Earlier this week Apple released iOS 5.1 for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad with little of the usual fanfare; uncharacteristically the update was mentioned only in passing at Apple's iPad Event on Wednesday and no discussion or preview of its new features was provided beyond the introduction of Japanese support for Siri.
The actual release notes list several additional improvements although no significant new features—it seems that iOS 5.1 is focused primarily on fixing bugs and adding features and polish that arguably should have been in iOS 5.0 in the first place.
As with iOS 5.0.1, the new iOS 5.1 can be installed either over-the-air from Settings, General, Software Update or directly via iTunes. As with any update, it's a good idea to make sure you have a recent backup to either iCloud or iTunes before starting—in fact it probably wouldn't hurt to have both.
Siri in Japan
The major new feature—and the only one Apple felt was worth mentioning at its event—is the availability of Siri for Japanese users.
The feature is included in iOS 5.1, although Apple has noted that it may have limited availability during the initial rollout, presumably due to implementation requirements on Apple's Siri servers.
Delete from Photo Stream
Hinted at during the early betas in December, the iOS 5.1 update now allows photos to be deleted directly from the Photo Stream on any iOS 5.1 device. Corresponding updates have been released to enable this feature for the Apple TV, iPhoto and the iCloud Control Panel for Windows; an Aperture update is not yet available but is hopefully coming soon.
Previously the only way to get an unwanted photo out of the Photo Stream was to "reset" (read: "delete") the entire Photo Stream at iCloud.com and then subsequently toggle it off and back on from each of your devices to delete the locally-stored photos.
Although a very welcome change for Photo Stream users, the feature does come with a couple of important caveats. Firstly, photos will only be deleted on devices that are running the latest Photo Stream client software—iOS 5.1, Apple TV 5.0, iPhoto 9.2.2 or iCloud Control Panel 1.1 for Windows. Photo Stream will work as it did previously on devices and computers that have not yet been updated to these versions—not only will you not be able to delete photos from these devices, but deletions made on other devices will be ignored.
More significantly, only photos uploaded to Photo Stream using these latest software versions (e.g. iOS 5.1) will be deleted across devices. Older photos can still be deleted from the Photo Stream on the local device, but this deletion will not propagate to other devices. When deleting a photo from Photo Stream, iOS 5.1 will advise you as to whether the photo will be deleted from all devices or only the current device.
Although you can still delete a photo from each device individually, users with a lot of photos to clean out may find it easier to simply clear out their Photo Stream by resetting it at iCloud.com and start fresh.
Camera Button on Lock Screen (iPhone, iPod touch)
iOS 5.0 added a button hidden on the lock screen for the iPhone and iPod touch that could be used to quickly access the camera and take pictures without having to unlock the device. Users could double-tap the home button to display the camera button along with the standard music playback controls. Arguably, for many users double-tapping the home button was not much different from unlocking the device and accessing the camera normally, especially if you hadn't set a passcode on your device. Further, many users didn't know about this feature at all, or forgot about it all too easily.
With iOS 5.1 the camera button is now directly on the standard lock screen, eliminating the need for a double-tap of the home button to access it; instead, users slide the camera button upward to move the lock screen out of the way and display the camera. Users can return from the camera by sliding the lock screen back down into place from the top of the screen, or tap the home button to go directly to the home screen from here.
Other than the change in button behaviour, the feature works much as it did before; the camera works normally however users who have protected their device with a passcode will be limited to accessing only photos taken in the current session.
This feature obviously only applies to camera-equipped devices, so don't expect to see it on the third-generation iPod touch. It is also not included on the iPad, likely because of its relative impracticality on the larger device.
iTunes Match Improvements
iOS 5.1 also makes several much-needed improvements to iTunes Match, both in terms of under-the-hood reliability and performance and new support for Apple's Genius features.
Genius Playlists and Genius Mixes are now available via iTunes Match. Previously, the Genius options disappeared entirely after enabling iTunes Match and thereby replacing your locally-synced library. The Genius features seem a natural fit to having access to your entire iTunes library via iCloud, allowing for a much larger selection when creating Genius Playlists.
The feature works in the exact same way that it does for a locally synced music library, drawing songs from iCloud instead. As with other iTunes Match content, Genius Mixes stream by default but also provide an additional button in the top-left corner of the screen that can be used to download the entire mix for offline listening.
A Use Cellular Data option has been added to the iTunes Match options under Settings, Music, allowing users to disable iTunes Match streaming and downloading while away from a Wi-Fi network.
