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iPad OS 4.2.1 Update Finally Arrives, But Was It Worth the Wait?

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It is hard to believe that it’s been over seven months since we first heard that the iOS4 update would eventually make its way to the iPad. Users have been patiently waiting on Apple’s promise that multitasking, AirPlay, and over 100 new features would be coming to iPad “later this Fall.” Well, while old man winter is rapidly approaching, Apple did manage to deliver on its promise in time to finish raking those leaves. As fast (or slow) as you can download, install, and update your iPad, here are some initial thoughts and observations on the shiny new update.


The Expected

Multitasking – This was arguably the most anticipated feature included in the update, and as speculated, Apple has done a solid job of incorporating apps running in the background. Granted, jailbreakers and Android OS users (including this Droid X toting author) have been accustomed to multitasking for awhile now, and as the hardware and software on mobile devices continues to improve, the days of slowdown while mulitasking may be in the past. Still, the iPad excels in offering a smooth experience. Of course, part of running such a tight ship means that not all apps are able to multitask out of the box. Still, the grand-daddy the them all — Pandora — is one of the chosen few. Finally, I can now stream music while looking at a recipe in the kitchen.

Unified Inbox, Threaded Conversations – As a heavy Gmail user and one that has multiple accounts, including a work one through Microsoft Exchange, the improved email interface on the iPad was my next most anticipated improvement. I cannot tell you how much time was lost switching back and forth between accounts on the iPad. Needless touching and swiping just to manage a few emails is no longer part of the experience thanks to the fast inbox switching feature. With the unified Inbox, everything is in one place, but those who want to differentiate and keep things separate still have the option to do just that. As a fan of Inbox Zero, I shudder at times when there were over 10 emails in my account. On the iPad, pre-update, I would see all of the messages that were included in a conversation, whereas on Gmail, it would appear as just one line. With threaded conversations, Apple embraces the Gmail look and feel, and that gives this author lots of warm fuzzies.

Folders – I try to keep the number of installed apps on my iPad at a minimum to preserve space on my 16GB iPad. Still, I’ve managed to accumulate over 60 apps that now span several home screens. Although I tend use the first page apps most frequently, some organization would provide an assist for apps that get buried beyond the first two screens. Folders helps address the issue, and by categorizing applications, I get a better sense of what’s on the iPad along with some help in determining whether I really need another productivity app when there’s already four going unused in the folder. Not the most exciting part of the big update, but folders are a welcome feature.

The Surprises

Gamecenter – Perhaps not as much of a surprise but rather a forgotten component for me, Gamecenter provides users an opportunity to connect with each other on multiplayer games. I’m not much of a gamer, but I was excited to see what was available and how the interface played out. I was pleased to see that I could use my existing Apple account, and that many of the more popular offerings were free apps, so I promptly became hooked on JewelLite, AirHockey, and Flight Control. The number of quality games is still minimal, but perhaps the holiday season will bring many more iPads to households, thus increasing the audience size for developers.

AirPlay – Although one would hardly call the AirPlay feature a surprise, I am including it here because I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked. Finally, not only can I stream Pandora in the background, but I can now play the music through my home theater sound system (via Apple TV, naturally). I don’t have many videos on my iPad, but I do have a ton of photos, and it’s pure joy to see our newborn son in full color on a 46-inch flat screen LCD. If the laggy performance of photos is any indication, though, I can see why Apple is being cautious in going full speed ahead with video streaming.

Find My iPhone – This was the biggest surprise as Apple decided to include this former MobileMe subscription feature free as part of the update. With a recent television commercial promoting LookOut, a security and backup solution for Windows, Blackberry, and Android phones, Apple may have been inclined to join the fray and push this feature out to the masses in order to garnish some positive publicity. Once you set up your account (your Apple ID account can act as a Mobile Me substitute) the application is straightforward, as I like having the ability to send a direct message, remote set a passcode, or even wipe the iPad from any location at any time. As more and more information gets stored on my device, the greater the risk of losing all of it, and a four digit passcode just isn’t going to keep things secure forever should the iPad get lost or stolen.

The Tease

AirPlay – It’s been pretty well documented now that AirPlay does not work with popular video apps such as Hulu and Vimeo. Apple does tease users a bit with sound being allowed to stream from several apps, and while this is useful for items such as Pandora, getting more sound while still using the 9.7-inch diagonal screen on the iPad for the video component just isn’t too practical. Thus, the iPad still does not pose a threat to the home theater computer entertainment systems found in many technophiles’ living rooms. Perhaps, Apple realizes how the Mac Mini still serves a purpose in that arena, and will keep the clamps shut on AirPlay as a result.

