iOS 6 Review: Apple fights for the User
By now everyone in the cosmos has updated their iDevice to iOS6, and many have weighed in, barely three hours into the update fray. Iʼve updated and have been messing around with it for the past hour, and letʼs cut down to brass tacks: no matter what you think of iOS or iPhone, Appleʼs newest mobile software update is all about the user, and unless youʼre still living under a rock with the original iPhone, you can take advantage of all or most of the digital features of the iPhone 5, right now.
(disclaimer: this review is written with an iPhone 4 and iPad 2. some features, like panorama camera and 3D flyover on iPhone and Siri on both devices are not present in my updates, which feels like a slap in the face, but nonetheless are not present and therefore unable to be reviewed.)
Usability design can be a challenge because you canʼt guarantee a perfect experiential utopia for everyone who uses your product, and (understandably so) everyone has their own translation of the perfect user experience, for better or worse. Apple has managed to stay dogmatically consistent with their updates and yet have it look fresh for users new and old.
One of the best ways to cater to users is to make sure everything is taken care of from the start. For veteran iPhone users the myriad setup screens can feel annoying, but in practice they only take about a minute to get through, and get a lot of new user setup out of the way already, making sure a lot of your key preferences (iTunes/Facebook/ Twitter sign-in, location services, etc.) are ready to go before you touch anything else.
A lot of iOS 6 involves visual facelifts, most noticeable in the music, camera and weather apps. These visual touches affect nothing about the way you use them (honestly, how could you improve the weather app?) but give it a sexier, sleeker look, sometimes in subtle ways, like how the music appʼs metallic buttons use the light sensor to refract and render light on the buttons as you turn your phone. Something a user may or may not notice, but itʼs a nice touch, showcasing Appleʼs attention to detail.
Before I get too far into this review, you might notice the header bar (where service, battery etc. is displayed) is blue in a lot of these screenshots. Thatʼs by design, again showcasing Appleʼs obsession with providing a seamless experience by making the top header shades of blue to blend in with themselves.
Other apps receive both facelifts as well as useful new features. Notification Center allows you to update Twitter and Facebook within the app, without having to go to separate apps. Camera roll has a wider menu of ways to share, using user-friendly icons that allow anyone new/young/old to share photos without having to actually know what something is called. Some people lament this as dumbing down iOS, but in reality it opens it to a whole new crop of users.
Safari receives many new additions, including an offline reading list that gives it a pseudo-Evernote functionality for saving interesting pages for reading wherever you are. You can now view your website in fullscreen when your device is turned sideways by pressing a double arrow button in the lower-right corner, something that brings the internet into that seamless touch-the-Internet realm Steve Jobs foreshadowed when he introduced the first iPad. Ironically, the fullscreen feature isnʼt on iPad, and after using it in iPhone I kind of want it there.
The lock screen itself gets an update, no longer requiring you to double-tap the Home button to access the camera shortcut; rather you swipe upwards and the app autoloads.
Phone calls now give you almost too many options to field calls with, but no longer requires you to wait until the phone stops ringing to text or email them back. You can also respond with a FaceTime call, which can be used anywhere you have service, either WiFi or cell, but please donʼt be the guy who FaceTimes whilst driving.
Email has handy new Do Not Disturb and VIP List settings, the former allowing you to fade out all your email when youʼre traveling or on vacation, the latter allowing you to set up contacts that bypass those settings, such as bosses, girlfriends, your grandmother, etc.
Some of the biggest updates exist in the mobile iTunes and App Stores. Neither store feels like a diet version of desktop iTunes, replacing the stale list view of the apps with an interface that can be navigated by swiping icons to the side, much like the rest of iOS, allowing the information to be “staged” in a single spot and reducing the amount of user scrolling.
The iPad version also has a miniplayer that pops up when sampling a song, allowing you to browse the store while sampling music.
App updates are now shown within the App Store rather than catapulting you back to the home screen, giving a seamless experience. The same goes for downloading new apps, allowing you to continue using the app with downloads automatically happening in the background.
Of course, there are some totally new apps to play with. A potential gamechanger is Passbook, iOSʼ answer to apps and services such as Google Wallet and Pay With Square that allows you to register and use everything from gift and reward cards to coupons and boarding passes. The app displays registered items in a wallet-style format with the cards stacked on top of each other. Tap on one and it helpfully pops up to display a scannable barcode.
The retro look of things like boarding passes is a great throwback and makes me want to use Passbook every time I fly.
In practice Passbook is a mixed bag. There is no database of apps and services to fins, forcing you to search for another app, register or log in, THEN add it to passbook. Whatʼs worse, showcased companies like Starbucks currently do not have passbook support on either their app or their website, making me wonder just where did Apple get the Starbucks card they showcased at WWDC? However this is launch day for iOS; the real test of passbook will be when iPhone 5 launches and a whole crop of fresh users try their hand at using the service.
One of the most talked-about updates is the new Maps app, part of Appleʼs larger breakup with Google. YouTube is also absent, although Google is the default search engine and YouTube videos play fine through Safari. Apple now has an in-house Maps app, which feels a lot like Google Maps, but integrates a few features that are really handy.
First off is the navigation view, which shows your next turns as green highway signs. This is where I really start to wish Siri was here, since she doubles as the voice-guided navigation, as well as allowing you to search directions without typing. Walking and transit directions are also back, something that was missing in the beta of iOS6. Theyʼre not as accurate as Googleʼs, but the big G also has almost a decadeʼs head start in the map and direction department. Apple Maps is rendered in vector, which means smooth scrolling and barely-there loading times, even in satellite view.
When you pinch to zoom in/out, you can also rotate the map view, and street names will rotate so you can still read them. That would have been handy when I was in San Francisco recently and had to keep rotating my phone to orient Maps with my actual direction.
Another big maps feature is Flyover, Appleʼs answer to Street View. Flyover lets you zoom around a city in a rendered 3D view. Just like anything else, it only applies to major cities right now, and no word on when or if it will cover smaller areas like Street View, which is sort of a buzzkill when traveling, but then again I only used Street View in major cities.
Nashville renders flat, but San Francisco renders crisply. I donʼt know what happened to the Brooklyn Bridge-itʼs still ironing some kinks out.
A nice touch of flyover is how it renders buildings even in standard view. I donʼt think that would help me find my way around San Francisco, but it helps users by removing distracting information. Traffic info is also shown by color-coded dashed lines.
Apple integrates a few apps within their maps app-click on a name and you get reviews and photos from Yelp, and you have the option to open up Yelp or teleport to their website if you want more information, which is helpful if you want to dive deeper into the basic summary. Navigation data is provided by TomTom, so if youʼve been dropping money on their app, give the default map app a try.
Maps also loads your recent search information, so if you want to reload something, all you have to do is find it and tap on it.
Ultimately, iOS6 boils down to a few basic ideas: something you use in your daily life should be simple, elegant, and easy to use. Smartphones and mobile devices are meant to augment or lives, not complicate it. Apple packs a punch with new features and their homegrown Maps app, but has their work cut out for them with Passbook. In the long run, however, Apple swung for the fences with this update, and only time will tell the true realization of the potential you have in your hands right now.