iOS 5 is Apple's latest version of their mobile operating system for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. It has 200 new features according to Apple, but we wanted to highlight the most noticeable and important new features. We also observed some performance enhancements with our iPhone 4 test.
Apple will release iOS 5 for download tomorrow (Wednesday, October 12) and it is a free update for anyone with the iPhone 3GS and higher as well as both iPads and the latest iPod Touch model. We installed the iOS 5 Gold Master release on an AT&T iPhone 4 for this review. The Gold Master release is the same as the general release product, but just available a little earlier.
Home Screen, Lock Screen & General Interface Changes
The easiest way to do this is to start from the home screen and work our way deeper into the OS. So first off, the lock screen has gained a new way to show notifications (new text message, missed calls, etc.). Previously if you had a missed, new text message, a notification would appear in a box in the middle of the screen with an excerpt from the text. Now you'll see the same excerpt from the text message displayed in-line under the date and time area. If you want to open it and reply to it, just slide the small Messages icon across the message itself and it will take you right to the text. This same premise works for any notification that appears here: just slide the icon across the notification to open it.
Also, double-pressing the Home button when the phone is idle will show a new lock screen with a shortened "Slide to Unlock" bar at the bottom and a camera button to the right of it. This lets you directly open to the camera application quickly if needed.
One minor visual change that Apple made to the general interface are the toggles, which are now circles instead of squares.
Apple has also renamed the iPod button on the bottom dock to "Music" and changed the icon to a music note against an orange background. They have also added a Newsstand application to the homescreen, which is displayed as a homescreen folder. Any periodicals and newspapers that you purchase in the App Store will be accessible through here.
Notifications & Notification Center
Along the line of the new notifications on the lock screen, there is also a new Notification Center that is accessed by a "pull down" gesture from the top edge of the screen. You can do this gesture from anywhere in iOS 5, even while in applications. The default setup is a weather panel and scrolling stock panel under it. You can fully customize this area to show notifications from whatever applications you want (if they support it) via the Settings area. The Notification Center will also display new text messages, new calls, voicemails, etc. Clicking on one of the panels will open the corresponding application. We really like the weather panel at the top because the location that is shown is based upon your current location which is determined via your Wi-Fi network or cellular/GPS location. We expect that many more of these widgets will become available once iOS 5 has been available for some time.
When you receive a text message, for example, while you're actively using your phone, you can choose to have the notification appear as a banner across the top rather than the previous pop-up with a button to close it or reply to it. Tapping on the top banner will open the message or doing nothing will let it close after a few seconds.
iMessage, Mail and More
The next major feature addition to iOS 5 is iMessage, which is a free text and multimedia messaging service across iOS devices. This new feature is integrated right into the Messaging application that we're all familiar with. iMessage lets users exchange instant messages between iOS 5 devices either via Wi-Fi or 3G connection. This feature will work seamlessly, meaning that if the user you're sending a message to has an iOS 5 device, it will automatically detect that and the top title bar will say "New iMessage" and the send key will turn blue (and green if communicating via the regular SMS/MMS system). iMessage works very similar to iChat or any other IM system where you can see when the other person is typing a message and messages are delivered instantly. You can also choose to send/receive Read Receipts, meaning you can view when others have read your messages and also vise-versa if you wish.
The Contacts applications is mostly the same, but each entry has some added data fields. They include things like their Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter and MySpace IDs. You can also add related people to each contact, like mother, father, parent, spouse, assistant, etc.
The built-in Mail application now lets you have a little more control over the styling of your text. For example, you can now select text and make it bold, italicized or underlined. You can also make text quote level and define a certain word by bringing up a mini-dictionary app.
Apple has improved the camera application in a few minor ways, but these tweaks have big benefit. The first change was already mentioned: the dedicated camera button on the lock screen by double pressing the Home button while the phone is idle. Secondly, Apple includes an option to overlay a grid to help line up your shots. Also, you can now use the Volume Up button on the side as a shutter release when using the front-facing camera on the iPhone 4 and 4S. This is perhaps one of the most desired features because it was always hard to take a picture using the front camera because you had to awkwardly try to press the on-screen shutter button with the screen turned away from you. Lastly, you can now swipe to the right to bring up the last image taken.
