iOS 5 review: Ambitious update rings in the changes

This is a killer feature for educators and others who frequently do demonstrations, but beyond that it has fascinating applications in games. Firemint has already announced an update to its popular Real Racing 2 that will enable a Party Play mode which does some extremely clever things using AirPlay—including displaying a split-screen of up to four players on an HDTV.

Access granted

While we think of iOS devices as extremely easy-to-use, there are plenty of people for whom a touchscreen is less than ideal—especially those folks with disabilities. Apple has made an attempt to improve its devices' accessibility with each subsequent software release; with iOS 5, the company has made far-reaching enhancements to accessibility across the board.

VoiceOver, first introduced in iOS 3, helps visually-impaired users navigate their iOS device by providing feedback via a synthesized voice and letting them use simplified gestures to interact with the touchscreen without having to see what's on it. It gets a few improvements in iOS 5, including the addition of a compact voice option that (to my ears, anyway) sounded much better and more human when activated.

There are more options for the Rotor interface as well, including Volume, Hints, Search Fields, and more. In addition, iOS 5 now supports the expanded Eight-dot Braille configuration on Braille displays, and there's an option for how VoiceOver should navigate images (options include always, with descriptions, and never).

In addition, users can now enable a text-to-speech option by enabling the Speak Selection option under Accessibility. When you select text in any app, a Speak button will then appear over it—tap that, and a computer-generated voice will read the selected text; during the speech, the Speak button will turn into a Pause button.

For the hearing impaired, iOS 5 now offers a Hearing Aid Mode that can improve compatibility with assistive devices, though it also warns it may reduce 2G cellular coverage. Plus, in addition to the Mono Audio capability that's been around for a while, you can now adjust the balance of audio, even shifting it entirely to either the left or right channels. You can also have incoming calls automatically routed to the iPhone's headset and speaker (or to the default audio output) and, on the iPhone 4, you can also choose to have the LED Flash blink when an alert goes off. Unfortunately, that feature did not appear to work in my tests—the sound and vibration went off as expected, but the light did not illuminate. Most of the colleagues I polled said they couldn't get it to work either; one said that though it didn't work when he first enabled it, it started functioning correctly later on.

There's also a nifty new feature that may even appeal to those who aren't hearing impaired: custom vibration patterns. In the same way that you can assign a custom ringtone or other alert sound, you can now select a distinct pattern of vibrations. Apple provides a handful—the standard Alert, Heartbeat, Rapid, SOS, and Symphony (Beethoven's Fifth, if you must know)—but you can also create your own in a nifty interface where you tap out the pattern and record it. You can also assign custom vibration patterns to individual contacts, so you'll know when your significant other is calling without even taking your phone out of your pocket.

iOS 5 also includes accessibility features for a whole new class of users, those with motor impairment. The new AssistiveTouch feature adds a button that can be docked to one of the screen's corners or along the sides (though not the bottom or top of the screen). Tapping this button summons an overlay menu that gives access to a variety of the device's features, including a software Home button, screen rotation, screen locking, volume controls, muting, and device shaking. It also lets users simulate multitouch gestures with a single finger so, for example, you can mimic a two-finger tap, where necessary.

You can also record custom gestures and store them in a Favorites pane in case there are apps that require certain types of multitouch gesture. By default, the Favorites pane includes iOS's pinch gesture, allowing disabled users to perform it with a single finger.

All in all, the improvements in iOS 5 help make Apple's devices some of the most accessible to date. But it's not without limitations. One major shortcoming is any sort of speech-to-text capability, a feature the company recently demonstrated running exclusively on its new iPhone 4S. Given the capability of third-party dictation apps like Dragon Dictation, it's hard to imagine that the iPhone 4, at least, couldn't handle systemwide speech-to-text functionality. Providing a system-level dictation feature to more than just users of the latest and greatest device would have been a great help for those users who have trouble typing on their current iOS devices.

The dirty dozen (minus one)

For every feature that gets shown off at an Apple keynote, there are a dozen waiting in the wings for their chance to shine. Here's a handful of smaller features in iOS 5 that didn't quite make the top ten.

Shortcuts: Typing on iOS's virtual keyboard is a lot slower for many, so some users have turned to text-expansion utilities like Smile's venerable TextExpander. In iOS 5, Apple has essentially hijacked the system's love-it/hate-it autocorrect system to provide limited shortcut functionality. Navigate to Settings -> General -> Keyboard -> Shortcuts, and you can assign a phrase, like "See you soon!" to a short abbreviation of text, like "sys"; when you type that shortcut, you'll see the expanded phrase show up in iOS's autocorrect bubble. (As with a spelling correction, you can tap the autocorrect bubble if you don't want it to trigger.) The upside is that, unlike TextExpander, iOS's shortcuts feature works systemwide—TextExpander only works in apps which have built in support for it (or via copy-and-paste). However, power users may still opt for TextExpander's snippet syncing, shortcut groups, and handy automatic snippets, like inserting the current date.

