iOS 5 delivers 'a wealth of changes'

Four months after it was introduced at this year's Worldwide Developer's Conference, iOS 5 is finally available. Apple released the free update to its mobile operating system yesterday, two days ahead of the iPhone 4S, which arrives tomorrow.

According to Apple, there are more than 200 new features in iOS 5, including a revamped Notification Center, the new iMessage app, Twitter integration with the OS and lock-screen access to the Camera app. Although the overall look of the operating system hasn't changed dramatically, this update features several key improvements and cuts the cord by allowing activation and setup to be done without connecting your device to a computer. (Future iOS updates will be done over the air.)

The arrival of iOS 5 also paves the way for integration and syncing with Apple's iCloud service as well as iTunes Match, which is due out later this month.

All in all, there's much to like here -- especially since iOS 5 seems as speedy as its predecessor for routine tasks, without draining battery life or relying on a needlessly complicated interface.

Who can get iOS 5

Not every iDevice can run the new operating system. You're in luck if you have an iPhone 3GS, an iPhone 4 or, of course, a new iPhone 4S. It will also run on the third and fourth generation iPod Touch, and both versions of the iPad.

Before you install iOS 5, you'll want to update to the latest version of Lion, OS X 10.7.2, and iTunes 5, which was released Tuesday. That's because both of those updates allow for iCloud syncing with iOS devices. And iCloud is a major part of what makes iOS 5 important.

How to update

To update your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, connect it to your computer and fire up iTunes. When the device icon appears in the iTunes sidebar, I recommend that you right-click on it: This brings up a pop-up menu allowing you to select the Back Up option. Use this opportunity to back up your device, no matter how long it takes. This is the backup you'll need to rely on if anything goes wrong. It's your safety net; please use it.

When the backup is done, choose "Check for software" in the main iTunes window and then either choose Restore -- which will erase what's on the device and install a fresh, clean copy of the OS -- or Upgrade, which simply installs the software while leaving your data, apps and files intact. (If you use the Restore option, you'll need to sync with iTunes, which will copy over your apps, etc. from the backup you made.) If you're upgrading to iOS 5 using a device that's been jailbroken, there's really no other option but to choose Restore.

Note: Some users yesterday reported problems getting the iOS 5 update to install on their iDevices. Speculation centered around overloaded Apple servers as the culprit. So you might want to wait a day or so before trying to upgrade.

Starting up

After iOS 5 is installed, your device -- I'm generally focusing on the iPhone for this review -- will restart. The first thing you'll notice is the new Setup Assistant, which is very similar in theme to the one in OS X Lion. Once you pick a language and enable/disable location services, you have to choose to connect to a Wi-Fi network or use iTunes to activate the device. (Despite all the talk of cutting the cord, you still need a Wi-Fi connection or access to a computer with iTunes to go further. That shouldn't be a big deal if you're upgrading your phone from home, but if you're snagging a new iPhone 4S, be sure the activation is done before you leave the Apple Store.)

Once a network connection is established, a tap of the Next button begins the phone activation. In a minute or so, you can set up your phone as new or restore from your iTunes backup. This is where you'll be happy to have backed up before you upgraded; once the iTunes restore is complete, your device should be exactly as before, except now it's running iOS 5.

With the arrival this week of iCloud, you'll also be able to restore your device over the air in the future. Basically, your phone gets backed up to iCloud when it's not in use, and restoring it using the new service will be like using iTunes -- except you don't have to connect your phone to a computer. With iCloud, user data like notes, app/OS settings, text messages, mail accounts, contacts and calendars are downloaded first. After a reboot, camera roll pictures and applications begin downloading, with apps even remembering their location on the home screen.

Here Apple added a nice touch: If there's a specific app you need to access right away, a simple tap of its icon pushes it to the front of the download queue during the iCloud restore process. With iCloud restores, you still have to wait for everything to download to your phone, but at least you can start using the most important app right away while less-important apps and files are retrieved in the background.

During the iCloud restore (or after an iTunes restore), if you previously used a passcode to access the iPhone, iOS prompts you to create a new one.

Notifications

Although Apple talks up 200 changes in iOS 5, there are a handful that stand out.

One that most users will appreciate is how the new Notifications feature displays updates on the iPhone's Lock Screen. With the new system, you can decide how obtrusive you want alerts to be. New notifications come in two flavors: the typical pop-up messages that need to be dismissed, and less distracting messages that unfold from the menu bar, automatically displaying and dismissing themselves without interrupting what you're doing. Any missed alerts can be accessed by swiping down from the top of the iPhone screen to reveal the new Notification Center.

Alert options can be modified on a per-app basis under Settings > Notifications. Here you can decide whether the Notification Center alerts are sorted manually or by time received; whether they display in the Notification Center; how many alerts can be displayed per app; the alert style; and whether they show up on the iPhone's Lock Screen.

For that last option, the Lock Screen has been modified to accept and display alert notifications. A swipe of the app icon in the Lock Screen alert takes you directly to the message itself in that particular app. The ability to quickly access exactly what you want from the Lock Screen is a well-implemented time-saver.

iMessage

In what I suspect is an effort to enrage mobile carriers profiting from overpriced text (SMS) and multimedia (MMS) message plans, Apple has included a new app, iMessage, as part of the core software. Just as with SMS and MMS, communication through iMessage relies on text, and allows you to send movies and pictures -- without being charged for doing so. iMessage circumvents the carriers entirely, instead relying on Apple's own servers to handle the encrypted communications.

