Five little-known features in iOS 4

Michael Jones
M. Jones|06.30.10

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Five little-known features in iOS 4
Whenever word gets out about a potential software update, as it did for iOS 4 back in January (then called iPhone OS 4), you don't have to look far to find speculation about features or functionality the new version will include.

This is especially true for major revisions of the OS, which is ironic when you consider that developers get access to beta versions of the OS for testing purposes -- most smaller updates are kept under wraps right up until they are released.

When Apple does officially announce a major update, it usually is quick to list the big changes that the update brings as a way to persuade developers to get in and start updating their apps to make use of the new features. Quite often, everyone focuses their attention on these main features, and discussion moves to whether or not the new OS will support things like dashboards and today screens or whether or not Feature X will live up to expectations. This discussion usually continues well after the OS has been released, and it tends to overshadow many of the smaller changes that have been made throughout the OS.

Whether these changes are minor tweaks in how something works or the addition of new functionality that subtly enhances the users' experience, they often go unnoticed for one of two reasons: either they "just work" so well that the user doesn't need to know they exist, or they require the user to do something extra to enable or locate the feature. Since both of these involve the user not being aware of something, we think it's safe to assume that bringing these little-known features to light will help.

Read on for a list of five little-known features in iOS 4 that we think deserve more attention.
Put a call on hold with iPhone 4

This particular feature has actually seen some airtime recently, as a few people have pointed out that the iPhone 4's call controls now have the FaceTime button where the hold button used to be. At first, quite a few people (including Steve Jobs himself) pointed out that the hold feature didn't offer much over the mute feature, and suggested just getting used to using the mute button instead. While I can see where they're coming from, the two functions were slightly different, as placing a call on mute allowed you to still hear the other party talk (though they couldn't hear you), and placing the call on hold muted both sides of the conversation.

It turns out that, despite Steve's opinion that the hold button isn't necessary, Apple did include it in the iPhone 4 -- they just combined it with the mute button. So now to place a call on mute, you just tap the mute button once as normal. If you want to place the call on hold, tap and hold the button for a couple of seconds, and the icon and label will change to show that the call is now on hold. In either case, a single tap on the highlighted button will return the call to normal.

To me, the frustrating thing about this change is that it's not necessarily intuitive. Although it does make some sort of sense that both functions are related to mute, the FaceTime button is really only usable on certain calls where the other party has an iPhone 4. It seems like they could have taken an opportunity to tweak the call control screen so that FaceTime (and any other functions that are added in the future) might have potentially had a more suitable home, but I'm guessing some of the motivation for having the FaceTime button as part of the main controls stems from Apple's desire to see other devices taking advantage of the open protocols in the future.

The hold feature is now accessed by holding down the mute button until the icon changes.

One-click tracking of packages and shipments

I've always been a big fan of automated package tracking, and whenever I've been tasked with writing applications that deal with e-mail correspondence, I've always included an Easter egg of sorts: the ability to detect common tracking numbers in messages. To me, there's just something cool about reading an e-mail where someone provides a tracking number for a package, and having the application automatically recognize it and include tracking details.

While iOS 4 didn't take this to the extreme that I might have, it does include new Data Detectors with the ability to recognize tracking numbers and make them in to links, just like it does with phone numbers. Tapping on the number takes you directly to the carrier's website (such as UPS or FedEx), complete with tracking results. Now all we need is for those carriers to have iPhone-friendly tracking pages, and this would be really awesome.

It would also be really cool if developers could take advantage of this to launch a specific tracking app instead of going to the carrier's site, but I doubt we will see that in the near future.

iOS 4 automatically detects common tracking numbers and links them to the carrier's website.

More options for sending SMS & MMS messages

Remember when I said part of the problem was options that the user didn't know existed? This is one of them. Well, okay technically it's two of them.

The first option is called Group Messaging, and it appears to enable a form of threading if you send a message to multiple recipients by grouping their replies in one message window. Various discussions around the Internet about this feature suggest that it doesn't always work, particularly if you already have an open conversation with one of the recipients. Also there is speculation that the feature is intended to allow you to send messages directly to a contact group in your address book, eliminating the need to select individual contacts.

Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the case, as the contact group doesn't show up in the list when you are typing a recipient, and tapping on it from the contact selector simply lists all contacts inside of the group. Still, it's a step in the right direction if you have a group of people and want to keep their responses together.

The second option might seem useless at first, particularly if you aren't familiar with size limits on messages. It's called Show Character Count, and quite simply, it shows a small counter next to the message box. As you type, the counter updates to show you how many characters you have typed. Due to limitations in the messaging protocols, each SMS/Text message has to be 160 characters or less. So the counter feature is intended to show you when you are approaching or going over that limit, which will typically cause the message to be broken up into multiple messages or sometimes rejected, depending on the providers involved. Note when sending an MMS/Picture message, the character count display is removed as MMS does not limit the amount of characters in the message.

New messaging options include group messaging and a display to monitor the number of characters typed.

Lock your device with an alphanumeric password

Another welcome addition to iOS 4 is the ability to specify a complex alphanumeric password in place of the 4-digit passcode used when locking the device. If specified, a full keyboard replaces the number pad that is typically displayed when unlocking the phone. All other settings, such as erasing the device after 10 unsuccessful attempts, will still work as expected.

Now if they would just let you specify a custom swipe gesture to unlock the device, I think many Android users would be happy.

Disabling the Simple Passcode option allows you to use a full alphanumeric passcode to lock the device.

Sync your Notes over-the-air with MobileMe or your e-mail account

This is quite possibly my favorite hidden feature of iOS 4 -- over-the-air syncing of notes. I'm guilty of using the Notes app on my phone to jot down random lists of stuff I want to remember. While this is great for making quick notes, it can quickly become troublesome if you then need to access those notes later from your computer or another iPhone. I never was a big fan of having my notes sync in to on my Mac (I don't really use anyways), so having my notes end up in there was a bit of an annoyance to me.

So imagine my surprise when I noticed a new accounts button in the Notes app, and tapping it revealed a list of all of my mail accounts. Notes are saved to a folder in your e-mail account as individual mail messages, similar to how a draft e-mail would be saved. Because of this, Notes can be synced to any Gmail-based accounts you have without any additional setup. This also should work with other types of mail accounts, but given the vast feature differences between different e-mail servers, it is possible that it won't work with all accounts.

Notes can now be saved under mail accounts, instead of only to the device. This allows them to be synced over-the-air.

As with any software update, there are good changes and bad. There are still several features I would love to see in future updates, and I'm sure that many of them will show up down the road, although they might not be quite the way I'd expect -- Apple does have their own way of doing things, after all. But I will say that my experience with iOS 4 thus far has been really good, and despite the shortcomings, the small unexpected features like these provide some reassurance that Apple is still listening to feedback and working in improvements to all aspects of the software.
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