If you're an iPad owner, you've probably been on pins and needles lately. That's because back in September, Apple announced that a full-scale update to the tablet's OS would be coming in the form of iOS 4.2, bringing a slew of new features to the device. Included in that laundry list is proper iOS 4-style multitasking, folders, major mail improvements, Game Center integration, and Safari enhancements (like find-in-page text searches). Besides those features, the company has been touting two other big changes that could cause a major shift in the way you use your iPad -- namely, AirPrint and AirPlay. Both additions leverage your WiFi network, certain connected printers, and the new Apple TV in an attempt to make the company's slate less like a distraction and more like the center of your digital life.
When the update was originally announced, we took you on a walkthrough of the early developer beta. Though 4.2 will roll out to the iPhone and iPod touch, we wanted to focus on the iPad version, as it represents a major change for the platform. We've had a chance to spend time with the final version of the OS (which is actually 4.2.1 now), and put it through its paces. We've updated our original guide and given the finished product a critical once over, so read on for our full review!
iOS 4.2 (iPad)
Adds much needed utility to the OS
AirPrint and AirPlay are solid new features
Free to upgrade
Notification system is still annoying
Orientation switch change is jarring
AirPlay can be finicky
Overall look and feel
As we said before, the OS is functionally identical to iOS 4 for the iPhone. If you've got a handset running the latest software, nothing will look different here. On the performance side, surprisingly (and perhaps due to the A4 purring along at 1GHz), it doesn't feel like the iPad is hurting due to RAM deficiencies or CPU strain. Even though the tablet has half the memory of the iPhone 4 (256MB compared to 512MB), we didn't see the slate struggle. Flipping in and out of apps, opening folders, and managinging large documents was completely smooth, and we didn't see a single hiccup even when playing back HD video over our network and multitasking on the device. Adding the functionality of fast app switching and backgrounding (not to mention some of the interface tweaks and tightening that seems to have been done) to the iPad finally makes the tablet feel more like a real alternative to a laptop.
As we said above, the iPad does an excellent job of handling multiple apps despite the fact that it's dealing with less RAM than its phone counterpart. We had no trouble running our favorite apps and switching between tasks with no break in the action. In particular, app freezing (as seen in titles like Real Racing HD), and backgrounding (which we use extensively in our favorite IRC app, Colloquy) worked without a hitch. We'll give Apple extra points for allowing us to run video or music to our Apple TV (even 720p HD content) and leave enough horsepower for gaming at the same time. We're not sure when that's really going to come in handy, but the fact that it can be done is pretty excellent.
AirPlay / AirPrint
AirPlay has been a feature of particular interest to the team here at Engadget. The premise is simple -- AirPlay compatible devices can have content "pushed" from your iPad or iPhone to that device. That means you can start watching a video or listening to music on one of Apple's mobile gadgets, and then just throw it to your Apple TV or AirPlay compatible speakers. We only had the Apple TV to test with, but in general, this feature works as advertised and should make for a handful of experiences that you probably didn't know you needed in your life, but now won't be able to live without. We did have some issues with video starting up once we'd pushed out to the ATV -- maybe we're impatient, but we found ourselves zipping the scrubber back to the start in order to get the video playing. This didn't happen every time we played video, but enough that it's worth noting. Besides just pushing local video, AirPlay allows you to send YouTube to the TV with ease, which could make sharing hilarious blooper reels considerably more social. We were under the impression that the functionality would allow you to push any video that's viewable on the device (such as our HTML5 Viddler content), but sadly this isn't the case. To be clear, that means no Hulu and no ABC video out to your TV -- a major downer in our opinion. You can get the audio out (you can push audio from anything that plays music, pretty much), and you're also able to toss photos to the TV, but the video stays locked to the iPad.
Aside from that complaint, we had a really solid experience with the feature. Though there is some lag between controlling your video and seeing the reaction onscreen, AirPlay handled most of our content perfectly. One nice feature that Apple added is the ability to sleep or dock your iPad (or iPhone) and let the content keep streaming. You can also run applications (including games, as we said) while watching your content. One weird behavior we noticed is that if you begin watching video and then single tap your home button to go back to your homescreen, your content will stop playing, but if you use multitasking to switch out to another application and then go back home, you'll be fine. It's not clear if this is intentional or not, but it was a little jarring off the bat.
