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Originally published June 25, 2010 at 12:00 PM | Page modified June 25, 2010 at 6:18 PM

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Apple packs iOS 4 with decent punch

Apple paired the launch of its latest device, the iPhone 4, with a significant mobile operating-system upgrade for owners of 2008 and 2009 iPhones and iPod touch players.

Special to The Seattle Times

Who is it for?

The iOS 4 release appeared Monday, weighs in at about 300 MB for the iPod touch and nearly 400 MB for the iPhone. It's free for all devices on which it works.

It can be installed only by launching iTunes, selecting your mobile device, and click Check for Updates.

The iPhone 4 comes with iOS 4 preinstalled and

iOS 4 cannot be installed on an original iPhone (2007) or first-generation iPod touch (2007).

Multi-tasking, keyboard support, wallpaper, and a few other features work only on the iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch, both released in 2010, as well as the iPhone 4.

Apple has promised an iOS 4 update for iPad later this year, likely by third quarter, with no specific date yet announced.

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Apple paired the launch of its latest device, the iPhone 4, with a significant mobile operating-system upgrade for owners of 2008 and 2009 iPhones and iPod touch players.

The new system, iOS 4, is the fourth mobile release for Apple and demonstrates that with maturity comes incremental rather than revolutionary change. You'll still recognize the old iPhone OS with its new iOS moniker.

For owners of upgradable phones, the new version packs a decent wallop, especially since it costs them not a cent.

Many longtime complaints were answered in this release, including adding a form of multi-tasking, allowing the use of external wireless keyboards, and providing folders for organizing apps.

Let's look through these new sets of features.

Multi-tasking

Everyone seems to want multi-tasking, but no one knows precisely what they want to do with it. An operating system with multi-tasking allows multiple programs to carry out functions at the same time.

Apple previously disallowed app multi-tasking, although many of its own components could work in the background. For instance, notifications pop up regardless of what app is running (if any), and music playing in the iPod app or from a Safari Web page continues playing when those programs are exited.

Google's Android operating system lets many programs run at once, but users have to balance multi-tasking against battery and memory use. An optional task manager sounds mandatory based on even positive experiences described online.

Apple chose a middle ground by defining specific kinds of things that apps can do when they aren't frontmost, including continuing an in-progress Internet phone call (VoIP), playing music, updating the location of a navigation app, or completing a download. This compromise lets Apple optimize battery and memory use, along with performance.

Programs can also pause when a user switches to another app. In iPhone OS 3 and earlier, when you press the Home button, the current app quits, but developers could save your place.

In iOS 4, programmers have access to something more like freezing the state of an app. A new app-switcher bar is available when you rapidly double-press the Home button, and it shows recent apps. Tap an app, and iOS 4 switches to it.

Programs have to be updated to take advantage of this pause feature, which dramatically speeds up switching, as well as the particular background task options.

The music-streaming service Pandora updated its app the same day iOS 4 shipped, and expect a flood of programs in the weeks and months ahead that will let you put the feature to good use.

App junkies

As an app junky and app reviewer with hundreds of programs downloaded from the iTunes Store, I've been dealing for months with an increasingly unmanageable set of home screens. I had nine, and I know people with more.

Apple added tools for organizing screens of apps in iTunes 9, but it's awkward, and doesn't give you stickiness — keeping apps on particular screens. The addition of folders in iOS 4 is absolutely necessary to manage large sets of apps.

Folders have the same size on screen as app icons, and can hold up to 12 apps each. You hold down on an app and wait for it to shimmy, then drag it onto another app to create a folder. iOS 4 suggests a name based on shared categories between the apps, or you can set a name.

You drag additional apps into the folder in the same way, and can manage folders in iTunes, too.

To access items in a folder, you tap the folder, which then slides down to show its contents. Tap elsewhere on the screen, and the folder folds back up. Folders let me collapse nine screens into two, while making it easier to find and access what I needed right away.

External keyboards

Since the iPhone was announced in January 2007, pundits, owners, critics and Amazonian tribespeople have asked about a keyboard, preferably internal. Apple's desire for a clean interface dominated by touch seemed to keep even an external keyboard at bay for years, but the company finally buckled.

The iPad shipped earlier this year with Bluetooth and dock connector support for keyboards, and iOS 4 brings this to the latest models of iPhone and iPod touch. Apple promotes Bluetooth wireless keyboards, but I found that an iPhone 3GS worked with an iPad keyboard dock just fine, if awkwardly. (A $28.95 SendStation Dock Extender can make that connection work better: sendstation.com).

An Apple Bluetooth keyboard can be associated with multiple devices, although I found it tricky in an office where one was paired with a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone to choose the device I wanted. The Mac kept grabbing the keyboard connection first.

Myriad changes

Everywhere you look in iOS, there are subtle and useful changes.

Among them: The title bar in Mobile Safari takes up less vertical territory and expands fields as needed. You can see all your e-mail messages from multiple accounts in a single unified e-mail box. When you send a photo you've taken or loaded, you can choose among file sizes, instead of sending only a reduced-sized image. You can choose (on newer devices) a custom wallpaper that appears behind apps.

Picture taking (all iPhones) and video shooting (iPhones 3GS and 4) has been improved by dramatically speeding up the time between tapping the picture icon in the Camera app and a picture being captured. You can tap to focus while taking videos (previously limited to photos), and a 5x digital zoom is available for pictures and video.

In the iPod app, iOS enables creating playlists directly on your device, instead of being stuck with lists created in iTunes and synced to the phone or iPod.

As with most new releases, you may want to wait to ensure the upgrade works well.

Those who have the iPhone 3G (2008 model), like co-columnist Jeff Carlson's wife, have found iOS 4 makes that model sluggish. On an iPhone 3GS, I found iOS 4 improved responsiveness.

There's no rush to upgrade, especially at no cost.

Glenn Fleishman, who writes the Practical Mac column, is a regular contributor to Personal Technology.

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