Just ahead of the iPhone 5 landing in an Apple store near you, its iOS 6 software has been released and keen Apple fans can update their iPhones (4 and 4S), iPods (4th-gen) and of course, iPads (except for the first one).
Headline features of iOS 6 include Passbook, a digital travel wallet for loyalty cards and boarding passes, Apple’s own Maps app and Facebook integration, which as well as finally adding the ability to share links from the browser, adds the same functionality to iTunes and App Stores so you can directly encourage friends to buy more from Apple.
This new share feature is very well implemented in the browser, where tapping an icon next to the address box brings up the myriad new ways to share links on iOS – email, text, Facebook, Twitter, and Read Later, where iOS 6 also now stores links for later offline reading.
There’s also an iCloud icon that will show what browser tabs are open on any other devices linked to your Apple ID.
There’s a small tweak to the Mail app – and we do mean small. The VIP inbox is but a glorified Favourites list where you manually choose the contacts whose mail you are to be always alerted of, a pale imitation of Gmail’s Priority Inbox and its algorithm for learning what important mail is.
We loved the new Photo Streams sharing, where you can add any photos to a particular album or ‘stream’ on iCloud, then send friends and family a link. We can already see how useful it is to selectively share holiday or weekend snaps with friends versus family. Like Flickr and other photo sites though, your chums need to be a part of the network, i.e. they’ll need an Apple ID.
Panorama mode is found under the Options tab in the camera of iPhones only, allowing you to snap a stitch an easy 240-degree view.
Where are you?
Apple Maps, which hogged a ton of praise at its unveiling back in June, turns out to still be a fairly anemic offering in the UK. We tested a few different regions and only Central London – think Soho, Piccadilly and Oxford Circus – actually has Flyover, the 3D satellite view reminiscent of Google’s Street View.
Anywhere further out, from East London to Manchester and Milton Keynes displays a flat view instead. Unless you particularly enjoy staring at roofs, you’re better off sticking to the regular map view.
Ireland appears to be half colour, half black-and-white, all blurry mess
Then there’s the cavalier attitude Apple seems to have taken to our fair isle. Colchester is a blur, Battersea Bridge is an 8-bit highway, while a farm in Ireland has been mistakenly marked as an airfield. Try searching for the Tyne Bridge and you’ll get a garage near the South coast. These issues also stretch to searching for services in your local area – try asking for pubs in Sunderland and you’ll be presented with a stupefying choice of four. We can assure you, Sunderland isn’t that sober a city.
During our review period, the Maps server also seemed to go AWOL, throwing up a server error message (hey Apple, Windows 95 just called...) when we tried to use those newly-added turn-by-turn directions. Apple referred to this first version of Maps as a ‘foundation’, which seems a little cheeky considering we’re all stuck with it until the inevitable updates roll in. For now, it’s a rather depressing step down from Google Maps.
Thankfully, we've just heard that Google might bring Maps back to iOS!
Will Passbook change the way you travel?
We love the implications of Passbook, a holder for digital boarding passes and loyalty cards. The cleancut interface displays all boarding passes you’ve loaded onto it, while GPS and the clock combine to pop the right one out whne you’re meant to be using it, and when you’re at the airport you’re flying from.
At the moment, American Airlines, Delta Airlines and Virgin Australia have signed on, which doesn’t have much impact on the UK yet. Developers have been able to access the SDK since June though, so it’s likely we’ll begin seeing some UK merchants and hopefully airlines join in very soon.
Passbook is Apple’s baby step into the world of mobile payments – but perhaps even more significant, it could kickstart paperless travelling. As it eschews NFC for barcode scanning, existing terminals can be used and in fact, a customer travelling on Virgin Australia last month managed to successfully check in with a beta version of Passbook.
This app is only downloadable by iPhones - hopefully a subsequent update bequeaths it to iPads as well.
Siri, the voice recognition ‘personal assistant’, finally has the boost s/he needed – you can now direct your iOS 6 device to find local businesses, a feature previously only supported in the US. That’s restaurants, shops, nearby purveyors of anything from an exotic dance to an exotic pet. We asked Siri to find us a burger – which it kindly obliged – then told Siri we were hungry, at which point it then found us the 15 closest eateries. Impressively, it even found us dedicated shops to buy shoes, dresses and noodles.
Anytime Siri finds you a result, it’ll note your GPS location and tell you which ones are ‘fairly close’. However, the information is powered by Yelp, which surprisingly doesn’t have an exhaustive database of places in the UK - our favourite sushi joints were all omitted from Siri's search. Thankfully you can search for a wide range of services, not excluding the likes of strip joints (there are an awful lot around our offices, you'll be glad to hear).
We were able to speak very naturally (instead of shouting Find! Burger!) and at one point in a noisy environment, Siri made a guess at what it’d ‘heard’ and noted that it wasn’t sure if that was what we’d meant. Admittedly it wasn’t, but Siri has a come a ways since we first asked it to remind us of Dad’s birthday.
Whatever your attitude to Apple gadgets, its (over) simple OS does, as Apple marketing goes, 'just work'. But when we downloaded iOS 6 to a variety of devices, we experienced freezes in many areas of general use. On an iPhone 4, the Twitter notification screen froze when we tapped it, then both the home and power buttons froze, before the phone finally rebooted itself.
Another glitch, this time on a 4S, occurred when we reorganised homescreen icons, again causing the phone to freeze then reboot itself.
Finally, on a (new) iPad, along with the Maps server error, iCloud backup froze the whole device when a message popped up that there wasn't enough storage to back up the iPad. We had to do a hard reset to get the pad going again.
iOS is beginning to feel a bit long in the tooth. As Android matures and Windows Phone arrives with a whole new take on smartphone software, the Apple's icon interface starts to look more bland than elegant.
It's executed many features with its usual panache - the Facebook integration weaves perfectly with the other social sharing features, while the new Photo Stream sharing offers that beautiful simplicity you associate with Apple - others like the glitch-ridden Maps and afterthought of a VIP inbox fall quite flat. We also encountered more freezes in general navigation than ever before, with Twitter, Maps and even iCloud backup going unresponsive.
We expect a minor update will soon patch these glitches, and as a whole the upgrade is worth a download - we're particularly excited by the potential significance of Passbook as a first step toward a mobile wallet. But iOS 6 only adds a few extra features at a time when Apple needs to live up to one of its one slogans and actually 'change everything. Again'.
We tested out iOS 6 on iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, and a 3G (new) iPad from Vodafone, which is also stocking the iPhone 5. Keep an eye out for our review very soon!