AirPrint also worked out of the box as expected (we tested here with an HP Photosmart Premium C310, an AirPrint compatible device). We were able to print directly from a number of apps on the iPad with little to no trouble -- a joy considering what a roadblock this has previously been. There aren't many options when it comes to getting your content to a printer -- it's very no-frills -- though the results were excellent time after time. We're hoping that there's a big push for printer manufacturers to bring their devices up to speed with this feature. It would be a shame to have to shell out for a new printer in order to use AirPrint. You are able to utilize printers connected to other machines on your network (in OS X 10.6.5 only), but it's a slightly clunkier way to get things done.
Update: Shared printing was working when we initially set up, but now we're having issues using our networked printer. We're looking into it -- there has been some hemming and hawing in the new OS over shared printing.
Mail - Not surprisingly, Apple has included all of its Mail improvements previously found in iOS 4. That means a unified inbox, threaded messaging, and all the rest of those tweaks have made their way to the iPad. We've been having a love affair with the iOS 4 Mail changes since we first played with the iPhone 4, but the utility of some of this stuff is really pronounced on the iPad. Just as with many of the updates in the new OS, you can really start to see the device take shape into something much more than just a large surface to play Angry Birds on.
Folders - You can now add more than 12 items to a folder. Up to 20 -- a big relief for those of us with a lot of apps hanging around our iPad Springboard. Obviously this is a no-brainer of an inclusion, but it's nice to finally have.
On This Page - "Find in page" as you know everywhere else is now active in the browser. The option is all but hidden in the Google search menu within Safari, but it operates just about like you'd expect it to. We'd like to see a less buried place for this function, but it works well and the ability to move through the searched words or terms is relatively clean and useful.
Music widget / brightness / orientation - As you probably know by now, Apple has changed the function of the physical toggle switch on the iPad -- it's now used to mute the device, while orientation lock is found in the multitasking pop-up after a swipe to the left. Originally we liked this change, as it grouped a lot of your basic tweaks together (the music widget is present on the same screen, along with a brightness control). Unfortunately, in further practice this actually proved to be a clunky way to keep your screen in one position. The method would be fine if it were something like a triple tap on the home button, but you've now got a rather complex series of actions to find the toggle (double click the home button, swipe left, tap the orientation lock). We wish the company would give users the option to decide what that switch on the side does -- you can default to this current incarnation, but we think a lot of users will not be happy with the change.
In general, we like the idea of this quick access to settings -- it's almost like Apple is taking a page from the jailbreak favorite SBSettings, which lets you access a whole mess of controls from one simple place. Of course, Apple isn't giving us nearly the kind of toggles we'd like. Bluetooth, WiFi, and 3G anyone?
Game Center - The app is present here, and looks pretty good on the big screen. There aren't a whole mess of differences between Game Center for the iPhone and the iPad version, but we went head-to-head on a handful of games and it worked as expected.
Everything else - As we said up above, there have been lots of little tweaks to the OS that make it just a little bit nicer to use. One of the standout changes is the option to select a font other than Marker Felt in the Notes application -- we know it's minor, but boy do we hate Marker Felt. Apple has also altered the animations used to switch applications to something that's a little better suited to the iPad's screen real estate. You can see that lots of care went into this update, and from the general stability we saw, it's clear that it isn't simply cosmetic.
Obviously the iPad has been seriously in need of a shot in the arm when it comes to software. If you'll recall, in our original review of the device one of our biggest gripes was centered around the tablet's thin feature set on the software side. We walked away feeling like Apple had only half finished this OS -- but with 4.2, we can no longer say that's the case. Giving developers the tools present in iOS 4 with this update is clearly a big win for the device, and we expect to see a lot of creative uses for all those new APIs that have previously been reserved just for the small screens in Apple's mobile life. Of course, the iPad (and iOS in general) are still lacking some of the killer changes that we so badly would like to see (non-obtrusive notifications and a Dashboard-like widget system come to mind), but what Apple has added here puts the iPad much, much closer to the netbook-chomping beast we always felt it could be. For those of you who've already invested in the device, upgrading to 4.2.1 will feel like a brand new day, and for those still on the fence about the iPad -- it's time to take another look.