Refined iOS 6 highlighted by stunning Maps overhaul

An in depth review and run through the new iOS 6
  • (Macworld.com)
  • — 19 September, 2012 20:00

Following on the heels of the massive update that was iOS 5, iOS 6 might seem like merely a modest update. But that doesn't make it insignificant by any means: A key app has received a substantial overhaul in this latest update, Apple has added an intriguing new--if yet unproven--built-in app, and the company has even, for the first time, removed a piece of software present since the iPhone's launch.

In addition, plenty of iOS's features have been updated and refined, and user interface conventions have been tweaked across the entire OS. Apple's also put an emphasis on rolling out certain features to both its mobile and desktop operating systems--Facebook integration, Mail VIPs, etc.--ushering in a new era of giving the two platforms parity when it makes sense to do so.

Five years after its debut, iOS 5 was already a mature operating system, a stable foundation upon which to build. With all that Apple had already added to it, you might have wondered what was next for the mobile operating system. As it turns out, there's plenty.

Off the map

Every iOS release has its marquee feature, and with iOS 6 it's unquestionably Maps. The app has gotten a in-depth makeover, perhaps the most thorough ever to be applied to one of iOS's built-in applications.

What's new The bow-to-stern overhaul starts deep under the hood, where Apple has replaced the mapping engine that in every previous version of iOS was provided by Google. In its place, Apple has rolled its own solution, supported by mapping data from GPS maker Tom Tom, OpenStreetMap, and a cast of thousands.

As you might expect, such an all-encompassing update means new features, the disappearance of old ones, and plenty of changes in the way things have been done to date.

The first thing that catches the eye when you launch the new and revamped app is that the map itself is front-and-center - on the iPhone, Apple has reduced the amount of chrome around the edges of the interface. The result is a minimalist interface that leaves much more room for the map itself. You'll find only a search box at the top, flanked by a pair of buttons; another pair of floating buttons in the bottom left corner for locating yourself and activating 3D mode; and the familiar page-curl in the bottom right. There's also, for the first time on the iPhone, a welcome landscape orientation option.

On the iPad, the app more closely resembles its predecessor, with a couple of shifts in the interface.

Due to those changes, using the new Maps may take some getting used to. For example, you no longer have to choose between Search and Direction modes. In either case, you just enter the location or destination in the search box; once you've located it, you can get a route by tapping the Directions button.

Speaking of search, Maps now offers suggestions for your search terms. I found this to be hit-or-miss; sometimes the location I was looking for was right at the top, but other times Maps didn't seem to understand what I was looking for at all. A search for the Eiffel Tower correctly located it in France, but searching for Notre Dame while looking at a Paris map tried to send me to South Bend, Indiana. Much of this can likely be attributed to the Apple's points of interest database, which doesn't yet seem to have as much depth as Google's did.

Apple has at least provided a way to indicate when something is incorrect: Swipe the page curl and then tap the small Report a Problem link above the Print button; the subsequent form provides a variety of different ways to correct the listed information.

Many of Maps's features remain the same as ever. Bookmarks still give you access to recent searches, contacts, and places you've specifically marked. Settings are still hidden behind the page curl, which you can tap or swipe to open; there you'll find the option to switch between standard, satellite, and hybrid maps--the option for Terrain maps on the iPad has faded into the sunset--as well as a button to drop a pin (which you can also do by tapping and holding on the map) and another to show traffic, which Maps still displays by overlaying red, yellow, and green lines over routes.

That traffic information does have some improvements, though: Maps can now display road work alerts, as well as accidents, pulled from local transportation departments. Those details will generally let you know what exactly is happening--road work, a closed ramp, an accident--along with when the alert began, and when it was last updated.

Apple claims the information is real-time, and according to a statement from the company in 2011, it's been collecting anonymized traffic data in order to build a crowd-sourced traffic database. In addition, directions are supposed to include traffic conditions when providing you with an ETA, and Apple said that directions can be optionally rerouted around traffic, but that was one feature I haven't yet seen in action in my tests.

Flyovers

Another feature that falls by the wayside in iOS 6 is Street View. Google spent a lot of energy collecting street-level imagery of the U.S. with its fleet of camera-bearing cars. Apple, on the other hand, has played its one-up card by enlisting an armada of small planes and helicopters to capture aerial imagery for a feature it calls Flyovers.

Flyovers is definitely Maps's most eye-catching new feature, and what it lacks in practicality, it makes up for in gee-whiz. When you're viewing satellite maps, tap the 3D button in the bottom left (sometimes indicated with a pictures of buildings) or swipe up with two fingers and you'll get a whole new dimension of maps. You can pan around with one finger, change perspective with two, and even rotate the map around a central axis by using a two-finger rotate gesture (like turning a dial). If you need to jump back to the standard "north is up" paradigm, you can always tap the compass that appears in the top right corner when you rotate.

The 3D pictures are impressive, though they are so far available almost exclusively in larger cities; even there, get out into the burbs and you start to see only flat, squashed buildings. The images also render fairly slowly, at least in my experiences on the latest-generation iPad or iPhone 4S. One of my favorite hidden little features: Zoom out far enough in the satellite view and you'll eventually end up with a globe of the Earth you can spin around.

The 3D imagery also shows up in the traditional maps, too, with sketched wireframes of the buildings, which is also pretty cool--especially when you watch them rise out of the ground like stepping stones. (In some places, though, I found the wireframe buildings occasionally to be less-than-accurate in shape.) In 2D mode, you'll actually see the outlines of buildings shaded on the maps. They're surprisingly good--I could identify my house just by the outline.

Even better, you'll get little icons that identify businesses, eating establishments, schools and other points of interest. Tapping on these brings up an address, contact information, and even Yelp reviews and photos where available; for more info, you can jump out to the Yelp app, if you've got it installed. Google Maps on the Web has offered a features like this for some time, but they never made their way to the iOS app. While this might be old hat to those who already use the Yelp app, there are likely plenty of converts still to be made by virtue of the built-in nature.

