26th Mar 2013 | 16:02
It's evolution rather than revolution - but Siri's superb
Updated: Our iOS 6 review has been overhauled to include the iOS 6.1 software updates.
On the surface, it might not look like much has changed with iOS 6 and the subsequent minor iOS 6.1 updates. However, Apple has added a number of new features over iOS 5, along with continuing in its mission to eradicate Google from the system by default. Apple's YouTube app has gone (Google has since released its own on to the App Store) and Maps now runs with Apple power rather than Google juice.
Elsewhere, the OS is more social (Facebook now joining Twitter in being baked in), Siri's been improved, and countless tweaks (some fairly major from a usability standpoint) are in evidence in the likes of Mail, Safari, Phone and the iOS stores.
Oh, and Apple finally added a clock app to the iPad, which resulted in a legal spat with the Swiss railway network service. It seems not only Samsung is in the photocopying business.
iOS 6 ditches support entirely for the original iPad, but is nonetheless compatible with a surprisingly wide range of devices; iPhones back to the 3GS are supported, as are both the fourth- and fifth-generation iPod touch.
However, the older the kit, the less of iOS 6 you actually get. Some of the big features - Siri, turn-by-turn navigation, panoramic photos and FaceTime over 3G - aren't available for the iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4.
The iPhone 3GS doesn't even get Safari's offline Reading List feature, and Siri's not available for the iPad 2.
So is it worth the upgrade? We've installed iOS 6 (and iOS 6.1) across multiple iOS devices to find out. Our test kit is an iPhone 4, an iPhone 4S, an iPod touch (fourth-generation), an iPhone 5, an iPad 2, and a new iPad (courtesy of Vodafone).
There are more new features than you'd think, even when you don't get all the new features.
The iOS 6 interface
A common criticism of iOS is that Apple never radically updates it. Tech pundits in particular often use words like 'tired' and 'dated' to describe the operating system, suggesting it would be better if you could weld Android-like widgets to it, or if every home screen icon was more akin to a hyperactive child begging for attention, as per Live Tiles on Windows 8.
iOS 6 is typically Apple in being purely iterative. You get the familiar grid of icons on each home screen, and the screens can be swiped between.
Double-clicking the Home button reveals the multitasking tray, which also houses media controls, the rotation lock and an AirPlay button. Swipe left from the first home screen and you access Spotlight, Apple's system-wide search.
So far, so iOS 5, and that level of familiarity will either be warming or maddening, depending on your persuasion. Regardless, it's definitely very usable, even if configuration options on offer are few in number and rapid-sorting settings are non-existent.
However, there have been some small adjustments. The status bar now changes colour on a per-app basis, in an attempt to blend in. This is more visually appealing but muddies the water when it comes to alerts that were once made in part through a change in colour of said status bar.
Better amendments are the new audio controls on the Lock screen and Spotlight search results now displaying the name of an app's containing folder. Apple's penchant for cropping text labels remains frustrating, though, and is increasingly common throughout the OS.
iOS 6 Maps
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We feared the worst: with Apple giving Google Maps data the boot in favour of its own, we half expected an app that was just great in America and utterly useless in the UK. We were wrong, but that's not to say Maps is without its issues - and people have since its launch taken to the web to express their displeasure at the new app.
The app uses data from TomTom, including free live traffic information - something you have to pay extra for in TomTom's own iPhone app. The UK maps are generally very good, offering turn-by-turn navigation that Siri can read aloud if you wish.
Most of the app's problems appear to stem from a lack of maturity compared to Google's offering, combined with some missing features. Results based on imprecise locations are frequently poor.
'Stansted' in Google Maps gave us London Stansted Airport during testing; in Maps, a village in Kent. 'Luton' in Maps gave us a village in Devon whereas Google Maps more sensibly defaulted to the large town near London. These problems are endemic, although locations are generally found correctly when you enter more information, such as a post code.
Local search is also extremely variable. Restaurant reviews from Yelp are integrated but are typically sparse or unavailable entirely if you live in a rural area.
Business locations are peppered with errors, such as occasional American spellings (for example, "Exhibition Center") and mapping glitches, such as the one that identified our local Italian restaurant as a Sainsbury's supermarket 15 miles away.
The experience smacks of a lack of testing, and it's not good enough for a feature Apple boasted was best-in-class rather than a beta that required a ton of crowdsourcing for errors.
