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

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

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Once a network connection is established, a tap of the Next button begins the phone activation. In a minute or so, you can set up your phone as new or restore from your iTunes backup. This is where you'll be happy to have backed up before you upgraded; once the iTunes restore is complete, your device should be exactly as before, except now it's running iOS 5.

iCloud settings
You can decide what you want synced using iCloud.

With the arrival this week of iCloud, you'll also be able to restore your device over the air in the future. Basically, your phone gets backed up to iCloud when it's not in use, and restoring it using the new service will be like using iTunes -- except you don't have to connect your phone to a computer. With iCloud, user data like notes, app/OS settings, text messages, mail accounts, contacts and calendars are downloaded first. After a reboot, camera roll pictures and applications begin downloading, with apps even remembering their location on the home screen.

Here Apple added a nice touch: If there's a specific app you need to access right away, a simple tap of its icon pushes it to the front of the download queue during the iCloud restore process. With iCloud restores, you still have to wait for everything to download to your phone, but at least you can start using the most important app right away while less-important apps and files are retrieved in the background.

During the iCloud restore (or after an iTunes restore), if you previously used a passcode to access the iPhone, iOS prompts you to create a new one.

Notifications

Although Apple talks up 200 changes in iOS 5, there are a handful that stand out.

One that most users will appreciate is how the new Notifications feature displays updates on the iPhone's Lock Screen. With the new system, you can decide how obtrusive you want alerts to be. New notifications come in two flavors: the typical pop-up messages that need to be dismissed, and less distracting messages that unfold from the menu bar, automatically displaying and dismissing themselves without interrupting what you're doing. Any missed alerts can be accessed by swiping down from the top of the iPhone screen to reveal the new Notification Center.

Alert options can be modified on a per-app basis under Settings > Notifications. Here you can decide whether the Notification Center alerts are sorted manually or by time received; whether they display in the Notification Center; how many alerts can be displayed per app; the alert style; and whether they show up on the iPhone's Lock Screen.

Notifications
Notifications can be set to show up on the Lock Screen or accessed after unlocking by swiping down from the top of the screen.

For that last option, the Lock Screen has been modified to accept and display alert notifications. A swipe of the app icon in the Lock Screen alert takes you directly to the message itself in that particular app. The ability to quickly access exactly what you want from the Lock Screen is a well-implemented time-saver.

iMessage

In what I suspect is an effort to enrage mobile carriers profiting from overpriced text (SMS) and multimedia (MMS) message plans, Apple has included a new app, iMessage, as part of the core software. Just as with SMS and MMS, communication through iMessage relies on text, and allows you to send movies and pictures -- without being charged for doing so. iMessage circumvents the carriers entirely, instead relying on Apple's own servers to handle the encrypted communications.

SMS and MMS messages are still available in the iMessage app; but if you are communicating with an iPhone, an iPod Touch or an iPad running iOS 5, iMessage picks up on that and uses Apple's servers to deliver the messages. When that happens, bits of the iMessage interface like the Send button and chat bubbles turn blue; when sending SMS/MMS messages, the interface is green.

With iMessage, you can see "read" receipts -- which notify you when a recipient has read the message -- take advantage of group messaging, and associate an iMessage account with multiple phone numbers and email addresses. iMessages are delivered to all devices with the associated AppleID.

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