Apple's latest iPhone and iPad OS offers a new Maps experience and small, iterative improvements elsewhere in the OS.
A review of iOS 6 is not a review of revolution, but of refinement. iOS has been the gold standard for smartphones and tablets since the day it was first introduced, and Apple's resisted the urge to make any radical changes, instead slowly polishing it with each successive version. That means iOS 6 is recognizably the same basic operating system that shipped on the original iPhone in 2007, while its biggest competitor, Android, looks completely different from what Google started with in 2008.
That rigorous consistency has led some to feel that iOS has become a little too familiar, but through the years the iterative updates on top of a rock-solid base have led to a platform that's second to none as a balance of features, usability, and capability.
iOS updates in the past have almost always come with headline new features, but iOS 6 is a bit of an exception: Apple says that it has added over 200 new features to iOS 6, but only the new mapping system comes close to altering the experience in the same way that apps, multitasking, or Siri did. Has Apple maintained its lead over the rest of the smartphone pack when it comes to features and elegance, or is it too busy polishing when it should be pushing ahead? Read on for the full review.
It's iOS through and through
With the exception of an extra row of icons on the iPhone 5, iOS 6 looks nearly identical to iOS 5. There are a few subtle tweaks here and there: the most obivous change is that status bar can change its hue to more closely match the currently open app, and a few of the core apps have also gotten a light reskinning. The phone keypad, for example, has been brightened up a bit.
But for every small change to the look of iOS details, there are ten things that remain the same. The phone app has a new dialer, but your favorites are still a simple, vertical list of names without their associated contact images — an odd omission given that iOS now can import Facebook contact photos.
Multitasking still consists of a list of icons toggled by double-tapping the home button, notifications are still collated atop a linen background in the notification center, and notification "toasts" still occlude the topmost part of apps when they appear. Apple is not changing for change’s sake, which is to be commended, but neither is it taking any risks. There are many places where it would be nice to see Apple borrow (or steal) from other operating systems: more ambient information on the homescreen, app thumbnails while multitasking, and even swiping away notifications are all UI innovations are all small and subtle ways other platforms have moved past Apple.
For every small change to the look of iOS in the details, there are ten things that remain the same
When it comes to speed, iOS 6 doesn’t feel terribly different from iOS 5 on the iPhone 4S or even the iPhone 4. The 4S was always a snappy performer, but aside from the browser, iOS 6 doesn’t really do anything to improve upon that. On the flip side, it doesn’t make it any slower either, which can be a good thing in its own right — especially for the iPhone 4. Likewise, battery life isn't noticeably different from iOS 5 to iOS 6 on either the iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S.
As with other iOS updates, not all of the new features that are available on the iPhone 5 will work on older devices. The iPhone 4 and the iPhone 3GS miss out on Siri, turn-by-turn navigation and flyover in Maps, panoramic mode in the camera, and Facetime over cellular. The iPad 2 won’t get Siri or Facetime either, but Flyover and turn-by-turn are coming. Older iPod touch owners won’t get any of the headline new features in iOS 6 with the exception of the Passbook app.
On the iPhone 5’s taller screen, you will find some apps that haven’t yet been updated to accommodate the extra pixels. Instead, these apps are "letterboxed" with black bars on the top and bottom. Unfortunately, Apple has its virtual keyboard appear within that letterboxing instead of from the base of the screen, so you will have to shift your thumbs up to type if you flip between optimized and non-optimized apps.
One place where iOS 6 does seem to best iOS 5 and earlier versions is the Universal Search feature that sits one swipe to the left of your main home screen. I found that I’m not waiting for the keyboard to pop nor for search results to populate nearly as much as I used to. If, like us, you’d simply stopped using the home screen search on the iPhone because it was too slow, you should give it another shot in iOS 6.
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iOS 6’s biggest "new" feature is its completely overhauled Maps app. The new Maps app doesn’t look terribly different from earlier versions on first glance, but underneath its familiar skin, Maps features an all new brain. Gone is the Google Maps data that used to be the backbone of Maps in iOS, replaced by an amalgam of data from a host of companies that Apple has partnered with, like TomTom, Axciom, DigitalGlobe, and others. As a result, though Maps may look familiar, the experience for longtime users of the app can be drastically different in iOS 6 than it was in iOS 5 and earlier.
