iOS 6: Our complete coverage

Review: Refined iOS 6 highlighted by stunning Maps overhaul

iOS 6: Our complete coverage

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Music to your ears

The Music app isn’t a focus of iOS 6, but it has gotten a cosmetic update on the iPhone, as well as some slight feature changes.

Dress me in silver and black: The Music app on the iPhone gets an elegant makeover that makes it look more like its iPad counterpart.

Most striking is the change in color scheme on the iPhone: The formerly white-on-black interface is now a silvery-white, more strongly resembling its iPad counterpart. The playback screen also looks more sleek, with silver aluminum highlights instead of white, and an orange selection color that replaces aqua blue. And the AirPlay control has moved down next to the volume slider, rather than its old position next to the forward button.

Podcasts and iTunes U are no longer present as category options in the More section—they’ve both been shipped out to their own respective apps. When playing audiobooks, you now have the option of skipping 15 seconds forward or back, instead of just 30 seconds back. And when viewing albums or artists, the iCloud download option is now at the top, instead of the bottom.

The other major different in iOS 6 concerns iTunes Match users: You can no longer download or delete individual tracks from your music library. Previously, when you activated iTunes Match, download buttons would appear next to each track—if you tapped that, or if you played the track back, it would be download to your device so that it wouldn’t have to be redownloaded next time you played it, thus potentially saving you bandwidth. While that caching behavior seems to be intact in iOS 6, you no longer have the individual download buttons or the ability to swipe a track and delete it, thus freeing up space.

As always, there are tricks around this issue. Since you can tell iOS 6 to download a playlist, you can just create a single-track playlist and download a track. When it comes to deleting tracks, however, it’s an all or nothing proposition: You can remove all your local music by going to Settings -> General -> Usage -> Music and swiping to delete the items there.

A is for Accessibility

Accessibility is one of the more overlooked aspects of iOS, but it’s key for a device that relies so heavily on the touchscreen. iOS 6 brings a few enhancements to accessibility, but the most significant by far is Guided Access.

Guide me: Guided Access lets you disable parts of the touch interface simply by drawing on the screen. It also disables hardware buttons on your iOS device.

Guided Access Originally designed as a way to help make the iOS devices friendlier to kids who learn differently, Guided Access lets you disable certain parts of the device so that kids don’t accidentally trigger something they’re not supposed to. (Sure to be a boon to every parent who’s come back to find that their kid has accidentally deleted their last five emails.)

Guided Access gets enabled in Settings -> General -> Accessibility, under a new heading titled Learning. Once you’ve enabled it, you can summon it from any app by triple-clicking the Home button. (If you’d like to have options of which accessibility features are available by triple-clicking, you can choose from the Triple-click Home section under Accessibility—pick more than one feature, and you’ll be presented with a menu when you triple click the button.)

By default, Guided Access disables all hardware buttons when activated. Via the Options button that shows up when you activate it, you can also disable the motion or touch functionality. Best of all, you can—in a simple but very cool interface—disable certain onscreen controls by simply drawing around them. So if you just want to turn off a button that lets kids view other screens in an app, you can do that. Those areas will be shown with a gray halftone and won’t respond to touch.

(Be careful, though, because Guided Access performs its magic based on physical areas of the screen. So, for example, if you disable a toolbar at the bottom of the screen, and the device is then turned to a different orientation, it’s now the side of the screen that’s disabled. Likewise, I found the hard way that disabling part of the bottom of the screen also disabled the bottom row of the onscreen keyboard too.)

Freshman orientation: Just be careful what parts of the touch interface you disable, since it's based on the location on the screen and doesn't respect orientation.

To disable Guided Access, you simply triple click the Home button again. That’s gauged to be tough for most kids to stumble across, but if you’re concerned, you can also set a passcode that must be entered to disable Guided Access.

Text-to-speech Those who use iOS’s Speak Selection feature will find a few new improvements. In addition to adjusting the speaking rate, users can now choose a number of different speech dialects of English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Chinese. Words can also optionally be highlighted as the voice speaks them.

Hearing aids iOS 6 brings compatibility with Bluetooth hearing aids, if you have one. Apple says it has been working with vendors to bring them to market.

Home-click Speed It’s now possible to adjust the speed needed to activate double- or triple-clicks of the Home button to slow or slowest.

What’s in store

iOS’s three storefronts—the iTunes Store, the App Store, and the iBookstore—are integral parts of the experience, and all three of them have gotten significant reimaginings with iOS 6. They each feature a new design, as well as more touch-friendly features and and additional capabilities.

App Store Of the three, this is likely the one where iOS users spend the most time. The new version strikes me as more attractive than the old one, with a black/gray theme and large, colorful rotating carousels that you can swipe through.