When it comes to the maps themselves, it's hard to overstate just how beautiful and responsive they are. Apple uses a vector-based system for drawing the images rather than Google's bitmaps and, on the latest hardware at least, they practically fly. Zooming, panning, rotating, are all virtually instantaneous. Street names appear and disappear at appropriate levels of zoom, so you're not bludgeoned by scads of unnecessary information, and they rotate along with the map. Neighborhoods and regions are well-marked, and even parks and bodies of water take on a more attractive look. You can even adjust the size of the labels to be smaller or larger, and dictate whether they're always shown in English or in the native language of the location you're viewing.

That said, maps in some locales do not always perfectly reflect the environment. On a trip to some of the further reaches of Canada, for example, I noticed disparities between the geographies of the old and new Maps in terms of the shapes of certain landmasses. But in my experience, it was more of an aesthetic difference than anything else.

Turn-by-turn directions

Browsing maps is fine, but iOS 6's biggest new feature inside its biggest new feature is the long-awaited addition of turn-by-turn directions. It's a feature that Google has been providing to Android phones for a while, and its inclusion in iOS 6 marks an attempt to obviate yet another standalone electronics device--in this case, the GPS unit. But does it succeed?

Using the turn-by-turn directions feature is easy at least, and you have a couple of different options. In the Maps app, you can search for a destination and then press the Directions button (a right-angle arrow); you'll be prompted to choose your starting point--by default your current location--and a type of directions: car, walking, or public transportation (more on the last in a moment). Tap Route and you'll get an overview of the directions.

You can also, as with previous versions of Maps, tap the Directions to Here or Directions from Here buttons when viewing information about a location. Even quicker than that, is to tap the green Quick Route button that shows up next to the location's name on the map. And, of course, you can also ask Siri (iOS's virtual assistant) to give you directions to a location.

In any of these cases, you'll be given an overview of your route, in some cases including options for multiple routes, as introduced in iOS 5. Maps will give you distances and travel times for each route.

Once you've started the directions, you'll zoom in on your current location, represented with a blue circle and an arrow in it. The current direction will be given with a large road sign-style dialog box at the top, along with an icon indicating what action you need to take, if any. Siri will speak any directions aloud; if you're playing music or other audio, it will fade out slightly while Siri tells you what to do, then fade back in.

As you continue, your location will update and you'll be prompted with subsequent directions; just like in earlier versions of Maps, a blue line will show you the route you're taking.

At any time, you can tap the screen to get an ETA, along with distance and time. Two buttons let you either end the directions or return to the overview mode, and you can pinch the map to zoom out and back in a small amount. Other than that, you can't do anything else in the Maps app while directions are being given. However, you can use other apps at the same time: In that case, you'll see a blue-green bar at the top that says "Tap to return to Navigation"; whenever a turn is imminent, a banner alert will appear with the information about the upcoming direction and Siri will speak the instruction aloud.

If you lock your phone while in navigation mode, Siri will continue to give directions and you'll be able to see your current location and any other upcoming direction information on the lock screen.

There are a lot of nice touches to navigation mode. For example, I like the floating signs that identify nearby streets, and the fact that the streets you're going to actually turn onto are marked in blue rather than in green. The instructions to make turns and such are generally large and easy to read, which is good, since you don't want to spend time squinting at tiny text while you're driving.

The directions themselves are a mixed bag. I live outside of Boston, which is a notoriously hard city to map; it's the rare intersection that has more than one ninety degree angle in it. It's also a city with a high degree of odd and perplexing streets, plenty of one-ways, and crazy intersections. If London cabbies are required to prove that they have "the knowledge" before becoming officially licensed, let's just say that many Boston residents have something we could dub "the know-how." Maps does reasonably well in my city, with logically straightforward routes--but many of them are ones I wouldn't take.

That said, the primary use of a navigation device--for me and, I'm sure, many of you--is to direct you when you don't know which way you should go. In that sense, iOS 6's turn-by-turn directions are generally sufficient--but it probably wouldn't hurt to have some other maps on hand, just in case.

For what it's worth, you can still get the old-fashioned step-by-step style of directions, with this handy little trick: When you ask for directions, enter something other than your current location in the starting location field. (It can even be your current address--just don't use the current location.) You'll get the same street-sign-style directions, but you can swipe through them, and Maps will show you were your turns are.

Walking directions use that same step-by-step style rather than turn-by-turn; other than the styling, you won't find much difference from iOS 5 Maps.

Transit directions, however, are a whole new ballgame, as Google apparently got the public transportation database in the divorce. Instead of including built-in transit directions, Apple has added an API to let third-party developers accept transit direction start and end points.

So, while there's still a toggle button for transit directions while you're on the Directions screen, selecting it and tapping Route will produce a new screen labelled Routing Apps. There are two separate listings on that screen: the first shows you any apps currently installed on your device that can handle the specified directions along with a Route button; the second shows you apps available on the App Store that can do so.

While routing worked fine in the only app I had available to test, Embark iBART, it won't give you the exact same experience as you had under iOS 5. For example, Embark iBART provided me with a timetable of which trains I could catch, but it wouldn't tell me how far I would have to walk from my current destination to make it to the train station, nor would it tell me how far I'd have to walk from the destination stop to my final goal.

This is an odd solution for Apple, which usually prides itself on providing a consistent experience. But I suspect that handling public transit directions simply wasn't an option for Apple at this point, and if it came down to offering a third-party experience versus no feature at all, Apple opted to not leave its users completely high-and-dry. Speaking from my own experience, I'd long switched over to a third-party app specifically for public transit in my local city, so I'm not sure how much Maps's change will affect me.

I'm certain that Apple's mapping will only improve from here; for a company's first foray into a hotly contested and complicated field, iOS 6's maps and turn-by-turn directions are remarkably good.

That sounds like a lot of qualification, so let's revisit our question from up top: Does iOS succeed in replacing your standalone GPS device?

In a word: Maybe. In two words: Sort of. If you already have a standalone GPS unit or an iOS GPS app that you really like, I'm not going to tell you to throw it out or banish it from your device. But neither am I going to tell you to go out and buy a GPS device because iOS 6 just doesn't cut the mustard.

