iOS 4.2 for iPhone is small update to iOS 4 and iOS 4.1 that adds marquee new features like AirVideo and AirPlay, fixes some bugs, but most importantly brings the iOS platform into grand unification, with iPhone, iPod touch, and -- finally -- iPad all on the same version number.
(Note, if you're interested in iPad, check out our complete iOS 4.2 for iPad walkthrough as well!)
If you don't have time (yet) to read this through this whole article and are eager to get the basics down now, there's a video up top to tell you everything you need to know in just over 5 minutes.
We're showing it off on an iPhone 4 and an iPod touch 4. Functionality is almost identical, just the telephony (i.e. text tones) don't work on iPod touch 4, of course.
What hasn't changed
We'll be covering what's new and improved below, so for what hasn't changed be sure to check out our massive iOS 4 walkthrough and iOS 4.1 update walkthrough because we won't be repeating all that here.
AirPrint is Apple's wireless printing service. By the time it ships, it should be able to send pages to almost any printer on the same Wi-Fi network, or to certain printers directly (HP ePrint have already been announced). Needless to say, this answers one huge piece of previously missing functionality. (The one it doesn't answer, and still isn't answered, is easier file transfer and sync).
AirPlay is an evolution of Apple's AirTunes system that used to let you stream music between iTunes on Windows or Mac and Apple TV or Airport Express connected speakers. AirPlay takes that to the next level, letting you stream video and pictures as well as music from iPad (or iPhone or iPod touch) and the new 2010 Apple TV. Built-in apps like iPod, Video, and YouTube can stream, but unfortunately it looks like all other apps, including Apple's own Safari and all App Store apps are currently limited to audio-only. Whether this is intentional or Apple simply ran out of time and didn't finish making public APIs for video is unknown but hopefully this will be expanded upon in a future update.
You can tell AirPlay is an option when its icon appears to the right of the volume slider. It looks like a TV-style box with a triangle being inserted up into it. (Yeah, seriously). AirPlay compatible apps, when AirPlay compatible devices are present, will show the AirPlay icon as a button. Tap it and you get a list of devices you can stream to. Tap one and your video will switch from iPhone to TV. And since it's called AirPlay and not AirView, here's hoping Apple expands the functionality in the future to project game video onto the big TV screen, leaving iPhone and iPod touch as a full on multitouch game controller. Hey, we can dream...
SpringBoard, the app that runs the home screen and overall interface in iOS, gets its multitasking dock UI tweaked. Now, after you double press the home button to bring up the fast app switcher, you can swipe left to get to the audio controls and orientation lock as before, but you can also swipe left again to get to a new volume slider and AirPlay control.
Since iPhone has hardware volume controls, it may seem a little redundant, but perhaps it will independently control AirPlay video in the future.
Messages gets an extra button at the very top of the threaded view that, right in the middle between call and contact info -- FaceTime.
When you're exchanging SMS or MMS, just tap it to launch into a FaceTime video call (if you're both on an iPhone 4 or iPod touch 4, and on Wi-Fi, of course...)
Photos gets AirPrint now so you can quickly snap a shot and beam it to a nearby printer. Ultra-modern technology meets age-old media memories. Just tap the action button and, not surprisingly, print will be a new option at the bottom.
Print is also now an option when you multi-select.
What is surprising, however, is that there's no AirPlay button in the Photo app when it's playing movies. Since quickly recording a home movie and beaming it to our TV is one of the features we love most, that's a bit of an annoyance. Hopefully Apple will add that in an update.
YouTube gets AirPlay, of course, so you can beam YouTube videos to Apple TV... which has a built-in YouTube app already. However, the convenience of being able to play an already-found video on the big screen rather than having to look for it again is certainly appreciated.
Also, gone are the old star ratings and in their place are the cheesy thumbs up and thumbs down. From a scale of 5 to a scale of 2? It's simpler and more YouTube, if missing the subtle iTunes-like gradations of the past.
Notes finally -- finally! -- lets you change fonts. That's right, if Marker Felt was never your thing, you can now jump into Settings and switch it to Chalkboard (essentially Marker Felt with a shave and a haircut), and Helvetica, used by the rest of the interface. Here's a mockup we created to show all three fonts together for comparison's sake.
Curiously, there doesn't seem to be an AirPrint option in Notes. It would certainly be handy.
iOS 4.2 for iPhone brings with it a new Voice Memo icon and with it the most drastic redesign of a built-in iOS app icon to date. Sure, Calculator got a facelift recently, but it retained that pseudo-realistic look and feel Apple used for the other "utility" apps, like Compass and Camera. Voice Memo goes from faux microphone to strictly white icon, similar now to Phone or iPod, but without the diagonal pin stripe. If it was in the dock it might fit, but grouped in the default Utility folder, it kind of sticks out.
iTunes store gets AirPlay too in case you want to stream a video podcast and shoot it over to your 2010 Apple TV. What, you wanted something as big as iOS 4.1's Ping?
