Taken individually, each improvement in Apple’s iPhone 3.0 software update doesn’t seem impressive. Other smart phones have had stereo Bluetooth and cut-and-paste functionality for ages. Plus, AT&T doesn't yet offer certain Apple software features, such as MMS (multimedia messaging) and tethering (using your device as a modem) is not officially supported. The new iPhone 3.0 software is significant, however, because it delivers many easy-to-use features that consumers have wanted. Innovations such as Spotlight Search, push notifications for applications, and a bevy of new turn-by-turn GPS navigation apps will make some iPhone owners feel like they’re getting a new device.
One of our main complaints about the original iPhone and the iPhone 3G was that you couldn’t search your inbox. Spotlight lets you swipe the main screen to reveal a box next to the words “Search iPhone,” and a keyboard along the bottom to search your apps (great for those with pages of icons), calendar, contacts, e-mail, and anything on your iPod (including movies, music, podcasts, and TV shows).
As you begin typing, Spotlight narrows the results (similar to the Universal Search function on the Palm Pre). When we typed the letters “Tw,” for example, Spotlight displayed the TweetDeck app, Two Drops in the Ocean (a 311 song), some memos with those letters, and, further down, several e-mails (including Twitter requests).
Spotlight Search is speedy. By default, iPhone 3.0 prioritizes contacts, apps, iPod content, notes, e-mail, and calendar entries in that order, but you can rearrange the order (go to Settings > General > Home > Search).
Cut, Copy, and Paste
There’s something of a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, selecting text with iPhone 3.0 is fairly easy. We tested this new feature by copying and pasting text from the New York Times Web site into a new e-mail message. Within the Safari browser, we pressed and held the screen, dragging two little blue circles to the start and end points; a Copy dialog box then appears above the copy.
To drop the text into e-mail, we pressed and held the insertion point, and then clicked Paste. In this case, the text and New York Times’s fonts remained intact. Moving text within our e-mail was also fairly intuitive. We double tapped on the text, selected a block of copy (or hit Select All), and pressed Cut. Then we double tapped on the area where we wanted to move the text, and hit Paste.
You press and hold to select copy in Safari and double tap in other programs, because Safari recognizes double taps as a zooming gesture. You can press and hold in other apps to initiate text selection, but double tapping is faster. Our only complaint is that cut and paste didn’t work within certain third-party apps we tried, such as Facebook and AP News, but Apple says that developers are “rapidly adopting the copy-and-paste formats,” so we expect more third-party apps soon.
If you’ve been using the iPhone 3G’s portrait keyboard for awhile, as we have, you can type with one hand fairly quickly. Although the keyboard is cramped, it’s easy to build up speed when typing with two thumbs. Typing words without errors can be difficult, however, because the keys are so close to together. For users who prefer a larger typing area, Apple has added a landscape keyboard for Mail, Messages, and Notes. (Before this update, the landscape layout showed up only in the Safari browser.)
So, how’s the typing experience? At first, the landscape mode seems too wide, and your eyes have to jump from one side of the iPhone’s screen to the other. However, we did notice that we had to make fewer corrections, and this mode will be a godsend for users who are familiar with traditional smart phone keyboards. Some third-party apps support landscape typing, like The New York Times, but others do not.
When you have as much memory at your disposal as an 8GB or 16GB iPhone, you likely have plenty of room left over for voice recordings. We like the old-school microphone graphic that greets you when you start the app, and the Visual Voicemail–style playback menu. Our audio recordings sounded clear but not very loud, so you may have to listen through headphones to get every detail. Once you check off the Voice Memo option in iTunes, you’ll be able to easily sync recordings with your computer. Our 1 minute and 10 second recording (an Apple Lossless audio file) took up 2.6 MB of room, so you’ll want to watch how many recordings you keep on the iPhone.
Wireless freedom is a great thing. Apple has graced the iPhone with stereo Bluetooth capability, which means you can listen to music and videos through stereo Bluetooth headphones or a Bluetooth stereo speaker. We paired our iPhone 3G with a Parrot DS3120 bluetooth speaker by going through the general settings menu on our device, and then connected. Reconnecting is a bit of a pain, however, because getting to the Bluetooth menu requires a few steps.
Audio quality while streaming a Fall Out Boy track from across a small room was quite good, but we could control the volume only from the speaker itself, not the iPhone. In addition, it was a bit frustrating that we couldn’t use the fast-forward button on the speaker to skip tracks; we had to use the iPhone. However, the pause button stopped playback on our iPhone.
We are glad that stereo Bluetooth has arrived on the iPhone, and that it’s not limited to iTunes. We had no problem streaming songs from the Slacker application or from the iPhone’s Voice Memo app. Just keep in mind that while the iPhone supports background playback of iTunes, you can’t stream Slacker or Pandora while you do other things, such as check e-mail, because iPhone 3.0 doesn’t support that kind of multitasking.
For Apple, push notification is the next best thing to true multitasking with third-party apps. You can receive alerts for incoming instant messages in AIM, updated sports scores in ESPN ScoreCenter, and breaking news in the AP News app, among others. Another example is an alert that you’ve been challenged by another player to a game of Tap Tap Revenge.
