Apple iOS 6 review: All the features compared

Pros

  • Useful new call handling options
  • iCloud recovery, and synced browser tabs
  • Facebook as well as Twitter integration
  • Passbook hub for all your tickets

Cons

  • Some issues with the Maps app
  • Older devices aren't compatible

iOS 5 was a significant upgrade to Apple's mobile operating system that added numerous long sought-after features, such as computer-free setup, wireless syncing, and a fresh take on notifications that took inspiration from its Android competition. iOS 6 (which is a free upgrade) isn't as game-changing, but it adds numerous features (such as a new Passbook app, a revamped Maps app, and new accessibility options) that make it a must-have download if you own a compatible device.

Compatible devices include the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPod Touch (4th Generation), iPad 2, and new iPad (3rd Generation). It will also be the operating system for the iPhone 5 when it emerges tomorrow. But some features aren't available on all devices either due to hardware limitations, or because they're specific to iPhones or iPod Touches.

iOS 6 setup and iTunes Wi-Fi sync

If iOS 5.1 is already installed on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, you can update to iOS 6 either over-the-air or via iTunes. See our guide on how to do this here. If you have a new device, there are three set up options: "Set Up as New," "Restore from iCloud Backup," and "Restore from iTunes Backup." The first option is for people who are brand new to iOS (or existing users who want a fresh start); the other two options recover previously backed up data and are what existing iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch owners will likely choose.

Once you're set up, you can enable iTunes Wi-Fi Sync, which syncs apps, music, photos, and other files between an iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch (via iTunes) when they're connected to the same wireless signal. In fact, the sync happens automatically when you plug an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch's plug into a socket (you can also sync manually without a plug by pressing Sync Now in Settings > General > iTunes Wi-Fi Sync).

The process went without a hitch for me. I synced nearly 15GB of data to my iPad in less than 20 minutes. The only downside is that you must first set up wireless syncing in iTunes, after you physically connect your iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad to a Mac or PC via a USB cable. Thankfully, it's just a one-time connection. You can go completely wireless afterward.

Home screen and Maps

The default home screen features a blue background image with ripple effects and several icons(App Store, Clock, iTunes, Notes, etc.) that should be familiar to iOS users.

There is, however, a new app icon that may look similar to the old one, but what's inside is actually quite different: Maps. It's one of the iOS 6 features that generated the most buzz when it was announced at WWDC a few months back. Maps is Apple's in-house replacement for Google Maps, which was included in iOS up until this version (both Maps and YouTube were kicked off the home screen).

Maps, at first glance, looks very similar to Google Maps but with subtle differences: Restaurants, coffee shops and other places of interest are highlighted with more eye-catching icons which, when tapped, open reviews and information supplied by Yelp. Unfortunately, Apple's new system seems a little weaker than Google's, and more prone to data inaccuracies (check out today's blog piece here for some early accounts of issues).

Like Google Maps, Apple's Maps offers turn-by-turn directions (with or without voice). It also includes 3D functionality, dubbed "Flyover," that renders a real-life recreation of the city you select (such as San Francisco, above). Unfortunately, only a handful of cities in the US have received the Flyover treatment thus far. Also, while Flyover looks great from a distance, when zoomed in close, some jagged polygonal figures and rough textures are noticeable.

Passbook and phone features

Passbook is an iPhone and iPod Touch-exclusive app – at least for now – that will act as a tidy hub for passes and tickets. Instead of handing over a paper ticket, coupon, boarding pass, or gift card to be scanned, you'll simply whip out your device, which will display the appropriate item when you stroll into the appropriate store, cinema, or airport.

When you delete a pass, a very cool virtual paper shredder appears on screen and slices and dices the ticket. Of course the success of this app, unlike the others mentioned in this review, will rely heavily on third-party support.

iOS 6 also adds new calling options that give you more flexibility over how you handle incoming calls that you don't want to take. Instead of simply declining a call, you can now reply to it with a text message (either pre-fabricated or custom), or set a reminder to follow up and call the person back later. You can see the new options by swiping the screen upward when a call comes in. Apple has also added a Do Not Disturb option that ensures you won't be bothered by anyone save for contacts you mark as exceptions during designated hours. All these are useful additions.

