Hands on: iOS 4 review

We put Apple's new mobile OS through its paces

Hands on  iOS 4 review

Is the release of iOS 4 really a major milestone? With just a few days to wait for the new high-def iPhone 4, Apple has teased the installed base of iPhone 3 and iPhone 3GS users with the new iOS 4.

Released on Monday, we took a look at the new features and found some true gems.

1. Multitasking that actually works, sort of

Apple has touted multi-tasking as the major new feature in iOS 4. In realty, it's a "program hold" that is not the same as what you can do on a Mac or PC. True multi-tasking means the app keeps running in memory.

On a PC, that means if you download a game in a browser, and switch to Word, the download continues. On iOS 4, the app is actually held in its current state. So, if you start a new email, and then close the app and start the browser, and return to the email (by double-tapping on the Home button and selecting the icon), the email will still be there. In fact, for many apps, the processing continues.

iOS 4 multitasking

In one test, we started downloading an attachment in an email. We switched to another app, then went back, and the download had completed. However, that's not quite the same as actual multi-tasking where that app is literally still running.

You can't quickly switch between two opens apps. As one example, you can't run a sync to your PC and check email. And, you can't see two apps at once - say, run a side-by-side window with a puzzle game and an IM app running. Once a process is started in an app, though, such as a Pandora radio station, it continues to play even when you switch out.

In many ways, this is a major improvement. Keeping Pandora (and other music apps) open means you can do many other tasks, including email and IM, and still play your music. The only thing we miss is the old trusted double-tap on the Home button for accessing iPod and controlling music. It now pulls up the open apps, but you can swipe to the right on the open apps pad to see the music controls.

Overall, it's very cool to run the Nike app, start a run, close the app, listen to Pandora, and then see the GPS is still tracking your run. You can also open an app like Evernote and copy in re-useable data, like your email address or a new Facebook pal, for copy/paste into any other app.

iOS 4 music controls

Multi-tasking is supposed to send notifications "across the divide" so you will see that, for example, an AOL contact has sent you a message while you are deep in an Alive-4ever blood spattering match. In tests, this actually worked really well. We started an AOL chat, and when we went back after 10 minutes, the conversation was still in process. Better yet, the chat messages appeared as notifications. However, despite early reports, Skype IM and calls do not actually work currently with iOS 4 in our tests.

2. The Amazon Kindle Reader killer?

Is there any reason to keep using the Kindle? The iPad supports iBooks, and now so does the iPhone. Unfortunately, while the idea makes perfect sense, and we had a great time reading Neil Gaiman on the iPhone, there does not appear to be an easy way to load iPad books onto the iPhone.

This is a major problem, because for those of us hooked on iBooks it would be wonderful if you could read a few chapters on your iPad, continue reading where you left off on the iPhone, and even finish up the book on your Mac. While the iPad and iPhone are supposed to wirelessly sync the page you've read up to in exactly this way, we found we had to buy new books on the iPhone for testing.

3. Folders help with clean-up duties

For seasoned computer users, the concept of folders on the iPhone is not exactly a wizardly function. You can now group apps together by dragging one on top of another, which folds them into one folder, which you can then name. You can't create folders for data, or folders within folders. However, it does provide a way to seriously clean-up your home screens when you have hundreds of apps installed.

iOS 4 folders

4. Threaded conversations? Yes and no

Threaded conversations are a godsend for those who do a lot of email processing. On iOS 4, it means conversations are bundled together with a small number that shows how many back-and-forth chats you've had.

The catch here is that you only see threaded messages sent to you, not your replies (like you do in Gmail on a computer). However, it's quite an impressive new feature because it automatically cleans up your inbox in one swipe, especially useful if you also tend to use several POP accounts.

In the past, every message in every conversation was listed in the inbox. Now that they are grouped, you might even be tempted not to delete as many incoming messages as they are handily grouped.