Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iOS 5.0

Debuted at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June, Apple’s iOS 5 upgrade is in the process of being officially released to the public today. Now in its fifth major release—the second since being renamed “iOS” from “iPhone OS”—the new operating system makes some major improvements aimed at the general user experience, as well as transitioning Apple’s mobile devices away from cabled connections to desktop computers, instead pointing them towards synchronization with cloud-based servers.

Downloading and Installing

As with all prior iOS updates, iOS 5 will be downloaded and installed via iTunes. Although iOS 5 includes support for future over-the-air (OTA) updates—ones performed wirelessly without the need for a computer—you’ll need to install iOS 5 the old-fashioned way before you can take advantage of these OTA updates. 

iOS 5 will be a free update for all supported iOS device models—the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, third- and fourth-generation iPod touch, and the iPad and iPad 2. It’s the default version of iOS for the brand new iPhone 4S, and for the white version of the iPod touch 4G that is just arriving in Apple Stores today. As of this moment, iOS 5 is not available for public download, but it is expected to be downloadable several hours from now. If you want to see it before then, you can check out the iPod touches that are now on display at the Apple Store.

iOS 5 requires iTunes 10.5, released yesterday. Before attempting to update your device to iOS 5, you should ensure that you have downloaded and installed this latest version of iTunes. It is unclear whether the update will even appear in older iTunes versions, as synchronization with iTunes under iOS 5 definitely requires iTunes 10.5.

The download and installation process is relatively simple: users can use the “Check for Updates” option found on the Device Summary page in iTunes 10.5 and it should locate, download and install the update automatically. In some cases, iTunes may have already discovered the update by itself, in which case you will simply see an “Update” button instead of a “Check for Updates” button.

The usual caveats and warnings apply here as with any iOS update: the installation may or may not preserve all of your existing data.  It may result in the wiping of your device’s data under certain conditions and it is therefore a good idea to ensure that you have a current backup of your device before beginning. Be sure that all of your media content and apps are in your iTunes library; these do not form part of the backups made by iTunes, as Apple reasonably expects that you should be able to re-sync this information from your iTunes library following a full restore. You can check the status of your backup before beginning by visiting the “Devices” section in your iTunes Preferences.

Model Differences

Perhaps having learned from last year’s confusion with iOS 4 across various models, Apple has chosen to try and keep the features in iOS 5 as consistent as possible. This has been achieved by dropping support for pre-2009 devices entirely—a change that actually occurred as of iOS 4.3 last spring. The only devices supported by iOS 5 are the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4/4S, iPad and the third- and fourth-generation iPod touch.

The good news is that for the first time in two years, a major iOS software release unifies all current Apple iOS devices under a single, consistent version. Last year’s release of iOS 4 was originally available only for the iPhone and iPod touch—iPad users were required to wait almost six months more until iOS 4.2 became available. The Verizon iPhone was then released in February, and left stuck on a variant of iOS 4.2 while the rest of Apple’s devices moved ahead to iOS 4.3. WIth the release of iOS 5, all devices released by Apple in the past two years will be using the same version of the operating system.

The differences between various iOS 5 devices are now limited primarily to obvious hardware limitations—an iPhone 3GS still can’t do FaceTime without a front-facing camera, for example. Unfortunately, not all of these hardware limitations may be immediately apparent; “geo-fencing” location reminders is a feature that is not available on the iPhone 3GS, owing perhaps to differences in the GPS chipset used on that device or perhaps simply due to performance issues.

One other caveat that is also worth repeating here: there is no 8GB third-generation iPod touch. The 8GB iPod touch Apple continued to sell in 2009 alongside the 32GB and 64GB models was actually still the second-generation model from 2008. Although most 8GB iPod touch users have likely run into this already with iOS 4, it bears repeating just to clear up any confusion. If you have any camera-less 8GB iPod touch, you will not be able to install iOS 5.

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