Siri, iCloud, and Find features

The one downside to the new set of apps is that Siri (Apple's voice control software that lets you send messages, place phone calls, and schedule appointments) is only available on the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, new iPad, and new iPod Touch. I used Siri to find local restaurants and grab sports scores (a new feature) by asking queries in simple, everyday language. I also updated my Facebook and Twitter feeds without ever touching the virtual keypad. The only challenge was remembering to speak out punctuation. It occasionally missed a few commands, but if you speak clearly you can perform numerous activities using just your voice. Siri currently recognises several languages including English (British, American, Australian), French, German, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, and more.

iCloud, which debuted in iOS 5.0, is Apple's web-based storage and syncing service. It gives users a free 5GB to keep Contacts, Calendars, Reminders, Bookmarks, Documents and Data, and Photo Stream (a feature that automatically uploads pictures to iCloud, and downloads them to all your iCloud-enabled devices) synced across multiple Apple devices, including Macs.

You can also access email, contacts, calendar, iWork, and Find My iPhone data from iCloud.com. Mail and Notes compatibility requires creating an @me.com account, which you can do from the iPad. As one would expect from Apple, the backup process happens inconspicuously behind the scenes, but you can view your backup status by visiting Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup.

My initial backup, which included 13.9GB of data, didn’t happen because I didn’t have enough iCloud space. Fortunately, you can increase iCloud's storage by an additional 10GB, 20GB, or 50GB for £14 per year, £28 per year, and £70 per year, respectively. After I added 10GB of storage, iCloud backed up my files without error. Note: When you activate iCloud, you deactivate the iPad’s ability to automatically backup to iTunes.

FindMyiPhone and FindMyFriends are also part of the iOS 6 experience, as they were in iOS 5, but there are some features worth pointing out in case you missed them last time around. For example, through iCloud, you can access FindMyiPhone and enable the "Lost mode" to lock a missing device using your four-digit passcode. You can also push a message that will display on screen in case someone you know has found it.

FindMyFriends is the more social of the two features. With it, you see where other iOS users are on a map, should they wish to share their location information with you, and you receive location-based alerts when they enter or exit areas – very handy if you have teenage children and want to keep tabs on them.

Notification Centre and Photo Stream

One of the most sought-after iOS features that iOS 5 brought forth was a robust and intuitive Notification Centre, which Android users have enjoyed for quite some time.

The Notification Centre lets you view your calendar, email, text messages or iMessages, friend requests, and other notifications from one central location. By default, notifications appear at the top of the screen ("Banner" style), but you can set them to appear in the middle of the screen ("Alert" style) under Settings.

In my tests, Notification Centre worked flawlessly. New appointment alerts appeared at the top of the screen, and I could view them at any time by swiping down. Even if you're not actively using your iPad you can still receive notifications, as they appear on the locked screen. When a Google+ alert appeared on the locked screen, I simply swiped the alert from left to right to read the message. This revamp was much needed, and its implementation is solid.

Photo Streams utilise a more streamlined sharing mechanism in iOS 6. You simply select the photos you want to share, tap the Share button, select a contact, and you're done. It works well – a test recipient received the image on his iPhone's Photos app seconds later.

However, recipients who don't have iOS 6 installed on their devices must open a link to view the photos. Photos shared with you don't count against your iCloud storage capacity, thankfully.

Facebook

iOS 5 introduced Twitter integration throughout the operating system. After entering your credentials into the Twitter section of the Settings, you can then tweet directly from a number of other applications, such as Photos, Safari, and YouTube by hitting the drop-down option from within the respective app. It's highly intuitive, and made you wonder (in retrospect) how you managed to clumsily tweet content in iOS 4 using only the Twitter or third-party apps.

Facebook is the new addition here and it works similarly to Twitter. In Settings, just enter your Facebook login credentials, and sharing to the social network becomes a baked-in feature of the operating system itself. Using it you can perform a simple status update, post links or photos to your wall, and add location information.

