Apple iOS 6 review: A worthwhile upgrade

iOS 6 has now evolved into a robust and powerful mobile OS.

Today, Apple officially released iOS 6, the latest update to the mobile OS that powers the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Unveiled in June at the annual World Wide Developer's Conference, iOS 6 promised to deliver a variety of needed enhancements. It does just that, delivering a stable and responsive OS that all recent iDevice users should download and install.

The ability to share links, images and other data gets a boost with redesigned Share Sheets in iOS 6.

So, what's new? This year's upgrade offers more than 200 new features according to Apple, which apparently counts numerous minor tweaks as notable changes.

Some of the more noteworthy additions in iOS 6 include: shared Photo Streams, redesigned Share Sheets with Facebook integration, Siri enhancements, iCloud tabs for viewing on one device the same sites you were reading on another device, and -- finally -- voice directions for navigation. You can also now update apps without having to enter your password.

Minor changes include a new theme for the music player on iPhone, design enhancements to Apple's digital stores, a dynamic menu bar that shifts color depending on the background, and FaceTime over cellular networks.

(See a slideshow detailing even more tweaks and updates in iOS 6.)

iOS 6 is, of course, compatible with the iPhone 5, which goes on sale Friday; it can be also installed on last year's iPhone 4S, 2010's iPhone 4 and even the iPhone 3GS, now three years old. Also supported: the fourth and fifth generation iPod Touch, the iPad 2 and the Retina display iPad released in March. Not all models support all features, however. For instance, the iPhone 3GS may be able to run apps written for iOS 6, but it won't suddenly get access to Siri, which the Retina display iPad does. Outside the U.S., not all features are supported; Apple has information here about each feature by region.

Installing iOS 6

I tested and installed iOS 6 using an iPhone 4S, an iPad 2 and a Retina display iPad, and focused on features available in the U.S. market.

Before you head to Settings> General> Software Update to download iOS 6, it's a good move to first back up your iPhone to iCloud. Doing so will make it much, much easier to recover from any problems, if any crop up during the install. Performing an iCloud backup saves all of the data on your device, including details like app placement and settings, to Apple's online servers. (You can also plug your device into a computer and back up using iTunes. Be sure to download iTunes 10.7 first.) Backing up is not a step I would skip.

Once that's done, you can begin the update. If the battery is at less than 50% capacity, you will have to plug your device in or the install won't begin.

You can also upgrade from a computer running iTunes, and here there are two options: Upgrade (which leaves existing data in place) or Restore (which erases content and brings the device back to default settings).

After iOS 6 is installed and the device has restarted, you'll see a welcome screen and "Welcome" cycling through different languages in the slide-to-unlock area. Once you unlock, you go to a Setup Assistant similar to that used in OS X. After choosing your language and country/region, connecting to a Wi-Fi or cellular network and activating the phone, you're asked to decide whether you want Location Services on or off and sign into iCloud.

If you chose to restore the iPhone and start from scratch, this is where you'll be thankful for the aforementioned backup: Just sign in and choose Restore from iCloud or iTunes.That brings back all of your data and settings as if nothing happened, right down to app placement. By the way, if you're restoring from an iCloud backup, you can initiate one over cellular data, such as LTE, but I highly recommend Wi-Fi; otherwise, you may use up your monthly data allowance in one shot.

As apps begin to download, if you need to use a specific app immediately, tap its icon to bring that app to the front of the download queue and it'll begin transferring in moments.

I should note a minor glitch I came across, in case you encounter it: At one point, I was given a warning that the Restore was incomplete, and that I should plug the phone back to iTunes to finish. After tapping OK, the iPhone continued to restore itself from my iCloud backup. I didn't have to connect to iTunes to install any apps.

If Wi-Fi syncing with iTunes is something you still want to do, you're going to have to plug in your iPhone/iPad at some point and enable Wi-Fi syncing under the summary tab. Once you've done that, your device's avatar will still show in the iTunes sidebar, even after you unplug it. Click on the avatar and use the different tabs to select which apps, movies, TV shows, songs, books and podcasts to copy. After making your changes, click Apply and Sync in the lower right-hand corner of the iTunes window. When you plug your iPhone in at night, it will automatically connect with the iTunes computer -- as long as both are on the same Wi-Fi network -- and sync up any changes. (This usually happens after the iCloud backup is complete.)

A better way to decline calls

Although the updated Phone app looks the same, save for the new Keypad, which gets a lighter color scheme, there are welcome changes. The biggest involves how you decline a phone call. In iOS 5, a swipe across the iPhone's lock screen answered a call, and a button located at the top of the screen dismissed it. For many, myself included, hitting that button made it easy to forgot a call ever took place.

