Every June, like clockwork, Apple unveils a new version of iOS at WWDC. In 2010, iOS 4 brought multitasking and home screen wallpapers. In 2011, iOS 5 introduced Siri and Notification Center. This year, Apple is launching iOS 6, an update that isn’t quite as exciting as those last two, but brings with it a lot of new features. Apple says there are over 200 new features in all, but I haven’t counted.
Still, iOS 6 is a fairly iterative update; Apple must feel they are approaching nirvana, and they are now focused mainly on small enhancements and polishing the OS. Which is fine, because iOS is already the most polished smartphone operating system out there, despite it starting to show signs of age.
While iOS 6 won’t be officially available to the public until later today, I’ve been using the update for a few months now. I’ve suffered through buggy betas and potential data loss to dig deep into iOS 6, exploring the biggest features and the nitty gritty little enhancements. Let’s dive in with the biggest new addition to iOS 6.
First, Maps features redesigned vector-based Map tiles that, in my opinion, look much nicer than Google’s. The tiles load quickly, and zooming and panning around a map feels very responsive. However, the fun ends there. Apple’s Map data and tiles are provided by third-party sources, and unfortunately the data is quite outdated. For example, I live in a relatively new neighbourhood back home, and my street doesn’t appear in Standard map view, nor in Satellite view. That means that Apple’s map data and satellite images are at least 4 years old in some areas. I’m sure this problem is not limited to my small-town Ontario neighbourhood.
Apple’s Maps app also includes built-in turn-by-turn navigation, complete with Siri voice directions. In my testing, directions were accurate and the interface Apple has built rivals a dedicated in-car GPS system. Once you start a trip, the turn-by-turn UI will remain on-screen even if you leave the Maps app – it will even display on the lock screen.
Apple’s turn-by-turn directions also make use of another new feature in the Maps app: 3D Maps. Apple calls this new feature “Flyover”, which displays a fully 3D rendered view of certain cities around the world. No, 3D doesn’t work everywhere, but Apple has consistently added new cities throughout the Beta period, which we expect will continue for the foreseeable future. Right now, cities such as San Francisco, Cupertino, Toronto, London, Boston, and many others are explorable in 3D. Simply tap the 3D Buildings button in the lower left corner of the app and the city comes to life. The 3D maps look really nice from a distance, but zoom in too closely and you can see the rough edges. Still, considering these are 3D renders created from satellite imagery, they look pretty darn good.
Other features that fell victim to the Google purge include Street View and transit directions, which are nowhere to be found within Apple Maps. These are two commonly used mapping features, and their omission from Apple’s new Maps app is a huge downside for those who rely on their phone for getting around.
“…the biggest caveat – old and missing map data – makes the app feel more like a Beta than a finished product.”
Overall, Apple’s Maps app is promising. It’s fast and responsive, and the navigation features are top notch. However, the biggest caveat – old and missing map data – makes the app feel more like a Beta than a finished product. Hopefully Apple will continue to update their Map servers with more recent data and imagery. For now, Apple Maps feels one step behind Google, and I’m excited to give their upcoming Google Maps app for iPhone a try.
Passbook is Apple’s answer to the growing mobile payments trend, though the company has taken a different approach than its competitors. Instead of leveraging NFC (Near Field Communication) technology for a tap-to-pay type service, PassBook is simply a collection of passes – movie or concert tickets, boarding passes, loyalty cards, coupons, etc. – that are collected in a single app. Instead of tapping your phone, passes display an on-screen barcode or QR code that can be scanned at a venue. Passes will even pop-up on your lock screen automatically as you near a location for which you have a pass – your Starbucks card, for example, will appear on your lock screen as you near or enter a Starbucks.
It’s a great idea in theory. The only problem is that I haven’t had the chance to actually try it yet. While Passbook is included with iOS 6 and is fully-functional right now, there are currently no apps that support it. I’m excited to see how Passbook can fit into my daily life, and I will be sure to update this review when I have put Passbook through its paces.
While Siri is still in beta, she has been given a few upgrades with iOS 6. Namely, Siri is now supported on the iPad 3 and forthcoming 5th generation iPod touch, expanding the user base across Apple’s range of iOS devices.
In terms of new features, Siri can now look up sports scores and standing for any major sports team. Siri can also look up movie times for nearby theatres, and she displays a Rotten Tomatoes score next to each movie as well. Thanks to OpenTable integration, you can now look up restaurants using Siri, and even make a reservation.
“…these enhancements represent a natural evolution for Apple’s voice-based personal assistant.”
Siri has also gained the ability to launch apps, send Tweets, or update your Facebook status. She can still get things wrong from time-to-time – after all, she is still in beta – but these enhancements represent a natural evolution for Apple’s voice-based personal assistant.
Most notably, you can now update your Facebook Status or send a Tweet from anywhere through Notification Center. I find the “share sheets” take a little while to load in Notification Center, at least on my iPhone 4S, but they work, and provide the added convenience of being able to tweet or post from any app or screen.
“Facebook has become so ubiquitous with sharing, that it seems like a natural fit for iOS.”
