A sneak peek at iPhone 1.1.3

When last we visited our friendly neighborhood iPhone, iPhone Software Update 1.1.2 had rolled down the pipes, bringing it with a handful of mostly unremarkable changes.

Late last year, our appetites were whetted by what now appear to be genuine leaked copies of the 1.1.3 software update, but that hunger was not truly sated until Steve Jobs took the stage at Macworld Expo and confirmed the new features that this latest software update would bring.

Now that it’s out in the open, 1.1.3 is a free download for all iPhone users in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany; it’ll show up when they sync their phones with iTunes. And, of course, all new iPhones shipping past this date will also include the new software. I’ve upgraded my phone and taken a tour through the new features it has to offer.

Find yourself

Maps received a bigger overhaul in 1.1.3 than any other program on the iPhone–you might call it this update’s “iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store.” Not only have several new features been added to the application, but the look and organization has been reshuffled to provide a simpler, more elegant interface. The buttons at the bottom now feature only Search and Directions tabs, plus a crosshairs icon for locations and an eye icon for viewing options.

The location finding feature on the iPhone approximates your position by using data collected from cell phone tower and Wi-Fi access point data.

While many bemoan the lack of GPS integration on the iPhone, the 1.1.3 software update’s marquee feature is a new system that can approximate your position in the Maps program via some clever software work on the part of Google and a company called Skyhook Wireless. Both companies use information about your iPhone’s network signal in order to fix its location: Google’s My Location functionality relies on triangulating it from data collected by the cell phone towers in your area, while Skyhook has collected a database of over 23 million Wi-Fi hotspots which they can use to plot your position. Precision varies: Skyhook claims accuracy to 20 meters; Google can only promise accuracy to about 1000 meters.

How does it work? Well, once you press the crosshairs icon on the bottom left of the Maps interface, the iPhone will work for a few moments and a set of blue crosshairs will appear on the map showing your general location. In my brief tests, the location features works pretty well, though it does work considerably more precisely using the Wi-Fi positioning than the cell phone system, locating us almost spot on in the Macworld offices.

Two hands and a map

Besides the location feature, 1.1.3 also adds a handful of other new functionality as well, most of which is accessed via the viewing options icon. When you hit the eye icon, the bottom of the map will “peel” upwards (note the eye candy: the peeled up part of the map is actually somewhat translucent, so you can sort of see the actual map through it). Underneath you’ll find a button to “Drop Pin” (or to “Replace Pin”, if you’ve already placed it), a toggle to Show or Hide Traffic information, and four different views: Map, Satellite, Hybrid, and List.

If you’ve ever disagreed with Google Maps’s interpretation of where a particular location is, you’ll appreciate the utility of Drop Pins. When you hit the button to place a Drop Pin, a purple pushpin appears on the map; you can then drag and drop it to any location and use it as an arbitrary starting or ending point for directions, or add it to your Maps Bookmarks.

Three of these views have been in the iPhone’s Maps application since the beginning and even though Hybrid is new, it should be familiar to any who have used Google Maps on their Macs or PCs. As the name suggests, it provides a mix of the Satellite and Map views: you get an image of the surrounding area with roads and their names overlaid.

The directions UI has been polished a little: it’s now easier to read the individual instructions as you step through them, and the List view is somewhat cleaner as well, with the overview for the trip and starting and ending points all clearly labelled.

Clip and save

For the first time since the iPhone’s release, 1.1.3 allows you to add icons to your Home screen. There’s a catch, though: the only icons you can add at present are Web Clips. Essentially, Web Clips are bookmarks that reside on your iPhone’s Home screen.

To add a Web Clip, navigate to the page you want in Safari and hit the plus button (it’s been moved from its former spot to the left of the location field to the middle of the toolbar at the bottom). In addition to the “Add Bookmark” and “Mail Link to this Page” options, you’ll find a new “Add to Home Screen” option. Tapping that button will bring up a dialog box where you can enter a name for the Web Clip (the default is the page’s title) and the Web Clip’s icon, which is automatically generated from the page’s appearance. One you hit “Add,” you’ll be taken back to the home page, where your new Web Clip will magically appear in the first available spot on the Home screen.

