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Update to iOS 6? Sure, but Temper Your Expectations

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Sep 24, 2012 5:00 AM PT

Update to iOS 6? Sure, but Temper Your Expectations

The astounding thing about the Apple ecosystem of iOS devices for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod is that its users can upgrade relatively easily -- and do -- to the latest and greatest version of Apple's mobile operating system. The upside is that even users on older hardware can get in on some of the new iOS love. The downside? Sometimes that love is mostly just a friendly hug. The reward for upgrading to iOS 6 is pretty good for iPhone 4S and iPad 3 users, but for iPhone 4, 3GS, and iPad 2 users, well, the snazzy benefits aren't nearly as compelling. Siri, for example, is now available on the latest iPad but not the iPad 2, and it's still not available on the iPhone 4. Here's another: The sweet new Panorama mode that lets you take a panoramic video and turn it into a panoramic still photo? Not available on the iPhone 4.

Still, there's plenty of reasons to upgrade, even though most of the 200 new features you won't notice. There's a lot of little interface tweaks as well as behind the scenes changes to make pretty much everything a little more refined and better enable it for various types of social sharing and potential future integration.

If you like to keep up-to-date, you've likely already upgraded. If you're on the fence, well, these highlights might sway you to stay put or take the leap.

Don't Look a Gift Maps App in the Mouth

One of the coolest new features in iOS 6 is Maps, in which Apple ditched its long-time maps partner Google in favor of its own offering. There's probably more bad blood between Apple and Google than we'll ever know here, likely stemming from Apple's belief that Google ripped off iOS to create Android and some attempts to exert control by both parties over a core part of everyone's mobile experience.

From what I can tell, the new vector-based Maps draws faster and zooms in and out more smoothly on my iPhone 4. Many users have been experiencing inaccuracies in both finding locations as well as addresses, which for some users might or might not be a big deal. Depends on how you use Maps right now. I haven't yet had a chance to be truly let down by the app, so I'm ambivalent. In my testing, though, here's what happened. I searched for "Hyper spud," which is a shortened misspelling of an independent local store I know.

Apple's new Maps app found it, then drew directions to it from my location, giving me two options. The problem? The first option would work, but it wasn't the best possible route. The second option, as it looked on the map, used streets that didn't exist yet or had been changed from a city plan. According to that route, I'd have to drive through three houses, through the backyards of several homes, then bounce through a rough set of vacant lots, find a road extension that hadn't been built yet, then eventually drive down a dead-end street to get to a side area of the store.

Conversely, on the old Google-based Maps app on my iPad 2, the same search resulted in zero results, and I had to input the name correctly to get the store to come up. Once I did, though, the directions were spot-on -- the best possible route through existing streets.

Still, the new Maps will give you visual and spoken turn-by-turn directions, which eventually, as Apple improves Maps, will direct you to drive down real streets and not through houses or vacant lots.

Some Features Really Are Upgrades

Aside from the beleaguered Maps app, there are some great additions to iOS 6. Here are my favorites:

  • Shared Photo Streams: With iCloud and iOS 5, I was loath to use Photo Streams. Why? Who knows what inappropriate or private photo I would end up broadcasting to the public by accident. It was far too easy to share far too much with far too little controls. Now, however, I can more intentionally share only the photos I want to share -- and do it with a select audience.
  • Phone Enhancements: The most startling thing about the Phone app is that the number pad has a sleek silver redesign, but the real joy comes when someone else calls you. You can flip a new phone icon as a call is coming in, which will let you decline the call and reply with an instant message. Some pre-created options are, "I'll call you later," "I'm on my way," and "What's up?" Of course, there's a custom option, too.

    Similarly, iOS 6 features a new Do Not Disturb feature that will shield you from all incoming calls and notifications. You can enable it manually or set it up for a recurring time -- for instance, when you typically want to be sleeping.

