Apple iOS 6 review

iOS 6 Review

The new iOS 6 operating system is launching just prior to the iPhone 5, but introduces many new features to older iOS models. It is designed to work with every iPhone, iPad and iPod touch currently on sale (so that’s the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPad 2, new iPad, and iPod touch). And of course it's installed by default on the upcoming iPhone 5 and new iPod touch models.

Not all features are available for all devices, however, and some iPhone owners might be thinking "should I upgrade to iOS 6 from my iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, or iPhone 4S?". In each case you will find a compatibility list of features near the end of this review, and our conclusion has some thoughts on the pros and cons for each device.

Notable new features in iOS 6 include replacing Google Maps with a new Apple Map service (with sat-nav directions and Apple Flyover), improvements to Safari, Siri business information in the UK, Facebook integration, some enhancements to Phone, FaceTime over 3G, VIP Inbox in Mail, and various remodelled or new apps or features.

See also: iPhone 5 review

In short: iOS 6 is a surprisingly comprehensive update.

You can either update to iOS 6 through the Settings>General>Software Update or by clicking on Check For Update in iTunes. You will also be able to download it from this Apple iPhone Support page.

As with most Apple updates, this one is free and now available for download over-the-air for all iOS devices. But there are some concerns about some of the new features, in particular the new maps update, so before you rush to update to iOS 6, here’s all the information you need to know.

iOS 6's New Apple Maps with Flyover

This is the big change. Apple is removing Google Maps from iOS and introducing its own mapping service. The name of the app, Maps, hasn’t changed (and neither has the icon) but the maps themselves are completely new.

Google Maps has a lot of fans, deservedly so, and removing it from iOS is a bold (some might say foolhardy) move by Apple.

See also: Mapgate: iPhone Maps hyperbole and a potted history of gates

Apple’s Maps combine information from a variety of sources: the street data is primarily from Tom Tom, business information is provided by Yelp. Apple itself has been buying up mapping companies over the last few years, including Placebase and Poly9 (both of which specialised in placing information over maps) and C3 Technologies, whose technology powers the FlyOver marquee feature. C3 Technology also specialised in creating hyper-real maps accurate to within six inches. 

iOS Maps

Apple Maps displaying Westminster Abbey in iOS 6's Flyover mode

Apple is doing all the cartography itself, rather than pulling in from an open source service like Open Maps. In some respects this is a great idea. As you’d expect, Apple has created a beautiful-looking Map service. And Tom Tom is respected as a source of reliable map data, while Yelp has built up an accurate database of information on businesses; so far so good.

Apple Maps Cartography

Apple Maps Cartography

But… is it any good? Or more to the point, is it as good as Google Maps?

Looking at Flyover in iOS 6

Let’s start with the marquee feature of maps in iOS 6, Flyover. As demonstrated by Scott Forstall at the iOS 6 launch, Flyover is a stunning new feature that maps photographic detail on to 3D rendered buildings and objects. 

To start Flyover you simply choose Satellite or Hybrid from the interface (it has the same interaction as before) to get a satellite mapped view, then either press the Flyover button or push two fingers upwards to tilt the map.

Flyover is an incredibly impressive feature. It has the kind of ‘wow’ factor that Apple likes in its products. Panning and zooming around your home town (if it’s featured) is a genuinely enjoyable experience.

We tested it out on a new iPad and iPhone 4S and can genuinely say that you’ll be impressed, for the most part. Panning around London in full 3D aerial mode is a complete revelation, and we enjoyed really looking at the buildings we walk past every day from a new angle. We never realised how beautiful the Imperial War Museum is when viewed from above. It does depend on the quality of the connection, however, and buildings can look a little scrappy as they load in. But once it's all ready, you really get a feel for what a place is like. Here is a video test of Central London.

Support is still fairly limited, however, generally restricted to the central parts of cities. The Macworld offices in Kings Cross are not covered by FlyOver, and neither is the Statue of Liberty in New York (although Manhattan is integrated).  

Apple Maps vs Google Maps

Flyover aside, the important question is whether or not Maps is any good as a directional map. The good news is that Apple’s Maps app looks just fine. Visually it’s slightly nicer than the Google Maps app it replaces, and it introduces a lot of functionality that has been sorely missing from the old Maps app and the interface is still great. 

