Skip to main content

iOS 5 review

Complete review of Apple's iOS 5 software update for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad

Complete review of Apple's iOS 5 software update for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad

iOS 5 is perhaps Apple's most audacious update since iOS 2, which introduced nothing less than the App Store and MobileMe. The features are almost an embarrassment of riches, including unobtrusive Notifications, the carrier-consternating iMessage, Twitter integration, a location aware Reminders app, and an entirely new UI paradigm in the artificially intelligent Siri voice control system for iPhone 4S.

And for the first time what's happening on the outside is just as compelling -- iCloud. Apple called it "cutting the cord", severing the post-PC from the PC, and the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad from their subservience to Mac and Windows.

But is it truly transformation or just another bold yet ultimately evolutionary step forward? Let's find out.

Updates

  • iOS 5.1 for iPhone and iPad update

Previously on iOS

iOS 5 adds new features to almost every existing app on the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, and introduces new apps as well. Still, iOS 5 is built on the foundation of what came before, so for previously introduced functionality, please see our previous walkthroughs.

iOS 5

iOS 5 includes new system-wide features like Siri for iPhone 4S, PC free, Notification Center, AirPlay Mirroring, and Twitter integration, new apps like Reminders and Newsstand, and tons of new features for existing apps like iMessage, photo editing, Reader and Reading List, and much, much more.

Apple's video above gives a good overview and I'm going to go over everything on an app-by-app, feature-by-feature basis below. But like I said at the beginning, this year iOS is only half the story...

iCloud

iCloud replaces MobileMe and iWork.com, and groups together functionality previously included in the iTunes, iBooks, and App Stores. It also does setup, backup, and restore, and a host of other things.

Unlike MobileMe, Apple has carefully avoided calling iCloud a sync service. Instead, they say it wirelessly stores your content on the server and then pushes it back down to all your devices. This probably better frames the relationship between cloud and devices. There's no single master copy of "truth" on the server, but coequal copies on every device, and on iCloud.com (which Apple notes is ad free. Zing). And just like with iOS, there's no end-user exposed file system. Your data no longer exists in folders like it did on iDisk. It exists in apps.

Storage capacity

Everyone gets 5GB of iCloud storage for free, and iTunes, iBooks, and App Store purchases aren't counted against that, nor are Photo Stream images. Mail, documents, accounts, settings, app data, Camera Roll, etc. do count, however. In case they count far more than your free 5GB allow, you can purchase more storage.

  • 10GB for $20/year
  • 20GB for $40/year
  • 50GB for $100/year

Documents in the Cloud

When apps like Apple's own iWork suite, Numbers, Pages, and Keynote save copies of your files, those documents are stored on iCloud and pushed out to all your iOS, Mac, and Windows PC devices. Apple has made the same functionality available to 3rd party developers as well, so it's likely many if not most apps that can create and edit files will soon tie into Documents in the Cloud.

(Hopefully games will as well. Starting Angry Birds on iPhone and having to start over to play on iPad or Mac needs to be a thing of the past.)

It's not a Dropbox killer, or a name-your-favorite-sync-service-with-APIs killer of any kind. I can keep my home directory in Dropbox and use it like I use a filesystem, with the advantages of versioning and sync. iCloud doesn't -- and doesn't want -- to do any of that.

However, some apps that previously used Dropbox merely to sync documents may add iCloud as well or instead because it's built in, and I'm fine with that. It frees Dropbox up to be my file system.

Find my Friends

Find my iPhone has been folded into iCloud, and joining it is Find my Friends, a Google Latitude-like social location sharing service that takes pains to point out its better privacy and security. Like Find my iPhone, Find my Friends isn't built into iOS, but is available for free in the App Store [Link (opens in new tab)].

When you install it you'll be asked to allow it to use Location. It's pretty much useless without it. From the All tab you can see All your Friends and a list of specific friends and their current distance from you. Tap a friend to see their Info. Since it's integrated with Contacts, if you already have their details you'll see it here. If not, you'll be able to add them. Tap through to see their location on an embedded Map. You can even curl up the page to get the basic Map-style options. Tap All Your Friends and see the world light up.

