videos can be synced to your device from iTunes, which means for most users that these will likely be limited to those videos that were originally shot on the iPhone to begin with.
Tethering Usage Tracking (iPhone only)
Those iPhone users who were fortunate enough to be on a carrier where tethering was supported may have noticed a glaring omission in the iPhone OS 3.0 release: In many cases tethering usage was not tracked in the normal data usage category, but rather only usage of data on the device itself. This could have resulted in a nasty surprise for those on limited data plans.
With iPhone OS 3.1, the “Usage” section now tracks tethering usage separately from normal iPhone data usage. This will be particularly useful for those carriers which charge for tethering data separately.
Persistent Now Playing Queue
Traditionally, if you had a playlist in progress and connected your iPod to your computer to sync with iTunes, your “Now Playing” queue was cleared out. This “feature” dates back to the earliest click wheel iPod models, and was carried over to the iPhone and iPod touch. While it was difficult to see how this was of any benefit to most iPod users, it was one of these things that we all just accepted as normal.
iPhone OS 3.1 now finally changed this. In short, the “Now Playing” queue will remain in place, including where you left off in the current track, even after you sync with iTunes. The only time the “Now Playing” queue is cleared is if you either fully power off or reboot the iPhone or if you simply finish playing the content in the queue.
Support for Genius Mixes
iPhone OS 3.1 also adds support for the new “Genius Mixes” feature in iTunes 9. Genius Mixes can be synchronized from iTunes to your iPhone or iPod touch and will appear in a separate section in the iPod application for Genius Mixes:
Remote Lock via MobileMe
THe “Find my iPhone” feature introduced in iPhone OS 3.0 now also provides the ability to remote lock the iPhone in addition to displaying a message and/or wiping its content. As with the other “Find my iPhone” features, this requires a MobileMe subscription and that the “Find My iPhone” feature has been enabled on the device itself.
The feature is accessed from the MobileMe “Find My iPhone” settings.
You will be prompted to enter and confirm a new password for your device.
Once you have done this, a lock request is sent over-the-air and the device is immediately locked with the passcode. This feature works regardless of whether you had previously configured your device to lock with a passcode or not. An e-mail confirmation is sent to your MobileMe account once the device is successfully locked.
Although the device will be locked immediately with the new passcode, it is not possible to change the other security options such as access to voice control or the setting to automatically erase all data after 10 failed passcode attempts. These two settings will simply be left as they were previously configured.
Despite the name, this feature also works with the iPod touch. However, since the iPod touch can only communicate with the MobileMe servers when it is actually connected to a Wi-Fi network, the usefulness of this feature is considerably more limited on the iPod touch.
Safari Fraud Warnings
Safari now supports an “anti-phishing” filter to identify fraudulent web sites. We had received several reports that had indicated that the iPhone 3.0 betas included this feature, but for some reason it was dropped before the final iPhone OS 3.0 release. However, it has returned in the iPhone OS 3.1 update.
This feature is enabled by default when updating to iPhone OS 3.1, but can be turned off under your Safari settings in the Settings app.
When enabled, Safari will warn you when visiting a suspect web site. Information on phishing web sites is pulled from a blacklist maintained by Google through the Google Safe Browsing API.
Note that this feature doesn’t do any analysis of the site itself, rather it simply looks up the URLs in a blacklist maintain by Google. Since this feature is only as useful as the accuracy of Google’s phishing blacklists, it should not be assumed that just because a site doesn’t trigger the anti-phishing filter that it is a valid site.
Accessibility Changes (iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch only)
For iPhone 3GS owners, the iPhone OS 3.1 update now adds a couple of enhancements to the accessibility features on the device: A triple-click of the home button can now be used to toggle accessibility features such as VoiceOver or White on Black on or off.
Also, VoiceOver now includes a “practice mode” where you can practice VoiceOver gestures on the iPhone itself, with the option to speak the function of each gesture as you practice.
