Review: Refined iOS 6 highlighted by stunning Maps overhaul
Call me, call me
It’s tough to remember at times that the iPhone is, in fact, a phone; I must confess that it’s one of the features I use the least. The Phone app gets a few minor enhancements in iOS 6, one of which is purely cosmetic: The Keypad section is now a whitish-silvery color instead of dark blue. It probably won’t affect your usage much.
The other new feature is considerably more interesting. We’ve all gotten a call at an inopportune moment—while we’re in a meeting, for example, or in some other public space where we don’t want to chat. It’s long been a simple matter to mute the call or send it straight to voicemail, but we’ve also all probably had that moment where we realize an hour later that we’ve forgotten to actually return a call.
iOS 6 adds two options, both of which are hidden under a little phone icon that appears next to the Slide To Answer prompt when you receive a call: Reply With Message and Remind Me Later. You can reveal them by swiping up, as with the Camera lock screen icon.
Tapping the first option lets you send back one of three boilerplate text messages, each prefixed with “Can’t talk right now.” By default, those include “I’ll call you later,” “I’m on my way,” and “What’s up?” However, you can edit any or all of those in Settings -> Phone -> Reply With Message (although your custom messages will still be preceded by “Can’t talk right now.”).
The second option lets you automatically set a reminder to call the person back; you can choose from "In 1 hour," "When I leave," "When I get home," or "When I get to work." (The last three, obviously, use geofences to determine your location; the last two will show up only if you have a corresponding address entered in Contacts.) In each case, iOS will add an entry to the Reminders app “Call back contactname.” Even handier, that entry is actually a link—tap it and a Call dialog box pops up, prefilled with your contact’s number.
It’s an unexpected but welcome improvement—who thought the telephone could still be improved on after all these years?
FaceTime over cellular As long as we’re on the subject of calling, there are a couple of other related improvements in iOS 6. FaceTime calls can now be conducted over the cellular network—however, there’s a big asterisk on that: It depends on your carrier.
While Verizon and Sprint are placing no restrictions on FaceTime calling over cellular, AT&T has said that it will allow only users of its Shared Data plans to use the feature. It’s a decision that has provoked a fair amount of ire from users who don’t want to change their plans, but AT&T appears to be holding fast to that decision.
Given that I’m an AT&T customer, it makes trying out FaceTime over cellular a little tricky. However, thanks to a friend with a Verizon iPhone, I was at least able to see it in action. The verdict? It looks a lot like FaceTime over Wi-Fi. The only appreciable difference I could see was a bit more lag before my conversation partner on the other end responded—kind of like talking to the astronauts on the space station—which occasionally had us speaking over each other. But I can’t say for sure whether that was a function of the cellular network or that particular connection.
If your data plan allows FaceTime over cellular, you can enable it by going to Settings -> FaceTime, and tapping the Use Cellular Data switch at the bottom.
Apple has also slightly improved the interface for listing which addresses you can be reached at for FaceTime chats. It now syncs between your devices, so you don’t have to reenter all your various email addresses and phone numbers. In theory, no matter which device you’re using, FaceTime calls should be able to reach you at any of your email addresses or phone numbers. (Apple’s done something similar with iMessage in iOS 6, for more on which see below.)
Do Not Disturb It’s not specifically a phone-related feature, but iOS 6’s new Do Not Disturb feature can help prevent you from getting bothered by unwanted phone calls while you’re catching some shut-eye. The feature, which can be activated at the top level of Settings, lets you temporarily mute all notifications, including phone calls. When this setting is active, alerts will not sound and your screen won’t even light up.
There are a few exceptions, which you can configure under Settings -> Notifications -> Do Not Disturb. For example, you can choose to allow calls from a specific group of your Contacts, or your Phone Favorites. (“Everyone” and “No One” are also options, if you’re feeling more or less permissive.) If you’re worried about not being reachable in case of an emergency, you can also enable a Repeated Calls feature—if someone calls you twice within three minutes, the second call will come through normally. Hopefully, the robocallers won’t start programming their machines to take this into account, but I wouldn't bet on it.
The best feature for Do Not Disturb, however, is the ability to schedule it. Tap the Scheduled switch to enable it, and you can set times at which Do Not Disturb is automatically activated and deactivated—for example, midnight through 8:30 a.m. Unfortunately, the schedule is one-day-fits-all, so if you want a different time window for your weekends vs. your weekdays, you’re out of luck.
It’s worth noting that your notifications are not lost when your phone is in Do Not Disturb mode—they just accumulate silently, much like paperwork on your desk. You can still find them in Notification Center.
Mail is probably the most frequently updated iOS app—no major release of iOS comes without some sort of change to the app. In iOS 6, however, it appears to have fairly few changes compared to previous versions.
