Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iOS 5.0
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Many iPhone users known for years that the iOS notification system was in need of a major overhaul. Particularly following the debut of Push Notifications two years ago, the old system of stacking pop-up dialog boxes on top of each other quickly became cumbersome and unwieldy for all but the most basic needs.
iOS 5 addresses this with the introduction of a completely revamped Notification system, replacing center-screen pop-up dialog boxes with less intrusive top-of-screen banners, while collecting all notifications on a single, centralized screen.
By default, new notifications will appear as banners that appear at the top of the screen for a few seconds and then automatically disappear. Tapping on the banner while it is visible will generally take you to the appropriate application, in much the same way that the “OK” button previously did on the pop-up dialog. To dismiss a notification you simply need to ignore it; it will disappear by itself.
New notifications also appear in the Notification Center, which can be viewed by swiping downward from the status bar at the top of the screen, or the location where the status bar would otherwise be—the Notification Center is accessible even when running a full-screen app such as a game. In this case, however, iOS 5 takes a slightly less intrusive approach to prevent multitouch gestures in games accidentally opening the Notification Center. The first swipe will display a notification center “tab” that the user can then drag down to see the Notification Center, or ignore in favor of continuing whatever was going on before.
Whether new notifications are cleared from the Notification Center automatically is largely application-dependent; for third-party apps, the Notification Center is tied to the badge count for that application’s icon on the Home Screen, meaning that pending notifications are normally cleared at the same time as the badge. For applications or notifications that do not correspond to an icon badge, the notifications may need to be cleared from the Notification Center manually—a small “X” appears beside each application header in the Notification Center that can be used to clear all of the notifications for that particular application.
The Lock Screen also takes part in the new notification system. When the device wakes up to display a new notification, it will appear centered on the screen similar to prior iOS versions; pressing the Sleep/Wake button to wake the device manually will display a list of notifications that arrived while the device was locked.
Each notification is accompanied by an app-specific icon; sliding the icon across a notification on the Lock Screen will unlock the device and open the corresponding application in the same way that tapping the “OK” button on a notification would in prior iOS versions. Unlocking the device clears all notifications from the Lock Screen, however they will remain in the Notification Center until cleared by the application automatically or manually cleared by the user.
The Notification Center also automatically displays all Calendar appointments and Reminders scheduled in the next 24 hours. Unfortunately, there is no way to configure this—you can’t choose a different time frame or exclude certain calendars, and can only turn it off by removing the Calendars and/or Reminders apps from the Notification Center entirely, which will also remove appointment and reminder alerts from the Notification Center.
On the iPhone and iPod touch, the Notification Center also includes two built-in “widgets” for Weather and Stocks, providing summary details of your local weather settings and tracked stocks. These appear by default at the top of the Notification Center; tapping on them opens the built-in Weather or Stocks apps as appropriate for additional details.
As with prior versions of iOS, users can configure notification options for each application from the “Notifications” section in the Settings app, which has been expanded to provide several additional settings for the new Notification Center feature. Users can choose to sort notifications either manually or by time, exclude specific applications from the Notification Center entirely and select whether an application should use a Banner notification, pop-up window, or no on-screen notification at all. You can also choose how many recent notifications are displayed in the Notification Center and whether to display notifications on the Lock Screen. Sound and badge count options can also be found here, similar to prior iOS versions.
It is worth noting that most of these settings are independent of each other, meaning that for a given app you could choose to receive only on-screen banner/popup notifications, only entries in the Notification Center, only Lock Screen notifications, or any combination of the three.
The Notification Center also expands the options available for receiving notifications from the built-in applications such as Phone, Messages and Mail, which are now included in the Notification Center settings alongside third-party apps, and provide most of the same options. You can, for example, now choose to omit missed calls from being shown on the Lock Screen, or turn off the badge icons for these apps in the same way as for any other third-party app.
The Messages notification settings are also a bit of a special case; the settings to show message previews and repeat alerts, previously found in the main Messages settings, have now been moved into the Notification Center settings.