In iOS 6, there's a new option to slide the on-screen phone icon vertically, revealing two actions: Remind Me Later and Reply With Message. Selecting either gives you even more options, such as location- and time-based reminders under the Remind Me Later button and a couple of quick responses available under Reply With Messages. You can edit the quick response messages under Settings> Phone> Reply with Message, or you can manually type a response.

It's amazing how much impact this simple change can make, allowing me to be much more diligent in returning phone calls.

There may be times when you don't want to answer your phone at all and Apple has you covered there, too. iOS 6 features a new system-wide Do No Disturb feature that can be manually turned on or set to activate during customizable hours.

The new Do No Disturb option blocks all calls and notifications, stopping your iPhone from lighting up in the middle of the night with alerts and unwanted calls.

Do No Disturb does just that: blocks all calls and notifications, which effectively puts an end to your phone lighting up in the middle of the night for alerts and unwanted calls. You can also create a custom group of people whose calls are allowed to go through no matter what, even if Do Not Disturb is on. There's even a setting that allows a call to get through if the same phone number calls more than once within a three-minute time span. That's designed to help a caller connect in case of an emergency. Do Not Disturb can be activated through a toggle in the Settings app; specific preferences can be modified in Settings>Notifications>Do Not Disturb.

Siri enhanced, but it's still in beta

Last year, despite its beta status, Siri was the star of the show; this year, while the technology is still official in beta, she's up to new tricks.

To begin with, Siri is available on more devices. With iOS 6, it's available on the iPhone 4s and iPhone 5 (of course) as well as this year's Retina display iPad and fifth-generation iPod touch.

Siri can give you quick access to restaurant information.

Like before, Siri still requires an active Internet connection, but it now has access to more databases. As a result, Siri can now handle new topics. allowing the iPhone to answer your questions regarding movie times at local theaters; questions about actors, directors, movies and ratings; and questions about sports scores, standings, team schedules and player stats. Siri can also help you find and reserve seating at local restaurants. (To actually book seating, Siri launches the OpenBook app.)

Want more? You can use Siri to get spoken directions to any destination. Tell Siri to "Plot a course to the closest highest-rated Italian restaurant" and she'll navigate the best route and narrate directions in real-time using the new Maps app (see below). She'll even answer questions like, "Are we there yet?"

Not enough? Siri can now launch apps by voice command, which is really useful, and can post status updates to FaceBook and Twitter. If you're looking to explore Siri more, here's a look at all the commands you can use.

Apple, in an attempt to expand Siri's reach, has also made deals with automakers to integrate a Siri button in their cars. "Eyes Free," as it's called, should be featured by most car manufacturers in some model cars beginning in 2013.

How does the Siri feature work in real life? Not as well as when it was first announced. Far too often, it takes two attempts to get a proper answer, because the first time, the question is inexplicably translated into gibberish. For instance, "Siri, call my Dad" once gave me this reply: "Sorry, Mike, I do not understand, 'Give me a spoon for salad.'" Asking the question again resulted in the proper translation and result, but mistranslations, mid-sentence cut-offs and incidents like this are an un-Apple-like experience that will dissuade people from using this service. Things need to improve further, if this technology is to be considered more than a novelty, and I say that as someone who uses Siri at least a dozen times a day.

Maps

Maps was one of the major features announced at WWDC and it's a big one: Since the arrival of the iPhone five years ago, Apple has relied on Google for the back-end data that powered the Maps app. But legal and political strife between the two companies created a rift. The result? As of iOS 6, Google has been dropped as the data provider for Maps; Apple instead now uses resources acquired in its deal with Open Street and from alliances with other companies like Yelp and OpenTable.

How well does it work? For starters, Maps is vector-based, so area graphics and text stay sharp, focused and clean, especially in the default Standard mode. Using the Hybrid or Satellite mode -- either can be toggled on by tapping the page curl on the lower right -- takes a little longer to load, but text remains crisp. Unlike earlier iterations of Maps, the new version supports more than just zooming in/out and panning; now you can zoom with a pinch, and twisting your fingers rotates the map. If you take two fingers and push up/slide down, the displayed map shifts perspective.

Maps is vector-based, so area graphics and text stay sharp, focused and clean, especially in the default Standard mode.

The overall interface has been cleaned up a little: on the iPad, the top menu contains Directions, Bookmarks and a Search area with a pop-up list of recent locations; on the iPhone, the order is Directions, Search and Bookmarks, and the menu loses the redundant Search button toggle. Instead, Search is activated simply by tapping the oval text input area. The Locate Me arrow has been relocated to the bottom left corner and now resides next to a 3D icon. As before, tapping the Locate arrow once displays your location on a map and twice actives Compass mode, which is handy for figuring out direction of travel.

