updated 08:00 am EDT, Tue June 7, 2011
iOS 5 for iPhone and iPad given pre-view
We have loaded up iOS 5 for the iPhone and for the iPad to get a quick hands-on feel for what Apple claims is the biggest revamp of the OS since its inception back in 2007. The BETA runs in at around 730MB and our initial impression is that iOS users should be eagerly looking forward to this free update when it arrives as planned this fall. It addresses many of the shortcomings that users have been frustrated with, the foremost being the current intrusive balloon notification system. When compared with the notification system in Android, Apple's iOS is clearly wanting. So how does the update stack up?
Setting up the iPhone 4 to run the latest version of iOS was a snap, and as advertised, this could potentially be achieved without connecting the iPhone to a computer. However, it really needs iCloud to be fully functional before this capability will shine. The setup process will be somewhat familiar to those who have set up a Mac OS X notebook or desktop.
Once we were up and running, the first feature that had to be tested was the new notifications service. While we were unable to test out all the various types of notifications one is likely to receive, we could get a sense of how the service works. And yes, it is very much like the way the notification tray works in Android. A quick single finger swipe from the top of the iPhone's display shows a record of recent notifications.
Screen lock notifications
Also, working as advertised is the new screen-lock notification service. A message received while the screen is locked will appear on the screen lock, ready to be swiped. Once swiped, it will take the user directly into the application that received the notification. Our first impression is that it all works very well, especially the nice new notification animation that presents itself at the top of the display when in an app. This works much better than the way the current notification system disrupts a user mid-application.
As advertised, Twitter is baked right in to the OS, for good or bad. There is no doubt that Twitter is a popular social networking service, but the obvious question is why not Facebook too? While the Twitter app is not pre-installed, it is ready to be quickly enabled, should a user choose to initiate it. While it is not a must-have feature, it certainly opens up a popular way of sharing tweets and other content. One might even call it an attempt at Apple making the OS more open, as it does not depend on a user relying on an Apple service to share photos, for example.
The iOS Camera app has also been given a bit more polish. While it is fairly simple, it is effective. The most significant change to the Camera app is the new ability to use the volume up button as a physical button to shoot photos. The improvement this makes to taking a steady shot is huge. Instead of having to fumble around with the current software method, a user can use the iPhone to shoot photos much the way they would with a traditional camera. Other additions to the app include the ability to pinch-to-zoom and the ability to tap and hold on a portion of the screen to improve exposure. A new grid option is also available, which allows users to line-up a photo with more precision.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given how brilliant iMovie for the iPhone and iPad is, the built-in Photo app has never had the ability to quickly edit photos on board. This shortcoming has now been rectified, and the Photo app now allows users to quickly remove the red-eye effect and resize and crop photos. The auto-enhance function from iPhoto is also embedded to give users a fast way of enhancing the contrast and balance of an image. These are simple, but again, welcome improvements.
The new Reminders app looks promising in our quick hands-on with it. It has a streamlined and attractive design that looks very intuitive to use. While we did not try its new "geofence" capability, which triggers a reminder based on a user's location, it is another great addition. We can think of a few spouses who will find this app indispensable, but people of any gender who are trying to stay organized will probably start using this app over other third-party "To do" apps.
iMessage brings the iOS-equivalent of the Blackberry BBM service to the iPhone. While many users will be thrilled at its inclusion, there will be many telcos who will be less than pleased. Its new proprietary messaging capabilities allows a user with a similarly equipped iOS 5 device to send instant messages through a user's data allowance, rather than be charged a ridiculous fee for sending a text message or MMS through a regular mobile wireless service. In our quick hands-on, we unfortunately ran into an activation hitch, so were unable to give it a run.
Custom texting shortcuts
This new feature is somewhat hidden in the System settings, but it also looks like a useful addition. It allows users to add personal short cuts for phrases. This permits a user to type in their own shorthand while the OS takes over and converts the shortcut into a full phrase. Also seen in the image below is the new virtual switch, which replaces the previous tab-like slider, throughout the system.
Safari for iPad
iOS 5 for iPad adds a feature to the mobile version of Apple's Safari web browser that users of the iPad have been waiting for since it was launched last year - tabbed browsing. Currently, users of the iPhone and the iPad have to open a new window, to emulate a tabbed-like function, but it is relatively slow and somewhat clunky. The addition of tabbed browsing has given browsing on the iPad a huge boost in convenience. Pages cache in each tab, so a user does not have to wait for them to reload. It is very close, if not identical, to using tabbed browsing in the desktop version of Safari. iPhone iOS 5 users will not get this enhancement, in all likelihood because the screen real-estate is insufficient to properly support it. Nevertheless, it is a boon for iPad users.
The new Music app replaces the iPod app in both the iPhone version of iOS 5 and the iPad version. In the iPhone version, users are now given two apps, like iPod touch users. It does make the task of watching video a lot easier now, as users do not need to go digging into the iPod app to find the video playback function. The Music app for iPad in iOS 5 also gets an interface revamp, with a new control scheme and updated layout. It looks smart, and works well.
Multitasking Gestures for iPad
One of the killer features that has appeared to get little mention thus far is the new multitasking gestures for iPad. Swipe up with four fingers to reveal the multitasking bar. Or, pinch when within an app with four fingers to close it and return to the home screen. However, swipe with five fingers to the left or right when within an app, and the user is seamlessly transferred into another app concurrently running in the background. Currently, users have to click the physical home button twice to get to the multi-tasking bar before they can switch apps. This is no longer the case in iOS 5. Switching between apps is now a fluid five finger gesture that just works beautifully.
We can now see the day, perhaps in the not too distant future, where the home button on an iPad may become history. The new gestures work very well and are also fun to use. We don't see ourselves using the home button for much longer. Sadly, multi-touch gestures of this nature will not work on a small screen. However, if the iPhone moves to a larger display in the future, the feature could become part of the equation.
iOS 5 for iPhone and iPad bring a host of new features, literally dozens of which we have not had a chance to delve into yet. We will reserve that for our full in-depth and critical analysis when the OS officially ships in the fall. While most of the features work as advertised, and the BETA seems generally quite stable, there a still clearly bugs that need to be sorted before its general release.
There will be a legion of Android fans out there that are going to have little ammunition left to aim in the direction of iOS users. Our first impression of iOS 5 for iPhone and iPad is that Apple has succeeded in addressing the most apparent shortcomings of its ground breaking mobile operating system.