iOS 5 review: Ambitious update rings in the changes

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In particular, Calendar's entries in Notification Center can be sub-optimal. Like any of the other apps, you can choose to have one, five, or ten of your Calendar events displayed. Obviously, Notification Center simply picks the next upcoming events, but it would be nice if there were some more specific controls in place. As someone with a lot of work and personal calendars to juggle, I find that Notification Center fills up with calendar events that I don't really care about, while events that are more important to me get lost in the shuffle. The ability to have Calendar notifications pick from a specific calendar, or ignore certain calendars, would really improve the usefulness of Calendar in Notification Center.

One nice touch, though, is that if you have a reminder or calendar event that's keyed to a particular time, the time remaining until it (or after it) will continue to update on the lock screen.

iMessage, you message, we all message!

When Apple first released the iPhone, there was a lot of speculation about why the company didn't include an instant-messaging app. After all, it includes its own IM client, iChat, on the Mac. The prevailing opinion seemed to be that including an IM app would have detracted from one of the wireless carriers' cash cows: text messaging.

With iOS 5, Apple has evidently decided that its position is no longer as tenuous as it was back in 2007. In this update, the company has introduced a system called iMessage, which lets you freely send messages—text, image, video, a location, or contact information—to anybody else on an iOS device, free of charge. That's because iMessage sends its payload over the device's data connection (Wi-Fi or 3G) instead of over the control channel of the cell phone's voice connection, as SMS does. And because you're already paying for a data plan, those bits and bytes will only count against your cap for that, rather than against your SMS limit.

In essence, that makes messaging virtually free—as long as you're conversing with a fellow iOS device owner.

What's clever about how Apple implemented iMessage is that it built the feature right into the existing Messages app. So there's no having to explain to your less technically savvy friends how they can send you a free message instead of an SMS; it's all done automatically.

In its traditional attention to design, Apple uses subtle cues to differentiate between sending an iMessage and a standard text message. When you add a contact whose phone number and/or email address are associated with iMessage, their contact bubble and the Send button will appear in blue; if you're just sending a plain old text message, they'll be green instead.

Any phone running iOS 5 which also has iMessage enabled (Settings -> Messages) will automatically have its phone number associated, much in the same way as FaceTime. In addition, also as with FaceTime, you can add other email addresses where iMessages can reach you.

However, while you can send a message to multiple iMessage recipients or text message recipients, trying to mix and match ends up falling back on the lowest common denominator. So, if you send to multiple phone numbers, and even one of them isn't associated with iMessage, you'll end up sending SMS messages to all of them. If you include an email address among your group, that contact will get an email message instead.

There are a few other nice additions to iMessage, besides the whole "replacing SMS" aspect. For one thing, because this is a smarter, more modern system than text messages, it can add features like the ability to tell you when a contact has received and even read a message. (If you're squeamish about having others know just when you read their messages, you can deactivate that option in Settings -> Messages.) As in iChat on the Mac, you'll also get a little word bubble with an ellipsis in it while the other person is composing their message.

Overall, iMessage is probably not something the wireless carriers are thrilled about, but it's hardly a new idea. RIM has been doing a similar thing with BlackBerry Messaging (BBM), and Android users can get similar functionality with Google Voice, Google+'s Huddle features, or third-party apps—some of which are available on the iPhone, too.

iMessage is not quite a replacement for instant messaging or text messages, but the fact that Apple has combined the two into one app, rather than creating an iMessage app that's completely separate, is a smart move, and one that may hasten the demise of SMS.

While this all may be a poke in the eye to carriers like AT&T and Verizon, it also encourages messaging fragmentation by raising the old standards problem. When all your friends have different smartphones, will we still be reliant on SMS and MMS to send our messages? Or will we have to rely on email or a third-party solution? Or, hope against hope, can all these various manufacturers and software developers find a way to live together in harmony?

By the way, I wouldn't bet on that last one.

Remind me

The announcement that Apple would, at long last, add a to-do style app to its iOS raised concerns from some that Cupertino was pulling a Sherlock on a field dominated, to date, by third-party app makers. But given the application's extremely bare-bones and inconsistent nature, I think those developers have little worry about.

Reminders seems straightforward enough: Create a task you need to do, specify how you'd like to be reminded, and you're done. Surprisingly, though, Reminders ends up being perplexing, with a superfluous feature or two, an occasionally strange interface, and a general impression that every time you launch the app it's muttering "Who am I? What am I doing here?"

Take, for example, the option to add a priority to tasks. While you can add a ranking of Low, Medium, or High to a task (in addition to the default None), doing so appears to have no effect whatsoever on the item in question. It's not reflected in the list of tasks or the order of the tasks, and you can't filter for priority at all; that priority does, however, show up in the Calendar Web app for iCloud, as well as in iCal on your Mac if you sync your reminders via Apple's rechristened Web-based service. So why not on your iOS devices?

Much of Reminders seems to be built around two ideas: First, filling that longstanding gap for syncing tasks from iCal to your iPhone; and second, location-based reminders. This latter feature is a clever one, even if Apple's not the first to roll it out. Basically, the idea is that if you want to reminded to do something at a particular place—say, remembering to buy stamps while you're at the post office—you can input that location and, when you arrive there (or depart the scene), your iPhone will display a notification.

