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Hands-on with iOS 5

apple-ios-5Apple’s long-awaited new mobile operating system, iOS 5, is finally available for download for iPhone 4 and 3GS, iPad and iPod touch (third and fourth generations). And boy, is this one a doosey – with more than 200 new features, iOS 5 is the most significant mobile OS update from Apple since iPhone OS 3 in 2009. New notifications, iMessage, wireless syncing, faster camera, deep Twitter integration, the list goes on and on. Luckily most of what’s new about the new iPhone 4S can be had on the iPhone 4 or 3GS just by upgrading to iOS 5. So, without further ado, here is my hands-on walk-through and first impressions of the new iOS 5.

Note: This review of iOS 5 is based on use with an iPhone 4. Some performance details may differ depending on your device.

Getting started

Of course, the first thing you must do is install iOS 5 on your device. Installing iOS 5 should work the same as any previous iOS update. But there are somethings you should know. First, you must update to iTunes 10.5 (Click here to do so.) Next, make sure you back up your device before performing the update, as all your apps, music and personal data will be completely deleted from your iPhone during the update process. The rest is exactly the same as any other iOS update, just click “Check for updates” under the “Summary” tab in iTunes, and a prompt should allow you to download iOS 5 and update your device.

If you receive any error messages, and the update fails, click here for possible solutions to the problem.

Once iOS 5 is installed, you will be asked to go through the new Setup Assistant to customize a number of settings for your new OS. You’ll first be asked to pick a language, and choose whether to enable location services (which can be customize for each app later). Next, you’ll be asked to choose whether to connect via Wi-Fi or choose to connect to your computer to turn on. (Wireless syncing is one of the big new features of iOS 5.)

Getting-Started-1

Once your connection is setup, click next and your phone activation will begin. You can then choose to set up your iPhone as a new device, or to restore from backup. The latter option will reload all your contacts, apps, music and other personal files.

Other Setup Assistant options include enabling iCloud, which will backup your data to Apple servers, rather than your local computer. If you decide to enable iCloud, your device will be backed up regularly when it’s not in use. As with location services, you can decide later which data to backup to iCloud and which to leave out. You will also be asked if you want to turn on Find My Phone, as well as if you want to send diagnostics info to Apple. This explicitly includes sharing some location information, which is what got Apple in some trouble a few months back.

Notifications

One of the most significant new features of iOS 5 is how it handles and displays notifications. And I have to say, it really is a breath of fresh air compared to the earlier versions of Notifications, which were first introduced in 2009.

Notification-banner

The new notification system allows for your notifications to display in two different ways: the old pop-up message, similar to past iOS versions (but with an updated design); or the all-new drop-down “banner” style, which appears at the top of the screen. You can also decided whether or not to have alerts appear in the Lock Screen, as well as the new Notifications Center (we’ll have more on that later). And, of course, iOS 5 allows you to turn off notifications for each app altogether.

Notification settings

Under the Notifications settings, you can customize how each individual app displays alerts. All apps installed on your device that include an alert function will be listed here. Click on the app you want to set, and you’ll find a number of settings options, which differ depending on the app.

From here, you can turn on or off alerts appearing in the Notification Center, choose the alert style, and decide whether you want alerts from that particular app to appear on the Lock Screen. Another handy feature is the ability to turn off “badge icons,” the little red circles that appear on the app icon when you have an unread alert, as well as sound options.

Notification-settings

I found all of this extremely straightforward and easy to set up. I’d highly recommend using the new “banner” style notification display option, as it is far less intrusive than the old “alert” style option. That said, I was happy to still be able to choose the “alert” style for certain notifications that I didn’t want to miss, like calendar appointments and other key alerts. The drop-down “banner” alert is just a little too easy to ignore, for better or worse.

Notification Center

In addition to completely redesigning how alerts are displayed, Apple has created the Notification Center, which serves as a central hub for your messages and other alerts. The alerts of any app that has the Notification Center option turned on will display here, as will a number of app widgets, like Weather and Stocks.

The Notification Center is accessible at all times. To open it, simply tap the menu bar at the top of the screen, or swipe down from the top. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of an intense game of Angry Birds – if you want to access the Notification Center, it’s always right there. To close the Notification Center, simply swipe upwards from the bottom of the screen.

Notification-Center

Tap on an individual notification, and it will open in the corresponding app. So, if you get an email, tapping on the message in the Notification Center will take you to the message in the Mail app. Unread alerts can be dismissed and cleared away by tapping the “X” that appears next to each unread alert.

