Mobile Operating System Review: iOS 4.2 on the iPad

After 25 days with the new iOS 4.2 release on my iPad 3G, I can say that overall I am pleased with the new features, and not too terribly put out by the trouble spots that have cropped up since the upgrade. But there are some trouble spots, and they need to be addressed eventually.

First, the good news: for anyone who hasn't updated to iOS 4.2 (all four of you), which was released in late November, this is definitely worth the time to make the upgrade. Three of the new features in the latest release of this new mobile OS alone make it worthwhile: multitasking, folders, and speed.

Of all of the advertised features, multitasking is perhaps the most-anticipated for this mobile device. The capability to run multiple applications at the same time was something most iPad users craved ever since they saw their iPhones get the capability. Granted, the earlier iOS release did a nice job of suspending one app while you moved to a new one, but only a select few applications had push capabilities and, perhaps more importantly, listening to music with the iPod app while doing anything else was impossible.

This is not just the lamentation of an audiophile. Many people advocate the use of the iPad as a business device (this writer among them), and being able to consume multimedia while working on other projects is important on long business trips and impromptu business presentations. Multitasking is a key feature for business users, and much needed.

Some speculation has been raised about battery life being adversely affected by the new multitasking, and to date, I can't officially say I've noticed a significant power drain. However, my user's fuzzy sense feels like the battery is draining a bit faster… though I have no numbers to back this up, so take this with a big grain of salt.

Beyond making things easier for multiple apps to run, multitasking does lend an important unadvertised feature to iPads: speed. With the new iOS running, switching between applications is noticeably faster. I have also noted faster rendering in the Safari browser and just generally faster response times in most of the apps I have on my tablet. The most noticeable app improvement is Omnifocus for iPad, which got a nice speed boost with the new operating system.

It should be noted that some of this speed improvement may not be a result of Apple's changes, so much as the app vendors' updates. A number of my apps were updated right before and after the iOS 4.2 release, so it's very likely that the new apps' compatibility with iOS 4.2 gave them the performance improvements. For the end user, it's six of one and a half-dozen of the other: apps are faster in iOS 4.2.

I am also noticing much faster syncs, which is a wonderful improvement. Not sure who gets the credit for this one, but whichever developer eliminated my 20- minute sync sessions deserves a medal.

Not everything on the iPad is faster. Updating existing and installing new apps is much slower from the iPad itself, no matter which network I'm using. Perhaps iOS is requiring a lot more from apps when they are getting added or changed, but whatever the reason, it's very bothersome to find an app and then have to wait so long to pull it down.

Mobile computing on the iPad

Another feature touted in this new version of iOS won't directly speed things up, but it does lend to a better organization of your iPad interface, which can only help a user's efficiency. Folders enable iPad users to group apps together based on whatever organizational structure they prefer.

Not only does this make things more organized, it also gets around the whole 226-app limit older versions of iOS could have installed at any one time. That, I'm sure, was a big part of adding the feature for Apple, since users will be able to install many more apps--based on the space on their iPad instead of an arbitrary interface ceiling.

Organizing with the folders is not too hard: just press and drag your shaking apps atop one another to make a folder, and drag any additional apps inside to join the folder's content. The interface does a fair job of guessing at the general category of the apps as a folder name, but it's simple to rename the folder to something else if need be.

One minor nit: since all the folder backgrounds are the same dark-grey background, it's a little harder to use the folder icon itself to zero in on the folder within the interface. Now you have to actually read the folder label or squint to see the reeallly tiny mini icons within the folder. It would be great if a future iOS update could let you customize individual folder backgrounds to give us a better visual cue. (Current tricks to change the folder background will change all the folder backgrounds at once, which creates the same problem.)

Printing on the iPad

Much to do has been made about the new ability to push iPad multimedia content out to compatible devices with AirPlay and printing to compatible devices with AirPrint. I tested both of these functions, and I can report they work. But, I am not thrillingly happy with each feature, because of that word compatible. Right now only AppleTV can receive an iPad's multimedia content, and only a handful of compatible printers are on the market to get AirPrint to work.

If you are a Mac shop now, then the first obstacle may not be a problem, and there are limited reports of successful printing jobs sent to shared printers on Macs. But it will be a while before devices catch up with this nifty iPad feature, so it belongs in the "cool, but not much else" column. If you want to have more print options, for now I still recommend the PrintCentral for iPad app.

The improved Mail app is nice, if you're still using POP/IMAP accounts. Getting multiple account control is one of those "about time" changes that needed to happen.

On the other hand, the new Game Center, which integrates compatible game apps into a single framework so users can track and even challenge each other online will either fall under the "useful" or "pain in the butt," depending on your frame of mind. For users who take their gaming seriously, the feature is a pretty basic gaming portal and does what it needs to do. If games are more of a diversion for you, then having to register for the Game Center when all you want to do is waste a few minutes landing planes will fall into that painful category I mentioned.

Also painful is a noted increase in instability in Safari. I can't chase it down, but I have had more than a few instances of app crashes in the browser since the upgrade. Not enough to make me use something else--yet--but it's a near thing. Otherwise, as I indicated earlier, browsing in Safari is a much snappier experience, in my opinion, and rendering is still clean and clear.

I would also like to voice a concern about the "improved" Google search bar, which gives me the "On This Page" option: I hate it. I run a lot of Google searches, some of which are rather esoteric. If the Google search bar cannot give me recommended web search results, then the search bar will default to the On This Page option, which--of course--returns "No Results." Yes, I know there's no "best iPad game center apps" on this page, Google--that's why I'm trying to Google it.

Are these problems enough to not upgrade? Not nearly so. The benefits of iOS on the iPad still far outweigh these niggling problems, which should be upgraded away as time goes by.

For now, the iPad has become a more useful device for mobile users, thanks to this welcome update.


Brian Proffitt is a technology and Open Source expert who writes for a number of online publications. Formerly the Community Manager for Linux.com and the Linux Foundation, he is the author of 20 technical/consumer books, including the recent Take Your iPad to Work. Follow him on Twitter @TheTechScribe.


iPad, Apple, IOS, mobile os, iOS 4.2