Talk to me

Siri was the marquee feature of the iPhone 4S, and while the voice-activated virtual assistant technically remains in beta, in iOS 6 it debuts on the latest-generation iPad; later this fall, it'll come to the fifth-generation iPod touch. In addition to all its old tricks, Siri picks up a few new capabilities in iOS 6. Apple, in particular, has been focusing attention on three areas: sports, movies, and restaurants.

Sports

If you're the kind of person who always needs to be plugged into the latest sports scores, you probably have plenty of apps on your iOS device already. But now those answers are just a question away: You can ask Siri who won last night's game, what the score is for tonight's matchup, when the next game is coming up, or the current standings.

Siri knows about players, too. So if you're wondering whether Derek Jeter or David Ortiz has more home runs this season, Siri can tell you. It can also tell you who has the highest batting average in the league, as well as a variety of other stats, including height and age. These stats are for just the current season; if you're looking for all-time leaders, you're better off consulting Wolfram Alpha.

You can also ask Siri about football, basketball, hockey, and a variety of soccer leagues, including the MLS and English Premier League. While Siri doesn't know anything about other sports, she was in my experience at least able to identify golf, tennis, and rugby as sports and apologize for not having more information.

Movies If movies are more your cup of tea, Siri can handle that as well. Ask for movies playing near you, and you'll get a list, including ratings from Rotten Tomatoes. (You can also ask for movie theaters nearby; tap any one of those and you'll get a list of what's showing. In my test, several of the theaters looked to have incomplete showtimes.)

Tapping on any movie will give you the Rotten Tomatoes and MPAA ratings and the option to view the trailer by tapping on the movie poster. Showtimes are listed at the bottom; tapping on them will show you which theaters are playing the film. You can't purchase tickets via Siri's interface, though; for that you'll still need to jump out to an app or website.

Compared to sports, Siri's more knowledgeable about movie history. Ask it who won best actor in 1963, and back comes "Gregory Peck" and information about To Kill a Mockingbird. Want to figure out which movie starred guys who had elsewhere portrayed Ghandi and Bob Woodward, and you'll get the 1992 masterpiece Sneakers. Sadly, though, Siri can't tell you Mark Hamill's Bacon number.

Restaurants

Restaurant information is probably Siri's best new feature. iOS 6 has improved the local search options that debuted in iOS 5, thanks to tighter integration with Yelp. Ask "What's the best place for dinner around here?" and Siri will provide you with a list restaurants near your location, sorted by rating. Each listing also includes the type of cuisine, address, distance, and how expensive it is.

Tap on a restaurant and you'll get hours, phone number, website (if available), address (with a map), and star rating. Tap on the rating to read a few selected comments, to check in at the location, or to write your own tip. (The latter two launch the Yelp app if it's installed on your system). You can also tap on the picture in the top left corner to view photos, which also gives you an option to add your own (again, via the Yelp app).

Best of all, if the restaurant uses the OpenTable reservation service, you can tap a button to make reservations or even have Siri do it. "Make me a reservation for two at 7pm on Wednesday night at Ruth's Chris" pops up a panel telling you whether or not tables are available at your chosen time. It even offers you the option to shift that time in one direction or another. Tap Make Reservation, and the OpenTable app will launch (if it's installed on your phone); if not, you'll be prompted to download it. Of all Siri's features, this is the one that strikes me as the most futuristic: I just told my robot assistant to make me dinner reservations and it did.

Other improvements

Beyond those new features, there are a good number of other tasks that Siri can accomplish in iOS 6. For example, you can now launch an app simply by asking Siri to do so. Want to post a tweet or update your status on Facebook? Siri can handle that as well, if you've set up your social networking accounts in Settings.

In general, Siri handles certain things a little better now than it did previously. For example, it's now possible to change the text for a reminder while you're creating it, and it's a little more streamlined to send someone a message via Siri.

However, Siri still has plenty of shortcomings. The virtual assistant still can't read your email to you, or change your settings (though it will recognize commands to turn on Airplane Mode or Bluetooth), and trying to edit an email message or iMessage you've composed via Siri is liable to induce hair-tearing for anything but the shortest messages. And much as I would like to be able to offer an opinion on Siri's Eyes Free mode, it's surprisingly difficult to get a BMW test unit.

Perhaps my favorite new feature in Siri is one of the simplest: You can control where the audio output of iOS's virtual assistant goes. When there's more than one option--say, for example, that you're in your car, with a fancy Bluetooth stereo--a button appears that allows you to route Siri's voice to either the iPhone's speakers or your car's, thereby solving a problem that has likely had plenty of us swearing at our phones.

Still, I'm heartened by the fact that Apple hasn't ditched Siri by the roadside, despite the grief the feature has taken in some places. This is one of those technologies that has the potential to redefine how we interact with our electronic devices, but it's not going to spring forth fully formed, like Athena from Zeus's forehead; it's a slow, gradual process that won't seem revolutionary until we look back at how far we've come.

Even if iOS 6 doesn't perfect the virtual assistant, I look forward to seeing what Siri learns about next.

Passing on Passbook

I'd love to tell you that Passbook is another one of those revolutionary technologies I just mentioned--heck, I'd love to tell you anything about Passbook. But unfortunately, as I write this the app remains an enigma. I've been unable to locate an app or business that is actively taking advantage of the app, so all I know is what Apple's told us: The goal of Passbook is to collect all those disparate cards and tickets you carry around into a single, central location.

So your movie tickets, concert tickets, sporting event tickets, boarding passes, coupons, stored value cards, and so on, will all live in Passbook. When you head into the relevant establishment or location, you can pull out Passbook, display the correct card, complete with a scannable barcode. Passes can even be time or location based, popping up a notification on your lock screen at the appropriate moment.

It's a great idea, and I have visions of how it could evolve: Imagine buying movie tickets via Siri and having them automatically show up in Passbook. But while it sounds nifty, we're going to have to see how it fares in the real world and, most importantly, what other companies decide to support it.

Call me, call me

It's tough to remember at times that the iPhone is, in fact, a phone; I must confess that it's one of the features I use the least. The Phone app gets a few minor enhancements in iOS 6, one of which is purely cosmetic: The Keypad section is now a whitish-silvery color instead of dark blue. It probably won't affect your usage that much.