Background check: Updating apps in the App Store no longer kicks you out onto the Home screen; instead, when an app is finished downloading you can launch it from here.

App pages are broken up into more usable chunks, with separate tabs for details, reviews, and related apps. Further down, at the bottom of the page, you’ll find other information sub-divided into menus, such as developer info, top in-app purchases, the license agreement and privacy policy and, my favorite, the version history, which handily collects release notes from prior versions.

Charts are given more prominent placement in the new version, with the Categories option—which used to be on the App Store’s main toolbar—instead relegated to the top left corner of the Charts screen. Genius also nabs a spot on the toolbar; tap it and you’ll be prompted to activate the feature and log into iTunes for personalized recommendations.

On the iPhone, this takes the form of a swipeable list of app “cards,” each of which shows the app name and icon, the reason it was recommended, its rating and price, and a screenshot. A Not Interested button at the bottom lets you take it out of the running. (The same cards appear on the iPad, but there are several visible at a time, and it’s easy to scroll through them.)

This card interface appears under search now as well. On the iPad, it’s not so bad, as it’s also accompanied by three drop-down menus that let you filter by price (free or paid) and category, and sort by relevance, popularity, ratings, and release date. On the iPhone, however, it means you have to spend a lot of time scrolling through listings to find what you want, as opposed to to the previous interface, which packed more information into the same amount of space.

The best feature of the App Store in iOS 6, however, is background installation and updating. Unlike in previous versions, where tapping Install or Update next to an app meant you were kicked back out to the Home screen and shown exactly where that app would appear, you now get to stay in the comfort of the store. Should you want to launch the app when it’s been downloaded, that’s easy—the Update or Install button instead becomes an Open button; tap it and the app will launch automatically.

So how to find those new apps on your Home screen? Equally easy: They still install in the first open slot. And they’ll also feature a New banner on one corner, so you can quickly pick them out of a line-up.

You can now also install apps from right inside other applications. So, for example, if someone emails you a link to an app, tapping that will pop up a panel from which you can read about the app and install it.

iTunes Store Like its counterparts, the iTunes Store looks much flashier than its predecessor. Instead of the gray pinstripe background and blue toolbar, the app features the same attractive black and gray theme as the other two stores. A carousel on the front page automatically swaps through featured items, and you can manually swipe through if you’d prefer.

Before you view, preview: One of the best improvements in the iTunes Store app is the ability to play song previews in the background.

Likewise, albums and singles now stretch off the screen, allowing you to scroll through them. Tapping on any album brings up a list of tracks, as well as tabs for reviews and related items that others have purchased. You can, of course, tap any track to preview it and, in a nice addition, that preview continues to play in the background even as you continue browsing. On the iPad, a little window pops up, letting you pause the preview or purchase the song—on the iPhone, this appears as a little pane at the top of the screen.

If you can’t remember what song you were listening to earlier, the store now features a preview history. Tap the button with three lines in the top right of the menu bar, and you’ll get a tappable history of songs you’ve previewed, along with—unsurprisingly—links to buy the song. That history is automatically synced among all your devices, but you can erase it at any time by tapping the Clear button.

TV Shows, Movies, and Audiobooks all work similarly, and items that you preview there will also show up in your preview history. Access to your previously purchased items on the Purchased tab is easier now, thanks to a drop-down menu that lets you sort by name, what you’ve bought most recently, or other criteria depending on the type of media.

Like apps, you can buy media directly from other apps, so if someone sends you a link to an album, TV show, or song, you can tap it to bring up a panel from which you can preview it and purchase it if you like.

iBookstore The iBookstore also gets a handsome makeover with the new black/gray color scheme, swipeable carousels, and multiple tabs for details, reviews and ratings, and related items (sub-divided into offerings from the same author as well as on similar topics). And, of course, like the other stores, there is support for sharing books by Mail, Messages, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as copying the URL. You’ll also find the same support for previewing and purchasing books from within other apps, if you tap on a link to the iBookstore.

Book 'em: The new iBookstore gets a swank-looking carousel and swipeable lists of books.

The times they are a’changin’

As with most iOS updates, Apple has tweaked a few bolts here, tightened a few corners there, and generally given its mobile OS a coat of polish. Here are some of the more noticeable changes and improvements.

That's the place: Reminders gets a nice update in iOS 6, including the ability to have location-based reminders for arbitrary addresses.

Reminders I gave Reminders short shrift in my iOS 5 review, primarily because the app felt decidedly unfinished. That’s been largely rectified in iOS 6: The interface for setting a reminder is decidedly streamlined and requires fewer taps, priorities actually show up in the interface, and glory be, you can set a location-based reminder for an arbitrary address. Add in some nice tweaks and simplifications on the interface—including an integrated calendar on the iPhone—and Reminder in iOS 6 is what it should have been in iOS 5.

