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.

It's a nice feature, and it works fairly well, although it's sometimes a bit delayed. The current implementation is a bit limited. You can't just pick an arbitrary address from, say, the Maps app; any address you pick has to be in your Contacts. Just add the local supermarket to your contacts list and you can remind yourself about groceries to purchase when you get there. It's a simple workaround, and the core functionality works well enough.

Reminders are also automatically synced to other iOS devices, and on the iPad, the date view shows the calendar and reminders side by side, which is an effective usage of the iPad's larger screen.

Autocompletion

Apple's iOS 5 features Autocompletion, which can be modified under Settings > General > Keyboard, under the Shortcuts section. This preset is included as an example: If you type omw and hit the spacebar, "On my way!" automatically propagates. I think this is a great idea and a big time-saver. I set my email to be autocompleted if I enter a series of @-signs -- two for my work email account, three for my home account, etc.

Setting up autocompletions is great for responding to common email messages. It's no longer a hassle typing out: "Dear Android fan, I understand your enthusiasm for your choice of platform; that is why choice exists! Enjoy your phone, as I'm sure there are many lovely features and reasons you bought it. P.S. Uncalled for attack on my lineage was not appreciated. Cheers! Michael deAgonia." Thanks to autocorrect, now all I have to type is "Ugh."

Smaller changes

The new operating systems also features a variety of less obvious, but still important, tweaks and additions, including these:

• You can now manage Apple's wireless network hardware from the iPhone and iPad. Select Settings > WiFi > choose wireless network, scroll to the bottom and tap "manage network." This will bring you to the App Store to download an AirPort Utility, which you can use to modify your Airport hardware. It continues the whole "cutting the cord" theme Apple is pushing.

• There are new vibration patterns in iOS 5, including "heartbeat" (the one I use), "SOS" and "symphony." You can even customize your own vibration pattern. To activate custom vibrations, go to Settings > Accessibility and turn on Custom Vibrations. To actually edit these custom vibrations, you have to go to Settings > Sounds and scroll to the bottom section called Vibration Patterns.

• There are also new sounds -- and for the first time you can customize them. (You can also edit custom gestures, which can be enabled under Settings > General > Accessibility > AssistiveTouch Custom gestures.)

• You can get a word definition anywhere there is selectable text with a simple tap and hold on a word; choose the pop-up Define to get the definition.

• You can mirror video via an optional Apple cable to a TV. Or, if you're using an iPad 2 or an iPhone 4S and have access to a TV with AppleTV, you can mirror your display wirelessly using systemwide AirPlay Mirroring.

• And for those of you who've been hoping for this, there's an extra tidbit of privacy built into iOS 5: You can now delete individual calls from the call log with a swipe.

iPad-specific updates

There are a few features of iOS 5 specifically built for the iPad. They include the aforementioned tabbed browsing, a new retro-looking music player interface, and -- my favorite -- a split keyboard view, which can be initiated with a literal "ripping apart the keyboard" gesture. Once the keyboard is split, you can move it up and down iPad's side. Grab the keyboard icon located to the lower right side and you can position it wherever it's easiest for you to thumb-type messages. To reunite the keyboard segments, tap and hold that keyboard icon to activate the "dock and merge" pop-up or drag the keyboard to the bottom of the screen. The iPad also picks up optional multitouch gestures, which I took to right away, since many of the gestures are shared in Lion.

For instance, a four-finger-and-thumb scrunch brings up the LaunchPad on both a Mac running Lion and an iPad running iOS 5; swiping four fingers up brings up Mission Control in Lion and the multitasking interface in iOS 5. The use of similar gestures on different platforms creates a sense of consistency and familiarity that makes each device easy to master.

Cutting some of the cords

For the first time since its debut, the iPhone is computer-reliant no more. Out-of-the-box activation, wireless OS updates (deltas, actually, which result in much smaller downloads), media purchases and app upgrades, background subscription updating, and automatic wireless backups mean that the iOS devices can stand on their own. It also broadens the market for Apple products in countries where owning two computing devices is economically impossible.

If you do have a laptop or desktop computer running iTunes, you can now wirelessly sync the content there -- your songs, videos and other digital media -- with the content on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Syncing automatically kicks in when the iPhone or iPad is plugged in to the wall or to the computer. You can also start a sync manually.

To activate wireless syncing, you have to plug the device into a computer running iTunes at least once (so you can turn wireless syncing on). Select the device in the sidebar, and, on the main screen, scroll down and make sure "WiFi syncing" is enabled. Press Apply.