If you don't have any friends yet, you'll be given the opportunity to invite some. Tap the Edit button on the top left to remove friends.

<

p align="center">

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

Under the Temporary tab you get a separate set of more constrained friends. These friends can have location sharing enabled for an hour, a day, a week -- whatever you decide. For example, your spouse or children might have permanent location sharing. A group of friends trying to find each other at a cafe might only have a couple hours of sharing.

The Me tab lets you see your own profile. Tap on your current location to see it on a map. Toggle Hide from Followers to go off grid for a while. You can also see a list of your followers and tap through to their Info.

Tap Account to sign in or out, choose from which Apple ID to send notifications, toggle Friend Request on or off, and tap through to get help.

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

The Requests tab lists friends who have invited you. Accepting shares your location with them. Inviting them back shares their location with you.

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

PC Free

Perhaps the single most profound change in iOS 5 is Apple's cutting of the iTunes cord. Never again will a Mac or Windows PC be required to activate, setup, or update a new iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad (though you can still choose to do so if you wish.) From now on, you can activate, setup, and update directly on your device over the internet.

Other aspects of PC Free are more subtle but just as welcome, such as the ability to create photo albums and mail folders on-device. We'll cover those in the appropriate app sections; here's the big stuff.

Device Setup

When you turn on your new device, you'll now be presented with a screen that says iPhone, iPad touch, or iPad (depending on which device you're setting up). Just swipe to unlock and you're welcomed and invited to choose your preferred language. The most common language options will be immediately available but you can tap the down arrow to see others. Hit the Next button to pick. Apple will also provide you a default Country or Region based on where you bought your device, but you can tap Show More to expand the choices.

Interestingly, neither here nor in any later step are default choices pre-checked for you. You can't simply keep hitting Next to speed through. You have to look at the choices and tap one to check it before the Next button will even activate. Apple is forcing you to pay more attention than is often required on the web or in apps.

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

Next you're given a choice to globally enable or disable Location Services. Location Services use GPS, cell-tower triangulation, and Wi-Fi router mapping to determine the approximate location of your device. This feature is used for turn-by-turn navigation (like TomTom), check-in games (like FourSquare), social networks (like Facebook), geo-tagging (like in the Camera app), and utilities (like Siri and Find my iPhone), etc. Unless you have a particular need to globally disable it, you probably want to turn on the Location Services feature at this point. You can change your mind or selectively disable or enable these services later on in the Settings app (e.g., turn off your Camera app's geo-tagging, but leave on TomTom's turn-by-turn navigation).

You'll need to connect to a Wi-Fi network to continue iCloud setup (if none is available, you'll have to switch to iTunes setup instead.) Your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch will then connect to Apple's servers to activate (the cord was cut from iTunes, not from Apple).

You have the choice to

  • Setup as a new iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad
  • Restore from an iCloud Backup
  • Restore from an iTunes Backup

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

Set up as New

To set up your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch as a new device, sign in with your Apple ID (or tap through to create one). If you have multiple Apple IDs, for example a MobileMe ID, an iTunes ID, an ID associated with FaceTime or something else, you'll have to choose which one you want to use. If you change your mind, you can login with a different ID later (and you can also login to different apps, like iTunes and iMessage, with separate IDs later). Agree to Apple's Terms and Conditions and Apple will setup your ID and ask if you want to use iCloud or not. If you do -- and most people should because it's 1) free for the base level service, and 2) highly functional -- you'll be asked to enable iCloud Backup -- and again, most people should. (It will create daily backups when you're connected to Wi-Fi.)

Decide whether or not you want to enable Find my iPhone to help trace lost or stolen devices, and then choose if you want to share diagnostic information with Apple to help them improve the iOS experience.

And you're done.

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

Restore from iCloud Backup

You can also choose to restore based on a previous iCloud Backup. You'll be asked to sign in with your Apple ID. Make sure it's the same Apple/iCloud ID that you used to make your previous backups. Agree to the Terms and Conditions and you'll be given a list of recent backups to choose from, including those of all iOS devices backed up to iCloud.