One notable deficiency in the current Notification Center implementation is the absence of any status bar icon to indicate that new notifications are waiting to be viewed; users are forced to swipe down to open the Notification Center to check for new notifications. This is likely because a new notification generally appears at least briefly as a banner on the screen when it’s first received and lingers in the Lock Screen.
Despite the addition of the built-in apps to the new Notification Center settings, most of their options for notification sounds remain in the “Sounds” section of the Settings app. The good news here, however, is that the notification sound options have been dramatically expanded over prior iOS versions, allowing almost every core notification sound to be customized in iOS 5.
Prior to iOS 5, only ringtones and text tones could be customized; other notifications for features such as voicemail, new mail and calendar alerts were fixed sounds that could be toggled only on or off. Further, while ringtones could be chosen from a list of pre-defined or custom tones, text tones were limited to only a pre-defined list.
With iOS 5, almost all of these prior limitations are gone. Custom tones can now be used for every available built-in alert, including Ringtones, Text Tones, New Voicemail, New Mail, Sent Mail and Calendar alerts. iOS 5 also adds a customizable Tweet sound for its new Twitter integration and a Reminder alert sound for the new Reminders app. Not only are all of these customizable, but users can also choose each one from either an expanded list of 27 pre-defined sounds or from any ringtone installed on the device, thereby allowing users to customize just about all of their built-in notification sounds. It’s also worth noting that the iPhone 3GS and iPod touch gain the additional pre-defined sounds that were introduced for the iPhone 4 last year in the iOS 4.2 update.
In addition to much more flexible notification sounds, iOS 5 also introduces support for custom vibration patterns. This option can be enabled under the Accessibility settings, which adds an additional “Vibration Patterns” item at the bottom of the “Sounds” section.
PC Free Setup
iOS 5 also introduces several new features designed to decouple iOS devices from their dependency on PCs or Macs for setting up and synchronizing information. The most notable aspect of this is the new “PC Free Setup” feature. Instead of the old “Connect to iTunes” screen, users taking new iOS devices out of their boxes will now be presented with a series of gray linen setup screens so they can get up and running immediately.
On initial setup, a new user will be taken through a setup wizard with choices including enabling or disabling location services, specification of a geographic region, connection to a Wi-Fi network, and configuration of an iCloud account and related services.
The setup and activation process can be completed without any requirement that the device be connected to a computer, or even a Wi-Fi network, although the latter is required to configure services such as iCloud. Without a Wi-Fi connection, these configuration steps will simply be skipped.
Users can also choose to restore a backup from iTunes or iCloud; restoring an iTunes backup requires connecting the device to your computer, and there is no way to transfer an existing iTunes backup to iCloud. If you upgrade to iOS 5 by restoring your device from a backup, you will need to use the iTunes method until your first iCloud backup has been completed from the newly-upgraded device. Note that restoring a backup from iCloud will require a Wi-Fi connection.
Note that users can also still choose to simply connect to iTunes and configure or restore their devices the traditional way. Setting up as a new device from iTunes will still take the user through an abbreviated setup wizard for doing things such as configuring location services and an iCloud account. Restoring a backup from iTunes will bypass at least part of the setup wizard, returning the device to whatever state it was in when the backup was made.
Over-The-Air Software Updates
As part of the new “PC Free” approach, iOS 5 also introduces the ability to distribute future iOS updates wirelessly over-the-air (OTA), avoiding the need to connect your device to a computer to receive an iOS update.
This process is initiated from a new ‘Software Updates’ item that can be found in the General section in the Settings app. Selecting this option will search for a new update and provide options for downloading and installing it. iOS 5 will also check for OTA updates in the background on a regular basis and notify the user if a new update is available.
OTA updates can be downloaded and installed over either a Wi-Fi or 3G connection, however these updates require that the device have at least 50% battery capacity or be connected to a power source.
Note that the initial update to iOS 5 will still need to be applied the traditional way. The Software Update feature is in iOS 5, so you can’t use it until you already have iOS 5 installed.
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