“It feels like I have a new phone,” my brother texted me after upgrading the operating system on his iPhone 4 to iOS 5.
That might be exaggerating the improvement Apple’s software update brings to its family of mobile devices, which also includes the iPod touch and iPad. Still, iOS 5, which was released several weeks ago, offers plenty of features to be excited about.
There’s free text messaging, for one. My brother sent that message to me in Taipei from his home in New York City, and neither of us paid a cent to our phone carriers thanks to iMessage, a new feature built into iPhone’s Message app.
Photo Courtesy of Apple
Basically, you get away with not paying SMS fees because iMessage sends your messages over the Internet, either via a Wi-Fi or 3G signal. (It only works if both parties have an Apple iOS 5 device, though.)
Another thing that got my brother excited about was iOS 5’s new notifications page, which adds a slick new visual element. Swipe down from the top of your iPhone’s screen, and you get a windowshade-like page that displays the current weather, a stock ticker and a list of your missed calls, unread messages and incoming e-mails.
Taiwanese users will have to wait for Siri, Apple’s voice recognition program that has been touted for its ability to handle commands given in natural speech. The feature is available only on Apple’s new iPhone 4S, which has yet to be released in Taiwan.
I’ve spent the past week testing iOS 5 on the iPhone 4 and a first generation iPad. Speed-wise, the iPhone 4 remains pretty snappy, but the iPad occasionally lags. Overall, though, I found the new software to be a worthy upgrade on both devices.
Here’s a closer look at just a few of iOS 5’s long list of new features.
Who can complain about free text messages? iMessage is a clever move on Apple’s part, as it lets people with an iPhone, iPod or iPad send each other text messages using the Internet (via Wi-Fi or 3G) rather than their phone carrier service, thus avoiding SMS fees.
iMessage is a feature built into the iPhone’s regular Messages app (which also comes with iPad), and here’s how it works: Type in your contact’s name in the “to” box, and Messages automatically figures out whether the contact has an iOS 5 device. If so, that person’s name shows up in blue, and you know your messages will be passed back and forth for free.
It’s easy to tell the difference between SMS and iMessages: Conversations on the former are written in green bubbles, the latter in blue. I like how you can send photos without worrying about the high MMS fees, and it’s a few steps quicker than sending a snapshot via e-mail.
iMessage is hardly groundbreaking — there are already plenty of free texting apps available like Kik and What’s App — but Apple got it right by integrating the feature seamlessly with the Messages app. And it’s hard not to appreciate how your iPhone tries to spare you phone charges by using iMessage as the default.
iOS 5 comes with an improved notifications system, a feature that was badly needed. In previous versions of the software, things like calendar reminders or incoming text messages would pop up in annoying bubbles that interrupted whatever you were doing and then disappear, never to be seen again. I found that I’d often miss important reminders or forget to read an incoming text message because I’d tapped the bubble just to make it disappear.
There was never a checklist of appointments and messages that I could go back to. Now iOS 5 users have such an option in what Apple calls the “Notification Center,” a page that scrolls down like a window blind when you drag your finger down from the top of the screen. Your incoming e-mails, text messages and calendar reminders are presented in one long list, and there are nifty mini-widgets displaying current weather and stock market information. The Notification Center page is also customizable — you can choose which apps display information. For example, I turned off the Facebook display as it simply filled the page with unnecessary messages, and stuck to basics like calendar, text messages and e-mail.
For those who liked the bubble alerts, you can still keep them by turning them on in settings. But Apple offers a new alerts format that is less intrusive, called “banners.” When an e-mail or text message comes in, it pops up at the top of the screen in a small strip. You can tap it to go directly to the message, or don’t do anything and it disappears. It’s very similar to Windows Phone 7’s notification pop-ups.
iOS 5’s new notifications system also borrows from Android. This is obvious with the Notification Center page and the lock screen, which also displays your incoming messages and alerts. Apple’s version is a little simpler and easier to customize.
iCloud Backups and Sync
iCloud is not an app, but rather an online storage service integral to iOS 5. If you turn the iCloud backup function on, your iOS 5 device automatically saves your data, which includes everything from e-mail to contacts to photos, onto Apple’s servers. Apple gives each user 5GB of free space, which doesn’t work in practice for me since I have a lot more than 5GB of photos stored on my iPhone. Apple’s solution, naturally, would be for me to purchase more space. (An additional 10GB is US$20 a year, US$40 a year for 20GB and US$100 a year for 50GB). But you don’t have to back everything up — you can choose which apps to save (go into Settings/iCloud/Storage and Backup/Manage Storage, and click the name of your phone).
