iOS 5 full review - Page 2

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By now, the pattern in Apple’s major iOS updates ought to be pretty clear. Every significant version change has brought at least one very important systemwide update that addresses a shortcoming, along with a handful of feature enhancements and other tweaks. In version 2.0, that was the App Store; in 3.0, it was cut, copy, and paste functionality; in iOS 4, we finally got multitasking. In iOS 5, that role is played by improved notifications.

It wasn’t long after push notifications were finally introduced in iOS 3 that frustrations began popping up right alongside them. The blue alert dialog that appears to let you know you’ve got a new text message or update you on your sports scores is handy and all, but it can induce plenty of annoyance when you’re in the middle of doing something else. Plus, if you dismiss the notification just to get it out of the way, there’s no way to get back to it later.

iOS 5 improves notifications in three key ways: the introduction of banner notifications, the addition of Notification Center, and improvements to lock-screen notifications.

Banner notifications solve the problem of having notifications interrupt everything you’re doing. Instead of appearing as a dialog box, the top of the screen flips down—like one of those rotating billboards—to reveal a small icon from the notifying app and a message. Tapping on the banner takes you to the app in question; but if you don’t tap the notification, it will linger for a few seconds and then disappear again.

But what if you don’t quite tap fast enough? No worries—that’s where Notification Center comes in. Just swipe down from the menu bar and you’ll drag down a sheet containing all of your recent notifications, arranged by the originating app. As with the banner notifications, tapping anything in Notification Center will take you to that app (and usually to the relevant item).

You can clear all the notifications for any app by tapping the ‘x’ icon opposite its name, then tapping the Clear button that appears. However, there’s no way to clear just a single notification without tapping on it—my experience with iOS’s multitouch conventions tells me I should be able to swipe across a notification and have a Delete button appear, but sadly that doesn’t appear to be the case; it’s an all-or-nothing proposition.

Notification Center gives you two choices for organizing the order in which apps appear in it: manually or by time. If you choose by time, the app with the most recent notification will show up at the top, followed by the app with the second most recent, and so on. If you opt for manual organization, then the apps will appear in the same order that they do in Settings -> Notifications. You can reorder them there by tapping the Edit button and dragging them into your desired sequence.

In addition to notifications, Notification Center on the iPhone includes two special entries: a Weather widget and a Stocks widget. The Weather widget displays the current conditions and temperatures for the first location in the iPhone’s Weather app (if you enable the Weather app’s new Local Weather option, that’s what will show up in Notification Center). Tap on the widget and you’ll be taken to the Weather app.

The Stocks widget shows a scrolling ticker of any symbols you’ve added in the Stocks app, along with their current quote, whether they’ve gone up or down, and—for companies—their current market capitalization. You can tap and drag on the scrolling stocks, just in case the one you wanted to look at scrolled by too fast. And tapping on the widget will take you to the Stocks app.

Like the other apps in Notification Center, you can place the widgets wherever you like, if you’ve chosen to organize them manually. (If you organize by time, they’ll always be at the top.) However, you can’t configure anything else about them, other than turning them off or on.

While I turned the Stocks widget off—I don’t need constant reminders of our economic woes—I find the Weather widget extremely handy. I hope that Apple will extend this widget space to further apps and perhaps even third-party developers at some point in the future; I can imagine plenty of apps where I’d want the option to get a quick glance at their status without launching them—a news reader for example, or social networking client, or an app that provides sport scores. Or, for that matter, let third-party makers of weather and stocks apps provide their own widgets, if users would prefer them.

The last part of the notifications overhaul in iOS 5 is the improvement to the lock screen. In previous versions of iOS, if you got multiple notifications while your phone was asleep, they would appear in a blue dialog box along with a brief description: two missed calls, a voicemail, a text, etc. But once you unlocked the phone, those messages would disappear, so it was incumbent on you to remember what they were.

Now, your lock screen gives you a scrollable list of all your notifications, listed in the order that you received them. As with Notification Center and banners, an icon tells you what app the notification is for, along with a short description of the alert. Swiping any icon will unlock the phone and take you right to that application.

Apple has also added granular controls for notifications along with all these new options. In addition to now being able to enable or disable sounds, badges, and alerts, as you could previously, you can now also choose whether an app’s notifications show up in Notification Center or on your lock screen. You can also choose to retain the alert-style notification on a per-app basis, if you prefer, and dictate how many recent notifications appear in Notification Center for the app: one, five, or ten. (The iPad also offers the ability to have 20 notifications displayed for an app.)

However, there are some downsides. For example, there’s no longer a way to quickly disable all notifications, as in iOS 4. Now, you’ll have to go through and disable all the various options for each app one at a time.

In particular, Calendar’s entries in Notification Center can be sub-optimal. Like any of the other apps, you can choose to have one, five, or ten of your Calendar events displayed. Obviously, Notification Center simply picks the next upcoming events, but it would be nice if there were some more specific controls in place. As someone with a lot of work and personal calendars to juggle, I find that Notification Center fills up with calendar events that I don’t really care about, while events that are more important to me get lost in the shuffle. The ability to have Calendar notifications pick from a specific calendar, or ignore certain calendars, would really improve the usefulness of Calendar in Notification Center.

One nice touch, though, is that if you have a reminder or calendar event that’s keyed to a particular time, the time remaining until it (or after it) will continue to update on the lock screen.

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