iOS 5 review: Ambitious update rings in the changes

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Whether Newsstand will be successful at luring in publishers is hard to say. As of this writing, Newsstand-enabled apps were just beginning to become available and the section of the App Store that Apple has designated for those publications—and which you can access directly from the Newsstand folder—had not yet been launched. But over time, more and more publications have begun complying with Apple's subscription rules, so it will be more surprising if they decide not to take advantage of Newsstand's features.

Mail call

Of all the apps on the iPhone, Mail has probably seen the most updates since its original incarnation. iOS 5 is no exception: In this revision, the email client has added a number of new features that fill in gaps in functionality.

My personal favorite is the ability to flag messages. I use flagging extensively on my Mac, to keep track of email messages that need responses or that I might need to refer to later. (Not the most efficient system, perhaps, but it works well for me.) Previously, if I got a message on my iPhone that I wanted to refer to later on my Mac, I generally had to leave it as unread, so that I'd be sure to remember it. (For a brief while, I flirted with a system where moving it to a specific folder would trigger a script on my Mac that would flag it, but that approach ended up being more trouble for me than it was worth.)

So, flagging is a welcome addition. For the most part, it has worked well for me, although I have noticed some bugs here and there, most of which appear to be related to mail accounts set up with Exchange (or, at least, accounts set up on Google via its Google Sync service, which uses Exchange.) Mostly, I've run into an issue where I flag a message on one device, but the flag doesn't transfer to other devices. However, on my other accounts—MobileMe and a run-of-the-mill IMAP account—flagging transfers without any problem. You can even flag multiple messages by tapping the Edit button while viewing a mailbox, then selecting the messages and tapping the Mark button; you can also use this feature to mark several messages as read or unread.

Also worth noting: iOS's flagging has just a single color: red. If you're using Lion's Mail to flag messages with multiple colors, be aware that they'll all show up on your iOS device as flagged, but of the same color. And messages you flag on your iOS device will only show up in Lion mail as red.

Mail in iOS 5 also includes the ability to specify rich-text formatting—bold, italics, and underline. You'd be excused for not stumbling across this functionality, as it's buried deeper than toxic waste. To format text you must first type the text you want, then select it, then tap the right arrow button on the pop-up menu, followed by tapping the "BIU" button, and finally tapping the type of formatting you wish to apply. This is, frankly, a pain, and I think will probably keep most people away from formatting. Even more frustrating, for those that actually use a Bluetooth keyboard with their iOS device, is that the standard Command-B, Command-I, and Command-U shortcuts don't work.

Really, this is illustrative of the overextension of some of iOS's interface conceits. The pop-up menu was sufficient when the only options were selection and cut, copy, and paste. But now, when you've selected text, you have no fewer than seven options, several of which have sub-menus of their own. It's crowded, inelegant, and—at the end of the day—un-Apple-like. But perhaps it's just a matter of time before the company comes up with a better solution.

Contrast that gawky interface with an example of no-brainer design: iOS 5 now allows you to drag an address from one field to another in a message. So if you go to reply to a message and realize you'd rather put one of the recipients in a BCC field, you just tap and hold on their address then drag them down and drop them onto the BCC field. Voilà. It's a little feature that should have been there ages ago (after all, you can do the same thing on the Mac), but it's nice to see it arrive here.

Another much anticipated feature? The ability to search the full text of messages. Any number of us have probably tried valiantly to remember what a message's subject was or who sent an email, when all we can recall is that it mentioned something about pandas. Supposedly, iOS 5 brings the ability to search the body of a message when you select "All" for your search criteria in Mail. Unfortunately, in my tests—and in corroborating tests by my colleagues—it doesn't work in all cases. Of my three mail accounts—MobileMe, generic IMAP, and Exchange—searching the body of the message worked only on the IMAP account. On the others, it simply returned no results.

You can also now manually adjust the quote level in email messages. We've all found ourselves in email conversations that involve replies to replies to replies and so on. Now you can just tap in a paragraph (you don't even have to select the text necessarily) and, in the resulting pop-up menu, tap the right-ward facing arrow. A Quote Level button will appear; tap that, and you'll have options to either increase or decrease how indented that block of text is. You can also select a larger chunk of text, even if it includes materials of different quote levels, and increase or decrease their indentation all at once. There's also an option in the Mail, Contacts, Calendars section of Settings to automatically increase the quote level when you reply to a message.

As mentioned in the PC Free section above, Mail has also benefited from some gap-filling, as it now features the ability to add or delete mailboxes on the fly from your device. It's probably not something you need to do often—unless, of course, you don't have a computer. In that case, it's an invaluable addition.

Snap, edit, print

No improvements may tangibly improve the life of iPhone users as much as the addition of a few key Camera and Photos features in iOS 5.

Apple has made a huge push to make taking photos faster—even for those of us who won't have access to the speedy new iPhone 4S camera. While your phone is locked, you can double click the Home button to get a new Camera button next to the unlock slider. Tap that and you'll jump right into the Camera interface.

Doing so bypasses any passcode lock you may have set up on your phone, but don't worry: The user can't get into any other apps—if they press the Home button, they'll go back to the lock screen, and access to the multitasking bar is altogether disabled. You also can't browse any previous pictures in the Camera Roll, either (except for those that you take in that particular session). That said, depending on your friends, you might very well expect a few prank pictures to surface in your Camera Roll—which is also potentially awkward if you use iCloud's new Photo Stream feature, since it automatically syncs those pictures to all your devices.