You can now click on icons for business and other local landmarks, and a window pops up offering you information (telephone number, email, address and reviews – all powered by Yelp). It integrates with the Yelp app itself so you can bounce from Maps to Yelp to add your own reviews, check into locations and get further details on the item.

Perhaps just as important is that Maps now works with Siri, so you can perform searches through Siri for local information - saying “find a pub nearby” to Siri now brings up a list of local watering holes. 

iOS 6 Siri Business Information

In iOS 6 Siri now finds local business information which integrates with Maps

There are, however, quite a few concerns over how accurate the data is in the app, and many readers are pointing out erroneous errors, missing information, and innacurate results.

What iOS 6's mapping also lacks, however, is enough of these click-able icons representing businesses. Apple is clearly adding items as it goes, and seems to have focused on bars and restaurants first (an eminently sensible idea) but it’s still lacking a lot of bars, restaurants and – especially – stores that appear as you zoom around on Google Maps. The saving grace – which is also annoying, in its own way – is that searching for most businesses brings up the information from Yelp in the Map. The icons just aren’t there as you pan around.

So there's work to be done, here, by Apple's cartography team in terms of fixing errors and adding more data. But we have faith that that will come, there is, however a bigger concern. And that's search.

One thing Apple Maps really lacks is - unsurprisingly - the power of Google's search engine. We often take Google's ability to sift our information and deliver the most relevant results for granted (a sign of how good Google is at it) and when somebody else tries to do the same and falls short it's glaringly obvious.

Saying "Find Luton in Maps" to Siri brings up a place called Luton in Devon. It's certainly not Luton Airport which we'd wager almost everybody in the country associates with Luton. Twitter is awash with reports of errors, inconsistencies, and erroneous results like this. Ask for Soho and you get Soho, New York, for example. Apple needs to work on search in a big way. And this is an area that concerns us, because Apple does not run a search engine.

So Apple’s cartographers and search results team have still got plenty some work to do. We assume that as Maps moves forward more and more information will be introduced, errors will be corrected, and search results imrpoved - but for now it does manage to make the world look rather odd and empty, and throws up a few random results.

iOS Maps showing Luton

If we look at this shot of Oxford Street and Regent Street, for example, there is hardly any business information. To put this in context Oxford Street is, according to Wikipedia, “Europe's busiest shopping street, and as of 2011 had approximately 300 shops”. Apple has managed to make one of the busiest retail environments in the world look like a ghost town. Check out the equivalent on a Google Maps Android device and it’s a different matter. While it’s still hardly complete, at least it’s showing more than just the Apple Store.

You could, perhaps, argue that the the maps are cleaner without all the information packed into them. But those icons are useful for navigating, especially on foot, as you work out where you are by spotting stores and businesses around you. It's easier to spot a store than it is to find a road sign, for example.

Apple Maps in iOS 6

iOS 6's Apple Maps displaying local business information with a surprising number of missing retail stores

Google Maps on Android

Google Maps displaying local information

Whether Google will respond by releasing its own Google Maps app for the Apple Store is unknown. Apple has also, as an aside, removed the YouTube app and Google has released its own iOS YouTube app, so there’s precedent. We’re not privy to the boardroom manoeuvrings but our ‘feel’ for the situation is that Google’s business model is to get its products everywhere, so we believe Google will re-introduce its Maps app to iOS at some point. Whether Apple will try to block it from the App store is another matter.

But what about Street View?

Make no mistake: being able to fly around a realistic 3D city is an absolutely jaw-dropping feature. But if you think things through, there are some nagging questions about Flyover, which doesn’t just complement Street View but replaces it completely. Unless you’re Superman you’re unlikely to navigate cities in an aerial fashion. Flyover doesn’t go right down to street level and show you what a spot looks like on the ground, which is where you’re going to be.

Street View, in contrast, doesn’t just describe the location of a shop, business or building, but it shows you what it’ll look like when you get there. As such it’s a fairly practical feature for navigation (we use it all the time) and we’re not totally convinced that Flyover will be as practical (unless you really want to know what the roof of the building you're visiting looks like).

