The iSlate Will Be Announced In

November 21, 2008

iPhone 2.2 Available

We sat up all night writing a review of the iPhone's new 2.2 firmware... then we read what David Chartier wrote for and decided to scrap our story and run his.

Here it is:

After what were surely a few extra pots of coffee last night, Apple released iPhone OS 2.2, the latest update to its operating system for the iPhone and iPod touch. As with the 2.1 update just over two months ago, Apple administered a healthy dose of new features and fixes throughout the OS and a handful of applications, many of which we saw previewed over the last couplemonths. Let's take a look at the most significant changes, some appreciated polish, and recap what's still missing.

Google Maps

As one of the iPhone's most frequently touted applications by Apple, Google Maps received the most attention in iPhone 2.2. At the top of the list is Google Street View, which the Android T-Mobile G1 was first to market with. In order to use Street View on the iPhone, you'll need to either drop a pin manually on the map or search for a specific address or store. Tapping a pin will reveal a subtle new orange icon to the right of the address or business name displayed in the popup tooltip, and clicking that icon invokes a fluid animation of zooming into the map as Street View is activated.

Apple: We don't need no stinkin' labels on our compass
The iPhone's accelerometer is not used for Street View navigation, however, so you can't impress your friends by tilting and turning your iPhone here. You have to use your finger to flick around on the street (complete with the iPhone's trademark smooth deceleration), and an unlabeled compass in the lower right serves as both a guide and your ticket back to the regular map view. Tap it, and the animated zoom whisks you back to your previous birds-eye map view of the area.

Also new for Google Maps is the addition of walking and public transit directions. When searching for directions from point A to B, new icons at the top of the directions interface allow for huffing the route on foot or adding bus, train, and subway routes from any of the cities that Google Transit supports. These new features are very appreciated by those of us living in Chicago, though the transit functionality does not quite match the features of Google Maps' desktop counterpart. For example, when viewing L train routes for Chicago, IL in Google Maps on the desktop, you can click on any stop to view a list of routes, their next scheduled stops at that station, and a link to the Transit Authority's web site. Google Maps for iPhone doesn't provide that depth of access, as you cannot yet tap on stops to reveal any of this information. Still, it's great to see these public transit routes now factored into Google Maps directions.

Other new Google Maps features include a tweaked UI of pin tooltips to display the address, as well as a new "share location via e-mail" feature that creates a new e-mail with a Google Maps link inserted. Unfortunately, Arsians are reporting on our announcement post that the iPod touch and first-generation iPhone did not receive most of these key new Google Maps features that the iPhone 3G did. We aren't sure why Apple excluded the first-gen iPhone, but it's arguable that most of these features will typically require on-the-go network access that the iPod touch (which only has WiFi) cannot provide much of the time. Still, since bringing the iPod touch in software feature parity with the iPhone via a commercial upgrade in January 2008, this is the first time we remember seeing Apple split the device back off again.

Of podcasts and anti-competition

iPhone OS 2.2 also brought a major new feature to both the iTunes Store application that users have been requesting for quite some time: on-the-go downloading of podcast episodes. Users can either start up the iPod app and tap "Get more episodes" to launch the iTunes Store on the iPhone, or simply go straight to the new Podcasts category in the store manually. Both video and audio episodes can be downloaded over WiFi or (surprisingly) the cellular network.

The feature is useful, but has its limits. First, podcasts cannot be subscribed to on the iPhone; you can manually download individual episodes to get a quick fix, but you can't create a new subscription or batch download 20 episodes and start binging. Second, the 10MB cap already in place for songs and applications is in effect, which means you'll have to connect to WiFi if you want to download anything larger.

Apple caused a bit of a controversy back in September for denying Podcaster from the iTunes App Store. Podcaster was a third-party application designed to browse and download podcasts on the fly, and Apple's rejection letter cited that Podcaster duplicates iTunes functionality. At the time, debate raged about the anticompetitive nature of this denial, but also about the simple fact that, at the time, neither the iTunes Store nor iPod applications built into iPhone OS offered these features.

App Store experience

The next tangible area of polish in iPhone OS 2.2 is in the App Store application, as Apple has brought a few features and tweaked UI elements to provide a more pleasant and thorough experience. New sorting options of "Top Paid," "Top Free," and "Release Date" when browsing categories like "Games" or "Productivity" allow for more granular control over what you see. A large icon taken from a popular application is now also displayed next to each category name to help identify it. Plus, when viewing a specific application's details, all screenshots for the application are now accessible on the iPhone via a convenient, finger-flicking slide show.