Wi-Fi Sync: Another feature that's been on our wish list for sometime, Wi-Fi Sync helps distance iOS devices from your Mac or PC even further. No longer do you have to plug your mobile device into your computer to download that song or movie—now you can do it over your local Wi-Fi network. And, regardless of whether you're syncing via a cable or over Wi-Fi, the process now runs on the background on your iOS device, meaning you can keep using it even as it's updating. You can also set up a device to sync, via Wi-Fi, with more than one computer, if you have your music on one Mac and your Photos on another, for example.

Maps: Aside from the addition of Twitter support (see above), iOS's Maps app will now suggest multiple routes when you ask for directions, where applicable. Routes are displayed on the map overlay, along with clear labels—Route 1, Route 2, Route 3, etc. Tapping any route will display the distance and estimated time for that particular option, along with the major roads or routes taken; you can then step through the directions of your selected route as usual.

Weather: Largely unchanged since the iPhone was first released, Apple has finally given Weather a couple of minor improvements. There's the new Local Weather feature, which gives you the forecast based on your current location; when enabled it always appears as the first "card" in the Weather app. Also, you can now get a scrollable hourly forecast for the current day and part of the next by tapping or swiping down on the daily forecasts. Still, the app lacks most of the features of competing third party apps, including such niceties as radar maps.

Stocks: Weather's partner in crime, the Stocks app has gotten only a minor change in iOS 5: the addition of Live Quotes where available. To date, most stock figures on iOS have been delayed by 15 minutes. Now you can watch the economy dip in real time, if you're feeling masochistic.

(Image Caption: Definition of the Term: The dictionary that first appeared in iBooks is now accessible systemwide in iOS 5.)

Dictionary: Since its launch, iBooks has included a built-in dictionary that lets you quickly look up definitions. In iOS 5, Apple has expanded the dictionary systemwide; now pretty much any place you can select text, you can look up a word's definition. Just select a word and tap the Define button that appears. It'll even include information from a biographical dictionary as well.

Custom sounds Ever since the introduction of custom ringtones—heck, maybe even before that—iPhone users have clamored for the ability to set custom sounds for text messages, calendar reminders, and so on. Apple's finally acquiesced: In iOS 5 you can assign custom sounds for texts, voicemails, new mail, sent mail, tweets, calendar alerts, and reminder alerts. And not only can you choose from Apple's included sounds, but you can import your own by dropping them into iTunes, just as you would a custom ringtone.

FaceTime: Now, when you're engaged in a phone call and somebody sends you a FaceTime request—or, when you're involved in a FaceTime call and someone else tries to call or FaceTime you—you'll get a screen that lets you choose to either ignore the incoming call, or to end the current call and switch to the new call. You'll also find a FaceTime button at the top of every conversation in Messages, and Apple claims to have improved FaceTime video quality.

Phone: Incoming calls from unknown numbers now display their geographic location when the phone rings (unless, of course, the caller ID information is blocked) and you can manually prune your Recent calls list by swiping across any entry and tap delete.

Voice Control: While not as shiny as the iPhone 4S's new Siri voice recognition feature, iOS 5 does expand Voice Control in one notable way: You can now use it to make FaceTime calls in addition to traditional phone calls.

Location Services: Location has been a contentious issue for Apple, given the kerfuffle earlier this year over iOS devices containing databases of location information. In iOS 5, Apple is determined to show it's on the side of the angels. The Location Services section of Settings has been redone yet again: In addition to providing a master On/Off switch and the ability to enable and disable location for every app that uses it, there's now granular control of System Services. You can disable location access for Cell Network Search, Compass Calibration, Diagnostics & Usage, Location-Based iAds, Setting Time Zone, and Traffic. And you can decide whether you want the location status bar icon to appear when those services are accessing your location. That's a heck of a lot of control and, while more than most people will likely use, it's certainly a good way to maintain transparency with such a sensitive subject.

Macworld's buying advice

As with previous iOS updates, iOS 5 is totally free. As such, it's hard to argue against installing it, especially as developers begin to take advantage of more and more of the under-the-hood features it offers.

But that's not to say that this initial release is all sunshine and daisies. I ran across quite a few bugs and flaws in the software as I tested it, and while none are significant enough to recommend against upgrading, this strikes me as the least polished major iOS update in quite some time.

It's also the most ambitious update thus far, raising the possibility that Apple has overextended itself and reached for too much. Still, this is the update that sets the tone for the next stage of iOS devices. The PC Free features alone seem set to broaden the appeal of Apple's mobile platform, since it no longer requires being tethered to a computer. Rolling out devices in corporate and educational environments would seem to be much simpler as well.

There's also a lot of maturity here: We've gone from no notifications, to push notifications, to Notification Center. Apple's now been at this long enough to be able to revisit the things it's done before and change them—for the better. It's hard to believe at times that iOS, as a platform, is now into only its fourth year, when it's had such an enormous impact on mobile computing. By contrast, Mac OS X has entered its seventh revision in ten years—just imagine where iOS will be when that milestone rolls around.

Dan Moren is a senior associate editor at Macworld.

This story, "iOS 5 review: Ambitious update rings in the changes" was originally published by Macworld.

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