iOS 6 [Review]

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Editor’s Note: This review has been stickied to the top of the front page. There are likely new posts below it.

After months of testing, iOS 6 — the most recent major update to Apple’s mobile operating system — is now here. Featuring an entirely new Maps, a new Passbook app, some impressive new updates to Siri (who also comes to the iPad with this release), a great Do Not Disturb feature and a lot more, iOS 6 is a great refurbishment of the world’s best mobile OS. But all is not perfect, and in at least one way, iOS 6 might prove disappointing to people upgrading from iOS 5.

Over the last few months, we’ve been putting iOS 6 to the test on our iPhones and iPads. Here’s what we thought.

Siri

Let’s face it: Siri — Apple’s major innovation with the iPhone 4S — has had a sketchy history, even for a so-called “beta.” From the start, Siri has been plagued by access issues, and for a supposed personal virtual assistant, Siri’s answers could be temperamental at the best of times, and outright dumb at others.

What has been so frustrating about Siri isn’t that she could sometimes be dumb. That’s excusable in a beta. It’s that she’s dumb inconsistently: one minute smart as a whip, the next a swollen-tongued paltroon. Even Steve Wozniak has publicly complained that Siri was dumber six months after her debut than she was at launch. And it was true. When Siri first came out, if you asked her what the third tallest mountain in America was, she knew the answer. Six months later, she didn’t. And now she does again.

What’s going on? Apple’s not saying. Siri doesn’t process most of your requests locally: instead, it takes your voice, encodes it and then shoots it over your WiFi or 3G connection to a server to feed it through some giant M.O.T.H.E.R. of a quasi-A.I. machine. Her answer is then piped back through to you. When Siri gives bad answers where previously she gave good ones, it seems as if she didn’t have quite enough time and energy to think things through.

In other words, Siri’s failings seem to be tied to server load. That makes Siri in iOS 6 a hard thing to review properly. Right now, using the iOS 6 GM candidate, she seems as smart, and smarter, than she’s ever seemed before, even on new devices like the new iPad. But when iOS 6 goes live, Siri is going to be hit with all sorts of new traffic she’s never had to deal with before: third-gen iPads, new iPod touches, iPhone 5s. Even if she’s whip smart then, how long before she starts acting like a dullard again?

Unknown. But we’re hopeful that, this go around, Siri won’t find herself so dumb and tongue-tied when she finds her servers heating up.

Siri’s ability to give intelligent answers has broadened considerably

For one thing, Siri’s ability to give intelligent answers was previously bottlenecked by her Wolfram Alpha integration, but with the addition of new partners like Rotten Tomatoes, SB Nations and Open Tables, Siri’s possible pool of resources from which to draw her answers has broadened considerably. Under iOS 6, asking “What team does Peyton Manning play for?” or “When does Cloud Atlas open?” or “Find me a Thai restaurant nearby” all bring up reliably useful answers. That’s a big step up from iOS 5, where Wolfram Alpha would try to puzzle out the inquiry and often fail to give a real answer, requiring you to Google it Now. Apple’s drawing more possible answers from more sources, lightening the load on everyone and giving much more reliable answers.

The question is, of course, “how will it hold up?” When the hordes of users download iOS 6 today, will Siri go from a super-genius to an idiot again, as millions of new devices that previously had no access to Siri crush Apple’s servers? It’s too early to say, but one year later, there’s reason to be hopeful that Apple both has a better understanding of how to project demand and ramp up accordingly, and is drawing its answers from enough sources that most common questions can be answered directly via a partner without turning to Wolfram Alpha or Google as a stop-gap. That will go a long way.

Right now, we can say this. Siri in iOS 6 works great, and for us, she’s an infinitely more useful assistant than she ever was before. She sets reminders. She sets calendar entries. She looks things up on the web for you. She tells you what the score to the latest game was. She tells you where to find a good meal. She even tells you what movies it’s worth your time to see. These days, Siri pretty much has a decent answer for everything. If Apple can keep it that way, Siri might go from being the butt of everyone’s jokes to the showcase feature she was always meant to be.

Siri in iOS 6 works great, and for us, she’s an infinitely more useful assistant than she ever was before. If Apple can keep it that way, Siri might go from being the butt of everyone’s jokes to the showcase feature she was always meant to be.

Maps

Apple had to kick Google’s Maps out of iOS. Maps is one of the most central things you do on your phone, and yet Apple’s manifest destiny in maps was controlled by a direct competitor. Worse, Google was keeping Apple down when it came to realizing the true potential of Maps by preventing Apple from giving users turn-by-turn directions: a huge competitive advantage for Android. So Apple bought C3 Technologies, started signing secret deals and bided its time until their contract with Google was up. And then they kicked Google out the door.

Now we’ve got Apple’s own Maps in iOS 6. It’s pretty good, but depending on what you want from your Maps and where you live, it could be a big step down from what you’re used to.

Apple’s new Maps could be a big step-down from what you’re used to.

First, the good. Turn-by-turn navigation is probably the biggest new feature of Maps, and Apple’s done a great job here. If you enter the address of your destination, Maps will plot your course, and if your device is moving in a car, it will automatically detect that and give you turn-by-turn navigation on the way, with each turn loudly narrated by Siri. These turn-by-turn instructions persist even on the lock screen, which is a great touch, and it all seems to work to this periodic driver about as well as Google’s Android turn-by-turn directions. That said, turn-by-turn’s not as polished in many ways: for example, on Android, if you go underground in a tunnel, the Maps app will automatically invert the colors of the display so they are easier to read in a dark environment. There’s no such context-sensitive changes in iOS 6 Maps. It’s not a big deal, but it’s a bit of a bummer.

