Apple iOS 5 Upgrade Review


October 12 saw the release of a major software update for Apple’s iOS devices. Compatible with the iPhone 3GS and higher, iPod Touch 3rd Gen and higher, and both the original iPad and the iPad 2.

iOS 5 adds major new functionality such as iCloud and the notification center, plus over 200 other new features. It’s a free update and a must-have for owners of all compatible devices, but what does it include, and how can you ensure a smooth upgrade?


This first step is the key to a successful update, but it’s often overlooked. There’s more to updating your iOS device than simply plugging it into iTunes and tapping the “check for updates button” at least if you want a relatively pain-free experience. You must consider both the apps and personal data stored on your device as well as the process itself. since the iCloud service is a major part of the update, you should plan to spend some time updating your calendar, cleaning up your contacts, pruning those old grocery lists out of Notes, and clearing out all of your old photos.

Strictly speaking this step isn’t required, but there’s nothing like a fresh start — why clutter up your brand new iCloud account with a bunch of irrelevant and out of date information? Maybe there are some photos of your ex that you just don’t want in your photo stream, or a few contacts that have different jobs now and you never bothered to update their details. In any case, purging your personal data of old information before a major upgrade just makes sense.

The same is true of your device. if you have a 64GB iPod Touch, for example, and you tend to download any interesting apps on a whim without trying them out right away, you may have a ton of stuff on your device that you don’t really need or use. since the actual upgrade process includes a full backup and restore of your device, why waste time doing that for things that you don’t really need right now? Apps that you have purchased (whether free or paid) are freely downloadable at any time, so you don’t have anything to lose. get rid of those games that were fun for five minutes that you never played again, along with all of those joke apps and duplicate apps you forgot to delete when you ran across something better. This is a golden opportunity to clean out your digital hoard–trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

After you finish your spring cleaning project, you’ll want to sync your device one last time, just to make sure that all of your apps and app data are fully backed up in iTunes. The final preparatory step is to download and install the iTunes 10.5 update so you’re ready to go when you’re ready to upgrade to iOS5. The new version of iTunes doesn’t have many obvious changes, but it is required in order to upgrade your iOS device to the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.


When you plug your device into your computer and it appears in iTunes, you’ll have to click the “Check for Updates” button about halfway down on the summary screen for your device. iTunes will check for the update and when it is found, you will be informed that the update can take up to an hour. I found that to be less than completely accurate, because the entire upgrade process took almost two and a half hours for my 4th gen iPod Touch.

The first step of the process is actually downloading the update, which could take roughly ten to twenty minutes or longer, depending on your connection and how busy Apple’s servers are when you start the upgrade process. I downloaded the update at my office, which has a much faster connection than my home, and that part of the process took about 15 minutes.

Next iTunes will perform a full backup of your device, even if you just synced it before starting the upgrade. After that you’ll hear a few alerts as new drivers are installed, and when your device resets itself as part of the upgrade. The hardest part is waiting, because after the iOS5 upgrade is installed, you still have to wait for all of your data and your apps to be restored from the backup. During that process there is no indication of how long it will take or how much progress has been made, which can be rather frustrating if you’re the impatient sort. even worse, many users were plagued by frustrating errors and/or had to start the upgrade process more than one before it was finally completed.

You’ll want to keep checking your device because you will have to complete some of the necessary setup there, instead of through iTunes on your computer. You will be prompted to enable or disable location services, choose a WiFi network, sign in or create an Apple ID, and sign the appropriate software licensing agreement before setting up the iCloud service. if you choose to use iCloud, you are warned that all of your personal data such as calendar appointments and contacts will be merged with the cloud immediately, unless you choose to opt out. Finally you will choose how you want to back up your device, be it to your iCloud account or your computer. Depending on how many apps and how much data you have on your iOS device, this could use a significant portion of the 5GB allotted to each user. You can purchase additional storage if necessary, up to a maximum of 50GB for $100 per year.


When the upgrade process is finally complete, you’ll see that there are three new icons on your device: Messages, Newsstand, and Reminders. it isn’t until you really start digging around and using your device that you will start finding all of the changes, and there are so many new features in iOS 5 that it’s hard to choose the most important/most exciting of them. I’m excited about the cloud services and the new notification center, while my very forgetful friend is most excited about the location-based reminders that will make sure he never forgets an important task again — which will save his wife a great deal of aggravation.

