iOS 6 Review: The Highs, The Lows, And Everything In Between

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iOS 6 is here, and you’re probably in some stage of trying to download or install it on one or more device if you’re reading this, or at least contemplating an upgrade. Some might be thinking about hanging back, waiting to see if the changes result in a net gain or not. Well let me tell you upfront: this is an update that should please most, if not all, with the possible exception of a single area where growing pains are still apparent.

The Best

There are some elements of iOS 6 that quickly become features you’re not sure how you lived without, and those aren’t necessarily the ones that Apple spent a lot of time highlighting during past announcements and on their website. Here’s what I’ve enjoyed most about my experience with iOS 6.

1. New call response options. These seem silly and sort of minor, but in reality, the call experience on the iPhone is the one that that’s gone unchanged for longest. Any update is noteworthy, and one this useful is actually something to get excited about. You can set either custom messages or choose from Apple’s own and respond to incoming calls with an outgoing text or iMessage note, send calls to voicemail or ask for a reminder. This is a perfect example of Apple thinking about how people actually use their phones, and it’s a huge time saver that’s also considerate to people you’re desperately trying to ignore. Win win.

2. Do Not Disturb. I like my quiet time, but turning off notifications under iOS 5′s notification center was always a tricky affair, and I always missed some and then wouldn’t forget to put things back right again when I was through. Do Not Disturb fixes that, allowing you to easily schedule down time, complete with scheduling and sensible exceptions to keep you informed with what’s most important. This is another small but instrumental feature, and one you’ll find yourself using from day one.

3. VIP email inbox. Mail on iOS still feels a little bare compared to some of the complex setups you can create on the desktop with various tools, but this is a very nice addition to mobile mail that goes a long way toward making it more powerful. Assigning VIP status to your connections means that you’ll have quick access to your most important messages, making achieving total inbox zero less of a concern.

4. Shared Photo Stream. This one really should’ve debuted alongside iClout itself, but it’s good to have it now. Most times, the iPhone is the only camera I carry, and with improved camera features in iOS 6 and improved hardware on the iPhone 5 that’s likely to become even more true. So building sharing and commenting right into Photo Stream is a huge deal, and one that should benefit just about anyone.

5. Clock for iPad. You can mock me if you want, but I’ve never understood why the iPad didn’t offer a native clock app. Sure you could get third-party options, but an alarm on built-in system software just can’t be replaced by downloadable tools, at least in terms of peace of mind. The iPad Clock app also has some basic weather built in, so that’s an improvement, though it’s still missing the native dedicated weather app.

The Good

Some elements of iOS 6 seem promising, but either haven’t had the chance to prove their worth yet, or else just aren’t as useful as those things mentioned above in terms of day-to-day use. Here are highlights of features that fall into that category.

1. FaceTime over cellular. This is a welcome change, even if AT&T isn’t being so welcoming about it. FaceTime has been Wi-Fi-only since its original debut, and that’s not exactly ideal for a video chat app designed to be used on mobile devices. FaceTime over cellular should increase its usefulness, but FaceTime in general still strikes me as a nice-to-have, not an essential service.

2. Siri improvements. Siri gets movie times and reviews, Yelp info and OpenTable reservations, app launching powers and the ability to post updates to Twitter and Facebook. Siri also expands to the new iPad, and the iPod touch (5th gen). Those are good things, and the service is clearly receiving much-needed attention from Apple’s engineering team, but I’m still not convinced that Siri’s found a daily place in most user’s lives. iOS 6 could help begin to change my mind on that front, however.

3. Passbook. If there’s a feature in iOS 6 that wins the award for most promising rookie, it’s Passbook. The virtual wallet app holds tickets, coupons, gift cards and more, and can pop up on your notification screen when you’re in the right place at the right time to use one. That’s a potentially powerful tool for marketers, retailers and brands of all stripes, and the interest from third-party companies either looking to help users create them (Passk.it, PassRocket and PassTools to name a few), or brands looking to take advantage (Eventbrite,Virgin, Starbucks, Amtrak, many more) suggests it’ll be everywhere pretty quickly. The only reason it qualifies as good and not the best is because we’ve yet to be able to test it in real world situations, which is the only place that counts.

