iOS 6 Review: New Features & Rough Edges

| In-Depth Review

On September 19, 2012, Apple released iOS6 with a customary wealth of new features. It’s a good upgrade, and worth installing. In fact, it's mandatory thanks to a myriad of security updates. But iOS is also showing some signs of strain.

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The first thing you need to know about iOS 6 is that it has boatload of security fixes. That is sufficient reason to upgrade right there. The second thing to know is that there are some notable issues with iOS 6 related to Maps and Contacts. However, there are workarounds, so that shouldn’t stop you from upgrading. I’ll go into these details as we go along.

The first place to start is Apple’s What’s New in iOS 6 page. There you’ll find an overview of the new features and a graphic, at the bottom of the page, of the iDevices that are compatible with iOS 6. However, note in the fine print at the bottom: while iOS 6 will install on an iPhone 3GS, there are some features that are not available, such as Siri and turn-by-turn navigation.

Because it’s easy to see on Apple’s page what all the new features are, I’m not going to list them all again in a review for the sake of listing them. Rather, I think it’s more helpful to go into some of the nuances of this new OS.

Maps

A lot has been written about the new Apple maps app in iOS 6. A good place to start is with the TMO article by Jim Tanous, “Apple’s Maps in iOS 6: A Bad Start, But Worth a Chance.” That article explains some of the background and issues related to why Apple substituted its own mapping app. What’s important to know is that while there are many reports of errors and missing functionality, such as missing transit information and hospital locations, the Apple app also introduces turn-by-turn directions, something that was offered by Google in the Android version of Google Maps but denied to the iOS version.

I’ve been using Apple’s maps app round Denver and in Leadville, CO over the weekend, and it’s been fine. However, a mapping app is like the CPU itself. If a CPU were to make math errors only 0.1 percent of the time, it would be junked. A 99.9 percent claim of success means very little in both cases because failure, when it happens, is catastrophic.

As Apple moves to control the APIs, the user experience and its own destiny in this difficult opening round, perhaps the best way to approach it is to use Apple’s maps app when it works, but to also use Google maps if needed, which may be most of the time for a few months. You can do that now by using Safari and go to maps.google.com and then follow the prompt to add an icon to the Home Screen.

The result looks like this:

Doing this gives you access to both worlds. On September 25, Google’s Eric Schmidt dismissed the idea that his company would submit a stand-alone app.

Security Updates

In some OSes, security updates are rolled out and made available as soon as they’re ready. On the Mac, Apple publishes periodic security updates that are independent of dot releases. On the iPhone, iPad, etc., however, Apple has elected not to pester customers with frequent, individual updates, but instead folds them into major releases.

That’s why it’s important to always upgrade to the next major release of iOS. There are well over a hundred CVE-2012 security fixes in iOS 6, and over a dozen could lead to arbitrary code execution by a maliciously crafted website or image.

That fact alone makes iOS 6 an must-have upgrade.

Contacts

Apple has changed the user interface (UI) for the Contacts app just enough to irritate many users. The problem is that the change in the UI is so unintuitive at first blush, it has people running to the Internet to figure it out. Here’s an explanation of the problem, and here’s one possible solution, again, involving a substitute app. It’s not clear, at this point, why Apple made the change, but considering the bad reaction I’ve seen, I expect Apple to go back to the old method in the next iOS update.

Siri

Siri knows about sports scores now. For example, I asked Siri, “What was the Broncos score?” Here was the result.

That’s fairly impressive, considering that Siri had to put the word “Broncos” into context, perhaps assisted by the word, “score.” Siri didn’t perform quite as well when I asked about a movie, “The Bourne Legacy,” and I was wondering how comprehensive the results would be. They weren’t, and so I’d recommend saying with Flixter for detailed theater and times.

The release brings Siri to the iPad, but you’ll have to have at least the iPad, 3rd generation. That’s probably due to the required horsepower of the A5X System on a Chip (SoC).

Clock App for iPad

For a long time, the iPad suffered the blight of not knowing exactly what time it is because it didn’t have an NTP daemon running. On the iPads I tested, the clock drift was about a minute a month, and the accumulation would continue, unabated. So while the iPhone could grab a fairly accurate time from a cell tower, a Wi-Fi-only iPad could not. I mentioned this previously in, “What Time is it? Your iPad May Not be Sure,” and then “What Time is it? Your iPad 2 *Still* Doesn’t Know” and finally, when Apple fixed the problem, “What Time is it? Your iPad and iOS 5 finally Knows.

Now that a Wi-Fi-only iPad knows almost exactly what time it is, it seemed high time for the iPad to have its own Apple clock app, and iOS 6 has it.