In a much-requested addition, you can also now click the iPhone's volume up button to take a picture instead of tapping the shutter icon. This has the added benefit of making it much easier to take self-portrait shots, plus it gives you some tactile feedback, which is nice.

It's also much easier to access the iPhone's digital zoom. Instead of tapping and bringing up the zoom slider—which you can still do—you can now just use the standard pinch-to-zoom motion to zoom in right on the camera screen. While that's handy, I found that I kept accidentally triggering a separate new feature—if you swipe to the right from the camera screen, it'll actually take you right to the most recent picture you've taken (or to the Camera Roll, if you haven't taken any). From there, you keep swiping to scroll back through your photos. To put it another way, the camera screen has now become the "top picture" in your Camera Roll.

If all that doesn't quite do it for you, there are a couple of additional features that might aid your photo-shooting. For example, you can now lock the camera's autofocus and autoexposure by tapping and holding any point on the screen—a blue reticle will appear and blink several times to indicate the lock has been established, and you'll see AE/AF Lock printed at the bottom of the screen. Then, when you point the camera at other points, it will still remain focused and with the correct exposure for the point you initially selected—this can be handy for shooting pictures that contain both light and shadows. (Note that the iPhone 4's front camera and both of the iPad 2's cameras only support autoexposure, not autofocus.) There's also a Grid feature—accessible by tapping the Options button at the top of the camera screen—that overlays a three-by-three grid over your camera view, letting you more easily compose your shots.

With all that advanced technology, you sometimes still don't get the shot you were aiming for. Fortunately, Apple's added simple photo-editing tools into iOS's Camera and Photos apps, letting you crop, rotate, remove red eye, and generally enhance your photos.

The new tools are accessible by tapping the Edit button in either Camera or Photos when you're viewing a picture; they replace the toolbar at the bottom of the screen while you're in Edit mode.

For the most part, the tools work pretty well. Rotate and crop are pretty straightforward, though crop can also be used to constrain a picture to certain dimensions, and it lets you straighten photos as well, by using two fingers to rotate the image. The one-touch enhance button is lifted straight from iPhoto and attempts to tweak your images to look better—most of the time, I think it succeeds. You won't find the kind of fine-grained adjustments that you get from Adobe's iOS Photoshop app or other similar programs, but I think most users will be pretty happy with the results. It'll even remove the red-eye effect, displaying a little animation that shows where it was applied.

If the auto-enhance doesn't catch your red-eye problem—or you want to remove the flaw without using the rest of the enhance feature—you can also manually remove red-eye. Just tap the red-eye tool and then on the offending eye.

Of course, you can also tweet photos with iOS's new Twitter integration (see above). With the deprecation of MobileMe, however, the option to send to Apple's online service is no longer available. Instead, all of your photos will automatically be shared with iCloud's Photo Stream, if you enable that option in Settings -> Photos.

Like Mail, Photos benefits from Apple's effort to untether your mobile devices from your computer: You can now create, edit, and delete albums right from the app.

Everybody goes surfin'

Apple's probably pretty confident that the browsing experience on its mobile apps still has a leg up over its competitors; Safari only receives a few updates in iOS 5.

Chief among these is the addition of the Reader feature that made its debut in Safari 5 on Mac and PC. Taking a cue from Web services like Readability, Reader reformats the page you're viewing to eliminate distractions—including, for example, ads—and make it easier to read. It also gives you access to controls that let you adjust the font-size for easier reading. The Reader button, which appears in the location bar of the browser, doesn't show up on every webpage you view—it's smart enough to determine when you're on an article page.

On the desktop, I rarely use Reader, and I found I didn't take advantage much of it on the iPad either—in both cases, the screens are large enough that I rarely have trouble reading text. However, with the iPhone's limited screen real estate, Reader can definitely make reading an article a lot more pleasant, helping you avoid the constant pinch-to-zooming and panning that's the hallmark of much iPhone surfing.

A second reading related feature, Reading List, also appears in iOS 5 after first debuting in Safari (version 5.1, in this case). Upon its introduction, many compared Reading List to popular Web service Instapaper, which lets you mark articles for later reading and provides an iOS app that can grab pages and let you read them while offline.

I'd go so far as to say that Reading List and Instapaper have very little in common. While both can be used as reminders to read certain pages later, Reading List's functionality is very limited. In fact, it essentially acts as a special bookmark folder that—if you use iCloud—is synced between your iOS devices and your computer.

Say you come across an article while browsing on your iPhone that you'd prefer to read on a bigger screen. Just tap the Share icon in Safari's toolbar and then the Add to Reading List button. (On the iPad, you can also tap the Plus button in the Reading List section of the Bookmarks popover.) That page will now be added to your Reading List, which you can access at the top level of your bookmarks, along with the site's icon and the first couple lines of the page's text. You can also tap and hold on any link on a page to get a menu with an Add to Reading List option.

Reading List can also track when you've accessed a page; you can tap the Unread button to see only the pages you haven't looked at yet. Be aware that the read state is synced between devices, so if you look at a page on your iPad, it will also be marked as read on your iPhone. Your entire Reading List is still available if you tap the All button at the top, and to remove an entry, you just swipe your finger across it and tap the Delete button. Unfortunately, the lack of an Edit button means that there's no way to remove multiple Reading List entries at once.

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