The other new feature is considerably more interesting. We've all gotten a call at an inopportune moment--while we're in a meeting, for example, or in some other public space that we don't want to chat. It's long been a simple matter to mute the call or send it straight to voicemail, but we've also all probably had that moment where we realize an hour later that we've forgotten to actually return a call.

iOS 6 adds two options, both of which are hidden under a little phone icon that appears next to the Slide to Answer prompt when you receive a call. Two options--Reply with Message and Remind Me Later--are hidden underneath this icon, which you can reveal by swiping up, as with the Camera lock screen icon.

The first option lets you send back one of three quick boilerplate text messages, each prefixed with "Can't talk right now." By default, those include "I'll call you later," "I'm on my way," and "What's up." However, you can edit any or all of those to your own messages in Settings -> Phone -> Reply with Message (although your custom messages will still be preceded by "Can't talk right now.").

The second option can automatically set a reminder to call the person back; you can choose from In 1 hour, When I leave, When I get home, or When I get to work. (The last three, obviously, use geofences to determine your location; the last two will only show up if you have a corresponding address entered in Contacts.) In each case, iOS will add an entry to the Reminders app "Call back Contact Name." Even handier, that entry is actually a link--tap it and a Call dialog box will pop-up, pre-filled with your contact's number.

It's an unexpected improvement--really, who thought that the telephone could still be improved upon after all these years--but a welcome one.

FaceTime over cellular As long as we're on the subject of calling, there are a couple of other related improvements in iOS 6. FaceTime calls can now be conducted over the cellular network--however, there's a big asterisk on that: It depends on your carrier.

While Verizon and Sprint are placing no restrictions on FaceTime calling over cellular, AT&T has said that it will only allow users of its Shared Data plans to use the feature. It's a decision that has provoked a fair amount of ire from users who don't want to change their plans, but AT&T appears to be holding fast to that decision.

Given that I'm an AT&T customer, it makes trying out FaceTime over cellular a little tricky. However, thanks to a friend with a Verizon iPhone, I was at least able to see it in action. The verdict? It looks a lot like FaceTime over Wi-Fi. The only appreciable difference I could see was a bit more lag before my conversation partner on the other end responded--kind of like talking to the astronauts on the space station--which occasionally had us speaking over each other. But I can't say for sure whether that was a function of the cellular network or that particular connection.

If your data plan allows FaceTime over cellular, you can enable it by going to Settings -> FaceTime, and tapping the Use Cellular Data switch at the bottom.

Apple has also slightly improved the interface for which addresses you can be reached at for FaceTime. It now syncs between your devices, so you don't have to re-enter all your various email addresses and phone numbers. In theory, no matter which device you're using, FaceTime calls should be able to reach you on any of your emails or phone numbers. (Apple's done something similar with iMessage in iOS 6, for more on which see below.)

Do Not Disturb It's not specifically a phone-related feature, but iOS 6's new Do Not Disturb feature can help prevent you from getting bothered by unwanted phone calls while you're catching some shut-eye. The feature, which can be activated at the top level of Settings, lets you temporarily mute all notifications, including phone calls. When active, alerts will not sound and your screen won't even light up.

There are a few exceptions, which you can configure under Settings -> Notifications -> Do Not Disturb. For example, you can choose to allow calls from a specific group of your Contacts, or your Phone Favorites. ("Everyone" or "No One" are also options, if you're feeling more or less permissive.) If you're worried about not being reachable in case of an emergency, you can also enable a Repeated Calls feature--if someone calls you twice within three minutes, the second call will come through normally. Hopefully, the robocallers won't start programming their machines to take this into account, but I won't hold my breath.

The best feature for Do Not Disturb, however, is the ability to schedule it. Tap the Scheduled switch to enable it and you can set times at which Do Not Disturb is automatically activated and deactivated--for example, midnight through 8:30 a.m. Unfortunately, the schedule is one-day-fits-all, so if you want a different time window for your weekends vs. your weekdays, you're out of luck.

It's worth noting that your notifications are not lost when your phone is in Do Not Disturb mode--they just accumulate silently, much like paperwork on your desk. You can still find them in Notification Center.

Priority mail

Mail is probably the most frequently updated iOS app--not a major release of iOS comes without some sort of change. In iOS 6, however, it appears to have fairly few changes compared to previous versions.

VIPs The most prominent alteration in Mail is the addition of the VIP feature that arrived with Mountain Lion. There are certain folks that you always want to see emails from, and VIP lets you demarcate them. To add someone to your VIPs, tap the blue arrow next to the VIP mailbox that shows up in the main screen of Mail, then tap Add VIP; you'll be prompted to choose a contact. (You can remove them by swiping one and tapping delete or by tapping Edit and going through the delete-toggle-tap-Delete dance.)

Once you've designated someone a VIP, you'll see a blue star appear next any new messages from them; once you've read the message, that blue star will turn into a hollow gray one. Note that you don't need to specify a specific email address for VIP; any address that's in the Contacts entry for your VIP will be so flagged. Also, thanks to iCloud, your VIPs are synced among all your devices running either iOS 6 or Mountain Lion, so you only need to mark someone as a VIP once.

VIP messages have two other special behaviors: Firstly, they're all collected into a VIP smart mailbox at the top level of Mail. Secondly, you can set up Notifications for Mail that only trigger for VIPs. You can configure those VIP-specific notifications in Settings -> Notifications -> Mail -> VIP. (There's also a shortcut from the screen where you edit your VIPs.) As with any other app, you can choose to have banners, alerts, or no message, as well as a sound, a badge on the Mail app, and a preview of the message content in the lock screen notification.

If you happen to be someone who gets a lot of email, you've probably long ago disabled notifications for new emails. The introduction of VIPs marks the first time I've turned notifications on for emails since the original iPhone. It's a helpful addition, though I do admit that I miss one of Mountain Lion Mail's extensions of it: the ability to get a notification for any email sent by someone in your contacts.

