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A First Look At Apple’s iPad With iOS 4

Fast Company sneaks a peek at the next evolution of Apple’s iOS and discovers how multitasking and new app management tools unlock iPad’s potential.

A First Look At Apple’s iPad With iOS 4

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You know that old wives’ tale about how we only use 10% of our brain’s potential? It isn’t true, but up until now, I felt like I was using my iPad at 10% of its potential. A new software update goes a long way towards increasing that number.

First of all, a caveat: This is not technically a review of the long-awaited iOS 4.2 on the iPad. Officially, such a thing does not yet exist, even for the most cutting-edge gadget journalists. Apple has promised to push the update to users sometime in November. Reports that it would come out this week turned out to be inaccurate. What we did get our hands on, however, was the “gold master” release, which is sent to developers so they can make sure their apps work. It is the finished product, essentially, bar a few minor last-minute tweaks.

I took a long evening this week to install the gold master — which is not an easy task; you have to blast your iPad’s content then hit “restore.” I recommend waiting for the real thing if you have lots of content and settings you want to preserve. But the end result was joyous. I’ve used and loved my iPad since it was launched, but I’ve also been constantly aware of a few difficulties with the device. The new OS blasts through those problems, even as it introduces a small new one. It’s two large steps forward, one slight shuffle back.

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The first and largest problem I had with the iPad was app management. I had pages and pages of apps, some of them designed for the iPhone, some for the iPad. It was all I could do to keep them segregated. (Yes, you can use iPhone apps on the iPad, but in practice, I rarely did — the pixelated 2x screen is a dealbreaker.) The thought of downloading new iPad apps would elicit a sigh. I’d have to rearrange everything, or suffer through the page-turning or searching necessary to find anything on the device.

The app folders introduced by iOS4 aren’t exactly revolutionary in themselves. iPhone users, myself included, have had them for months. (iOS4 was released for iPhones and iPod Touches this summer; iOS 4.2 will unite all the devices under one OS.) But still, folders on the iPad have caused a revolutionary change in how I use the device. All my iPad apps are on one page, all my iPhone apps are on another. And that’s it. I only have two pages’ worth of apps. And that makes me feel tremendously happy about exploring and downloading more, which I am now doing at a rapid clip. The folders hold up to 20 apps each (on the iPhone, they hold a mere 12), so I don’t have to worry about running out of space.

The second problem, of course, was multitasking. The fact that the iPad couldn’t run apps in the background has been much mocked by techies. What it meant in practical terms was that I couldn’t listen to Pandora while writing an email, say, or sync both CalenGoo (my Google Calendar viewing app) and Things (my To Do list) at the same time. Now I can. It’s just as simple, and stable, as that.

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Double-tap the home button and a list of all apps currently running pops up. If anything, the iPad seems to be showing off how many apps it can multitask at the same time, to the point where I became concerned at what all those apps were doing to the memory. It won’t stop running them unless you restart or hold your finger down on the multitask list, at which point you can tap a red minus sign. Nevertheless, I didn’t encounter any major stability issues, even though very few of my favorite apps are optimized for iOS 4.2 yet. One demo freebie game crashed; that was it.

Now for something that didn’t need to be fixed on the old iPad: the screen lock button on the side of the device, next to the volume. Everyone who actually uses an iPad everywhere it’s meant to go–the couch, the bed, the back yard–knows how useful this sucker is. When watching a video or reading on your side, you don’t want the iPad’s clever little gyroscope to flip the screen for you. You want to work against gravity. The screen lock button was a simple hardware trick to accomplish this.

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Imagine my horror, then, on discovering that the screen lock button is now a mute button–and there is no setting anywhere to change it back. Why, Apple, why? If I want to mute, I simply hold the “volume down” button for one second. It’s clever enough to go straight to mute with more pressure. Why would I need a whole extra button for the same purpose, when the device only has five buttons?

The screen lock is not entirely lost, but here’s the drill if you want to access it. Tap home button twice in quick succession; pull up list of apps currently running; swipe all the way to the left; tap screen lock icon. Do you really want to do that every time you shift your lounging position? The whole point of the iPad is that it’s the ultimate leisure computing device. Apple just put a lot more work into our leisure.

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Still, I have faith that Apple will simply add a setting to make the screen lock button customizable–in iOS 4.3, hopefully. It’s a hassle, but not so much of one that I would ever consider downgrading back to iOS 3. After all, I feel I’m now using my iPad at something like 70% of its potential.

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