¶ iOS 5 | Review

The original iPhone revolutionized the way we think of mobile computing. Each subsequent version of iOS has been evolutionary, adding some major features each year, but leaving that core part of the original iOS largely untouched. iOS 5 is still evolutionary, but the difference is that there are few parts of iOS that were left untouched this time. To compare Apples to Apples, iOS 5 is to iOS as OS X Lion was to OS X this year. Yes, evolutionary, but make no mistake, this is a giant leap forward.

The Big Features

When Apple announced iOS 5, they focused on a handful of new features. These have been discussed ad nauseum all over the internet, but I do have a couple favorites I want to make sure you know about.

Notification Center

Something that has long been in need of attention on iOS has been notifications. The old way consisted of modal dialogues which disappeared forever when acted upon. And multiple notifications were not handled well. One of the worse parts of the modal system was notifications completely disrupting whatever you ever doing at the time. This was awful for just about everything, but especially nasty in games.

Apple addressed these problems in three ways. When using an app, notifications now drop in at the top of the screen briefly, and roll back away after a moment. You can tap that banner to act on the notification, but if you don’t, it just gets out of the way. However, unlike the old way, the notification isn’t gone forever once it is out of view.

Swiping down from the top of the screen brings in the notification center, which collects all active notification events. From here, you can clear notifications or tap on them to jump to that event.

Lastly, if notifications pop up while you aren’t using the device, they stack up on the lock screen. From the lock screen itself, you can swipe across a notification to unlock the device and jump straight to that event.

So far, I have been loving nearly everything about notification center. One improvement I’d like to see is the ability to set which calendars have their events show up in notification center. I have a couple subscribed calendars that I don’t need to see notifications for.


This is probably the one core feature of iOS 5 that I have been looking forward to the most. A fair majority of my friends and family have been moving or are planning to move to iPhones. My wife & I each have the 200 messages/month plan for our iPhones — a plan that no longer exists. Combined, we pay $10 per month to cover our light use of text messaging. And since AT&T now offers unlimited messaging at $20/month ($30 for families) or pay-per-message, we really don’t want to change that plan.

Here is where Apple is helping us use fast and quick messaging more. The Messages app, where SMS and MMS have traditionally been handled, has become a little smarter. When selecting who you are sending the message to, Messages does a quick check with Apple to see if you are sending to an iOS 5 device. If you are, the interface subtly changes from a green Send button and Text Message placeholder text to a blue Send button and iMessage placeholder text.

If you have any experience with RIM’s Blackberry Messenger service, iMessage is basically a super up counterpart for Apple devices. iMessage is free, sends text, pictures, videos, map locations, contact information and more via Wi-Fi or 3G. It also shows whether the message has been delivered, read, and whether or not the other person is typing back. It’s awesome. And, it even works internationally. I’ve been using it a lot the past week to have quick chats with friends in the UK.

By the way, iMessage isn’t just for iPhones. It works for iPad and iPod touch, too. In those cases, you use your Apple ID address. And if you set up your Apple ID on your iPhone as well, you can start the conversation on one device then pick up again on another. iMessage keeps track of the conversation for you.

iMessage has already changed how frequently I keep in touch with friends.


Reminders is a built-in to-do list with a kick — it can use location reminders. Location reminders have already been incredibly useful for me. Of course, so has a reminder list that stays up to date on whichever device I’m using.


The built-in Twitter integration is great. I love that apps are already using the single-sign-on feature so I don’t have to go look up my password all the time in 1Password.

I’ve mostly been using it for sending pictures to Twitter without having to launch Twitterrific, but I have also shared a couple links from Safari. You can also share things from YouTube and Maps.

Camera & Photos

Besides iMessage, I’ve been very excited for the improvements to how the Camera app works. From the lock screen, a double-tap to the home button brings up quick access to the camera. Also, pressing the volume up button now works as a shutter release for pictures and starting/stopping video recording. As an added bonus, you can use the volume up button on the in-line remote on the earbuds in the same fashion.

The Photos app also has minor editing capabilities such as crop, rotate, remove red-eye and auto-enhance.

The Attention to Detail

All the big features are really great. But the real joy of iOS 5 for me has been the little things. The super subtle refinements to nearly every nook & cranny of iOS. I’m just going to list things off in no particular order.

  • In Messages, you can swipe the keyboard down on the iPhone & iPod to see the conversation easier (iPad has a dedicated button for dismissing the keyboard any time).
  • From Camera, you can swipe from the left to see the pictures you just took.
  • Weather can now use geolocation to show condition where you’re at. You can also tap in the daily forecast list to expose an hourly forecast.
  • In Settings > General > Keyboards you can now specify shortcuts. Think of this as a rudimentary version of TextExpander.
  • Maps now offers alternate routes.
  • On the iPad, you can resurrect closed tabs in Safari by holding down on the + button.
  • You can split and reposition the keyboard on iPad by either holding on the dismiss keyboard button or placing your thumbs in the center of the keyboard and pulling it apart. You can merge it back together by holding on that dismiss button again.

    I have found the split keyboard to be perfect when typing anything in Portrait orientation.

  • In Music, it’s always been annoying when a song title is too long to fully display. Tap & hold on that song for a moment and the full song information appears in a popover.
  • In the weather widget of Notification Center, you can see a daily forecast by swiping the current weather to the side.
  • When you select a word, there is now a define option in addition to cut, copy, & paste. Define only appears if iOS is able to actually define the word.
  • Ever accidentally add someone to the To: field in Mail when you meant to add them to Cc: or Bcc:? Me too. You used to have to delete them then retype in the appropriate field. Now you can tap and drag recipients between the fields.
  • You can now select multiple messages in Mail to make as read/unread, and new to the game is the ability to flag a message for follow-up.
  • Ringtones can now be used for any notification tone. Heck, the ability to customize any alert tone is fantastic.
  • Calendar on iPhone and iPod can now show week view when held in landscape. The iPad now has a year view with a heat map.
  • If you put an address into the location field of a Calendar event, that location is now linked out to Maps. I have been wanting that for years.
  • Tapping and holding briefly on a calendar event in day or week view allows you to adjust its length via grab handles, or you can move the event entirely by dragging it.
  • As I mentioned earlier, you can now associate an Apple ID address as a recipient and caller ID on for FaceTime on iPhone. This used to be restricted to only the phone number for iPhones.
  • The iPad now has multi-touch gestures. Use all fingers and thumb to “pinch” apps shut and go back to the home screen. Four finger swipe up and down shows and hides the multitasking switcher, and four fingers left or right switches between currently open apps, in order of most recently used.
  • Tapping and holding on the hyphen now adds an en-dash in addition to the em-dash and bullet, for all you fellow typography nerds.
  • In Clock, the timer function now has a pause button.
  • The Reader ability in Safari is great, especially on smaller screens like the iPhone and iPod touch.

I’m sure there is much more to iOS 5 than I have found on my own or read about. This really does feel like the most polished version of iOS yet and it is incredibly stable and fast. This is pretty incredible, considering how many changes have been made and how ambitious some of those were.

So, should you upgrade? If your device is capable of running it, then yes. I’ve even heard from 3GS owners, which iOS 4 bogged down quite a bit, that iOS 5 has given new life to their iPhone.

This is simply a fantastic update.