iOS 5 full review - Page 6

Everybody goes surfin’

Apple’s probably pretty confident that the browsing experience on its mobile apps still has a leg up over its competitors; Safari only receives a few updates in iOS 5.

Chief among these is the addition of the Reader feature that made its debut in Safari 5 on Mac and PC. Taking a cue from Web services like Readability, Reader reformats the page you’re viewing to eliminate distractions—including, for example, ads—and make it easier to read. It also gives you access to controls that let you adjust the font-size for easier reading. The Reader button, which appears in the location bar of the browser, doesn’t show up on every webpage you view—it’s smart enough to determine when you’re on an article page.

On the desktop, I rarely use Reader, and I found I didn’t take advantage much of it on the iPad either—in both cases, the screens are large enough that I rarely have trouble reading text. However, with the iPhone’s limited screen real estate, Reader can definitely make reading an article a lot more pleasant, helping you avoid the constant pinch-to-zooming and panning that’s the hallmark of much iPhone surfing.

A second reading related feature, Reading List, also appears in iOS 5 after first debuting in Safari (version 5.1, in this case). Upon its introduction, many compared Reading List to popular Web service Instapaper, which lets you mark articles for later reading and provides an iOS app that can grab pages and let you read them while offline.

I’d go so far as to say that Reading List and Instapaper have very little in common. While both can be used as reminders to read certain pages later, Reading List’s functionality is very limited. In fact, it essentially acts as a special bookmark folder that—if you use iCloud—is synced between your iOS devices and your computer.

Say you come across an article while browsing on your iPhone that you’d prefer to read on a bigger screen. Just tap the Share icon in Safari’s toolbar and then the Add to Reading List button. (On the iPad, you can also tap the Plus button in the Reading List section of the Bookmarks popover.) That page will now be added to your Reading List, which you can access at the top level of your bookmarks, along with the site’s icon and the first couple lines of the page’s text. You can also tap and hold on any link on a page to get a menu with an Add to Reading List option.

Reading List can also track when you’ve accessed a page; you can tap the Unread button to see only the pages you haven’t looked at yet. Be aware that the read state is synced between devices, so if you look at a page on your iPad, it will also be marked as read on your iPhone. Your entire Reading List is still available if you tap the All button at the top, and to remove an entry, you just swipe your finger across it and tap the Delete button. Unfortunately, the lack of an Edit button means that there’s no way to remove multiple Reading List entries at once.

Unlike Instapaper, Reading List does not cache the contents of the page itself, so you’re out of luck if you want to read one of your links while you’re not connected to the Internet. It also lacks Instapaper’s tweakable appearance and social features, like the ability to easily share your lists with your friends. In short, it’s hardly a replacement for Instapaper, but it’ll likely be a handy tool for all those who aren’t familiar with the service. Even as an Instapaper user, I still found Reading List useful as a quick way to share links between my many devices: It’s great when you’re running out the door, but you want to have easy access to, say, a page with some directions on it.

For those browsing on an iPad, Apple has reworked how users manage multiple webpages. Instead of the previous iPhone-style model, where tapping a button gave you a bird’s-eye view of all your open webpages, you now have a tabbed model more akin to desktop browsing.

The tabs sit slung under the bookmark bar (or the location bar if the bookmark bar is hidden); tap on any of them to bring that page to the foreground. As with the previous iPad version of Safari, you’re still limited to opening nine simultaneous webpages. However, like the Mac version of Safari, you can also arrange your tabs in any order you like by tapping on them and then dragging them to wherever you’d like. It would be cool if Apple had also added the Open in Tabs option that Safari boasts on the desktop, which lets you open a folder of bookmarks, each in a separate tab, but, alas, you’ll have to open all your bookmarks individually.

There’s also a new option to open links in the background, which elicits a relieved sigh from me, and probably more than a few of you as well. In Settings -> Safari, you’ll find an Open New Tabs in Background slider on the iPad and, on the iPhone, an Open Links option that lets you choose In Background or In New Page. Enabling background links in either case means that when you tap and hold on a link, the resulting menu gives you the option to open that page without whisking you away to it immediately. As someone who tends to open a lot of links from a single page when I’m doing research, it’s a huge improvement. And, if you don’t like it, you can always stick with the old behavior.

Finally, iOS’s Safari now incorporates a Private Browsing mode, just like Mac OS’s Safari. When you activate this mode in Settings -> Safari, you’ll be prompted to keep or dump all of your current open tabs. Once you start browsing, the browser’s history will not record any of the sites you visit, nor will any terms you enter in Safari’s search box be saved. And, to remind you that you’re currently in Private Browsing mode, Safari’s toolbars will turn black instead of their usual blue/gray. When you leave Private Browsing mode, you’ll once again have the option to ditch all your open tabs or keep them open. For those who share iPads among multiple users—in a family, say—it’s a useful addition.

The games we play

Several months ago, I lodged a number of complaints about Game Center, Apple’s social networking service for iOS games. Not long after, Apple first introduced iOS 5, which would seem to address several of my criticisms.

For example, Game Center profiles now allow you to add a picture, letting you make sure that the John Smith you just added as your friend is in fact the John Smith you know. In addition, you can browse your friends’ profiles to see if they have friends that perhaps you’d like to add to your own list. In fact, Game Center will even recommend friends to you based on the games that you own and the people you’re already friends with. You can also upload your contacts to get better recommendations, though I didn’t notice any particular improvement having done so. (Perhaps I was already friends with everybody I knew that had a Game Center account.) And, if you feel the need to stack yourself up against your so-called friends, you can now judge your self-worth on a new overall point value, based on your achievements and game scores.

Of course, since Game Center is, for Apple at least, largely a way to drive adoption of games, there’s also a game recommendation feature that suggests titles based on those your friends have played, those similar to games you have played, and just those that are popular overall. Apple’s even integrated the App Store right into Game Center, so that you can purchase and download games without ever leaving the app.

One of my other gaming complaints looks to be addressed by the forthcoming launch of iCloud, which will provide developers with a way to synchronize your game states between iOS devices. So if you start playing Super Stickman Golf on your iPhone, you won’t have to replay all those courses to unlock your powerups on your iPad.

There are still some more features I’d like to see added to Game Center. While iOS 5’s new notifications system makes it less likely for you to lose a game invite, I’d still like to see a built-in messaging system—or, at least, tighter integration with iMessage. And an online status system to let me know when my friends are playing games might make launching Game Center more imperative than it is now.

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