Apple iOS 6 review: A worthwhile upgrade

iOS has now evolved into a robust and powerful mobile OS.

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Mail in iOS 6, just as in Mountain Lion, gets its very own VIP box, where messages from contacts you've listed as VIPs are stored. The VIP box makes it easier to keep track of messages from your most important contacts.

Passbook represents Apple's efforts to create a 21st century digital wallet, organizing store cards, coupons, concert and movie tickets, boarding passes, loyalty cards, and more in one app. As Apple envisions it, Passbook will have all the information you need, including card balance, expiration dates and seat information. And a scan-able barcode means it's just as effective as coupons. Better still, Passbook is location-aware, so you'll get a swipe-able notification with the appropriate information when you walk into a retail store or even an airport terminal.

At this point, Passbook is more of an infrastructure-in-waiting than a finished product. Much of its success will depend on the support of outside vendors and networks. I can envision it being widely used and game-changing, or simply ignored if that outside support doesn't develop. My sense is that Passbook will be a pretty big deal eventually.

YouTube: If you're a big video fan, remember that the YouTube app is no longer part of the default Apple software bundle. (Google's Maps app wasn't the only app to go away.) But the YouTube app can still be downloaded from the App Store.

A few new visual cues

Although some users have complained that the overall look and feel of iOS hasn't changed, that's a strength, not a flaw. iOS's success has much to do with its consistency; change for the sake of change often brings more confusion than it's worth. See: Windows 8.

I like the look and feel of iOS and I don't mind that, in general, the interface has remained consistent over the years. With that in mind, iOS 6 does offer a few UI refinements. The menu bar now adapts to the color scheme of whatever app or background is in use. (In the Phone app, for instance, the menu displays are a grayish-blue; in the App store, the same menu is black.) The iPhone Music app now sports a gray-themed interface that resembles the look of the iPad Music app in iOS 5. (The music player screen now shows off the darker theme, too.)

In addition to those changes, the iBooks, iTunes and App store apps get some updates: darker themes and home screens that now emphasize swipe gestures. Apple obviously worked for interface consistency across the board to make the stores easier to navigate.

Usage and final impressions

I snarkily refer to the annual period between WWDC and Apple's fall events as The Summer of Bugs, when Apple is ironing out the kinks in iOS. Surprisingly, this year was devoid of any big showstoppers. (I have noticed that some album art won't sync since upgrading, both on the iPad and the iPhone. Instead of high-resolution art, I'm seeing the default generic iTunes placeholder. Maybe it's solely a problem with my iTunes library, but it's something to note if you're an iTunes library perfectionist like me.)

Otherwise, iOS 6 is fast, stable and apparently free of major problems. So far, I've installed it on Retina display iPads, several iPhone 4Ses and an iPad 2. All took the manual updates without issue and ran the new OS without any performance degradation. Battery life has remained consistent as well.

As for my favorite changes, I love Photo Streams and the Camera app's Panorama mode; I've tweeted a couple of panoramas I took of some recent sunrises. Panorama mode makes taking great looking shots really easy. It's a shame it's not available on more models.

I'm also happy to see iCloud services working well, both as a backup/restore mechanism and as a way to sync my data across devices. There were many times throughout the summer I'd bump into a new feature, activate Siri and begin a "Note to self...." It was nice to sit down at my Mac and have all of those notes at my disposal, even though all of them were created on the iPhone. Thanks, iCloud.

Automatic iCloud sync proved really handy as well -- I was able to write this review using Pages on the Mac and then access the same document on my iPhone and iPad. When I made a change to the text on my iPad, the Mac version of Pages automatically accepted the changes, even if the document was open on my desktop. The depth of integration between iOS and the OS X is now pretty significant -- and it happened with baby steps, evolutions instead of revolutions.

Such is the case with iOS 6, which adds a lot of solid and useful tweaks and tricks to an already refined OS. I didn't hesitate to upgrade, and there's really no reason for users not to do the same, unless you're hyper-cautious. In that case, you can wait for iOS 6.0.1. But, if you do, you'll be missing out on a worthwhile upgrade.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Reader mode in mobile Safari is new. What's new is offline reading in Reading List. The story has been updated with the correct information.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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