AirPrint – I’m going to have to wait to test out AirPrint since I don’t have one of the 11 compatible printers currently available. Apparently, Airport Express printers will not work either, so my master plan for total wireless domination needs to be shelved once again. Forum chatter reveals an application (Printopia) that lets you send print jobs from the iPad to your Mac or to the printer directly, but this requires 1) that you use a Mac, and 2) that the Mac connected to the printer is powered on. Still, it’s a nice workaround for a reasonable price ($9.99), though you just wish Apple would include this functionality with its own OS.

Airport Express – One thing is for certain when it comes to the introduction of AirPlay on a larger scale: the sales of Airport Expresses and other third party hardware solutions that utilize the wireless playback capabilities are about to get a huge bump in sales. I’m already watching several auctions for an Airport Express on eBay ($40 is easier to swallow than $99 for a WiFi router), and I suspect others will be doing the same or plunking down a C-note in exchange for the ability to play your music wirelessly through better speakers anytime, anywhere. It will be interesting to see how quickly and broadly the list of AirPlay approved apps grows because if it is allowed to include popular ones such as Hulu, then AirPlay does become the game changing piece for the iPad (and Apple TV) that many have been anxiously awaiting.

The Future

With Thanksgiving and the holiday shopping season just around the corner, ’tis the time for wanting more, and as mentioned above, the iPad update and AirPlay in particular leaves us indeed craving additional features. Apple has given us a taste of an amazingly convenient piece of technology, but then makes it just a bit inconvenient by limiting its usage. Still, users including this author will be satiated for the most part with the feature packed iOS 4.2.1 update. As Mr. Jobs stated, the new software makes the iPad a “completely new product”, and it comes just in time for Turkey Day. Gobble, Gobble!

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About David Chan

  • Nice coverage here!

  • Gerry

    Great review! We don’t have an iPad yet, but are considering one and you really covered all the bases. Thanks.

  • Hi Gerry,

    Thanks for your feedback. I must say, as an “early adopter” of the iPad from day one, I have not regretted it for a minute, and I’ve appreciated the device even more after having a baby. That being said, if you can wait a few months, there’s probably a hardware update coming (you know Apple…) that will likely include a camera and other goodies.

  • Greg

    I have installed the new iPad update. Suffice it so say besides a few nice new features, I am underwhelmed.

  • David

    Hi Greg,
    Thanks for the comment. Was there something specific you were looking for? It will be interesting to see what happens as Android tablets start getting more popular. Also, I’m sure Apple is holding back a bit for the next iPad hardware release.

  • Ian

    I have not installed 4.2.1 and am not likey to. I am not satiated at all with this update! Multitasking? Combined inboxes? Big deal. I’d rather have some convenient way of sorting photos, putting them in folders etc – the iPad publicity showing all those nicely laid out photo albums was just this side of misleading, implying that it could all be done on the iPad.
    Yes, its a lovely machine, but we need a lovely OS to go with it and we do not have it yet.

  • Hi Ian,
    Thanks for the comment. Are you implying that you’re better off not installing rather than installing? I would question that reasoning. While I agree that the combined inbox is a minor update, and that multitasking has been around on other OS phones for a long time, I still maintain that they are improvements to the iPad OS if we are looking at just the iPad.

    For photo albums, I sort them all in iPhoto on the Mac which makes it very organized. I don’t think it’s misleading, but I do suppose it would be fair to say that the experience is geared more towards Mac products than PC’s.

  • Hugo

    I have an iPad running 3.2.2 and think it’s a great machine. I must admit to not being keen before I used it, but after a hands on, I was hooked.
    I went into the Apple store today and tried out one of the shop iPad’s running 4.2 and have to admit to also being a bit underwhelmed by it (the upgrade that is).
    I’m not interested in any of the ‘Air things’ only the folders – which were quite good, the multitasking – meh, the unified mail box – which I forgot to look at but doubt they had any accounts set up anyway.
    What I would have liked, really liked, as suggested above is some way to organise photo’s on the iPad itself and not through iTunes – synching via my pc has taken over an hour in the past, so you can see the turn off with that method.
    It would also be nice to have less reliance on a computer at all – as the iPad basically serves all my computer needs. I can envisage a day where I have to buy a computer just to set up and synch an iPad and then putting the computer away in a cupboard and only bringing it out to update the iPad with more music or photo’s – what a waste that would be!
    Over the air synching by wifi maybe, in the future.
    Oh, and before anyone says, buy a Mac, I do actually have one. It’s just that my 3 1/2 year old Intel iMac running Tiger is not capable of talking to an iPad without spending hundreds to update the software (and in so doing, causing my photo software which also cost hundreds to become obsolete, because that doesn’t work with the newer OS – the photo software works upto 10.5.4 and you need 10.5.8 to use an iPad!!!)
    My trusty old laptop (going on 7 years) only needed a FREE software update to take Windows XP sp2 to sp3 and I was set! Way to go Microsoft, shame on you Apple.
    The iPad is nice though, I just don’t think that the things offered in THIS update are enough to tempt me to forego the orientation lock hardware switch!