I opted to stick to the 5GB limit and back up the photos on my computer.
Another main function of iCloud is to automatically keep multiple devices in sync, so that essential data such as e-mail, contacts or calendar appointments are the same on all of your iOS devices and your computer (Mac or PC). I found this to be pretty handy for things like viewing photos and the new reminders app (see below for details) when switching between my iPad, iPhone and computer.
A couple of caveats here: If you use the Notes app a lot, you have to fiddle with settings to make sure things are saved in iCloud. (When you have the app open, tap on Accounts and select iCloud.) Another app that I use often is the iPhone’s Voice Memos, but unfortunately iCloud doesn’t back up or sync these files.
iCloud also offers another convenience for iOS 5 users. Since all of your data is stored in “the cloud,” you never have to plug your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch into your computer again to sync or update your data.
Even if you don’t back up your data on iCloud,
using iOS 5 means you never have to plug your iPhone, iPod or iPad into your computer to sync with iTunes.
If you plug your iPhone into a power outlet, it will automatically sync and back up all of your data to your computer via a Wi-Fi connection. Or you can do it manually by going to Settings/General/iTunes Wi-Fi Sync.
This is one of my favorite new features of iOS 5. Photo Stream saves your photos on iCloud and syncs them across all of your devices. For example, all of the photos I take on my iPhone show up automatically on my iPad and my PC. (You have to download and install the “iCloud” app from Apple’s Web site first.)
Photo Stream is actually an iCloud service, but your photos don’t count against your free 5GB of storage. It keeps your last 1,000 photos, and if you have more than that, it only saves photos taken in the past 30 days.
Note that this is different than backing up your master set of photos, which are filed under “Camera Roll” in the Photos app. Think of Photo Stream as a separate album that automatically pops up in your other devices.
There is one problem that some will find annoying: Once you turn on Photo Stream, every snapshot you take automatically gets sent to iCloud, and thus all of your devices that have Photo Stream turned on. You can’t delete photos that are on your Photo Stream, which means you have to live with any unflattering or risque shots. The only way to delete a photo from Photo Stream is to reset your entire account, which means erasing all of your photos. If you’re sensitive about sharing photos, you might want to leave this feature turned off.
There’s more than meets the eye with this app, which comes with iOS 5. It looks like a simple checklist: Type in a task to do, and an empty checkbox pops up, waiting for you to check it once your mission is accomplished.
For each reminder, you can set an alarm to go off on a certain date or time, or you can create a reminder based on location if you have an iPhone. Say you want to remember to buy milk when you leave the house. Create a reminder, tap “Remind me,” turn on “At a location,” set it “When I leave,” and an alarm goes off when you’re out the door. You can also create a reminder that goes off once you reach a destination.
Beware that the location-based feature will drain your battery a little faster because it uses the GPS unit built into your iPhone.
iOS 5 on the first-generation iPad
Since I have the first-generation iPad, I am missing out on one of the most touted features of iOS 5: multitasking gestures that allow you to switch apps with a four-finger swipe or return to the home page by pinching your fingers together.
Despite this disappointment, iOS 5 is still worth the upgrade. iPad now has the Messages app, which allows you to text other iOS 5 users. And there’s a new split keyboard option that makes it easier to type with your thumbs. To enable the split keyboard, press and hold the “keyboard” button on the bottom right, and choose “split.” And Web browsing on the iPad is now more like a desktop computer, as Safari has tabs for separate pages.
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