Katherine Boehret

Apple’s Updates for the iPhone and iPod Touch

Next month Apple Inc. will officially unlock its famed iPhone, allowing outsiders to create software programs for this gadget and the similar iPod touch. But last week the company gave its own software developers another shot before handing over the keys, announcing updates for both the iPhone and iPod touch. These updates outfit each device with a handful of new features, enable more customization and nudge the iPod touch a little closer to the iPhone.

Owners of the $399 iPhone can get a free update, but those with the $299 (8 gigabyte) or $399 (16 gigabyte) iPod touch must pay $20 for their update because Apple tracks revenues differently for iPhones compared with its iPods.

Updates for the iPhone and iPod touch add Web bookmarks to the home screen and a redesigned Maps application that displays a user’s current location.

This week, I’ve been using an iPhone and iPod touch with these updates, and I must say that both devices are much more useful and fun with these improvements. Web clips, or browser bookmarks that take the form of icons on the home screen, give these gadgets a new sense of instant gratification because they direct users to specific Web pages seconds after the device turns on. These little icons can be labeled and moved around, letting you group favorite Web sites on one screen, games on another screen, saved Web research on a third screen and so on.

Getting Synched

Both devices can be updated by synching with iTunes; the iPhone does so automatically and the iPod touch updates only if the owner buys this upgrade through the iTunes Store. New iPod touches include the updated software free.

New to both devices is a redesigned Maps application that, at the touch of a button, displays a user’s current location in an on-screen map — without using Global Positioning Systems. Other non-GPS devices currently do this, but they depend solely on cellphone towers to determine your spot. The iPhone uses both cellphone towers and nearby Wi-Fi hot spots to find your location; the touch uses only the Wi-Fi method.

The iPod touch also now has the same stellar Mail program that is found in the iPhone, a real plus for owners who have been curious about mobile email but weren’t necessarily ready to plunge into a BlackBerry or iPhone, or don’t want to pay for a monthly data plan.

Both devices can store numerous Web clips on up to nine different home screens, each of which has room for 16 icons. A handful of permanent applications appear by default on the main home screen, but these can be shuffled around. Along with Maps and Mail, applications for Stocks, Weather and Notes were also added to the iPod touch.

Multi-touch technology only improves these new features. For example, home screens are easily navigated by flicking a finger horizontally to get from one to the next. Holding a finger on any Web clip causes all of them to jiggle like tiny pieces of digital Jell-O, waiting for you to either delete or drag them around wherever you would like them to stay. Pressing the Home key cements the icons in place.

Trouble Finding Home

But these updates left room for improvement. Maps had trouble on both my iPod touch and iPhone when I asked it to find me in my home in Washington, D.C., and in my office near the White House — the former test circled a 30-block radius while the latter marked me four blocks away. Tests in other locations worked well, and clever “Drop Pin” tools helped me mark and label specific places. But I wouldn’t rely on this feature if I was completely lost and hoping the iPhone or iPod would tell me where I was.

And though I was excited to have email on my iPod touch, this device lacks a speaker and vibrating capabilities, so it can’t chime or buzz to signal newly received email. Because of this, the touch wouldn’t work for me as a serious, everyday tool like the BlackBerry and iPhone.

The free update for the iPhone lets you text message multiple people simultaneously, something the most basic cellphones have been doing for years. But individual responses to these mass texts can’t be seen in the same thread of conversation as that which you started; instead, they generate new text message threads.

On the iPhone and iPod touch, the Maps application now shows hybrid views that combine satellite maps with labeled street names, which are helpful.

The iPod touch is a testament to what can be done on a mobile device without a cellphone carrier’s help. By tapping into Wi-Fi hot spots, which are almost everywhere, I easily checked email, stocks and weather. I had a little more trouble using the Maps application with Wi-Fi because I was more often checking my location while on-the-go in a car or walking.

Collecting Web Clips

I had fun populating the many screens of my iPod touch and iPhone with new Web clips. These are easily added by hitting a “+” symbol at the bottom of any Web page, naming the Web clip and watching it appear on a home screen, often with a colorful accompanying icon like that for AllThingsD.com.

Snapshots of a Web page can be captured and saved in a Web clip by zooming in on a certain section of a page and saving that specific view. This proved helpful when I needed to quickly glance at the Georgetown basketball schedule a few times in one day.

Web applications can be found at www.apple.com/webapps. A game called Ditto involves repeating a pattern on blue, yellow, red and green squares using the touch screen — a digital version of the Simon handheld game. Memory, the old card game, is updated with animated animals on cards. FlyTunes lets users listen to customizable channels from Internet radio, while an app called Floort presents an opinionated topic and asks people to vote on whether they agree or disagree. Even simple Web apps were useful, such as one that turns the screen into a virtual ruler with inches on one side and centimeters on the other.

But it’s good to keep in mind that these are Web applications, and are useless without the Web and/or an AT&T connection.

All in all, Apple’s software updates for the iPhone and iPod touch are exciting, especially because they make home screens much more useful and individualistic. These tiny devices continue to become truly mobile computers.

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