There were other aspects of Google Maps we missed. Apple's offering fails to distinguish between road types. In Google Maps, you enjoy blue motorways, green major routes, orange A roads, and yellow B roads; in Apple's world, major routes are orange and everything else is white. For visual route planning and at-a-glance sanity checks regarding your current location, this can be a blow.
The Maps app also doesn't have Street View, but the iPhone 4S/iPhone 5 and recent iPads get Flyover View's 3D models of cities. When they're available they're often superb, but they're not widely available yet: for example, London's there, but most other major UK cities aren't.
Also, although Apple makes a good effort to display cities in 3D, some buildings and monuments occasionally look like they've been left in the sun too long and have melted. From a purely navigational standpoint, they're also less generally useful than Street View.
Another missing aspect is public transport, for which you now need an app - Apple offers no replacement whatsoever.
Where Maps does work nicely is as an affordable alternative to expensive turn-by-turn car navigation apps or hardware. With an iPhone securely mounted on the dashboard, you get a very nice experience, with clear directions and fast rerouting if you miss a turn.
It's not perfect - tiny interface elements mean you'll need to take the phone out of any cradle to adjust anything - but we found the accuracy fine on a number of car journeys. These included ones where we specifically tried to get lost, in areas with many recent road changes, some including obscure Scottish roundabout systems. We also reckon the in-car experience pips that of Google Maps, although Google's app is superior as a navigation aid when on foot.
It's worth noting that Maps isn't a standalone app but an underlying system for iOS, and so it also affects apps such as Find My Friends. However, despite our grumbles about the visual display of the maps, we're not so fussed when we're checking whether someone's on time for a meeting as opposed to travelling to such a meeting ourselves.
Siri, Phone, FaceTime and Do Not Disturb
It's still in beta, but Siri has been massively improved in iOS 6, especially for UK customers: at last Siri can do local searches, so you're not just limited to a subset of the US version's features.
If you liked Siri but found its limitations infuriating in iOS 5, you'll nonetheless perhaps find yourself increasingly using the feature in iOS 6.
Siri can now give you driving directions, tell you what time films are on and whether they're any good, find your friends, provide football scores and launch apps, and it integrates with services including Wolfram Alpha, Facebook and Twitter.
There's also Eyes Free for integration with in-car audio and voice control systems, something Apple is liaising with car manufacturers about.
Apple is rather keen on Siri, not just for answering questions but also for dictating text. We've found computer dictation patchy over the years, but it's genuinely impressive in iOS 6 - especially on the new iPad, where thankfully you don't need to hold the tablet next to your face for it to hear you.
iOS 6 Phone app and FaceTime
iOS 6's Phone app has some welcome improvements. Previously, you were restricted to answering or declining the call, sending the device to voicemail. Now, you can swipe upwards when a call comes in, enabling you to set a reminder to call the person back, or to send a text response.
Reminders can be time-based or location-based, so for example you can set a reminder that kicks in when you get home. The pre-defined text messages are pretty basic but they do the job, and it's also possible to send a custom message instead. Depending on your setup and connectivity, the response will be sent via SMS or iMessage.
FaceTime's also been given a boost: you can finally use it over 3G, provided you have the right hardware (iPhone 5 or iPhone 4S) and the right calling plan. For the most part, UK carriers do not differentiate between FaceTime and Facebook, but check your plan carefully before using or relying on the feature.
iOS 6 Do Not Disturb
The Do Not Disturb feature is one of the best additions to iOS 6. The basic idea is providing a block of time during which the device when locked silences all calls and alerts.
Additional options enable you to allow calls from your 'Favorites' in the Contacts app, or some other user-defined group; additionally, you can allow a call through should someone phone more than once.
Bar yet another date-oriented Apple screw-up at the dawn of 2013, where Do Not Disturb refused to disengage automatically for a week, the feature has worked flawlessly during the time we've been running iOS 6.
Our one complaint is that the schedule needs more granular options. Right now, you can merely set a time period during which you don't want to be disturbed, but it would be useful to have the option to set alternative hours for, at the very least, weekends and public holidays.
Safari and Mail
iOS 6 Safari
Aside from the speed boosts you'd expect from a refreshed browser, Safari for iOS 6 brings with it a number of updates, two of which centre around iCloud.