Internally, iTunes Match seems to have been somewhat improved in iOS 5.1. Performance when streaming tracks from the cloud has been improved slightly, although this will still of course be dependent on the speed and type of data connection you are using. Issues that persisted in iOS 5.0 with missing/skipping tracks appear to have been solved and the downloading and caching of album artwork appears to be much more consistent and reliable, although still somewhat sluggish in updating at times.
Some of these changes are likely attributable to the iTunes 10.6 update as well, so users having problems with large iTunes Match libraries will want to ensure that they have updated both iOS and iTunes.
Note that it may be necessary to disable and re-enable iTunes Match on your iOS device(s) in order to refresh the local library—we found that many of the performance and stability improvements in iTunes 10.6 and iOS 5.1 did not appear until we had basically reloaded the iTunes Match library on our devices. Some tagging and metadata issues also still seem to persist with iTunes Match after this update, with problems such as inexplicable duplicate album entries and inconsistent updating of play counts and last played dates. The improvements in 5.1 bring iTunes Match to the point of being usable, but there's clearly still more work to be done.
Improved Location Services Indicators
Apple has made a couple of small improvements to location services indicators in the Settings, Location Services screen that should help provide users with clearer information about exactly which apps and services are using location and when and how they are using it. Up until iOS 5.0.1, only a single type of indicator was available that simply indicated apps that had accessed the user's location in the past 24 hours, often making it difficult to track down apps that were still currently tracking location data.
iOS 5.0.1 introduced a separate indicator to differentiate apps currently using location, which are now displayed with a purple location services icon beside the app. iOS 5.1 expands this with a new outlined location services icon to indicate which apps are registered for geofencing. Apps that use geofencing generally have a lesser impact on battery life. Further, geofencing apps tend to be slightly more innocuous from a privacy point of view as they have simply registered with an iOS process to be notified when you cross a certain virtual boundary (i.e. arriving at or leaving a location) as opposed to actively tracking your movements.
The status bar will also display the outlined geofencing indicator instead of the standard indicator if only geofencing apps such as Reminders are using location services.
Redesigned Camera app for iPad
On the iPad, iOS 5.1 now includes a redesigned camera app, notably placing the capture button on the right side of the screen to better reflect how users are likely to hold the iPad when using the camera.
Camera Face Detection
The Face Detection feature in the Camera app will now highlight all detected faces.
Podcast controls on iPad
For podcasts, the iPad now gains the playback speed and skip-back controls that have been available on the iPhone and iPod touch since iOS 3.0.
Audio Improvements for iPad Video Playback
Movies and TV Shows played on the iPad now sound noticeably better with iOS 5.1 than they did in the past. The increased volume definitely helps for watching video content on the iPad at a reasonable distance.
AT&T 4G Indicator
AT&T customers will notice that as of iOS 5.1 a "4G' indicator is now displayed on their device. It is unclear under what conditions this appears in place of the standard "3G" indicator, but to be clear this is definitely not an indication that the iPhone 4S has suddenly acquired LTE capabilities. It seems likely this is being used to indicate the presence of an HSPA+ network, however the indicator is exclusive to AT&T; iPhone users on HSPA+ networks in other countries will still see the standard 3G indicator, even if they're on a network with equivalent—or better—performance.
Note that the new iPad appears to use an "LTE" indicator when connected to an actual LTE network, suggesting that a future LTE-capable iPhone may use a similar designation to avoid confusion now that AT&T has usurped the "4G" indicator.
Battery Life Issues
While iOS 5.1 promises improved battery life, the actual practical results from the experiences of our own team have been mixed, suggesting that external factors such as cellular network conditions may still be having some effect.
It is also unclear whether battery life issues may be a holdover from iOS 5.0.x configurations and additional steps such as a restore may be required to actually see any improvement with iOS 5.1.
Despite a few relatively minor "feature" additions, iOS 5.1 is really just the quintessential maintenance release designed to address problems and limitations in the original iOS 5.0. Larger changes such as the ability to now delete photos from Photo Stream are features that clearly should have been in iOS 5.0, and perhaps were even supposed to be there but simply missed the deadline. Similarly, iTunes Match has evolved from being a virtually unusable mess for many users in iOS 5.0 to a relatively stable feature.
The bottom line is that iOS 5.1 is basically what iOS 5.0 should have been in the first place. Even if it doesn't fix every problem, it's definitely an improvement and worth the update.