Say what you will about Apple's latest iPhone--yeah, it's the tech equivalent of a punt--but the software that drives it, called iOS, is mature, reliable, and full-featured. As the basis for the iPad and iPod touch, too, iOS is installed on hundreds of millions of devices, a platform that constitutes one of the single biggest competitors to Windows there is. So it should come as no surprise that iOS 5, the latest version of this software, is a compelling, evolutionary update that all iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch users are going to want to download and install as soon as possible.

ios5_08_0
An evolutionary update, iOS 5 is instantly familiar.

What iOS 5 is not, however, is something truly new. It's not a better of way of doing things, like Windows Phone, but is instead a continuation of the iOS versions that preceded it. This means that Apple isn't attempting to overcome iOS's tired app-based functional model, in which users need to know where to find what they need--in individual apps--and then pop in and out, in and out, in and out, over and over again. People who use these devices tend not to even consider alternatives, so most aren't even aware that there are in fact better ways of getting things done, that some mobile OSes actually work the way they do, and that they don't have to conform to the rigid model the OS imposes on them.

What they get in return, however, is that maturity, reliability, and full-featured set of functionality mentioned above. Today, iOS is the safe choice, the thing you recommend to your mother or non-technical people, to "normal" people. And that's a huge and growing audience.

Here's what's new in iOS 5.

Major new features

As its version number suggests, iOS 5 does in fact come with some major new features. These include:

PC free

In what I feel is the single biggest improvement in iOS 5, Apple has finally rearchitected the system so that you no longer need to dock an iOS device to a PC or Mac before you can use it. Furthermore, you can continue using the device--be it iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch--without ever connecting it to a PC or Mac, assuming you embrace Apple's iCloud service especially. And you know you will, you Apple fan you. (I'll review iCloud separately soon. It, too, is a big deal.)

ios5_07_0
Update your OS over the air like a real computer.

Now, instead of a lame "Connect to iTunes" screen, new iPhone, iPad and iPod touch owners--or those who upgrade to iOS 5--will be presented with a multi-step Setup wizard.  It's surprisingly lengthy, with many steps, but it does let you thoroughly setup and, when necessary, activate your device, over air. And it's worth noting that you must navigate through this wizard, even if you do set up the device to work with your PC. In fact, certain features--like iCloud device backup--won't even work until you finish configuring the device via this setup process.

Many iOS apps have been updated to accommodate this new PC-free lifestyle. So you can create and delete calendars directly in iOS 5's Calendar app. You can create and delete mailbox folders in Mail. Edit photos. All the things that used to require a PC have at least some alternative on the device.

Another aspect of this system is that future software updates will now all occur (optionally) over the air. So you won't have to tether your device to the PC, run iTunes, and check for updates. As updates occur, they will download in the background and you'll be prompted when ready to install. Now, if you're familiar with the size of iOS updates, you may be concerned with the efficiency of this process--iOS 5 is, for example, closing in on a whopping 800 MB depending on the device--but Apple has also finally implemented delta updating in order to minimize download sizes.

PC free is a huge change for the entire iOS ecosystem and it's going to enable a new generation of users to use these devices as their primary computing platform or, at the very least, as independent, full-featured computing devices of their own. Apple has been talking about the post PC world for years, but with this move, they're actually starting to move their own devices in that very direction. It will be fascinating to see how this evolves.

iMessage

RIM has its Blackberry Messaging Service and Windows Phone has Messaging. And now iOS 5 has iMessage, an integrated messaging service that bypasses the carriers and their expensive SMS/MMS messaging schemes and provides a way for iOS users to communicate with each other.  Yeah, it's another example of Apple's classic lock-in strategy. But its fans, as always, will eat it up. I mean, what's better than only communicating with people who think just like you do?

iMessage lets you send text messages, photos, video, contacts, and do group messaging, much like a traditional messaging app. While it does work over a 3G connection if you have it, iMessage also works with non-3G devices, like the iPad and iPod touch, and it doesn't incur additional fees from the carrier. (Obviously, if you have a tiered data plan, it will eat into that.) It also offers unique functionality of its own: delivery receipts, read receipts, typing indications (like an IM application), seamless device sync (where messages go to all your iOS devices), and encryption.