VIPs The most prominent alteration in Mail is the addition of the VIP feature that arrived with Mountain Lion. There are certain folks that you always want to see emails from, and VIP lets you demarcate them. To add someone to your VIPs, tap the blue arrow next to the VIP mailbox that shows up in the main screen of Mail, then tap Add VIP; you’ll be prompted to choose a contact. (You can remove them by swiping one and tapping Delete or by tapping Edit and going through the delete-toggle-tap-Delete dance.)
Once you’ve designated someone a VIP, you’ll see a blue star appear next any new messages from them; once you’ve read the message, that blue star will turn into a hollow gray one. Note that you don’t need to specify a specific email address for the VIP; any address that’s in the Contacts entry for your VIP will be so flagged. Also, thanks to iCloud, your VIPs are synced among all your devices running either iOS 6 or Mountain Lion, so you only need to mark someone as a VIP once.
VIP messages have two other special behaviors: First, they’re all collected into a VIP smart mailbox at the top level of Mail. Second, you can set up Notifications for Mail that trigger only for VIPs. You can configure those VIP-specific notifications in Settings -> Notifications -> Mail -> VIP. (There’s also a shortcut from the screen where you edit your VIPs.) As with any other app, you can choose to have banners, alerts, or no message, as well as a sound, a badge on the Mail app, and a preview of the message content in the lock screen notification.
If you happen to be someone who gets a lot of email, you probably long ago disabled notifications for new emails. The introduction of VIPs marks the first time I’ve turned notifications on for emails since the original iPhone. It’s a helpful addition, though I miss one of Mountain Lion Mail’s extensions of it: the ability to get a notification for any email sent by someone in your contacts.
Flagged Mailbox In addition to VIPs, the other major improvements to Mail include a much-awaited Flagged smart mailbox. You’ve been able to flag messages since iOS 5, but if you wanted to actually see all those flagged messages in one place, you had to resort to your computer. One caveat: Flagged will show you only the number of flagged messages for mail that has actually been retrieved. So if Mail is configured to show your 50 most recent messages, you’ll see only the flagged messages within those 50, unless you manually load more messages.
The workflow for flagging has changed, as well. Previously you tapped a tiny Mark link that appeared under the subject, after which you could chose to mark something as flagged or read/unread. In iOS 6, this link has been replaced with a little flag icon in the toolbar, where the Refresh button used to live; otherwise, it continues to work the same.
I noted in my iOS 5 review that flagging didn’t play so well with my company’s Gmail account, which is configured via Microsoft Exchange—you could flag messages on iOS devices, but those flags would not show up in desktop clients or on the Web. That situation has been changed but not really improved in iOS 6—now I don’t even have the option to flag messages in that account at all.
Other improvements A couple of other improvements to Mail make life easier. For example, tap and hold on the New Message button, and you get a slide-up tray of your previous drafts. Tap any of those to resume working on them. (You can also tap a button to create a new message.)
Tap and hold in the body of a message, and the pop-up box that appears now offers an option to Insert Photo Or Video. Tapping on that will yield a standard photo picker, letting you easily embed pictures or videos from your iOS device, without the hassle of copying-and-pasting or having to remember to send emails from your Photos app. That solves the long-standing problem of trying to reply to an existing message and attach photos.
You’ve also, at long last, got the ability to maintain mail signatures on a per-account basis. Go to Settings -> Mail, Contacts, Calendars, and scroll down to Signature. Tap on it and you’ll see an option for All Accounts or Per Account. Tap Per Account and you’ll get a box for each of your mail accounts; enter a signature there, and it will be appended to the message you send from the respective account. For those of us that maintain both personal and work accounts, it’s a godsend.
There’s also now the ability to reorder mailboxes at the top level of Mail, so if you have a specific, neurotic order that you like those in—I’m not speaking from experience or anything—you'll find this a plus. Also, for accounts that have both delete and archive options, you can tap the Delete (or Archive) button in a mail message, and get a pop-up option for which action you want to take.
No doubt, some will be saddened that Apple has removed one configuration option: In the Mail, Contacts, Calendars pane of Settings, you can no longer set a minimum font size.
Finally, Apple has taken a page from the book of many third-party developers and implemented a pull-to-refresh mechanism for Mail, which replaces the old Refresh button that you could tap. Weirdly, Apple has done this in a way that’s slightly different from how it’s usually accomplished—pull down on the screen and you’ll see a little blob that stretches out, as though you were pulling on Silly Putty. When the blob reaches the breaking point, it snaps back up and starts refreshing. The effect is vaguely unsettling, though I suppose it works all right. You can perform this maneuver on any of your inboxes, or from the unified inbox on Mail’s top screen.