But even then, not all is well with that clock. Unlike the iPhone’s version, which has the analog and digital time adjacent, one must look at the world map on the iPad to see the digital values. And if you select two cites that are too close together, one will be moved arbitrarily to make room for the other. In my case, with San Francisco selected, there is precious little room for Denver, and it gets repositioned to roughly the region of Baja California. Ugly.

I found it interesting that there is a temperature associated with Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), even if, as one can argue, that’s connected to Greenwich, England. Note, however, that its gets pushed into Africa. Crazy.

I noted with pleasure that the time was right for the U.S. Antarctic station at the South Pole, something that some apps hose up. Finally, as we know, there’s a kerfuffle over the design of the analog clocks. All in all, the clock app, while welcome, pales compared to the wealth of other apps available for time on the iPad, and so Apple's is both half-baked rather tardy in its inclusion.

FaceTime

Apple has enabled FaceTime to work over a cellular network. However, the capability is limited to the iPhone 4S, 5, and iPad (3rd generation) with cellular data capability. Plus, the policy of your carrier dictates whether your plan will support FaceTime over cellular. AT&T requires customers to have a shared data plan while Verizon and Sprint don’t have that kind of plan restriction.

Settings

In order to support all this new capability, the Settings in iOS 6 have been modified slightly. For a comprehensive guide on all the changes to Settings, see ted Landau’s “Complete Guide to What’s New in iOS 6 Settings.

Notable is the “Do Not Disturb” function, which allows the iPhone to continue to do its own housekeeping in the background, however, events that might wake one up while sleeping can be better managed. The preferences are managed in the Notifications section. You can allow calls from, for example, your formal favorites or even a more (or less) restricted Group. Your phone must be locked before this option takes effect.

In the selection of which entities are allowed to disturb the owner, we see the emergence of the checkmark mania also seen in Contacts. But there’s a difference between choosing deferred options (Do Not Disturb) and immediate options (Show my wife’s number right now. ) Apple chose not to differentiate the two which is a shame.

Phone

There are new options for answering, or rather, not answering a phone call, and they’re most welcome. When there’s an incoming call, touch the phone icon on the bottom right and swipe up. There are some options you can set in the Settings. This change allows you to gracefully let the caller that you are there, the number they called was valid, but you’re tied up. The declined call will still roll to voice mail, but the message you chose will be sent via SMS/iMessage. Alternatively, a reminder can be programmed into the Notification Center to call the person back later.

The color scheme of the dialer is now a crisp, black on white. It’s easier to see in low light and looks a lot better.

Mail

With iOS 6, we can start to compose an email and then add an attachment. Touch and hold the body of the message until you see “Select, Select All or Paste,” and then tap the (new) right arrow on the right side of that banner. Then you’ll see “Insert Photo or Video.” That’s a huge change, one for the better, and one that customers have been clamoring for. Plus, there’s a tremendous speed up in time to send, especially with an attachment even on the slower 4S.

You can designate a person in your contacts list as a V.I.P. You can’t do that from the Contacts app, which is probably a good thing because it releases us from extreme dependence on that app.

Instead, tap the person’s name in a To:, From: or a Cc:/Bcc field, and a Contacts item page comes up. Scroll down, and tap the “Add to VIP” button. Alternatively, you can tap the VIP mailbox to start creating VIPs. To delete a VIP, go through the same process, and that previous button now says “Remove from VIP.”

You can set a custom notification for VIPs. Go to Notifications -> Mail -> VIPs -> New Mail Sound. This sound applies to any email from all your VIPs.

Safari

Safari in iOS 6, offers us the option to keep track of pages that are open on multiple devices. That way, you can pick up where you left off on another device. That might be handy of you’re doing some research on the iPhone, but would like to, later, see a page on the larger page of an iPad or Mac. However, to do that, you have to go through iCloud, and that means, as always, trading convenience against privacy.

If you do want to use this feature, make sure Safari is synced in iCloud (Settings -> iCloud) and then tap the bookmark icon on your iPhone’s Safari to see a folder containing your iCloud tabs.

Regarding the address bar, it’s interesting that Safari in iOS 6 retains the separate address bar and search bar. That will certainly be controversial because Safari 6 in OS X merges them. Considering that space is at a premium on the iPhone display, it’s a puzzling choice.

Perhaps the nicest feature of Safari in iOS 6 is the ability to upload photos or videos to websites. When the site asks for, say, an image, you’ll get a popover that lets you chose an image from the camera roll. Or take a photo right then and there. This is all part of the philosophy of placing more capability in iOS 6 and enabling content creation, but where it’s really going to come in handy is on the iPad where original content gets created. Even so, I can see how this could be used in a rapid data collection environment on an iPhone.

