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Apple iPhone 2.1 Software Update Review

I had originally planned to review Apple's iPhone 2.0 Software Update, but the company has been upgrading the software so regularly over the past few months that it's been difficult to even keep up with the thing, let alone write something meaningful. The original 2.0 release was, to put it mildly, among the buggiest software that Apple's ever released, and that's saying something when you consider that the Cupertino company has also shipped Mac OS X Leopard (see my review; 6 major updates this year) and MobileMe (see my review; untold number of updates and days of down time) in the past 12 months. No, this hasn't been a kind year for Apple or its most ardent fans.

The iPhone 2.1 Software Update is the fourth major release in the 2.x family of iPhone software releases. The first, 2.0, shipped with the iPhone 3G in July 2008. As noted previously, it was an unmitigated disaster and Apple raced to release updates to fix it, including version 2.01 in early August and 2.02 two weeks later. Neither fixed all of the problems iPhone customers were suffering from, however--indeed, there were numerous reports that each introduced its own new issues--and Apple pledged to make good with version 2.1, which it promised for September 2008.

At the September "Let's Rock" event at which it announced its 2008 iPod lineup (see my reviews of the iPod touch 2G and nano 4G and iTunes 8 for more information), Apple also unveiled iPhone 2.1 Software Update, first for the iPod touch and then, later that week, for the iPhone and iPhone 3G. I've been using the software on all applicable devices--first and second generation iPod touches, an original iPhone, and my daily-use iPhone 3G--ever since. And I'm happy to report that Apple appears to have finally gotten it right with iPhone 2.1 Software Update. Hey, it only took two months. What's several hundred dollars among friends?

Major enhancements in iPhone 2.x

As I noted in my review of the iPhone 3G, the biggest advantage of Apple's device is its software, which forms the basis of the most important new computing platform to emerge in the past few years. iPhone 2.x is, of course, an evolution of the 1.x software, but it's an important evolution, and though the initial releases were buggy, they brought two noteworthy major new features. These include:

Push support. Apple is deemphasizing its support for push technologies because of issues getting it to work nearly instantaneously on Mac- and Windows-based desktop computers, but push support is alive and well on the iPhone. And it lets you do things like sync contacts, schedules, email, Web browser bookmarks, and other data in real time between the so-called "cloud" (in this case, Apple's MobileMe servers) and your phone. Push is amazing and it works well, though it's also tough on battery life. Currently, push works only with Exchange Server (for business users) and MobileMe (for consumers) natively, but my guess is that other email/calendaring providers like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft will soon be doing their own thing in this space as well. And that's good news, because MobileMe is a piece of junk you should avoid at all costs, while Exchange is just too expensive to recommend to individuals.

I install MobileMe so you won't have to. Yes, you're welcome.

App Store. If you're looking for the one big differentiator between the iPhone of 2007 and the iPhone of today, think Before App Store and After App Store. The App Store, which is available from the PC-based version of iTunes as well as via the iPhone itself, lets you choose from an ever-growing selection of free and generally inexpensive applications, which run the gamut from games to utilities to eBooks to educational tools. The selection is vast, and the quality is all over the map, but is generally good to excellent. The games are predictably similar--there's an over-emphasis on driving-type titles so far--but some of the free utilities are amazing, and if you're a baseball fan, be sure to check out MLB At Bat, still my personal favorite.

Here it is, folks: The number one reason to own an iPhone.

In addition to these major updates, there have been some little improvements across the board as well. For example, you can search contacts, delete multiple emails simultaneously, save images from the Web, and open and view (but not edit) PowerPoint presentations. You can switch keyboard languages on the fly. Enable parental controls. And use a scientific calculator. There are a lot of small but welcome improvements. It's a big deal, and as is always the case with Apple's products, you want to ensure you're always running the latest version.

That version, at the time of this writing is 2.1.

What's new in iPhone 2.1 Software Update

Apple's recently-released iPhone 2.1 Software Update does one thing, and one thing only: It fixes (or tries to fix) all of the bugs that were introduced in previous iPhone 2.x software releases. Normally, this wouldn't warrant a full review or even much of a mention, but if you've been struggling with the iPhone 3G over the past two months, you'll agree that iPhone 2.1 is a big, big deal. The more important fixes include:

Dropped calls. iPhone 2.1 decreases in-call set-up failures and dropped calls, a huge problem since the 2.0 release. On a recent trip to Seattle, I didn't experience a single call without a drop. However, since updating to 2.1, I haven't dropped a single call.

Significantly better battery life for most users. This I have not experienced. The iPhone 3G (and to a lesser extent any iPhone 2.x-equipped iPhone/iPod touch) gets significantly worse battery life than its predecessors. How bad is "significantly worse"? Best case, you'll need to charge the phone every single day. And if you really use the thing, you won't make it through the day. It's bad. Really bad.

Backup issues. One of the weird issues introduced in iPhone 2.x is that the device is backed up to the PC each time you sync, an event that takes an inordinate amount of time. With iPhone 2.1, your phone is still backed up every single time you sync but the time for backing up has been dramatically reduced. I'm talking backup times of up to an hour--and really, think about that--down to just a few minutes. Backup has gone from being one of the most miserable parts of the iPhone 3G experience (though to be fair you could easily bypass it) to a non-event. As it should be.

Improved email reliability, notably fetching email from POP and Exchange accounts. This was an issue I'd not experienced. I don't use (or recommend) POP email access and I'd never had any Exchange issues with the iPhone.

