- Improved Siri
- Decent performance
- New Maps is a bit rubbish
- Passbook not that useful yet
- No particularly dramatic changes
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The iPhone 5 launch brought with it a brand new version of the iOS software. iOS 6 takes over from iOS 5.1.1, the first big update in around a year. It'll power iPads, iPhones and iPod touches, but in a world where Windows Phone 8 is about to launch and Google just got rid of a load of problems with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Has Apple done enough to keep up?
iOS 6 Maps
The most dramatic move Apple has made with iOS 6 is in dumping the Google Maps-powered Maps app, replacing it with its own mapping system. Could it be fuelled by the heating up of the already forest fire-like rivalry between Apple and Google? Perhaps, and in making its own solution from the ground up, Apple could be stepping into a giant cow pat.
Loading up the iOS 6 Maps app for the first time in Central London, first impressions are pretty good. The look of the standard view maps is more carefully styled than the often prosaic-looking Google alternative, and it makes key local attractions more clearly-visible than the old app.
What has been much more of a draw in the lead-up to the iOS release is the new fancy 3D graphics in the new app. This takes over from the flat satellite view of its predecessor, and adds to it land contours and even separate building models in cities. It makes Apple Maps look a little like a flight simulator game, and should - in theory at least - make it easier to navigate in a big city, where a flat satellite view can seem like a mush of grey shapes. We don't walk on rooftops, after all.
However, in use Apple Maps has a way to go. Its journey planner engine seems to be pretty idiosyncratic, generally delivering less reliable results than we're used to. And there are many reports that some parts of the UK are not yet well-served by Apple's points of interest database.
Many tech companies release work-in-progress efforts - all the time, in fact - but that the Apple Maps app can feel like a bit of a step back (albeit a pretty one) is a most un-Apple like disappointment. iPhone 4 users don't get the snazzy 3D mode, either, which feels like a bit of an unnecessary cut.
Read our iPhone 5 preview >
iOS 6 Facebook integration
If Apple Maps has more than a hint of Apple ego to it, the improved social network integration in iOS 6 is quite the opposite. It amounts to an opening-up of the Apple system, even if the safe door's only cracked open enough to let a thin sliver of light through.
Facebook and Twitter are the two social networks that have been meshed into iOS 6, and they have been jammed into some of the system's core bits. Most usefully, there's a status posting box in the drag-down notifications bar. While it can leave the bar looking in an Android-like state of busyness once you've plugged a few apps in, it'll come in handy for Twitter addicts in particular.
The uploading part of the Photo Gallery app has been redesigned too. Rather than a dull-looking list of options, Apple has instated a colourful panel of icons for various ports of call including - you guessed it - Facebook and Twitter.
Neither of these feels like a particularly drastic change, though. It's simply jamming Facebook and Twitter into parts of the system that existed beforehand, making us wonder why it took Apple so long.
iOS 6 Siri
Continuing the theme of iterative updates, the Hal-9000-a-like virtual buddy Siri has been given an overhaul. It'll now let you check up information on things such as sports fixtures plus movie information and reviews.
You could ask Siri these sorts of questions before, but it would invariably boot you out into the Safari browser, the equivalent of getting your Mum to do your homework for you. Now, though, it all stays within Siri.
You can now launch apps from Siri too
The info that's available in the UK seems to be pretty limited, though. Film information fared well enough, as there's less of a UK-US disconnect there, but when looking for football details, anything less high-profile than Premiership football led to answers relating to US teams and sports. When asking Siri about Leeds United's latest goings-on, it came back with some nonsense about the MLS league - not what we were after at all. Siri is getting better though, slowly.
iOS 6 Passbook
Another potentially-exciting aspect of iOS 6 that seems to be hampered by being a UK-er is Passbook. This is Apple's main excuse for not including iPhone 5 NFC connectivity as it claims Passbook can do everything you need. We're not so sure.
Passbook is a place to keep things like digital cinema tickets, train tickets, plane boarding passes and so on. It works like a virtual documents folder, and requires you to plug-in apps relating to the companies on the other end, apps downloaded from the App Store.
At the time of writing, only the Lufthansa app turned up from an App Store search. So right now, unless you're a major traveller and a big fan of that German airline, it's not particularly useful. We expect this feature will grow quickly in the coming weeks and months, but for now it doesn't have us feeling confident in Apple's decision to leave out a proper wireless payments standard. Whatever Apple says, Passbook isn't really a replacement for such tech.