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iOS 4.2 and iPhone: New features, fixes and changes

Most of the focus on the forthcoming iOS 4.2 update has been on the iPad, and rightly so. The iPad is finally getting marquee features that most iPhone users have enjoyed for months, like multitasking and folder support. iOS 4.2 doesn't bring as many changes to the iPhone as it does to the iPad, but it does introduce a few new features to the iPhone.

iOS 4.2 is expected to go live later this week sometime soon, but we'll give you a brief rundown of the new features today. Note that most of these features should be identical on newer versions of the iPod touch, so anywhere I say "iPhone" (which is all I've got to test with), you can probably safely assume I mean iPhone/iPod touch.

AirPlay

The biggest new feature in iOS 4.2 is AirPlay, which allows you to stream audio to an Apple TV, AirPort Express, or AirPlay-enabled third-party system. You'll also be able to stream video to an Apple TV, but since I don't own one I haven't been able to test that part of the functionality.

AirPlay icon on the right -- blue means it's working

Select which destination you want to stream to

In my testing, AirPlay has worked not just in apps you'd expect it to work, like the iPod and YouTube apps. At least in the iOS 4.2 gold master, AirPlay will stream audio from any app, including games. Before you get too excited by the prospect of playing Canabalt's awesome soundtrack through your surround sound system, there's an important caveat: there's a delay of approximately two seconds between actions on your iPhone and output from external speakers, caused by the encoding and decoding of the audio stream. In other words, if you're playing Flight Control on your iPhone and streaming audio to your stereo over AirPlay, sounds will be delayed by two seconds or more. Obviously this is less than ideal, so it's somewhat surprising that Apple's enabled AirPlay at all for these kinds of apps.

In apps specifically designed for AirPlay, like iPod and YouTube, the iOS software is smart enough to delay video output on your iPhone so that it syncs up with the audio stream. You can watch music videos or movies on your iPhone and play the sound over AirPlay to external speakers. This is a truly "gee-whiz" feature, and it's almost sold me on the idea of getting an Apple TV so I can stream video, too.

Click "Read More" to see the rest of iOS 4.2's features on the iPhone.

AirPrint

AirPrint was supposed to be as revolutionary as AirPlay, allowing wireless printing to shared printers on a network. That part of the functionality appears to have been pulled at the last minute; multiple sources confirm that AirPrint does not function as was advertised a couple months back, even after applying the 10.6.5 update. Wireless printers with AirPrint functions built-in reportedly do work, but hardly any of those printers have been released yet. Hopefully Apple will sort out its AirPrint problems in a forthcoming update, because as it stands now, AirPrint functions fall far short of what we were promised.

Find in Page in Safari

A long-awaited feature: similar to "find in page" functionality on the Mac and iPad, you can now search for text on a page in Mobile Safari. The feature is in a somewhat odd place -- the search field (the one that most of you probably have set to "Google"). Beneath all the search engine results for your search term, you'll find how many results, if any, are present on the currently loaded page.

Enter search term in the bar, and it'll be highlighted on the page. Makes life easier.

Volume slider in multitasking bar

This is one of a few areas where the iPad got some extra functionality that iPhone users miss out on. On the iPad, swiping left twice on the multitasking bar will give you controls for volume, AirPlay, and brightness. On the iPhone, you don't get brightness controls. Personally, I'd have been happier with a brightness slider rather than a volume slider -- there's buttons for volume, after all, unless you...

Disable volume changes

If you've always wanted to prevent your ringer and alert volumes from changing via the hardware buttons, you're in luck. As the above screenshot shows, you can go into Settings > Sounds and disable the iPhone's ability to change the ringer/alert volume via their dedicated buttons. You can still change volume in games and apps using those buttons, but they'll no longer affect the volume of ringtones, text alerts, or various other system sounds. If you find yourself pressing those buttons accidentally all the time, this setting seems tailor-made for you.

Messages

There are three changes to Messages (and, since this app doesn't exist on the iPod touch, this is one section owners of that device can safely skip over). First, there's now a FaceTime button located at the top of a message thread, making it easier to initiate video calls with your contacts.

Second, Apple has introduced 17 new text alert sounds. Unfortunately, to be blunt, they're all terrible. Not only are the sounds themselves incredibly irritating for the most part, almost all of them are far too lengthy for a text tone. The length of some tones is even pushing the envelope for a ringtone. Feel free to check these tones out and see if any of them strike your fancy, but for me, I'm sticking with the tried-and-true "Tri-tone" -- along with just about every other iPhone owner I know, unfortunately. Maybe someday Apple will decide to let us use our own custom tones for text alerts, but sadly, that day has yet to arrive.

In the meantime, the third new feature of Messages is probably the most useful: you can now assign individual text tones to each contact, the same way you can for ringtones. So if you want to use Tri-tone for everything except your boss, you can.

Minor changes

Apple made some other, more minor changes to iOS 4.2. The built-in Notes app allows you to change fonts to something other than Marker Felt, which is nice for the five or six people using Notes instead of a superior app. The icon for the Voice Memos app has changed, and not for the better -- it sticks out like a sore thumb and gives us yet another blue app icon. You can place more restrictions on iPhone functions, like preventing app deletion, changes in Location Services or e-mail accounts, and disabling Game Center friend requests.

Bugs

It wouldn't be a big update without big bugs to go with it, would it? Several users who installed the iOS 4.2 gold master, myself included, have noted rather flaky performance over WiFi. Mobile Safari and other data-loading apps like Twitter or Facebook will sometimes randomly fail to connect -- they don't time out, they just immediately throw up an error saying "The page could not be found" or something similarly unhelpful. Performance over 3G or GPRS (and presumably EDGE) is fine; the problem exists only over WiFi. Various online forums have given suggested fixes, and all the usual suspects are there: reset network settings, restart the phone, restore iOS, and so forth. None of these fixes have provided a permanent solution, however.

Note also that this is a fairly intermittent issue; I was plagued with connection issues over WiFi earlier this week, but I haven't had any problems at all in a couple of days. I haven't noticed any other bugs in iOS 4.2 yet, but there are probably at least one or two others lurking around in there somewhere.

Conclusion

iOS 4.2 is nowhere near as groundbreaking on the iPhone as it is on the iPad. The OS update transforms the iPad into almost an entirely new class of device thanks to multitasking support. The only real groundbreaking new feature for the iPhone is AirPlay, but it's one of those features that, once you use it, you wonder why the iPhone wasn't able to do it all along.

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