iOS 5: Excellent, Awesome and Somewhat Confusing
Apple claims there are something like 200 new feature in iOS 5, so it'll probably be a long time before most users happen to find all or even most of them. The biggest standouts, though, include improvements to the Camera app, a new Notifications Center, and of course, iCloud. That last one is one of the biggest things to hit iOS for a while, and for now it's still a little tricky to figure out.
After learning that it would cost me US$449 to upgrade from my iPhone 4 to an iPhone 4S, I pushed the pause button on those plans and decided to see how iOS 5 on my iPhone 4 shakes out first. After all, it's not as if I don't appreciate my iPhone 4. It's a great phone, quite serviceable, and now, with iOS 5, it's better than it was just a few days ago.
Where do I start? Apple boasts 200 new features in iOS 5, and for sure, I haven't found or noticed more than a fraction of them. Sure, some of them, like Siri, the new intelligent assistant app that listens to voice commands and then implements them, belong only to the iPhone 4S and the wicked-fast hardware packed inside. Other features have to do with iCloud integration, which in fact seems to be mostly what iOS 5 is all about -- providing users with easy access to files and communications services from the sky.
First, the New Camera App
Just because iPhone 4 owners can't get the sweet new 8 megapixel, 1080p-HD-video-shooting camera like the one in the iPhone 4S doesn't mean Apple doesn't know how to spread the love: Now, finally, I can use the up or "+" volume button to snap a photo or start a video. Better yet, when my iPhone 4 is asleep, I can double-tap the home button, which will bring up a lock screen that offers a camera icon button that will launch the camera app. The big deal? I can go from iPhone-in-my-pants-pocket to snapping-a-photo faster than ever before. (That's right, Bigfoot should be afraid, very afraid.)
Before iOS 5, after you snapped a photo, cropping it to make it ready to send to another phone or email it meant that you had to move it into a separate image-editing app. For most of my cropping needs, this little hoop-jump meant that I didn't bother cropping at all. In addition, Apple offered up a magic editing wand to help automatically clean up some photos, along with a red eye correction feature. Since I rarely blind my portrait victims with the iPhone's harsh LED flash, this is a rare need for me.
The one app I was really looking forward to was Reminders, a handy and clean little task manager app. It's pretty lightweight compared to some of the robust and feature-rich task managing applications on the market, but where it compensates is the notifications features: You can quickly and easily set the iPhone to remind you about something -- whatever you jotted down -- on a particular day at a particular time, or when you leave or arrive at a particular place, or both: on a day at a time and if you leave or arrive at an address.
I set a real reminder with a fake notification, and as I was driving out of my neighborhood early in the morning, I heard a weird notification noise come from my iPhone. Sure enough, I had left the area, so it was reminding me to do what I wanted to do. What makes this cool? Say, for example, you want to buy a special item from a store at the mall, but you're not going to make a special trip to your local mall just to get this item. You can create a reminder and set it to holler next time you drive by or arrive at the mall. Boom. No more forgetting esoteric little tasks -- as long as you use Reminders, of course.
No More Android Envy, We Get a Notification Center Too
Some of the features that I most appreciate on other smartphones are the notification centers and the ability to consolidate the latest action on your phone into your home screen. Now, with Apple's Notification Center feature, we get that sort of option, though it's all based on alerts.
As new email, text messages, voicemail, stock tickers, weather reports, or notifications from your favorite compatible apps come in, you can see them at a glance on your iPhone lock screen. Swipe them and you can jump right into the application -- for instance, right into a text message. If you're working in an app and get some notifications, a bar will appear at the top. Swipe from it down, and boom, you'll see all your notifications in a well-designed, swipeable layout. It's gorgeous, actually. Get some notifications and you can enjoy it too.
Figuring out all the apps and the notifications can be a bit daunting, though, but at least Apple lets you decide how you want to let the apps (and which apps) notify you via notifications.
Another big new feature (of the 200) is iMessage, which is Apple's new messaging service that lets you avoid your cellular service provider's text messaging service in favor of using WiFi or iPhone Internet data access. If someone has an iPhone, iPad or iPod with iOS 5, you can send instant messages through Apple's iMessage, which is built into the messages app.
This is a little confusing because it requires registering users with iMessage, and so far, I haven't been able to put it to work much because no one I know and want to message with has their iGadgets on iOS 5 yet! When they do, I can "text" them with photos, videos, locations, contacts and funny sentences from my WiFi-only iPad 2 -- or vice versa. I can see parents texting their young children on their iPod touches -- or letting kids who aren't yet old enough for cellphones to "text" each other through their Apple iGadgets.
Sure, it feels like cellular service companies are ripping us off by charging freakish prices for texts, but then again, I still think it's magic when I'm driving across the country with desolate tumbleweeds blowing around ... and I can still call my mom. So thank you cellular service providers. Meanwhile, I really like the ability to text any device no matter how it's "connected" and not have to have everyone shell out for traditional texting plans.
Safari and iCloud
Another handy feature of iOS 5 is a much-improved Safari. On my iPad 2, I can now use tabbed browsing (but not on the iPhone), and on both I can save URLs to my Reading List (like on Mac OS X) for easy access later. I can also use the Reader feature to zoom into just the relevant text of an article online for easier, clutter-free reading. This last bit is awesome when you're holding a small screen in your hand.
Last of all, the big new feature that I'm still learning is iCloud and the ability for me to avoid syncing through iTunes on my MacBook. There's a lot here, and iCloud warrants plenty of special looks by writers and users alike.
For starters, it's a synchronization service that keeps all your data synced up on each of your iOS devices -- documents, photos, your @me.com email. Apple's individual apps can use it, and third-party app developers will be able to also. It's also an online storage locker, and apparently I'll be able to access anything I've purchased through my iTunes account via iCloud. Nice. Haven't really tried it yet, but I'm sure I will.
I'll like this especially because it means I won't have to plan out my media before I leave for a big trip. There's also Photo Stream, which I'm not sure I'll like or not. I take plenty of photos on my iPhone that I don't really want to appear anywhere else. So I'll have to see how that shakes out.
In the meantime, iOS 5 appears stable, looks cooler in subtle ways like green bubbles in Messages or new rocker switches, and offers up a lot of promise for more fun and better productivity.