Apple’s version of Google Maps was never as comprehensive as the one available to Android phones, but it did offer basic mapping services, Street View, and directions — including public transit information. The new version of Maps builds on some of these features by offering turn-by-turn, voice-guided navigation for the first time on the iPhone 4S, iPad 2, 5th-generation iPod touch, and newer devices, making it comparable to Google Maps with Navigation on Android and Nokia’s Drive app for Windows Phone. One man’s gain is another man’s loss, though, as Street View and public transit information have been completely removed from the app. There is a familiar-looking icon to access transit directions, but it just provides suggestions for third-party apps instead of giving actual transit information, much to the dismay of the urban dweller. Fortunately, the walking directions are still present and accounted for, as are the standard, hybrid, and satellite views.
Apple also added new 3D flyover views for major metropolitan areas. Available on the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPad 2, new iPad, and fifth-generation iPod touch, the flyover maps give you a birds-eye view of the buildings in a city. It’s possible to zoom in on, rotate, and pan around the image to get a perspective of what the location looks like in person, but it’s still not as useful for actual navigation than Street View in Google Maps. Unfortunately, the 3D renders of buildings aren’t that great, there's a ton of weirdly distorted imagery, and the low-res images don’t provide the immersive experience you would hope they would.
Siri, Apple’s so-called voice-controlled virtual personal assistant, made its big debut with iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S last year. Ahead of the unveiling of iOS 6 at Apple’s WWDC earlier this year, CEO Tim Cook said the company was "doubling down" on Siri and putting a ton of work into it. This time around, Siri's been extended to the third-generation iPad and fifth-generation iPod touch, and is available in a number of new locales. Siri's also gained new powers and performance improvements over the version available in iOS 5. Though still technically considered a "beta," Siri in iOS 6 is faster, more responsive, and has more personality than ever before.
Siri now includes the ability to directly display sports scores and standings, provide movie listing information including showtimes, reviews, and trailers, make restaurant reservations through OpenTable, post updates to Facebook and Twitter, and launch third-party apps. The new sports integration is great for solving barroom arguments, and the movie listings are more convenient and useful than the generic web searches that Siri used to perform.
The most useful new item might be the ability to launch third-party apps, which performed flawlessly in my tests. Say "Siri, open Sparrow," and the Sparrow app comes swinging to the front. Say "Launch Google+" and Siri will ask which of the many Google apps you are looking for. Once you clarify that Google+ is the app that you want (with another voice command, of course), the app for Google’s social network is brought to the fore. No matter how many times I tried, Siri was able to open the app that I had specified in either one or two steps. For those that have a lot of apps installed on their phones and aren’t particular about their organization, launching apps through Siri might actually be easier than manually searching for an app.
On the new iPad, Siri launches in a small, iPhone-sized window next to the home button, where its results also appear. It’s essentially the iPhone version of Siri running on the iPad instead of a big, iPad-optimized set of results. That’s a little disappointing, but at least Apple has eliminated the arbitrary distinction between the iPhone and iPad when it comes to Siri support. iPhone 4 owners are still stuck with the old "Voice Control" feature, but it still works fine for basic phone dialing and music control.
Despite Siri’s many improvements, it still isn’t quite as sophisticated as the ads make it appear. Complex, contextual questions, such as "Will I be able to mow the lawn tomorrow" were met with confusion and a prompt to perform a web search — Siri’s fallback when it can’t provide an answer directly. Siri also doesn’t try to provide the kind of ambient information that bubbles up automatically in Google Now on Android 4.1, but that’s not what Siri has ever been. It’s not clear how long Apple intends to keep Siri in a "beta" stage, but the beta label still feels appropriate.
Siri in iOS 6 is faster, more responsive, and has more personality than ever before
Passbook is Apple’s answer to the many mobile wallet solutions that have been debuting over the past year or two. The difference is that Passbook doesn’t actually act as a mobile payments solution like Google Wallet — it's more like a virtual collection of coupons, boarding passes, movie tickets, loyalty cards, and more. Though these types of things have been available in separate third-party apps for some time, Passbook collects them all into one app and provides hooks into iOS 6’s location and time data to prompt you to use the passes at appropriate times.