SMS and MMS messages are still available in the iMessage app; but if you are communicating with an iPhone, an iPod Touch or an iPad running iOS 5, iMessage picks up on that and uses Apple's servers to deliver the messages. When that happens, bits of the iMessage interface like the Send button and chat bubbles turn blue; when sending SMS/MMS messages, the interface is green.

With iMessage, you can see "read" receipts -- which notify you when a recipient has read the message -- take advantage of group messaging, and associate an iMessage account with multiple phone numbers and email addresses. iMessages are delivered to all devices with the associated AppleID.

I've noticed that sometimes delivery of an iMessage is delayed, especially on the iPad. (If the iPad is asleep, it won't wake up to receive the message like the iPhone does, but it will receive the message if it's awake.) If an iMessage can't be sent, it will come in as a regular SMS/MMS message -- this behavior can be toggled on and off under Settings>Messages. However, if your family uses iPhones, this will be a money-saver. Keep track of your messages pre- and post-iOS 5 update to see if you can cut back on what you pay for texting.

Safari tweaks

Safari gets several updates, including improvements to its rendering engine (it feels a tad faster to me) and the addition of two new features: Reading List and Reader.

If you come across an article online and want to save it for later, Reading List allows you to do just that. Tap the Share icon in Safari -- it's between the forward arrow and Bookmarks icon on the iPhone, and it's the icon immediately to the left of the address bar on the iPad -- and tap Add to Reading List. This saves a bookmark to the article for later and syncs the bookmark across iCloud to other supported devices: Macs, PCs, iPads and iPod Touches.

The other Safari feature, Reader, offers the same function as its desktop Safari cousin. Tapping on the Reader text to the right of the address bar brings up a new interface that formats the Web content for minimal distraction by ignoring ads and joining articles spread across multiple pages.

On the iPad, users get tabbed browsing, similar to that already offered on desktop browsers. To add a tab, press the plus button; to remove, tap the x located in the tab.

Mail

Mail gets some refinements, too. You can change quote levels in an email, and add basic customization to font styles (bold, italics or underline) by tapping BIU on a highlighted word. The iPad email client can bring up the Mail sidebar, which stores individual mailboxes such as In and Sent, with a swipe from the side of the screen; you can drag names in the address fields, and you can create mailbox folders on the fly. Email search results now include text from the body of messages. And message flagging is now supported.

The improvements to Mail, like those in Safari, are more or less subtle; there's no breakout change, but you can see where Apple has sanded away rough edges compared to previous releases.

Newsstand, Twitter, the Camera app

If you subscribe to magazines or newspapers, iOS 5 keeps them organized in a folder on the Home Screen, aptly called Newsstand. If you've downloaded the app and bought a content package, all of your previous dead-tree subscriptions are now stored here, updated automatically when new issues are released. Those issues are downloaded in the background, a number badge shows up in the Newsstand icon, and the magazine icon changes to reflect the latest cover.

About the only problem I have with Newsstand is that it is, by itself, a folder, and that limits how it can be arranged on the Home Screen. Since you can't place a folder in another folder, I wasn't able to put Newsstand into my Reading folder, where similar apps are kept. Otherwise, Newsstand is a nice little addition.

Another smart move by Apple is the inclusion of Twitter in various parts of the operating system. In the Twitter Settings, you can install the standard Twitter app (I prefer TweetBot) and set up your Twitter account. You can even press a button to update Twitter information for all of the contacts in your Contacts app, including profile pics.

Twitter has also been integrated in the built-in apps: From Safari, you can share URLs; from Photos and Camera Roll, you can tweet your photos; with YouTube you can tweet links to videos. (You share to Twitter by tapping on the respective Share buttons within each app.)

The Camera app got a few tweaks as well. First, access to the camera from the Lock Screen is faster: Press the Home Button twice and a camera icon appears next to Swipe to Unlock. Tap the icon and you're brought right into the app. In this mode, access to the Camera Roll, where previous pictures are stored, is restricted, but you can begin taking photos right away.

Using the Camera app, you'll see an obvious addition: the Options button, which allows you to turn on HDR photos and grid lines. Less obvious is that you can use the volume up button on the side of the iPhone as a shutter button, that you can pinch the screen to zoom in on a subject, that you can focus by tapping on the screen, and that you can initiate an auto-exposure and auto-focus lock by touching and holding a part of the picture.

The Camera Roll now has a more logical icon layout. With the Share button, you can share a photo or video via email, text message, tweet or print; assign it to a contact or a wallpaper; delete it or add it to a slideshow; and even push out over AirPlay -- a feature that was clumsily included in iOS 4.3 but is fixed here.

Apple has also added basic controls for editing photos. Tap Edit in the upper-right corner of the screen and you can crop or rotate an image; use Apple's enhancement tool, which is automatic, for better or worse (yes, you can shake the phone to undo any changes); and reduce red eye. Those basic editing functions should offer most of what the average iPhone user needs from a photo editor on the fly.

Reminders

New to iOS 5 is the Reminders app, a straightforward time- and location-based notification system. From this app, you can create lists, add items to those lists, assign due dates, and check off completed items. Sounds simple? It is. The main attraction is the ability to set reminders based on when you leave or arrive at a specific location.

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2