As with Messaging on Windows Phone, iMessage doesn't require a separate app, which is nice: It just integrates into the pre-existing iOS Messages app. It maintains contact-based conversations, and works in a split screen view on the iPad.

Notifications

Aside from completely revamping the iOS usage model, which I'd like to see (but probably won't) in the next major upgrade, you can look at the existing software and pick out key areas for improvement. And one of those, clearly, was notifications. Previous to iOS 5, apps could communicate very, very simple information via their icon, using a small badge overly. (An email app would show the number of new emails, for example.) And the system offered a lame, text-based dialog that appeared center screen. If you see this dialog on the lock screen, there's no way to go and act on any of it.

But other mobile platforms have done a better job with notifications. Android has a feature-rich and system-pervasive notification system. And of course, Windows Phone offers live tiles with deep links and "toast"-based notification overlays that appear over the currently running app without interrupting the user.

With iOS 5, Apple takes the best of these two systems and provides users with a fairly compelling new notification system. Yes, apps are still limited to tiny badge overlays. But that modal text dialog is gone, replaced with a wonderful Notification Center UI that offers a central place for all notifications, regardless of their source. You can manually view Notification Center by tapping and dragging down from the top edge of the screen, and this works from any screen: The home screen, or within any app or game.

Notification Center includes stock and weather updates, Phone notifications (missed calls, voice mails), text messages, new email, and notifications from third party apps like Facebook or ESPN ScoreCenter. In fact, the coolest thing about Notification Center, perhaps, is that it's automatic: If you allow an app, any app, to send push notifications to your iOS device, they'll appear in Notification Center now.

ios5_10_0

Also high on the cool list is that notifications are no longer modal or interrupting in iOS 5. So instead of a modal text box mid-screen, you'll see a Windows Phone-like "slice" appear on the edge of the screen, with a message describing the notification. If you're a playing a game or otherwise engaged, simply ignore it and it will go away. But if you do want to respond or learn more, you can tap the slice and go right to the app in question.

ios5_11_0

The Notification Center also provides a similar view on the lock screen, with each notification laid out vertically. Stealing a page from the Windows Mobile 6.5 playbook--not that many people would even notice this--you can also slide your finger across any notification, instead of the Slide to Unlock area, in order to go directly to that app after you've entered your PIN. Yep, Microsoft had that first.

So, we've got the centralized Notification Center from Android, the Windows Phone-type notification slice, and a lock screen user experience taken from Windows Mobile. Am I complaining? Nope: Apple got this one right, and frankly, taking from the best of each experience makes plenty of sense. With iOS 5, Apple has suddenly leapfrogged the competition with what I think is the nicest notification system on any mobile platform. It works well and looks nice.

Newsstand

I'm starting to feel like Apple has too many different stores in iOS. There's the iTunes Store, of course, for music, video, audiobooks, podcasts and iTunes U content. There's an App Store for mobile apps. There's the iBookstore for iBooks-based books. And now, in iOS 5, there's sort of a fourth store: Newsstand. (It's really "in" the App Store, but you get to it, typically, through the Newsstand app.) So not only do you need to know which apps to use to get things done, and where to find them, you need to pick between several different stores when you want to buy something.

ios5_01_0

Clearly, there should simply be a single store in iOS, which I recommend calling the Apple Store. But give Apple some credit: Before Newsstand, magazine and newspaper publishers basically had to promote their own individual apps, further exacerbating the iOS "whack an app" problem. At least with Newsstand, there's a single place to go to read periodicals. And since it offers an integrated subscription model, it's ideally designed for this type of publication.