Stocks and Weather Both get a subtle interface tweak in iOS 6 to get with the times. The former now provides more news at a glance and the latter gains a less hefty, more streamlined look, thanks to a lighter weight font. Also, Local Weather is active by default, unless you deactivate it in Location Services.

Clock What, improvements to the Clock app? Indeed! The app can now wake you up to any song from your Library, an excellent feature that’s been missing for far too long. There’s also a better interface for picking which cities you want to monitor time for—previously you could only search. The iPad, meanwhile, gets the Clock app for the first time, including a nice world map that gives you temperature and current weather for all the locations of the clocks you add. I quite like the bizarre grid-based Alarm screen, but I find the stopwatch and the timer a bit lackluster, though functional.

Clocking in: The new Clock app on the iPad in iOS 6 has a gorgeous World Clock mode that shows forecasts and temperatures for you locations.

Contacts The search field is now always visible in list mode, which is useful when you’re trying to filter down your results. Groups has now changed to a filter-based system; instead of choosing a group to view the members of that particular group, you check off only the groups whose members you want displayed in your full listing. That’s a good way to whittle down your contact list—make a group called Old Contacts and stick the people you don’t hear from in there.

Also, in addition to a custom vibration pattern for phone calls, you can now add a custom vibration for text message on a per-contact basis, so you can tell who’s texting without pulling out the phone.

YouTube The YouTube app is, of course, an ex-app, pining for the fjords. That’s good all around: It was getting a bit long in the tooth, and it didn’t quite fit in anymore. Google’s own YouTube app is a solid replacement and, even if you don’t want to go download it, playing videos back in Safari works just fine for the most part.

Settings the record straight

Settings shuffle: Bluetooth finally gets promoted to a top-level Settings item, along with a switch for the new Do Not Disturb feature.

The Settings app often goes unrecognized, but it’s the app that keeps iOS running smoothly, and it gets a few welcome alterations in iOS 6.

Bluetooth becomes a top level option, which will receive an ovation from all of us who’ve had to spend too much of our lives tapping three levels down just to pair our headsets. On the iPad, Sounds also moves up from General (though it was already at the top level on the iPhone). The iPhone version of Sounds also gets a much clearer set of vibrate options, which will please those who found the previous labeling somewhat obtuse.

Location Services, meanwhile, gets demoted from the top level into a new Privacy section, which may very well be one of the unsung heroes of this update. Not only do you still have granular access to apps requesting your location, but you can now manage which apps get access to your Contacts, Calendars, Reminders, Photos, Bluetooth Sharing, Twitter, and Facebook. So if a particular app is misbehaving—or you’ve download an app but aren’t quite sure if you can trust it—you can shut off access. A solid thumbs up, especially since it seems every week there’s yet another privacy scandal online.

Privacy, please: After a number of concerns about privacy on mobile devices, Apple has created a centralized Privacy section that lets you control access to your personal info.

According to Apple, it’s simplified receiving iMessages on multiple devices, so you should be able to set a single contact ID from which all messages will emanate, thus no longer running into the problem of receiving an iMessage addressed to your phone number, which never makes it to your iPad.

For those on a data plan budget, the General -> Cellular section lets you specify which features can use Cellular Data. So, for example, you can allow Reading List and Passbook Updates while denying iCloud Documents and iTunes.

Also the Shortcuts section of the General -> Keyboard settings gets a much more functional overhaul, complete with a search field and the ability to quickly scroll through your expansion options.

Reminders and Newsstand get their own sections in Settings, but unfortunately you still can’t turn the latter feature off, much to the dismay of those of us who would like it off, off, off our Home screens.

Bottom line

There has yet to be a major version of iOS to which we haven’t recommended updating, and iOS 6 is no exception to the rule. As always, Apple continues to demonstrate its methodology of adding features gradually and, for the most part, sensibly.

The new Maps app alone, while occasionally rough in spots, are still worth the (free) price of the upgrade. As much as Apple doesn’t play the feature checklist game, the addition of turn-by-turn directions knocks down a serious Android advantage.

While iOS 5 may have felt more like a cohesive statement, a flag in the sand, iOS 6 showcases Apple’s willingness to dive deeply into a single feature and rebuild it from the ground up to make it even better. And, oh, along the way, it’ll take the time to tweak a bunch of its other apps, and add plenty of new features and capabilities.

There are still gaps, to be sure, but it seems like there are fewer every year. And Apple is meanwhile trying to plant more flags with forward-looking features like Passbook. Whether it’ll take its rightful place on the Home screen with Mail and Safari, or end up consigned to the dust heap of history like Ping, it’s clear that Apple is not resting on its laurels, with iOS 6.

Simply put, there’s no reason not to update to iOS 6, and plenty of reasons for you to jump onboard.

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