Apple iOS 4.2 Review: Refinement and Enablement

Subtle Tweaks: Game Center, Folders, Mail, etc.

We've heard it time and time again: it's the little things that count. Or, big things oftentimes come in small packages. While the big, standout features of iOS 4.2 (or 4.2.1 at the time of release/publishing) will likely get most of the attention in the mainstream, it's worth taking a moment to focus on the smaller, less noticeable updates as well.

Game Center Goes Live:

Game Center, an app that Steve Jobs talked about months ago, is finally live and available to the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. The concept is simple and familiar for those who use Xbox LIVE or the PlayStation Network. Multiplayer games on the App Store can now have their scores logged in a leaderboard-type fashion, making it even harder to stay away from your favorite title. As usual, Apple has taken a familiar concept and added their own finishing touches to it. The auto-match function worked really well for us; it found a friend for us to play with with a simple button press, and off we went into a game. We found it easy to locate and find friends but the only downside is the lack of supported titles right now. However, as the App Store grows, multiplayer games should become more prevalent, so we'll see if that improves.

iPad Gets App Folders:

Over on the iPad, the addition of App Folders is a huge improvement. We have become so used to categorizing our apps into folders on the iPod touch and iPhone, that simply not having the option on the iPad felt wrong.  Apple actually lets you cram more apps into each folder on the iPad (up to 20), and the system does a fairly nice job of guessing the category based on what two apps you initially group together. Performance was snappy opening and closing folders, as well.

The Unified Inbox, Sure Why Not...

The Unified Inbox is a feature that was introduced in an earlier build of iOS for the iPod touch and iPhone, but it seems to make the most sense now that it's on the iPad. The iPad's mail client is more robust, offering a wider view thanks to the added pixel count on the display. The Unified Inbox works just as well on the iPad, and is surprisingly well organized given how intrinsically chaotic a mixture of inboxes could be. We still prefer to look at our in-boxes one at a time, but if everything tends to bleed together in your work/personal life anyway, then this is a great option to have. Note that you don't have to view your in-boxes in unified view if you don't wish to.

Accessibility Option Updates:

We tried out a few new accessibility options as well: Large Text (for those with trouble reading on tight displays) and Web Rotor. Large Text is simple: it allows you to select a larger font option for most applications. It works well, and does a nice job of font smoothing. We still prefer the stock option, but our opinion may change as we age (gracefully, of course). Web Rotor is far more interesting. If activated, you can hold two fingers against your iPad display and rotate a dial; that'll activate a graphic that gives you easier navigation options. It integrates with VoiceOver as a way to make navigation easier for the visually impaired, but it may be a preferred navigation alternative for those who just want something different. A nice touch, albeit one that's definitely low-key.

Something For The Stuffed Shirts To Appreciate:

We tend to stick to Gmail for most things, but IT buffs and corporate workers will definitely love the Exchange improvements. We tested out having multiple accounts on the iPad, and it worked exactly like having multiple Yahoo, Gmail or Aol accounts: beautifully. Also, we were able to reply to invitations from within the calendar app (which amazingly wasn't possible before). There's also ActiveSync, which includes Exchange Server 2010 and SSL VPN support. If you know what that means, then you're in the right field to appreciate it.

Bad Guys Beware, "LowJack" For The iPad/iPhone Emerges:

Finally, the biggest small change: Find my iPhone/iPad. This is an amazing feature that taps into the inner-workings if your iPad or iPhone (iPod touch not supported) in order to locate your lost device on a map.  It's sort of like LoJack for Apple hand-held devices.  You can also choose to remotely wipe it clean if you fear it has fallen into the wrong hands. The problem with this feature prior to iOS 4.2 is that it required a pricey $99/year MobileMe subscription to be used. Not any longer. Apple has removed that requirement, so now anyone can rest easy knowing that their iOS 4.2-equipped iPhone and iPad can be found if lost/stolen. We tested it out (just "losing it" at a neighbors house), and sure enough, it popped up on the map. Hassle-free, and free. Can't beat it.

Related content