Welcome updates make the iPad the tablet to beat
You can’t have escaped the news that Apple finally released it’s latest software update this week. For the first time iOS 4.2 is a universal binary, this means that iPad, iPhone 4 and iPod Touch users can run the same version of the operating system. Although lets be clear each is optimised slightly to suit the hardware it’s running on.
iPhone 4 users have already been running iOS 4.1, so the update adds a couple of new features, but for iPad users who have been using 3.2 (and getting a bit green-eyed towards iPhone 4 users), it’s a major step up. Adding features that users and critics have been screaming out for since the iPad’s launch.
Lets start with the most obvious addition: Multitasking. It’s activated in the same way as it was on the iPhone 4, by double tapping the Home button. Because the screen is larger, up to six apps are displayed along the bottom in portrait orientation and seven in landscape.
A swipe to the right brings up the playback controls for your music and a new screen brightness slider, which isn’t present on iPhone and iPod Touch models. Another notable addition is a new software button for locking the screen orientation, This replaces the use of the physical switch on the side. This switch now mutes the iPad - just like Apple’s iPhone 4.
For multitasking to work, as with previous version of iOS the apps have to be updated to support the function, but when they do, the result is fluid, fast switching between applications.
We should point out that this is not full multitasking - where full apps are running all of the time - but Apple’s version of multitasking, which relies on a few command codes. For example: fast app switching, saved state, background audio and background GPS. Used effectively, access to these commands emulates all the key features of the multitasking experience, but without the drain on the battery that true multitasking falls foul of.
Apple iPad iOS 4.2: Folders
Operating in the same way as iOS 4.1 for the iPhone 4, to create a folder you need a minimum of two apps, hold one down and drag it over another app and it automatically creates a folder, which you can rename, for example: Utiliites, Photography
The iPad’s increased screen real estate the 12-app per folder limit has gone up to 20 apps per folder. If you want, you can have all your folders on the front screen, so there’s no need to go beyond the initial homescreen.
Apple iPad iOS 4.2: AirPlay and AirPrint
AirPlay lets you stream photos, music and videos to an Apple TV (which has had it’s own software upgrade) for playback on a connected TV and/or home cinema setup. It also enables playback on dedicated AirPlay-certified stand alone music systems, such as the Denon Ceol and Marantz Melody Maker.
If you tend to use your iPad for downloading and storing video, you might be watching a movie or TV show on the iPad on the train and then continue to watch it on a big screen when you get home, right from where you left off.
Enable AirPlay in the Apple TV’s menu and the moment you start playing a video or look at a photo or play music on the iPad, an icon appears in the iPad’s playback bar. Press this to bring up a pop-up menu listing all of your airplay certified devices. Select the one you want to pass the video or audio to (in this case Apple TV) and within a couple of seconds the picture or music transfers to the TV/speakers, leaving you with a black AirPlay screen on the iPad
We tried streaming a selection of You Tube clips, both standard and high definition all of which played back smoothly, although for longer clips we had to wait for the video to buffer.
Because of its compact size and limited processing power we were dubious of whether the iPad would be able to handle HD streaming to Apple TV over Airplay, but when we downloaded a HD episode of South Park from iTunes, we were pleasantly surprised. High definition picture quality is excellent, exceptionally sharp and bright, with bold colours, smooth motion and - crucially - it plays back seamlessly.
Even better, was Iron Man 2, which we rented in HD from iTunes. Picture quality was excellent and motion was smooth, and by connecting Apple TV to our Amp we could listen in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.
AirPlay streaming doesn’t work for BBC iPlayer’s web app, while live TV streaming using TV Catchup via the Safari web browser only works for audio.
Music playback is pretty good, although (as with movies) to make the best of your tunes you need to connect Apple TV to an amp and use speakers; our TV speakers alone didn’t quite have enough power to do justice to tracks with heavy bass. The iPad basically functions as a big remote control, which you use to swap between tracks. Although it is a bit on the large side for parties, where an iPod Touch or iPhone 4 are perhaps more suitable, and probably contain more music.
Streaming photos from your iPad to Apple TV is probably the most enjoyable element of AirPlay. Flick through them on the iPad and watch as it flicks through them on screen. Sit back and watch a slideshow including music, although you can only use the dissolve transition, album artwork and track details appear as the show starts then fade as it continues. The whole experience is very polished and fluid, If anything it highlights how much of a shame it is that the iPad doesn’t have a card slot, however the optional Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit (£25) is a valid if cumbersome workaround.
While we welcome the addition of airplay wireless media streaming, it’s a shame that it is incompatible with existing open streaming standards and instead forces investment in airplay certified products.
The other Airplay related addition to iOS4.2 is AirPrint, which lets you print photos, documents and web pages, basically anywhere you see the square icon with a right arrow in the toolbar. Touch this and you’ll see a ‘Print’ option, click this then select a printer and the number of prints. Again, it’s a nice feature, but far from revolutionary and you’ll need to check your printer is compatible, at the moment the list of compatible printers isn't very big.
Apple iPad iOS 4.2: Game Center
Apples recently launched social gaming service “Game Center” also makes the transition to iPad in iOS 4.2. It gives game developers tools to easily add leader boards, achievements and online matchmaking to their gaming titles.
It works and looks just like it’s iPhone 4 counterpart, but as with folders, makes better use of the iPads larger screen area. Icons and lists are now separated and browsing your achievements, leader boards and friend lists is a lot easier. The same carnival theme is maintained throughout and is very much a love it or hate it thing (but we think it adds some fun to proceedings).
Game Center is clearly a social gaming network that is in its infancy. It’s certainly no Xbox Live, but it’s great to see Apple showing some initiative in this area and certainly has a lot of promise for the future.
Apple iPad iOS 4.2: Other features
With its excellent multitouch and a bright screen, with class-leading contrast, the iPad has always had an excellent browsing experience, but now you can see how many tabs are open in Safari at a glance via a handy numbered tab icon in the toolbar.
You can now search for a particular term on a browser window, simply type the term in the Google Bar and it appears at the bottom of the search list as ‘On this Page’ showing the number of matches, you can then click through them all using a pop-up ‘Next’ button.
The iPad’s native note taking interface now has two extra fonts, with Chalkboard and Helvetica joining Marker Felt.
Apple iPad iOS 4.2: Conclusion
When we first reviewed the iPad, one of the reasons we awarded it 4 stars was because of the lack of multitasking. iOS 4.2 rectifies many of these issues. OK we accept that some of the updates should probably have been there from day one and these updates aren’t revolutionary, AirPlay in particular.
But as many company’s are finding, getting the combination of apps, intuitive interface and responsive touchscreen right is tricky. In fact, the only tablet we've seen that comes close to the iPad, is the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which adds dual cameras and a phone, but lacks the iPads build and app choice.
The iPad isn't perfect, the screen is hard to see in bright sunlight and there's no camera, but as this update shows, it's still the tablet to beat.