Always anxious for the next big thing, Apple aficionados are feverishly scanning the horizons for the follow-up to last year’s iPhone 4 – an eagerly awaited product, which could even, thanks to the cruel vagaries of fate and publishing deadlines, have been unveiled by the time you read this issue.

If you don’t fancy shelling out for the iPhone 4S, however, another Apple release is approaching that will let your existing iPhone or iPad access hundreds of enhancements and new features for free. We’ve taken a sneak preview at iOS 5, the next edition of Apple’s mobile operating system, and in the following pages look at what you can expect, and answer your questions about the new platform.

Cut the cord: PC-free setup and sync

Apple claims we’re moving toward a post-PC planet. That’s one where you don’t just depend on the Mac in the corner, but also on a number of connected devices all drawing data from the cloud: music, songs, movies, you name it. iOS 5 brings that idea one step closer. Not only does it let you sync wirelessly, but you can even set up a new device wirelessly, update its software without the need for a computer, and more.

To set up your device, simply enter your Apple ID, configure the cloud services including Find my iPhone, and then activate your device right from the phone. The only obstacle here is that you’ll need to create an Apple ID in the first place – which is fine if you already have one, but you’ll need to use a Mac, PC or other iOS device if you don’t. The entire process is well explained through a series of on-screen cues.

Once you’ve run your first sync, you can set up your device to sync automatically or at your own choice of pre-set intervals. This means your data, music, media and images will always be up to date, even without iCloud. However, iCloud means we can expect increasing quantities of our personal data to be made available across all our compatible devices. The only limitation on Apple’s post-PC implementation here is that we still need to plug our devices into a wall socket to power up our batteries, though published patents reveal it won’t always be that way…

Notifications Center

Notifications are managed using the Notifications controls tucked away inside the iOS 5 Settings controls

The Notifications Center is Apple’s new iOS 5 home for all your notifications, including emails, Facebook messages and tweets. Every app that needs to get a message to you can do so via this feature. Inevitably, as your collection of apps grows you’ll find it harder to keep track of them all, so you can choose which apps get to enjoy the default right to get their messages to you first via the Notifications centre using Notification settings within iOS 5. Default notifications come from Calendar, Reminders, Game Center, Mail and Messages, and these can be enabled and disabled at your will.

On a per-app basis you can choose to have new Notifications shown as banners, utilising the new notification system, or as alerts – the traditional iOS way of sharing these. You can get an alert for a new Reminder or a banner for a calendar item. In a tribute to Japan, Apple has also taken the unusual step of including built-in early earthquake warnings for that country inside Notifications. It will be interesting to see in which other ways the company moves to enhance this feature as an early warning system. The lock screen on iOS 5 now displays a list of recent notifications.

Reminders

New inside Apple’s iOS 5, the Reminders app is a simple yet effective way to effectively organise your life. It’s easy to use: you introduce new tasks using the familiar ‘+’ button right next to ‘Reminders’. You can survey your completed tasks, introduce new ones, assign the priority of different tasks and create folders of related tasks. You might use this to focus your tasks toward specific work projects or to organise a party, for example.

Visible Reminders are organised by due dates and locations. You can even use the location-based alerts to warn you when you’re near a specific place – a grocery list when you walk near a supermarket, for example. You can also set up tasks far in advance by tapping on the top left icon on the Reminders screen. That action invokes your calendar. Here you can scan for upcoming tasks and appoint date-determined tasks you can take care of.

Once a reminder is created you can customise it to remind you on a specific day, when an action might be due, how often your repeat this reminder and whether it’s a low, medium or high priority item. Like Notifications, Reminders can also be shown as banners, utilising the new notification system, or alerts.

iMessage

The new iMessages app will let you chat with other iPhone users

Apple takes on BlackBerry in face-to-face combat with its new iMessage feature. Like BlackBerry messaging, this enables direct contact between you and your friends over Wi-Fi or 3G, but lets you send text, photos, videos, locations and share contacts. Group messaging is also supported, and you can track your correspondence with ‘delivered’ and ‘read’ receipts. Like in iChat, iMessage lets you see if your contact is typing. You can continue conversations on any other iOS 5 device, so long as you remain logged in.