The choice between productivity and
funny cats is always tough to make
Outside the store, iPhone OS 2.2 also now encourages users to rate applications when removing them from an iPhone. Tapping and holding an icon still invokes the icon "jiggle," informing the user that the management UI is now in effect. After confirming that you want to delete an application, though, a dialog prompts you to rate the it, but offers an opt-out if you are worried about anonymously hurting the developer's feelings.

Everything else

Plenty of other useful new features and changes have been added throughout iPhone OS 2.2, including a new preference to turn on/off auto-correction in keyboard settings, a new trick where pressing the Home button when viewing any Home screen application page will bring you to the first page, support for Japanese Emoji icons, and more reliable performance for Safari, phone calls, and visual voicemail. Problems with Mail's fetching schedules have been resolved, and it also has improved formatting of wide HTML e-mail.

As with each of these major iPhone OS updates, the overall OS feels a lot more responsive as well. There is always the possibility of a placebo effect at play, but nearly every application we have tried, even those from third parties, launches and responds faster. Google Maps seems to pinpoint our location faster, and Safari does indeed seem both more responsive and less inclined to throw out cached pages when switching between applications.

Still on the to-do list

A number of significant features are still missing from iPhone OS 2.2, including some long-standing requests from users and one that was promised and later pulled by Apple. Copy-and-paste is still missing (but confirmed to be on its way sooner or later), as is even a simple to-do list, let alone one that integrates with iCal or Outlook. We also haven't seen much improvement on any of our major complaints about the iPhone's Exchange experience that we noted in our original review of the iPhone 3G and iPhone OS 2.0.

Perhaps most notably still missing, though, is the push alert system Apple showed off at WWDC 2008. Since the iPhone doesn't allow background processes beyond those from a handful of Apple's own blessed applications (specifically: Mail, iPod, SMS, and Clock), Apple proposed a compromise that took a "single background process to rule them all" approach. This process could be a sort of middleman, watching for things like new IM messages or task alarms from third-party applications or services, then presenting those alarms in the way that SMS alarms are displayed now. Users could choose to act on the alarm and open its corresponding application, or dismiss it and continue in the current application (or doing nothing).

This system even made its debut in early developer builds of the iPhone OS 2.1 update that was eventually released in September. In mid-August, however, the push alerts feature was pulledfrom these test builds, and Apple has not mentioned it since.

Feature requests and vaporware aside, though, iPhone OS 2.2 is a strong update that fleshes out a maturing OS. Once again, there is something for almost everyone here, whether it be more flexible podcast downloading, better traveling directions, or a more thorough on-the-go App Store experience. The update weighs in at the average size of 246MB (each iPhone OS update is the entire OS, ensuring a clean install), and can be downloaded by plugging your iPhone or iPod touch into iTunes and using the "Check for Updates" feature.

November 14, 2008

Yummy Applications (For Your Mouth!)

These two applications are so yummy, they taste like Christmas.

If you are a faithful reader, you might remember that we predicted the iPhone would soon have applications which would offer voice control for dialing contacts and more... well, that day has come.

Currently, there are a number of applications available at the iTunes store which promise varying degrees of voice control. Most of them don't work. But, there are a couple that do work and they will rock your socks.

Say Who! is a free program which allows you to say any name in your contact list and it will automatically (or not if you choose) dial that number. You can also just say a number, and it will dial that! On top of that, you can add words to the "nickname" column in contacts and Say Who! will recognize those names. It takes a moment for this puppy to load the first time you use it (like 7 seconds) but after that, it works quickly and is very accurate. As an added bonus, if you turn off the phone while you are in the application, the next time you turn on the phone, you don't have to wait 7 seconds to start speaking, your iPhone will still be ready to accept your voice commands.

Say Where! is also free and we think it's even yummier. This app, made by the same geniuses that gave us Say Who!, allows you to search for addresses with only your voice, anywhere in the world (or maybe just America--the testers in our Danish office are still sleeping, so we can't yet verify world-wide addresses...) If you have the 3G iPhone (and you should by now!) it will also use the GPS chip to nail down your location before finding the address you requested and opening it up in Google Maps. By default, it opens Google maps with directions from your current location to your spoken address. On top of all that vocal goodness, Say Where! features a couple of other types of searches. Using only your voice, you can search "Yelp" "Yellow Pages" "" and best of all, "Google Maps for Business." With a Google Maps for business search, you can speak, "Apple Store" into your iPhone and Google maps will open up and show you pins for all the nearby Apple Stores. Because it's Google, you can say almost anything associated with a business... like "Dentist" and Google Maps will open and display pins for nearby dentists. If we could wrap this up in paper and give it as a gift, we would!

To make this announcement even juicer, it has just come to our attention that Google has announced a new iPhone application called "voice search" which is set to hit the iPhone store today! (yes, today!) This bad-boy will let you search for anything on Google with only your voice. Amazing. It's a brave new world, people. And we're not afraid to say it!