iOS 4.2 on iPhone 4: Nice but not revolutionary

Apple's update of iOS 4 brings some nifty -- if somewhat limited -- new features.

If you're an iPhone user, you'll find the just-released iOS 4.2 a solid, mildly useful new system update. There's nothing earth-shaking here, and nothing as significant as the multitasking features and folders that iOS 4.2 adds to the iPad.

Still, features such as Find My iPhone and the ability to search for text on Web pages in Safari will be welcomed by every iPhone owner, even if those extras won't mean a major change in the way you use your phone.

Find My iPhone

AirPlay and AirPrint, which I discuss below, will get much of the publicity with this new release, but for the absent-minded and the security-minded (like me), one of the niftiest aspects of the upgrade for iPhone users will be the Find My iPhone feature, which is now available even for those who don't currently use MobileMe. (It will only work on iPhone 4, the fourth-generation iPod Touch and the iPad.)

As you would guess from its title, Find My iPhone helps you locate your device if you misplace it. But it does more than that -- it also lets you remotely lock your iPhone, wipe it, display a message or play a sound on it.

The service is available through MobileMe, but you can turn it on even if you're not a paying subscriber. Add a MobileMe account by tapping Mail, then tapping MobileMe. Enter the Apple ID and password you use with the iTunes store. That will set up a MobileMe account for you.

With that done, turn on Location Services on your iPhone by tapping the Settings app, then tapping General --> Location Services, and tapping to turn it on (if it's not on already). Your iPhone will find your location in the same way it usually does, either via GPS or through the less-precise method of using nearby Wi-Fi hot spots.

Now turn on the Find My iPhone service itself. From the Settings screen, tap Mail, Contacts, Calendars; then tap MobileMe, and in the Find My iPhone section, tap to turn it on.

Once you've done that, the service is up and running. If you misplace your phone, head to Me.com. You'll be shown the location of your phone on Google Maps. Tap the little arrow next to the location, and a screen appears that lets you lock the phone, wipe it, display a message or play a sound.

This is great not just for security purposes, but for finding your phone in your own home. Your iPhone will make a sound even if it's locked or in silent mode, so if you misplace it around your house, use Find My iPhone and then just follow the annoying sound.

By the way, when you set up your free MobileMe account, you won't get MobileMe e-mail. If you want that service, it will still cost you a $99 annual fee.

AirPlay and AirPrint

I wasn't able to put either AirPlay or AirPrint through their paces, because I don't have compatible hardware to test them. (For an account of how both AirPlay and AirPrint work, check out Michael deAgonia's article on the new features in iOS 4.2.) From what I can tell, though, both services are fairly straightforward and, although far from revolutionary, can be useful.

AirPrint allows you to print to a wireless printer. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there are only five AirPrint-compatible wireless devices.

If you do have a usable wireless printer, AirPrint works this way: When you click a Sharing menu icon in Mail, Safari and Photos, a new entry appears, titled Print. Tap Select Printer, and your iPhone will look for a compatible printer. Once it finds one, you can print by tapping the Print button. Considering how few devices AirPrint currently works with, though, few people will likely be using this feature for now.

Unfortunately, a highly anticipated feature of AirPrint is missing -- the ability to wirelessly send a print request to your Mac or PC, and then have the computer print to any printer available to it. This would have made this feature far more useful. So for now, at least, AirPrint sounds nice in theory but will be rarely used in practice.

AirPlay allows you to stream media to an Apple TV, Airport Express wireless device or dedicated wireless speakers. When you have one or more compatible devices available to your iPhone, an AirPlay icon will appear when you're playing media. Tap the icon, select the device, and you'll stream the media to the device.

Given that most people probably don't use their iPhones as a home media player, this is far from a killer app, although it could be useful if you've managed to capture or download video you'd like to see on the big screen instead of the very small screen.

Other goodies

IPhone owners will get a few other useful features. Most notable is the ability to search for text on a Web page in Safari. Type a search term into Safari's search box, and you won't just find Internet search suggestions anymore -- you'll also find, at the bottom of the suggestions list, the number of times your search term can be found on the current Web page. Tap that entry in the list, and you'll get sent to where the term first appears, along with a toolbar that will let you jump to the next location where the entry is found.

Although undeniably useful, the feature is also somewhat rudimentary. There is no "previous" button, for example, and so there's only one way to go with your search -- forward on the page. And you also can't change the search term on the fly as you're viewing results. Instead, you'll have to head back to the search box. Still, it's nice to be able to search for text on a Web page. One hopes that Apple will improve on it in the future, though.

With iOS 4.2, you can also now add custom ring tones for text messages you receive from specific recipients -- what the iPhone refers to as "text tones." (Previously, you could do this for phone calls, but not for text messages.) And you have 17 new text tones from which to choose. No, the world will not be changed because you can now be alerted that you're getting a text from your son when the "Choo Choo" text tone plays (making the sound of a train whistle) or that your boss is texting you when the Telegraph text tone sounds. Still, it does make the iPhone just a little bit more entertaining.

Bottom line

For iPhone users, iOS 4.2 is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have update. Find My iPhone is the most useful of the new features, and for those who are security-minded, it's a welcome addition. Searching for text on a Web site is useful, although the feature could be improved. And AirPrint sounds useful in theory, but because it currently works with so few printers, only a few iPhone owners will find it useful for now.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor to Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

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