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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As always, you can't sync more media than your device can hold. So if you have 100GB of music and movies, and a 32GB iPhone or iPad, you'll have to pick and choose.

Your new 'cord:' iCloud

As I noted last week, I think the arrival of iCloud is a bigger deal than the arrival of the iPhone 4S.

Basically, iCloud is a collection of services that backs up your data -- everything -- to Apple's servers automatically. Every photo, document, bookmark, contact, song, movie, video, ringtone, text message -- even the layout of your home screen -- all gets backed up.

iCloud scales up. If you have other devices, iCloud makes sure those devices receive your data, too, without you having to lift a finger. It's invisible.

iCloud starts with a free email address, and any device signed in with that address automatically syncs with Apple's servers. (MobileMe subscribers have to jump through a few easy hoops to move their account over.) It won't matter now which device you use to take a picture with, or where you left your presentation or whether you bought a song through iTunes on your iPhone, iPad or desktop Mac. All your content will sync with all your devices via iCloud, though of course you'll have to use iTunes to pick and choose how much of your digital media actually stays on your iDevices permanently. You won't, obviously, be able to sync an entire 100GB library of music on a 32GB iPhone. (iTunes Match will help in this area when it arrives later in the month, by allowing you access to your entire music collection via iCloud.).

Needless to say, iCloud binds together all Apple devices and your computer in an invisible, yet important, way. I have found so far that it's awesome. Syncing across devices works as it should and happens within minutes, if not seconds.

I do wonder what the arrival of iCloud will do to data plans. Be very mindful if your data usage is limited, because you could rack up some big charges. While you'd expect the biggest culprits for data leech to be backups and media, document and Photo Stream syncing, that's not necessarily true. Backups and Photo Stream updates require Wi-Fi, and there are options to turn off syncing over cellular for purchases and documents (Settings>Store and Settings>iCloud>Documents&Data, respectively).

If you're worried about using up the free 5GB iCloud allotment Apple provides, you can keep track of how much you've used under Settings>iCloud>Storage&Backup (and you can buy more space if you need to). Remember, though, iTunes purchases and Photo Stream don't count against your iCloud allotment.

Storage preferences
You can keep track of how much of your iCloud allotment you've used in the iCloud Storage & Backup window.

Final thoughts

There are still a few issues that Apple hasn't addressed. For instance, why is there a volume slider in the multitasking pane, but not one for brightness? I already have physical volume keys; I want faster access to brightness settings.

And I've found that if you're restoring apps on a new device using iCloud, the old saved-states -- the state the app was in when it was backed up -- don't play well with the new upgrade. The result is an app that crashes on launch, but works fine as soon as you launch it again, with no further problems.

Overall, though, iOS 5 brings about a wealth of changes that users from technophobes to technophiles will appreciate and use. Apple isn't first with these features, but it rolls them into the OS in a way that avoids needless complexity. The changes also broaden the reach of iOS in the Apple ecosystem, with iCloud in the background quietly linking everything from home computer to iPad and iPhone.

Given that iOS 5 is a free update and iCloud is a free service for up to 5GB of storage, (not including iTunes purchases or Photo Stream), upgrading to the new operating system makes sense for just about everyone with the appropriate hardware. It's a worthy update that builds on an already strong mobile OS. And it should really perform well on the new iPhone 4S. I'll have more on that after my new phone arrives.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter (@mdeagonia).

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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