Apple takes baby steps with iOS 5

iOS 5, Apple's latest version of its mobile operating system, adds some welcome features, but the update brings little that will blow your mind.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Jason Parker Senior Editor / Reviews - Software
Jason Parker has been at CNET for nearly 15 years. He is the senior editor in charge of iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.
Kent German
Jason Parker
7 min read

This article was originally posted June 6, 2011, and updated on October 4, 2011.

Apple Event

Along with introducing the new iPhone 4S, Apple gave a brief look at iOS 5 at Apple's "Let's Talk iPhone" event (full event and iPhone 4S coverage here) this morning in Cupertino, Calif. Tim Cook opened the event, but he turned to Scott Forstall, Apple's senior vice president of iPhone software, to show off highlights of a promised 200 new features in iOS 5. Available for free, iOS 5 will be compatible with the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 4, the iPhone 3GS, both versions of the iPad, and the third- and fourth-generation models of the iPod Touch.

In today's event, we saw a recap of features originally debuted at WWDC including the new notification system, Twitter integration, and Reminders, but also some new features added to the list with Find My Friends, Cards, and Siri, a voice-controlled assistant that will only be available to iPhone 4S users. iOS 5 will officially become available over the air for free starting on October 12.

Find My Friends
Among the new features announced only today, Find My Friends lets you view your friends' and family's locations in real time on a map when they agree to share location info with you. You'll be able to set a time limit as well, letting people only view your location for a period you specify--a major concern of people who don't want to continually broadcast their location.

Cards, a new greeting card delivery app, also got some screen time. Cards lets you design a card on your iOS device and have Apple print it up on high-quality paper and send it to your chosen recipient. The service comes with a price, though; you'll pay $2.99 to send a card domestically and $4.99 to send a card anywhere in the world.

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Instead of the current system of pop-up menus that interrupt your work, a new Notification Center will combine messages, missed calls, app updates, a stock ticker, and the current weather in a single place. You can access it by swiping your finger downward from the top of the screen (sound familiar?) and notifications will appear on the lock screen as well. You then can jump directly to the related feature for each notification and delete items by tapping the small X next to each line.

Though not exactly original--the pull-down menu has long been a hallmark feature of Android--the ability to see all notifications in one place is nonetheless welcome. Since the first iPhone's debut four years ago, the iOS notification system has remained largely unchanged. It's simple, yes, but the current application is unusable until you dismiss the message, and several messages in a row quickly became annoying. So it's about time we got this change.

This app will bring together magazine subscriptions in a central place. The concept is similar to iBooks, even down to an icon that looks like the periodicals shelf at your local library. As you subscribe to a publication through a new channel in the App Store, new issues will be delivered in the background, eliminating the need to manually grab them when they publish.

Thankfully, users now will be able to post photos to the social networking service without leaving the image gallery or camera application. It's a nice change given that it will end the need to take a photo, switch to the iPhone Twitter app, and then post the photo. You'll be able to add a location, sync Twitter with your contacts list, and tweet directly from YouTube, Safari, and Maps.

iOS 5 hands on (photos)

See all photos

The mobile version of Apple's Web browser will get the Reader option that was announced at the 2010 WWDC. As you'd expect, it will streamline multipage articles in an RSS-like view while stripping out ads, but leaving photos. You'll also be able to e-mail the entire text of a Safari page to a contact (presently, you can send only a link).

In other Safari news, tabbed browsing will come to the iPad at last and you can bookmark a Web page on a Reading List list for future perusal. The latter feature can be synced between multiple Safari devices and should work very similarly to browser add-ons like Read It Later and Instapaper.

This handy addition will let you store multiple to-do lists with dates for each event and categorize reminders by location. So, for example, if you have a reminder of "Call home when I leave work," the app will use GPS to note when you're on the move and send the reminder. Reminders can be shared between devices and sync with iCal on the Mac with CalDAV, and on Windows with MS Exchange.

iOS 5 will add a shortcut on the lock screen that will launch the camera immediately, even bypassing the lock code. You then can use the volume control to snap the photo. Inside the camera you'll get grid lines, pinch to zoom (instead of using the slider bar at the bottom of the screen), autofocus, and the ability to change the exposure and add granular controls.

