iOS 5 review: Ambitious update rings in the changes

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Unlike Instapaper, Reading List does not cache the contents of the page itself, so you're out of luck if you want to read one of your links while you're not connected to the Internet. It also lacks Instapaper's tweakable appearance and social features, like the ability to easily share your lists with your friends. In short, it's hardly a replacement for Instapaper, but it'll likely be a handy tool for all those who aren't familiar with the service. Even as an Instapaper user, I still found Reading List useful as a quick way to share links between my many devices: It's great when you're running out the door, but you want to have easy access to, say, a page with some directions on it.

For those browsing on an iPad, Apple has reworked how users manage multiple webpages. Instead of the previous iPhone-style model, where tapping a button gave you a bird's-eye view of all your open webpages, you now have a tabbed model more akin to desktop browsing.

The tabs sit slung under the bookmark bar (or the location bar if the bookmark bar is hidden); tap on any of them to bring that page to the foreground. As with the previous iPad version of Safari, you're still limited to opening nine simultaneous webpages. However, like the Mac version of Safari, you can also arrange your tabs in any order you like by tapping on them and then dragging them to wherever you'd like. It would be cool if Apple had also added the Open in Tabs option that Safari boasts on the desktop, which lets you open a folder of bookmarks, each in a separate tab, but, alas, you'll have to open all your bookmarks individually.

There's also a new option to open links in the background, which elicits a relieved sigh from me, and probably more than a few of you as well. In Settings -> Safari, you'll find an Open New Tabs in Background slider on the iPad and, on the iPhone, an Open Links option that lets you choose In Background or In New Page. Enabling background links in either case means that when you tap and hold on a link, the resulting menu gives you the option to open that page without whisking you away to it immediately. As someone who tends to open a lot of links from a single page when I'm doing research, it's a huge improvement. And, if you don't like it, you can always stick with the old behavior.

Finally, iOS's Safari now incorporates a Private Browsing mode, just like Mac OS's Safari. When you activate this mode in Settings -> Safari, you'll be prompted to keep or dump all of your current open tabs. Once you start browsing, the browser's history will not record any of the sites you visit, nor will any terms you enter in Safari's search box be saved. And, to remind you that you're currently in Private Browsing mode, Safari's toolbars will turn black instead of their usual blue/gray. When you leave Private Browsing mode, you'll once again have the option to ditch all your open tabs or keep them open. For those who share iPads among multiple users—in a family, say—it's a useful addition.

The games we play

Several months ago, I lodged a number of complaints about Game Center, Apple's social networking service for iOS games. Not long after, Apple first introduced iOS 5, which would seem to address several of my criticisms.

For example, Game Center profiles now allow you to add a picture, letting you make sure that the John Smith you just added as your friend is in fact the John Smith you know. In addition, you can browse your friends' profiles to see if they have friends that perhaps you'd like to add to your own list. In fact, Game Center will even recommend friends to you based on the games that you own and the people you're already friends with. You can also upload your contacts to get better recommendations, though I didn't notice any particular improvement having done so. (Perhaps I was already friends with everybody I knew that had a Game Center account.) And, if you feel the need to stack yourself up against your so-called friends, you can now judge your self-worth on a new overall point value, based on your achievements and game scores.

Of course, since Game Center is, for Apple at least, largely a way to drive adoption of games, there's also a game recommendation feature that suggests titles based on those your friends have played, those similar to games you have played, and just those that are popular overall. Apple's even integrated the App Store right into Game Center, so that you can purchase and download games without ever leaving the app.

One of my other gaming complaints looks to be addressed by the forthcoming launch of iCloud, which will provide developers with a way to synchronize your game states between iOS devices. So if you start playing Super Stickman Golf on your iPhone, you won't have to replay all those courses to unlock your powerups on your iPad.

There are still some more features I'd like to see added to Game Center. While iOS 5's new notifications system makes it less likely for you to lose a game invite, I'd still like to see a built-in messaging system—or, at least, tighter integration with iMessage. And an online status system to let me know when my friends are playing games might make launching Game Center more imperative than it is now.

Music to your ears

Apple has at last standardized its media apps across the platform. Previously, the iPhone featured an all-in-one iPod app, the iPod touch had Music and Video apps, and the iPad had an iPod app and a Videos app. Now, all three devices have separate Music and Videos apps. Not much has changed about the apps on the iPhone and iPod touch, except for the addition of a Store button in the top left, which takes you to the appropriate section of the iTunes Store.

However, the Music app on the iPad has been given a significant top-to-bottom redesign. Previously, it bore a strong resemblance to iTunes on the desktop; now it's wholly its own creature, with faux-wood siding reminiscent of GarageBand.

Also, an update to version 1.3 of Bluetooth's AV Remote Control Profile (AVRCP) means that now, when you stream your music to a Bluetooth device, it can also display track, artist, and album information. And Smart Playlists will now sync from iTunes to your iOS device.

Like Photos and Mail, Music and Videos both benefit from Apple's PC Free effort. For example, you can now create, edit, and delete playlists on iOS devices themselves; you can also delete songs and videos by swiping your finger across them and tapping the delete button. But Apple is holding tight to its media ecosystem: You still can't add audio or video files to the Music and Video apps that aren't from iTunes on your computer or through the iTunes Store. So, for example, if you want to download a podcast that's not on iTunes, or save a video from the Web, you'll still need to use a third-party app or turn to iTunes as an intermediary.