As always, Settings is the least glamorous built-in app in the lineup that just so happens to get a bunch of tweaks and changes to support new features added to the system and flashier apps.
You can now prevent the physical hardware volume buttons from affecting ringers and alerts, if you so choose.
The good news for iPhone users is, Apple has finally increased the number of text tones. The bad news is, most don't seem well suited for use as text tones, and while you can now set personalized tones for different contacts, you still can't buy or create custom text tones.
New tones include Anticipate, Bloom, Calypso, Choo Choo, Descent, Fanfare, Ladder, Minuet, News Flash, Noir, Sherwood Forest, Spell, Suspense, Telegraph, Tiptoes, Typewriters, and Update. You can hear samples from each in the video at the very top of this walkthrough.
You can now prevent people (i.e. your young children) from deleting apps. It's amazing how fast a 4 year old can yank everything from the dock and obliterate every app on your home screen. No longer. Parents of the world rejoice. You can also prevent the little tykes from changing Location Services (e.g. GPS) and email accounts.
You can also now prevent your kids from accepting Game Center friend requests, thus ensuring their online play remain strictly anti-social and (potentially more) secure.
Mail, Contacts, Calendars
Interestingly, when setting up a MobileMe account, you're now presented with the opportunity to enter either your MobileMe or Apple ID credentials. We'll have to wait and see what, if anything, this means.
Notes now has its own Settings tab because, as mentioned previously, you can now change the font in Notes, and here's where you do it.
Phone + Contacts
In both Phone and in the Contacts apps proper, you can now choose to set a distinct text tone (SMS/MMS) for each contact. So if you want mom to remain good old Tri-Tone but dad to be Choo Choo, have at it!
Just tap edit, scroll down to Text Tone, and then choose from the same list shown in Settings, above.
iOS 4.2 finally gives iPhone and iPod touch the ability to find text on a Safari web page. This is similar to Windows or Mac, where you just hit CTL-F or CMD-F, type your text, and off you go. On iPhone Safari you use the regular old search field (still confusingly labeled Google by default) and start typing the text you want to find.
Where previously you only got suggested search terms, now you get an additional section at the bottom to find the word on the page. Tap it and the first match on the page is highlighted in yellow and a set of buttons slide up on the bottom for "Next" and "Done", as well as a counter for how many matches of the word there are on the page, and which one is currently highlighted (e.g., 7/16). Hit next until you find the one you want, hit done when you're finished. If you want to change the find term, the search box is repositioned alongside the controls to make it convenient.
The previous + icon, for adding bookmarks and Web Clips is gone, replaced by the Action button found in other apps. Hitting the action button gives you all the same options as before, but now also includes AirPrint.
AirPlay will show up when you're playing videos in Safari but currently only supports audio.
Behind the scenes, Apple has added support for the accelerometer and gyroscope and generally improved HTML 5 support. (That means the potential for more, better web apps in the future.)
With this support, Augmented Reality is now possible as well, right in Safari.
As we're sure you guessed by now, the major addition to the iPod app for iPhone (and Music and Video apps for iPod touch) is airplay. So, you can send any music to Airport express speakers, or video to the Apple TV (2010).
iOS 4.2 pricing and compatibility
iOS 4.2 is a free update for iPhone users and for iPod touch users.
Compatibility should be the same as with iOS 4.
- iPhone 4, iPod touch 4 (2010): All features
- iPhone 3GS and iPod touch G3 (2009): No features requiring iPhone 4 or iPod touch 4-type hardware (i.e. front facing camera)
- iPhone 3G and iPod touch G2 (2008): No features that require higher processor or RAM
- iPhone 2G and iPod touch G1 (2007): not compatible/no update
We'll update as soon as we find an official list from Apple.
While iOS 4.2 for iPhone and iPod touch is nowhere near as significant an update as iOS 4.2 for iPad, that's only because iPhone and iPod touch have enjoyed iOS 4 features since June. From small but long missing features like Find in Safari, to annoyances like Marker Felt in Notes, to the start of individual Text Tones in Messages, Apple is continuing the steady improvement of iOS.
It's still not perfect, it still suffers from the age-old gripes of poor notification handling among other things, there's still no good, SIRI-infused, OS-wide VoiceControl system, etc. etc. but those are not the stuff of minor updates. iOS 5 will no doubt be previewed in 4 months or so and then we'll see to the bigger issues.
For now iOS 4.2 not only does what it set out to -- unify the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad on the same release -- but with welcome additions like AirPrint and AirVideo -- if it really takes off -- it could be the beginnings of something transformative.
And as always, If you noticed we missed anything, drop us a note in the comments or send us an email and we'll update as needed.
Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.