Once WiFi syncing is enabled, the iPhone or iPad will still be accessible in the iTunes sidebar even when ejected. Better yet, the devices will also back up wirelessly to iTunes before a sync session, which provides a safety net of sorts for your device data. Note: Wireless syncing requires that iTunes be running. From my experience, that's not much of a problem for Mac users, but it might be more problematic on Windows, where iTunes can be resource-intensive.

Here's a helpful hint: If you keep your media selections to a minimum the first time you enable wireless syncing, you'll be able to use your device sooner, since you won't be waiting for a full-blown sync. Once that first iTunes sync takes place and wireless syncing is enabled, you can then go through and select the media you want. The next time the iPhone is plugged in to a power outlet (say, to charge during the night) it'll automatically kick-start an iTunes sync and copy everything over. By the time you wake up, all of your media should be on your iPhone.

As always, you can't sync more media than your device can hold. So if you have 100GB of music and movies, and a 32GB iPhone or iPad, you'll have to pick and choose.

Your new 'cord:' iCloud

As I noted last week, I think the arrival of iCloud is a bigger deal than the arrival of the iPhone 4S.

Basically, iCloud is a collection of services that backs up your data -- everything -- to Apple's servers automatically. Every photo, document, bookmark, contact, song, movie, video, ringtone, text message -- even the layout of your home screen -- all gets backed up.

iCloud scales up. If you have other devices, iCloud makes sure those devices receive your data, too, without you having to lift a finger. It's invisible.

iCloud starts with a free email address, and any device signed in with that address automatically syncs with Apple's servers. (MobileMe subscribers have to jump through a few easy hoops to move their account over.) It won't matter now which device you use to take a picture with, or where you left your presentation or whether you bought a song through iTunes on your iPhone, iPad or desktop Mac. All your content will sync with all your devices via iCloud, though of course you'll have to use iTunes to pick and choose how much of your digital media actually stays on your iDevices permanently. You won't, obviously, be able to sync an entire 100GB library of music on a 32GB iPhone. (iTunes Match will help in this area when it arrives later in the month, by allowing you access to your entire music collection via iCloud.).

Needless to say, iCloud binds together all Apple devices and your computer in an invisible, yet important, way. I have found so far that it's awesome. Syncing across devices works as it should and happens within minutes, if not seconds.

I do wonder what the arrival of iCloud will do to data plans. Be very mindful if your data usage is limited, because you could rack up some big charges. While you'd expect the biggest culprits for data leech to be backups and media, document and Photo Stream syncing, that's not necessarily true. Backups and Photo Stream updates require Wi-Fi, and there are options to turn off syncing over cellular for purchases and documents (Settings>Store and Settings>iCloud>Documents&Data, respectively).

If you're worried about using up the free 5GB iCloud allotment Apple provides, you can keep track of how much you've used under Settings>iCloud>Storage&Backup (and you can buy more space if you need to). Remember, though, iTunes purchases and Photo Stream don't count against your iCloud allotment.

Final thoughts

There are still a few issues that Apple hasn't addressed. For instance, why is there a volume slider in the multitasking pane, but not one for brightness? I already have physical volume keys; I want faster access to brightness settings.

And I've found that if you're restoring apps on a new device using iCloud, the old saved-states -- the state the app was in when it was backed up -- don't play well with the new upgrade. The result is an app that crashes on launch, but works fine as soon as you launch it again, with no further problems.

Overall, though, iOS 5 brings about a wealth of changes that users from technophobes to technophiles will appreciate and use. Apple isn't first with these features, but it rolls them into the OS in a way that avoids needless complexity. The changes also broaden the reach of iOS in the Apple ecosystem, with iCloud in the background quietly linking everything from home computer to iPad and iPhone.

Given that iOS 5 is a free update and iCloud is a free service for up to 5GB of storage, (not including iTunes purchases or Photo Stream), upgrading to the new operating system makes sense for just about everyone with the appropriate hardware. It's a worthy update that builds on an already strong mobile OS. And it should really perform well on the new iPhone 4S. I'll have more on that after my new phone arrives.

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Comments

Mehdi

1

Well written Michael, I just want to add that if you have an older iPhone 3G or first or second gen iPod Touch that don't support the new iOS 5, you can sell it on eBay and still get good money. And if it's too much hassle, you can send them to Apple for a giftcard, but you'll get more money if you sell it yourself.
I do recommend you sell sooner rather than later, the prices will come down eventually and you are going to want the new models with iOS 5 once you've seen what they can do....

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