iPhone 3.0 Software Review: Apple Catches Up (Mostly)

Monday Jun 22nd 2009 by Troy Dreier
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The free iPhone software update moves the handheld forward, but could have gone further.

Two years ago Apple released the iPhone and brought something intuitive, innovative, and powerful to a stagnant cell phone world. It was so innovative – feeling more like a miniature computer than a cell phone – that Apple was hoping we wouldn't notice that it was missing some basic functionality.

We noticed.

Last year Apple introduced a vastly improved version of the iPhone and new software to go with it. Curiously, the developers left many of the same gaps in the operating system. What, the iPhone lacked picture messaging, video recording, and even cut-and-paste? The taunts of the BlackBerry owners were merciless.

Well, BlackBerry owners, you'll have to find something else to say, because the iPhone OS 3.0 software update now has those basics covered. (Or it soon will, when AT&T catches up.)

New Dog, Old Tricks

Yes, the iPhone can now cut-and-paste like any other smartphone. The method of doing so varies a bit depending on the app, but it's fairly easy.

In the Safari browser, tap and hold on the text you want. A blue highlighted field will appear with handles that let you select just the text you want.

In other apps, such as Mail and Notes, you can tap twice to select the current word and then expand the highlighted field as you like, or tap-and-hold to call up the on-screen magnifier, then lift your finger to see options for selecting the word or the whole block of text.

You paste by tapping-and-holding again, then selecting the paste option. It feels a little cumbersome at first, but at least it doesn't involve pull-down menus, as with other phones.

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Text copy in Safari

An incredibly useful universal search has been added in, and this feels a lot smoother in implementation. Tap the Home button when you're already on the Home screen, or scroll to the left from that screen, and you'll see the new search interface.

It's just as easy as the Spotlight search that's long been a part of the OS X interface, and it calls up results in all default apps, including Mail, Notes, Contacts, Calendar, and iPod.

Speaking of things that every other phone has, the iPhone also now has an audio recording tool. It's no bare-bones voice recorder, though. Use the new Voice Memos app to sync your recordings back to your desktop copy of iTunes, or use the easy controls to trim your recording. It can even run in the background, a handy feature reserved for Apple's own apps.

Unfortunately, you can't use it to record phone calls, which would have made it incredibly useful for journalists. Thanks anyway, Apple.

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Universal search on the iPhone

The Small Stuff

Give someone a tour of the new software and you'll quickly discover that it's almost all small stuff. Sure, it adds up to a greatly improved user experience, but we would have preferred a couple more big ticket items.

• This update supports the A2DP Bluetooth profile, better known as wireless stereo. Use it for improved sound on supported car stereos or, more likely, headphones.

• If you subscribe to Apple's MobileMe suite of online tools ($99 per year) you gain a new Find My iPhone feature, which shows you on an online map roughly where your iPhone is and even lets you make a pinging sound on the phone, so you can track it down.

If you've lost the phone you can send a contact message to the phone's screen. Finally, if you think it's been stolen, you can wipe all your personal info from it with just a click.

• It's now easier to scrub through long iTunes tracks with the ability to adjust the scroll speed. Tap and hold your position on the scrub bar, then drag your finger down for slower scrubbing.

It's okay, but still lacks the precision of the classic iPod. I’d love to see the ability to trace circular movements on the screen, as with the older iPod's dial, to advance quickly or slowly.

Next Page: A few complaints -- the iPhone could use better connectivity

• Apps can now deliver push notifications to your screen even when they're not running. So far, few have the ability, but it'll certainly be used more in the future.

• The Calendar app becomes a lot more useful with support for CalDAV servers and the ability to add subscription calendars.

• You can now e-mail up to five photos at a time.

Our favorite minor improvement is that notes in the iPhone's Notes app will now sync with the Notes section in Apple's Mail desktop app. The fact that this obvious and minor sync wasn't put in place years ago is staggering.

Play around with the update and you'll find even more minor but worthwhile updates, such as the ability to shake the phone to undo typing and a new force quit option for stuck apps (hold down the Sleep/Wake button on the top until the power off slider shows on screen, then hold down the Home button).

Maybe version 4 will have a huge interface change, but version 3 is mainly about filling in the cracks.

Oh, as for that multimedia messaging you've been hearing about, the iPhone supports it, but AT&T doesn't – yet. Later this summer the iPhone's weakest link will roll out support for it. Support for tethering, which will let you share your iPhone's Internet connection with your notebook, will come sometime after that (for a price).

Sadly, the iPhone 3G will never get video. While the 3GS has video and even a nifty video editing tool, the 3G can only shoot photos.

It has us crying bogus, since jailbroken software has shown the 3G's camera is perfectly capable of handling video.

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Voice Memos

iPhone 3G S: What's Next?

The iPhone's fans have been so busy clamoring for cut-and-paste that they've overlooked bigger changes that really should have been a part of the software from the beginning. It's time to make a 4.0 wish list.

At the top, put decent wireless abilities. Why can't the iPhone sync wirelessly over a home WiFi network? Your iPhone should sync with iTunes and other desktop apps the minute you walk through the door. Why are we still bothering with USB cables?

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Enabling the Find My iPhone feature

On the same track, why can't the iPhone wirelessly send information to other iPhones? Is it simply because the Zune got there first?

It would be handy to tell a friend about a cool app and then send it to him or her, as long as you're on the same network. It would also be useful to send songs, files, or contact info with just a touch. For a connected device, the iPhone could use a lot more connectivity.

Finally, the iPhone really needs the ability to run background apps. Currently, only Apple's own apps, such as Voice Memo and iPod, can run in the background.

Apple says true multitasking would drain the battery too quickly, but give consumers the choice instead of making it for them. I'd love to be able to run Slacker or other music apps in the background, or to leave a social media app open while doing other things.

The iPhone 3.0 upgrade might be about basic functionality, but there's still plenty to get excited about. Existing iPhone owners should download this free upgrade at once, if they haven't already.

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