Application install issues. One of the weird side issues with the iPhone's excellent Apps Store and the availability of so many great third party applications is that these applications need to be updated fairly frequently. In fact, I'll often see that several of my iPhone apps need updates. There are two ways you can update the apps. The preferred way is through the iTunes PC application: Select Applications, then Updates Available, and then click the Download All Free Updates link. Then, iTunes will download all the updates and sync them to the phone. The stupid way to update your apps is to do so on the phone: You have to visit the App Store, go to Updates, and then select the first app to update. Click the Free button, then Install, and then type in your iTunes password (every freaking time, too), and then wait, and wait, and wait while the device downloads and installs the app update and then places the icon in the wrong place on your home screen. Then manually repeat this process for every single app that needs updating. With iPhone 2.1, Apple hasn't gotten rid of all the stupid bits of this second app update method--typing and retyping your password is still required though apps are no longer misfiled on your home screen--but it has cut down on the wait. Now, applications install and update faster than they did before. But you're still better doing this all via iTunes.

Application crashes. Another big problem with third party apps is that many of them unceremoniously crash back to the home screen or, in particularly bad cases, cause an actual iPhone reboot. Apple says its fixed bugs causing hangs and crashes for users with lots of third party applications in iPhone 2.1. I've still seen some crashes, but none of the sudden reboots that were pretty common for two months there. And let's be honest: Some of Apple's own applications, particularly Safari, are still really buggy too.

Improved performance in text messaging. I'm not a huge SMS user, but even I noticed the typing lag in the SMS app under iPhone 2.0x. SMS now works as expected, but I'm still waiting for an option to remove those horrible looking balloon-style text conversations.

Faster contacts. Apple says that iPhone 2.1 features faster loading and searching of contacts, but in my experience--on a device with over 100 contacts--it's still really slow. You click on Contacts for the first time and wait while a white screen is slowly filled in with your contacts. Subsequent visits are quicker, however, and searching is instantaneous.

3G signal. Apple has improved the accuracy of the 3G signal strength display in the top of the iPhone screen (it's also changed the display of that and the EDGE icon, which are no longer visually in boxes). Here's my experience with both 3G and EDGE: They tend to report you have five bars until you actually do something and then the display moves down, often quite a bit. Or, my personal favorite: You reportedly have a 3G connection but when you try to actually do something, the signal display changes to EDGE. So is the display accurate? Rarely, in my opinion.

It says 3G. Is it really 3G? No, actually it isn't.

iPod improvements. Along with iTunes 8, iPhone 2.1 adds support for Genius playlists in the iPod application. Song lists now include album and artist information, a la the iPod nano 4G firmware. And there's a new half-circle state icon for partially-finished podcasts, in addition to the "new" and "not new" icons that were previously available.

Genius works best with large music libraries.

Security fix. Now, if you enter the wrong passcode 10 times in a row, the iPhone will delete all personal data on the device and remove the passcode. It's unclear how secure this really is, but it has the nice side effect of eliminating a previously-discovered logon flaw as well.

What 2.1 doesn't fix

While iPhone 2.1 does indeed fix most of the most egregious problems with the iPhone firmware, problems remain. Some of the issues that continue to bedevil me on a regular basis include:

Camera performance. As with Contacts, when you launch the Camera application (i.e. "try to use the camera"), there's a huge lag before the fake iris thing opens and lets you actually take a picture. This is annoying for many reasons, but more often than not you've jumped into the Camera app because--get this--you want to take a picture. Hopefully, it wasn't a UFO or Bigfoot, because by the time the iPhone is ready, whatever it was will have moved on.

Wait for it... wait for it...

Wi-Fi stupidity. The iPhone has a bad habit of connecting to a Wi-Fi network that requires some kind of authentication and then not working at all: Email won't load, Internet-based applications won't come up, and so on. Offering a Web browser is nice, but the phone should detect that Wi-Fi isn't working and move on to 3G or EDGE seemlessly. All too often I have to manually turn off Wi-Fi, which is time consuming and silly.

Battery life. While 2.1 somewhat improves battery life, there's something about the 2.x software that just drains the battery. I still need to recharge after a day of normal use and when I'm travelling--and thus using the phone more often--I run out of power. That's unacceptable for a device that features a non-removable battery. But this wasn't an issue with the original iPhone and the 1.x software. I wish they'd fix this.

Heat. There's also something about iPhone 2.x that generates a lot of heat, and while this is most noticeable with the iPhone 3G thanks to its plastic back, its true for all iPhone 2.x-compatible devices. I suspect this is very much related to the battery life issues: There's just something cranking along inside this device that's turning up the heat. Hopefully it's not causing cancer too.

Final thoughts

Where the original iPhone 2.0 software was huge on promise but lacking in execution, the 2.1 release, finally, rights the wrongs of its predecessors and brings the iPhone 3G to the levels of performance and reliability that its owners expected all along. It's impossible to use this device and not be struck by the poor quality of Apple's software testing practices: This company uses its customers to beta test software without even telling them. And when you're paying hundreds of dollars for a device, plus about a hundred dollars a month just for the privilege of using that device, it's perfectly acceptable to be outraged by that.

All that said, the reason iPhone 3G users put up with this baloney in the first place is that it remains an innovative device without peer in the smart phone market. And now that its software has finally been released in ship-quality form, the iPhone 3G is once again the best mobile platform available today, without question. No, it's not perfect--far from it, in fact--but the iPhone 3G and its iPhone 2.x software are still quite impressive. And until something better comes along from Microsoft, RIM, Nokia, Palm, Google or any of the other mobile vendors out there, what we have to point to is the iPhone. It's still number one, despite its flaws. (This says more about the rest of the industry than it does about Apple, when you think about it.)

So I recommend the iPhone 3G and laud its software plaftorm, but I think it's important that potential customers understand they're entering into an antagonistic relationship with both the device's maker and, in the US, its sub-par wireless carrier.

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