Apple iOS 5

The roll-out of Apple's new mobile operating system, iOS 5, is now underway and bar a few early troubles dealing with the demand, iPhone, iPad and iPod touch users are now exploring the new features the update brings to their devices. 

We've been living with the developer build before upgrading to the final version on our devices and we've been looking closely to see exactly what you get. Will this put Apple at the head of the mobile pack? Is it simply playing catch-up with increasingly sophisticated opposition? Will this change everything, or is it merely an incremental update?

Setup

Previously on iOS you had to connect your iPhone or iPad to your iTunes account on a computer via a cable and then follow a series of on-screen instructions. That has now moved over to the device, so you can, in theory, run your iPhone completely without a computer. 

 

The setup process starts by getting you to set-up fundamentals, like Wi-Fi, and signing in to your Apple account. It also lets you enable various new services you get for free, like iCloud and Find My iPhone which we'll talk about later. It's great to finally have this on the iPhone: Android, Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry users have been doing this sort of thing for quite a while.

We've been through the setup a couple of times and you get the option to set your device up as a new iPhone, as well as restore it. Here you now get a "Restore from iCloud" option, which then lets you choose the particular backup, so if something happens (assuming you have an iCloud backup), you'll be able to setup a new phone just like your previous device with just a few clicks and no need for wires.

Our initial setup took less than 3 minutes; a restore took about 20 mins because of the apps it was loading in, but it's a better out of the box experience than ever before. 

Notifications and alerts

The biggest visual change is notifications. Apple has finally embraced a system that won’t see you shaking your fist at your phone every time someone retweets you and that can only be a good thing. Previous notification were not dynamic, they offered information but little else.

 

There are a number of different notification systems, a drag-down tray, the on-screen notifications and lock screen notifications, all of which offer a degree of customisation, so you can choose to have banners or bigger alerts (similar to previous iOS versions).

Notifications are controlled through the Notifications settings menu and within that, you'll get a list of apps in your "Notification Centre". You can then dive in and change the notification style for each of the specific apps. You might choose to have emails as a banner, because you get so many of them, and the calendar as alerts so you don't miss them.

Very Android in its approach, you are now able to swipe down from the top of the screen to reveal all your notifications in one place including certain dedicated widgets like weather and stocks, both controlled through the same notification menu. Tapping a notification takes you to that app, appointment or message. Tapping on either of the widgets takes you through to the full app.

 

Each main app group - email, messages, phone calls, or app notifications are listed alongside a small version of their icon and you’re able to clear the clusters individually, leaving others if you still want a reminder. For example, you can kill the emails, but keep the personal messages you need to reply to.

Lockscreen notifications are more useful than previously as you can action individual alerts, swiping the alert to read that message. Again you can control which alerts make it through to the lockscreen. This could be dangerous if you regularly get racy text messages, or just anything you want hidden from prying eyes, as all will be able to see them even if you’ve got a passcode enabled.

The bottom line is that it’s a far, far, far better system than is found in iOS 4.3 and one that makes upgrading to iOS 5 worth the effort. Yes it’s like Android, yes it’s like Windows Phone 7, yes your friends with those operating systems will welcome you to 2011. But, hey, you’ve got a decent notification system now, and dare we say it, the level of customisation here surpasses the options you get on other platforms.

iMessage

Taking on BBM, iMessage is Apple’s new instant messenging service built in to iOS 5. Found in Messages, the idea is that as long as you’ve got someone’s Apple ID email address, you can start pinging them instant messages like text messages without having to send a network SMS. This effectively means you can communicate with anyone with an iOS device in their hand, so long as you know the address to get them on. Fortunately, the system is clever enough to work out what contact address is iMessage capable and what isn't - if you don't have their Apple ID, you'll be sending a regular message instead. Pick the right address and the message pane changes to iMessage. 

 

In effect, it's something that most of us have been doing for a while in various forms, be it through Skype or some other IM client. iMessage goes hand-in-hand with FaceTime's video calling. Effectively, Apple has brought a native service to iOS that was being met by third-party apps like Skype previously.

