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All the talk and column inches are understandably being devoted to Apple’s iPhone 5 right now. Always guaranteed to get attention, large hardware releases will have the pulse racing for many people, whether that be due to the urge to splash the cash, or the distinct feeling that Apple is holding something back.

New hardware aside though, Apple’s biggest release of September is set to be the latest update to its hugely popular mobile operating system, iOS.

Now into its sixth incarnation, iOS, or iPhone OS as it was once known, has grown into a mobile computing powerhouse. Whether you prefer Android’s more hands-on approach or the more buttoned up angle of iOS, it is hard to argue against Apple’s implementation of two of the most important facets of software design – a healthy dose of spit and polish.

iOS 6 review main

So, with new iPhones and iPod touches about to wing their way into Apple Stores worldwide, what should be expected of the new version of iOS that will be sitting on their memory chips, ready to be explored? Well, there are indeed changes over iOS 5, but whether you’ll really care very much depends on what you use your device for.

Let’s take a look inside.

Maps

It had been rumored for what felt like forever, but when Apple announced iOS 6 it confirmed that it would finally be breaking from tradition by replacing Google Maps on the iPhone.

iOS 6 Maps

Taking arguably the best maps available away from your own smartphone would have been deemed suicide for many companies, but Apple seems to have been able to replace Google Maps with something of at least comparable quality. 3D maps look gorgeous, and the turn-by-turn navigation works as well as you would expect. There’s a little bit of TomTom in there, and it shows. Quite what 3rd-party navigation apps will do from here on, we’re not sure. Either way, it’s good.

iOS 6 3D Maps

On the downside, Google Street View has obviously left the iPhone, but the good news is that Google Maps should be heading to the App Store fairly soon, which means fans of the search giant’s mapping system can always jump ship, leaving Apple’s shiny new software on some distant home screen, never to be tapped again.

New Facebook integration and Share Widget

Not really the most exciting thing in the world unless you’re a Facebook shareholder – and you’ve not got much to be happy about, let’s be honest! – Facebook sharing does exactly what the name suggests.

iOS 6 Facebook Integration

Anywhere iOS 5 let you share content to Twitter now also features a Facebook button, too. Sharing photos to Facebook is a cinch, and updating your status is as simple as using the new button that lives inside Notification Center.

iOS 6 Share Widget

Oh, there’s a Twitter button there, too. They both work, which is nice.

iCloud and Shared Photo Streams

Photos are an inherently social thing. What is the point in taking great photos, and not sharing them with people? The urge to share our handy work is what made Instagram so popular, and Apple knows that making sharing easier is key.

Shared Photo Streams are the way Apple now wants us to share photos. No more emailing images left and right. Now, users can share photos with other iOS users. They’ll get a handy push notification to tell them a photo has been shared, and they’ll also get a notification for comments on said photo. It’s a bit of a kick in the teeth for Facebook in a way, but you obviously need all your friends to be iPhone, iPad or iPod touch users for the whole thing to work.

FaceTime over 3G/4G

Finally!

There’s nothing more to say here, really. Apple has now decided that we can use FaceTime over a 3G connection, or more likely, the carriers themselves have decided. Check your own carrier for potential extra charges, too. That means you, AT&T customers!

As for how it works, it’s as expected. Those with strong data connections will see great performance. That may change with slower connections, but it is to be expected. Good connection definitely equates to good images.

Siri learned some new tricks

It is fair to say that Siri has been one of the most disappointing features of recent Apple outings. Promising so much but essentially failing to deliver, Siri has been consigned to the scrapheap for many iPhone owners, while some swear that they just could not live their lives without it.

iOS 6 Siri Movies

With iOS 6, Siri is getting some new tricks in an attempt to change the way we interact with our devices.

Users will be able to have Siri report on sports scores thanks to iOS 6, with the experience being pretty much what you would expect, assuming your favorite team and sport is supported of course. Ask Siri for the latest score and away it goes, replying almost instantly.

Siri can also now make reservations at restaurants using the power of Open Table. Movies are also something Siri’s engineers have been working on, with new responses lined up and helpful information shown on-screen. It may not seem like much, but it is another string in the bow of a digital assistant that couldn’t quire assist as much as we would have hoped back in iOS 5.

One prime example of features missing from iOS 5 is the ability for Siri to launch apps. Now, thankfully, that oversight has been corrected and asking Siri to launch apps means you may never need to touch that new 4-inch screen after all!

Siri on iPad

To top it all off, Siri is now available on the third-gen iPad as well, and works exactly as you would expect. Just hold down the home button and Siri will pop up, all ready to take your jargon.

There is more Facebook integration here too, with status updates never more than a long press of the home button away.

Passbook

The lack of NFC in the iPhone 5 just goes to show how Apple doesn’t believe in the technology. Passbook is another prime example of Apple’s stance on the payment method.

Essentially, Passbook is somewhere to keep all your boarding passes and store cards, along with their details.

iOS 6 Passbook

The idea is that users will have store clerks scan QR codes on their iPhone screens rather than hand over plastic cards. Starbucks has been running a similar system with its own iOS app, and Apple is taking the concept a step further with Passbook.