For that reason I’ve chosen to address each of the major highlights alphabetically, so you can quickly get an overview of all of the new features and learn more about the ones that you find the most important.

Calendar: Keeping up to date is even easier with the new week view on small screen devices like the iPhone and iPod Touch plus the new year view that is available only on the iPad. You can share calendars with other members of your family and also view event attachments from within the app.

Cards: This is a free app that you’ll have to download from the iTunes app store. In essence it turns your iPhone into a mobile greeting card store, allowing you to create custom holiday, thank you, birthday, love, travel, and baby announcement cards. You customize each card with a new or existing photo, write your own sentiment, and choose the recipient, and Apple will print and mail the card for you. Costs are reasonable, at $2.99 for US recipients and $4.99 for international addresses, and the app is dead simple to use. perhaps not the most important new addition to iOS, but one that shows just how our iPhones are taking over every aspect of our lives (in a good way).

Custom Ring Tones and Alert Tones: You can now set individual alert tones for individual contacts, from right within the Contacts app. This is an extremely useful feature, because you can tell instantly whether that call or text requires your immediate attention, or whether it’s something (or someone) that can wait without even picking up your iPhone. a large selection of tones is available, or you can buy more tones from a special section of the iTunes store. You’ll find everything from bloodcurdling Halloween sound effects perfect for your mother-in-law to a wolf whistle you’ll hear every time your wife calls. Prices range from free to $1.29, with most of them available for 99 cents.

Find My Friends: Similar to Google Latitude, this is a free app that you can download from the iTunes store to locate your friends and family. You can choose either temporary or permanent access, making this app as useful for finding your friends when you’re all on vacation together or making sure that your kids have arrived home from school. full privacy controls are available, including the ability to hide certain locations from your followers.

GameCenter: There are a few small improvements here, most notably a switch to real names (optional, if you make your profile public) and friend recommendations, based on both your existing friends and the games that you play. You’ll also see overall point totals much like the Xbox gamerscore system of rankings. since I’m number 631,000++ on that leaderboard I’m obviously not spending enough time playing games and need to apply myself to improving my score!

iCloud: Of course this is the big one for most people, and while it works great overall there are a few quirks, especially regarding migration. This free service provides 5GB of space for calendar, contacts, and documents (iWork, plain text, and Microsoft Office files) that are pushed to all of the iOS devices linked to your Apple ID, as well as your Mac computer and any web browser. PC users who want to sync instead of just using iCloud in a web browser will need Outlook. if you’re already using iCal and Address Book on a Mac, all you need to do is update to Lion 10.7.2 and sign in to the iCloud service after the update, choosing what you want to store in the cloud. if you’ve been syncing with Google Calendar and Google Contacts, you’ll have to switch over to the iCloud service instead, because you can’t sync with both.

That’s understandable, because it eliminates a whole host of potential synchronization issus, but it’s disappointing that you can’t choose one primary service (I would like to keep everything in Google, since I coordinate a work calendar with multiple employees) and have new events automatically sucked into iCloud as they are scheduled. In order to test the iCloud service I had to export everything from Google and then import it into Address Book and iCal, though Windows-only users won’t have the same option and will have to use Outlook instead. Assuming that you’re already syncing with Outlook via iTunes, you would sync your iOS device, set up iCloud on that device, and then merge everything into iCloud before syncing with iTunes again and turning off the Outlook sync options on the Info tab.

One other potential hurdle that I haven’t been able to test yet is the “buy it and it’s instantly available everywhere” feature of iCloud. I tend to keep different apps on my iPod Touch and my iPad, because they’re suited to different purposes. I tend to have a couple of movies on my iPad as well, which is more wishful thinking than anything, since I never have time to sit down and watch, and I certainly don’t want those large files clogging up my iPod Touch, which is fine for short viewing sessions but definitely not for full-length movies. I’m hoping that users will have some control over which devices get which sorts of content, but won’t be able to test that until I update my iPad to iOS5.