What's interesting about Newsstand is that there isn't really a new model for publications. Instead, publications still make their own apps, as before, and each can look quite different from the others. What's changed is that, on iOS devices, you now have a central place--the Newsstand app--to read periodicals, via individual custom apps. So it's really just a front-end for periodical apps that already existed.

ios5_03_0

Will I use this? I typically read newspapers on the Kindle with its wonderful e-ink screen. But let's be serious: For graphical content--photograph-heavy articles in "National Geographic" magazine, perhaps, or any car magazine, the iPad's large, color screen makes a lot of sense. And even for newspaper content, the screen provides a way to duplicate newspaper-type layouts, which some will find desirable. So I've subscribed to a few magazines--Car and Driver and Maximum PC--through Newsstand and I've added my New York Times subscription as well.

The app itself works as suspected, using a tired "newsstand" UI that of course emulates a physical newsstand and looks suspiciously identical to that of iBooks, except that it's not full-screen for some reason. If you subscribe to a periodical, new issues will download in the background and read offline, as you expect, and as was pioneered years ago on the Kindle. Downloads are very slow, however, especially for magazines, which are often quite big. Some are quite inexpensive: You can subscribe to Maximum PC for just 99 cents a month, for example. Some are far more expensive, like the New York Times.

The magazines themselves are OK. The ones I've subscribed to are carbon copies of the print versions, but the pages load slowly so you see a blurry version first; the Kindle is much faster (albeit just rendering text or text and grayscale images). And because the iPad's screen isn't as big as a magazine page, the fonts are often too small and hard to read.

ios5_02_0
Magazines load slowly and are blurry for a few seconds until they fully render.

One of the things I really don't like about Newsstand is that you can't delete it, or even move it off the home screen. That's right: You can't even move the Newstand icon into a folder for some reason. I'm not clear why that's the case.

Twitter integration

Last year, Microsoft showed how online services can be efficiently integrated into a mobile OS when it offered Facebook integration, and this fall, the company's new Windows Phone 7.5 version improved on the Facebook integration while adding both Twitter and LinkedIn integration to the mix. In iOS 5, Apple has added just Twitter integration, which I have to think is far less interesting to most people than would be, say, Facebook (or even Google+) integration. But at least they're moving in the right direction.

The Twitter integration in iOS 5 doesn't work like the similar functionality in Windows Phone because iOS 5 doesn't offer a central place for dealing with other people. So what Apple did instead was add integration bits in some obvious individual apps. You log on to your Twitter account through the Settings app, providing a sort of single sign-on capability, assuming apps arrive that integrate with that functionality. (In Microsoft's far more seamless approach, your Twitter account is actually tied to the Windows Live ID you used to set up the phone, so it propagates automatically, including to future Windows Phones you may buy.)

ios5_13_0

But what if you want to post to Twitter, or "tweet" as the kids say? Unlike with Windows Phone, there's no OS integration there at all: Even though iOS 5 includes a centralized messaging app, you do your tweets through the Twitter app ... which you need to download manually. It's not part of iOS. (That said, at least you don't need to provide your Twitter credentials again to use it.)

Where Twitter is integrated is, again, in some apps that make sense. You can post photos you've taken with the device's camera to Twitter via a new Tweet option in the Action menu, or via a similar interface in the Photos app. Safari provides a similar UI for posting links to articles, and YouTube does the same for online videos. There's integration with Contacts, which I find fairly useless--it's notable that this functionality is disabled by default on Windows Phone, I think--since Twitter is mostly for communicating with people you don't know

And that's the problem with iOS 5's Twitter integration. Most people use Twitter in one of two ways: to broadcast (when they're tweeting) or to consume (reading others' tweets), and not for personal communication. (Though there are of course exceptions.) Facebook integration would be far more desirable for most regular consumers. I'm curious why that's not part of iOS already.

Camera improvements

The iPhone has always offered a decent camera as far as smart phone cameras go, and my understanding is that the iPhone 4S offers a particularly good one. But with its "pocket to picture" functionality, Windows Phone emphasized how awful the iPhone camera was when it came to actually using the thing. Apple just made it too hard. You had to take the camera out of your pocket, orient it correctly, swipe the lock screen and logon, navigate to the correct home screen and then, potentially, locate and open the correct folder. Then, you could launch the Camera app and--oops--that thing you wanted to photograph was already long gone.