Flagged Mailbox In addition to VIPs, the other major improvements to Mail include a much-awaited Flagged smart mailbox. You've been able to flag messages since iOS 5, but if you wanted to actually see all those flagged messages in one place, you had to resort to your computer. One caveat: Flagged will only show you the number of flagged messages for mail that has actually been retrieved. So if Mail is configured to show your 50 most recent messages, you'll only see the flagged messages within those 50, unless you manually load more messages.

The workflow for flagging has changed, as well. Previously you tapped a tiny Mark link that appeared under the subject, after which you could chose to mark something as flagged or read/unread. In iOS 6, this has been replaced with a little flag icon in the toolbar, where the Refresh button used to live; otherwise, it continues to work the same.

I noted in my iOS 5 review that flagging didn't play so well with my work's Gmail account, which is configured via Microsoft Exchange--you could flag messages on iOS devices, but those flags would not show up in desktop clients or on the Web. That situation has been changed but not really improved in iOS 6--now I don't even have the option to flag messages in that account at all. Which, on the one hand, prevents me from futilely flagging messages, but, on the other hand, saddens me deeply.

Other improvements There are a couple of other improvements to Mail that make life easier. For example, tap and hold on the New Message button and you'll get a slide-up tray of your previous drafts. Tap any of those to resume working on them. (You can also tap a button to create a new message.)

Tap and hold in the body of a message and the pop-up box that appears now offers an option to Insert Photo or Video. Tapping on that will yield a standard photo picker, letting you easily embed pictures or videos from your iOS device, without the hassle of copying-and-pasting or having to remember to send emails from your Photos app. That solves the age-old problem of trying to reply to an existing message and attach photos.

You've also, at long last, got the ability to maintain mail signatures on a per-account basis. Go to Settings -> Mail, Contacts, Calendars, and scroll down to Signature. Tap on it and you'll see an option for All Accounts or Per Account. Tap Per Account and you'll get a box for each of your mail accounts; enter signatures in them, and those will be appended to the message you send from the respective account. For those of us that maintain both personal and work accounts, it's a godsend.

There's also now the ability to reorder mailboxes on the top level of Mail, so if you have a specific, neurotic order that you like those in--I'm not speaking from experience or anything--then that'll be a plus. Also, for accounts which have both delete and archive options, you can tap the Delete (or Archive) button in a mail message, and you'll get a pop-up option for which action you want to take.

No doubt, some will be saddened that Apple has removed one configuration option: In the Mail, Contacts, Calendars pane of Settings, you can no longer set a minimum font size.

Finally, Apple's taken a page from the book of many third-party developers and implemented a pull-to-refresh mechanic for Mail, which replaces the old Refresh button that you could tap. Weirdly, Apple has done this in a way that's slightly different from how it's usually accomplished--pull down on the screen and you'll see a little blob that stretches out, as though you were pulling on Silly Putty. When the blob reaches the breaking point, it snaps back up and starts refreshing. The effect is vaguely unsettling, though I suppose it works all right. You can perform this maneuver on any of your inboxes, or from the unified inbox on Mail's top screen.

Jungle Safari

iOS's other marquee app is, of course, its Web browser. Like Mail, Safari's improvements are fairly modest in iOS 6, though there are a couple of additions that bring an extra dimension of functionality.

Reading List

The Reading List feature Apple introduced in iOS 5 gets an upgrade here. No longer just a way of shuttling links back and forth, it now also caches the links you add to it for offline reading. So if you are reading, for example, a very long review of a mobile operating system platform, you can add it to your Reading List and still access it while you're on a plane, the subway, or inside your lead-lined panic room. This works for any item in your Reading List, regardless of read/unread status. However, if my Reading List is any indication, it's worth noting that publishers can opt not to make their content available for offline reading.

iCloud Tabs

It's a good thing Apple added that feature to Reading List, because otherwise iCloud Tabs might have rendered it largely obsolete. One of my favorite new features of iOS 6, iCloud Tabs lets you bring up a list of every open tab in Safari on any iOS device or Mac that's logged into your iCloud account. So if you realize that you left a crucial page open on your browser at home--directions to your cousin's new house, for example--you can pull it up in a few seconds.

While it's easily accessible in Safari on the Mac and iPad, it's squirreled away a little bit in the iPhone's browser: You need to tap the bookmarks icon in the tool bar and find it in the top-level bookmark list. The list that shows up is divided up by device, and tapping any bookmark will load it in the frontmost browser tab.

Web inspector

One of the best features of Safari in iOS 6 and it's buried miles deep: Settings -> Safari -> Advanced. Flip on Web Inspector and connect your iPad or iPhone to your Mac and you can use the desktop browser's Web Inspector to tweak settings on the Web page you're looking at on your iPad. As you change elements using the Web Inspector on the desktop, those changes will be reflected immediately on your mobile device. It's impressive to see in action, and it'll likely be a boon to Web developers who fret over compatibility with the latest devices.

Other improvements In addition, just as you can tap and hold on the new message icon in Mail, if you tap and hold on the back or forward button in Safari, you get quick access to your browsing history for that tab (or your browsing "future").

Finally--and, yes, I do mean "finally"--Safari now has the ability to upload images to websites. When I spent a few days working from my iPad earlier this year, one of the problems I ran into was uploading a profile picture to a website: Simply put, it could not be done. Now, though, it's easy enough: Tap any button for uploading a picture and you'll get an option to either take a photo or video or choose an existing image from your photo library. Of course, rich HTML tools for editing, resizing, or cropping pictures may or may not work correctly.

The iPad and iPhone versions of Safari each get their own improvements in iOS 6. In the iPhone version, you can now summon a full-screen mode in landscape by tapping the arrow buttons that appear when you tilt the phone sideways. That'll make the content of the browser window take up the fullscreen--the URL bar slides up out of sight (though you can get it back by swiping down) and the bottom toolbar goes away completely, although the back and forward buttons continue to appear, when relevant, as translucent overlays. To undo the full-screen mode tap the arrow buttons again, or just turn the phone back to portrait. It's a pleasant enough feature, but given the small size of the iPhone's screen--at least, pre-iPhone 5--I'm not sure how much real estate it really buys you.

iPad users get another subtle improvement: Apple has significantly increased the number of tabs you can have open. Previously you could only have nine open; iOS 6 raises that to 24. At a certain point, when there isn't room enough for all the tabs, Safari adds a little ">>" menu which, like its counterpart on the Mac, gives you a pop-up list of all your other open tabs. iPhone users, however, are still limited to just eight open tabs.