(opens in new tab)

Pick your backup and iCloud will begin the restore. Then your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad will restart, all your settings nicely back where you left them, and iTunes will begin to re-download all the apps you had installed when the backup was made. If you live in countries where iTunes in the Cloud is available, iTunes will also re-download all the iTunes music, TV shows, and iBooks that were previously on your device. (You need to stay on Wi-Fi for large files to re-download.)

(opens in new tab)

For security reasons, iOS may also prompt you to set a Passcode Lock, and not wait for you to go find it in Settings on your own.

(opens in new tab)

Software Update

Gone are the days when, after Apple released a software update, you had to rush back to your iTunes-equipped Windows or Mac PC, download a 500MB+ firmware file, backup your data, install the new OS version, and restore you data back to your device. You can now do all that, better and faster, right on your iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.

When a Software Update is available, you'll get a notification popup. The Settings app will also get badged, just like Mail. To get your update, go to Settings, tap on General, tap on Software Updates, and if it isn't there waiting for you, tap on Check for Updates. When you see the update, tap Install.

The firmware will download and then your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad will restart and update.

Apple is now doing bit-differential, or delta file updates. That means only the bits that have changed need to be downloaded, not the entire firmware anymore. The update also happens in place, so you don't need to backup and restore your data. Much more efficient and hence much faster.

iOS 5 beta 4 is an OTA update... if you can connect

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

Wi-Fi sync

If you do still want to sync with your home iTunes library but don't want to have to tether to your Windows or Mac PC over USB, you now have the option to sync over Wi-Fi as well. Wi-Fi sync needs to be enabled in the Settings app, and you need to sync with iTunes over USB at least once to set it up, and you need to be plugged into power throughout, but if none of that dissuades you, Zune-like Wi-Fi sync is finally yours.

(opens in new tab)

Non-modal USB sync

If you do choose to keep syncing with iTunes over USB, or you sync occasionally over USB to move over large files, like movies, you can now continue to use your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad while syncing. (Previously unlocking your device would cancel the sync.)

Multitasking Gestures (iPad 2 only)

Back in iOS 4.3 Apple introduced Multitasking Gestures as a beta feature for developers to test. In iOS 5 they're back and they're for everyone. They include 4 or 5 finger multitouch navigation gestures that complement rather than replace the Home Button functions. They do, however, reduce the amount of times you need to single or double click Home, which could reduce concerns of hardware wear and tear post iOS 4 multitasking.

The new gestures can be done with 4 or 5 fingers and resemble multitouch trackpad gestures available on Mac OS X since the introduction of the original MacBook Air in 2008 and expanded upon in the recent Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. They currently include

  • Pinch all fingers in to exit an app and return to the Home Screen (identical to single-clicking the Home Button).
  • Swipe up from the bottom bezel to reveal the multitasking Fast App Switcher Dock (identical to double-clicking the Home Button).
  • Swipe sideways from left to right or right to left to move between recently open apps (similar to double-clicking the Home Button to reveal the Fast App Switcher and tapping on an app icon immediately to right).

The sideways swipe is interesting in that it allows you to go left or right whereas the Fast App Switcher reorders the recent app icons so you always go backwards in "time" to the right. It seems perceptively faster for a single app-back movement since there's no carousel animation, yet you can only swipe back one app at a time whereas you can tap on any of 4 immediately available app icons in the Fast App Switcher and jump back 4 additional apps at a time.

Either way, once you get used to them they make moving around apps on an iPad 2 a breeze.

Siri (iPhone 4S only)

Siri is a natural language interface for iOS that combines powerful voice recognition (rumored to be powered by industry leader Nuance) and synthesized speech with a context-aware, artificially intelligent query and response engine designed to become your "virtual assistant". It replaces the previous Voice Control feature introduced with iOS 3 on the iPhone 3GS and is initiated the same way -- a long press and hold of the Home Button.