For example, if somebody said to you: “Let’s meet up at Tommy Toy’s Chinese cuisine. It’s on Merchant St in San Francisco, next to the Transamerica Building.” (That’s the big pointy one in the Flyover image from the Apple website, incidentally.) Which of these two images is going to be more useful to you?

Apple Maps displaying Flyover of Transamerica building in iOS 6

Flyover Transamerica Building

Apple's Flyover publicity shot of the Transamerica building

Street View

Google Street view showing a restaurant tucked away under an overhang next to the Transamerica building  

There’s no denying that the Flyover looks better - infinitely better - but given that the restaurant is at street level, tucked away under an overpass, we think Street View will have the practical edge when it comes to actually navigating your way around.

Another thing to consider is how long it will be before Apple’s helicopters and planes make their way from places like London and San Francisco to more provincial areas. Street View has pretty much the whole of the UK, Europe and North America mapped and Google is now working on the rest of the world (Google has a map here that shows Street View coverage and it's pretty comprehensive. Apple Maps is still missing a lot of areas of London).

To give Apple and iOS 6 a break, it is launch day, and Apple has time to introduce more cartography and expand Flyover. But we hope the company considers a way to replace Street View in the long term.

Directions and traffic features in Maps

Apple has clearly thought a lot about drivers in Maps, and how to make a device that works better for them.

One great step forward is the presence of turn-by-turn directions and traffic information, in effect turning the iPhone into a Sat-Nav device. And it turns out to be a pretty good one. 

Because much of the Map is powered by Tom Tom we have a lot of faith in its accuracy (we’ve been using Tom Tom sat-navs for years). 

The only problem is that – unlike a dedicated Maps app or device – it doesn’t have the entire map cached in memory. This means that it’s reliant on 3G networking, which although fairly universal still isn’t as permanently reliable as we’d like for a sat-nav service. But there is still a Tom Tom app (as well as other sat-nav options), which you might want to use if you sat-nav a lot.  

But for a start it’s a great implementation: visually pleasing and easy to use, and Siri talks you through directions. You can toggle 3D mode on or off. The Tom Tom integration and crowdsourced updates potentially mean that this could become a very reliable source of traffic progression, offering alternative routes as you go. 

iOS 6 Turn by Turn

iOS 6 Offline Maps support

Another thing missing is an offline mode. This is something we’ve wanted for a long time and would seem like an obvious inclusion for Maps; so obvious that Google recently introduced it on Android. It wouldn’t have to be anything as clunky as selecting a city for download (which several OpenMaps does). 

With iTunes Match, Apple showed an interesting way of handling the caching of repeated content so that you only have to download it once. I use Maps to look up parts of London at least once every single day - it frustrates me that every time I get on the Underground I have to wait until I get above ground before searching again for businesses and routes in London. It would be good if Maps cached information as you used it - maybe even worked out what you used on a regular basis - and kept that information in memory.

Google has recently introduced this feature to Android, with a Download for Offline mode. You choose a square area of a map using pinch to zoom, and click download to store whatever is in the square offline. The map for the whole of Greater London weighed in at 42.5Mb, small enough to make it worth our while.

Google Cache

Google Maps cache feature on Android

Apple Maps Vs Google Maps: which is better?

Right here and now we’d rather have Google Maps on the iPhone. We have no doubt that if Apple puts enough time and effort into its Maps app it’ll match and perhaps exceed Google Maps in a number if areas; but right now it falls ever so slightly short. 

Google has clearly put a lot of its heart and soul into its Maps app over a number of years, and it really shows. Between the more detailed cartography and Street View, Google has the better offering. Let’s hope the firm reintroduces a Google Maps app to the iOS store (and Apple approves it) as soon as possible. In the meantime you can use the Google Mobile web page on an iPhone, which offers all the detail of Google Maps, but with a user interface so clunky you’ll probably give up after a couple of minutes.