In iOS 5, Apple has basically copied "pocket to picture." There are two ways it has accomplished this. First, there's now a Camera icon on the lock screen, so you can bypass the swipe/logon stuff and starting taking pictures. (Well, sort of. The Camera icon isn't there by default; you have to know to double-tap the device's home button first.)

Apple also made it possible to use the Volume Up button to take a picture. This is handy because iOS devices like the iPhone don't have a dedicated camera button like Windows Phone. (Why not Volume Down or Volume Up? I have no idea. You'll be fumbling around a bit until you do figure it out.)

Neither of these things is discoverable: You have to find out these features exist from a review like this or stumble onto them otherwise. But you know what? That's fine: These two changes alone dramatically improve the iOS camera functionality. They're great for the iPhone just as they were previously for Windows Phone.

ios5_14_0

There are a couple of other changes to the Camera app too, including the addition of optional grid lines onscreen while taking a picture so you can frame the scene better, pinch to zoom (which I'm frankly surprised to discover wasn't added earlier), and a nice way of tapping onscreen to lock the focus and exposure to that part of the scene. All this stuff, when added to the iPhone's pre-existing advantages (HDR, etc.) makes for a very high quality photo taking experience. And when you consider that this is a key activity on smart phones, it becomes obvious what a huge advantage this all represents.

Other changes

With over 200 new features, iOS also comes with a ton of other improvements that are spread out throughout the system. Here are some of the other meaningful changes I've seen in this release.

Safari updates

Apple's mobile browser gets some interesting updates in iOS 5, though I'd argue that this product was already pretty impressive to begin with and is arguably the mobile browser that all other mobile browsers are compared to.

In iOS 5, Safari picks up tabs (on the iPad), which I actually find somewhat annoying: Previously, you could switch between multiple web pages via a handy menu button, but the browser now uses tabs instead and a real estate-stealing tab area is always visible onscreen, even when you only have one page loaded.

ios5_04_0

Safari also picks up the Reader feature from the desktop version of Safari, which provides a very clean interface for reading web articles sans the awful UIs and ads you typically see online. This is the type of feature you'd think Windows Phone would have since it's all about getting rid of the distractions and letting you focus on what's important, in this case a web article. But Windows Phone doesn't offer such a feature. It's nice to have.

ios5_05_0

Also taken from the desktop version of Safari is Reading List, which lets you download articles for later reading offline. This is useful, I suppose, for devices like iPads and iPod touches won't always have an Internet connection. I don't personally use it, at all, actually. But I could see it being a big deal for certain people, especially those who are thoroughly invested in the whole Apple thing: Your Reading List's list of articles is synced to every one of your iOS devices and to Safari on the Mac or Windows.

Mail updates

Apple's excellent mobile email solution gets a nice evolutionary tweak in iOS 5, with overdue rich text formatting (bold, italic, underline) and message body searching (with server search), indentation control, a way to drag email addresses between the To, CC, and BCC fields, message flagging, and S/MIME support (for enterprise customers).

But the biggest change here is for the iPad only, and it's a good one. In iOS 4.x, you could view your inbox as a weird pull-down menu only if you were viewing the device in portrait mode. This was, I think, a rather poor and lazy reaction to the new onscreen real estate provided by this device. (In landscape mode, the inbox was always visible.) Now, in iOS 5, you can swipe in from the left edge of the screen to view the inbox and perform actions like selecting another message. This works more naturally, I think, than the previous method.