Zooming into Maps brings up local details, such as restaurant locations and other points of interest. Tapping any of those displays a pop-up with the name, a Yelp rating and review count, and a button for automatic directions and routing. Tapping the Info button displays even more information, including type of restaurant, its phone/website/street address, plus reviews and photos. And if you want to investigate further, tapping any of the reviews or photos launches the Yelp app. If Yelp is not installed, you'll be brought to the App Store where you can download it. The downside? The listings in Maps are nowhere near as comprehensive as in Google's Maps. Fortunately, Google Earth is still available as a separate download, so you can have the best of both worlds.

Here's a look at an area just outside San Francisco as shown in Flyover, which gives you a 3D view of several large cities.

Maps also displays traffic, and information about any delays that can be accessed via icons near traffic red zones. That can help you plan whether you should wait a traffic jam out or find another route. And if you use Siri to guide you along a route, it will suggest an alternate route when one is available. Nice.

Tapping the Directions button allows you to plot a start and end location, and choose Driving, Walking or Mass Transit directions. The last feature launches a third-party app of your choosing, or, if you don't have any on the phone, takes you to the App Store. This is a slight step back from the earlier versions, which relied on Google's data for everything, obviating the need for third-party apps. (I'm fairly certain the developers of those apps aren't complaining.) In the end, leaving Apple's new Maps app may be a tad inconvenient, but if the results are useful -- and they are -- few will complain.

There is something to complain about, however, and that's the loss of Street View. In its place, Apple now offers FlyOver -- 3D views of several large cities including San Francisco, London, and Sydney. While it's a visually cool addition, FlyOver isn't really a substitute for Street View and it certainly doesn't deliver anywhere near the coverage. FlyOver will be most useful to those who live in supported cities; for everyone else, it's more like a cool demo. At least the list of cities covered will grow in time.

A definite enhancement to Maps is the new voice-guided navigation. (Finally.)

In Maps, Siri (assuming you have an iPhone that supports Siri) guides you with turn-by-turn directions, using an uncluttered user interface that displays driving instructions within graphics shaped like traffic signs. Tapping on the screen brings up more options and data, such as an Overview button, an ETA, and details on how much time and distance remains on your trip.

Even if you switch to another app, direction notifications slide from the top of the screen as Siri continues her narration. You can even ask, "Are we there yet?" and Siri will give you the time remaining and occasionally some sage advice like, "Relax and enjoy the ride."

Another new feature I like is that some of the information about traffic is crowd-sourced from other iPhones in the area. As noted earlier, when there's congestion, Maps can suggest alternate routes if one is available.

Despite these advances, there are some disadvantages to Maps. For one, it requires a network connection. And since Maps doesn't cache data, if you lose your data connection, Maps won't redraw.

As I noted in my first look at iOS 6, the addition of Siri-activated voice navigation could spell trouble for GPS makers -- except for those Apple partnered with for this venture, like TomTom. While Maps isn't perfect, it's pretty good and getting better, and the addition of voice-guided navigation is a real plus for users, if not for the bottom lines of Garmin and other GPS companies.

Photos

The best addition to the Photos app is the new feature, Shared Photo Streams, which is really just a quick and easy way to share photos with specified people. Each person is notified when photos are added to the Streams they've subscribed to, and from there they can Like and comment on pictures. Think of it as a super-exclusive photo-based social network that's ideal for sharing photos among friends and family. I'll be using it often.

There are a few ways to create a Photo Stream. You can do it from a list of pictures in Albums by clicking Edit at the top right and selecting the photos you want to share. Tap the Share button at the lower left and select Photo Stream. Photo Streams can also be created by tapping the Photo Stream button at the bottom of the Photos app and hitting the Plus button. Both methods lead to the next screen, which allows you to choose recipients, name the Stream, and decide whether to make this stream publicly available on iCloud.com.

Tapping "Next" brings you to the final screen, where you can add comments. When done, simply tap Post. Recipients will get push notifications on their iPhone, iPad or iPod touch and a swipe to unlock brings them to your stream. (Non-iOS users can see the images on a specially created Web page.) If you want to add more photos to the stream, tap the middle of the bottom row of icons in the Phone app and add them.

Shared Photos uses iCloud, which, unlike MMS messaging, is a free service.

Shared Photo Streams is a quick and easy way to share photos with specified people.