Depending on how many apps for which you receive alerts, and how many emails, phone calls, text messages, Twitter mentions, etc, you receive will likely influence which apps you choose to display in your Notification Center, and which you leave out. I like to make sure I’ve at least seen all the alerts that come through to my device, so I’ve enabled all but a handful to display in the Notification Center.

As expected, the Notification Center works as advertised, and I haven’t yet run into many hangups. If you’re a converted Android user, you’ll feel right at home with both the new alert display styles and the Notification Center, as similar features have been available on Android handsets for some time.

Lock Screen

As I mentioned before, you can decide whether or not to have alerts from each app display on your Lock Screen. If you do, an alert will pop up in a bubble that looks somewhat similar to the old “alert” style notifications. Unlike older iOS versions, however, more than one notification can appear on the Lock Screen at once. And if you want to read the full notification, simply tap the alert, and it will open in the corresponding app. Once again, this is a vast improvement over the earlier notification system, and has worked seamlessly on my device.

Notification-Lock-Screen

iCloud

At its most basic, iCloud allows you to use your iPhone without ever having to connect it to a computer. If you’ve decided to enable iCloud, everything from your contacts and calendar to your music, photos and documents can be backed up to Apple’s servers, making them accessible anytime you have a connection.

iTunes

A major element of iCloud is iTunes and the App Store. Any music or TV show you download from iTunes, either through your iOS device or your computer, can be saved to iCloud. Those songs and shows can then be re-downloaded to any of your other (enabled) computers or iOS devices. Any song or TV show you’ve purchased in the past will already be available on iCloud through iTunes.

To access purchased items from your iOS device, open the iTunes app, and click the “Purchased” option at the bottom of the screen. You can then choose either “Music” or “TV Shows.” If, for example, you click “Music,” you can view all the songs you’ve ever purchased through iTunes (as you can see, I haven’t purchased many – thanks Pandora!). And you can also see any purchased items that are not currently on your device.

itunes-icloud

Re-downloading music to my iPhone worked impressively well. To do so, simply click on the small iCloud icon that appears on the right side of each song. A small animation shows the song going into the “more” option at the bottom of the screen. If you click “more,” you can see a number of options, including “downloads.” Click that, and the download status of each song becomes visible. Downloading over Wi-Fi was as fast as you’d expect – about 20 songs in less than 5 minutes; the functionality and experience of downloading from iCloud was easier than I’d expect, and I was already optimistic going into it.

Apple also makes it possible to automatically download music and app purchased made on other iOS devices that are connected to your Apple ID, or your Apple ID-connected computer. Smartly, Apple has enabled this option to be on, while not allowing the automatic downloads to happen over your cellular network, so you don’t have to worry about overages on your data plan. This setting is accessible in under Settings > Store. From here, you can turn on a similar automatic download option for individual apps that have this feature

App Store

The App Store works much the same way as iTunes does for music and TV shows. Under the “updates” section of the App Store app, you can view all your purchased apps, and re-download them, if necessary, free of charge. I found that small bit of its functionality to be extremely useful, as it allowed me to recover all of my apps easily, even though they’d been deleted during my update to iOS 5. I do, however, wish it were possible to download all apps not currently on my device in one fell swoop. But for now, the current functionality provides the next best thing.

iCloud & your data

As I mentioned before, iCloud isn’t just for iTunes and App Store purchases; you can also choose to store all types of personal data – message, emails, contacts, Reminders, Safari bookmarks, Notes, and more – on iCloud. By turning on the new Photo Stream option, you can also automatically back up as many as 1,000 photos taken with your iPhone or iPad – a truly great feature for those of us who quickly fill up the internal storage with snapshots, and want to have access to older pictures at all times.

iCloud-settings

Under the iCloud option in Settings, you can turn on or off iCloud backup for all those items listed above. From this screen, you can also turn on or off Find My Phone, as well as backup everything on your device to iCloud. Apple automatically gives all iOS 5 users up to 5GB of free storage, which is only used for personal files, not for music, apps or TV shows purchased through iTunes. If you upload music to iCloud that was not purchased through iTunes, you’ll use up your space pretty quickly. You can also upgrade to a paid iCloud plan directly from your iOS device. Plans are: 10GB for $20/year, 20GB for $40/year or 50GB for $100/year.