Passes can be added to Passbook through email sent from retailers or by a third-party app, and they can be viewed from the phone’s lock screen or within the Passbook app itself. Passbook uses the iPhone’s location data to show appropriate passes at the correct locations — it'll display a boarding pass when you get to an airport, for instance.
Unfortunately, it will take some time for retailers and service providers to support Passbook, which means that for a while, it will be yet another unused app on the screens of many iPhone owners. Apple has partnered with some retailers already, such as Target, Walgreens, United, Ticketmaster, Fandango, and more, but at the time of this writing, the support for Passbook was still pretty thin.
Walgreens does support Passbook, and it was pretty straightforward to add my loyalty card to my Passbook from the Walgreens iOS app. From there, I was prompted to select my preferred store from a list of options near me locally. Once I had loaded the card, Passbook used a push notification to remind me to use the loyalty card when I arrived at the selected Walgreens location. Opening the notification launched the card immediately for scanning by the cashier. Unfortunately, the location-based notifications only work for the store that I pre-selected, and Passbook won't prompt me to use my card in a different Walgreens location. Still, having the barcode for the loyalty card easily accessible keeps another plastic card out of my wallet and off of my keychain.
During Apple's big unveil of iOS 6 at WWDC earlier this year, it demonstrated Passbook support with a Starbucks prepaid card. The card worked the same in Passbook as it does in the Starbucks app, providing users with a quick way to pay at the counter and then an updated balance of funds remaining. Unfortunately, Starbucks has yet to update its iOS app to support Passbook, so we were not able to test it in time for publication of this review.
Apple's take on the mobile wallet
Email in iOS 6 received a relatively minor set of feature improvements. The most front-facing of them is a new integrated "VIP" folder, which collects all the emails from contacts you designate as VIPs. Once you've flagged some users as VIPs (a setting that exists independently from your "Favorites" within the Contacts app), everything you've received from those users in any email account will be collected there. Mail will also put a small star next to messages from your VIP contacts in every folder instead of the standard circle. It's a clever feature, though it’s not automatic like Google’s Priority Inbox for Gmail. It’s also not the first time a company has tried it on a smartphone, but that's just trivia.
VIP also syncs up with iCloud, so your VIP'd contacts appear on other iOS 6 devices and on the Mail.app client on Mountain Lion. The best part about VIP is that you can also create custom notification settings for the VIP folder independently of your other email settings, ensuring that you never miss those messages. Finally, there's a "Flagged" mailbox that collects all of your flagged messages from across your accounts.
The best part about VIP is that you can also create custom notification settings
Apple's also introduced a popular user interface tweak in mail: pull to refresh. There's a little refresh icon that appears when you swipe down from the top of your email list that expands down into a teardrop shape. Given how many users are still on email accounts that don't support push, it's nice to see Apple pick it up.
Saving the best for last, Apple has finally added a way to add attachments to emails from the compose screen. Before iOS 6, if you wanted to attach something to an email, you would have to start on the file you meant to send instead of on the email you are writing. That resulted in extra steps and emails that weren't in the original threads whenever you wanted to send an attachment.
With iOS 6, you can long-press on the compose screen and select "Insert Photo or Video" to bring up the gallery select dialog, where you can choose a single image or video. Unfortunately, that's the only type of file you can attach directly from the compose screen — attaching arbitrary files still requires you to start with an associated app instead of jumping right in there from your email.
Overall, Mail in iOS 6 should be familiar to anybody who has used it before. It's fast and competent, and though heavy Gmail users might gripe about the lack of full support for labels, Apple's done a good job for a much wider audience that uses Exchange, Yahoo, and many other email systems. It's head and shoulders above the generic mail client on Android and easier for regular consumers to manage than BlackBerry email.
Apple has built on Safari’s strength
The Safari mobile browser available in iOS has always provided an excellent browsing experience with class leading performance, and Apple's built on Safari’s strength with improved performance and integrated iCloud features in iOS 6.
Using Safari in iOS 5 on the iPhone or iPad wasn’t a slow experience by any means, but it’s even faster in iOS 6. Pages load very quickly, scrolling and panning are snappy, and zooming is as effortless as ever. Benchmarks seem to agree with my anecdotal experience in Safari, as SunSpider scores are noticeably faster than they were in iOS 5.