On our tests, we used AIM Beta, and push notifications worked well. As instant messages came in, a window popped up with the sender’s name, along with the option to close the notification or view the message. We liked that we could see about 4.5 lines of text, so we could decide if messages were worth responding to immediately. If you dismiss the alert, you can always see how many IMs are waiting for you at a glance, denoted by a number in the upper right corner of the app’s icon. Applications that support push notifications will let you turn this functionality on and off, if it gets annoying.
Overall, we prefer how the Palm Pre handles notifications because you can choose to ignore them, at which point they get minimized and appear as small icons in the bottom right corner of the screen. With the iPhone, you have to act upon the notification, and after that you may forget about it, especially if your device has multiple pages of apps. Plus, the Pre and other smart phones, such as BlackBerrys, offer true multitasking.
Wireless TV Show and Movie Purchases
As easy as it is to download the latest flicks and TV shows from iTunes on your PC, you’re not always at your computer when you want an entertainment fix. With iPhone 3.0, now you can conveniently download premium content directly to your device over Wi-Fi. For example, it took us about 4.5 minutes to download a $1.99 Family Guy episode to our iPhone. You can also download audiobooks now from iTunes wirelessly. We’d like to see Apple and AT&T offer this same capability on the iPhone 3G S, since that newer phone will support an even faster flavor of 3G data (7.2 Mbps HSDPA) once AT&T deploys the technology, but we’re not holding our breath.
Apple promises faster performance in Safari with iPhone 3.0, along with autofill functionality with user name and passwords. Is surfing really any better? We got mixed results. When loading National Geographic (a graphics heavy site), our iPhone 3G with the latest software took 33 seconds to completely load the homepage. That’s much better than the 45 seconds in an earlier head-to-head with the Palm Pre, which got 30 seconds.
On the other hand, our updated iPhone took the same amount of time to download The New York Times homepage as before (50 seconds), whereas the Pre took only 33 seconds. In another test in the same location, our iPhone took more than a minute to begin loading the page, which may have been due to congestion on AT&T’s network.
Sure, Google Maps will give you directions, but iPhone 3.0 delivers a true GPS experience by enabling developers to provide apps with spoken turn-by-turn directions and more driver-friendly interfaces. TomTom, Navigon, and Networks in Motion have all announced that they will be coming to the App Store.
We tried NIM’s Gokivo, which costs 99 cents for the app and $9.99 per month for the service. The application embeds Yahoo Search for local search. We found a nearby Pret A Manger in just 2 seconds, and the software drops pins marking each location onto a Google Map. You can switch from searching for businesses to searching for categories like “Bars, Pubs, and Clubs” or “Food and Dining” to searching for a specific address.
What helps Gokivo stand out from Google Maps is that once you’ve identified a destination, you can click a green Go icon to launch turn-by-turn directions. Gokivo then grabs your GPS location—it took 29 seconds in our case—and then routes your trip. We planned a route to Easton, Pennsylvania from New York City and Gokivo loaded the trip data in 9 seconds.
Our biggest gripe with Gokivo is that it doesn’t switch into landscape mode for viewing. Instead, you’re forced to view the maps horizontally at all times. It looks a bit awkward, and it limits the view at which you can see your trip.
Find My iPhone
The new Find My iPhone feature, available to those who sign up for a MobileMe account ($99 per year), will locate your device via GPS, and show it to you on a map. You’ll also be able to ping the device and have it display a message for whomever might find it, even if your phone is locked. You can also tell MobileMe to play a sound that overrides the silent setting, a nice touch if you suspect your device has been stolen.
If you do fear the worst and want to protect your data, and your privacy, MobileMe lets you initiate a remote wipe of the device, so that it’s clean of any addresses, phone numbers, e-mails, photos, and more. The feature works as advertised, but some may balk at the yearly fee.
Apple’s software update includes several other minor tweaks. For example, you can now view charts in landscape mode in the Socks app, create meetings via Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync and subscribe to calendars with CalDAV support (like Google), and sync notes with your PC. You can also shake to shuffle songs on your iPhone, and limit what content and apps your kids can access via new parental controls.
The iPhone 3.0 OS Software Update isn’t just another upgrade. It will make your life easier, especially with such features as Spotlight Search. At the same time, one of the best reasons to get an iPhone—its massive App Store—just got even more compelling, thanks to the new notification system, support for truly useful GPS navigation programs, and peer-to-peer multiplayer capability for a new crop of games.
On the other hand, iPhone 3.0 doesn’t multitask (it looks like this will require new hardware); you can only record video with the new iPhone 3G S; and the iPhone 3G remains somewhat unreliable when it comes to data reception. We’re also waiting for AT&T to roll out MMS support, which will come later this summer.
The bottom line is that iPhone 3.0 does much more than deliver long overdue features. It solidifies the iPhone 3G as far and away the best smart phone for less than $100. While only the iPhone 3G S boasts features like video recording, voice search, faster performance, and better overall battery life, many users will be more than satisfied with what Apple’s 3.0 software update provides.