iMessage: Apple’s new iOS messaging system is a delight to use, and a welcome alternative to kludgey messaging apps like TextPlus or Talkatone for iPod Touch users. The service is seamlessly integrated into the existing Messages app, which is a new addition for iPod Touch users. just choose a contact or enter a phone number to get started, and type out your message. You’ll get a delivery confirmation when the recipient actually gets the message, and you’ll also be able to see when they’re typing out a reply. iPhone users can easily send text messages to iPod Touch and iPad users, and the custom alert tones come in really handy to allow you to “hear” who’s writing you without even picking up your device. iMessage is the sort of thing that I just wasn’t too excited about when it was announced, but after using it quite a bit this afternoon I’ve found that it’s really quite useful and allows me to get rid of my other texting and messaging apps.

iTunes Movie Trailers: This is another of the free app downloads you’ll have to grab on your own. The title is a little misleading, because this app is really everything movies — not just trailers (many of them exclusive) but release schedules, box office charts, and location-based showtimes. You can mark movies or theaters as favorites, or just check out the Top 25. The app crashed a couple of times while I was trying it out, but if there is a real bug I’m sure it will be fixed in a future update.

iWork: all of the apps in Apple’s office suite have been updated to include iCloud support, so that your documents will be available on all of your devices. Additional updates include footnotes and end notes and improved word counts for Pages, and iPhone 4S users can create and edit documents with dictation. Numbers has a new merge cell function and better data entry tools.

Mail: There are several updates built in to the Mail app, such as rich text formatting, the ability to flag important messages, and search within the body of an email message. You can also add and delete folders on your device.

Maps: When you get directions, you now have a choice of multiple routes to get to your destination. just tap on each one to see the distance and projected travel time, and when you find one you like, tap the start button at the top right corner of the display. it may not seem that important, but it’s a great addition. since you can’t specify “avoid highways” or “fastest route” directly on the device as you can in a desktop web browser, this is a good compromise that gives you more control over the way you get from point a to point B.

Newsstand: This seems to be a direct competitor to similar services on the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble nook. it works exactly as expected, with users placing subscription orders in the App Store that automatically renew at the end of the term unless they opt out. new issues download automatically, without any user intervention. It’s handy, and has the potential to end the glut of title-specific magazine apps that have flooded the App Store lately, but the selection is very small at this point. even worse, you cannot put the Newsstand app into a folder to “hide” it if you’re not planning to use it, so the best bet is to park it on your last page of apps if you’re not interested in subscribing to digital magazines on your iOS device.

Notifications: This is the second major new feature in iOS5, right after iCloud. In some ways you could say that Apple has been playing catchup to Android, and if you were talking about notifications I would have been forced to agree with you. Those individual pop-ups were such a pain, especially if there were several breaking news alerts, Spectacular updates, and tiny Tower restock notices waiting for you when you powered on your device, because they had to be dismissed individually.

iOS5 has changed all of that, and most definitely for the better. The new notifications center can be accessed at any time by swiping down from the top edge of the screen. When it opens you’ll see the latest weather conditions in your area, a few stock updates, and all of your notifications in one place. Tap on one to go to the appropriate app, or tap on the X beside each app name to dismiss all of the reminders associated with that particular app.

Notifications are highly customizable on a per-app basis–do you want discrete little banners at the top of the screen, or do you need the more traditional screen-dominating alerts? how many items do you want to show? do you want them to be visible on the lock screen of your device? You can set things up exactly as you would like from within the Settings app.

OTA Updates: everything changes with iOS5. once this upgrade is installed, future iOS updates will be available over the air, and you will not be required to connect your device to a computer. This has been only briefly explained during the press conferences; suffice it to say that the architecture has changed, and it is now possible to update portions of the operating system piecemeal, instead of replacing the entire OS at once, which is obviously too large for OTA download. it won’t be necessary to connect new devices to a computer for activation either. iOS is finally cutting the cord, and it feels really good to be entering the 21st century.

Photos: One of the niftiest new features is quick access to the camera from the lock screen. all you have to do is hit the Home button twice when your device is asleep, then tap the Camera button in the bottom right corner of the screen. You don’t have to worry about privacy either, as the only photos that are visible when your device is locked are the ones taken during the current session.

