Apple didn’t release the iPhone 5 this month as many expected, which means we’ll have to wait a while longer for a new hardware design. The company did, however, release iOS 5, which brings a new look and functionality to older iOS devices. Apple’s new mobile operating system is compatible with the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, the iPad and iPad 2, and the third- and fourth-generation iPod Touch. With iOS 5, your current iOS device will feel like a new iPhone 4S, though without the services of Siri, the new personal digital assistant, which only comes with the iPhone 4S. We installed iOS 5 on an iPhone 3GS and an iPad 2 so that we can give a rundown of its new features.
The headlining feature of iOS 5 is iCloud, Apple’s new online storage offering. Think of it as a cheaper and improved version of MobileMe. iOS 5 users get 5GB of free space, and you can purchase more ($20/year for an additional 10GB, $40/year for 20GB more, and $100/year for 50GB more). iCloud syncs your apps, music, photos, calendar, contacts and so on, across iOS devices, Macs, and PCs. I added a couple of items in the Reminders app on my iPhone, for example, and when I opened the app on my iPad, they were there. iCloud also allows for a new feature like Photo Stream to exist. Photo Stream pushes new photos from all of your other iOS devices via iCloud. It’s free and it just works. I love it and I haven’t even scratched the surface of iCloud.
After upgrading to iOS 5, your home screen will look the same, though you’ll notice a couple new apps have been added: Newsstand and Reminders. Newsstand is like the iBooks app, but for periodicals. Before, your magazine and newspaper apps resided separately on your iOS device. Sure, you could have created a magazine folder to group them all together, but Newsstand also holds the promise of automatically downloading new issues as they come out, which is much more convenient than having to manually download an issue before curling up with your iPad to read it. Newsstand also has a store, which is just a filtered view of the app store, but still useful for browsing new magazines and newspapers to subscribe to or to purchase single issues.
The Reminders app is a simple to-do list for items to which you may or may not want to assign a date. If you give an item a date, you can tell the app to send you a reminder at a specified time. You can mark items as complete, which shifts them off your reminders list to the completed list. You can also create location-based reminders (say, buy milk when you pass by the grocery store), but this feature wasn’t available on either my iPhone 3GS or my Wi-Fi-only iPad 2. Its simplicity is refreshing; if I have to think too hard to manage a digital to do list, I revert back to my tried-and-true system of scribbling notes and reminders on random scraps of paper, the backs of receipts, and the back of my hand. I think the Reminders app might be simple enough to have staying power. I feel more organized already.
iOS 5 includes a third app, though you won’t find a new icon for it. Baked right into the Messages app is iMessage. iMessage lets you chat with owners of other iOS 5 devices without incurring text charges. It’s basically an instant message app inside a text app. It works over both Wi-Fi and 3G connections and supports text, photo, and video messages. If the intended recipient of a message is using an iOS 5 device, the message will be sent via iMessage. Non-iOS 5 users will receive a standard text. iMessage is a huge deal for those who have, to date, refused to pay for a high text plan (or per text), and the app will give cause for cancelling your current text plan.
In addition to text charges, one of the more annoying aspects of previous iOS versions was the intrusive blue pop-up notifications that would disrupt a perfectly good round of Super Stickman Golf. iOS 5 introduces the Notification Center. Now, you can choose to keep those old pop-up alerts, or you can opt for a more subtle banner notification that briefly appears along the top of the display. And swiping down from the top of the screen pulls down the Notification Center, which includes upcoming calendar entries, reminders, recent unread emails, a stock ticker, local weather, and so on. It’s highly customizable in settings and also interactive; tapping on an item takes you to its app so you can, for instance, read an email or mark a reminder as complete.
You also have much greater control over your device’s alert sounds with iOS 5. Before, you could only change the ringtone and text tone. Now, you can also change the tones for new mail, new voicemail, tweets, calendar alerts, and reminder alerts. This will be a much appreciated customization for homes with multiple iPhones, where the tri-tone alert results in a game of “Is that you or me?”
iOS 5 also introduces Wi-Fi Sync, which means you no longer need a wired USB connection to sync your device. Now, when you are on the same Wi-Fi network as your PC or Mac running iTunes, your iOS device will sync when you connect it to a power outlet. You can also initiate a sync from iTunes when your iOS device is unplugged (but still on the same Wi-Fi network).
Camera, photos, mail
The camera app received an upgrade. It now offers basic editing tools such as auto-enhance, red-eye removal, rotating, and cropping. The auto-enhance feature worked reasonably well; after a brief trial, I’d put its performance on par with the same tool you get with iPhoto. The camera app also offers a faux zoom lens; just pinch to zoom in and out. And to help you line up a shot, you can turn on a grid view. Lastly, to speed up access to the camera app, you can now bypass the lock screen by double clicking the start button and then tapping the camera icon. The image will be stored on your phone, but for security reasons, the rest of your photo library isn’t accessible until you properly open your phone (that is, enter your passcode if you have one set up). The camera app is supposed to be a bit faster in iOS 5, but it seemed just as pokey as before on my iPhone 3GS.
The Mail app now lets you engage in a bit of formatting, if you aren’t a plain-text kind of guy (or gal). You can spice up the look of an email with bold, italic, and underlined text, and you can also indent text.
Twitter is now integrated into iOS, which means you no longer need to open the Twitter app to send a tweet. You can now tweet photos directly from the camera app, for example, or tweet an article you’re reading without leaving Safari. Someone ought to tweet this bit of good news.
If you stumble across a Web page particularly ill-suited for reading on your iOS device, you view it in the Safari Reader by tapping the small Reader button in the URL bar. Reader strips out ads and other clutter, presenting a clean and simple page with large, black text on a white background. In our experience, it often removed images that were not ads, but it’s still a convenient option for cleaning up a poorly designed Web page.
The iPad received a few updates of its own. Safari now supports tabbed browsing, making Web surfing much better on the iPad. And the keyboard can now be split, making it much easier to type with two thumbs. iOS 5 also introduces multi-touch gestures to the iPad, greatly improving navigation and making it feel as though, gasp!, you are multitasking. Swipe with four or five fingers sideways to jump from one open app to the next. Swipe up to reveal the multitasking tray of open apps. And in a very Dr. Evil zip-it kind of way, you can take five fingers and squeeze them together on the screen to close an app. Lastly, the iPad 2 supports AirPlay Mirroring. We didn’t test this feature, but the idea is that you can wireless stream your iPad 2’s display to an HDTV via an Apple TV.
iOS 5 represents a huge step forward and is a must download for capable devices. Not only do you get free storage with iCloud for simply installing the update, but it makes your life easier if you own multiple iOS devices. Wi-Fi Sync means that you’ll no longer go weeks without syncing your phone; now each night when you plug it in to charge, it’ll sync (as long as you have iTunes running). The Notification Center is much more refined than previous iOS notifications, and the Reminders app is so simple to use that you might actually use it to keep track of your to do lists (though I would like the location-based reminders to work on my old 3GS). Finally, if you have a lot of iPhone-toting friends, iOS 5 might just save you money. With iMessage, you can text them without paying text charges. I’d say it’s always a good update if you can stick it to AT&T or Verizon in the process of upgrading.