In other ways, Apple has outdesigned Google when it comes to Maps. The new font and tiles choices in Maps are undeniably more pleasing to the eye than Google’s choices… or, at least, “undeniably” if you’re already the kind of person who connects to the design ethos of the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. Other details — like navigating between steps in directions by swiping left-and-right on the hovering “street signs” — are also a nice touch.

It’s hard to deny that Google’s Maps data seems to be much more comprehensive than Apple’s

That said, it’s hard to deny that Google’s Maps data seems to be using much more comprehensive data than Apple, at least for now. Google Maps has more fully fleshed-out mapping data, and time after time, it seems to beat iOS 6’s Apple-grown Maps solution when it comes to thoroughness and accuracy of data. In fact, iOS 6 even loses some functionality, like Google Street View. And depending on where you live, the new Maps could be untenable.

Apple does have one ace up its sleeve: the new 3D Fly-By view, which turns your local map into a three-dimensional fully pannable, rotatable, zoomable city… if Cupertino has the data on where you live. It’s a really swish effect, and looks absolutely phenomenal in place, but it’s also bandwidth heavy and, well, let’s face it, pretty much useless. Sure, it’s a cool way to demo iOS 6, but there’s a reason maps are in 2D: it’s an easier way to navigate them. 3D maps are undeniably cool, but unless you find yourself getting lost in busy skylines on a regular basis, we’d be surprised if you use the functionality more than a few times after you first show off the ablity to your friends.

So, Maps. It works well, but not as well as what came before. It looks better, but not enough better to justify the loss of functionality. iOS 6 Maps is clearly Apple’s first step, and we have every reason to believe that in iOS 7, Maps will likely kick the teeth down Google’s throat. Apple doesn’t usually let high-profile, mediocre products stay that way for long. However, right now, iOS 6 Maps may be prettier, and may have turn-by-turn… but we’re still counting down the hours until we can download Google’s new Maps app off of the App Store.

Apple doesn’t usually let high-profile, mediocre products stay that way for long… but we’re still counting down the hours until we can download Google’s new Maps app off of the App Store

Passbook

It’s easy to see how Passbook in iOS 6 is the bedstone for what will eventually be another major Apple empire: NFC payments. Imagine, instead of pulling out cash or a credit card when you want to pay for something, you just wave your iPhone instead. That’s the future: it’s going to happen. But for whatever reason, Apple still thinks it is premature to cram an NFC chip into every iPhone.

That’s why we have Passbook. It’s a slick compromise, a virtual wallet for all of your membership cards, tickets and e-coupons that uses scannable bar codes and your location to intelligently pay for services or check-in for events.

The good news is that Passbook is both elegant and fun to use. The way it works is this: let’s say you buy a ticket home for Christmas. In your confirmation email, you might see a link at the bottom that says something like, “Add this ticket to Passbook.” Tapping that on your iPhone would then give you the option of putting a simplified version of that ticket in your Passbook. When it’s time for you to board your flight, you can just pull out your iPhone and have the screen “scanned” at the gate.

It’s all very slick, and because it’s location aware, there’s a lot of cool possibilities: for example, Passbook could automatically tell a restaurant where you have reservations that you’re there (similar to how the Apple Store app handles check-ins) or alert you to deals when you’re around a store where you have a loyalty card.

The problem is, right now, all of this is basically just theoretical. There are absolutely zero Passbook enabled apps right now.

The problem is, right now, all of this is basically just theoretical. There are absolutely zero Passbook-enabled apps right now, and the only company we’ve heard about that is supporting Passbook in the wild is Virgin Air. Right now, if you load up Passbook, it will suggest you download Passbook-enabled apps from the App Store, but there are none… even iOS 6’s default suggestion of Starbucks doesn’t work. To even add any passes to Passbook for the purpose of this review, we had to cheat, using Passsource.com to create some dummy passes for us to check out.

Passbook has a lot of potential, and it is undeniably a cool little app. But without third-party support, it’s nothing, and right now, no one seems to be jumping through hoops to make sure that they have Passbook-enabled apps or web sites ready for today’s iOS 6 launch. How useful, then, Passbook will prove to be in the real world will have to be revisited in a few months time.

Mail

iOS Mail has always been fantastic. So fantastic, even, that to this day, there’s a surprising scarcity of third-party email apps on the App Store. It’s the nature of email, though, to be overwhelming, and so there’s always new tools that can be introduced to make managing an inbox easier.

For the most part, Apple hasn’t mucked with Mail too much in iOS 6. It now has Pull-to-Refresh support, which is nice. Nicer still is the new dedicated signature feature, which allows you to set a different signature depending upon which email address you’re using. That’s an important thing to have if you check both your work and personal email on your iPhone. There’s also some new bling around the edges, like in-message App Store previews.

For the most part, Apple hasn’t mucked with Mail too much in iOS 6.

The big headline feature of iOS 6 Mail is probably the VIP Inbox, which allows you to easily set up a list of your most important contacts, then have new emails from your VIPs automatically filtered to that inbox when you arrive. It’s sort of like Gmail’s Priority Inbox feature, except it only pulls in emails from people you tell it are important. To me, that makes it a lot more relevant: when I’m checking email on my iPhone, I usually only want to read emails from a few people and then hold off on the rest for later.

The most welcome change to Mail, though, is the ability to insert photos or videos into emails. You could always email a picture or video to someone else using Mail, but you counter-intuitively needed to start the process in Apple’s Photos app. There was just no way to insert a photo or video into an email you were already writing. Now, it’s as simple as tapping in the body of your email and when the pop-up appears, navigating to “Insert Photo or Video.” Sometimes the most important changes are, in fact, very small.

Mail hasn’t undergone a revolution: it’s mostly the same app you’ve been using for years. If you’ve moved on to a third-party app like Sparrow, it’s unlikely that iOS 6 Mail will draw you back. But the new additions are welcome.