Siri launches as a beta and supports English (U.S., UK, and Australian), French, German. Apple urges users to talk to Siri the way they would another person, and to ask similar types of questions. Here's some of what Siri can do:

  • Set up Reminders, Calendar appointments, and Clock alarms and timers.
  • Send Texts, iMessages, and Emails
  • Play Music
  • Search for location based information like restaurant and business listings, and search for directions to locations
  • Search Yelp (in the U.S.), Wolfram Alpha, and Google for information.
  • Ask about Weather and Stocks
  • Read your SMS/iMessage messages.
  • Take dictation in any app.
  • Silly questions. (Apple has actually programmed in funny responses to many of these.)

You can set relationships, so Siri knows who your spouse, parents, children, colleagues, etc. are, and even set a nickname for yourself so Siri knows what to call you.

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

More impressively, it can combine these functions together into interactions. Siri can read a message requesting a dinner date, search for a restaurant, get directions, send back a confirmation message, and add an appointment for the dinner, all as part of an interactive confirmation. Here are some examples of real-world things you can say to Siri.

  • "Siri, remind me to call my mom at work when leave home." Siri will start a Reminder, set the departure location as your home address, determine which of your contacts is defined as your mother, and popup an alert to with your mom's work phone number ready to dial when you leave.
  • "Siri, tell my boss I'll be there soon." Siri will get the contact that's defined as your boss, find the mobile phone number, and send her an SMS/iMessage with the content reading "I'll be there soon."
  • "Siri, read my messages." Siri will read any new SMS or iMessages that have come in.
  • "Siri, wake me up in 30 minutes." Siri will set a Clock timer that will go off In 30 minutes. (Hopefully when your nap is over.)
  • "Siri, where can I get Italian for lunch?" Siri will search for nearby restaurants and show them to you on a map. In the U.S. it can also order them by Yelp ranking.
  • "Siri, do I need a raincoat today?" Siri will check the weather, see If it's likely to rain, and let you know if you need to worry about Ig wet.
  • "Siri, who starred In the movie Serenity?" Siri will search Wolfram Alpha and give you a cast list from the movie.
  • "Siri, what's your favorite color?" Siri will give you one of several replies, likely that your language lacks the dimensions to properly describe the right shade of green.
  • "Siri, tell me a joke." Siri might just start the one about the two iPhones that walked into a bar…

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

Siri will listen to and parse these and other questions, launch applications like Mail or Messages, search internet services like Yelp and Wolfram Alpha, and check the Weather or Stocks. It will then synthesize and speak a response, and if you ask a follow up question, it will remember the context and understand the next query and issue the follow up response accordingly.

Equally interesting is what it portents for Apple. Just like the App Store began the intermediation and exclusion of Google by offering users a better experience interacting with data in apps than via a web search, Siri continues it by theoretically making it easier and more enjoyable to engage in query/response with Siri than with Google. In typical fashion, Apple isn't building a search engine to compete with Google, they're building something to obsolete the current conception of search engines. And they're not doing it by becoming a walled garden -- there's no profit in that. They're doing it by becoming a walled gate with a multi-directional toll system.

Customer Insight is a hot industry topic for a reason -- if done well it lets you increase revenue per user, turn users into products you can sell to advertisers, and even turn suppliers into customers of their own data, and complementary and competing companies' data.

At least in theory. It remains to be seen how reliable and resilient it will prove when millions of new iPhone 4S users start pounding on it. Whether it's the best new feature in iOS 5 and the future of user input, or just the best new feature no one will use for input remains to be seen.

Note: Apple says additional language and feature support will be coming to Siri in the future.

Dictation

In addition to Siri's query/response engine, it also includes speech-to-text functionality. This manifests as a microphone key to the left of the space bar that, when tapped, brings up an speech input interface. Talk, tap Done, and Apple will parse what you said on their servers and return text to built in apps like Mail or Messages, or any App Store app that supports keyboard entry, including Facebook, Keynote, etc.

Siri also understands symbols, punctuation and other special characters, like period and question mark, "open parenthesis" and "close square bracket", and "new line" and "new paragraph", provided you use their proper name.

