One of the best parts of iOS 5—regarding device management, at least—is that you no longer have to connect your device to your Mac or PC when you want to sync your information or download a subsequent software update. There are two features at work here: iTunes Wi-Fi Sync and Software Update.
iTunes Wi-Fi Sync
Constantly connecting your iOS device to your computer to keep it in sync and backed up can be a real pain. Lucky for you, you don’t have to do it anymore, thanks to iOS 5’s new Wi-Fi Sync feature.
Wi-Fi Sync (as its name might suggest) allows your device to sync with your computer over a Wi-Fi network rather than through a USB connection. It’s slightly slower, but you can do it any time your device is on the same Wi-Fi network as your desktop. Better still, your device stays perpetually connected: You can adjust settings and re-sync without having to disconnect and reconnect any cables. (You can always continue to sync the old-fashioned way, of course.) Another benefit to this perpetual connection is that when syncing, you’re no longer stuck with the Do Not Disconnect screen every time you’re updating your song list or changing a setting; instead, it all happens in the background, allowing you to multitask and use your device during a sync session.
Set up Wi-Fi Sync: To enable Wi-Fi sync for your device, you need to connect your device to your computer—one last time!—and open up iTunes. Click on your device in the Source list and then scroll down to the bottom of the summary pane.
Your device will only sync with your computer when iTunes is running; as such, you'll need to check the first two boxes in the Options section: Open iTunes When This Phone Is Connected, and Sync With This Device Over Wi-Fi. Press the Sync button to save your changes, and you’re all set. By default, your device will sync with iTunes any time it’s plugged in and both are on the same Wi-Fi network; you can also force a sync by going to the Settings app on your device and tapping General -> iTunes Wi-Fi Sync and then tapping Sync Now.
With Wi-Fi Sync, you can keep your day-to-day activities running smoothly. But what about when the next iOS update inevitably comes out? You don’t want to have to connect your device back to your computer. And good news: With iOS 5, you don’t have to.
Install updates on your iOS device: If you’ve ever used an iOS device before, you’re probably fairly familiar with the process of downloading app updates from the App Store app: When a little red badge appears in the upper right corner of the App Store icon, you open the App Store, navigate to the Updates tab, and download your app updates all at once, or one by one. The Software Update process for iOS 5 is remarkably similar; but instead of going to the App Store, you go to the Settings app for any system updates.
Like the App Store, your device perpetually checks for new software updates in the background. When one is available, you see a red badge appear on the Settings app; to download it, open the app and navigate to General -> Software Update. There, you see some brief information about the update and a button to install it. You can also force the system to check for an update by navigating to the Software Update pane.
Because these iOS updates are “delta updates” (they contain only the parts of the system that have changed, so you don’t have to download the entire system each time there is an update), they’re smaller; therefore, you can download them just about anywhere you have a decent 3G or Wi-Fi connection—on the bus, at home, walking down the street, you name it. To install these updates, however, you need to have at least 50 percent battery life on your device, or have it plugged into a power source.
Just as a friendly reminder: Even though you can install these updates anywhere, you should always (always, always) back up your device before you do. You can use Wi-Fi Sync to back up to your computer, or, if you have iCloud Backup enabled, you can use that.
Install updates from your computer: Maybe you’re not that adventurous, and you’d prefer to install your software update the old-fashioned way. No problem: Just connect your device to your computer and check for updates in iTunes. (If you’re using Wi-Fi Sync, you can also do this by plugging your device into a power source and connecting it and your computer to the same Wi-Fi network, and then opening iTunes.)
[Serenity Caldwell is a Macworld staff editor.]
Updated at 9:50 a.m. PT with clarification on settting up Wi-Fi Sync.