One concern we have is spam and it will be interesting to see how Apple protect you from junk messages clogging up your inbox from mass iMessage spamming of email addresses. Also, whilst iMessage is nice, it's another service that's limited to iOS. If everyone you know uses an iPhone, then great, but if not, you'll probably stick to other methods that give you cross-platform chatter.

Currently there is no desktop integration of iMessage, although we're sure that will come soon enough. Also, although the system will detect which contact address is capable of iMessage, it would be nice it this was clear - perhaps like the "online" notification that Android Skype users get integrated into their Contacts.

Camera, composing, editing your photos

We’ve all been there, wanting to take a picture with your iPhone only to miss the moment by the time you’ve swiped to unlock it, entered in your passcode, then found the camera app and waited for it to fire up. Now a double tap of the home key on the lock screen presents a camera button for you to use straight away.

If that wasn’t enough to get you giddy with photographic excitement, Apple has added even more to the camera, like the ability to use the volume up button as a dedicated shutter button. It makes sense for a number of reasons. Firstly it's easier to hold the phone steady and press the button than touch the screen, so less shaky photos as a result. Also, it's far easier to snap a picture of yourself with the main camera using the button.

 

Shooting at arm's length, we found the best technique was to line up our eye in the shiny Apple logo on the back of the phone. This framed us nicely within the shot. Simple. If composition is your thing, you'll also be able to overlay a grid so you can use the rule of thirds for framing.

Once you do finally take your picture, you’ll now get new editing features too. Press the edit button on a photo and you get the chance to rotate it, magically enhance it using Apple’s algorithm, apply red-eye fix and, finally, and most helpfully, the ability to crop the image either manually, or in various formats (square, 4 x 6, 5 x 7, etc.). The original image is kept intact for you to still edit, however, you don’t get a separate image clogging up your photo album.

You'll also get Photo Stream, part of iCloud. Photo Stream will appear on your iOS devices, recent versions of iPhoto and Aperture as well as on Apple TV, so you can get those pictures you snap easily, be that for editing or sharing.

Twitter baked in

You like Twitter, we like Twitter, it seems Apple likes Twitter a lot with the social networking service being baked into the OS at a core level. 

 

In practice it means that everything has a Tweet option allowing you to share it regardless of whether you’ve previously had a Twitter app installed or not. All you have to do is put your Twitter details in via the settings pane and you’re done.

There is even a dedicated new keyboard that includes easy access to the hash and @ keys for you to share your love of whatever you are trying to tweet. Sadly, there is no auto complete on hashtags, but there is on people you follow as soon as you start typing after the @ symbol. You are also able to add your location, should you dare.

Twitter has infiltrated everywhere. Contact details, photo sharing, web page sharing, you name it, it’s there. Welcomed as it is, it doesn't go as far as offering you sharing beyond Twitter. You've got all these apps installed, but if you want Facebook, you still have to go to Facebook, if you want Flickr you have to go to Flickr, whereas Android will accumulate your sharing options into the Share list so you can take your pick.

As a result, Twitter inclusion is nice, but it's is only really a tiny step in making iOS more sociable: you'll still need to move around a lot of different apps if you want to spread things far and wide.

Safari browsing, tabbed pages, Reader and Reading list

Safari has had a series of updates too. The main one for iPad users is tabbed browsing allowing you to zip through webpages quickly. It works really well and as with most things, should have been there from the start. iPad users also get gesture swiping which reflects some of the navigation changes that recently came to OS X Lion.

For the iPhone and the iPad you now get private browsing in the browser that you can switch on and off via the settings. Marked by a black surround rather than a blue one, it means your history isn’t captured and stored. It also means that you can ditch the need for a third party browser like Atomic browser for surfing to places you probably shouldn’t be.

Private browsing or not, a new feature that has come from desktop Safari is Reader. This bit of technology allows you to strip out all the ads and garbage from the page so you can read the text easily on the screen. Thankfully for web publishers, it looks like you still have to load the page to start with so they can still earn money from advertising, but once you’ve loaded the page into Reader you can then change the font size making it bigger and easier to read.