The worst thing about the maps update is that it falls into the Apple cliche of "pretty but useless". That it's a markedly worse update, that Apple is trying gloss over with a swish graphical feature (in this case Flyover). It might be that the average person doesn’t really notice: they just click Maps, enter a postcode or business, get the info and work out how to get there from where they are - a job that Apple Maps performs admirably. And Flyover is a flashy bonus that’s a fun way to explore a city.

The good news  is that once you're past the new maps, everything else in iOS 6 is a clear enhancement, improvement, or nice new feature that makes the device better.

Safari in iOS 6

Safari now has a fullscreen mode, which removes the buttons and menu bar when you’re browsing (the URL bar is still at the top of the page but moves away when you scroll down). 

It only works in horizontal mode, which struck us as a little odd, but it’s still nice to view pages in full horizontal mode. We imagine this will look amazing on our iPhone 5 when we get it. It looks pretty good on the iPhone 4S already.

iCloud Tabs is another new feature (that you may already have used on the latest iteration of Mac OS X). Essentially any window that is open on any iCloud device (iPhone, Mac, iPad and so on), can be quickly accessed in any other device. 

Your milage with iCloud Tabs may vary - we don’t really use it that often. But it’s a neat addition to iOS in its own small way.

Of perhaps more use is that Reading List now supports offline browsing. This enables you to save web pages to a reading list (like a custom bookmark menu) so you can save a web page to read later. Now that it stores these pages offline you can access them when on the move. It’s great for long-form text articles and complements Reader nicely, the feature that strips everything but the text of multi-page articles out. We imagine that iPod touch users will also find this feature especially useful.

iOS 6 Siri means business

iOS 6 brings a number of improvements to Siri. The most important to UK users is support for Siri to locate business information, so you can now ask Siri to “find me an Italian restaurant” and get search results from Yelp and open them in Maps. You can also ask for sport-related information and business information, and you can still get Wolfram Alpha responses to random musings like “how far is the moon from the sun” and perform web searches.

With all of this available to the UK, rather than just the ability to dictate messages to contacts, Siri is suddenly much more fun, which it turns makes us value it more. Siri is now also available for the iPad, holding down the Home button brings up a Siri box (which pops up next to the Home button) and works in largely the same manner as the iPhone 4S.

We assume that this was partly the reason for the holdup in providing business information in the UK: the fact that Apple was hooking up Siri to the new Maps information, rather than connecting it with Google’s business information (not that it makes it any less annoying to have to wait so long).

Another new Siri feature is the ability to launch apps just by saying their name into Siri. While this is a small feature, the packed nature of iOS Home Screens makes it a welcome one. We’re increasingly finding ourselves using this rather than backing out to the home screen and foraging though the folders.

The great thing about this is that now Siri can deliver usable information, and be used to switch apps, we’ve finally found ourselves using it a little more, and have started to find its nuances. It’s still fantastically annoying when it relentlessly misunderstands things, but both Siri and our usage of it is improving. And it’s still a joy to say to Siri, “Hey, wake me up in an hour” and it says “Okay, I’ve set your alarm”. And this is genuinely faster than going through the Alarm app and setting an alarm manually.

Facebook integration

Aside from Siri and Maps, the other key feature that will probably be of big interest to iPhone and iPad users is Facebook integration. Like Twitter, this is now a central part of iOS (with your account and password in Settings). Like Twitter, this also works alongside the regular app that you download from the App Store, but now integrates features throughout iOS.

With Facebook set up you can now read posts in the Notification Centre, you can also post directly from Notification Centre. A nice touch is that you can use Siri to create both Facebook and Twitter posts. You can also share photos and web pages directly to Facebook, and developers will be able to use the SDK to enable you to share from apps directly without having to sign in to Facebook each time.

Perhaps the most useful inclusion of Facebook is direct integration with the Contacts app. This means that once you’ve connected iOS to Facebook your contacts will sync with Facebook. So if a friend changes their phone number or email on Facebook, it’ll also update on your iOS device (although this was included in the Facebook app, it now works more tightly with iOS).

Facebook on iPad

New iOS 6 Phone app features

There are some useful new features on the Phone app. A new control on the right hand side of the incoming call notification slider enables you to deal with calls that you can’t take right at that moment. The control slides up (in a similar fashion to the Camera control on the Lock screen) and reveals two options: Reply With Message or Remind Me Later.