Sounds great, in theory, and it works—albeit it with some caveats. The biggest, in my opinion, is an inability to specify a location that's not associated with a contact (or that's not your current location). So if, in the aforementioned example, you want to remind yourself to buy stamps at your local post office, you have to add a contact for that post office. It's clumsy and bizarre, especially given the far superior interface that iOS's Maps app uses for a similar process.

You also can't manually reorganize items in a list—nor do they change position based on the time you set for the alerts; they're always in the same order that you add them.

All in all, Reminders may be sufficient for the most basic task-tracking, but anyone who seriously relies on managing their to-dos will probably want to turn to a third-party solution for now.

Now tweet this

Speaking of third-party software, it might seem at first blush that Apple's aiming at the horde of Twitter clients by bringing built-in integration with the social-networking service to iOS 5. But relax: it's not going to do away with your Twitter client. In fact, iOS 5's Twitter integration provides a nice complement to the Twitter client of your choice, as a glass of wine to well-prepared meal.

To configure your Twitter account, you just visit the new Twitter section of Settings, and enter your login credentials; you can set up multiple accounts, if you so need. In a tie-in with Twitter itself, you can also install the company's own iOS client directly from settings by tapping an Install button.

For the most part, iOS 5's use of Twitter is relegated to posting. For example, you can upload a photo from Camera or Photos, along with a short message, by tapping the Share icon and then the Tweet button. In Safari and YouTube, you can tweet links; in Maps you can share a location via Twitter. Apple's even provided a Twitter-friendly version of iOS's software keyboard, making commonly-used Twitter symbols like @ and # easy to access.

Every time you compose a tweet, you can specify whether or not you want to add location data to it. However, Apple's realized that many of us aren't keen on sharing exactly where we are right now to our social networking information, so the information is only general. For example, posting a tweet from my house with location data only reveals that I'm in my hometown of Somerville, MA, as opposed to my address or exact coordinates. You'll also need to enable location information in your profile on Twitter's website first, or the location data won't be attached.

Apple's also tried to provide more fine-grained controls on what Twitter can and can't have access to. For example, you can disable Twitter access for any app—it won't make the Tweet button go away, but if you tap that button, a dialog box will pop up, informing you that it's not available.

In addition, under each Twitter account, you'll find a slider labeled Tweet Location, under which, Apple helpfully writes, "You can include your approximate location on individual tweets." Sounds all well and good, but in my testing, this slider does absolutely nothing. Regardless of whether it's on or off, no location is automatically added to my tweet, and in either case, I can still manually associate a location with my tweet by tapping the Add Location button.

However, there's an exception to that—Maps. If I tap share location, my current location is appended to the tweet, along with a Google Maps link to whatever location I'm sharing. Again, this happens regardless of that toggle switch's setting.

Those aren't the only bugs I ran into while trying to use Apple's Twitter integration. When composing a tweet in the pop-up dialog box, the system is supposed to auto-complete usernames. So, for example, should I want to address our fearless leader by his username, @jsnell, I would start typing "@js" and it would hopefully show me his name in the list, so I could tap it instead of typing the rest.

Unfortunately, there seem to be a handful of users who names just won't autocomplete—including our aforementioned editorial director. (It's not just me, either—at least two of my colleagues verified they had problems with the exact same usernames, while others reported problems with auto-completing other usernames.)

Then there's the Update Contacts functionality in Settings -> Twitter, which is supposed to not only let you add your friends' Twitter usernames to their records in Contacts, but also add pictures for them. In order for this to work, though, your existing Contact record for them needs to contain the same email address that they use to log in to Twitter. If you don't want to be findable in this method, you can flip the "Find Me by Email" slider to Off on a per-account basis in Settings -> Twitter.

However, even when I tried to have iOS 5 update my contacts, I routinely had it tell me that 0 contacts were updated, even when I knew for sure that I had all the data I needed. One of my colleagues did get this to work on a phone, but the majority that I polled saw the same message about no contacts being updated.

Apple also says that you're supposed to be able to add your contact's Twitter usernames to their entries in your address book, but not only did this not happen with the Update Contacts feature, neither my iPad nor my iPhone would even let me manually add a field for Twitter username—that option simply did not exist. The same was true for several of my colleagues, though the same one who got the contact updating feature to work did have these fields in his iOS address book.

For what it's worth, making Twitter pervasive throughout the OS and allowing developers to hook into it is a great idea. Being able to snap a picture or video and upload it right there, without having to jump to your Twitter client, is handy and saves taps. And because iOS's integration is limited to posting, not reading your Twitter feed, there's plenty of space for third-party clients to survive.

All the news that's fit to download

Before the iPad's release, many suggested that such a device could save publishers by finally giving them a digital platform that people want to read on. While it hasn't been quite the groundswell that some anticipated, Apple has worked to provide a niche for periodicals and newspapers. However, the company's subscription rules have irked many publications.

Newsstand is an attempt to sweeten the pot, the carrot to the subscription rules' stick. It appears on the Home screen as a set of wooden shelves reminiscent of iBooks's interface. Tapping on it expands Newsstand like a folder, displaying the latest issues of your periodicals, complete with an updated cover image. The issues can even be downloaded in the background so that when you wake up in the morning the freshest version of your publication is already waiting for you—no need to even launch an app until you're ready to read. Newsstand's icon will display a badge showing the number of new issues waiting; once you tap into the folder, new issues will be marked with a label.

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