4. Facebook integration. The addition of Facebook system-level sign on has been hinted at for a while now, and it’s nice now that it’s here. It makes sharing photos and posting status updates a lot easier. Third-party API access should help developers leverage it for interesting things, too, so overall this is a win for both users and Facebook.

5. Individual signatures for separate email accounts. This has long been an annoyance for iOS users, especially those who have both work and personal accounts on their devices. Now, you can set unique signatures for each email account on your device, ensuring that your boss won’t get the “<3″ emoticon – unless you really want them to.

The Not So Good

1. Maps. This is pretty much a known weakness of iOS 6 at this point, but it’s going to affect those who depend on public transit most of all. Walking and driving directions are actually still pretty solid in Apple’s Maps offering, and turn-by-turn navigation works well, albeit at a heavy cost to battery (generally standalone GPS units spend most of their lives plugged in, so this isn’t a huge deal). There are reportedly third-party apps on the way to shore up the gap in public transit, and Yelp points-of-interest are useful, but for users coming from Google Maps (lack of street view hurts as much as anything else) either on iOS, or worse, on Android devices, it’s going to be a step back.

2. Redesigned App Stores. All of the App Stores on all iOS 6 devices got a visual facelift, along with some changes in Genius and search results inherited from acquired app discovery company Chomp. The aesthetics are nice; things look a lot better all around, versus the somewhat stale older design, and there are functional advantages like not having to type in your password to install updates. But the search results, which come up one at a time on iPhone and four at a time on iPad, are not a step forward for discovery. I can see the logic: present one good result with ample context as to why it was returned, with the idea being that quality beats volume. But in practice, it makes looking for apps with some, but not an exact idea of what you’re looking for, more difficult.

Overall, iOS 6 is a big step forward, but that’s hardly surprising given Apple’s track record. As always, there will be those who say it doesn’t push the envelope enough, and Maps has already ruffled quite a few feathers. But that Maps has raised such an outcry is perfect example of why Apple’s generally doing things right with iOS updates: it stick out like a sore thumb, and in truth, it’s not a big enough step backward to do anything beyond mildly inconvenience a few folks. Plus, it’s inevitable that Google will offer up its own standalone Maps app to address that single deficiency. So, in other words, what are you waiting for? Go get that update.

Tello Launches PassTools To Help Businesses Build Their Apple Passbook Passes

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One of the highlights of Apple’s iOS 6 launch today is Passbook, the company’s new tool for managing your loyalty cards, coupons, boarding passes, movie tickets and similar cards that you may currently be carrying around in your wallet. For businesses, this is a great opportunity to bring their loyalty programs and coupons into the twenty-first century, but how to get started with Passbook isn’t self-explanatory. That’s where Tello’s PassTools comes in. The service, which is launching today, will allow businesses to create and manage their passes for Apple’s Passbook. Tello, by the way, was a TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2010 Battlefield contestant.

As Tello CEO and founder Joe Beninato told me yesterday, the company worked closely with Apple during the iOS 6 beta phase. Apple, said Beninato in our interview, “created an amazing customer service experience for consumers” and his company aims to do the same for business owners. Instead of having to deal with .pkpass files and having to build their own JSON files to make use of Apple’s Passbook API, businesses can just use Tello’s PassTools to create their passes by just filling out a few simple forms.

Users who have iOS 6 installed on their devices can also use the service to just build a sample pass and send it to themselves to test the Passbook app (which is likely empty at this point).

Once it’s in its final state, the service will consist of four major tools: a pass builder for designing passes (these are delivered by email), a template builder for businesses that want to create a high volume of personalized passes, as well as a dashboard for analytics and an API for managing passes. For the time being, however, Tello is only launching the pass builder. The other tools will launch in the coming weeks.

With the pass builder tool, small businesses will be able to easily create their own passes and manage them without the need to know the ins and outs of the Passbook API. Once the rest of the PassTools service is live, the company will obviously also go after larger clients who will be able to make use of the company’s API and the template builder for managing a large number of customers.

Pricing starts at $99 per month for up to 1,000 passes or API calls. The company also offers a free 30-day trial.

Reminder: Apple’s iOS 6 Arrives Tomorrow, Here’s What You Need To Know

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Apple’s latest mobile operating system gets released tomorrow, a few days ahead of the iPhone 5′s launch on Friday. iOS 6 brings a lot of new stuff, and we’ve covered that in detail in previous posts. Here’s the skinny on what’s important to remember ahead of the iOS 6 launch tomorrow beyond the added features, which we’ll let you know about as soon as it’s live and ready for download.