Photo opportunity

Just as pretty much every iPhone update has improved the device's camera, iOS updates usually beef up the Photos and Camera apps. There are two major improvements in Photos in iOS 6: iCloud users can now make Photo Streams to share with others, and users of the iPhone 4S and 5 can now take panorama images.

Shared Photo Streams On the face of it, Shared Photo Streams are a cool idea: Say, you're on a trip and want people to see your photos as you take them. Sure, you could upload them to Twitter or Facebook, but wouldn't it be a lot easier if your friends got those pictures delivered right to their devices?

When you create a Photo Stream, your contacts will get an email and a push notification inviting them to join the Photo Stream; you'll get another notification when they join it. Once they've done so, they'll get a push notification each time you add an image (or images) to the stream. They can also add comments or Like a photo (for which you'll get a notification), plus share photos with all of Photos's normal options (Facebook, Twitter, Email, iMessage, etc.) or save it to their Camera Roll. (Note that in iOS 6, the Share button doesn't appear until you tap Edit while viewing an album or photo stream.)

The one thing they can't do, however, is add their own photos to the stream. That's a disappointment, because it means that if I go on a trip with my family or friends and we want to pool our photos, we each have to create our own Photo Streams that we share with everyone else. (Or do the ritualistic memory-card exchange dance at the end of the trip.) I hope that Apple looks into adding this feature in a future update, since it would greatly improve the experience of sharing photos.

When you subscribe to a Photo Stream, it shows up automatically on all of your iOS devices.

You might wonder what your contacts will do should they be among the iOS-less. No problem: As mentioned above you can also create a Web-based Photo Stream for them to view in their browser, although they cannot comment on or Like pictures posted there.

The URL for the Shared Photo Stream is accessible from its settings page, which you can get to by tapping on the blue arrow next to your Shared Photo Stream (on your iPhone) or tapping the Edit button and then tapping on your the desired stream (on your iPad). The URL is listed at the bottom of this setting screen, right below a Share Link button, which will let you email, text/iMessage, tweet, Facebook, or copy the URL. The preferences also let you remove people from your stream, or delete the stream entirely.

If you're viewing a stream that doesn't belong to you, you can tap on the blue arrow to see who else is subscribed or unsubscribe yourself.

Panorama

Users of the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 get one additional feature: the new Panorama mode. Panorama photos are nothing new--plenty of apps exist to make this job easier, and I even remember using disposable panorama film cameras years ago. But Apple, as is its wont, has attempted to make the process of taking a Panorama shot even easier.

Fire up the Camera app in portrait orientation and tap the Options button. Below the toggles for Grid and HDR, you'll see a new Panorama button. Press it and you're off to the races.

Like other panorama photo apps, iOS captures a scene by having you pan across it, rather than the old-fashioned messy technique of taking a bunch of pictures and having software stitch them together. A small box shows you where to pan, while you keep the camera steady using an arrow that points at the centerline. If you start to move too fast, iOS will tell you to slow down.

The process generates an impressively high-quality--and rather large--image file that rings in at 10,800 by 2470 pixels. (A test shot I did ended up as a 17.8MB file, so keep that in mind before you start emailing them to your friends.) It's worth noting, however, that this isn't a 360° panorama--it's probably more like 270°. Also, the smaller area you're trying to capture, the more curvature you'll get--so landscapes will probably look more impressive than, say, your home office. Still, it's a remarkably easy process that produces a pretty seamless image.

Face(book) the music (and books, and photos, and video)

iOS 5 brought Twitter integration, so I suppose it's only fair that Facebook get its day in the sun. If you've used the existing Twitter integration at all, you'll find the Facebook options pretty straightforward. In pretty much any place you can Share something, you can now post it to Facebook in addition.

First, you'll need to configure it by visiting the Facebook section of Settings. You'll need to enter your username and password--or create an account if, horrors, you're one of the few who doesn't have one. Apple will provide you a lengthy list of things that you're giving access to, along with telling you to disable many of the features. You'll also be prompted to download the Facebook iOS app if you haven't already.

Once you've set up Facebook, you have some options. For one thing, you can choose which apps can access your Facebook account--by default, they include the App Store, Calendar, and Contacts, but other apps can request information as well, which it's up to you to allow or deny.

You can also choose to update your contact records with their respective information from Facebook. Be careful before choosing that option. My colleague Lex Friedman, who is more daring than I, ended up having his contacts' Facebook.com email addresses added to the contact records. In addition, you could also end up with a Facebook Friends' Birthdays calendar, which may lead to many more alerts than you'd wanted about great-aunt Mildred's pending 87th. On the upside, that information should stay in sync, which means that if your friend changes their phone number, that change will be reflected in your Contacts, which can be handy.

When posting to Facebook from Photos or updating your status via Notification Center, you'll have the option to choose which groups you want to post your message to, as well as add your location. (In my quick test, it only gave me nearby known locations, as opposed to iOS's Twitter implementation, which actually gives your exact location.) And, of course, you can have Siri post to Facebook for you.

Finally, you'll now find an integrated Like button under the Reviews tab in the App Store, iTunes Store, and iBookstore, so you can share your tastes in media with the world.

Music to your ears

The Music app isn't a focus of iOS 6, but it has gotten a cosmetic update on the iPhone, as well as some slight feature changes.

Most striking is the change in color scheme on the iPhone: The formerly white-on-black interface is now a silvery-white, more strongly resembling its iPad counterpart. The playback screen also looks more sleek, with silver aluminum highlights instead of white, and an orange selection color that replaces aqua blue. And the AirPlay control has moved down next to the volume slider, rather than its old position next to the forward button.