To use a Web Clip, just tap the icon and it will automatically launch Safari and take you to that page, opening a new page if necessary. To remove it, you’ll need to use the new Home screen editing feature, as described below.

Shake it up, baby

As of version 1.1.3, users can now rearrange their Home screen icons by holding down on any icon.With this newfound ability to add icons, you may wonder what happens when you exceed the three open spaces on the iPhone’s Home screen. Well, thanks to the new Home screen management system, not only can you now have up to nine “pages” of icons, but you can also rearrange the existing icons to your heart’s content.

Press and hold down on any icon on the Home screen and all the icons will start to shimmy and shake. You can then drag and drop any of the icons to wherever you want on the Home screen; you can even move icons on and off the dock, though you’re limited to just four applications there. Dragging an icon to the edge of the screen will move you to the next page of icons. Pages are denoted, as in Safari and Weather, by small dots at the bottom of the screen, with a highlighted dot marking the current page. When you’re done rearranging the icons, just hit the Home button, and the jiggling icons will settle down again.

While the icons are dancing away, you’ll also notice that your Web Clips acquire a white “X” badge reminiscent of Dashboard widgets. Hitting the “X” will delete that Web Clip from your Home page. You can’t remove non-Web Clip icons, so if you don’t like having Stocks and Notes on the front page, your only recourse is to move them onto another page.

Should you decide that you want to restore your Home screen back to its pristine, mint-in-box condition, you can reset it by going to Settings -> General -> Reset -> Reset Home Screen. The iPhone warns you that doing so will reset your iPhone’s Home Screen layout to “factory defaults” and asks you to confirm. Resetting your Home screen to default does not remove any Web Clips you’ve created.

Promiscuous text

Got more than one friend? Don’t love having to type each of them the same exact text message? The 1.1.3 update adds the ability to send SMS messages to multiple parties. Just fire up a text message as usual and hit the blue plus button to bring up your contact list. Rinse and repeat to add subsequent contacts, just like you would in the iPhone’s Mail app.

Sending a message to a group takes a little longer than usual and keep in mind that each additional recipient counts as a separate text message. If one party responds to you, it’ll be sent to you only and will show up in the SMS application as though you simply sent a text message to them. However, the group text message will continue to be listed in the SMS app as well, so if you want to send another message to the same group of people, you can do so. Group text messages are denoted with a little “people” icon next to them.

Chapter and verse

The media-playing functionality of the iPhone also saw a few feature improvements in this latest update. While watching a movie, you can now navigate by chapter. Bring up the video controls by tapping on the screen; next to the fast forward button you’ll see a icon that looks like the album listing icon for music. Tapping that will flip the screen around and present a list of chapters, complete with thumbnails, titles, and time markers. In addition to chapter navigation, the iPhone now supports video rentals from the iTunes Store (only in the U.S. at present), and users can select alternate language audio and subtitle tracks where available.

Video playback isn’t the only media feature to see an update. If the iPhone comes across a song that has data entered in its “Lyrics” metadata field (which you can access by selecting the song in iTunes, hitting command-i, and selecting the Lyrics tab), you can display the lyrics by tapping on the song’s album art, and even scroll through them as the song plays, no doubt to the delight of your fellow airplane passengers.

Manual transmission

One feature that Apple quietly added to the iPhone in the 1.1.3 update has been long-awaited by those who use multiple computers with their iPhone. As my colleague Jason Snell described when he first started using the iPhone, syncing content with multiple computers is tricky at best. With 1.1.3, however, Apple has finally added a “Manually manage music and videos” option. As with Apple’s other iPods, selecting this option in iTunes when you connect your iPhone gives you the option to drag only the music and videos you want onto the phone from your iTunes Library (you cannot transfer files in the other direction).

Closing thoughts

There are a bunch of smaller features in the 1.1.3 update as well. Since Gmail added IMAP support last year, the default configuration for Gmail now uses that protocol. You can also purchase music from the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store using gift codes. And the update rolled in a couple of security fixes for Safari, as well as patching a hole in the passcode lock feature that could allow it to be circumvented.

Overall, 1.1.3 may not be as exciting an update as 1.1.1 was, but it reaffirms Apple’s commitment to rolling out new software functionality to existing iPhone users, free of charge. If nothing else, it piques my interest for what kind of features we’ll see in 1.1.4 and beyond.

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