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iOS 4.3 brings a handful of new features and new headaches

iOS 4.3 doesn't bring nearly as many changes to the table as iOS 4.2 did last November. The release of iOS 4.2 was a watershed moment for the iPad, bringing features like multitasking and folders that made it a far more useful device than before. The iPhone got fewer new features in iOS 4.2, some of which have proven more useful than others; I use AirPlay almost every day to stream from my iPhone to my home theater system, but I used AirPrint once (after some hacking), then forgot about it.

For the iPhone, iOS 4.3 brings even fewer marquee features to the device. Most of the big features you probably already know about, because Apple's described them. I'll walk you through those features now just to give you an idea of what you're in for when iOS 4.3 sees public release on March 11. Follow along onto the next page for a guided tour.

Note 1: This guide is mostly iPhone-focused, since that's the device I own. With few exceptions, all of these features will be standard across the entire line of iOS devices, except...

Note 2: If you have an iPhone older than the 3GS, or an iPod touch older than the third generation, read no farther, because the iOS 4.3 update won't be coming to your device. iOS 4.2 is apparently the end of the road for those older devices. Additionally, for some reason iOS 4.3 won't be immediately available for the Verizon iPhone, though some features like Personal Hotspot are already working on that model under iOS 4.2.6.

Note 3: For anyone worried that this information is breaking NDA, bear in mind that I'm not a developer and not bound by any non-disclosure agreement. I come by my iOS Gold Master builds the old-fashioned way: on the Hong Kong black market.

Personal Hotspot

Despite the attention it's received, Personal Hotspot isn't really much different from the Internet Tethering option that preceded it. It's really more of an evolutionary expansion of that original data sharing scheme. Now, instead of being limited to Bluetooth or a direct USB connection, your iPhone can share its data connection over Wi-Fi with up to five clients (but only if you have an iPhone 4 -- earlier models are still limited to Bluetooth or USB connection to a single client). This will come in very handy if you're sharing a data connection to multiple devices at once; it was possible to do so before, but you had to do it through Internet Sharing on your Mac, a process nowhere near as user-friendly as the single-switch operation on the iPhone.

And yes, Personal Hotspot will share connections with other iOS devices -- something of potential great interest to Wi-Fi iPad owners. I tested this by setting up Personal Hotspot on my iPhone 4 and looking for it on my wife's iPhone 3G; her iPhone found mine in its Wi-Fi settings with no issues whatsoever, as if her iPhone was completely unaware of how completely awesome this was.

Setting up Personal Hotspot is far simpler than Internet Tethering was, mostly because the feature's no longer buried beneath three levels of menus like before. Personal Hotspot settings are available just one level below the main page of the Settings app, and there's only a single switch to throw in order to turn it on; in fact, mine was enabled by default. Once it's enabled, your iPhone will show up in the AirPort menubar item on your Mac or the Wi-Fi tab in your iOS device's Settings app just like any other Wi-Fi hotspot. Select your iPhone's wireless connection, input the WPA Wi-Fi password you chose in the iPhone's Settings app, and you're off and running on your iPhone 4's data connection. It really couldn't be simpler.

There's a couple caveats to Personal Hotspot. The first and most obvious is that your wireless provider can and probably will charge you to enable this functionality. I've lucked out -- my wireless provider doesn't care how I use data as long as I'm willing to sell one of my kidneys if I go over my limit -- but U.S. customers will have to pay extra for the privilege of this extremely useful functionality. At least now you're getting extra data too, but to me it still seems like a ripoff to have to pay extra just for tethering.

The other issue is more minor, but still kind of annoying. Under the old Internet Tethering scheme, I could share my iPhone's Wi-Fi connection with my Mac via Bluetooth or direct USB connection. This came in handy as a substitute for an AirPort Express to extend my Time Capsule's signal from my living room to my office (my iPhone 4 is better at picking up a Wi-Fi signal than my MacBook Pro). This is still possible via Personal Hotspot, but there's an extra step involved, at least on an iPhone 4. Once you activate Personal Hotspot, the iPhone 4 disables its incoming Wi-Fi signal. I initially thought this meant you couldn't share a Wi-Fi connection via Bluetooth or USB anymore, but it turns out that if you back out of Personal Hotspot and manually reconnect to a Wi-Fi base station, it's still possible. This convoluted scheme will affect maybe five or six of you, but it's something I noticed right away.

It bears repeating that as of now, the iPhone 4 is the only iOS device that gets the new Personal Hotspot feature. No previous iPhone will have it (though the old-school Internet Tethering should still work via Bluetooth or USB), nor will the 3G iPad.

iTunes Home Sharing

This is the feature I was most looking forward to using in iOS 4.3. iTunes Home Sharing will allow you to stream your entire iTunes library from your Mac to your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. It's not just audio streaming, either -- everything in your Mac's iTunes library will stream, video included. This partially mitigates the relatively limited storage space on iOS devices, and it made me slightly less annoyed that the iPad 2's capacity still tops out at 64 GB.