Podcasts and iTunes U are no longer present as category options in the More section--they've both been shipped out to their own respective apps. When playing audiobooks, you now have the option of skipping 15 seconds forward or back, instead of just 30 seconds back. And when viewing albums or artists, the iCloud download option is now at the top, instead of the bottom.

The other major different in iOS 6 concerns iTunes Match users: You can no longer download or delete individual tracks from your music library. Previously, when you activated iTunes Match, download buttons would appear next to each track--if you tapped that, or if you played the track back, it would be download to your device so that it wouldn't have to be redownloaded next time you played it, thus potentially saving you bandwidth. While that caching behavior seems to be intact in iOS 6, you no longer have the individual download buttons or the ability to swipe a track and delete it, thus freeing up space.

As always, there are tricks around this issue. Since you can tell iOS 6 to download a playlist, you can just create a single-track playlist and download a track. When it comes to deleting tracks, however, it's an all or nothing proposition: You can remove all your local music by going to Settings -> General -> Usage -> Music and swiping to delete the items there.

A is for Accessibility

Accessibility is one of the more overlooked aspects of iOS, but it's key for a device that relies so heavily on the touchscreen. iOS 6 brings a few enhancements to accessibility, but the most significant by far is Guided Access.

Guided Access Originally designed as a way to help make the iOS devices friendlier to kids who learn differently, Guided Access lets you disable certain parts of the device so that kids don't accidentally trigger something they're not supposed to. (Sure to be a boon to every parent who's come back to find that their kid has accidentally deleted their last five emails.)

Guided Access gets enabled in Settings -> General -> Accessibility, under a new heading titled Learning. Once you've enabled it, you can summon it from any app by triple-clicking the Home button. (If you'd like to have options of which accessibility features are available by triple-clicking, you can choose from the Triple-click Home section under Accessibility--pick more than one feature, and you'll be presented with a menu when you triple click the button.)

By default, Guided Access disables all hardware buttons when activated. Via the Options button that shows up when you activate it, you can also disable the motion or touch functionality. Best of all, you can--in a simple but very cool interface--disable certain onscreen controls by simply drawing around them. So if you just want to turn off a button that lets kids view other screens in an app, you can do that. Those areas will be shown with a gray halftone and won't respond to touch.

(Be careful, though, because Guided Access performs its magic based on physical areas of the screen. So, for example, if you disable a toolbar at the bottom of the screen, and the device is then turned to a different orientation, it's now the side of the screen that's disabled. Likewise, I found the hard way that disabling part of the bottom of the screen also disabled the bottom row of the onscreen keyboard too.)

To disable Guided Access, you simply triple click the Home button again. That's gauged to be tough for most kids to stumble across, but if you're concerned, you can also set a passcode that must be entered to disable Guided Access.

Text-to-speech

Those who use iOS's Speak Selection feature will find a few new improvements. In addition to adjusting the speaking rate, users can now choose a number of different speech dialects of English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Chinese. Words can also optionally be highlighted as the voice speaks them.

Hearing aids

iOS 6 brings compatibility with Bluetooth hearing aids, if you have one. Apple says it has been working with vendors to bring them to market.

Home-click

Speed It's now possible to adjust the speed needed to activate double- or triple-clicks of the Home button to slow or slowest.

What's in store

iOS's three storefronts--the iTunes Store, the App Store, and the iBookstore--are integral parts of the experience, and all three of them have gotten significant reimaginings with iOS 6. They each feature a new design, as well as more touch-friendly features and additional capabilities.

App Store Of the three, this is likely the one where iOS users spend the most time. The new version strikes me as more attractive than the old one, with a black/gray theme and large, colorful rotating carousels that you can swipe through.

App pages are broken up into more usable chunks, with separate tabs for details, reviews, and related apps. Further down, at the bottom of the page, you'll find other information sub-divided into menus, such as developer info, top in-app purchases, the license agreement and privacy policy and, my favorite, the version history, which handily collects release notes from prior versions.

Charts are given more prominent placement in the new version, with the Categories option--which used to be on the App Store's main toolbar--instead relegated to the top left corner of the Charts screen. Genius also nabs a spot on the toolbar; tap it and you'll be prompted to activate the feature and log into iTunes for personalized recommendations.

On the iPhone, this takes the form of a swipeable list of app "cards," each of which shows the app name and icon, the reason it was recommended, its rating and price, and a screenshot. A Not Interested button at the bottom lets you take it out of the running. (The same cards appear on the iPad, but there are several visible at a time, and it's easy to scroll through them.)

This card interface appears under search now as well. On the iPad, it's not so bad, as it's also accompanied by three drop-down menus that let you filter by price (free or paid) and category, and sort by relevance, popularity, ratings, and release date. On the iPhone, however, it means you have to spend a lot of time scrolling through listings to find what you want, as opposed to the previous interface, which packed more information into the same amount of space.

The best feature of the App Store in iOS 6, however, is background installation and updating. Unlike in previous versions, where tapping Install or Update next to an app meant you were kicked back out to the Home screen and shown exactly where that app would appear, you now get to stay in the comfort of the store. Should you want to launch the app when it's been downloaded, that's easy--the Update or Install button instead becomes an Open button; tap it and the app will launch automatically.

So how to find those new apps on your Home screen? Equally easy: They still install in the first open slot. And they'll also feature a New banner on one corner, so you can quickly pick them out of a line-up.

You can now also install apps from right inside other applications. So, for example, if someone emails you a link to an app, tapping that will pop up a panel from which you can read about the app and install it.

iTunes Store

Like its counterparts, the iTunes Store looks much flashier than its predecessor. Instead of the gray pinstripe background and blue toolbar, the app features the same attractive black and gray theme as the other two stores. A carousel on the front page automatically swaps through featured items, and you can manually swipe through if you'd prefer.

Likewise, albums and singles now stretch off the screen, allowing you to scroll through them. Tapping on any album brings up a list of tracks, as well as tabs for reviews and related items that others have purchased. You can, of course, tap any track to preview it and, in a nice addition, that preview continues to play in the background even as you continue browsing. On the iPad, a little window pops up, letting you pause the preview or purchase the song--on the iPhone, this appears as a little pane at the top of the screen.