Facebook integration is centred mostly around sharing. You can post pictures to your Timeline right from the Photos app, or share a link from Safari. You can also “Like” songs and apps right inside Apple’s virtual stores. Facebook integration is even extended to Contacts, updating contact information and photos automatically, and Calendars, showing your Facebook Events and friends’ birthdays.
Facebook has become so ubiquitous with sharing, that it seems like a natural fit for iOS. You expect to be able to share your photos, or Like an app. It works well, it’s unobtrusive, and best of all, it’s optional. Facebook users will enjoy the added integration.
Shared Photo Streams
Shared Photo Streams is an interesting feature. You can now create an album of photos to share with other iOS users via. iCloud. Friends with whom you share the stream can comment on and like photos, they can even add photos to the stream themselves.
I found photos added to a Shared Photo Stream from my iPhone took quite a while to appear in the stream on my iPad. Perhaps the wires got crossed since I was using the same iCloud account on both devices.
Safari has gotten some useful updates in iOS 6. First is iCloud Tab Syncing, which syncs your open Safari tabs across devices. It works well, though takes a while to update – longer than Chrome, in my testing.
Safari on iPhone now supports full-screen mode in landscape, allowing you to view even more of the web without the intrusive nav bar on the bottom. It’s one of those features that you never knew you wanted until you have it; very useful and gives a lot more room to browse!
Finally, Safari now supports photo uploads right in the browser. I’ve tested it a few times, and it works perfectly.
“…one of the best new features of iOS 6.”
Tap Options > Panorama to get started. The Panorama UI is phenomenal – I don’t know why anyone didn’t think of this before – and it’s very easy to use. As you pan your iPhone across a scene, a white arrow moves along a line, and you have to keep it level as you move. It will give you warnings if you are moving too fast or if you tilt your phone up or down too far. It’s surprisingly easy to do, and the resulting photos look awesome – even on an iPhone 4S.
This is one of the best new features of iOS 6. Get ready for an onslaught of panorama photos; these will be popping up all over the social networks in the coming months!
Apple redesigned all of their digital storefronts in iOS 6 – the iTunes Store, App Store, and iBookstore. All three now feature a more unified, simplified design that makes it much easier to browse content.
The storefronts now show large carousels of content at the top, highlighting featured apps, music, and books. The App Store search results page has also been redesigned, but to mixed results. Apps are now displayed as individual cards, which works well on the iPad where you can see 6 cards at a time, but the iPhone displays just 1 at a time, meaning you have to swipe a lot to browse through search results. Developers will no doubt be upset that their apps are being hidden away.
One of the best things about the new App Store: app updates can be downloaded without entering your iTunes password – just tap and go! All in all, the new storefronts look really nice and really sleek.
The stores aren’t the only parts of iOS to get a visual overhaul. The Music app on the iPhone has also been updated to match the lighter aesthetic of the iPad’s Music app. It looks pretty good on the iPhone, but I’m starting to notice a bit of fragmentation within Apple’s built-in iPhone apps.
First you’ve got apps like Contacts and Calendar, which still feature the original, “retro” silver and pinstripe UI. Then you’ve got Notes, Calculator, even Podcasts, which are laden with skeuomorphic designs. Finally there’s the new App Store and Music app, which present a flatter design with depressed buttons. There are 3 major UI paradigms at work in iOS, and the apps are starting to look and feel a little fragmented. Not to mention the fact that Clock has a completely different icon on the iPad than on the iPhone. Apple needs to sit down and decide in which direction they want to take the iOS UI – and please don’t let it be skeuomorphic. Hopefully iOS 7 will unify the UI paradigm a little bit.
My Other Favorite Features
Look, iOS 6 includes over 200 new features, and I can’t go over them all in this review. You’ve got stuff like FaceTime over Cellular which, guess what, lets you make FaceTime calls over 3G or LTE (though why anyone would risk the data charges is beyond me). You’ve got some new calling features, which let you quickly respond to an incoming call from the lock screen with a preset text message reading “I’m busy” or “I’ll call you back later” (you can create a Reminder for that, too). You’ve got a new VIP inbox in Mail, and you can insert attachments right from the compose screen now, too.
One of my favourite features of iOS 6 is Do Not Disturb. Turn this on, and you disable all alerts on your device. Notifications will still come in – they’ll be waiting for you the next time you unlock – but while Do Not Disturb is active, your device will not ring or vibrate. You can even schedule this to turn on at a specific time each day – extremely useful for bed time!
I also like that iTunes is now integrated right into the Music app. If you have a few songs from one album, the Music app will display a “Show Complete Album” button, allowing you to purchase more songs or the rest of the album right inside the app. Very handy!
iOS 6 is not an entirely new operating system, but it brings with it some cool and much needed new features. However, while these new features are nice (for the most part), iOS as a whole is starting to feel outdated. Apple hasn’t changed much of the core functionality or design since 2007, and it’s time they looked beyond iteration and started thinking about the next big innovation for iOS.
That being said, iOS 6 is a solid update that adds plenty of cool new features. Maps shows promise, even if it isn’t quite as good as Google Maps. Passbook will no doubt be one of the most used and widely adopted features of the iPhone. And Siri will continue to evolve and become an ever more useful personal assistant.
If you have an iOS device, there’s no question about upgrading: you’ll enjoy the new stuff in iOS 6.