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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• There are also new sounds -- and for the first time you can customize them. (You can also edit custom gestures, which can be enabled under Settings > General > Accessibility > AssistiveTouch Custom gestures.)

• You can get a word definition anywhere there is selectable text with a simple tap and hold on a word; choose the pop-up Define to get the definition.

• You can mirror video via an optional Apple cable to a TV. Or, if you're using an iPad 2 or an iPhone 4S and have access to a TV with AppleTV, you can mirror your display wirelessly using systemwide AirPlay Mirroring.

• And for those of you who've been hoping for this, there's an extra tidbit of privacy built into iOS 5: You can now delete individual calls from the call log with a swipe.

iPad-specific updates

There are a few features of iOS 5 specifically built for the iPad. They include the aforementioned tabbed browsing, a new retro-looking music player interface, and -- my favorite -- a split keyboard view, which can be initiated with a literal "ripping apart the keyboard" gesture. Once the keyboard is split, you can move it up and down iPad's side. Grab the keyboard icon located to the lower right side and you can position it wherever it's easiest for you to thumb-type messages. To reunite the keyboard segments, tap and hold that keyboard icon to activate the "dock and merge" pop-up or drag the keyboard to the bottom of the screen. The iPad also picks up optional multitouch gestures, which I took to right away, since many of the gestures are shared in Lion.

For instance, a four-finger-and-thumb scrunch brings up the LaunchPad on both a Mac running Lion and an iPad running iOS 5; swiping four fingers up brings up Mission Control in Lion and the multitasking interface in iOS 5. The use of similar gestures on different platforms creates a sense of consistency and familiarity that makes each device easy to master.

Split keyboard
On the iPad, you can now "split" the keyboard for easier typing.

Cutting some of the cords

For the first time since its debut, the iPhone is computer-reliant no more. Out-of-the-box activation, wireless OS updates (deltas, actually, which result in much smaller downloads), media purchases and app upgrades, background subscription updating, and automatic wireless backups mean that the iOS devices can stand on their own. It also broadens the market for Apple products in countries where owning two computing devices is economically impossible.

If you do have a laptop or desktop computer running iTunes, you can now wirelessly sync the content there -- your songs, videos and other digital media -- with the content on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Syncing automatically kicks in when the iPhone or iPad is plugged in to the wall or to the computer. You can also start a sync manually.

To activate wireless syncing, you have to plug the device into a computer running iTunes at least once (so you can turn wireless syncing on). Select the device in the sidebar, and, on the main screen, scroll down and make sure "WiFi syncing" is enabled. Press Apply.

Once WiFi syncing is enabled, the iPhone or iPad will still be accessible in the iTunes sidebar even when ejected. Better yet, the devices will also back up wirelessly to iTunes before a sync session, which provides a safety net of sorts for your device data. Note: Wireless syncing requires that iTunes be running. From my experience, that's not much of a problem for Mac users, but it might be more problematic on Windows, where iTunes can be resource-intensive.

Here's a helpful hint: If you keep your media selections to a minimum the first time you enable wireless syncing, you'll be able to use your device sooner, since you won't be waiting for a full-blown sync. Once that first iTunes sync takes place and wireless syncing is enabled, you can then go through and select the media you want. The next time the iPhone is plugged in to a power outlet (say, to charge during the night) it'll automatically kick-start an iTunes sync and copy everything over. By the time you wake up, all of your media should be on your iPhone.

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