Hands on: iOS 5 delivers 'a wealth of changes'

New notifications, over-the-air updates, iCloud and scores of tweaks highlight what's new

Four months after it was introduced at this year's Worldwide Developer's Conference, iOS 5 is finally available. Apple released the free update to its mobile operating system yesterday, two days ahead of the iPhone 4S, which arrives tomorrow.

According to Apple, there are more than 200 new features in iOS 5, including a revamped Notification Center, the new iMessage app, Twitter integration with the OS and lock-screen access to the Camera app. Although the overall look of the operating system hasn't changed dramatically, this update features several key improvements and cuts the cord by allowing activation and setup to be done without connecting your device to a computer. (Future iOS updates will be done over the air.)

The arrival of iOS 5 also paves the way for integration and syncing with Apple's iCloud service as well as iTunes Match, which is due out later this month.

All in all, there's much to like here -- especially since iOS 5 seems as speedy as its predecessor for routine tasks, without draining battery life or relying on a needlessly complicated interface.

Who can get iOS 5

Not every iDevice can run the new operating system. You're in luck if you have an iPhone 3GS, an iPhone 4 or, of course, a new iPhone 4S. It will also run on the third and fourth generation iPod Touch, and both versions of the iPad.

Before you install iOS 5, you'll want to update to the latest version of Lion, OS X 10.7.2, and iTunes 10.5, which was released Tuesday. That's because both of those updates allow for iCloud syncing with iOS devices. And iCloud is a major part of what makes iOS 5 important.

How to update

To update your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, connect it to your computer and fire up iTunes. When the device icon appears in the iTunes sidebar, I recommend that you right-click on it: This brings up a pop-up menu allowing you to select the Back Up option. Use this opportunity to back up your device, no matter how long it takes. This is the backup you'll need to rely on if anything goes wrong. It's your safety net; please use it.

When the backup is done, choose "Check for software" in the main iTunes window and then either choose Restore -- which will erase what's on the device and install a fresh, clean copy of the OS -- or Upgrade, which simply installs the software while leaving your data, apps and files intact. (If you use the Restore option, you'll need to sync with iTunes, which will copy over your apps, etc. from the backup you made.) If you're upgrading to iOS 5 using a device that's been jailbroken, there's really no other option but to choose Restore.

Note: Some users yesterday reported problems getting the iOS 5 update to install on their iDevices. Speculation centered around overloaded Apple servers as the culprit. So you might want to wait a day or so before trying to upgrade.

iOS 5.jpg
Apple released the iOS 5 upgrade Wednesday, as promised, but some users, including a Computerworld reporter, reported having trouble getting it.

Starting up

After iOS 5 is installed, your device -- I'm generally focusing on the iPhone for this review -- will restart. The first thing you'll notice is the new Setup Assistant, which is very similar in theme to the one in OS X Lion. Once you pick a language and enable/disable location services, you have to choose to connect to a Wi-Fi network or use iTunes to activate the device. (Despite all the talk of cutting the cord, you still need a Wi-Fi connection or access to a computer with iTunes to go further. That shouldn't be a big deal if you're upgrading your phone from home, but if you're snagging a new iPhone 4S, be sure the activation is done before you leave the Apple Store.)

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