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Apple's iOS 4.2 a 'milestone' update for iPad, iPhone

November 23, 2010 06:01 AM ET

The iPad isn't the only hardware getting welcome updates. Since the debut of iOS 4, iPhone 3G owners have complained that that operating system runs slowly on their phones -- an issue Apple vowed to fix. Although I haven't yet tested iOS 4.2 on the iPhone 3G, others have -- and the early word is that the iPhone 3G does, indeed, get performance improvements.

AirPlay: Streaming wirelessly

By far the most anticipated new feature in iOS 4.2 is AirPlay. AirPlay allows you to transmit photos, video or audio to another source, such as video to an Apple TV or music to a compatible sound system. The emphasis here is on transmit: You're not transferring the data to the other device, you're streaming it wirelessly.

Why is this useful? If you've ever wanted to show a group of friends content on your iPad or iPhone without making everyone crowd around the suddenly too-small screen, this is the solution. Now you can zap that video to your TV instead. Or if you're listening to music with headphones and want to continue the song on your home sound system, you can do that, too.

AirPlay
AirPlay allows streaming video to be sent wirelessly to other devices on your network.

Not surprisingly, Apple's implementation of this feature is simple. When your iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch is connected to a wireless network with an AirPlay-compatible device (such as an Apple TV or Denon sound system, an additional icon appears near the content controls. Tapping the icon allows you to choose whether to keep playing the content on the device in your hand or to play it on another device listed in a pop-up menu. There's no setup and nothing to configure. It just works, and it works fairly well, even when streaming audio content in the background. One note: AirPlay only plays video that works in iTunes.

I did run into glitches in some background audio streams while the iPhone was in the middle of heavy photo processing, but I openly admit I was trying to stress test the new OS.

Any app that supports video or audio can transmit to an AirPlay-compatible device, which means that a non-Apple app like Pandora can be used to stream music to other devices on your wireless network. Even better, high-definition (720p) and 5.1 surround sound are supported, though the quality obviously depends on the source. Most content can even be streamed in the background, so you can transmit that Tom & Jerry episode to an Apple TV for your kids to watch while you surf on your iPad. There's a feeling of living in the future now that comes with being able to take content and fling it, wirelessly, to a TV or stereo.

AirPrint

Apple has at last brought direct printing to the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Until now, printing anything from these devices has required specific apps, such as Epson's iPrint or HP's iPrint Photo. But there's something of a catch: Currently, the number of printers supported by iOS's new AirPrint feature is extremely limited. Obviously, Apple couldn't pack every print driver for every printer into iOS; the compromise, in this case, is that only a handful of printers -- five from HP -- actually support the standard that Apple uses in iOS 4.2.



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