Camera and FaceTime

As in iOS 5.1, a quick-access camera icon now lives on the locked screen when you double tap the home button for the iPod Touch, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and iPhone 4S. Taking impromptu photos became much easier and faster with this addition. Now, iPad 2 and new iPad devices see the camera shutter shift from the bottom of the viewfinder to the right of the frame, making it easier to reach. The camera app also highlights any detected faces. As before, you can crop, rotate, enhance, and remove red-eye without leaving the Photos app. You can even organise your photos in albums on the phone. iCloud compatibility means that snapped photos can be pushed to other Apple devices.

FaceTime, Apple's video chat client, now lets users place face-to-face calls over cellular signals (previously, it was limited to Wi-Fi). FaceTime video quality suffered from stuttering and a slight audio delay when I tested it on an iPhone over 3G. You may want to stick with Wi-Fi, although you may see better cellular results with a new iPhone 5 on a 4G LTE signal.

Safari

Safari's tabbed browsing lets users keep multiple web pages open within a browser at the same time. The "Reader" icon lives within the address bar. When tapped, it strips away ads and web design, leaving behind just text and the in-body images. In fact, the pages look very similar to the streamlined pages you'd find in the likes of Flipboard. Reading List lets you save interesting articles to read later via a drop-down menu that displays both all the saved articles and those that are unread. Unlike Instapaper, Reading List doesn't allow you to read articles when the iPad isn't connected to 3G or Wi-Fi.

Safari doesn't support Flash, which caused quite a stir when iOS devices first hit the market, but that's of little consequence now that sites like YouTube have HTML5 support. Even the Android OS, which supported Flash for years, dumped it and went Flash-less with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.

iCloud Tabs is a new feature here, displaying links to web pages that you have open on other Apple devices, including Macs. It's remarkably handy. I was able to continue reading a page on an iPad that I previously opened on my iPhone. Its iCloud base means that you can pick up and read even when the source device is shut off. If other people share one of your iOS devices, you may want to surf in Private Browsing mode.

Mail and Calendar

Mail received a makeover with iOS 5, which added features that let you bold, italicise, or underline words. iOS 6 adds VIP List, a filter that shows messages from very important people, the idea being you can always check that box and never have a message from someone important get buried with the rest of your email clutter.

You add VIPs by, well, tapping "Add VIP," and selecting the contacts you'd like to include. You can also set up VIP alerts that appear in Notification Centre.

Previously, editing Calendar events required tapping to create an event, and keying in times. iOS 6's Calendar lets you use your finger to drag the event block from one time slot to another. It took a bit of acclimatisation, but I was soon dragging and dropping dates from one area to another. Those using the Calendar app on an iPhone or iPad Touch will see a scrolling week view of their calendar, while iPad users will be able to scroll through a year view of their calendar. iCloud also syncs appointments across your Apple devices.

Game Centre, Gestures, and AirPlay

Game Centre has two features which are displayed when you launch the app. Your Public Profile can now be toggled on and off. With it on, your profile, including your real name will be visible to other players. Your Game Centre nickname, however, is used on leaderboards. There's also Friends Recommendations that you can turn on and off, and this uploads your contacts so that you get personalised friend recommendations.

Under iOS 6, you use four or five fingers (well, four and a thumb) to swipe up to reveal the multitasking bar, pinch to return to the home screen, and swipe left or right to switch between apps. In those moments when you're not swiping and you'd like to showcase a video, photo, or game on the big screen, you can mirror the image to a TV or monitor using AirPlay and Apple TV. In our tests, games played smoothly on the big screen but, unfortunately, AirPlay Mirroring is limited to the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPad 2, new iPad (third-generation), and the new iPod Touch.

Verdict

It is absolutely time to upgrade to Apple iOS 6. This update adds enough new features to make the mobile operating system one of the best in the business. It's unfortunate that some features are limited to more recent hardware releases – although that's an inevitable consequence of ever-evolving technology. The technical hitches with the Maps app are also a fly in the ointment. However, there's no doubting that if you own a compatible Apple mobile device, you should consider this a must-have upgrade.

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