The iPad's iOS 4.2: An unsatisfying upgrade

Apple's print feature is disappointingly limited, but the iPad has now caught up to the iPhone and has a few small surprises

All month, the blogosphere has been eagerly anticipating the release of iOS 4.2, the version that brings multitasking to the iPad and the ability to print from iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches. Released Monday after a surprise extra golden master round the previous week to deal with a last-minute Wi-Fi bug, iOS 4.2 on my iPad feels not all that different from iOS 3.2 on it. Maybe it's an inevitable letdown after all the fuss (much of which Apple encouraged -- CEO Steve Jobs is in danger of becoming the guy who cried "revolutionary" once too often), but now that iOS 4.2 is real, it feels like not such a big deal.

Yes, the app-based multitasking and support for business-class mobile management tools is critical for business adoption, but the iPhone and iPod Touch got those capabilities in July, while the iPad waited four more months. These changes are welcome but long overdue -- ditto on app folders and message threading.

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For business, the one new feature announced in iOS 4.2 (versus what the iPhone and iPod Touch already had in iOS 4.1) was the ability to print. When Jobs first announced this capability, he implied it would work with almost any wireless printer. It doesn't. It works only with AirPrint-enabled printers, of which there are a small handful, including Hewlett-Packard's ePrint series. You can't even print using your Mac or PC as a relay to an attached printer -- Apple pulled that feature from iOS 4.2 and Mac OS X 10.6.5 late in the game.

If you want to print to (almost) any wireless printer, you still need a third-party app such as the $10 PrintCentral. Such apps work, but they have a burdensome copy-and-paste method they have to use to print anything -- a hack, essentially to overcome their lack of access to apps' innards. iOS 4.2's print feature provides that direct link in apps that add support for it; if only it could be widely used.

Still, there are a few additions for business users to note in iOS 4.2:

  • You can now finally accept calendar invitations (.ics files) in non-Exchange email accounts. Unfortunately, it's not a great implementation: If you tap an .ics file, the appointment is immediately accepted. (Tapping for more than a split second also shows the details, as well as accepts the invite.) You can't choose whether to accept, decline, or tentatively accept the appointment. Nor can you choose which calendar to add it to when accepting it; you have to change that in the Calendar app.
  • The hard-to-read Marker Felt font is no longer the only option -- nor the default -- in the Notes app. The more-readable Chalkboard is now the default, and plain-Jane Helvetica is also now an option. It's a small change, but a good one.
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