Although Apple’s next iPhone operating system is at least a month away from release, Wired.com got a hands-on peek at the latest beta and found some interesting goodies that have not been officially announced. Most notably, the iPhone OS 4 beta 3 software includes a brand new iPod widget and a file-sharing feature that was previously exclusive to the iPad. (These features were previously reported by Boy Genius Report.)
Other new features we tested were those on display during Apple’s recent iPhone event: multitasking, folders, universal e-mail, wallpaper and camera zoom. Taken together, they paint a picture of an operating system that is well on its way to a major upgrade, one that will greatly increase the usability of Apple’s growing family of iPhone OS-based devices.
The iPhone OS is Apple’s mobile platform, which powers the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. After releasing the iPad, iPhone OS 4 will be Apple’s next move to do battle in an increasingly competitive mobile landscape. Currently, Apple’s biggest rival is Google’s Android OS, and upcoming contenders include Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 and HP, which recently acquired Palm.
Apple has said the iPhone OS 4 upgrade will be available this summer for iPhones (3G and 3GS models) and the third-generation iPod Touch, and in the fall for the iPad. (The older iPod Touch devices and the first-generation iPhone will not support the OS.)
Apple has released previous iPhone OS upgrades during its Worldwide Developers Conference in years past. Apple’s upcoming WWDC kicks off June 7, so expect the official upgrade to become available for download around then.
Meanwhile, take a look at what we found in the beta to get an idea of what to expect.
MultitaskingThis couldn’t have come at a better time. Pressing the Home button twice brings up a bar at the bottom of the screen that shows apps that are running in the background. Tap an icon and the main screen very quickly rotates over to the corresponding app. This is far more efficient than the current process, which requires you to press the Home button to leave an app and then launch another app.
Multitasking will be especially important for the iPad for those who plan to use it for work, since it will allow quicker switching between different apps. It will also enable apps to run in the background, so you can (for instance) listen to music from the Pandora app while you chat with your friends in Meebo.
If there’s an app showing up in the multitasking bar that you’re not using often, you can hold your finger down on it until the icon jiggles. Tap the — (minus sign) button in the corner and the app closes.
One caveat: Apple said multitasking will only work on the current iPhone 3GS; it does not work on the iPhone 3G.
iPod widgetIn the same bar you use for multitasking, you can swipe all the way to the left to access a control panel for the iPod. Using that panel you can play, skip or go backward a track. The widget also contains a shortcut to your iPod app in case you want to view your whole library. It works great, and I’m a big fan of this addition. Perhaps Apple will at some point introduce a widget API for third-party apps to have their own controllers similar to the iPod’s. That would be very interesting, wouldn’t it?
To the left of the iPod widget is a screen-orientation lock in case you don’t want your iPhone flipping back and forth between landscape and portrait mode. That serves the same function as the physical orientation-locking switch on the iPad.
FoldersIf you’re an appoholic and want to clear some clutter from your screen, you can now create folders to hold your apps. Holding your finger on an app makes it jiggle, and you can then drag it on top of a similar app to create a folder. For example, if you drag a game on top of another game, it creates a game folder, and you can keep adding more games to it. It works smoothly, though at times you’ll probably accidentally create folders when all you wanted to do was rearrange your apps. It takes just a few minutes to get used to, however.
WallpaperiPhone OS 4 now enables you to display a wallpaper behind your apps on your springboard just like you can with the iPad (or with jailbroken iPhones).
Some will enjoy this feature, but I found it fugly. The screen just looks too noisy with apps and a wallpaper in the background. Surprisingly there’s no option to disable the springboard wallpaper, but I’m guessing that was just an option that was left out of the beta. In its absence, you can simply select an all-black image as the wallpaper.
Universal e-mailOne of the most impressive and useful features in iPhone OS 4 is the ability to view e-mail from two e-mail addresses in a single inbox. An “All Inboxes” tab at the top of your Mail screen is all you have to tap. If you have multiple e-mail accounts to monitor (say, work and personal) that should cut down on the amount of time you spend reading messages. Bravo!
Camera zoomIn your camera app, if you tap and hold your finger on a specific area, you can zoom in using a sliding bar. It’s digital zoom, so of course it degrades the quality the more you zoom; a test image looked awfully blurry. There will be some situations, however, where this should come in handy.
File sharingFinally, there’s a feature that doesn’t work at all yet but appears promising: iTunes file sharing. When your iPhone is plugged in and you click the Apps tab, you can see a File Sharing option that says it can transfer documents between your iPhone and your computer. Currently the iPad has a similar feature for syncing files to some apps, so hopefully we’ll get a working version when the official iPhone OS 4 is released.
And that about covers it for now. There were a couple of bugs here and there, as to be expected in a beta, but so far, the OS is running very smoothly. Also, iPhone OS 4 feels significantly faster than iPhone OS 3 — much zippier Safari web browsing and overall responsiveness.
Overall, this is a big upgrade to look forward to.