The 5 best features in Apple's iOS 5

From Notifications to wireless OS updates to iCloud integration, good things are coming

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Revamped Lock Screen

The Lock Screen will get a few fairly useful updates in iOS 5. Double-tapping the Home button not only brings up audio options like before, but now it adds a Camera icon just to the right of the Swipe to Unlock slider. This gives quick access to the Camera app -- even when the iPhone is locked -- allowing you to record pictures and videos much faster than before. This means no more fumbling to unlock the phone, launch the Camera app and snap a picture. As a bonus, the volume-up button doubles as a hardware shutter. (Somewhere, Windows Phone 7 fans are screaming with rage; this was on Microsoft's mobile devices first.)

As a security measure, when an iPhone is locked with a passcode, access is still available to the Camera app -- but only to the Camera app. The ability to browse photos already taken -- or to poke around on the phone further -- is restricted.

The Notification Center is also part of the Lock Screen, and everything you may have missed is displayed on a darkly tinted layer over your Lock Screen picture. Depending on the options you choose, you'll see text messages show who messaged and what they said, phone calls and voicemails, and even emails with snippets of the messages. And every alert is time-stamped.

To quickly jump to any given app requiring your attention, slide the app icon for that particular notification, and that's the app that opens when the iPhone is unlocked. It's a simple idea well implemented. It's amazing how effectively implemented features add up to a better iOS user experience without needless complexity.

Cutting the cord

A few months before WWDC, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said that the post-PC era is beginning. Clearly, given Apple's recent burst of sales, he must have meant the "post-reliance-on-Microsoft era," especially since iOS devices don't work without first plugging them into a computer running iTunes. But Jobs was serious about the idea of standalone devices, and iOS 5 paves the way for a future in which devices like the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch serve as your sole computer.

Out of the box, an iOS 5 device can be activated without plugging it into anything. After entering basic information like your Apple ID, you can then access every purchase you've made through iTunes (including the music, movie, and app stores) and download them as quickly as your connection allows.

Not only is activation done wirelessly; so are iOS updates. Effectively, this eliminates iTunes as required middleware.

There is, however, a benefit to plugging in an iOS device to iTunes: the automatic backup that happens before each sync. It's been a lifesaver for me more times than I'd like to admit. Apple engineers have another option for iOS 5 users, though, and it's pretty simple. Since most users plug in their phone before bed to charge overnight, Apple is touting a system that allows the device to automatically back itself up to iTunes via Wi-Fi while charging. Once it's finished that, it'll sync iTunes content wirelessly.

Having the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch serve as standalone computers effectively opens the door for more sales. In some parts of the world, the iPhone hasn't caught on because of the necessary computer-linking; if you don't have a computer, you've got a problem. This should change that.

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