iOS 5, day one: Notifications and reminders can be friends -- if you tweak your settings right

For a product that boasts seamlessness, one aspect of iOS 5 sticks out -- in a bad way

I hopped on the iOS 5 download for my iPhone as soon as word hit the street that it was available. I'll be posting some first impressions on this blog over the next few days. I plan to give iCloud a good going-over, though as I type this the OS X 10.7.2 update that's needed to play with it still has another 6 hours to download, so that'll have to wait until later.


The installation process was relatively painless. In what I seem to recall as a first in a while, upgrading iTunes to version 10.5, a necessary prerequisite for installing iOS 5, didn't require a Mac reboot. As iPhone users have come to expect from a major upgrade, the phone itself goes through a few reboot cycles as the update went through; the whole thing took about an hour, as promised. One detail that's slightly nerve-wracking until you figure what's happening: the traditional large "sync in progress" message that normally graces the front of your phone while things are syncing is gone. In its place is a subtle circular arrow logo along the top menu bar, just next to the network connectivity information.

Syncing subtly

You can also keep on using the phone during the syncing process, which is nice.

The whole process takes so long in part because your entire phone is wiped, iOS 5 installed fresh, and then backed up data uploaded from your computer. This is I presume the last time I'll need to upgrade iOS tethered to a computer, though I wonder if I'll need to back everything up to iCloud for it all to work correctly? At any rate, I did encounter one glitch upon restart: the messages in the inbox of my POP mail account had all vanished. This wasn't a big deal -- the canonical version of this account lives on my computer, so these were just duplicates I had downloaded while I was away -- but still, I could see this being traumatizing for someone.

Notifications and Reminders: A few gripes

Two of the things I'm most interested in playing with are the new Notifications Center, which consolidates your various messages into one view, and Reminders, which promises to remind of you things based on both time and space. While both are an improvement over what we had before, Reminders in particular struck me as a bit half-baked.

Anyone who's used iOS in the past has gotten used to the experience of being in the middle of something only to be interrupted by that blue notification box -- which, particularly if you're watching video or listening to music, can stop you in your track. After upgrading to iOS 5, I settled in to watch Arrested Development on Netflix when I received a text -- and the new notifications format worked wonderfully.

In this case, I haven't made a terrible mistake

I had also set a reminder for myself to file this review, and I expected that the message would come up in more or less the same format. Instead, once the appointed time arrived, I instead saw the sort of blue message box I thought had been banished forever from iOS 5.

Oh, come on!

Ugh! Why can't these reminders pop up in the same slick way as other notifications?

It's also not clear to me how well other third-party apps integrate with the notifications. I spent some fruitless time with a friend trying to get Skype text messages or voice calls to break in during video play in an attempt to get my attention. No dice, I'm afraid: no notifications of any sort went through, though it's not clear whether the blame should be laid here at the feet of iOS or Skype.

The long-heralded Notifications Center itself is pretty slick-looking, I have to admit.

I only wish there were better weather to report

After a little practice, I got the hang of summoning it from the menu bar with single thumb-swipe, even one-handed. Again, it will take some use to figure out how useful this will be in practice.

Tune in next time for a description of what's sure to be the particularly hairy process of setting up iCloud, seeing as my wife and I both use the same Apple ID for our phones but she syncs her contacts and calendar up with her work computer! I'll be able to get started when OS X 10.7.2 has downloaded, which should be in ... about 4 hours? Jeez.

UPDATE: Always check your prefernces

As a couple of commenters below have noted, you actually have control over which apps give updates via the new-style message in the iOS 5 preferences. Go to Settings > Notifications and you'll see a list of apps; click on each to determine how (or if) you want that app's notifications to work. "Alerts" are the old-style boxes; "Banners" are new in iOS 5. By default, most apps use Alerts. I set Reminders to Banners.

I said "duh" aloud as I did this

Once that's set, Reminders will happily remind you of things in the cool way that's all the rage in 2011.

And now my video viewing goes on unimpeded

I adjusted my Skype setting as well. This screen is actually an interesting window into which apps throw out messages of any kind.

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