updated 05:57 pm EDT, Wed September 19, 2012
Handful of major updates surrounded by minor tweaks
As a rule Apple likes to promote every new version of iOS as a major upgrade, but the truth, of course, is that what may take a lot of development time doesn't necessarily mean anything to the average person. iOS 6 -- released earlier today -- is said to include over 200 new features, and here we'll take a look at a few of them, how well they work, and whether they matter. For reference, testing was done mostly on a 4G iPad, with a fourth-generation iPod touch for comparison.
With the current-generation iPad, one of the main attractions has to be Siri, which was previously limited to the iPhone 4S. It works pretty much as you'd expect -- you hold down the Home button and speak a command, and it tries to interpret it with mixed degrees of accuracy. This isn't as useful on an iPad as on an iPhone, where you might be able to use a headphone mic and keep the device in your pocket, but it can save time for tasks like checking the weather or setting reminders. Also timesavers are new Siri options like checking for nearby restaurants and movie times, or launching apps, although the latter is only really useful if an app is buried in a folder or distant homescreen.
Some of the new integration options, like Facebook and Shared Photo Streams, are mostly incidental in practice. They can make it easier to push content to other people, but the chances are that you already have apps installed that have their own forms of Facebook posting and public photo sharing. Simply, in some cases, these just let you skip middleman apps.
More practical is the upgraded Mail app, which now includes a "VIP" inbox for filtering messages from your most important contacts. Photos and videos can finally be added inline with a few taps.
Safari has also seen several useful upgrades, such as iCloud Tabs, which remembers which tabs you had open on other devices. That feature is nothing new in light of Google Chrome, but people may appreciate offline reading by saving to the Reading List, or the ability to upload photos and videos to websites without leaving the browser.
Perhaps the most anticipated (or dreaded) feature of iOS 6 is the new Google-less version of Maps. It's too early to truly judge how well it works, but functionally it's not much different. Streets and labels are easier to read, and some basic searches yielded the same results you'd expect from Google. One key difference is that it pops up a turn-by-turn navigation mode for both driving and pedestrian travel, which we have yet to test, although it doesn't seem to distinguish between the two modes of transportation. People used to public transportation info will be sorely disappointed, since that's been stripped out in favor of integration with third-party apps, which are recommended for download when necessary.
The much-vaunted Flyover view isn't of much value. This renders a handful of cities in 3D, like San Francisco or Berlin. While it can give you a better lay of the land, very few areas are supported, and when you do try them some of the building graphics may be downright ugly. For that matter, maps throughout the app seem to be slow to load, even in 2D, on Wi-Fi, and on the fastest iOS device Apple sells short of the iPhone 5.
This is just a small sample of what iOS 6 has to offer. Stay tuned for a full review from MacNN in the coming days.