First Look: TUAW gives iPhone OS 3.1 the hands-on treatment

iPhone OS 3.1 made the scene today at the Apple event, with a number of new features and fixes that should make iPhone owners happy (and iPod touch owners -- although for them, the version number is 3.1.1 instead). After a slow start to the download, I was able to get the update loaded onto my iPhone 3GS and I gave some of the new features a test drive.

The first big new feature is the Genius for Apps. To turn it on, you go to the Featured screen the App Store, and click the Genius button at the top of the display. After approving the license agreement, Genius is up and running, and clicking on the Genius button gives you a list of what it considers to be good suggestions based on what I have purchased. I wasn't very happy with the first list it produced (see screenshot at right), since I don't live in NYC, don't read Time, and really don't want something called The Most Useless App Ever.

The Genius lets you refine this list by swiping items to remove them. I did notice by the third screen of suggestions that the Genius was starting to pick apps that were more my style, so I think it's going to work out.

Read on for more impressions of 3.1.

Apple's updated the Genius Playlist feature to now support "Genius Mixes," which provide you playlists based on your library without having to select a 'seed' song. You might spend a good bit of time looking for this feature -- we certainly did -- and not find it without this handy tip from Cult of Mac: go to the Store menu in iTunes and choose "Update Genius" to reload the iTunes Store's database of your song choices. Once that's done (and it may take a while tonight, the store is understandably under some load right now) you should see the new option in iTunes under the Genius section.

Once you've had iTunes 9 generate your Genius Mixes, you can go to the Music tab for your iPhone, and choose one or more of the Mixes to sync with the iPhone. The next time you start up the iPod app on your iPhone, you'll see a Genius icon at the lower left of your iPod button bar (see below). Tap that icon to listen to your Mixes; you'll be impressed! One of the albums didn't have cover art, so it's showing up with a generic musical note icon.

One of the other new features is the ability to purchase ringtones from the iPhone. To try this out, I thought I'd grab a ringtone from the Rolling Stones, given that "It's Only Rock and Roll" was the theme song for today's event. Sure enough, a large list of ringtones appeared (see below), all priced at $1.29 each. I'm cheap when it comes to ringtones and prefer to make my own in GarageBand, so I didn't end up actually buying one. Eventually I'm sure I'll buy one of the pre-packaged ringtones.

The feature that made me the happiest is actually something that requires iTunes 9 as well, and that feature is being able to organize your apps in iTunes (see below). No longer do you need to struggle to drag little icons all over the place on the iPhone; you just bring up iTunes 9, go to your device in the sidebar, click on it, and then click on the Applications tab. Now you can use your mouse to move the icons from location to location and from screen to screen. It's worth the price of the update alone! Wait...this was a free update, wasn't it?

The syncing functions for iPhone are also vastly improved in the iPhone 3.1 / iTunes 9 combo. When syncing most content on the iPhone, you can now get much more granular -- for example, if you wish to just sync the music of a specific artist to the iPhone, you can.

When purchasing apps from the onboard App Store, you now have the option to pay with an iTunes Gift Card, a promo code, or a gift certificate. Both the App Store and iTunes Store also show how much credit you have available in your iTunes account.

Since I like to shoot short videos with my iPhone 3GS, I was thrilled with the new function that gives you the capability to save a trimmed video as a new clip rather than "destroying" the original clip. Once you've tapped the Trim button, the following two buttons appear:

The security features of the iPhone and MobileMe have been enhanced slightly as well. You can now use MobileMe not only to wipe a lost or stolen iPhone or display a message on the screen, but you can also send a lock code to the device remotely:

The passcode entered remotely overwrites any passcode which may have been previously set on the device.

I was really excited when I heard about the ability to use a Bluetooth Headset with Voice Control. Finally, I'd be able to use my Plantronics headset with my iPhone to do voice dialing! Unfortunately, I can't find the headset, so I'm not able to show you how that works. Dang, and here I was, already to give you all another of my wonderful videos...

Another new feature is the ability to paste phone numbers into the keypad. This can come in handy on the occasions when a phone number is not enabled as a link that you can tap for dialing. Instead, you can use iPhone 3.0's copy and paste functions to select and copy the number, then paste it into the keypad screen:

The final item I'll talk about is a bug fix. In iPhone 3.0, I sometimes ran into a situation where apps were displayed with the wrong icons. This could be extremely annoying if you tapped on an icon expecting one app to open, only to have another app launch. Fortunately, this bug has been fixed in 3.1.

As always, we welcome your comments and questions about iPhone OS 3.1. This is not a groundbreaking upgrade to the OS, but it does provide some welcome new capabilities that many iPhone users have been asking for.