Unfortunately, the feature didn't really live up to my expectations. First of all, setting it up was a pain in the a way more difficult than it had to be. It took me about 20 minutes of scratching my head and muttering various profane catechisms before I finally figured out the following procedure:

  1. On your Mac, open iTunes and go to iTunes > Preferences > Sharing.
  2. Enable library sharing on your local network. Decide whether to share the whole library or just certain parts of it. If you want, set it up so Home Sharing clients will update your library's play counts.
  3. This is the part where I got hung up, because enabling library sharing is only half the battle. You must also enable Home Sharing, via Advanced > Turn On Home Sharing. You then have to enter your Apple ID and password. When you click "Done" on the screen that follows, the Home Sharing icon in your sidebar will rather counterintuitively disappear, which confused the hell out of me. It turns out it is working and enabled at this point, it just doesn't show up in the sidebar unless a client is connected.
  4. Now on your iOS device, go into Settings > iPod and input your Apple ID and password to enable Home Sharing on that device.
  5. Launch the iPod app on your iOS device. Notice anything different? Yeah, I didn't either. That's because the shared library is buried within the "More" tab at the bottom, and it's jumbled in with whatever other options you've got secluded there.

I'm not exactly new at this kind of stuff, but it was still a struggle for me to figure all of this out on my own -- and since iOS 4.3 hasn't been officially released yet, scrounging for clues on the internet wasn't of much help, either. I'd like to know how Apple expects a "normal" user to be able to figure all of this out on his own, much less Grandma Ethel. The complexity and confusion of iTunes Home Sharing was a stark contrast to the "step one and done" simplicity of Personal Hotspot.

So once you've actually got it working, how does iTunes Home Sharing perform on the iPhone? Like a charm ... as long as you're not more than 15 feet away from your Mac. Let me give you an idea of how poorly iTunes Home Sharing streaming performs by describing my wireless setup. In my living room, I've got an original model Time Capsule running in 802.11n-only mode at 2.4 GHz (at 5 GHz, the signal barely reaches my office). Roughly 20 feet and two thin walls away from the Time Capsule, I have an AirPort Express in my office acting as a wireless extender for the Time Capsule, again in 802.11n-only mode. Finally, about three feet from the AirPort Express is my MacBook Pro.

So how far was I able to roam away from my MacBook Pro before iTunes Home Sharing fell off the map? About fifteen feet. I initially thought this was because I was streaming a rather demanding, high-bitrate film, so I switched to a different video with a much lower bitrate. Sadly, I got the same dismal result, and I'm not at all certain why. I've never had issues streaming music over AirPlay with this setup, so I don't know if it's just that there's too much data in a video to maintain a reliable connection or some other issue.

The bottom line: once you actually figure out how to get it running, iTunes Home Sharing could be a very useful feature if your household has a couple of iOS devices. I'm already picturing watching TV shows in bed on an iPad 2 without having to go through the bother of syncing them to the device first. But in order for everyday users to be able to use it, Apple needs to make activation a much simpler process. As for the wireless issues I experienced, your mileage may vary; for all I know, I may have heavy metals or something else in my walls bouncing my wireless signals all over the place.

AirPlay Improvements

I haven't been able to test this one myself since I don't own an Apple TV, but in addition to the wireless video streaming from iTunes offered in iOS 4.2, iOS devices will now stream video from the Photos app. This addresses one of the biggest complaints people had with video streaming over AirPlay before, the seemingly nonsensical inability to stream video shot on the iPhone's camera without converting it and syncing it to iTunes first. That's no longer an issue in iOS 4.3. You can also play photo slideshows wirelessly via AirPlay.

The real game-changer will be that any developer who decides to do so can enable video streaming over AirPlay in their apps. Don't expect this to mean wireless gameplay, though; due to the streaming protocols used in AirPlay, there's about a 2-3 second delay between touching your device's screen and video/sound output on your HDTV. But if any multi-format video player app should take up the reins of the now-defunct VLC app (hallowed be its memory), AirPlay plus an Apple TV would go a long way towards Apple's goal of taking over our living rooms.

Bits and bobs

Like iOS 4.2, iOS 4.3 has some more minor improvements. Mobile Safari now runs the same Nitro JavaScript engine as its bigger brother on OS X, leading to faster performance. In my own testing, Mobile Safari didn't seem dramatically faster than before, but page elements did render noticeably quicker. This obviously has no effect on how fast content actually downloads, but it does mean pages will render a bit faster than before.

The only other alteration of any significance I've seen on the iPhone under iOS 4.3 is in the settings for Messages. Back in my review of iOS 4.2, I noted that although Apple added 17 new text tones for the iPhone 4, saying, "...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."

In iOS 4.3, most of these tones have been dramatically shortened, though six of 17 tones still remain at a length more appropriate to a ringtone than a text tone. To my dismay, Noir, the one new text tone I actually liked, has been chopped in half -- which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, since it was initially only about two seconds long to begin with. Vibrations associated with texts have been changed up too, with two short and very strong vibratory pulses accompanying each text. The new text vibration is way more noticeable than before, which suits me fine.

That's it for new features on the iPhone as far as I can tell. Since I don't own an iPad (yet... March 11 seriously cannot arrive fast enough), other than the option to choose whether the side switch on the iPad functions as a mute switch or an orientation lock, I'm not aware of any tweaks to the iPad other than those listed above.

Overall, iOS 4.3 isn't an earth-shattering update, but it does bring a handful of cool new features. There's still more than enough room for improvement in iOS 5, which will probably be previewed within the next couple of months.



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iPhone iOS

iOS 4.3 doesn't bring nearly as many changes to the table as iOS 4.2 did last November. The release of iOS 4.2 was a watershed moment...