  • Wow, I wasn’t expecting users to turn down a free update, but Hugo does bring up a few good points in his comment. I will still propose that multitasking is more deserving of some kudos. I feel like I can switch between apps with greater efficiency without sacrificing much in performance. Plus, Pandora running while doing other things is worth it for me. I totally agree that photo organization and wireless syncing would be worthwhile features, and that it is unfortunate that Apple doesn’t better support older versions of its own hardware. And with regards to the losing the orientation lock switch, I actually like the move as I rarely use landscape, so having a mute switch is more helpful to me.

    As always, thanks for the comments, and keep ’em coming.

  • Johnny

    I downloaded OS 4.2.1 yesterday and I am not impressed. The worst is that they made what was a super-convenient screen-lock button into a mute button.

    This is a ridiculous use of an external button on the iPad. I used the screen-lock switch all of the time! It is so annoying not having it handy.

    I’m going to try to revert back to a version of OS 3.2.

  • Well, apparently, I’m in the minority. Is anyone here happy with the update? As stated in my last comment, I like the mute button. For me, I can still lock the screen in the multi-tasking toolbar, and I tend to use volume more often than locking the screen orientation. Obviously, it will come down to personal preference. Thanks Johnny for the comment.

  • Greg

    I reverted back to 3.2.2 -w LimeRa1n and BackGrounder after only one day. I hated that the iPad would not quit apps and having to go back to the “Double Click” homepage and press and hold then click the apps to fully quit. The folders was the only think I saw as an improvement. I personally would like a close/background option.

    Greg 🙁

  • Hi Greg,
    Thanks for the tip, and for those confused by his comments, these are jailbreak options for the iPad. He pretty much sums up a major complaint that has divided Apple users, non-Apple users, and Apple using jailbreakers – the closed system that Apple has on its products.

  • Johnny

    A mute button is near useless on the iPad since it’s not a phone and it doesn’t ring. So what’s there to mute? The volume control is right next to it and only takes a second to mute using it.

    Not to mention, it doesn’t even mute video, music, Youtube, or Pandora anyways. So unless you’re interested in muting the keyboard clicks or a game, and you can’t bear to wait the 1-second it takes to hold the volume down, the mute button is useless.

    It’s bad design and redundant. Does a user really need two buttons to control sound? I really can’t believe the designers at Apple took a function button that was so useful as a screen-lock, and now have two buttons that can both turn the sound off. This almost seems like a bug, even though they’re touting it as a “feature”.

  • I’ll guess I’ll respectfully disagree. I like to instantly mute sounds for calendar alerts, emails, and push notifications, in addition to the keyboard clicks. And I do find it convenient to do this without unlocking and then holding the volume button (which takes me more than one second unfortunately). Thanks for your comment.

  • Thomas

    Verizon’s MIFI2200 Mobile Hotspot card will NOT work on the YouTube App or YouTube on the Safari Browser with IOS 4.2.1. It worked prior to the update. It will work on other streaming video apps. Apple lended no reasonable support. In fact, Apple and Verizon both appeared clueless on this issue.

  • Stephan

    I thought my ipad was broken at first when I realized the screen lock button no longer worked after the update. I’m always showing my clients screens from different angles of my ipad. Now I either have to hold it steady one way now so it quits switching orientation, or drill in and out of the menu constantly. Very dissapointed. I bought it a few months ago partially because of how nice this feature worked, and now they disable it without an option to change it back to how it used to work.

    Someone mentioned the ability instantly mute sounds for alerts, but those sounds are such unintrusive little blips they are barely noticed. As someone else mentioned, this isn’t a phone. It doesn’t ring. Unless you’re trying to use your ipad in a quiet prayer service, who cares about those little blips? Turn them down if it’s that bad. This change is really annoying. I wish I could go back to how it was. They can have the multitasking back.

  • @Thomas:
    That is definitely unfortunate and worth noting here. It looks like there’s a discussion with some possible solutions brewing here.

    @Stephan and future commenters:
    It comes down to personal preference about the mute switch vs. orientation lock, and there will be fans of either scenario (though I’m easily outnumbered here). It is rather backhanded that Apple decided to change hardware functionality with a software update, but it’s Apple, so what do we expect, right?

    In the end, let readers be forewarned: if you don’t want to lose your orientation lock, don’t update to 4.2! Thanks for the comments.

  • shirimpiare

    I’ve got the pad 2 days after Apple started selling it. I am Bulgarian and I live in Sofia. Being an obvious minority here I must say that I am very happy with the multitasking. Perhaps my expectations are lower.

