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Tuesday, October 11, 2011, 11:27 pm PT (02:27 am ET)

In-depth Review: Apple's iOS 5 mobile operating system

Apple's latest reference release of its mobile platform, iOS 5, isn't going to leave users wondering if they should upgrade. It's free, it has no real downsides, and has no competition among iPhone, iPod touch and IPad users. But here's a look at what's new and why it matters.

Subtle refinements

"We're constantly challenging ourselves to figure out how can we make the user experience even easier, even more intuitive, while at the same time adding more more powerful functionality. And that's exactly what we've done with iOS 5," says Scott Forstall, Apple's senior vice president of IOS Software.

Upgrading to iOS 5 doesn't radically change Apple's existing devices to look significantly different with anything like a 3D interface or animated tiles. In fact, it takes a moment and some attention to detail to notice whether a device is running the new iOS 5.

There are some great new features, new apps and new services, particularly iCloud, but the new features embellish the iOS experience along an evolutionary path, rather than introducing a revolutionary leap to an entirely new and unfamiliar platform. The new release is the latest milestone along a preplanned path of advancement, and nearly every new feature builds upon the foundation of technologies introduced in previous releases.



That's not to say there isn't much that's new. A tremendous amount of work has gone into making iOS 5 more powerful, connected, faster and more intuitive and clever in various ways, so much so that its release is occurring a few months later than usual this year.

Apps for that

At the center of Apple's iOS platform is the App Store. Developers' existing apps not only continue to run on the new iOS 5, but also automatically take advantage of many of its new features, such as the ability to select and define words in text or compatibility with the new notifications system described below.

The other changes developers must make to ensure their apps are iOS 5 savvy are relatively minor, promising another smooth transition for iOS users who have already weathered two major reference releases without significant problems.

In addition to general embellishments that run throughout iOS 5 that developers can take advantage of, ranging from AirPlay wireless video to Accessibility features to Twitter integration, Apple has also added Newsstand, a way to show off periodical app content. Subscribe to newspaper or magazine apps, and they now appear in an iBooks-like shelf interface and update in the background as new issues became available.

 iOS 5


From the start, Apple has maintained an embarrassingly obvious lead in its third party apps library compared Windows Phone 7, RIMs BlackBerry App World and Google's Android Market, and that rich, vibrant selection of mobile software has directly contributed to the attractiveness, usefulness and relevance of the platform.

However, iOS has lagged behind (or simply not led) other mobile platform alternatives in a other respects, a checklist Apple has been ticking a few more boxes off with each annual release.

Notification Center and Lock Screen

In perhaps the most prominent example, the new iOS 5 builds upon Apple's previous efforts to deploy useful yet efficient push messaging by presenting incoming notification alerts as a subtle banner message that disappears on its own, rather than a modal dialog box blocking your view while waiting for you to dismiss the alert, then vanishing in a way you can't bring back.

From within any app, users can now pull down from the top of the screen to see a listing of recent alerts in the new Notification Center, ranging from SMS and email messages to general app notifications, along with an abbreviated stocks and weather widget.

 iOS 5


A similar overview of alerts is also now visible from the lock screen, with options to either present pending messages and alerts that can be used to unlock the phone and directly jump to the relevant app (such as Mail), or the option to hide messages so that the phone must be unlocked before seeing any new messages.

Apple didn't invent something wildly new here, borrowing the pull-down notification mechanism used by Google's Android platform and refining it to look nice, adding two popular widgets and removing much of the notification noise that Android generates (such as app installation and update events, shown below), while adding configurability and an easy to read, attractive display that makes useful details pop out rather than drowning the user in notifications that look more like the verbose boot screen of a Linux PC.

It was no secret that Apple was working to address the outdated design of its modal notification boxes. Last summer after HP acquired Palm for its webOS, Apple hired away Rich Dellinger, who had developed Palm’s non-intrusive banner notification system, widely regarded as one of the best features of the new platform.



In iOS 5, the Notification Center further develops the concept of notifications, mixing elements visible in earlier work done on Android and webOS but refining the interface to present more information in less screen real estate while segregating actual notifications from status information, settings controls and playback controls (which iOS continues to put in its "Dashboard" space, accessed by pulling up the app switcher panel and flicking to slide it in from the left.

On page 2 of 4: Reminders, iMessage