Save the date

Calendar gains a few nice enhancements of its own, despite a lack of time in the spotlight. For example, the iPhone version of Apple's Calendar app now features a week view, which you can access by turning the phone into landscape orientation. The iPad version hasn't been left out, though—it now features a year view, with the same heat-map-style display that you'll find in the Lion version of iCal.

On the iPhone, you can now swipe between days in the day view, which is much more convenient than tapping the little arrows at the top of the screen. Apple's also streamlined the event entry process on the iPhone by pre-selecting the Title field and making it so that you don't have to drill down into the Title, Location, or Notes fields. iOS 5 also offers default alert times for Birthdays, Events, and All-Day Events.

For those who set a lot of alerts to remind themselves of things, the last can be quite the time-saver. For each type of event, Apple provides a number of common options—for example, you can opt to be reminded of birthdays at 9 a.m. on the day of the event, one or two days before the event (also at 9 a.m.) or a week before. Over course, you can always override those default alarm times with one of your own choosing when you're creating the event.

Calendar also now supports a more touch-friendly process of editing your calendars. For example, you can drag events from one day to another, move them earlier or later by dragging, or resize them by tapping on them and adjusting the handles that appear. You can also create a new event by tapping and holding at the desired time in the Day view, or a new all-day event by tapping and holding on a day in the Month view.

As part of iOS 5's PC Free features, Calendar now also allows you to rename, delete, and add calendars right from your device, though you can only create calendars on an iCloud account—Exchange-based accounts have been left out of the mix. You can also change the color of a calendar, though you're limited to one of the seven hues that Apple offers.

On the big screen

Critics derided the iPad as nothing more than an oversized iPod touch, but the device's larger screen means that it changes not only how much information you can see, but also how you interact with it. In iOS 5, Apple has rolled out a number of iPad-specific features.

Split keyboard Way back before the original iPad was released, I speculated how we might type on such a device. One of my theories?

You can't hold it in landscape orientation and use your thumbs to type—they won't reach the full width of the screen (unless Apple does something wacky like putting half of a QWERTY keyboard on each side of the screen).

Well, of course, I was wrong about the landscape keyboard (although I still find it difficult to type on sometimes). But the split keyboard has finally come to fruition; you can enable it in Settings -> General -> Keyboard. In fact, the iPad's keyboard can now be split and undocked from the bottom of the screen, letting you slide it to a desired height. You can drag the keyboard by pressing and holding on the Hide Keyboard button at the bottom right and sliding the keyboard, or you can tap and hold until a menu pops up with the options to Undock or Split. (Once you've split it, you can tap and hold the same button to get a Dock and Merge option.)

Though it takes some getting used to, I kind of like the split keyboard design, especially in landscape orientation, where reaching those keys in the middle of the screen can be a stretch. In portrait orientation, the ability to slide the keyboard (either split or whole) up and down the screen also makes the iPad far more comfortable to hold. It's also yet another point in favor of software keyboards, allowing for variation without having to reconfigure expensive hardware.

Multitasking gestures It's a multitouch world, these days. Even the Mac OS has gone touchy-feely, with Lion's focus on gestures—now systemwide multitasking gestures have made their way exclusively to the iPad 2. First shown off as a developer option in beta versions of iOS 4.3, the gestures arrive in full force in iOS 5. You can enable them in Settings -> General.

There are three multitasking gestures in iOS 5, led by the ability to close an app by doing the five-finger pinch gesture on the screen. You can also reveal the multitasking bar by swiping up with four fingers and hide it again by swiping down with four fingers. Finally, you can switch between apps by using a four-finger swipe to the left or right.

The last is by far the most useful, especially if you find yourself switching between two apps—say, Safari and Mail. Previously, to paste information from Safari into Mail, for example, you used to have to select the text in Safari, double click on the Home button, tap Mail, and paste—then repeat for each piece of text you want to copy. It was almost just as fast to go back to the Home screen each time. Now, instead, you can select your text in Safari, swipe to Mail, paste, and then swipe back to Safari.

One benefit of the multitasking gestures is that, unlike the Home button, which—depending on how you hold the iPad—can be on any edge of the device's bezel, gestures are always the same, relative to the user.

The big problem with gestures, though, is that some apps already depended on using those same gestures within themselves—example, the popular game Fruit Ninja, in which using multitouch gestures is a key part of the strategy. Unless the developers change the app—which they very well might not want to do—you may have to disable multitouch gestures in Settings whenever you want to use those programs.

Chances are most people will never find the gestures, even though they are enabled by default—as, I'm sure, many people have never discovered the multitasking bar unless they've accidentally double clicked the Home button. And many will likely activate them in Settings, but still forget to use them. Still, it's a nice option for power users, and one of those features that seems like magic when you pass it on to your less technically savvy acquaintances.

AirPlay Mirroring Technically it's not an iPad-specific feature, since it only works on the iPad 2... and the newly announced iPhone 4S. But I imagine this feature, which wirelessly displays an iOS device's entire interface on an HDTV connected to an Apple TV, will get more use on the iPad. Mirroring expands AirPlay, which was introduced in iOS 4.2 as a way to stream photos, audio, and video to an Apple TV.

Not every app elects to take advantage of AirPlay. In cases where they don't, you can mirror the interface by tapping on the AirPlay button in the multitasking bar, selecting the Apple TV, and swiping the Mirroring slider. Now everything you see on your iPad, from the Springboard to Safari, will be displayed more or less simultaneously on the big screen.

Keep in mind that since the iPad's display is not widescreen you'll have black bars on either side of the image (unless an app has its own AirPlay mode, in which case it can take advantage of the full width of the screen).

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