    Or maybe I am just a little dumb for thanks to your comments here I finally found out how to get the sound back. Thank you very much. And, agree, that’s kind a stupid thing but multitasking excuses all. Thanks again.

  • @shirimpiare
    First off, that’s awesome that you’re writing from Bulgaria. I’m glad to hear that you’re happy with multitasking, for I am as well.

    And don’t feel dumb – glad the comments are helpful!

  • shirimpiare

    many thanks

  • Hugo

    Hey guys, me again. Just wanted to let you know about something strange that happened on my iPad yesterday. Decided to load some more music and photo’s, so I had to do a synch. It was the first synch in about two months, during which time I had bought a bunch of apps from the apps store via the ipad itself.
    During the synch, itunes 10 (which I had just upgraded to) asked me if I wanted to transfer my purchases from ipad to pc, otherwise they would be deleted from the ipad. I said, yeah, fine, do that. But then I noticed that in the ipad preview panes in itunes, some of the apps were missing. Also, the tick boxes for these apps were unchecked.
    Naturally, I went through them all, re-ticking them if you like. 1hr 40m later, when the synch was complete, all of the apps that I had to manually recheck were missing on the ipad, yet they were showing up in the preview panes in itunes and were all ticked. ???
    So, I closed itunes and started it up again – they were still showing and were ticked as before, so I changed nothing and synched again. This time the apps showed up on the ipad.
    BUT – what a disaster – they had lost all of their data. Back to square one. Fortunately, they did not hold any important data, because they were mostly games, but even so, a lot of sweat and swearing went into getting all those gold medals in Reckless Racing.
    I’d lost all my cars -even the Bugatti Veyron in Need for Speed, lost all my tracks in GT Academy, back to the start in Splinter Cell, Brothers in Arms and Settlers. Lost all the courses I’d unlocked in Let’s Golf 1&2. Most disappointingly, all of the drawings I’d done in sketchbook pro were gone. I was quite upset about that, I’d done some good stuff.
    Did a bit of googling – seems I am not alone. There’s a bug in the system and you can’t get the information back. Some people recommend backup and restore, but the first thing itunes did in the synch was backup, but it still lost the data.
    So I just wanted to let you know, to be a bit careful. I think if you buy apps directly on the ipad (I can’t see why you wouldn’t), you should probably do a synch before you have too much stored data in them, to avoid heartbreak later on.
    Needless to say, not feeling a lot of love for Apple at the moment – and the ipod touch that I was asking for for Christmas, I have now crossed off the list.
    I really do think that Apple need to get a better way of synching data than tethered to a computer and itunes.

  • HI Hugo,
    Thanks for the update, though I am sorry for all the troubles you’re going through. I totally agree that the syncing process between all Apple devices and iTunes can be quite troublesome. I only connect when absolutely necessary (like for an update) or if I need to move content over.

  • shirimpiare

    Hi guys, my iPad can not sustain some wifi connections. I have to type over and over the pass. With some other rooters I do not have any problems. Is it the Internet protocol?  
    Really frustrating for a multitasking fan…
    I remember that some problems like this were discussed broadly over the net at the begging of the iPad era and many criticized Apple. Well, the problem is still here even with 4.2
    Any idea? Please, if you know…

  • Martin Gibson

    The screen lock feature is essential when viewing photos which is what some people use the ipad for more than anything else. Is there some app which can replace it?

  • I am not aware of any app that replaces the screen lock feature. However, I do want to point out that the orientation lock feature is still available and is found under the multitasking bar (slide to left).

    Again, most users are probably aware of this, and I know that it’s not as convenient as the hardware switch, but in case people were unaware of the feature’s presence, I mention it here.

    Thanks for the comment.

  • marc

    Does anyone know a way to track a lost Ipad if you never installed the new software update or mobile me? I don’t need to “kill” the Ipad, just locate it. Since I know the IMEI, is there a way to do it off of my IMac? Thanks, Marc

  • Elvira

    Hi i’m trying to updated my ipad since last night and does not transfer to the ipad. itunes download it and that is it. What else can I do????

  • Hi Elvira,

    Sorry to hear that you’re having trouble. My update took an excruciating amount of time, but a large part of that was due to the Backing up process. I wrote a post about an app called BackOff, which helped me get over the hump.  Hope it helps you.

  • Troy

    Can anyone explain why the resolution of my ipad diminished with the update to 4.2.1?
    I happen to have several iPads, one with version 3.2 and one recently updated to 4.2.1. In a side by side comparison, There is a clear drop in resolution in the new update.
    I have my theories but really just want that pristine viewing back as I do not plan to buy another ipad anytime soon (I’m happy with this one for now).
    Please address this if u can or at least check it out.
    Seems like they want to make the original ipad seem more graphically inferior than it really is, via questionable tactics no less.
    I hope I’m wrong about that but I am definitely right about this new update tampering with my resolution.