iOS 6 review: So-so Maps mar otherwise stellar upgrade

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The Good Apple's iOS 6 adds many features that we've long wanted. Existing apps are easier to use, the 3D maps are gorgeous, and Siri takes a huge leap forward.

The Bad Many of the new features are similar to what Android phones have had for a long time, and Apple Maps needs a lot of work. Some features won't work on older devices and some popular third-party apps like Google Maps are no longer integrated.

The Bottom Line The transition to Apple Maps is rough, but new features and a ton of tiny tweaks make iOS 6 a must-have update.


8.0 Overall
  • Setup 9
  • Features 7
  • Interface 9
  • Performance 8

Editors' note: This review was updated on November 7, 2012, to reflect bug fixes added in version 6.0.1.

Apple's iOS 6 is more of an incremental update than a game-changer, but with more than 200 features, there is plenty to like here. Outside of the new Maps app, Passbook, and new Siri functions, most of the changes are small, but the total package is more than the sum of its individual parts.

The update will make your iPhone experience better and more efficient, and make the device easier to use. Sure, some of the new features have long existed on other devices, and on some they're better, but that's not really the point. Rather, Apple again has managed to smooth out the rough edges and offer a solid experience across the board.

With the Google Maps app gone from the device, Apple now has its own map app, built in-house, and it's a big improvement on a few fronts, but falls short in several others. Vector-based graphics make text and details easy to read, and swiping to pan and two-finger touch rotation are both very smooth -- even at full zoom.

Apple iOS 6
Several cities are ready for you to explore. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

On newer iOS devices like the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, and newer iPads, you also get 3D views, directions with voice, and flyover features. The 3D and flyover views are truly beautiful to look at, with several cities now showing detailed views of buildings on all sides at an impressively high frame rate. The experience of virtually touring a city is breathtaking in that "Look what technology can do!" sense, but its actual usefulness in your everyday iOS device use is questionable. I like the feature, and it's really well-implemented, but once I've browsed all the available cities, how much am I really going to use it besides when I'm showing off to friends?

The 3D views have an alternate use, however. The directions with voice features let you set a destination, with Siri dictation on newer devices, then switch to 3D to get a nice-looking illustrated view (if your iPhone is mounted on your dashboard, for example) as you get turn-by-turn directions on your way to your destination. With the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, and the newer iPads, Siri will speak the directions for you, but the feature is still useful on earlier devices; it just means you'll need to glance to see what the next direction is on your trip. In our testing of the turn-by-turn directions side-by-side with Google Maps on an Android device, Apple's solution performed admirably, but it wasn't anywhere near perfect. Check out our local field test here.

While this feature is extremely useful and well-thought-out, Android phones have been able to provide turn-by-turn directions for a long time. But like many of the additions in iOS 6, this feature will be very welcome for people with iOS devices despite being nothing new to users of other smartphones. Maps also uses real-time traffic conditions to show where the slow spots are and will give you new routes based on live traffic data. Again, this is not a new feature for smartphones, but will still be very useful to iOS users.

There is one major feature that is missing from the new Maps app. When you ask for directions, you still have the option to choose your mode of transport, but you'll only be able to easily access driving and walking directions -- public transportation requires an outside app. The former Google-powered offering had buttons for both public transit and walking included, with time estimates for each. This is a major omission because obviously not everyone is going to be traveling by car. Hopefully this is something Apple will add to the app in a future update. The sooner, the better.

I have to note, too, that for all the good things about Apple's Maps, it has a flip side, in that it takes people away from the Google mapping services that they've long used. So not only is Google Maps no longer integrated, but also you're further walled into Apple's ecosystem.

Update: Only a day after iOS 6's release, reports came flooding in about Apple's Maps app having significant problems with missing cities along with distorted buildings and landmarks. Along with the turn-by-turn field test linked above, we also performed a local search field test.

Launched alongside the iPhone 4S, Siri was one of the most talked-about (no pun intended) features of Apple's previous handset. Siri was impressive, but limited in its debut, acting mostly as a way to answer trivia questions and inspire viral videos of people saying, "Look what I made Siri say!" It certainly had practical uses, such as finding nearby restaurants, accessing Wolfram Alpha, and giving you meeting reminders, but users seemed to focus more on trying to stump Siri or simply relishing the novelty of a phone that could talk back to you. On the Galaxy S3 Samsung has a similar app called S Voice and CNET's Jessica Dolcourt has compared their features.

Apple iOS 6
Siri gives you the latest movies in a list powered by Rotten Tomatoes. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

With iOS 6, Apple has given Siri features to make it more of an integral method for interacting with the iPhone. With the added capabilities of opening apps, remembering recent questions, and more integration with commonly used functions on your iPhone, Siri will be much more useful across the board. You'll now be able to ask Siri for sports scores and get a nice-looking scoreboard right in the Siri window that you can tap for more info. Similarly, ask Siri about movies and she'll bring up a Rotten Tomatoes movie-listing interface without having to open external apps. New Yelp integration will give you more information about restaurants, such as hours and cuisine types. None of this is groundbreaking, but it's certainly useful. Of course you can still make calls, set reminders and alarms, check the weather, and schedule meetings. But added functionality also lets you get directions (as mentioned in the Maps section above), post to Facebook or Twitter, dictate texts and e-mails, and other helpful things.