App Store

Access to the App Store in iOS 6 is more visual. There’s a new sheet, very nicely laid out, that provides more information about each app. When apps are updated, they’re all updated on the same page with progress bars that step through each app -- if you select Update All on the top left. This is a much needed change, and contrasts to the old iOS method that made you wonder what the progress of the update was on all the apps spread out amongst many pages.

Also very welcome: you don’t need to enter your Apple ID and password for the updates; you only need to do that when purchasing apps. Finally, the sharing button makes it a lot easier to let other people know about apps you like.

The greatly enhanced UI for the App Store is one of the tent pole features of iOS 6, and if the security updates weren’t the driving force to upgrade, then this improvement alone would seal the deal.

Passbook

Passbook is an interesting animal. It has great potential, but isn’t widely exploited and supported yet. Companies that offer tickets and loyalty cards have to sign up to support Passbook, and right now, there only a handful. In time, this will be a fabulous app, but it will take some time for it to gain acceptance and utility. I love the concept, and I’ll be watching the evolution of Passbook. For now, it’s one of those Apple projects that will live or die depending on how much effort Apple puts into promoting it and how much excitement it generates amongst the users and merchants.

Also, if it's well integrated into a digital wallet at some time in the future, that would ensure the survival of this app.

Will Passbook survive?

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Taking Stock

There are several other enhancements to iOS 6, but it’s not my plan to cite and describe each and every one of them. Instead, it’s time to size up iOS 6.

Feel. iOS 6 feels more like a maintenance release than the major releases of the past. If Apple thought that they’d set the world on fire with its mapping app, they did so, but not in the way that the company had hoped. The reaction has been more like a firestorm. Siri, which is still in beta, had only minor changes. The rest of the updates that I cited above, seem to be in response to customer requests rather than a major conceptual overhaul. Examples include the handling of attachments in the mail app, phone call answer management, and the uploading of images and shared tabs in Safari.

Creeping Awkwardness. As a result of several factors, the UI for iOS seems to be leaking out at the edges. The idea of setting a master control in Settings, but then hunting for the detailed control somewhere else, say, Notifications, is beginning to break down. The Copy, Paste banner is now pressed into so much service that it needs an arrow to expand its functions.

Part of the problem may be because iOS on the iPad is expected to do so much, and the translation, crammed down to a four inch screen, is feeling the weight. It’s a phenomenon that all companies who make both smartphones and tablets struggle with.

Missing. Also missing are some features that we’ve wanted in a major iOS update for a long time. You still need to use a Mac to make wholesale changes to the app layout on all your pages. Other missing features, that have been mentioned include:

  • Address the awkwardness of the magnifying glass in edit mode.
  • An option to show the full day and date at the top of the iPad
  • An option for unattended, automatic updates
  • A secure mechanism for sharing data between apps
  • Multiple windows/multiple apps running at the same time on the iPad. For example, Safari side-by-side with a text editor.
  • Multiple user accounts (login/logout) for family or school use

While the whole is often more than the sum of the parts, in this case, the upgrade, while significant, still seems like a bunch of parts. It’s an iOS tune-up that addresses a lot of nagging issues by adding features, but the additions, in this reviewer’s opinion, begin to strain the UI. What typically happens is that a new UI concept is needed before progress can resume.

Bottom Line. So long as you understand the workaround that allows you to run both Google’s and Apple’s map apps, this is a free and easy upgrade, worth exploring. Most importantly, these updates can accumulate feature upon feature with corresponding changes in settings. So if you fall behind, it’ll be all the harder to catch up later. After all, being on this technology ride is a lot of fun, and the reason we upgrade our iPhones and iOS. There’s nothing to be gained by holding back.

Product: iOS 6

Company: Apple, Inc.

List Price: Free

Pros:

Lots of new features that clean up various issues in Mail, Safari, Phone and adds Passbook, FaceTime over cellular and better social media integration.

Cons:

Problematic mapping app, some UI strain showing.

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1 Comments

geoduck

The security updates are good but for my devices the vast majority of the updates don’t apply (Siri, Passobook, Facebook Integration, FaceTime over Cell, etc.)

Two things:
Game Center has gone from an irrelevance to a serious piss me off annoyance. I don’t use it but this time I had to fight with my devices for a couple of days to kill it. It kept jumping up and preventing me from playing a game unless I signed in and the Cancel button did not work.
AppStore: It crashes for me. A lot. I don’t remember the old version ever folding up. Now I can count on it at least once every time I use then AppStore. In particular if a search has too many results I know it will collapse. Ex: looked for the Discovery Channel app so I searched for discovery. 575 results and theree seconds later it collapsed. I see that sort of thing regularly. also some particular Apps will kill the appStore App. I don’t remember one right now but Ive run into several that I can not even look at, let alone buy because the AppStore folds like a house of cards each time I go there.

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