(opens in new tab)

Notifications

iOS 5 brings non-interruptive, less intrusive notification alerts to iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Similar to how Android's notification tray works, or the basic functionality of the LockInfo Jailbreak app, it's perhaps not quite as elegant as webOS' system but it's a huge leap forward from iOS' previous implementation.

Notifications are presented in one of three different ways:

  • Lock Screen Info
  • Notification Center
  • Notification Banners

All of the implementations show an icon of the app issuing the alert to the left and a brief except of the alert content to the right, but work in slightly different ways.

Lock Screen Info

Lock Screen Info is the most complex of the three. When an alert comes in, your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch wakes briefly from sleep to show you the notification.

  • If it's a single notification, you get a single popup.
  • If it's multiple notifications, you get a stacked list view.
  • If it's a single notification but there have been previous unread notifications, you get a single popup but can view the complete list by swiping down from the time/date bar (a small gripper icon indicates when this is possible.)
  • If it's a notification along with a secondary action, for example Snooze for an alarm notification, a secondary button will also appear for that action.

Touching and dragging the icon unlocks the device and sends you to the app to view the information. Unlocking the device clears all past notifications from Lock Screen info.

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

Notification Center

When your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad is unlocked, Notification Center can be revealed by swiping downwards from the status bar. It can be dismissed by swiping back up from the small gripper icon at the button of the screen.

Notification Center proper brings widgets of a sort to iPhone and iPod touch, though currently only Apple's own Weather and Stocks app are enabled. Weather shows the current local or default temperature, hi and low, and precipitation, if any. Stocks shows a horizontally scrolling ticker of recent quotes and the delta changes since the previous close. Tapping on either one takes you to the full app.

Just like iPad has no Weather or Stocks apps, it has no widgets in Notification Center.

Beneath the widgets is the notification list. Each list is headed by the corresponding app icon and name to the left, and a far-too-tiny X icon to the right. Tapping the X icon clears all notifications for that app. Tapping anywhere on the alert will take you to the app to view the information. You can control which apps and how many notifications per app are displayed in Settings.

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

This is lightyears beyond where iOS notifications were before. Balancing the desire of power users for powerful notifications with the desire of casual users to avoid constant interruption is tricky. Notifications does a good job of it and it raises intriguing possibilities for the future. Developer access to the widget system, media controls in Notification Center as opposed to the Fast App Switcher, radio controls for fast Wi-Fi and Bluetooth enabling/disabling like SBSettings perhaps? Apple values simplicity, but they're not afraid of hiding layers of sophistication beneath it.

Notification Banners

Notification Banners appear appear briefly at the top of the screen whenever your device is unlocked, and are animated with a roll down, roll back up effect. Tapping a Notification Banner sends you to the app that issued the alert and shows you the information. While far less obtrusive than the old-style popup notifications, the Banners can still obscure information and cover buttons, and when they roll-down unexpectedly can cause you to accidentally tap them rather then the top bar or button you'd begun to tap. Hopefully, as Apple matures the notification system and developers update their apps to support iOS 5, this issue will diminish.

If they're really getting in your way, you can either touch, pull slightly, and flick them away, or swipe from right to left to dismiss them more quickly.

Note: Some apps will still default to old style popups to really get your attention, like Clock alarms and Calendar appointment alerts. You can manually assign your preference on an app-by-app basis in Settings.

(opens in new tab)

Again, far better than what came before, yet there's room for more to come. For example, the ability to tap and instantly reply to Messages without having to leave the current app -- like BiteSMS?

Notification Accessibility

iOS 5 also adds new accessibility features that allow the camera's LED flash to be used to signal notifications. Vibration patterns, including custom vibration patterns, can also be assigned and created to better identify incoming notifications, such as phone calls. These features are accessible in the Settings app.

Twitter

Twitter, the 140-character social network, has been integrated into iOS 5 at the system level. This means that everywhere you could previous Share content via Mail or Messages, you can also now choose to Share by way of a Tweet. Rather than handing you off to the official Twitter app, however, just like Mail and Messages are embedded views, so are the new tweet sheets. Just fill them out, choose if you want to add your location, and tweet away.