My biggest gripe with Photo Streams? That recipients can't add their own pictures to your stream. They can comment, they can Like, but they can't add photos. The only option is for them to start their own Streams, which is a shame since Photo Streams would be a great way to share vacation photos into a single location. Hopefully, photo-adding from subscribers will be available down the road. Still, I find this feature useful; it'll be a huge hit in my family.

The Camera app goes Panorama

The Camera app received some interface tweaks, most notably the darker theme prevalent throughout iOS 6. On the iPad, the Options and Camera Toggle buttons have been moved to the lower menu bar, and the shutter has been relocated to the center right, which is closer to where a thumb naturally rests when taking pictures on the tablet.

But by far the most important addition is the new Panorama mode (which is only supported on the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5 and the fifth-generation iPod touch).

To take a panorama photo, tap Options -- it's located in the upper center of the screen -- and tap Panorama. The interface will display a rectangle with an arrow indicating in which direction to move your phone. When you tap the onscreen shutter button, the iPhone starts filling in your panorama as you slowly pan the camera along. You can even turn the phone on its side and pan up or down. The resulting high-quality panoramas can be enormous, but the shots themselves are lovely. According to Apple, panorama photos can take up to 28 megapixels, so be mindful of your storage.

The shot was taken using the new Panorama mode

Safari

The first thing that stood out when I opened Safari is the new Reader button in Safari's address field. Just like Safari on the Mac, activating Reader enables a text-only view of webpages, stripped of ads, multiple pages and other distractions. The result? A nicely formatted, text-only reimagining of the article you're reading. It's in this mode that you can really see the Retina display in action: The result is like reading a high-quality, back-lit magazine.

Activating Reader mode in Safari gives you a text-only view of webpages, stripped of ads, multiple pages and other distractions.

In Reading mode, you can only scroll up and down through the story. A stationary title bar remains at the top of the screen, allowing quick access to font size changes and to a Sharing Sheet for quick sharing with friends.

The other big change is Reading List. Although this was introduced in iOS 5 as a way to save articles for later reading, iOS 6 adds a handy offline mode. Using iCloud, stories you save in Reading List are available for offline reading on your other devices and on Macs running OS X Mountain Lion.

To add your current page to Reading List, click on the Sharing Button and select Add To Reading List. You'll see a spinning cursor on the menu bar of iPhones and iPads when that happens, indicating a sync is under way, and after a moment, it disappears. The syncing and sharing works really well. Saved links on Mountain Lion appeared within seconds on my other devices, such as my iPhone. Just to see what would happen, after verifying the iPhone had received the new link, I picked up my iPad, browsed to Settings, and turned on Airplane mode. Only then did I check Safari's Reading List and found that I was able to view the saved page, even with no active Internet connection. Well played, Apple. Let's hope Apple's iCloud servers can handle the traffic.

The other major Safari feature, iCloud Tabs, also uses iCloud for syncing across devices. With this, you can now pick up any device, be it your Mac, iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad, and instantly continue browsing stories after moving to a different device.

Let's say you're on your Mac, reading a story, when you need to run an errand. On the go, you can use your iPhone to continue reading the story just by accessing Bookmarks and swiping to iCloud tabs. This feature, to say the least, is very convenient.

The main issue I have with both Reading List and iCloud Tabs is that they're hard to locate on iPhones. That's a shame, too, because things as useful as these features should be obvious. On an iPad, Reading List is located under the Bookmarks pop-up, selectable by tapping the Eyeglass icon at the bottom of the pop-up window; iCloud tabs is accessed right from the menubar, between Bookmarks and the Share Sheet. Though I recognize the space limitations inherent on the iPhone, Apple should look for a way to better expose these features.

Safari also gets a full-screen mode. As in OS X Mountain Lion, Safari in iOS 6 features a Full Screen icon that appears as a double-arrow (in landscape mode). Tapping that brings the Web content full screen; tapping it again brings back the regular Safari interface. It's especially handy on smaller screens like the iPhone and iPod touch.

Other changes

Systemwide Sharing Sheets have been changed. Gone is the list view; now you get an icon and text. Depending on the context and what's being shared, you have options to share using Mail, Messages, Twitter and Facebook. There are also options for Printing, Copying, Bookmarking, and saving the link for offline viewing via Reading List in Safari.

Facebook integration means iOS 6 is getting more social, much as Apple did with Twitter in iOS 5. You'll now be able to share photos and Safari links on Facebook from within the respective apps using the Share button. Among the apps already updated to take advantage of this are Safari, Game Center, iTunes and the App Store, where you can share app reviews with Facebook friends. No doubt, developers will move quickly to add Facebook integration in their own apps now that iOS 6 is out.

