Amid the flurry of announcements Apple made Wednesday, the company quietly released the latest version of its iPhone operating system. And as is often the case with iPhone updates, Steve Jobs giveth some new features and Steve Jobs taketh away others.
A major addition to iPhone 3.1 are Genius recommendations. Similar to the iTunes function of the same name, iPhone's Genius feature helps you search for apps you may wish to download based on those you already own. Also, iPhone 3.1 enables you to easily sort apps on your computer screen using iTunes 9. As helpful as these new features sound, iPhone 3.1 comes with major drawbacks: the loss of free, unauthorized tethering and the inability to access the unauthorized app store Cydia. One more caveat: After upgrading to iPhone 3.1, you can't easily downgrade to 3.0.
That's a tough predicament, and many likely face a dilemma. Should you download now or give hackers some time to re-exploit the system? Here, we dive into the pros and cons of the software update to help you make a decision you won't regret.
App Genius: Smart Enough for You?
Serving up 75,000 apps and counting, the App Store was dying for a better way to sort through its endlessly growing list of third-party software. The addition of the Genius recommendation tool for iPhone apps was a logical step for Apple. Genius first appeared in iTunes 8, automatically generating playlists for you based on a song selection. Genius does this by analyzing the tunes in your library in relation to other iTunes users' libraries to see which songs are the most compatible for a playlist.
The Genius approach to the App Store is to recommend iPhone apps for you to download based on those you currently have on your iPhone, as well as what others with the same apps have on their iPhones.
Here's what's weak: It does not make recommendations based on every app you've ever downloaded, such as those you deleted, and how you rated each of those apps. Thus, the Genius feature is only making recommendations based on stuff you decided to keep in relation to what others own. That creates a rather bland list of recommendations.
Some examples: Why would I download another Twitter app if I already own Tweetie? Do I really need another IM client in addition to BeeJive? I like a game called Cooking Dash, and Genius says others who downloaded it got Super Monkey Ball - but I downloaded Super Monkey Ball before and deleted it because I wasn't a fan. If Genius would account for all the apps I deleted and the ratings I assigned, it would know which apps to avoid recommending and be even smarter. Like the Genius feature for iTunes songs, we find the App Store version to be pretty average.
We know these are nitpicky criticisms. Any time Apple makes the App Store easier to navigate, it's a good move, and Genius is overall a solid idea. But we don't think it's a killer feature just yet, and we're optimistic it will get a lot better in the next year.
Easy iPhone App Sorting With iTunes 9
This freaking rules. The iPhone's touchscreen is sure pleasant, but it takes a lot of tedious finger work to put your apps where you want them. IPhone 3.1's ability to organize apps on your computer screen in iTunes is a huge improvement of this experience.
After plugging in your iPhone and loading iTunes 9, you get a full preview of your iPhone springboard screen broken down page by page. To move an app to a specific page you click and drag with your mouse; you can also select and move entire pages (e.g., you can move a screen containing all your games from screen 4 to screen 3 by selecting and dragging the screen upward). You can even hold down shift to select multiple apps and move them simultaneously.
That's super sweet, and we have no complaints here. This will be extremely useful for anyone with 40+ apps.
Free AT&T Tethering Is No More
Tethering - the ability for your computer to surf the web using your smartphone as a wireless modem - is not officially available for AT&T iPhone customers. It's a promise that AT&T has yet to deliver, and nobody knows when the folks aboard the Death Star will finally make that function fully operational. But some clever nerds figured out an unofficial method (flashing the firmware) to enable Apple's easy tethering feature, which we documented in a previous post.
Unfortunately iPhone 3.1 has nuked this workaround, meaning if you're stranded at an airport, you're going to have to pay up the nose just to surf the internet, or you'll have to buy one of those pricey EVDO modems.
Underground Cydia Store Is Temporarily Closed for 3.1 Users
As a solution for no more free tethering, normally we would say you could still get it by jailbreaking your iPhone and downloading an unauthorized tethering app through Cydia, the underground app store. However, this isn't the case yet with iPhone 3.1.
There is currently no solution to install Cydia in iPhone 3.1, according to Cydia creator Jay Freeman. This may change in the future, but if you upgrade to 3.1 today, you'll lose your unauthorized apps as well as access to the Cydia store.
The biggest drag is, if you regret upgrading to 3.1, you can't easily restore your software to iPhone 3.0: Apple stopped signing the older version. To downgrade to iPhone 3.0, you'll have to follow a roundabout 14-step process. Simple but time-consuming.
Our Final Thought
IPhone 3.1's added ability to sort apps in iTunes 9 is a must-have feature, and the Genius recommendation system for iPhone apps is just OK. The loss of free AT&T tethering and access to the Cydia app store could be a loss to some, but we imagine the majority of iPhone owners won't care. If you absolutely love your jailbroken iPhone and unauthorized apps, stay away from this upgrade for a little while: We're sure the hacker community is working on making Cydia accessible for 3.1 soon. Otherwise, if you don't care about jailbreaking, download away.