A Week With iOS 5

I've just returned from a week's holiday. Before we left, two things happened: iOS 5 was released and my wise wife forbade me to take a Mac on holiday with me. I was allowed to take the iPad and, well, I won't even go to the bathroom without my iPhone.

So it was an interesting chance to test out some of the features in iOS 5 by leaning on them heavily for the week. Here's what I found.

For background, we were staying with two other families near York. This is a regular trip we take every October and it's been interesting to see the mix and number of technologies that the group brings with them. This year, we had 24 Apple products between us; 22 of which ran iOS. One of the two Macs was only brought to update its owner's iPad to iOS 5 and was otherwise unused.

The farmhouse where we were staying had decent wifi but cellular signal varied with the network. My iPhone, on 3, had no service whatsoever and my iPad on Orange could only get GPRS.

So, to some features:

iMessage

iMessage was a lifesaver in the situation we found ourselves at the farmhouse. Everyone had decent wifi but almost nobody had a cellular signal. iMessage just worked as advertised and worked very quickly, even when we were somewhat overloading the wifi.

The other great thing about iMessage was that those of the party who had iPads but not iPhones were able to join in. I might add that I had more than one conversation with those people about whether they should get themselves a free iPhone 3GS. Keep an eye on that.

Find My Friends

Being on holiday with a big group of iOS users was a perfect chance to get an early test of Find My Friends. The results were variable but, for the most part, it worked well.

The first attempt to use FMF was when we we travelling down to York in three separate vehicles. When my friends were out of network range it was, unsurprisingly, impossible to get their location. What I found, though, was that FMF usually preferred to tell me that no location could be determined than report the other party's last position. Sometimes it did give me an old location but there is a timestamp against each location to show its recency.

I also found - and I have no good explanation for this yet - that those people with iPhones reported a faster and more accurate location than those who only had a 3G iPad. When I was tracking an iPhone user and an iPad user who were travelling in the same car, I found that the iPhone location was precisely on the road and the iPad location showed substantial slop.

In addition to the members of my group, I had a couple of other friends in my FMF: Matt Gemmell and Mo McRoberts. For most other members of the party, I was the only person they're sharing their location with. There was a noticeable difference in the time FMF took to report Matt and Mo's location to me than to report the other members of the group. I presume that Matt and Mo are sharing their location with substantially more people than my other friends and, thus, their location was more recently cached than the rest of the group. This seems to allow FMF to provide a much quicker report of their position - a few seconds, as opposed to more than a minute for the others.

Still, when it worked, it worked really well. There were some definite "oooh" moments when we were able to track the progress of the other cars down to the last block from the house. In well-signalled urban areas, I can see FMF becoming a killer feature. It feels like the kind of thing that could have actual impact on social behaviour over time.

Photo Stream

To the shame of DSLR-wielding five-years-ago me, the only camera I took with me on the trip was my iPhone (still on a 4, not a 4S). As we all know, the iPhone is a pretty decent point-and-shoot camera but I felt a slight sense of shame as I attempted to photograph the vast interior of York Minster with this tiny little thing. That said, the iPhone's HDR mode produced results that my admittedly aging Canon 30D would have struggled with.

The classic Apple "surprise and delight" showed up when, after getting home from the day and eating dinner, I picked up my iPad and opened the Photos app. Right there, in the photostream, were all the images I had shot that day. No cables, no importing, no £25 iPad Camera Connection Kit. Wonderfully simple and easy.

My only regret is that, true to its name, Photo Stream doesn't handle videos. I hope we see that in due course.

Newsstand

All the way through the betas, Newsstand was a strange annoyance. This weird shelf-like folder that I had nothing to put in and I couldn't hide. I shoved it off to the last screen.

Now that we have some actual content to put in it, though, I'm starting to see and appreciate the point of it. It's even at the stage now where I want all my magazines and periodicals in that folder.

There are a couple of weird issues with Newsstand, though. The first and most disturbing to me is that the Newsstand folder itself - the shelves - appear in the multitasking bar. It acts like a folder on the home screen, yet it acts like an app too? Some implementation details leaking through there, I think. It's also a bit unclear that the things on the shelves in Newsstand are themselves apps in their own right. One of the cute features of Newsstand is that the apps can replace their icons with an image of the current issue, but then they don't look like apps any more!

The next thing about the Newsstand store is that it initially appears that everything is free. You tap the Store button on the shelves and you're taken to a storefront where everything is downloadable at zero cost, only to find that you immediately have to purchase something once you're in the app. Now, I'm not of the opinion that everything should be free but I think the current design of the storefront fails to set expectations correctly.

My final gripe about Newsstand is that some magazine apps were not able to complete downloads in the background, even though Newsstand apparently allows for new issues to be pushed to subscribers. I didn't test many apps and the ones I did test (National Geographic, The New Yorker) seemed to all be based on the same engine.

All of that said, I came to enjoy Newsstand over the week and it's migrated from the oubliette screen to my home screen.

General Use

A few of the iPad users in the group remarked that they found iOS 5 to be substantially faster - particularly in Safari. There was lots of praise for the speed of interacting with the new browser tabs. Since I've been running iOS 5 since beta 3, it wasn't really fresh to me, but it was good to see that people noticed.

My biggest insight from my week of living purely on the iPad and iPhone was the sense that it's now truly ready to be a primary computer for substantial categories of users.

My "wow" moment was perhaps trivial but this was it: I booked a train ticket through Virgin Trains. At the end of the booking process, they give you a link to a downloadable ICS file with the dates of your journeys. On Mac OS X, you'd download that file, double click it and import the entries into iCal. My immediate thought was "that won't work on the iPad". However, out of curiosity, I tapped the link. Safari showed me an icon for the file and offered to "Open with Calendar". Calendar opened, imported the details and I was done.

Now, I'm pretty sure that direct ICS import was a feature in iOS 4.2, but you get the wider point: the platform is maturing into something comprehensive for a very substantial subset of real-world computer-based tasks.

Put it this way: I'm home now and there's not one task that cropped up during the week that I had to say "I'll have to wait until I get back to my Mac to finish this". That, to me, is the interesting bit.