Reminders gets a small, but welcome, addition. In iOS 5, you could set location-based reminders from anything in your contacts, but in iOS 6 you can now manually enter locations using the Map app. And since third parties should also have access to Reminders info, third-party to-do list apps should be more useful, too.

FaceTime, Apple's popular video-conferencing app, can now be used over cellular networks -- with an important caveat: Your carrier needs to support this feature. In the U.S., Sprint and Verizon allow FaceTime calls over cellular with existing data plans; AT&T, in an attempt to annoy even more customers, only allows this with Shared Family Plans. Thanks, AT&T.

Mail in iOS 6, just as in Mountain Lion, gets its very own VIP box, where messages from contacts you've listed as VIPs are stored. The VIP box makes it easier to keep track of messages from your most important contacts.

Passbook represents Apple's efforts to create a 21st century digital wallet, organizing store cards, coupons, concert and movie tickets, boarding passes, loyalty cards, and more in one app. As Apple envisions it, Passbook will have all the information you need, including card balance, expiration dates and seat information. And a scan-able barcode means it's just as effective as coupons. Better still, Passbook is location-aware, so you'll get a swipe-able notification with the appropriate information when you walk into a retail store or even an airport terminal.

At this point, Passbook is more of an infrastructure-in-waiting than a finished product. Much of its success will depend on the support of outside vendors and networks. I can envision it being widely used and game-changing, or simply ignored if that outside support doesn't develop. My sense is that Passbook will be a pretty big deal eventually.

If you're a big video fan, remember that the YouTube app is no longer part of the default Apple software bundle. (Google's Maps app wasn't the only app to go away.) But the YouTube app can still be downloaded from the App Store.

A few new visual cues

Although some users have complained that the overall look and feel of iOS hasn't changed, that's a strength, not a flaw. iOS's success has much to do with its consistency; change for the sake of change often brings more confusion than it's worth. See: Windows 8.

I like the look and feel of iOS and I don't mind that, in general, the interface has remained consistent over the years. With that in mind, iOS 6 does offer a few UI refinements. The menu bar now adapts to the color scheme of whatever app or background is in use. (In the Phone app, for instance, the menu displays are a grayish-blue; in the App store, the same menu is black.) The iPhone Music app now sports a gray-themed interface that resembles the look of the iPad Music app in iOS 5. (The music player screen now shows off the darker theme, too.)

In addition to those changes, the iBooks, iTunes and App store apps get some updates: darker themes and home screens that now emphasize swipe gestures. Apple obviously worked for interface consistency across the board to make the stores easier to navigate.

Usage and final impressions

I snarkily refer to the annual period between WWDC and Apple's fall events as The Summer of Bugs, when Apple is ironing out the kinks in iOS. Surprisingly, this year was devoid of any big showstoppers. (I have noticed that some album art won't sync since upgrading, both on the iPad and the iPhone. Instead of high-resolution art, I'm seeing the default generic iTunes placeholder. Maybe it's solely a problem with my iTunes library, but it's something to note if you're an iTunes library perfectionist like me.)

Otherwise, iOS 6 is fast, stable and apparently free of major problems. So far, I've installed it on Retina display iPads, several iPhone 4Ses and an iPad 2. All took the manual updates without issue and ran the new OS without any performance degradation. Battery life has remained consistent as well.

As for my favorite changes, I love Photo Streams and the Camera app's Panorama mode; I've tweeted a couple of panoramas I took of some recent sunrises. Panorama mode makes taking great looking shots really easy. It's a shame it's not available on more models.

I'm also happy to see iCloud services working well, both as a backup/restore mechanism and as a way to sync my data across devices. There were many times throughout the summer I'd bump into a new feature, activate Siri and begin a "Note to self...." It was nice to sit down at my Mac and have all of those notes at my disposal, even though all of them were created on the iPhone. Thanks, iCloud.

Automatic iCloud sync proved really handy as well -- I was able to write this review using Pages on the Mac and then access the same document on my iPhone and iPad. When I made a change to the text on my iPad, the Mac version of Pages automatically accepted the changes, even if the document was open on my desktop. The depth of integration between iOS and the OS X is now pretty significant -- and it happened with baby steps, evolutions instead of revolutions.

Such is the case with iOS 6, which adds a lot of solid and useful tweaks and tricks to an already refined OS. I didn't hesitate to upgrade, and there's really no reason for users not to do the same, unless you're hyper-cautious. In that case, you can wait for iOS 6.0.1. But, if you do, you'll be missing out on a worthwhile upgrade.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).

Read more about ios in Computerworld's iOS Topic Center.

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Michael deAgonia

Computerworld (US)

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