New for Safari in iOS 6 is a full-screen view in landscape orientation, which removes the address bar and chrome to give content the most screen real estate available. Also new is the iCloud Tabs feature, which lets you sync open tabs between Safari browsers on various devices. It's similar to Google's Chrome: open tabs are easily accessible through the bookmark menu in Safari for iOS. Likewise, any tabs that are open on an iOS device can be easily accessed through Safari on a desktop or laptop computer. The whole process works seamlessly and effortlessly.
One feature that I would have loved to see come to Safari for iOS is the unified search and address bar. On Safari for Mac in OS X Mountain Lion, there's a single bar where search queries and web addresses can be entered, much like the feature Google Chrome has offered for years. But on mobile devices, Apple has split the search box and the address bar into two separate fields, and it’s not possible to perform searches in the URL bar. Given that many other mobile browsers offer a single bar for both, it’s frustrating to see that Apple has stuck with the older layout.
Both the App Store and the iTunes Store have received much-needed visual updates with iOS 6. The overall look is much more muted, with cleaner product pages and a bigger emphasis on screenshots. Every product page, whether it's an app or a movie, separates out screenshots, reviews (including Facebook likes), and related apps into three tabs and overall it's a cleaner, more refined experience. There are also more prominent "buy" buttons throughout the interface so you don't have to drill into an app's detail screen to purchase.
There are also many more promotional banners and the like, which you can swipe horizontally. In fact, horizontal swiping plays a large part in the updated interface, and it looks and feels great on the iPad. On the iPhone, both stores feel a bit more cramped by comparison. The best example of the difference is search: instead of presenting you with a vertical list of icons and app names, each search result is presented in a rectangular card that has the app's icon, name, and a screenshot. On the iPad, you can see about six of these cards on a single screen when you search, but on the iPhone you can only see one at a time, and you need to swipe horizontally to see more.
The result is likely to mean that app developers will be jockeying for first place for certain key search terms, but for users the result is an experience that's one step forward, two steps back. Both the iPhone and iPad versions of the App Store have replaced the "Categories" button with a "Genius" button for app recommendations, where again you're presented with large, swipe-able cards instead of lists.
Although the App Store has been a little slow so far in my testing, for now I’m willing to chalk that up to early-launch jitters. One thing that should make everybody happy is that the App Store doesn’t request your password as often as it used to when updating apps (though you still need to enter it when buying them).
Horizontal swiping plays a large part in the updated interface
Twitter and Facebook are both integrated into iOS 6 in interesting ways — there’s the standard contact and calendar integration, but they’re also available as services for other apps to share or authenticate with. Once you set them up, you can share directly to them from any "Share" icon located throughout the OS. Tapping that button now brings up a new "Share Sheet," with big, tappable icons instead of a vertical list of buttons. If just want to post directly from anywhere without sharing specific media, you can post directly with buttons that sit at the top of the notification area.
Both Twitter and Facebook will automatically add information into your contacts, but Apple hasn't quite plugged in as many management features as I'd like. You can toggle both Contact and Calendar integration on and off, though both are on by default. Unfortunately, syncing Facebook contacts means that you will be filling up your Contacts app with everybody you’ve friended on Facebook, which can be a deal breaker. The good news is that once you’re synced up, iOS 6 can handle even very large address books with relative ease.
If you want to hide all those extra contacts but not lose Facebook information for the contacts you already have, one solution is to go into the "Groups" area of the Contacts app and toggle off the "Facebook" group. This will hide your "friends" but still keep the synced Facebook info for the rest of your contacts you actually care about. I’d much prefer that Apple and Facebook would just give you the option up front.
A perennial problem with Facebook integration is duplicate contacts, and I found that iOS 6 does a passably good job of preventing that — though roughly 10 percent of my Facebook friends needed to be linked manually from within the Contacts app. Facebook events also now appear in your calendar, but it's easy to switch that off if you prefer.
Both Twitter and Facebook also now enjoy a top-level status within the Settings app. Applications that plug into either for authentication can request permission directly from iOS instead of being set up on their own, which might make life easier for some users. Although these apps are deeply integrated, that doesn't mean that Facebook or Twitter won't be updating their apps on a more regular basis — the integration isn't tied to those specific apps.