The rather poor and half-hearted Reading List feature, which saves web pages for you to read later, now works offline. This is a major improvement, although because Safari pulls down the entire document, saving it takes longer than sending a web page to the likes of Instapaper or Pocket. However, Reading List content syncing across iCloud now makes it a potential alternative to a bespoke read-it-later app or service.
Another great new feature is iCloud tabs. Once activated, this enables you to see open tabs on other devices using the same iCloud ID, including Macs running the latest version of Safari.
There are also a couple of interface changes: tap-holding the back button now brings up the history list, and the iPhone and iPod touch now have a full-screen mode, although it's only available in landscape orientation.
iOS 6 Mail
Mail's updates in iOS 6 are relatively small but are nonetheless very welcome. First and foremost, Apple brings its VIP feature to iOS. This enables you to define certain people you communicate with as VIPs and have their emails arrive in the VIP inbox. Ultimately, it's a pre-defined smart mailbox, but it's handy if you're drowning in email and don't want to miss crucial messages from specific people.
Elsewhere, Apple now enables you to insert photos into emails and has included pull-to-refresh with a cute gloopy refresh icon. Additionally, you can now set signatures on a per-account basis, rather than being forced to use the same one for all of them.
Camera and PhotoStream
iOS 6 Camera
We suspect the strength of the iOS app ecosystem is what propelled the iPhone to become the most popular camera on many photography social networks (including Flickr), but the default Camera app has always been a decent option, especially when it gained an optional grid.
In iOS 6, Apple's added a Panorama mode. You hold your device in portrait orientation and slowly sweep horizontally across the scene you wish to capture (if you're going too quickly for the device, you'll be told to slow down). This being an Apple feature, it doesn't provide you with any further options whatsoever.
Fortunately, the automated panorama stitching the Camera app does is generally excellent, to the point we happily ditched third-party apps of this type from our devices.
iOS 6 Photo Stream
Photo Stream was one of those typically Apple technologies: great when it worked, maddeningly frustrating when it didn't, and with almost no options to fine-tune it.
Previously, Photo Stream provided access to your most recent 1,000 photos and/or screen grabs, and that was it. These would be synchronised across devices and computers using the same Apple ID.
With iOS 6, it's now possible to remove images from Photo Stream, and you can now also share custom Photo Streams with other people, or with the public at large via a website on iCloud.com. Any custom Photo Stream can be left as it was when first set up or later updated whenever you like, and those you invite to it can leave comments.
Disappointingly, this is only a shared service in the sense of you sharing your images with others, not you all sharing together. If Apple adds some kind of group Photo Stream, this could be a killer feature; right now, it's certainly a nice-to-have for an ad-hoc share of a few holiday snaps, but hardly something that will worry Flickr or Facebook.
New and updated apps: Passbook, Clock and more
In iOS 6, there are also new apps and a few overhauled ones:
iOS 6 Passbook
We like the idea behind Passbook. Apple describes it as a place that can house boarding passes, store coupons and loyalty cards, tickets, and more.
It's also location-aware, meaning that if the iPhone knows you're in a store, Passbook should root out the relevant card (assuming Apple Maps doesn't think you're oddly lurking in a fire station, say, rather than your local coffee house).
The big problem, though, is the current poor support for the system. Only a handful of UK apps exist, such as Starbucks, a few airlines and iHotel.
Passbook could be a killer feature, but we wonder whether it'll ultimately become another Ping and be quietly killed.
iOS 6 iPad clock
There's always been a strange disparity between Apple devices when it comes to default apps, with the iPad having fewer of them. Bizarrely, even a calculator and clock weren't included with Apple's tablet, presumably because someone somewhere decided nobody would need to calculate things or set alarms and timers on the larger device.
With iOS 6, Apple includes a clock that makes reasonable use of the extra space available over an iPhone display. You get the usual Timer and Stopwatch tabs, an Alarm tab with a nicely designed grid, and a World Clock tab with a map. The map shows the locations of your defined cities along with current weather conditions. Bar Apple's swiping of the Swiss railway network service's clock design, there's nothing to grumble about here.
iOS 6 App Store, iTunes and iBooks
All of Apple's stores on iOS have had a major overhaul, which has sped them up and also showcased Apple's obsession with horizontal bands of content that you can swipe.
