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Apple releases iOS 5; firmware features some 200 improvements

Apple has released iOS 5 for its smartphones and tablets, bring about 200 improvements and refinements to the latest iteration of its mobile operating system.

More on Apple: Android to iOS: Where Google 'inspired' Apple

Overall, reviewers say the hands-on experience of "iDevices" with iOS 5 is more polished, more useable, and more functional than ever before. Reviewers generally are positive about the production release, especially for its revamped notifications, the new iMessage for texting, integration with iCloud and Wi-Fi syncing, and expanded HTML 5 support in the mobile Safari browser.

"The [new approach to] notifications alone are worth the upgrade, and the potential with iMessage eventually being truly seamless and replacing traditional texts can't be missed," says Jacqui Cheng, reviewing for ArsTechnica

With iOS 5, Apple's mobile devices decisively cut the USB cord to personal computers. "The ability to set up and sync your iOS device's content with your computer or the cloud without having to tether to a computer is a huge step forward for the operating system and the devices that work with it," Cheng says.

What's more, it works just fine on existing iPhone 4 and iPad 2 devices, according to Dante Cesa, reviewing for Engadget. "IOS 5 made these devices feel as snappy as ever," he says. "Transitions were smooth, apps loaded quickly and we never felt like new features overwhelmed our device. On the original iPad, much of the same applies."

The new OS is "certainly more polished and feature-complete than it ever has been," according to Cesa. "With [former] gripes like notifications and wireless sync behind us, Apple's been able to hone in on breaking new ground with features like Siri, iCloud and iMessage -- all in an extremely refined way."

The one key feature that hasn't yet been fully evaluated in hands-on reviews is Siri, the new voice "assistant" iPhone. Siri requires the dual-core processor in the new iPhone 4S and will only be available on that model phone.

Until now, a notification about an incoming call or email interrupted the user, in effect suspending whatever he was doing until he decided to view the notification or ignore it. Apple has created a Notifications Center, and extensive settings, that let users collect and manage their notification process.

"The main settings screen lists every app that could send you notifications, and you can control how each app uses them," Cheng says. "The Alert Style settings let you choose how you want each app's notifications to appear."

"So does it work? In a word, yes -- it's certainly far better than its antiquated predecessor," Cessa says. "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."

The new iMessage is being hailed by people who hate paying for carrier-based SMS or MMS messages. Think of it as a kind of free SMS limited to other iOS 5 devices, because the transport is handled by Apple's servers, not the carrier's. As Cheng notes, there have been alternatives, such as Beluga, Google+ Huddles, and GroupMe. "[B]ut none has the kind of seamless integration with "normal" SMS and MMS messages as iMessage does on an iOS device," she writes. IMessage is smart enough to know if the recipient also has iMessage; if not, it sends your message as a standard SMS text.

There is one possible area of confusion, noted by GigaOm's Mark Crump. "While the service is called iMessage, the actual app where you use it on iOS is called Messages," he notes. "To setup iMessage, go to Settings and then Messages."

"To ensure your Message is received on all your connected [iOS] devices, you must have them sent to your Apple ID e-mail address," Crump writes. "In limited testing, if someone sent me a text message to just my phone number, I only got the text on my iPhone. However, if they sent the message to my me.com address (which is my Apple ID address), I got it on all devices. This is because Apple can't associate your phone number (assigned by your carrier) with devices other than your iPhone."

ICloud is Apple's most ambitious foray into hosted services designed for mobile users. It lets iOS 5 users synch music, photos, videos, apps, data, calendars, notes, documents and browser bookmarks via the Internet, using cellular or Wi-Fi connections, something that Android users have been accustomed to for awhile.

You can configure iCloud from the Settings section of your device. " Once you have iCloud set up with your Apple ID, you can choose to have any combination of your personal data synced up to the cloud on a regular basis, which will then sync across all devices associated with your Apple ID," says Cheng.

"My experience syncing my data over iCloud was mostly hit and some miss. The elements that burped for me were Calendar syncing — for some reason, all of my appointments now show up in threes on both my iPhone and iPad, but not in my Mac's iCal or anywhere else — and Photo Stream."

Cesa says the syncing is "pretty much invisible. Documents and photos were flung across our iPhone 4 and iPad almost instantaneously, without any effort on our part."

Wi-Fi now can be used to sync your iDevice with your computer, eliminating the need for a USB cable. But Cheng warns users to pay attention to details. "In order to sync your iDevice over WiFi, you must check the proper setting in iTunes after you plug the device into the computer (possibly for the last time!)," she says. "After that, your device will automatically sync music, photos, movies, etc. every time it's on the same WiFi network as the computer (but only when plugged into power)."

Apple has tweaked the Safari Web browser in iOS 5, boosting performance and adding a raft of improvements, according to Geoffrey Goetz at GigaOm

A key but rather hidden change in Safari is increased HTML 5 compatibility, as an in-depth test by Infoworld discovered. 

"InfoWorld saw surprising results in tests of iOS 5's Safari browser against the major mobile and desktop browsers," writes Galen Gruman. "IOS 5 has 36% more HTML5 capabilities baked in than its predecessor iOS 4.3, 33% more than the current Android 3.2 'Honeycomb' tablet browser, and 61% more than the current Android 2.3 'Gingerbread' smartphone browser."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

Blog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed

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