If you can't remember what song you were listening to earlier, the store now features a preview history. Tap the button with three lines in the top right of the menu bar, and you'll get a tappable history of songs you've previewed, along with--unsurprisingly--links to buy the song. That history is automatically synced among all your devices, but you can erase it at any time by tapping the Clear button.

TV Shows, Movies, and Audiobooks all work similarly, and items that you preview there will also show up in your preview history. Access to your previously purchased items on the Purchased tab is easier now, thanks to a drop-down menu that lets you sort by name, what you've bought most recently, or other criteria depending on the type of media.

Like apps, you can buy media directly from other apps, so if someone sends you a link to an album, TV show, or song, you can tap it to bring up a panel from which you can preview it and purchase it if you like.

iBookstore The iBookstore also gets a handsome makeover with the new black/gray color scheme, swipeable carousels, and multiple tabs for details, reviews and ratings, and related items (sub-divided into offerings from the same author as well as on similar topics). And, of course, like the other stores, there is support for sharing books by Mail, Messages, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as copying the URL. You'll also find the same support for previewing and purchasing books from within other apps, if you tap on a link to the iBookstore.

The times they are a'changin'

As with most iOS updates, Apple has tweaked a few bolts here, tightened a few corners there, and generally given its mobile OS a coat of polish. Here are some of the more noticeable changes and improvements.

Reminders I gave Reminders short shrift in my iOS 5 review, primarily because the app felt decidedly unfinished. That's been largely rectified in iOS 6: The interface for setting a reminder is decidedly streamlined and requires fewer taps, priorities actually show up in the interface, and glory be, you can set a location-based reminder for an arbitrary address. Add in some nice tweaks and simplifications on the interface--including an integrated calendar on the iPhone--and Reminder in iOS 6 is what it should have been in iOS 5.

Stocks and Weather

Both get a subtle interface tweak in iOS 6 to get with the times. The former now provides more news at a glance and the former gains a less hefty, more streamlined look, thanks to a lighter weight font. Also, Local Weather is active by default, unless you deactivate it in Location Services.

Clock

What, improvements to the Clock app? Indeed! The app can now wake you up to any song from your Library, an excellent feature that's been missing for far too long. There's also a better interface for picking which cities you want to monitor time for--previously you could only search. The iPad, meanwhile, gets the Clock app for the first time, including a nice world map that gives you temperature and current weather for all the locations of the clocks you add. I quite like the bizarre grid-based Alarm screen, but I find the stopwatch and the timer a bit lackluster, though functional.

Contacts

The search field is now always visible in list mode, which is useful when you're trying to filter down your results. Groups has now changed to a filter-based system; instead of choosing a group to view the members of that particular group, you check off only the groups whose members you want displayed in your full listing. That's a good way to whittle down your contact list--make a group called Old Contacts and stick the people you don't hear from in there.

Also, in addition to a custom vibration pattern for phone calls, you can now add a custom vibration for text message on a per-contact basis, so you can tell who's texting without pulling out the phone.

YouTube

The YouTube app is, of course, an ex-app, pining for the fjords. That's good all around: It was getting a bit long in the tooth, and it didn't quite fit in anymore. Google's own YouTube app is a solid replacement and, even if you don't want to go download it, playing videos back in Safari works just fine for the most part.

Settings the record straight

The Settings app often goes unrecognized, but it's the app that keeps iOS running smoothly, and it gets a few welcome alterations in iOS 6.

Bluetooth becomes a top level option, which will receive an ovation from all of us who've had to spend too much of our lives tapping three levels down just to pair our headsets. On the iPad, Sounds also moves up from General (though it was already at the top level on the iPhone). The iPhone version of Sounds also gets a much clearer set of vibrate options, which will please those who found the previous labeling somewhat obtuse.

Location Services, meanwhile, gets demoted from the top level into a new Privacy section, which may very well be one of the unsung heroes of this update. Not only do you still have granular access to apps requesting your location, but you can now manage which apps get access to your Contacts, Calendars, Reminders, Photos, Bluetooth Sharing, Twitter, and Facebook. So if a particular app is misbehaving--or you've download an app but aren't quite sure if you can trust it--you can shut off access. A solid thumbs up, especially since it seems every week there's yet another privacy scandal online.

According to Apple, it's simplified receiving iMessages on multiple devices, so you should be able to set a single contact ID from which all messages will emanate, thus no longer running into the problem of receiving an iMessage addressed to your phone number, which never makes it to your iPad.

For those on a data plan budget, the General -> Cellular section lets you specify which features can use Cellular Data. So, for example, you can allow Reading List and Passbook Updates while denying iCloud Documents and iTunes.

Also the Shortcuts section of the General -> Keyboard settings gets a much more functional overhaul, complete with a search field and the ability to quickly scroll through your expansion options.

Reminders and Newsstand get their own sections in Settings, but unfortunately you still can't turn the latter feature off, much to the dismay of those of us who would like it off, off, off our Home screens.

Bottom line

There has yet to be a major version of iOS to which we haven't recommended updating, and iOS 6 is no exception to the rule. As always, Apple continues to demonstrate its methodology of adding features gradually and, for the most part, sensibly.

The new Maps app alone, while occasionally rough in spots, are still worth the (free) price of the upgrade. As much as Apple doesn't play the feature checklist game, the addition of turn-by-turn directions knocks down a serious Android advantage.

While iOS 5 may have felt more like a cohesive statement, a flag in the sand, iOS 6 showcases Apple's willingness to dive deeply into a single feature and rebuild it from the ground up to make it even better. And, oh, along the way, it'll take the time to tweak a bunch of its other apps, and add plenty of new features and capabilities.

There are still gaps, to be sure, but it seems like there are fewer every year. And Apple is meanwhile trying to plant more flags with forward-looking features like Passbook. Whether it'll take its rightful place on the Home screen with Mail and Safari, or end up consigned to the dust heap of history like Ping, it's clear that Apple is not resting on its laurels, with iOS 6.

Simply put, there's no reason not to update to iOS 6, and plenty of reasons for you to jump onboard.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Dan Moren

Macworld.com
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