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Hands on with iOS 4.2.1 for iPad

After weeks of anticipation, Apple finally released iOS 4.2.1 last night for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. The software update will have the most impact on the latter, as it’s the first time iPad has got any flavour of iOS 4.

It took a while to download, as iOS users around the world hit the update buttons in iTunes, but as of this morning we’ve been playing with the new software on our iPad, to get a sense of what the key improvements are and what it means for the device.

The biggest new feature – albeit one that iPhone and iPod touch users know all about – is multi-tasking. Your music apps can now play in the background while you do other things, Voice over IP apps are a lot more useful, and fast app-switching means you can flick between apps without having to boot them up again.

That’s all good. The iPad is even more of a ‘computing’ device than iPhone, which makes multi-tasking a necessity. The most immediate benefit we noticed was for music, but we sense the fast app-switching will be more significant in the long run.

iPad now also supports Folders, of course, and we’ve already taken a ridiculous praiseworthy amount of time organising our apps so they all fit onto a single homescreen (above). For some reason, this feels even more satisfying than it did on iPhone, although don’t ask us to explain why. Or apologise.

More important, though, is the Unified Inbox – another feature that’s already available on other iOS devices, but which makes even more sense on iPad. In fact, Apple’s tablet is already a great email device, albeit one with the side effect that we spend more of our evening than is sensible burning through our inbox while loafing about on the sofa.

Being able to see multiple accounts in one inbox, along with proper threaded messages and the ability to open attachments with the relevant non-Apple apps, is a big improvement.

iOS 4.2.1 also brings Apple’s Game Center community to iPad at last, with a number of big games already supporting it. Examples? Real Racing HD, Flight Control HD, Galaxy On Fire 2, FarmVille, Slice It!, Super Mega Worm, Trucks and Skulls HD, MiniTycoon Casino, Plunderland, Sally’s Spa HD, Space Invaders Infinity Gene and Touchgrind HD. More will follow.

Your Game Center account stretches across all iOS devices, incidentally – when you login on the iPad, you’ll have all your achievements and friends to hand. Again, Game Center could be more significant on the iPad than it is on iPhone – experience (and some research from analytics firms) tells us that people spend a lot of time playing games on their iPads.

There are some impressive small features in iOS 4.2.1 as well, such as the ability to find text within web pages in the Safari browser; create playlists in the iPod music app; and tweak the location privacy and parental controls.

We’ve left the other big new features until last though: AirPrint and AirPlay. The former lets you print emails, photos, webpages and documents wirelessly from your iPad, while the latter lets you stream videos, music and photos to your TV – or to speakers in the case of music.

However, I’ll be upfront and admit that I have yet to try either feature. In both cases, you need dedicated hardware. So, for AirPrint you need a compatible printer, which at the moment means one of only seven models from HP. Apparently, an option to also print wirelessly to printers connected to your PC and Mac was dropped at the last minute from iOS 4.2.1, meaning that AirPrint will take a while to catch on.

And AirPlay? Well, to stream stuff to your TV, you’ll need an Apple TV set-top box, and to stream music to speakers, they have to be AirPlay-enabled. Partners for Apple include Denon, Marantz, B&W, JBL and iHome, and in the run-up to Christmas expect lots more to go on sale.

However, the fact of the matter is that for many iPad users, making the most of these two features will require buying a new printer and some new AV kit and/or an Apple TV box.

Still, that aside, iOS 4.2.1 is a big deal for iPad owners, for multi-tasking, the unified inbox and (if you like gaming) Game Center alone.

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