Reminders

Apple finally gets around to adding a tasks/to-do app in iOS 5. It's called Reminders, it works as you'd expect, and integrates with Exchange (and, in Windows, Outlook) or with iCal on the Mac. Like most of Apple's recent productivity apps, it vaguely resembles a real world object, which I find annoying and unnecessary.

ios5_17_0

Reminders does have one truly innovative feature: You can associate a reminder with a location. So, using your device's location services, you can actually be reminded of something when you enter or exit a particular location. Think about this for a second. You can make reminders that essentially amount to, "The next time I'm near a particular restaurant, remind me that I've always wanted to eat there." Or whatever. This is pretty impressive.

Basic photo editing

I mentioned some of the big changes to the Camera app above, but it's worth mentioning that Apple also added basic photo editing capabilities to iOS 5, via Photos, and semi-directly from the Camera app. Editing features include crop, rotate, red eye reduction, and a Windows Phone-like one-click-fix called Auto Enhance.

ios5_16_0

More, more, more...

In iOS 5, Apple has added a dictionary to the entire OS and implemented it as a service. That means it can be used by any app, and of course Apple's own apps do use this, often to good effect. You can take advantage of this dictionary when writing or reading email in the Mail app, for example: Just tap and hold on a word and select Define from the pop-up menu.

For iPad users, Apple now offers a split virtual keyboard, similar to what Microsoft is adding to Windows 8, which makes it easier to type on the device with their thumbs while you're holding it with two hands. And you can position this keyboard wherever you want, so it will always be close to your actual fingers.

ios5_06_0

Apple's Xbox LIVE clone, Game Center, gets a few updates. And if you're familiar with Xbox LIVE, you can understand the playbook they're using. There are now Achievement points, just like on Xbox LIVE. Game recommendations. Profile customization with photos. And turn-based game support, as with Windows Phone.

With Air Play Mirroring, you can mirror the display of your iPad 2 or iPhone 4S on the screen attached to your Apple TV, which is actually a pretty nifty way to share movies or photo slideshows when you're visiting someone else. (It mirrors the whole display, so you could theoretically share anything. But this isn't a great way to play a game, for example.) I have the original iPad, so I wasn't able to test this feature personally, but a friend brought over an iPad 2 so I could check it out.

If you're familiar with how multitasking gestures work in Mac OS X Lion, you'll appreciate that they work similarly in iOS 5 now. What you won't appreciate is that they work only on the iPad 2. Again, I have the original iPad, so I wasn't able to test this feature.

It's a small nicety, but iOS uses location services to determine your current location and then provide the weather for that location. So you no longer have to manually add your city via the Weather app.

ios5_18_0

There are alternate routes in Maps. You can swipe to delete songs and playlists in Music (iTunes). There's a new iTunes Tone Store where you can buy ring tones and then set unique tones for voicemail, mail, and calendar events. You can configure custom vibration patterns. And years after Zune had it, Apple finally adds Wi-Fi sync to a PC-based version of iTunes, including backup. The device has to be plugged in, but when so, it's automatic and works well.

ios5_19_0

A lot of stuff, in other words.

Availability and pricing

Apple's iOS 5 ships with the new Fall 2011 iOS devices, including the iPhone 4S and the "new" iPod touch. It is available as a free update for modern iOS devices, including iPhone 3GS and 4, iPad and iPad 2, and the 3rd and 4th generation iPod touch. I've been testing pre-release versions of iOS 5 on several devices for many months; these include multiple iPhones, iPod touches and a first generation iPad.

Final thoughts

There's no denying the popularity and thus the importance of iOS. It powers some of the bestselling devices of our time, including the excellent iPhone smart phone, the stellar iPod touch, and the iPad, which means that for many people it is the primary computing interface they use each and every day. It's no surprise that iOS 5 doesn't dramatically change the iOS usage model, since the platform's very success makes true revolution exceptionally difficult if not outright impossible. But Apple has still made some significant strides in this release. And if you're using any supported iOS device, you're going to want to upgrade. I understand there were some issues when iOS first appeared late Wednesday, but everything appears to be working fine now.

Put simply, iOS 5 doesn't revolutionize Apple's mobile platform, but it does come chock full of meaningful and useful new features. Highly recommended.