Saturday, October 15, 2011

Apple iOS 5 refines features

Special to The Seattle Times
When operating systems start to mature, the number of new features and radical changes drop off rapidly in successive releases. Once enough people know how to work the interface, big disruptions can be confusing.
The new iOS 5, a free update that Apple released Wednesday, tries to skirt between fixing long-standing irritations, streamlining how people use their handheld devices and adding new options. Any iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch model released in 2009 or later may install the new iOS 5. (That excludes the original iPhone, the iPhone 3G, and early iPod touch models.)
The biggest change in iOS 5 removes the requirement of ever plugging your device into a Mac or PC with iTunes installed using a USB cable. Apple added three separate features to let you cut the cord: PC Free, iCloud and Wi-Fi Sync. PC Free allows setup, backup and updates without a computer in sight or on site. ICloud, a free service that includes 5 GB of storage on Apple's servers, lets you download copies of anything you buy from Apple from any device, as well as sync documents and other files. (I'll discuss iCloud in greater depth next week.)
Wi-Fi Sync is the only component that requires iTunes, as it handles larger files, such as photos and movies, and allows you to transfer or automatically sync such files with a computer. You can back up a device either to a copy of iTunes on a local network via Wi-Fi or to iCloud. These changes better protect your devices' data against loss away from your home network. Also, iOS updates will now be differentials — small files of perhaps tens of megabytes containing only changes, rather than the typical 700 to 800 MB downloads of the past.
IOS 5 also overhauls notifications, the pop-up items that alert you to a missed phone call, an incoming tweet, another player making a move in a game, or any of thousands of other possible alerts. Since their introduction, notifications appear on a sleeping iOS device as a blue box with an abbreviated message. If multiple notifications come in while your device is asleep, the box fills up. Unlock the phone, and the notifications disappear. With an in-use phone, notifications demand attention, requiring you to tap OK or Dismiss.
All of that is gone in iOS 5, which took a very close look at Google's approach in Android. Notifications are now more persistent, more detailed, and both easier to ignore and retrieve. On a sleeping phone, iPod or tablet, a notification appears as a single line, and stacks up as more come in. Swipe the icon for the notification, and iOS wakes and takes you to the precise location in the given app that triggered the alert. For instance, if I get an incoming move in Words with Friends, I can swipe the word-tile icon for the player who moved, and I'm dropped right into that game.
When the phone is awake, notifications drop down briefly from the top without interrupting activities or requiring a response. You can swipe downward from the top of the screen to the bottom, and a notification drawer appears, which also includes a widgetlike weather forecast and stock ticker, along with all the recent notifications in reverse order by category. You can customize what shows up in that drawer.
Apple has pulled the neat trick in this release of providing you a tool, called iMessage, that lets you bypass any service fees associated with text messaging (SMS) and multimedia messaging (MMS) that you pay for separately as part of a mobile plan. iMessage is available without any extra configuration in the Messages app.
Messages bypass carriers' systems whenever you communicate in the app with another iOS 5 user, whether on an iPhone or an iPod touch or iPad. For iPhones, your phone number is registered in the system, while an email associated with an Apple ID is connected for all iOS hardware. You can later add other email addresses.
Start a message to someone whose phone number or email address is registered in iOS 5, and Message switches the color of the text balloons from green to blue, and displays "iMessage" in grayed-out type in the field in which you tap in text.
IMessage works across carriers and international borders, and is free. When a message is received, Messages shows the word "Delivered" in small type under the corresponding blue balloon. An iOS 5 user can configure Messages to also show when a message is read, but you may find you're giving away too much information to the sender. (Apple turns that option off by default.)
Apple has also thrown in a number of less behavior-changing features, which are welcome. You can snap a picture now without having to wake your iPhone and launch the Camera app. Instead, you tap the Home button twice on the lock screen, and the Camera app launches and opens its iris. Even better, the up-volume button acts as a hardware shutter.
Find My Friends is a new app that works only in iOS 5, but must be downloaded separately. It lets you share your current location with a set of hand-picked others. The service doesn't tie in to any existing social networks. Rather, you add people one at a time by entering an email address or choosing from your Contacts list.
While custom ringtones for each caller date back years, iOS 5 adds the option to have custom vibration patterns by phone number. It's a bit hidden, and my colleague Shawn King alerted me to find it. Custom vibrations are nestled among other improvements for universal accessibility for those with visual or hearing impairments. In the Settings app, select General, and slide down to Accessibility. Tap that item, and then set Custom Vibrations to On. Back in the Phone or Contacts app, you can tap the blue arrow to see details, tap Edit, and slide down to Vibration, which appears below Ringtone. Several prefab vibrations are available, but you can also make up your own pattern using a recording process.
The Siri voice system for natural-language interpretation of commands, dictation and synthesis is part of iOS 5, but available only with the iPhone 4S. We'll write about Siri in upcoming articles.
Apple has reached a point with iOS where it can't provide features that make you want to tear your clothes off and run into the streets with joy. But it can smooth down the rough edges, freely borrow from its competitors' best innovations, and make you have to think even less about how you manage your device, and just let you use it.

Glenn Fleishman is one of the contributors to the Practical Mac column in Personal Technology.

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