(opens in new tab)

AirPlay Mirroring (iPad 2 and iPhone 4S only)

AirPlay was introduced with iOS 4.2 and allowed any video using Apple's standard media control to beam image and sound over a local Wi-Fi network to an Apple TV for viewing on the big screen. It was... limited in its initial release but iOS 4.3 brought increased support for Apple's Photo app and added support for 3rd party apps, and in general made it a solid, enjoyable feature. (Especially with on-the-fly transcoders like Air Video)

With iOS 5, Apple brings AirPlay Mirroring to iPad 2 and iPhone 4S. AirPlay mirroring lets iOS share it's screen, any screen of any app, to the Apple TV over Wi-Fi.

iPhone 4S and iOS 5 brings AirPlay mirroring to the iPhone. Because Apple decided against adding a dual core Apple A5 chipset to the 2011 iPod touch, that's now the only device left out in the cold when it comes to mirroring.

While on the surface AirPlay mirroring might not seem like a major feature, it allows the personal, intimate experiences of everything from gaming to FaceTime to become social, group activities, and allows videos and presentations to be shared by the whole family or entire meeting.

A keynote presentation projected in the boardroom, or a group of friends playing a big screen boardgames are just some of the obvious uses. As companies like Firemint continue to push the envelope with concepts like multiple-device-to-Apple-TV Party Play -- where iPhone 4S and iPad become controllers for group gaming, an a serious threat to traditional consoles in the casual space.

To activate AirPlay Mirroring, start the app you want to mirror, double tap the Home Button to bring up the Fast App Switcher, swipe across the media controls, tap the Air Play button, and select Apple TV as the source.

iOS 5 features: AirPlay Mirroring for FaceTime

Dictionary

Previously embedded only in Apple's iBooks, with iOS 5 the entire system has access to a built in dictionary. Unfortunately, I'm lead to believe developers don't have access to it yet for App Store apps, but hopefully that will change in the future.

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

Keyboard (iPad only)

With iOS 5, iPad gains the ability to not only undock the keyboard and slide it up and down, but to split it apart into two half-keyboards for easier thumb-typing. Just touch and hold the Keyboard button at the bottom right of the keyboard to popup the dock/undock and split/merge menu, or just touch it at both sides and pull it apart or put it back together again. (Yes, it's very cathartic.)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

Home Screen

iphone_30_icon_home_screen

Compared to iOS 4's Fast App Switcher and Folders, iOS 5 changes either transcend just the Home Screen (Notification Center's Lock Screen info) or blur the boundaries between Home Screen and app (Newstand). Still, there are a few additions that can probably be safely categorized under Home Screen.

Multiple app installs

Instead of Apps being installed one by one, multiple apps can now be downloaded and installed simultaneously.

(opens in new tab)

Assistive Touch

iOS' already industry leading accessibility has been augmented with a gesture based control panel called AssistiveTouch that can reproduce all the functionality of the existing hardware buttons, and much more.

Once turned on in Settings, the control panel can be activated by tapping the overlay on screen. It pops up with a menu containing Gestures, Favorites, Devices, and Home. Gestures has a sub menu for 2, 3, 4, and 5 finger gestures, and once you choose a quantity, blue circles in the appropriate amount appear on screen. Favorites contains defaults like Pinch and Swipe, and any custom gestures you've created. Device replicates the hardware features such as Rotate Screen, Lock Screen, Mute/Unmute, Volume Up/Volume Up, and Shake.

While some may think this heralds Apple ditching hardware buttons, remember, you would still need a way to reset your device if it locks up, to turn off the ringer or change volume if it's in your pocket or purse, and to keep iOS accessible for children and people form whom the Home Button is easy and complex UI and gestures are a barrier to entry.

Still, this could turn out to be a very interesting addition to iOS 5, especially for advanced users who want to have a software-based interface. Most importantly, it shows that Apple -- who is already incredibly far ahead of the competition when it comes to accessibility -- is not slowing down.

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

(opens in new tab)

Messages