There are also some usability boosts, such as iTunes enabling you to access recent previews, and you being able to install multiple apps rather than being punted to the home screen after each one. New apps are pleasingly also given a 'New' badge, so you can easily spot them.
But Apple's often the kind of company to punch itself in the head shortly after delivering a knock-out blow, and these store redesigns are no exception. Too often, item names are truncated to the point where you have to tap into each item to differentiate it from another.
Worse, search results now come in the form of cards that make browsing large lists a horrible chore. With these stores, discoverability on iOS has taken a step backwards, particularly for apps and games.
Updated privacy and settings
iOS 6 privacy and Guided Access
Privacy settings get an overhaul in iOS 6. The Privacy section of Settings gives you a list of items that apps request permission to use: location services, contacts, calendars, and so on. For each, you can revoke access using a slider.
This is also the case with the now fairly deeply integrated social networks, Twitter and Facebook. It's perhaps arguable that the typical user still won't find these options, but Privacy appearing at the top level in Settings and being so straightforwardly designed is a decision that should be applauded.
Also in the realm of permissions and privacy (but also with education ramifications) is Guided Access. Buried in the Accessibility section of General within Settings, the feature when toggled enables you to disable touch, motion and portions of the screen.
A triple-click on the Home button brings up the straightforward interface for defining these features, and Guided Access can also be secured by a four-digit passcode.
iOS 6 Lost Mode
Another somewhat privacy-oriented change in iOS 6 is Lost Mode. This is an extension of Find My iPhone, and once triggered via iCloud.com or the Find My iPhone app it locks down a device in a more useful manner than before.
Rather than just playing an alert and sending a message, it enables you to send a phone number that whoever's got your device can use to call you back on. It's only a subtle change, but one that will perhaps increase the likelihood of you getting a lost iPhone back, assuming your message is a touch more polite than "I'm coming for you, thief!"
iOS 6 useful tweaks
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Elsewhere, Apple's made a number of smaller tweaks that make the system more customisable or usable. In the Music app (which has also had an interface overhaul), you can now delete individual tracks and download single items from iTunes Match.
The Share sheet is now a clear and usable grid of icons, and in Notification Center you can add Share widgets for Twitter and/or Facebook. In Settings, the Bluetooth toggle is now on the top level - we'd like it on a home screen somehow, but this is a start.
And in the General > Cellular section within Settings, you can toggle whether cellular data is used for iCloud documents, iTunes, FaceTime, Passbook updates and Reading List. These might all be small things, but each makes a difference and they combine to improve the OS and justify Apple's belief in iteration rather than regular and unnecessary overhauls.
The big question about any OS upgrade is, will installing it make you glad you did?
The answer for iOS 6 is yes, but some users answer yes more emphatically than others.
The two biggest changes to iOS 6 are Maps and Siri. It's easy to jeer at the former, and Maps certainly has its problems, but it is an excellent choice for in-car turn-by-turn. Siri continues to improve and is now heading towards becoming an essential component of iOS rather than a gimmick.
Do Not Disturb, despite its lack of scheduling granularity, is a triumph. Apple certainly didn't get there first with this feature, but we're sure glad the company got there eventually.
Elsewhere, we liked that Apple's continuing to work with strong foundations and, generally, improving things. Relatively minor updates to Mail, Safari, Camera, Photo Stream, Phone, Share sheets, Find My iPhone and privacy all add up to a big improvement overall.
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There's no getting away from iOS 6's differences across devices. In some cases, hardware limitations must be to blame, but some feature cuts appear arbitrary and driven by Apple wanting users to upgrade. For example, the iPhone 4's inability to make FaceTime calls over 3G is baffling, considering it works with Wi-Fi.
Elsewhere, Maps isn't good enough in all use cases, and it really should have been, while Passbook is a nice app that has poor support, and some of Apple's design decisions have been questionable. We can put up with the status bar changing colour, but the awkward search and cropped names in all iOS stores are bad to the point of putting you off searching for and buying things.
We could say the same about iOS 6 as we did about iOS 5: it "has been trailed for so long that the element of surprise went ages ago, but there's enough here to make your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch feel shiny and new all over again."
iOS 6 is rather like the iPhone 5 or OS X Mountain Lion - the refinement of something that already works extremely well. Apple isn't overhauling things for the sake of it but, in the main, making the iOS experience gradually better. That in itself is something other companies would do well to emulate.