 

If you haven't got time to read it there and then, you can opt to add it to your reading list for later. Cleverly this also syncs with Safari on your PC, so you can add a page to a reading list to then pick-up on your device later, which is really handy. Your bookmarks from your desktop browser will also sync across devices.

iCloud and syncing

iCloud is a new feature that we've already looked at in some detail. It ties together your iOS devices and your PC, using your Apple ID. Effectively, it is an umbrella for a range of services, so we've already seen here, and some that are new. iCloud can also be accessed online for various functions on iCloud.com.

iCloud is controlled via the settings in iOS where you can turn on and off iCloud integration with various areas. Basically it can be applied to mail, contacts, calendars, reminders, bookmarks, notes, photo stream, documents & data and finally find my phone (or other device).

 

There are also iCloud backup options. Previously you'd backup your iDevice when connected to your PC via iTunes. You still get that option, but now you can backup and restore from iCloud, so you don't need the PC at all. This backup contains your device options, settings, app data and other bits, and we've found from using the restore function that it effectively took the phone and put it back the way it was, which is very smart and easy to do.

iCloud.com will let you access various things. It offers you mail, calendar, contacts, iWork and find my iPhone. Mail works with a @me.com addresses and isn't a global webmail service, but if you use, or want to use, me.com, then you can set that up across Apple devices. Calendar and contacts is straight syncing from your iPhone/iPad with iCloud, and then on to iCal and address book in OS X (10.7.2 required).

It's nice to know that your contacts are safe in the cloud somewhere and that changes you make on the device will be reflected in Address Book and iCal without the need to sync with wires, but we couldn't make it work with our existing Google accounts. As such, we still have iCal syncing with Google Calendars, but that doesn't then travel through to iCloud, so it isn't going to be a perfect solution for everyone.

iWork is pretty clever in iCloud, as it will sync with iOS versions of Pages, Numbers and Keynote, so you can access documents across your iOS devices. Taking this further, iCloud.com will let you upload and download these documents so you can work on them on your PC. It doesn't appear to offer integration with iWork OS X applications yet, but we're sure that's not too far off.

Overall, the syncing side of things is great for those with a simple system, but if you're already hooked into Google, you might find it unnecessary, or limiting. We like the way that documents are handled, although there is very little to let you organise those docs - it isn't like Dropbox where you can establish lots of folders, so will probably only really appeal to those who want access to mobile docs on an ad hoc basis.

For more on iCloud, read our feature: Living in iCloud.

iTunes in the Cloud, Wi-Fi syncing

Forming a big part of the iCloud picture is iTunes in the Cloud. This is part of the puzzle that sees you being able to banish your cables and move into that "post-PC" era. Effectively iTunes in the Cloud means that your iOS devices will sync with content that you buy without you having to do anything. Buy a song on your iPhone and it will appear in iTunes on your PC and on your iPad. It doesn't copy your music into iCloud, it just releases it from Apple to your device.

  

What it doesn't do, however, is let you play your music from the cloud like Android Music does - there is no iCloud.com player for you to access on any computer. It isn't really new either - if you paid for an app you always could download it on another device without paying again, but the system is much slicker now.

An additional service, iTunes Match, will be rolled out in the US at a cost of $24.99 a year. This will deal with music that you didn't buy from iTunes, for example a CD you ripped, or something from AmazonMP3. If iTunes can identify the track it will then let you have that across devices from Apple's collection again. If it can't recognise it, it will import your own file and make it available elsewhere. User in the UK won't have the service, although it is estimated to arrive in 2012. 

Choosing an app via iTunes on the desktop and it also appearing on your iPhone at the same time is great. It's something that Android users have had for a while through the Android Market website, although that also lets you choose which device to send the app to so you can do it from any computer with an Internet browser. In some ways, delivering apps to iTunes on your computer now feels unnecessary. 

