Apple's iOS 4.3 a welcome update for iPad, iPhone

A faster Safari, enhanced AirPlay, and security fixes make it a must-have

Apple's update for iOS 4, released Wednesday (two days earlier than expected), offers a number of changes and new features for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch owners, plus 59 security patches for the mobile version of Safari.

For that last reason alone, you should install iOS 4.3. But there's more than just improved security in the latest upgrade: As expected AirPlay compatibility has been extended to additional apps, Safari now runs faster, iTunes Home Sharing is better integrated and personal hot spot support for the AT&T version of the iPhone has finally been rolled out.

Apple's iOS 4.3 is compatible with the iPhone 4 (the GSM model only), the iPhone 3GS, the third and fourth generations of the iPod Touch, and both the original iPad and the iPad 2 that's due on Friday. There's also a related AppleTV update for those who have the latest AppleTV, which was released last September. Not getting this update are the first- and second-generation iPhones, released in 2007 and 2008, and earlier versions of the iPod Touch.

In addition to the big changes offered in iOS 4.3, Apple tucked away several minor tweaks: the Camera app has a new shutter sound; the Notes app gets a few additional fonts; the Location Services setting is now prominently displayed under Settings; and Ping notifications are available.

Safari and AirPlay

For most users, the changes to Safari will be most obvious. Safari is now speedier, with Javascript performance twice as fast as before, according to Apple. In fact, that claim may be understated; Insanely Great Mac and others who have tested the new Safari found its Nitro Engine Javascript to be noticeably faster than Apple claimed.

Safari can also now stream specific H.264 videos to an AppleTV using AirPlay. But in an apparent effort to appease content creators, Web videos must be specifically tagged to allow the streaming: If Safari detects content that is not authorized, the video plays locally on the iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch while the audio alone is transmitted via AirPlay. I'm not sure how many sites will allow this streaming to happen, but the feature works really well; it's nice to be able to beam content right to the TV without everyone crowding around my iPhone or iPad. Aintitcool.com, for instance, has a preview of the movie Thor that you can surf to on your phone and then stream to Apple TV. You can do the same thing with the Apple-supplied video of the iPad 2 unveiling that took place March 2.

The changes to AirPlay mean you can finally stream photos, slide shows and movies stored in the Photos app wirelessly to Apple TV. Better yet, AirPlay capabilities are now available to third-party developers, meaning non-Apple apps like Pandora or Vevo could add this feature to their own apps. The implementation is much better than before, when only iPod and YouTube content could be streamed, but it still needs some work. I'll get to that in a moment.

Home Sharing and Apple TV

Users of iTunes with Home Sharing turned on can now access all of their content on their iOS devices. That's important because as digital media collections grow, the limited storage of the iPhone or iPad can become a hindrance. It's easy to set up: Just enter your iTunes Home Share username and password under Settings / iPod, tap the More icon in the iPod app itself, and tap Shared. From there, pick the iTunes library you wish to access (iTunes must be running on the host computer), and just like that, media from the cloud, your cloud, is available on your iOS device.

Reminder: You have to be on the same Wi-Fi network as the Home Share to get access to your digital libraries.

With iOS 4.3, Apple is introducing a few device-specific features that users wanted. For instance, iPad owners can now use the switch located on iPad's side either as a mute button or to lock the screen rotation. Apple changed that button's function in the last update, annoying iPad users who'd grown accustomed to locking the screen rotation with it.

AppleTV, which has increasingly become part of the digital home/iOS ecosystem, gains some nice additions too. Netflix subscribers will be thankful that AppleTV can finally stream movies in 5.1 surround sound (if the movie supports it); and sports fans will love the ability to access NBA and Major League Baseball content on their AppleTV (after purchasing subscriptions to NBA League Pass and MLB.tv, respectively). Even without a subscription, the new channels offer live scores, standings, game match-up previews (in high definition), and even highlights in high-definition. This is huge. Now I can be my own ESPN.

The Apple TV update extends AirPlay compatibility with third-party apps, delivers a slightly new keyboard interface and features updated slide show themes.

Personal hot spots

It's now possible to set up personal hot spots with iPhones and iPads through AT&T. This feature has been available on Android devices for a while, and it's been on my own "Features I Want in iPhone" list for years. Put simply, iPhone users can now share their 3G data connections with up to five devices. This update, which arrives a month after the iPhone for Verizon hit store shelves, allows three devices to share an Internet connection via Wi-Fi and another two to go online via bluetooth or USB connections.

To use the personal hot spot feature, you'll need to buy additional data services from your cellular provider, so while iOS 4.3 supports this, you have to pay more to play. AT&T charges $45 a month for a bundle that essentially lets you use 4GB of data per month -- and it charges you $10 per gigabyte if you exceed that limit. Personal hot spot capability is a long-awaited update, but it could get costly if you use it a lot.

How does iOS4.3 run?

This version of iOS 4 is stable; I haven't had any problems with apps crashing, and the update itself went smoothly. AirPlay functionality is noticeably more reliable. This is important because, with the last update, there were times where I wanted to stream music to AppleTV but the AirPlay icon was missing, even though everything was set up properly. I didn't have any such problems during the months-long beta testing of iOS 4.3.

There are a couple of annoyances, though. First, the Camera app takes longer than it should to load. When iPhone 4 was released, the app launched instantly. With each update, that launch-time lag has grown. I've missed snapping some great photos because I was waiting for Camera to load.

Another annoyance: you can share photos or videos through Airplay in Photos now, but you still can't beam photos or videos through using the Camera Roll, which is where photos are stored within the Camera application. This seems like an un-Apple-like oversight. For instance, you can't take a picture or record a video and then beam it via Apple TV to your HDTV. Instead, once you record the video or image, you have to press the Home button, go to the Photos app, tap the appropriate album -- in Camera Roll, by the way -- navigate to the photo or video, tap the AirPlay icon, tap your destination and, if you're beaming video, press play. This isn't a deal-breaker, obviously, but adding AirPlay integration to the Camera app really couldn't have been that hard.

Still, it's better than iOS 4.2, where you couldn't stream recorded videos or photos from your Photo Camera Roll at all.

As it stands, iOS 4.3 delivers needed security updates and several features that iOS device owners will like. Of course, speculation is already swirling about iOS 5, but this update should keep most users happy until that version appears. Version 4.3 may not clear the entire list of must-have iOS features, but it sure is better than the alternative.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is an award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

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