App Store Genius Recommendations
The App Store on the iPhone and iPod touch now include the ability to recommend other applications to you based on those that you have already purchased and installed on your device. This “Genius” feature is accessible from a third tab on the main application listing screen in the App Store:
As with activating Genius in iTunes, you will need to agree to Apple’s terms and conditions and specifically opt-in to use this feature.
Once you have enabled the App Store Genius feature, the “Genius” tab will show a list of applications that you may be interested in based on the apps you currently have installed on your device. App may be purchased directly from this screen, or you can swipe to remove any applications from the list that you are not interested in.
Purchase Ringtones from the iTunes Store (iPhone only)
Ringtones can now be purchased directly from the iTunes Store on your device. Instead of the previous implementation of allowing users to select a portion of any eligible music track and create a ringtone, Apple has now built a library of customized ringtones for direct download for $1.29 per ringtone.
Purchasing ringtones works in much the same way as any other content from the iTunes Store on the device. Ringtones can be previewed or purchased directly, and purchased ringtones automatically appear in the Ringtones section of the iPhone and sync back to iTunes during the next sync.
Note that you can only purchase ringtones from the iTunes Store on iPhone devices. The “Ringtones” option will not appear in the iTunes Store on the iPod touch as this device does not support ringtones.
While the $1.29 fee coupled with the on-device purchasing might appeal to some for the convenience factor, we find it hard to get excited about paying $1.29 to purchase a small clip of an existing song for use as a ringtone when there are numerous alternatives available for creating your own ringtones from your existing music and syncing them from iTunes. The idea of purchasing ringtones seems even more absurd when you consider that the entire iTunes catalog is now DRM-free and many entire songs can be purchased for the same price or less per track.
Redeem Gift Cards
The iPhone OS 3.1 lists the ability to redeem gift cards in the iTunes Store and the App Store as a new feature of iPhone OS 3.1. In reality, however, this appears to be a back-end upgrade that appeared sometime after the iPhone OS 3.0 release but has actually be available now for several weeks. The “Redeem” option can be found by scrolling down to the bottom of the main music or apps listings:
Paste Phone Numbers (iPhone only)
You can now paste text or a phone number into the Phone application. This is done simply by tapping and holding on the phone number entry area at the top of the screen.
If pasting text, the iPhone will convert that text into its numeric-keypad equivalent.
Caller ID Name Display (iPhone only)
The 3.1 update now finally brings support for Caller ID with Name Display. If your cellular provider supports this feature and you are subscribed to it, the caller’s name will be shown instead of the number, when available, for incoming calls that do not match your iPhone address book.
Note that some cellular carriers provide this feature automatically with their caller ID service, while others provide it as an additional feature that you must subscribe to separately. If you do not have the name display feature on your account, or the caller ID does not provide the name information along with the number, then just the number will be shown as in previous iPhone OS versions.
iTunes 9 Compatibility
The iPhone OS 3.1 update also provides compatibility with some of the major new features in iTunes 9, also released yesterday. Specifically, features such as syncing videos to your photo albums and re-arranging your home screen application layout from iTunes require the iPhone OS 3.1 update.
Note that iTunes 9 will continue to work with older iPhone firmware versions, with unavailable features simply being hidden in the same manner as they are for other iPod models.
Thus far, the iPhone OS 3.1 update appears no different in terms of performance or stability as compared to the 3.0 update on our test devices. The release notes indicate that some issues related to Exchange calendars and invitations and Wi-Fi performance when using Bluetooth have been improved, but these are not issues that we had encountered previously, and we therefore can’t comment on whether these issues have truly been resolved or not.
Update or wait?
The iPhone OS 3.1 update provides some very useful new features, particularly in conjunction with iTunes 9. iPhone 3GS users and users of any iPhone or iPod touch with a lot of applications will find a lot to like here, with the abiliy to reorganize applications alone being worth the update.