I tested FaceTime on a 4G LTE connection and a 3G EVDO connection on Verizon and the results were frankly great. Good enough, in fact, that it mostly serves to remind us how annoying it is that it has taken this long for it to be an option. Users on some carriers — notably AT&T — will need to alter their data plans in order to take advantage of the feature.
iOS 6 also unifies iMessage and FaceTime IDs under a single system that works across iPhones, iPads, and Macs. You can associate multiple email addresses and a phone number to your iMessage / FaceTime account and Apple keeps them all tracked under your Apple ID, which means that if somebody sends an iMessage or initiates a FaceTime call to your phone number, it will still appear on all of your devices. For Mountain Lion users that have updated to 10.8.2, it resolves the hassle of disjointed and unsynced iMessages — though I should point out that Messages on iOS 6 doesn't work with with other IM services like it does on the Mac.
I tried multiple points of entry for both iMessage and Facetime and the verdict is that... it just works. It works so well, in fact, that in one case I associated a phone number with a contact on an iPad in the middle of an iMessage conversation and within seconds the name had been updated on both and iPhone and Mac running Mountain Lion. Whenever you add a new email address on one device, your other devices receive a push notification alerting you of that fact, a feature that isn't strictly necessary but could ease potential security concerns.
The calling experience in iOS 6 is largely the same as it was in earlier versions of iOS, but Apple's added the ability to reject calls with a text message or set a reminder to call that person back at a later time. There are a number of preset text message responses, but you can create your own replies if you wish. The reminders feature lets you tell the phone to buzz you in an hour or when you leave your current location to call the person back. Both features work as expected, and though neither are terribly novel if you've used other platforms, it’s nice to have them built into iOS.
Along with the new call rejection features, iOS 6 gives users granular control over when notifications and incoming calls will make sound an alert or ringtone. Called Do Not Disturb, this new feature lets you set a specific time period to automatically silence all incoming calls and notifications — like when you might be sleeping. You can opt to allow calls from favorite contacts, and Do Not Disturb has a mode to allow the second consecutive call within three minutes from the same caller to come through. All of these features are smart and well-implemented, and it's nice to be able to disconnect without worrying that you'll miss an emergency call.
Apple's also expanding the VoiceOver text-to-speech accessibility system into maps and working to create a Made for iPhone hearing aid certification. Another feature buried in the accessibility settings is something called Guided Access, which Apple says will help "students with disabilities such as autism remain on task and focused on content" by allowing you to disable the home button, block multitasking gestures, turn off motion controls, and block off certain areas of the screen from receiving touch input.
After enabling Guided Access and setting a password, you can essentially force the iPad to stay within a given app and keep users from wandering into parts of the app you don’t want them to see. It turns the iPad into a single-use touchscreen computer that, as Apple says, would be good for certain educational settings. We imagine it will gain also wider usage as a bespoke iPad kiosk creation tool in retail environments — just set it and forget it.
Guided Access could become a bespoke iPad kiosk creation tool
Two steps forward, one step back — but they're all baby steps
You can easily argue that Apple hasn’t really made any major changes to the iPhone and iOS since the first version, and that each successful edition has just added iterative features that were missing from the platform. And iOS 6 might be the most iterative version of iOS yet. Apple claims that there are over 200 new features in the platform, but the ones that stand out can be easily counted on one hand. Whether it's because Apple is just afraid of rocking the boat or because it had to spend an inordinate amount of engineering time on Maps and iCloud features, iOS 6 just isn't that different from iOS 5. In fact, iOS 6 is so similar to iOS 5 that there are times that I forgot my phone had been upgraded. That's a plus for a wide swath of people, though: Apple makes it very easy for users to upgrade to the latest and greatest OS, since they don’t really have to learn anything new to be comfortable with it.
Different or not, iOS 6 is a very complete, powerful, fast, intuitive, easy to use operating system. On top of that, Apple’s ability to offer upgrades to all of its iOS devices is rightfully the envy of the smartphone industry, so the “should you upgrade” question doesn’t really apply in the usual sense — unless you're heavily reliant on Google Maps for some reason, you should upgrade. iOS 6, the App Store, iTunes and iCloud all work together to create the most polished and feature-complete mobile ecosystem there is. The only troubling thing about that achievement is that the changes in iOS 6 don't feel particularly forward-looking. Apple's achieved an industry-leading level of polish and sophistication — now it's time for the company to push forward once again.
Dieter Bohn contributed to this review.