We've put these together with Wi-Fi syncing because for many the two will go hand-in-hand. Whilst you can now setup your iOS device without the need for a physical connection to your PC, that isn't the end of the story. If you want to sync via cable you still can and you'll need to connect to iTunes on your PC to let it know that you want to sync via Wi-Fi.

In the past you'd have to leave the device connected, now you can check the "Sync with this iPhone over Wi-Fi" box and that's all you need to do. Thereafter iTunes will know about your device and you can sync it when both are connected to the same Wi-Fi network all things being well.

Within iTunes you still get the normal run of options, so you can control what is synced and we like the fact you can toggle syncing from either end by pressing the sync button on your device or in iTunes. Automatic syncing is also available, triggered when the device is charging, and connected to the same network as your PC.

It all sounds great, but we've found it can be a bit hit and miss. Sometimes syncing happens and you barely even notice. Sometimes you'll find iTunes and iPhone refuse to talk to each other over Wi-Fi, sometimes you'll find that one says it is syncing and the other doesn't. Often we'll get the message that syncing will take place when our MacBook is ready, but with no determinable reason for it not being available.

Newsstand, reminders

Newsstand is what iBooks is for magazines and newspapers allowing you to manage your subscriptions. This will be one that appeals more to iPad owners than iPhone owners we're sure, but it is another avenue to content for you to consume. 

 

Reminders is essentially a to do list. The nice thing about them is that you can not only set yourself a task, but you can set a time frame and a location. So if you need to remember to do something whilst out, for example on your way home from a meeting, you can set it to remind you when you leave that address. Unfortunately the locations seem rather limited. You can select a current location or an address in your Contacts but that's it. That's fine is you have your local dry cleaner in there so you can remember to pick up your laundered suit, but otherwise it doesn't quite hit the mark.

And finally...

We've looked at number of new features at add to the iOS experience. Of course some things haven't really changed. The system still looks and behaves in much the same way as it has done from the birth of the iPhone. The grid of icons remains unchanged and the world of widgets and home screens isn't here. Sure, you can change the lockscreen picture or the wallpaper, you can make folders of apps and change the icons, but there isn't the range of options that Android offers you, or the live tile excitement of Windows Phone 7.

The App Store continues to offer the best selection of app around and even though the Android Market offers a substantial choice, it's clear that developers push a lot of app innovation towards iOS first. You can find some of the best apps sitting ready for iOS and the stability is a step ahead of Android. Much as we love Google's mobile OS, it does throw up more faults for us in daily use than iOS does.

There is also a consistency in iOS that isn't matched in other mobile platforms. Although things like BlackBerry OS and Android offer you more controls and more settings, they can be a little disparate. By comparison, having all your "location services" settings for apps in one place and having app options all bundled together can make control of everything easy to find. It might make apps feel a little inflexible at times but you can't complain about being consistent.

Verdict

There are still areas that could be improved, of course. Incoming calls could be better dealt with, sharing could be more encompassing, and we've picked out some niggles above, but in reality, iOS 5 has dealt with some of our biggest bugbears. For us, notifications is the change we appreciate the most as they are now much more dynamic, much more useful and acknowledge the level of notifications that modern smartphone users now get.

iCloud is welcomed, working in tandem with iTunes to create an organised wireless umbrella to draw your devices together. Cutting the wire with the PC makes iOS feel more sophisticated, even if heavy Google users may still find that Android's wireless approach is easier to set-up and sync. In reality iCloud and iTunes in the Cloud aren't entirely new, but the extra reach into the desktop makes for a better experience within the Apple world. We imagine that Apple will take this further, offering you a more enhanced browser-based experience on iCloud.com so you can access more of your content away from your iDevices.

This isn't just an incremental update, iOS 5 brings changes that alter how you use your device(s) on a daily basis. But at the same time it doesn't move away from the "iPhone way". As a result, iOS 5 will be apprecitated by those who have it and those coming into the iOS family, but probably won't make Android or Windows Mobile 7 users jealous.