  1. iOS 6 will be available over-the-air. According to Apple’s site, you won’t have to plug your iDevice in to download and install iOS 6, so long as you’re on iOS 5. That’s possible thanks to the decision to move to delta updates in iOS 5, meaning that only recently changed system elements are delivered, instead of having to start from scratch. That means its easier to upgrade, which is why iOS 5′s updates generally enjoy wide adoption among the iOS device user base (Chitika found that more than 57 percent of iOS users were on 5.1.1 just a month after its release).
  2. You’ll need iTunes 10.7. Apple put out the 10.7 update for iTunes a full week ahead of the iOS 6 launch date to try and lessen the blow to its servers at launch and to make sure users have plenty of time to get prepared. If you’ve waited this long, don’t worry; I just updated myself. But it is a good idea to get it done now so you don’t need to worry about it tomorrow, unless you never connect your iTunes anyway, in which case you should be fine.
  3. Backing up prior to updating is always a good idea. Make sure you backup, either via sync cable to your computer, or wirelessly to iCloud, before you run this update. Invariably, a small group of users runs into issues, and if you’re part of that group you’ll want a recovery strategy.
  4. You may run into server errors or delays. Be prepared to wait for your update to come through. Apple generally runs into some traffic issues when pushing these updates out, which is understandable given the rush to download new versions of iOS. If you’re encountering errors, waiting things out is usually the best possible course of action — better than, say, trusting your hardware to questionable mirrors of reported direct download links for iOS 6 update files that you can install manually. All those new features? They’re not going anywhere. One thing to note: Apple’s iPhone pre-orders went relatively smoothly this year, so it’s possible things like the company’s massive new server farm in North Carolina are helping to make sure that launches like this one go more smoothly.
  5. Some apps might be buggy. Apple is apparently pushing hard to get apps updated in time for iOS 6 and the iPhone 5, but that doesn’t mean all your favorites will be ready to work on the lastest OS. With each major change, the possibility of incompatibility issues and quirks arises, so get ready to be patient with some you really love, or else prepare to look around for better-maintained replacements.
  6. Have a power source handy. You should have your iPhone ready to connect to power if you’re looking to update. Running out of juice in the middle of an update could potentially be a big problem, and there’s no real reason not to exercise caution here.
  7. 10 AM PST/1 PM EST is the most likely arrival time. This is the time that Apple released the update last year with iOS 5, and the year before that with iOS 4. Short of Apple telling us in advance when it’ll arrive, this is your best possible bet.

That’s what’s essential in terms of preparing for iOS 6 (though users may also want to note the differences in one significant feature — Maps). Tune in tomorrow to see when it arrives, along with more details about what it brings to the table.

Apple’s EarPods built for durability, but audio quality is questionable

The teardown experts at iFixit have given Apple’s new $29 EarPods the typical autopsy treatment, declaring that “Apple had durability in mind” when designing the new headset. While the actual quality of the speakers remains up for debate, iFixit says Apple designed the EarPods to reduce strain on the wires and make them more resistant to water or sweat damage.

iFixit typically assigns a repairability rating to its product teardowns—you may remember the low repairability rating given to Apple’s new Retina MacBook Pro. But this time around, the teardown team omitted a repairability rating for the EarPods because headphones in general are still typically seen as a throw-away item. “Repair is infeasible because sourcing parts is next to impossible, and it would be a tough sell to convince someone to take apart their EarPods—they’re glued together, and will never be the same once taken apart,” iFixit said via e-mail.

Still, the group noted that Apple removed its external microphone grate in order to improve the EarPods’ resistance to water—a common problem for runners and other fitness geeks. (I have shorted out at least four different sets of Apple earbuds due to sweat). But when it comes to whether the EarPods live up to Apple’s claim that they can perform on the same level as $100+ headphones, iFixit seems more reserved. “Call us skeptics if you’d like, but we’re not sure how that could be accomplished with a single-driver setup,” the group wrote.

