iOS 5 Review

Now well into its fifth year on the planet, iOS has always been known for its exceptional polish — and also, its glaring problems. But, each year since its 2007 debut, those shortcomings have been addressed one by one in a sweeping annual update. In 2008, the platform was opened up to developers giving us the App Store. 2009 gave us the introduction of copy and paste. Finally, last year “multitasking” made a presence. So, what has Apple chosen to rectify for 2011? Well, for starters, notifications is getting a complete overhaul with Notification Center, tethered syncing dies at the hands of iCloud, and messaging is getting a do-over with the birth of iMessage.

We first got acquainted with iOS 5 in May after downloading the developer preview, but how does the final release stack up? Also, does it have the chops to compete with the latest from Mountain View and Redmond? After drudging through seven betas, we’re ready to conquer all that the final release has to offer.

If you were expecting the fifth release to give us a visual overhaul, you’re going to be disappointed by iOS 5. While there are some visual differences, like rounded switches and a little less shadow around message bubbles, this is largely the iOS aesthetic you know and either love or hate.

Just because the looks of iOS haven’t changed radically, that doesn’t mean significant work hasn’t gone into replacing core components of the operating system. Take notifications, which have been redesigned from the ground up — a change that couldn’t have come sooner. Gone are the workflow-breaking modal alerts that we’ve endured since 1.0, replaced by what is being called the Notification Center. Instead of interrupting the front-most task, incoming alerts now present themselves unobtrusively with a banner that cube-flips from the top of the device. Notifications still work the same way, meaning you have two options for interacting with them: you can either address them or ignore them, which will either whisk you into the appropriate app or relegate those alerts to an off-screen notification drawer.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Cupertino’s implementation is very similar to how notifications work on Android. And just like Mountain View’s system, that drawer of notifications is revealed with the same downward swipe gesture. Once you do that, notifications are split by app, and further organized by time or whatever metric makes sense to you (naturally, you can customize the order of these notifications by playing around in Settings). From here, you can tap a notification, which opens the corresponding application and subsequently clears all alerts in that category. Otherwise, you can dismiss the entire swath of notifications by tapping the “x” across from an app’s name.

Among the notifications, you’ll also find interactive weather and stocks widgets — which we presume is Cupertino’s answer to the naysayers who’ve always wanted icons in the springboard to reflect more than sunshine and 72-degree temps. Stuffing this (location-aware!) info into the Notification Center makes more sense, as you can now glance at it any time, as opposed to jumping to and from the springboard. As of now, third-party apps don’t have the luxury of placing widgets in Notification Center, which is a shame — hopefully we’ll see this opened up by next year’s release.

Another thing you should know about the notification drawer is that it’s intentionally tough to open when you’re doing something full-screen, such as playing a game or watching video. In these cases, the gesture to open the drawer must be replicated twice, which eliminates haphazard openings — say, when you’re slicing your way to a high score in Fruit Ninja.

So does it work? In a word, yes — it’s certainly far better than its antiquated predecessor (which, curiously, still lives on in Settings, where it’s enabled for phone alerts and can be re-enabled on an app by app basis). And yet, we can’t help but wonder why Cupertino stuck with the old design for four years before providing us with this. Maybe we were expecting something more radical — say, notifications that sync across devices — but we’re glad it’s here, and boy does it make iOS a whole lot more livable.

We’ll need an iPhone 4S to play around with Siri, so until we get our grubby paws on one, there’s unfortunately not much to see here. We can’t help but note that Siri is the final evolution in a line of Apple assistants that began almost two decades ago. We fondly remember scribbling sentences into Newton’s assistant and watching it decipher them into commands and judging from what we’ve seen so far, Siri should be all that and then some. We’ll update with impressions as soon as possible.

Another marquee feature in this year’s release is iCloud — a free, revamped version of MobileMe that brings some significant add-ons. Mail, contact, calendar and bookmark syncing all remain essentially unchanged — apart from their new iPad-esque look on the new site icloud.com. But now, various iOS 5 apps can take advantage of the 5GB free locker on Apple’s servers. Updated versions of the iWork suite (Pages, Numbers and Keynote) are one such example, as saving a document in those apps now triggers a push to the cloud, with subsequent pushes back down to other devices registered on the same account. Another iCloud-aware app is Photos, which now syncs the camera roll across all registered iCloud devices. It’s worth noting, too, that photos slung across iCloud don’t count towards your storage quota. Instead Apple’s servers will only keep the last 1,000 pictures taken in the last month — whichever milestone you hit first.

As for the syncing itself, it’s pretty much invisible. Documents and photos were flung across our iPhone 4 and iPad almost instantaneously, without any effort on our part.

While iCloud in its current incarnation is nice, we’re more excited about what it could bring in the near future as developers begin to take advantage of that storage locker. In baking this kind of functionality into every iOS 5 device, we hope it won’t be long before we start seeing the kind of continuous client apps we’ve always dreamed of. Say, apps that remember state across devices and the like. Hopefully we aren’t too far off from such wizardry, and it shouldn’t take long for developers to wow us with things we’ve never even thought of.