iOS 5 review

It seems like every time a major software revision comes along, it’s described as the “biggest ever.” In the case of iOS 5, though, that might not be hyperbole—there’s hardly a part of Apple’s mobile operating system that isn’t altered in some way by the latest update.

Don’t think that this is just change for change’s sake, however. By and large, iOS 5’s changes are for the better, spackling a number of shortcomings and gaps in functionality that have existed since day one.

Tempting as it may be to dub iOS 5 the “Snow Leopard” of iOS, though, it’s clear there’s a lot more to this than simply filling gaps. iOS 5 marks the first major revision of iOS to be simultaneously released for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. It also finally brings feature parity between the CDMA (Verizon) and GSM (AT&T) versions of the iPhone. In fact, all of Apple’s iOS devices are on the same page now (with the exception of the few specific features—such as Siri voice-control—that are limited to the iPhone 4S).

And that page isn’t exactly what you think it is, either. With iOS 5, Apple’s theory of the post-PC era finally moves into practice. No longer are iOS devices second-class citizens, tethered to the sinking anchor of a personal computer. With iOS 5, it’s possible, for the first time, to use your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad as your one and only device.

PC Free, with every purchase

Despite touting the PC-free capability on its list of features at this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, the ability to use your iOS device sans PC isn’t really one feature, but a collection of them. That said, it represents perhaps the most important shift ever in thinking about Apple’s non-PC devices.

Going back to the original iPod, Apple’s non-PC devices have been viewed as accessories. You bought an iPod to go with your computer. Your iPhone synced data with your computer. Your Apple TV streamed content from your computer. By the time Apple released the iPad, that concept was straining at the seams. After all, what is the iPad if not a computing device in its own right? Why does it need to be subservient to a Mac or PC?

As of iOS 5, your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad can stand in the place where it lives, with no need for a Mac or PC to prop it up. The importance of this change is impossible to ignore. A year and a half ago, I argued that the iPad heralded a third revolution, but where that was a warning shot—a promise of things to come—iOS 5 finally delivers on that promise.


Welcome to the Party, Pal: Instead of the old 'connect to iTunes' screen, you'll now get a nice setup walkthrough.

Setup man: The setup of a new device is perhaps where the distinction is most apparent. Whereas previous iOS devices would welcome you with the all-too-familiar instruction to plug them into a computer running iTunes, iOS devices now display a friendly welcome message—much like when you set up a new Mac.

If you’re starting with a fresh device, iOS 5 will walk you through a series of steps to get it set it up. You’ll be asked if you want to enable location services, prompted to choose a Wi-Fi network, then given the option to restore from an iCloud or iTunes backup or to set up a brand new phone (or iPad, or what have you). If you set it up as a new device, you’ll be asked to enter your Apple ID (or create a new one), then given the Terms and Conditions for iOS, iCloud, and Game Center, as well as Apple’s Privacy Policy; if you agree to those, you have the option to activate iCloud, iCloud Backup, and Find My iPhone. As a last step, you’re given the option to allow the device to send diagnostics and usage data back to Apple—you can also opt out or, if you do choose to enable it, turn the feature off later under Settings -> General -> About -> Diagnostics & Usage. This information can help Apple improve its products, but the company also warns that it may include some location data.


Finders Keepers: New users will be asked if they want to activate Find My iPhone when they set up their device.

It’s a pretty straightforward process, and one that even a technological neophyte shouldn’t have too much trouble with. Apple provides help links for most screens, explaining what a given technology is and why a person might want to use it. Much kudos in particular to the company for making Find My iPhone a part of every iOS device setup process. Having known a number of people who have lost their devices, or had them pilfered by nefarious wrongdoers, this is a feature that can genuinely help people—if they set it up. And now, thanks to iCloud, it’s available to all iOS device users for free.

Mind the Gap: Apple has also taken this opportunity to fill in numerous gaps in functionality that used to send one scurrying for their computer. For example, you can now add photo albums on the iPhone. You can create playlists. You can delete songs from your Music library (though, woe still betide you if you want to add anything to that library without going through Apple’s prescribed methods). And, joy of joys, you can now update an iOS device’s software right from the device itself, over the air—a capability that has been deployed by many of Apple’s competitors in a decidedly hit-or-miss fashion.

Other places where Apple is shucking the bonds of the PC include backups. In the past, iOS devices have backed themselves up while syncing with iTunes—and while you can still opt to keep things that way, either via cable or the new Wi-Fi Syncing (see below), those who choose to eschew a computer can back up their device online, via iCloud.


Call for Backup: You can now back up your device to iCloud instead of to iTunes.

To reduce the amount of space needed—each iCloud account comes with a free 5GB, and the smallest iOS device Apple sells is 8GB—only your data is backed up. And not even all of your data: Any media you’ve downloaded from the iTunes Store doesn’t count against your total, and that includes apps as well as music, video, and books. You can also selectively choose which apps’ information you want to back up in Settings -> iCloud -> Storage & Backup -> Manage Storage (or Settings -> General -> Usage -> Manage Storage).

Like Wi-Fi Syncing, backups happen when your device is on a Wi-Fi network and plugged in, so if you let your iPhone or iPad charge over night, it should be all set when you pick it up in the morning.

You can also manage your device’s internal storage. Settings -> General -> Usage provides a list of all installed apps—although many of the apps that ship on the phone are not present—and their size; tap on any to see the size of any documents or data that are being stored in that app. (Often, those file sizes are far smaller than the app itself.) There’s a Delete App option available on most of the screens as well.


Gimme an Update: Software updates for iOS are now available via the Settings app.

iOS software updates are another task that used to require running to a computer; now that’s built in as well. It’s available under Settings -> General -> Software Update though, as you might expect, we’ve been unable to test it in the final version of the software so far.

Finally, should you decide the name of your iOS device isn’t quite cutting it, you don’t have to turn to a computer to change it. Just navigate to Settings -> General -> About and tap on the Name field to enter a new one.

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