Twitter has been integrated into iOS 5 in a rather surprising way to be honest. Once you enter your Twitter login into the Twitter Settings tab, you can sync your Twitter contacts into your contacts list and add Twitter IDs to already existing contacts. You can also Tweet on-screen content right from iOS 5 via a Tweet button that shows up alongside the usual things like Email, MMS, Print, etc.
The all-new Reminders application has a straightforward design and purpose. You can add reminders and view them either in a list or by date. Reminders are location-aware, meaning that you choose a location from your phonebook or your current location and choose how to remind you, either on arrival or departure. These reminders also appear on the Notification Center that we discussed previously.
Safari Improvements & Reader
Apple has updated the Safari Web browser across the board for all iOS devices. Specifically the iPad received tabbed browsing, which has been a frequently requested feature. All devices received both Reader and private browsing with the latter being self-explanatory.
The Reader feature inside Safari is a way to remove all ads, menus and other non-article related visuals/controls while reading an article on a supported Website. When you're on an article page on a supported site (and most sites we tested are supported), a Reader buttons shows to the right of the site's URL. Tapping this button makes Reader appear, which gives you a clean-cut view of the article that you're currently on. It will load only the images and text that relates to the article and nothing else and it works really great. It reminds us of Apple's iBooks e-book reader application because of its clean look. You can also bookmark Reader pages into your Reading List for later quick access.
Storage & Device Management
Apple includes a new way to manage applications on your phone and download previously purchased applications right from one screen. The new service is part of Apple's new iCloud service and lets you easily download an app that you previously owned.
iOS 5 also makes it easier to manage your device's storage space by providing a Usage tab in the Settings -> General menu. The top of this screen shows your device's free and used memory space and then provides a list of the apps on your phone and how much memory space they're each consuming. From this screen you can delete the apps from your phone if you want and also you can view your available storage space on Apple's new iCloud service, where you get 5GB of storage for free. More on iCloud near the end of this review...
Users have always complained that updates to iOS devices took too long to do because of their large download size and the need to connect it to a computer. Now iOS 5 can download updates "over-the-air" either via 3G or Wi-Fi. The updates are utilize "Delta Encoding", which means only the files that need to be updated will be downloaded, so the overall download size of each update will be significantly smaller.
Another feature that's long been desired by many is the ability to sync your device over Wi-Fi instead of USB. Now when connected via Wi-Fi to the same network that your computer with your iTunes installation is on, it will sync wirelessly as long as it is also connected to a power source. Also, while syncing, you can continue to use your device where as before iOS 5, a sync would take away control of your device until it finished.
iCloud Storage Service
The last feature that we'd like to talk about is iCloud, Apple's cloud-based content management service. It aims to reduce the need to sync with your computer via iTunes because it will all be stored "in the cloud" and synchronized across all devices associated with your Apple ID if you choose.
Because of this, you can have it where when you download an app on one device, it will be pushed to all of your iOS 5 devices. The same goes for music that you purchase from the Apple iTunes Music Store, but music that you've added yourself will need to use iTunes Match to do this.
iCloud lets you backup your iOS 5 device too instead of letting iTunes do it and have it stored on one local computer. With this service, your device will sync all of your documents, pictures, contacts and settings to iCloud. The backup will be done automatically and once a day. If you ever have to restore your device or if you get a new one, you can do it wirelessly.
Our impression of iOS 5 is very positive, especially in the way of iCloud as well as many of the usability enhancements. On our AT&T iPhone 4 device, we seemed to notice a 25-50% performance boost in terms of overall speed of the device. Apple did promise some performance enhancements, mostly in Safari, and it seems that they were right. iOS 5 should definitely be installed on everyone's Apple devices and you should look to take advantage of iCloud and features like Wireless iTunes Sync.