After taking photos, you can edit your shots with crop, rotate, and red-eye reduction. Also, one-click enhancements from iPhoto will add quick color correction. Though we welcome these additions, Apple is late to the photo-editing party as this functionality has long existed on basic phones. We'll have to see how Apple makes it all work when iOS 5 is available, but we doubt it will mean the demise of third-party apps like Photoshop Express.

Coming to the mail app are rich text formatting, better indent control, flagging of messages, and the ability to drag addresses between to, cc, and bcc lines. Also, you now can search within the body of a message instead of just in the from, to, and subject lines. Thanks for that.

PC Free
Arguably the most notable change, PC Free will bring over-the-air software updates and device activations. So as on Android, Windows Phone 7, and BlackBerry OS 5 devices, you'll no longer have to plug your device into a computer or even own a computer at all. The updates will serve only the changes, so they'll be shorter, and you'll be able to sync, back up, and restore your device using the new iCloud feature. You'll also find new features within apps, like wirelessly editing photos, managing e-mail folders, and creating and deleting calenders.

Game Center
Additions for gamers include profile photos, achievement point comparison, friends of friends, recommended friends and games, support for turn-based games, and a way to buy games directly from Game Center.

Apple takes a shot at BlackBerry with this instant messaging app that will work across all iOS 5 devices. As with BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), you'll be able to exchange unlimited text messages, photos, and videos with your friends, family, and colleagues. Also, your messages won't cost you anything and they won't count against the monthly allotment of messages from your wireless carrier.

You'll also get group messaging, an indicator to see if someone is typing to you, delivery and read receipts, secure encryption, and conversation syncing that is pushed to multiple devices. iMessage will work on 3G and Wi-Fi networks.

What else
Other updates include new multitasking gestures for the iPad, hourly weather forecasts, Wi-Fi sync with iTunes, a split keyboard for the iPad, a new iPad music app, an iTunes ringtone store, AirPlay mirroring for the iPad 2, a personal dictionary, alternate routes in Maps, Emoji emoticons, and custom vibration patterns.

A feature exclusive to the iPhone 4S, Siri builds on the iOS Voice Control feature while adding a lot more. Presented as an AI voice control system that comprehends what you're saying, Siri lets you give your iPhone commands or ask it questions using natural language. It's more than just a "Call home" voice command system; you can simply say, "Remind me to call my wife at 4:30 about dinner" and Siri will respond by setting up a time in your calendar and repeating the specifics of the event so you can confirm it for a reminder. You can also tell Siri to read your latest text messages, and you can ask it the fastest way home from your current location and other complex questions, and Apple says Siri will comprehend your questions and give you the best answer. These are features that anyone can appreciate who's been driving and heard the iPhone's telltale text notification sound, for example. It also ushers in a new way to interface with iPhones, if Apple can pull it off. Siri is still in beta and will be available to iPhone 4S users at launch on October 14. For more on Siri, see our iPhone 4S First Take.

A big deal or no?
Compared with previous updates, iOS 5 is rather low-key. Sure, it adds some welcome features that will benefit users--we especially like PC Free and the new notifications--but it's not quite the whopper update that iOS 4 or even iOS 3 was.

What's more, even the most die-hard Apple fans will have to admit that some of the new features simply bring the iPhone in line with options we currently see on other smartphone operating systems or in third-party apps. On the other hand, Apple has always excelled at taking existing features and creating a different user experience, and that may be the case here.

Indeed, we'll have to use iOS 5 before we give a real assessment of its features. There may be more spectacular changes that Apple hasn't announced, but we don't see iOS 5 alone as a reason to switch to the iPhone if you haven't done so already. But when you couple it with the upgrades in the iPhone 4S, it may be enough.