One potential boon for Passbook is the fact it knows where you are, which means iPhones can offer up the right card details as and when you need them. The theory is that Passbook will know when you are at the airport and change your iPhone’s lock screen to reflect the fact. Instead of the usual clock, that lock screen should show your boarding details as well as any relevant QR codes. In theory, it sounds awesome. In practice, we’ll have to wait and see.

Of all the iOS 6 features, Passbook is possibly one of the least exciting ones as far as we’re concerned. Still, users may disagree.

Improved Email app

Largely unchanged since day one, the iOS Mail app now lets users flag contacts as VIPs, which means all emails from those contacts will be tagged with stars and placed in the special VIP inbox. You should never miss an important email from your spouse again.

iOS 6 VIP Mail

Other minor improvements include the ability to add media to emails that are already in the process of being composed. Until now, images and video could only be added to new emails, or by copying and pasting. Pull-to-refresh in Mail has also been added. Now there’s a more polished, iOS-like way of achieving the same thing.

Other than that, email is email. What more do you need?

Camera

The camera app looks to remain unchanged, but it adds an all-important missing feature which we’ve been looking forward to for a long time: native panorama support.

Creating panoramic images with the iOS 6 camera app have never been this easy, simply tap on the on-screen Option button and tap Panorama. Swipe your camera across the scene and iOS 6 does the rest for you.

iOS 6 Camera

To be quite fair, creating panoramas on a mobile device hasn’t been this easy.

An all-new App Store and iTunes Store

Admit it, the App Store and iTunes Store prior to iOS 6 has been a far from mediocre experience. With its sluggish and rather slow UI, it was a tiny battle to fight before eventually finding and downloading that app or song.

iOS 6 App Store

In iOS 6, Apple has revamped the UI of the App Store and iTunes Store quite significantly. Though some might digress with the changes, but we give it a seal of approval for a lot of reasons. Mainly, navigation is much more simpler now, searching through apps is a walk in the park thanks to it’s new card-style UI.

iOS 6 App Store Search

We didn’t like the new changes at first, but eventually it grew on us. We’re quite certain it will on you as well.

Do Not Disturb mode

Ever received a phone call when you really don’t have time or the inclination to deal with it? Sick of your phone going crazy overnight while emails and notifications flood in? The new Do Not Disturb feature lets users tell their devices to be nice and quiet between given times.

New Phone app features

Rejecting incoming phone calls also now offers up the option to reply with a text message, which is perfect for when you’re in a meeting but want to let the caller know you’re not ignoring them! It may not sound like much, but if you use it, it’s worth its weight in gold.

Mobile Safari grows up

Safari is arguable one of the most used apps on many people’s iOS devices, and it has received a couple of new features that will really improve the way we all use it.

First up, Safari now syncs open tabs across devices. Open a tab on your Mac, and you can continue reading on your iPhone or iPad. Google’s Chrome does a similar thing already, and it is great for when you can’t remember where that article was you were reading on your Mac before dashing out. Trust us, we’ve done it plenty of times!

You can now save articles for offline reading too, should the likes of Instapaper not float your boat. It’s a worthwhile feature and assuming you use Safar across all your devices, is one that we suspect will get plenty of use. We still prefer Instapaper ourselves, but we use lots of devices so may not be the typical use case.

iOS 6 Full-Screen Safari

Full-screen mode is another welcome addition, especially considering the new, larger screen of the iPhone 5 and improved iPod touch.

Guided Access

One of the new features which lies within iOS 6 is Guided Access. Dwelling inside the Accessibility options of the Settings app, it allows you to kick your device into kiosk mode, which essentially allows the user to disable the touch-screen controls, turn the accelerometer on or off.

Why is it a great feature? Well, why isn’t! It’s a great way to setup your very own kiosk by using your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. Great for showing off presentations, apps or images in a loop without worrying about people tinkering around with it.

Though it’s a feature which many might not use on a daily basis, but it’s there.

Others

The other improvements include the native Clock app on the iPad, which quite frankly mimics the functionality which we’ve become used to on our iPhones except it’s now on a larger display.

The music app has been slightly improved, though the changes are not that noticeable, but it will get you around your daily dose of music with ease.

The weather app on the iPhone and iPod touch has gotten a UI makeover too. Functionality remains unchanged, but a slight facelift was much needed.

The YouTube app is now missing in iOS 6, but fear not, the official YouTube app on the App Store is a great replacement and we’re more than happy that Apple got rid of it’s own app. Remember how videos didn’t use to load at all at times when using Apple’s own YouTube app? It’s a thing of the past now.

Wrap-up

All in all, iOS 6 is an iterative improvement. Some of these features have been too long in coming, but they’re here now. If you’re a fan of iOS and love the ecosystem, then iOS 6 will not disappoint you. If you’re an Android user, or already thinking of making the switch from the iPhone to, say, a Samsung Galaxy S III, then this is not going to have you reaching for your iTunes account. It’s an improvement, but it’s still iOS.

Whether that’s good or bad, we’ll leave up to you.

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