Apple's iOS 5: A Good Fit

Cloud features and application enhancements don't cripple older devices.

Apple's latest major revision of its mobile operating system proves that the company is capable of learning from its mistakes, while moving the bar for rivals such as Google's Android. Although on the surface it appears to be an improved iOS 4, the addition of cloud-centric networking and sharing features makes iOS 5 a true milestone for the platform.

The new version of iOS adds a number of capabilities in the areas of personal information management and media sharing, but the introduction of iCloud as a keystone of iOS 5 is certainly a game-changing move by Apple. In providing users a mobile-focused, simple-to-use repository for application data and media-albeit one that's limited in scope-Apple is having another go at the cloud. This time, though, the recipe works.

Devices sold before the release of iOS 5 can be upgraded in a matter of hours, at the risk of being realistic about what's involved. The kicker seems to be the amount of media you insist on having onboard the device when it's being upgraded. Obviously, if one's device is already backed up and the software downloaded, the actual loading of the software and restoration of data are the only remaining time-consuming tasks. However, I found that the process of upgrading an iPad, an iPhone 3GS and an iPhone 4-from backing up the device, through the OS image download, restoring applications and data, and then setting up new features such as iCloud-was a four-hour commitment.

Still, I'm impressed with the results, especially with the way a two-year old iPhone 3GS behaves after the update. Before, I was more than a little curious about how well iOS 5 would run on what is now low-end gear. Apple's track record on this front took a beating last year, when users who upgraded their iPhone 3G devices to iOS 4 consistently experienced poor performance, including sluggish behavior and crashes. Ultimately, Apple ended iOS development for the iPhone 3G after the November 2010 release of iOS 4.2.1. Following a few days of using a 3GS for about a week as everything but a phone, I don't believe that history is going to repeat itself.

On first use, a newly upgraded device presents the user with a chance to implement some basic settings for iCloud. These include the Photo Stream image-sharing service and device backup to iCloud. After iCloud, I've found the most useful feature of the new OS to be Reminders, which breathes new life into the familiar to-do list. It uses iCloud to synchronize task lists across iOS and OS X Lion devices, and if you're using the ActiveSync feature of Microsoft Exchange, with both Mac and Windows versions of Outlook. It offers location-aware organization of tasks, which could keep me from wandering into a hardware store and instantly forgetting why I walked in there in the first place.

Another noteworthy feature of iOS 5 is the built-in Twitter client, which might make me a believer, if not a regular user. It too is location-aware, and the client integration with the Maps, Safari and YouTube applications may draw an entirely new pool of users to the service.

I've waited for the iPhone to get a camera that's fit for use in the field for anything more than a snapshot, and although one's results will of course vary with the model, the new features of the Camera application, such as view screen gridlines and zoom-by-pinch, make composition much easier than before. Combined with new editing abilities in the Photos application, including automatic color enhancement, cropping, red-eye elimination and rotating, what we now have in the iPhone-thanks to iOS 5, iCloud and Photo Stream-is a tool for posting photos online like never before. The only flaws here are the lack of any way to easily get older photos into iCloud, and the lack of control one has over which photos get put into the cloud.

That's actually a problem I see across the board with Apple's implementation of cloud-based storage for mobile users. "All or nothing" isn't a great strategy for Las Vegas or the cloud, and being old-fashioned, I like to choose what chunks of my data are safe to go beyond my control. The iWork applications for iOS-the Pages word processor, the Numbers spreadsheet and the Keynote presentation tool-performed relatively well for me, although there were a few bumps as older files on my devices moved to iCloud. But as with Photo Stream, it's all or nothing, and that's not granular enough for my taste.

The next big deal for me in iOS 5 is the ability to back up and sync with iTunes wirelessly, install software updates over the air and back up the device to iCloud. Any opportunity I have to get another cable out of life is one worth taking, although I won't be able to test the software update feature for a while longer, it seems. I haven't even heard a rumor of a 5.0.1 update as of this writing, two weeks after iOS 5 became publically available.

There's much more in iOS 5 that will make life easier for users: the ability to search message bodies in the Mail application, improvements to Mobile Safari that incorporate features from the desktop browser such as the Reader view and the Reading List, iCloud storage of bookmarks and reading lists, and tabbed browsing in the iPad version of Safari. And that's just scratching the surface.

This time, Apple got the big release right.