The iPhone is five years old, and with it the operating system that runs it. So this year sees the launch of the sixth generation system, iOS 6, designed for the iPhone 5 but also suitable for any Apple phone or tablet made in the last three years.
There are said to be 200 new features folded into the update, many of them minor or even invisible. But there are some new tricks that are immediately obvious – Passbook is added to the Home screen, along with a new icon to herald the controversial new Maps app.
Siri, at your service
When Siri first appeared with the iPhone 4S this time last year, its usefulness for UK users was severely limited by not being location-aware. So asking any question about directions or where to find things was answered by a depressing boiler-plate response that Siri could only search addresses in the US using American English.
iOS 6 has opened up new possibilites, starting with the key question ‘Where am I?’. You can now ask it the location of nearby businesses, restaurants and the like.
It can be all too fallible though.
We asked Siri where the nearest post office was, and it gave us the choice of several on the map – while completely missing the main local branch to our office opposite Kings Cross station.
It’s unclear if this kind of mistake is related more to the issues that the new Maps service is suffering.
It still has a sense of humour. Ribing the virtual assistant with such knowing requests such as ‘Open the pod bay doors, Hal’ will elicit replies like ‘Okay, but wipe your feet first’.
Photo Stream was introduced with iCloud as a way to keep your most recently taken photos available on different iOS devices. With iOS 6, you can now share your personal stream with other people.
Look in the Photos app for Photo Stream at the screen bottom, then just click + to add someone you’d like to share with.
It doesn’t automatically share all pics – you tick those you’d like others to see. Your sharees can even add comments to pictures. You can choose to make all your photos public if you dare, published on the iCloud website. We couldn’t find a way to add people to an existing photo stream though, which is a little frustrating.
iOS 6: We'll Pass
Passbooks is not very relevant, in the UK at least at present. Tapping on the icon presents a screen that gives an idea of what it might provide: boarding passes for airline, tickets for films and events, credit cards for certain shops and discount coupons. Following the link to the App Store shows that only United Airlines and Lufthansa are currently making use of the service.
See also: iPhone 5: First analysis from the lab
Social mediaites may welcome the added integration with Facebook, so you can sign in once and post from Notification Center and Siri.
To help you manage your incoming calls, Apple has cleverly added a way to kindly deflect inopportune phone calls. Rather than just deflect the call or let go to answerphone, you can pull down on the call screen to show text options. Here you can tell your caller in preset messages that you’re busy, on your way, or make your customised text response.
With so much personal information condensed into your phone or tablet, it’s reassuring that more fine-grained control of how this information is used by other companies whose apps you’ve installed.
We'd rather have a simple 'off' switch for all such data mining. But until then you can now elect to not share your address book with all and sundry, for example, and likewise your photos, calendar and reminders can be individually walled off to nosey apps.
Dig deeper and you can find a way to prevent targeted ads from aimed at you. Buried under Settings/ General/ About/ Advertising there’s an option to Limit Ad Tracking. Note the 'limit' and not 'stop'.
iOS 6: Safari and Mail
Safari for iOS has received a few updates, including iCloud tabs which usefully shows which tabs you have open on your other devices, including Mountain Lion Macs.
If you want to share an interesting webpage with others, you're now offered the inevitable post to Facebook, or print, copy bookmark, Message as well as just email the link to someone.
In the Mail app, you can easily add photo or video inline without having to copy media first. As we’ve seen with other third-party apps and Android, you can refresh your Inbox by pulling the screen downward.
iOS 6 and Maps
The new feature that’s garnered the most interest is Maps – and not for the best reasons.
Apple has replaced the Google-supplied mapping data for the Maps app with its own new system. It now uses vector-based graphics and text, which all scale smoothly.
But popular features such as Street View are no longer available. More worrying is the misplacing of landscape features, or the complete absence of crucial details – like railway stations.
Satellite imagery is also of poorer quality than before, with some of the images we've seen of UK scenery looking quite dour.
The Flyover feature is an attractive way to see buildings in 3D relief, but this is only available in select larger cities. And not on the iPhone 4, for instance.
Flying around the Thames embankment is great eye candy though, using two fingers to circle around the London Eye, for example.
Apple has stated that its new Maps feature is a work in progress but that doesn’t help users who’ve upgraded and were expecting the same functionality they’ve become used to from the built-in mapping feature.
Until Apple fixes this crucial part of its mobile operating system, a stopgap can be found by making a Home screen shortcut for Google or Bing’s online maps.
That won't help in apps like Find My Friends, though, which are stuck with Apple's deficient mapping function. This app has now been updated for iOS 6, and can use geofencing to alert you when a friend arrives at or departs from a chosen location.
iOS 6: Performance
Some system upgrades result in older hardware struggling to run more modern operating systems.
We tested performance with an iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, before and after the upgrade from iOS 5.1.1 to iOS 6. The results were encouraging for those worried about making the step.
The iPhone 4S similarly improved in this test, shortening time from 2421ms to 1891ms, and indicating a 28% improvement.
We tested with Geekbench 2, which showed no significant change in raw processor and memory speed with the change in OS.
Our iPhone 4 scored 326 points, and the iPhone 4S scored 632 points, plus or minus one point before and after upgrades.
Graphics, as tested by GLBenchmark 2.5, were almost unchanged in iOS 6. The iPhone 4 played the Egypt HD sequence at just 4.1fps in iOS 5, and 4.0fps in iOS 6.
An iPhone 4S was similarly close, this time nudging up from 18 to 19fps.
In use, we found the new iOS 6 very spritely and snappy on both these recent handsets, with no subjective sign of added lag post upgrade.