Other updates include new basic editing tools such as auto-enhancement and cropping, with optional size/ratio constraints, plus optional camera gridlines to help you compose your shots. In the Photos app you can choose between photos, videos, and all for slightly faster navigation, and there’s a quick camera button there to help you capture quick shots when viewing your photos.

The Photo Stream automatically sends all of your photos to iCloud, where they will be available for up to 30 days until they are pushed out to your other devices. The most recent 1000 photos will be available on your iOS devices, while your PC or Mac will keep them all. In order to use this feature, Mac users must upgrade to OS X Lion 10.7.2, while Windows users will need the free iCloud Control Panel utility, available at You must also enable the Photo Stream on your iOS devices, from within the Settings app in order to get started with this feature.

Of course this may make you think twice about the photos that you take, because there is no way to delete individual photos from your photo stream on iOS devices–if you don’t want that shot to be instantly available on all of your devices, you might want to turn off this feature.

Reminders: This is a very simple task management app comprised of simple lists. Each item can have a reminder date and time, and can be set up as a repeating event if desired. Tap the Show More button to assign a priority and add any notes to the task if you like. The geofenced reminder feature is available only on the iPhone, so I wasn’t able to test that particular aspect. You can set up multiple lists if you want to keep your home and work reminders separate, for example, and tasks are part of the iCloud service if you’re using it, so they will be available on all of your devices.

Safari: There are three major updates here, the new Reading List feature, Reader, and tabbed browsing (iPad only). Reading List is similar to Instapaper in that you can designate articles and web pages to read later, when you have more free time. but it works more as a cloud-based bookmark manager because it does not provide offline access to those articles and does not save the content either; it merely provides a future reading list on all of your iOS devices and in Safari on the Mac. Reader view allows you to read individual web articles without all of the distracting clutter and advertising, providing a more magazine-like experience. It’s available on the iPhone and iPod Touch as well as on the iPad, when you’re reading an article the Reader icon will appear in the address bar and you can tap it to switch over to the cleaner view. Tabbed browsing on the iPad makes switching between multiple pages easier and faster than before.

Shortcuts: these are macros that you can set up on the Settings/General/Keyboard page of your device. think of this feature as universal TextExpander support across all of your apps and web pages. it works perfectly and will save a ton of time–I’ll never have to laboriously type in my email address again, and of course this feature will only get more useful over time as I figure out what macros I need to set up.

Siri: This magical voice recognition assistant is only available on the iPhone 4S that will be launching on Friday, but it still deserves a mention here. It’s a major component of iOS5 that promises to change the way we interact with our mobile devices.

Twitter: Support for the popular social networking/microblogging site has been added to iOS5, making it easier than ever to share way too much about yourself than ever before. it works in Maps, Photos, Safari and YouTube, requiring just a couple of taps to initiate a status update or send a photo. it includes support for multiple accounts, and the regular Twitter iOS app has been updated to allow a single sign-on for easy use.

WiFi Sync: Your entire iOS device is wirelessly backed up once each day when it is plugged in to charge. The bad news is that it can take up a significant amount of space in your iCloud account–the backup for my iPod Touch uses 1.1GB of my 5GB space allotment. The good news is that syncing with iTunes on your computer is significantly faster, since the backup portion of the sync process is the most time-consuming. while syncing is no longer strictly necessary, it is still handy for those times that you want to quickly move over a movie you’ve just purchased from the iTunes store, for example.


If you have a compatible device, it’s a no brainer update. whether you’re most excited about iCloud, the new notification center, location-based reminders, tabbed browsing in Safari, or the Camera app improvements, there’s something here for everyone. And even if you’re not all that excited about any of the new features, it’s obvious that iOS5 has been optimized for speed, because my iPod Touch is launching and switching between apps noticeably faster than before, and spotlight searches are unbelievably speedy.

You may not want to put yourself through the hassle of rushing right into the upgrade, since it is taking much longer right now due to all the impatient early adopters slamming Apple’s servers right now. it will definitely get easier (and faster) in a week or two. but this is one update you just don’t want to miss–there are too many excellent new features and a snappier, more responsive feeling that you just don’t want to put off any longer than necessary. just be sure to clean up your PIM data and clear out all of those unused apps first, to make the upgrade process go as smoothly as possible.