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Analyst Estimates On iPhone 5 Launch Weekend Sales Range From 3M-10M

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Analysts have begun making their predictions about the iPhone 5′s odds of success for launch weekend sales, and in fact there’s quite a range when it comes to how the experts see things shaking out. After Apple unveiled iPhone 5 pre-order totals of 2 million over 24 hours, double the 1 million the iPhone 4S managed, it would seem like multiplying out the 4S launch weekend total of 4 million total sales is a safe bet. But that’s not necessarily the tack all industry analysts are taking.

Shaw Wu of Sterne Agee, for instance, shared that his firm is estimating around between 3 and 3.5 million sales of the iPhone 5 during the launch weekend, but that’s just an extrapolated number Wu tells me, coming out of its quarterly projections for the device, and meant only to loosely represent the first few days as it relates to the rest of the three-month period. Overall, Wu said in an investor note today that estimates for the September quarter are up to 27 million, raised from 26 million projected before Apple revealed the strength of its pre-order success. The initial response also hasn’t significantly affected longer-term outlooks, with Agee adding only 500,000 (to make 46.5 million total) to its earlier prediction, owing to continued reports of supply constraints on the iPhone 5′s newly redesigned touchscreens.

Peter Misek of Jeffries thinks that Apple will indeed double its past performance, hitting around 8 million total units sold by the end of launch weekend, with pre-orders included. Misek thinks that a prevailing view on Wall Street that suggests supply constraints will keep the number at or below 6 million are overblown. Long-term, he told CNBC that he believes key drivers for Apple could be securing deals with Japan’s NTT DoCoMo, the last remaining major carrier in that country that doesn’t offer the iPhone, but lately there’s been talk that the iPhone 5 could in fact be a major pain point for DoCoMo, since no announcement has yet been forthcoming about bringing it to that carrier’s considerable LTE network.

Gene Munster, longtime champion of the standalone Apple TV and Piper Jaffray analyst, suggested Monday that Apple will deliver between 6 and 10 million iPhone 5 sales during launch weekend, likely hitting the 8 million sweet spot. That’s due in part to the 100 percent year-over-year increase in pre-order sales, but also based on the knowledge that pre-orders formed 25 percent of last year’s opening weekend sales, hence arriving at 8 million from 2 million pre-orders.

There are new variables at play this time, like an expanded pool of launch countries that includes Hong Kong, always a popular destination for grey market resellers. Even factoring in new countries, Asymco’s Horace Dediu predicted last week that we’d see around 6 million in initial sales, based on an increase in units sold per day in line with previous launches.

Unlike the 4S, this is also a complete visual redesign, and new aesthetics are bound to make a splash with the general buying public, aside from any consideration of features or specs, so that’s a variable that it’s hard to put exact numbers behind. Whatever happens, the bottom line is that iPhone 5 launch weekend sales likely won’t disappoint.

The iPhone 5′s Greatest Inside Story: Chipmaking Maturation For Apple

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The iPhone 5 brings a lot to the table, but a lot of its changes lie under the hood away from prying eyes. Or, at least, away from those eyes until Friday when it’ll get opened up by a host of folks, including iFixit.com’s perennial new Apple hardware tear-down. The iPhone 5 has already given up maybe its greatest secret, however: A custom-designed A6 system-on-a-chip that represents the fulfillment of an acquisition made almost half a decade ago.

The A6, unlike its predecessors the A5 and A4, isn’t simply a rebranded ARM design with minor tweaks. Instead, as Anand Shimpi of AnandTech discovered, it’s Apple’s own creation, based on an ARM blueprint — which it also licensed in addition to specific generic processors — but bearing much more of Apple’s own direct input. In other words, Apple is finally emerging as a chipmaker in its own right, and this could have a huge impact on device performance and consumer-facing features in its smartphones and tablets going forward.

I discussed the changes in a call with iFixit co-founder and IEEE Consumer Electronics Society member Kyle Wiens, who was excited about the new direction and its potential implications for users and Apple hardware.

“We’ve been wondering for a long time whatever came of Apple’s acquisition of P.A. Semi, so this is many, many years of strategy and development for Apple finally bearing fruit,” he explained. “And the critical thing here I think is probably power savings. Apple really knows, and has known for a long time, that cutting power [demands] was the most important thing. And I think Apple has been even more focused on that than even ARM has been.”

