All the gadget bloggers are jumping up and down about the iPhone 4S and how awesome the new voice-controlled personal assistant Siri is, but if you're not due for an upgrade, it's just noisy banter. There is a silver lining for iPhone veterans everywhere, though: iOS 5 and its brand new iCloud capabilities. The new mobile operating system is now available--just plug your device into your computer and iTunes will take care of the rest. Just as with the past iOS upgrades that brought you copy-paste and multi-tasking, iOS 5 is all about improved functionality. Engadget points out a couple of very minor visual tweaks--"rounded switches, which were previously square, and a little less shadow around message bubbles"--but with over 200 new features, installing iOS 5 is almost like getting a new phone.
The set-up is super straight-forward. With lots of people rushing to nab iOS 5 on day one, it might take a while for the upgrade to download, but the set-up is pretty automatic after that. Consult this piece at TheAtlantic.com if you have any trouble. (Update: We underestimated the extent to which people are rushing. So many Apple users are seeing the 3200 error code that the term is trending globally on Twitter. TechCrunch has a full report.)
Notifications mean less unlocking. The familiar, too simple set-up of Push notifications has been replaced with a useful new Notifications Center. This means that any time you get a new text message, Twitter mention, Facebook friend request or whatever, they file into an more organized notifications box on your lock screen. Tapping any of the notifications takes you to the corresponding app, while tapping the "X" on the righthand side sends it to the Notifications Center, where you'll find a list of all your recent notifications as well as some basic widgets like weather and stock quotes. To access the Notifications Center, simply swipe a finger downward across the screen.
iMessage is just like texting but free! Much to the chagrin of the major carriers, who charge about a 4,000 percent markup on texts, iOS 5 now has its own free messaging service. The best part about iMessage is that you don't have to do anything different. When you go to text a friend, your iPhone will query Apple's servers to see if that person's device is compatible. If so, their message bubbles will be blue; everyone else's message bubbles will remain the familiar green. Because the features works on data networks and Wi-Fi, the full functionality of iMessage is also available on iPads and iPod touches.
iCloud is a breeze, if you shop at the iTunes Store. The basic functionality of iCloud--that your emails, contacts, documents and media files should sync up across devices--makes simple sense. However with the last item on that list, there's a bit of a catch. In order to take full advantage of iCloud for media files, you ought to buy the media at the iTunes Store. If you download the new Bon Iver album onto your laptop, you can spin your chair around and read it on your iPad without having to plug in or sync anything. Ditto for books, TV shows and apps. (Movie rentals, however, do not work like this; you can only keep your iTunes rentals on one device at a time.) Any previous iTunes purchases will also be available to be re-downloaded via iCloud.
As for all those songs you didn't buy on iTunes. If you want to instant access everywhere for those, you'll have to sign up for iTunes Match. For $24.99 a year, Apple will scan your hard drive for any songs you've ripped from CDs or downloaded elsewhere and match it to the corresponding file on Apple's servers. Regardless of the quality of the file on your hard-drive, you'll then be able to stream those songs in 256-kbps AAC format from iCloud for free. At this point in time, TV shows and books do not work on iTunes Match.
Newsstand negates the need for so many magazine apps. A lot of magazines have foregone the cost of building an app by hosting their mobile issues on a plug-and-play service like Zinio that more or less displays PDFs of the latest issue. (The Atlantic is an exception; download our standalone iPad app here.) Newsstand streamlines that whole process by giving you access to all of your subscriptions in one place. You can buy subscriptions as well as single issues of participating newspapers and magazines within the app, and using Newsstand otherwise is a lot like, well, going to a newsstand.
The new Camera has a shutter button. Speculation mounted upon the release of the iPhone 4S that the separate volume-up and volume-down buttons could allow for a shutter button in the Camera app. Now, it does! Just press volume-up to snap a photo (no more awkward screen-touching). The Camera is also faster and accessible from the lock screen by double-tapping the new icon. The corresponding Photos app is now equipped with some basic editing tools like filters, cropping, straightening, and red-eye removal.
Safari's tabbed browsing mimics the desktop experience. In the past, it was pretty annoying to try and multi-task on the web on the iPhone and iPad. Accessing other windows was a two-tap process, whereas desktops had figured out tabbed processing long ago. Well, that dark age is over with the upgraded Safari. The new browser also offers the same Read It Later feature that Safari's latest desktop version uses, and a new corresponding Reader app. If you're a loyal Instapaper user, however, you're out of luck; Safari doesn't offer any third party app support for this feature.
Everything else… Like we said, there are 200 new features. We're excited about things like the split keyboard that makes it easier to type with your thumbs on the iPad and the Reminders app that better organizes to-do lists. Twitter is also built-in to several of the native apps making it ultra easy to tweet more.
If you're an Android person, you should feel even more emboldened by all of these new bells and whistles. Quite a few of the new features in iOS 5 are obvious rip-offs from Android, which is also due for an upgrade very soon.