Choosing Remind With Message enables you to choose three stock responses: “I’ll call you later”, “I’m on my way”, and “what’s up?” A fourth option “Custom” lets you type in your own text.

Alternatively you can also choose the Remind Me Later option, which gives you the option of being reminded an hour later or when you’re back at your Work location. A really nice touch is the Remind Me When I Leave option, which uses location services to deliver the reminder when you move from that place (pretty useful if you’re in a meeting and want to be able to return the call when you leave).

Reminders with Location-based support

The Reminders app now supports Location Services so it you can be reminded to do something when you arrive at a certain address, and you can set standard addresses such as Work, Home, or even the local supermarket. We think this is a pretty neat feature, and it’s one we’ve used in other Apps like Omnifocus, but having it in Reminders will make a lot of difference. And with Reminders being integrated into the next iteration of Mac OS X Lion it could be a great way to organise your work and home life.

Location Based Reminder

Do Not Disturb

Another neat new feature is Do Not Disturb, which enables you to silence incoming calls and messages. There is a switch in Settings to turn the function on or off, and when Do Not Disturb is activated, a moon icon appears in the top bar.

You can also schedule Do Not Disturb, the settings are currently located in the Notifications. Here you can click Schedule on and use the From and To pickers to choose quiet hours. An Allow Calls From setting enables exceptions for people or groups of people (the default is ‘Favourites’). Finally there is a Repeated Calls option, so if a person calls and then calls again within three minutes they will be allowed through.

Do Not Disturb

Making more from iOS 6 Mail app

There’s a new way to insert photos or video in the Compose window. You can now tap the text to bring up the window, tap the right arrow twice (which moves to Quote Level, then Insert Photo or Video) and click this to make your choice from the Photos app. Once you’ve picked a photo or video clip it’ll be inserted into the email message.

While this might take fewer taps we’re not sure if this is actually easier than backing to the Photos app and using Copy and Post, but we know from first-hand experience of friends and family that inserting photos into Mail messages seems to be something that isn’t always instinctively obvious how to do (anybody who’s tried to explain this to a relative with empathise). Hopefully this will make it easier, although for something we’d imagine is quite high on the list of things to do, the menu option is still tucked away.

You can now open Password protected office docs, which will make life for those of us who have to view these easier (previously we could view them using an app like Docs2Go).

Using iOS 6 Passbook app for tickets and boarding passes

Passbook is another new app that doesn’t make immediate sense, but could become a vital part of the iOS experience.

Increasingly, when people purchase tickets for events or book into an airport (and get a boarding card) these are sent electronically. This usually involves a PDF document and is sent by email.

Passbook seems to be an attempt to provide a more integrated iOS solution that holds all of these tickets and passes in an App. These can then be accessed right from the Home screen (or inside the app itself). So you can present a barcode from your Passbook App and scan in to airports and events.

Passbook also works with shops, and although you can’t make direct payment yet, it will be possible to use it with loyalty cards such as the Starbucks card.

Scott Forstall said: “Passbook is the simplest way to get all of your passes in one place. Boarding passes and tickets, and so on.” Our experience is that these are currently distributed electronically (via email) but companies are increasingly creating apps to distribute passes for their services; Passbook is a dedicated app (with a corresponding developer API) that aims to simplify and unify this service.”

Apple is certainly doing a lot to make life easier for consumers and companies to do business through the iPhone. While there’s still no effective NFC (Near Field Communications) payment system on the iPhone (probably because there isn’t the physical technology in place to take payment), Passbook is an attempt to get iOS into the retail environment.

Of course, whether Passbook is useful or not depends hugely on business and developer support. Apple has made Passbook into part of the SDK so the technology is there if companies want to make use of it. We imagine some of the larger chains like Starbucks will make good use if, and we hope airlines do so too. If it becomes commonplace enough Apple can take it from there.

Passbook on iOS

Locking down an iOS device with Guided Access

This is an interesting new Accessibility feature, primarily aimed at children with autism. Once turned on (by triple clicking the Home button) it locks the device to a single app, so clicking the Home Button does not leave the app. What’s more, you can use Guided Access to draw circles around buttons inside apps that you want to disable, limiting the amount of interaction with an app.