  • Mail: The new Mail app has been streamlined with a variety of small but handy new features. You can refresh your mailboxes by swiping down (nice) and you can add photos with fewer steps than before. More importantly, you can create a VIP inbox across all your iOS devices using iCloud so that you can quickly look for email from the people who matter the most, like your boss, spouse, kids, or friends.
  • Safari Offline: Safari gains a few features, like iCloud Tabs that keep track of Web pages you were browsing on your other iOS devices, which lets you walk away from the iPad and pick up where you were browsing on your iPhone. Most importantly, you can now store whole pages offline for reading via your Reading List -- not just the urls. Very nice.
  • FaceTime Over Cellular: One of the best new features is also a hobbled feature: FaceTime over cellular connections, not just WiFi. How is it hobbled? AT&T customers, as near as I can tell, will have to upgrade to a family data sharing plan in order to use this feature. This means that my legacy "unlimited" data plan with AT&T will have to go bye-bye. Verizon and Sprint customers should get to use it with their existing plans, and I'm not sure how it will shake out around the world with other providers. I'm irritated, but it might finally become the prod that will force me off my old unlimited data plan with AT&T.
  • Guided Access: Apple has created a new feature called Guided Access that is designed for controlling access to just one app. Primarily it's aimed at students with disabilities or retail or work environments that want to enable a device to handle just one thing, presumably with some level of security. Why do I like it? I can enable Guided Access to essentially lock down my device before I hand it to someone else, like a grandmother or a kid. I know plenty of parents who let their children play learning games on their iOS devices but are frustrated because the kids can't stop pressing the home button and exiting out of the games. Guided Access will essentially disable the home button unless you do a triple click, which is pretty hard to do unless you're trying to do it on purpose.
  • New Privacy Settings: Apple has removed the Unique Device Identifier (UDID) feature for app developers, which will make it harder for developers and advertising organizations to track every move you make with your iPhone. Apple replaced it with a non-permanent ad tracking identifier that is designed to help advertisers still deliver targeted (relevant) ads but without as much personal invasion. To turn this feature off, however, Apple put it in a weird place: Under your General settings, under the About settings, under a new Advertising setting near the bottom of the list. I'm thrilled to see it all, but wish it was located under the Privacy settings instead.
  • Passbook: Passbook is the new transaction-oriented app that is not NFC-related at all. It basically is a storage place for boarding passes, movie tickets, coupons, and loyalty cards. Think Delta, United, Target, Starbucks, etc. Big retail companies that can create their own Passbook apps. Right now, it's barely cool. In the future, as more and more of your favorite companies start using it, Passbook could become awesome. Maybe.
  • Refined Stores: The App Store, iTunes, and iBookstore stores have received a new darker and more modern look and feel. I can't figure out how the new navigation schemes are actually better or faster than before, but they definitely look niftier. And that's the right word, too, niftier. It implies an improvement without real substance. So yeah, nifty.

Meanwhile, Where'd the YouTube App Go?

Another casualty of Apple's feud with Google is the loss of the YouTube app that Apple previously offered. It's gone. No explanation, either, unless you happened to pay attention and know about it. Fortunately, Google is offering its own app via the App Store, but I haven't downloaded it yet. Word on the street says it's a bit better than the old Apple version but not appreciably so.

All-in-all, upgrading is good for the entire Apple ecosystem because it keeps all the iOS device users on more modern and consistent operating systems, making the ecosystem less fragmented and easier for app developers to serve with consistent features. If you're on an iPhone 4 or iPad 2, even a 3GS, you definitely don't have to rush out and upgrade but when you do, odds are you'll be rewarded with at least a few features you'll truly appreciate.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at

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How do you feel about accidents that occur when self-driving vehicles are being tested?
Self-driving vehicles should be banned -- one death is one too many.
Autonomous vehicles could save thousands of lives -- the tests should continue.
Companies with bad safety records should have to stop testing.
Accidents happen -- we should investigate and learn from them.
The tests are pointless -- most people will never trust software and sensors.
Most injuries and fatalities in self-driving auto tests are due to human error.