iOS 4.0 Hands-On Impressions

Back in April, I shared my impressions of Apple's new iPhone/iPod touch operating system based off Steve Jobs's demo but now the OS is finally out, which means I finally get to use it.

There were reports that the upgrade process didn't go well for some people, but I had no problem with it. The download was incredibly fast, and the install didn't take markedly longer than a standard restore. Plus, my phone kept all its apps and media, despite the fact I performed the upgrade on a different computer, so that was a plus.

Immediately, I noticed that iOS 4 had taken my lock screen wallpaper (a photo of Britney Spears from her Las Vegas show last year) and applied it as a home screen wallpaper. While I love the picture, it wasn't particularly home-screen friendly, so I went out and grabbed something else (it was at this point I also discovered that there's no simple way to go back to the flat black background, which is a little distressing). 

The first thing I did with iOS 4? Well, actually, it was update the apps that had available updates, but AFTER that, I started organizing apps into folders. This is a huge thing for me, as I've gone from 6 home screens to 1, which means fewer swipes, and less time spent wondering where the hell I put that one app (while the mini icons in the folder icons aren't huge, in many cases they're good enough to get a sense of which app is there). There's a small learning curve in using folders, particularly in organizing apps. I was a little surprised that you couldn't drag one folder into another. I knew sub-folders weren't supported, but I was hoping for the ability to merge folders, like you can do with events in iPhoto. Also, it's kind of annoying that when you launch an app out of a folder, then go back to the home screen, the folder is still open (meaning you either have to press the home button again or touch somewhere else on the screen to close the folder). Once I had my folders set up, I set to filling them up, downloading some extra apps, including iBooks.

Now, back in April, I'd mentioned that I had no interest in iBooks, but I downloaded it today to give it a shot, and I actually found something I like. The collection of Project Gutenberg books is really impressive, giving users free access to a huge slate of classic novels. I downloaded a bunch of books with the intention of possibly reading (or in many cases re-reading) them, but the iPhone isn't exactly the optimal interface for reading long novels. For example, "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" is 1,218 pages long, with each page having about 85 words on it. I'm pretty sure that's not how Doyle wanted his works read.

While iBooks underwhelmed me (again, I'm not much of a book reader these days, so YMMV on iBooks-on-iPhone), the new Mail app impressed me. It's much snappier than before -- as is the entire system on the whole, it's worth mentioning -- and the unified inbox is exactly what I've been looking for. I currently have five mail accounts on the iPhone and have held off on adding two others because the old mail app made it annoying to switch between accounts. Now I can just hit "all inboxes" and I'm good to go. I also like the composing support for MobileMe aliases, since I have one that I use on a regular basis.
Of course, once I'd gone about testing all these apps and their new features, it was time to play with multi-tasking. Only, when I went to do that, I couldn't remember how. I knew Steve had demoed it in April, and I was even pretty sure I'd read recently how to do it, but it wasn't made clear on Apple's site how to invoke the mini-dock. After some digging, I was reminded that you had to "double-press" the home button to invoke the app switcher, and when I did that for the first time, I was kind of shocked at how much was still running.

Now, my iPhone was still running smooth, since the only background service most of these un-updated apps supported was fast app switching, but it was still distressing to see EVERYTHING still running. It's incredibly annoying that to quit an app, you have to leave it (either by bringing up the home screen or switching to a different app), then invoke the app switcher, then hold down the app icon to bring up the "minus" icon, then click the "minus" (or "quit") icon. That's four steps for what used to be a one-step process. Apple definitely needs to add some kind of "quick quit" behavior option, otherwise the app switcher dock could get filled up quickly.

Other than that one quirk, multi-tasking worked pretty well. It was very snappy -- again, the OS upgrade seems to have made everything faster on the phone -- and background services worked as expected based on which apps I was using. I'm not a big Pandora user, but I did test it out, and it works as demoed. Music keeps playing, as you browse, tweet, check e-mail or do whatever. It even keeps playing if you're in the iPod app browsing your own media library, only stopping (and fading to a stop at that) when you actually start playing something from your local library (and in that case, Pandora still remembers your song and place in that song in the background... not bad).

Speaking of the iPod app, it has received some minor but much welcome upgrades. Playlist creation has probably been the most covered, and, again, works as advertised. I was actually more impressed with the subtle visual upgrades in browsing music by artist and by album. The album view in particular looks much more like the iTunes store, which I really like. I didn't notice any difference in video playback, but that's probably a good thing, since videos already played pretty well.

At this point, it's really just a waiting game to get more apps that are iOS 4 ready, particularly when it comes to the more advanced multitasking features (I'd love it if the Twitter application could take advantage of local notifications).

Two last upgrade quirks to keep an eye on:

- Check your non-upgraded apps. It's probably a good idea just to launch them, make sure they work and that nothing's out of place. There were a couple apps I had that needed to be launched two or three times before they worked smoothly.

- Check your voicemail. The first two times I clicked on the voicemail button in the Phone app, it actually CALLED my voicemail rather than bringing up Visual Voicemail. The third time, it prompted me for my voicemail password, then finally worked. It's been fine since.

I'm sure there are other features I missed, and probably some I wasn't even aware of. Feel free to drop your thoughts on iOS 4.0 in the comments.