Battery has long been one of the iPhone’s major advantages over competition from Android handset makers, but the new iPhone 5 had a lot of new sources of power draw to contend with, as well as a slimmer profile within which to put the battery. There’s a new, larger screen, as well as LTE connectivity and software features like Passbook that use always-on location monitoring to serve up geo-fenced feature offerings. That combination of requirements is likely what drove Apple to move into its own design, allowing it to push the envelope on processor power consumption. And now that it’s moved into custom chip design, Wiens definitely sees that approach spreading to other areas of its mobile business.

“I think this is a long-term strategy, and that they’ve been at this for a long time,” he said. “I think they realized when they released the iPhone that this was a new form factor and that they were going to have to have a long-term processor strategy for it, and that ARM was a nice framework, but that this was going to take them in direction that was different from what processors had historically been designed for.” In other words, Apple has long known that a new kind of computing required an entirely new kind of chip, and only now is it really beginning to fulfill that vision.

Wiens points out that if you look at the iPhone 5′s highlights, there’s only really one place power savings could come from, and that’s the processor. Apple’s approach then not only provides the immediate benefit of making a more powerful device smaller and lighter without sacrificing battery performance, but also gives it a considerable future proprietary advantage to hold over the competition, especially if it keeps improving on its initial chip design, which seems likely, given it has the talent not only of P.A. Semi, but also of Intrinsity, an ARM processor design company it picked up in 2010.

Apple has always been about creating the perfect union between hardware and software in order to deliver the best possible user experience. Its emergence as a mobile chip designer in its own right only means that integration will become even more seamless in future devices, pushing the boundaries not only of what those gadgets can do, but also of the energy cost of doing them.

Alleged Leaked iPad Mini Pics Show Lightning Port, Odd Hole On The Back

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Before the hot-selling iPhone 5 launched into existence, most of the surprise had already been ruined. We saw parts, heard about launch dates, and even saw full-fledged photos of the device. So if that disappointed you as much as it did me, you might want to look away.

These leaked pictures certainly appear to be of a legitimate iPad mini. The design matches up well with what we’ve heard (and seen) so far — thinner bezels along the side, aluminum back plate, and some strange hole in the top center of the tablet’s backside.

You’ll notice an unfamiliar weather icon on the homescreen, which also appears on the images in this article, out of France. It’s a Chinese Weather app, which leads us to believe that this may indeed be a legitimate leak out of a Chinese factory.

A quick search for iPad mini cases on Alibaba brings up dozens of cases matching this design, including the mysterious hole in the back.

Oddly, there is no Clock app as we’ve seen on iOS 6. Google Maps and YouTube apps also seem to be on the homescreen of the tablet. Perhaps the owners got the device to run iOS 5, and have installed some third-party or prototype Weather app. Or, more likely, the screen isn’t live yet, and that’s just a mockup display.

You’ll also notice what appears to be a Lightning dock on the bottom, alongside dual speakers.

If real, the iPad mini must be right around the corner. We’ve posited, along with known Apple psychics like John Gruber and Jim Dalrymple, that Apple wouldn’t crowd the iPhone 5 and iPad mini into the same launch event. They deserve their own moments in the sun.

Considering that the company announced a bevy of music products at the iPhone 5 event (new iPods and a revamped iTunes), the usual October music event will be quite boring without a new product.

Click to view slideshow.

Like Peanut Butter And Chocolate: Apple’s Jony Ive To Design One-Of-A-Kind Leica M

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Apple’s going to have to temporarily share its design wizard Sir Jonathan Ive, with high-end camera maker Leica, as Ive will be creating a special, super limited edition of one version of the new Leica M announced by the company yesterday according to PetaPixel. That’s bound to be a drool-worthy camera, and this might represent the perfect storm of tech design fanboyism.

No details about what the new Leica will look like or whether it’ll differ considerably from its stock base model, but only one will ever exist, and that’s likely enough to get the kind of people who can afford this sort of thing salivating. The single edition will be auctioned off, with all proceeds going to charity.

The new Leica M, unveiled yesterday, offers a 24MP full 35mm format CMOS sensor, and introduces 1080p full HD video capability to the M line. Presumably the specs will remain unchanged on the Ive-designed version, but that’s not really what one lucky rich person’s going to be paying for here. For those of us stuck looking at even the Leica M not designed by a British knight as little more than a fantasy, there’s always another, much more affordable way to mash up your love for Apple with your love for Leica: This sticker, which hopefully gets an upgrade for the iPhone 5 soon.