It is perhaps fortunate for the iPad's competition that iOS 4.2 has taken so long to arrive. The ViewPad 7 and Galaxy Tab compared unfavourably enough to the iPad in its non-updated form; with the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system on it the iPad has moved the target yet further away from its pretenders. It's far from an exaggeration to call the iPad running iOS 4.2 a major improvement. And while we won't deny that this is closer to the iPad that should have launched (we still recommend a few improvements), we don't begrudge Apple the delay - absence has, we think, made out hearts that much fonder of this update now that it has finally arrived.
iPad owners who are also iPhone users will find the majority of 'improvements' in iOS 4.2 actually just bring their iPad in line with their mobile phone, rather than adding never-before-seen functionality. Multitasking, for example, is finally possible on the iPad, and is no less welcome that it was on the iPhone. Despite having half the RAM of an iPhone 4, we never noticed any slowdowns, even with dozens of applications hibernating. If anything, the larger screen of the iPad, and the greater availability of productivity applications (such as the iPad versions of Pages, Numbers and Keynote) makes it more likely that you'll want to switch between apps frequently. As a result, being able to do so quickly, and without losing data entered, but not saved, is a big help.
Folders, too, will be familiar to iPhone users, who will appreciate just how much easier it is to group apps into folders of similar apps, rather that spreading them out over multiple screens. In fact, unless you're particularly finicky about what apps you're willing to group together, or have a lot installed on your iPad, you'll probably be able to reduce your screen use to just the one home screen - oddly enough this makes finding apps much easier.
Two big features are new to this update: AirPlay and AirPrint (both available on the iPhone and iPod touch as well as the iPad). As the names imply, these let you play media and print to devices on your network respectively. The latter removes the need to send documents created on an iPad to a computer to print them. Officially you need an AirPrint-compatible printer connected to your network for this to work, but a quick Google search will find you options for getting any printer working with AirPrint, be it connected to a Mac or Windows PC. The print option is available most the places you'd expect, including Photos, Safari and iWork - we couldn't find the option to print PDFs opened in iBooks, however, which is an annoying limitation.
Where AirPrint is a nice time saver, AirPlay is far more of a revolutionary addition to the iPad experience. The simple premise - allowing you to stream music from your iPad to any AirPlay compatible device - could make the world of difference to the frequency with which you use your iPad. If you have an Apple TV, AirPlay is particularly useful as it negates the need to leave your main Mac on to play media. Instead you can load files onto your iPad, or buy them from the iTunes store on your device, and beam them across to your Apple TV for viewing.