It’s hoped that this will be a positive (and perhaps) less frustrating way for children with autism to interact with apps, and will enable parents or carers to let them play with the iPad with less supervision.

But we imagine its uses could go beyond that to all parents with young children, who want to let them play with an iPad app (such as Brushes) without having to come and help them with settings or launching the app from the Home screen.

We also think shop vendors (or demonstration staff) looking to hand an iPad to a member of the public, but restrict their access to just the one demonstration app, will find Guided Access pretty useful too.

New look iOS 6 Music and App Store

Both the Music app, as well as iTunes Store and App Store sport a refreshed design. The Music app now has a lighter, greyish design with grey buttons at the bottom (more in keeping with iTunes on the Mac). The Play, Next and Previous track buttons have a dividing line between them and are more distinct, and the Slider controls have a larger circular button.

Meanwhile both the App Store and Music Store have a new look, again slightly lighter and you now scroll left and right across categories. When installing apps you no longer bounce back to the home screen, but can see the loading bar inside App Store itself. This makes it a heck of a lot easier to reinstall apps using the Purchased menu.

New Look App Store

Device matters

Your experience of iOS 6 is largely going to be based upon what device you have. This is because not all features are supported on older devices, and many devices aren’t supported at all.

The new operating system runs on the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, the iPad 2 and third-generation iPad. Essentially that’s every device that is shipping. Noticeably missing is the original iPad, which might be disappointing to owners of that device.

Here’s a chart with key features that will be available per device:

iOS 6 Key Feature

Some noticeable disappointments are the lack of Flyover and turn-by-turn navigation for the iPhone 4, and Siri on the iPad 2.

Older devices with slower processors, smaller batteries, and less RAM, may not perform adequately with them enabled. In the case of Siri and Flyover, this may be warranted (Flyover may require a heavy processor demand, and Siri puts a surprising amount of strain on the battery).

Some excluded features are perhaps less explainable. We’re not quite sure why the iPhone 4 and iPad 2 can’t run 3G Facetime, for example. It may be because the iPhone 4S has a better dual-antenna system (it certainly provides faster data download and upload speeds than the iPhone 4).

The iPhone 4GS and iPod touch (fourth generation) miss out on most of the marquee features, but do include Facebook integration, Passbook, iPhone updates and the other features mentioned in this feature.

There is some scepticism (maybe warranted) that Apple is controlling the feature set not simply because older models have less powerful functionality, but to introduce ‘product differentiation’, which is its way of saying “Go out and buy a new model, please”. Whether you believe this depends on how cynical you are, in the past we’ve found that many users with older Jailbroken devices get access to newer features and find that while they work on an older model, kind of, there’s a trade-off in performance (often battery performance) that regular users would find annoying. Apple clearly has to make decisions based on the overall experience.

More than any other company Apple seems to get holistic design, where everything from the software, hardware, and features have to work together to produce the best possible product. Mind you, like all companies, it’s also pretty good at encouraging people to buy newer models of its kit.

OUR VERDICT

iOS 6 is a free update, so we imagine most people will download and install it as soon as it becomes live. In the past some people have put off upgrading to a new iOS operating system, because the newer features have slowed down older devices. iOS 3 to iOS 4 on the older iPhone 3G was a good example. Apple seems to be paying more attention to older device support by limiting the feature set for owners of iPad 2 and iPhone 3 (and 3GS) devices, although this may be annoying to some people. Maps is a different concern, however, which in a rare move for Apple isn’t as good as the system it replaces. This is especially true on the iPhone 3GS and 4 models, which won’t get Flyover but lose Street View. The iPhone 4 doesn’t get Siri or Facetime over 3G either, so it’s a bit of a rum deal to lose Google Maps in return for features like VIP Inbox and Offline Reading List. If you have an iPhone 3GS or 4 you might want to see if Google launches a Google Maps app, or until Apple updates the Maps information a bit before updating. Anybody with an iPad 2, new iPad, or iPhone 4S will get a good set of features that outweigh the maps issue, and we advise you to go ahead and update.

Find the best price