The new Eyes Free features announced at WWDC will bring Siri into your car, but they're not available yet at the time of the iOS 6 release. Apple is reportedly working with car manufacturers such as Toyota, GM, Mercedes, BMW, Honda, and Audi to let you use Siri from the steering wheel. You'll get spoken alerts without the screen lighting up, and the car integration means that you'll be able to use Siri safely and without taking your hands off the wheel. We still have no hard release date, but Apple said its partners would complete integration for new vehicles within the next 12 months (counting from June).

Apple iOS 6
Get the latest standings without opening an app. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

With Siri's integration across more of the iPhone's and iPad's core features, it will be interesting to see how users react, but it's clear Apple wants us to take Siri more seriously (Siriously?). As it becomes available to the millions of people upgrading to the iPhone 5, we'll have to wait and see just how useful it is for iPhone owners.

With Passbook, Apple says you can store and quickly access electronic versions of your admission tickets, airline or train boarding passes, merchant loyalty cards, and coupons all in one place. This feature will be for iPhone models only. While there are no services available to test this at the time of this review, on the whole, it does appear to be pretty simple. The clean interface stack shows a list of all your passes, which you can open to see the necessary bar codes and QR codes. The feature will alert you to changes to time-based events (like a flight delay or gate change) and it can use location to sense when you're near a merchant and display the necessary card even when the lock screen is on. Finally, when you delete a card it will be virtually "shredded" on the screen. Remember that this is the way Apple described Passbook at the announcement, but I will have more on this later as the features become available. Check out this How To post on using Passbook.

Passbook is intriguing and serves as a convenient way to organize your passes and cards instead of having them scattered around in different apps and e-mails. Still, it's obvious that this is Apple's way of getting around not adding NFC to its phones. Like the new Maps feature, it's a way of keeping users in Apple's universe rather than giving them a feature everyone else has. Not shocking, but still worth noting. Check back later for a full review of Passbook. Furthermore, expect a separate post that compares Passbook with Google Wallet.

Apple iOS 6
Just like with Twitter in iOS 5, you can post a quick status update to Facebook. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Facebook integration
After tight Twitter integration arrived in iOS 5, Facebook finally gets the same treatment in iOS 6. You can now post pictures and video directly to your account without using the Facebook app, but there's more to it than that. In Safari, you can now use the Share button to share a link with your Facebook friends with just a couple of clicks. As mentioned previously, you'll be able to use Siri to post status updates and you'll see better syncing between your device and Facebook photos, calendar, events, and birthdays. Lastly, you'll be able to "Like" apps, television shows, and movies in the App Store.

Of all the new features, this is the one that excites us the least. A recent upgrade to the Facebook app has made it much faster and easier to use, and anyone without a Facebook account (they exist!) simply won't care. Still, for Facebook fans, being able to post a status update from several apps and having Facebook accessible from the photo library for quick photo posting will surely be useful. And the added ability to pull friends and birthdays into your Contact list and Calendar on your iPhone is definitely handy (though it will make your contact list much bigger). Hopefully, the added integration won't encourage your already attention-seeking friends to overshare even more.

Phone controls
Yes, I'm as surprised as you are, but the iPhone can also make calls. Apple reminded us of that fact by adding new features to the Phone app. With iOS 6 you'll be able to reply to an incoming call with a text message or ask to receive a reminder about the call later. The former will be useful for when you're in a meeting or out for a meal. When using the latter option you can set the reminder to come at a specific time (like in an hour) or when you arrive or leave a specific location (like home or work).

The way it works is, when you have an incoming call, a little phone icon shows up down near the unlock (or answer call) bar. While the phone is still ringing, simply swipe it upward to reveal buttons to reply with a message or remind you later. You get a few canned options from Apple to tell the caller "I'll call you later," "I'm on my way," or "What's up?" or you can touch a Custom button to type in your own reply. Your set reminder options are to be reminded in an hour or when you leave your current location.

Another useful addition is a Do Not Disturb option that will block incoming calls while allowing texts and alerts through. You'll be able to filter calls by group and set the phone to allow the second call if someone rings twice within 3 minutes. Here again, we get small, but very welcome, tweaks. Hopefully, they point to a more sophisticated address book for current and future iPhones that will let you organize caller groups and set different levels of access for each. That's one area where the iPhone needs to catch up.

On a somewhat related note, iOS 6 adds a VIP option in which you'll get an alert when e-mails arrive from your chosen contacts. That's not a bad option for when you're playing hooky from work, but still want to respond to inquiries from your boss. (This feature won't come to the iPhone 3GS.)

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