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What You Need to Know About iOS 4

Apple’s newest version of iOS (formerly iPhone OS) rolled out today to compatible devices. Here’s a quick explanation of the basics: what’s new, what’s compatible, what’s good, and what’s bad.

iPhone

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What Is It?

iOS 4 is the newest version of Apple’s iOS mobile operating system, the platform used by all models of the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. The major new features (leaving aside the myriad little ones–check out Ars Technica’s review for the nitty-gritty): multitasking, iBooks app, threaded emails, Spotlight Search (now supports Wikipedia and Web searches), a digital zoom for still photos, and two main UI changes (customizable wallpaper and folders for apps).

If you’ve updated iTunes recently (you probably have; iTunes is very pushy when there’s a new update), all you have to do is plug your iPhone or iPod Touch into your computer, and you’ll be prompted to upgrade. The upgrade is free.

Which Devices Support It?

Here’s where things get tricky. The original iPhone and iPod Touch do not support iOS 4 at all. The iPad, at the moment, does not support iOS 4 (that should change later this summer). The iPhone 3G and 2nd generation iPod Touch both support limited versions of iOS 4. Those two devices lack two of the most asked-for features in iOS 4, features the iPhone 4 (click here for our hands-on), iPhone 3GS, and iPod Touch (3rd gen) all have: multitasking and customizable wallpapers. Sorry, iPhone 3G owners, no multitasking for you.

The iPhone 3GS and 3rd generation iPod Touch both get the whole deal: every new feature in the iPhone 4 short of the hardware-specific ones (for example, the iPhone 3GS has no front-facing camera and limited processing power, so it doesn’t get the FaceTime voice calling app).

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iPhone 4

How Is It?

It’s…okay! I tested out iOS 4 on a 3rd generation iPod Touch, and found it refreshing, though not a panacea for the iPhone. iOS 4’s weak multitasking has been ragged on forever at this point, and but it’s worth repeating–the iOS’s multitasking is incredibly limited compared to Android’s or WebOS’s (or, hell, BlackBerry’s). Ars Technica says “it isn’t so much that apps will be ‘multitasking,’ but rather that they’ll be ‘doing a few things in the background,'” which is about right.

You can multitask with streamed audio from sources like Pandora or NPR, you can use VoIP apps like Skype, you can load things in the background while you go off to other apps (like installing an app or loading a Web page), and you can quickly switch between apps by hitting the home button twice. But apps aren’t really running in the background, they’re just sort of paused. For example, my IM app had to re-scan for messages every time I switched back to it, rather than scanning by itself in the background and then letting me know when somebody messaged me (note: apps that support push notifications, like the official AIM app, will work). It’s definitely a half-solution–I’m sure it’s better on battery life and overall speed than real multitasking, but it feels very restrictive.

iOS 4 also does not fix the notification system, one of the (admittedly few) real flaws in iOS. In both Android and WebOS, when something happens in a background app (like getting a text message, or a photo finishing uploading, or Pandora moving to a new track), the message pops up in a way that allows you to respond or ignore the notification and keep doing what you’re doing without pausing (either on top of the screen or on the bottom). In iOS, a big blue bubble pops up in the middle of the screen and pauses whatever you’re doing, forcing you to either respond or ignore before getting back to it. It’s clumsy and annoying, and it’s still here. (Though maybe not for long–WebOS’s notifications guru just left for Apple.)

iBooks

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That said, everything else is pretty great. Threaded emails and a unified inbox finally arrive, and work nicely. Customizable backgrounds are neat, although you have to be careful about those–Apple’s are pretty good, but busy backgrounds can be disorienting. (The Mondrian background pictured top is mine; Apple probably has legal or moral qualms about swiping immortal artwork for a teeny smartphone screen. I do not.) iPhone 3GS users are reporting big bumps in speed–I don’t have a 3GS, but my iPod Touch actually does feel noticeably snappier. Switching between apps is quick and smooth, and I haven’t seen any slowdowns yet. iBooks is nice; I still think reading books on a smartphone screen is ridiculous (just go buy a Nook, they’re only $150!), but it loaded my e-pub e-books just fine and displayed them adequately.

iOS is definitely a worthy upgrade. It’s not a revolution (like iOS 2.0’s introduction of the App Store), but it works nicely and fixes a lot of complaints users have had about the operating system. One problem: It’s not available for the iPad! Apple had better hurry up and get that out pronto–it’s dangerous to have my $200, year-old iPod Touch feel more capable than the “magical” iPad, just because of a little software update.

About the author

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and currently lives in Brooklyn, because he has a beard and glasses and that's the law.

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