Apple iOS 6 Here Next Week, iTunes Update Today, New iTunes in October

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After another reality-warping stage show with all the razzle-dazzle of a lecture hall slider, the new iPhone is here, a little taller, a little thinner, a trifle lighter, sporting a svelte new dock connector and available on Sept. 21. So what can you do with it, running the newest flavor of iOS?

There’s Maps, of course, which we’ve heard about endlessly alongside news that Apple was decoupling from Google, especially the 3D flyover feature that still seems more about tickling your brain’s “gee whiz” center than something you’d use for everyday navigation (if you even live in one of the major cities properly rendered, that is). The real star feature is Apple’s vector-based engine, of course, which makes zooming in or out smooth and continuous, the graphics scaling on the fly instead of pausing or lurching through set zoom-level redraws.

(MORE: Apple’s iPhone 5: A Thinner, Lighter, Taller 4G Phone)

The other Maps feature which, if it works as well as Apple claims, should be a boon to users (and a malediction to third-part GPS app makers — shades of Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer with Windows back in the day?) is Apple’s new turn-by-turn spoken directions, which includes a 3D view and real-time traffic updates. Forget flyover: Apple’s seamless zooming and native turn-by-turn guidance features should make iOS Maps the navigation app to beat.

Checking in on Siri, the sometimes-accurate, sometimes-not natural language voice recognition app has been refined in iOS 6 as expected. Apple’s not specifying how, precisely, it’s improved Siri’s general accuracy, or even if it has (we can only assume). But you can now use it to make reservations at a restaurant (ask it to find a burger joint for six at a specific time, and presto, it will), launch iOS apps, scan movie reviews and showtimes, dictate Facebook or Twitter updates, even grab sports metrics, say scores from a football or hockey game or — and this sounds very cool — one player’s stats stacked against another’s, all by simply asking your iPhone (or, for the first time, the new iPad) to.

And, further reinforcing the assumption that Apple would rather facilitate social networking — and in this case, one very specific social networking tool — than preempt it, the company’s folded Facebook into iOS 6. Like Twitter in OS X Mountain Lion, you can now dispatch information to Facebook through native Apple apps, say Camera or Photos, keep tabs on Facebook-related calendar invites (integrated with iOS Calendar), “Like” apps, music and movies without leaving iTunes or the App Store, and see Facebook friend information in Contacts, and all you have to do is sign in once. Agnostic, it’s not (no Google+ support, Apple?). Then again, you’re talking nearly one billion Facebook users worldwide, so you can’t exactly gouge Apple for backing the golden child.

Apple already lets you share photos through iOS by messaging, emailing or tweeting them — even assigning them to a contact, using them as wallpaper or printing them out. With iOS 6 they’ve added a supplemental feature called Shared Photo Streams, which lets you and a friend using iCloud on an iOS 6 device or a Mac running Mountain Lion see each others’ snapshots immediately using the Photos app, iPhoto or through an Apple TV, then “Like” or comment on them. If your friends or family members aren’t using an Apple device, they can view the photos through a browser. And the best part: Apple says it’s waiving iCloud storage quotas, and that you can upload as many photos as you want (the photos are presumably compressed, mind you, so don’t expect to upload your one terabyte prizewinning studio gallery without significant quality loss).

With Passbook, the company’s going after your wallet/purse-space, promising to replace airplane boarding passes, movie tickets, coupons and loyalty cards by letting you scan your iPhone or iPod Touch in lieu of flipping out a physical card. Apple’s also promising this app will be context-aware, so that you’ll see your boarding pass when you get to the airport (even notifying you about gate changes) or any relevant coupons when you walk into a given store. Is that context-sensitivity a two-way street? Will vendors be able to track your activity? Will you be able to run the feature one-way? Questions worth asking as we roll forward.

Apps seeing more routine updates include FaceTime, which Apple’s finally allowing to work over cellular networks (not just Wi-Fi — it’s about time!) and Phone, which will now let you auto-reply to incoming calls with an SMS text or set a callback reminder. Apple’s also added a feature everyone’s frankly been waiting for since the iPhone launched: a “Do Not Disturb” option that’ll let you quickly shut off incoming calls and notifications without digging around in settings, as well as limit incoming calls to people you really do want to hear from. And then there’s Safari, also getting the official iCloud treatment, adding in saved bookmarks that sync across iCloud-enabled devices as well as full-screen viewing and — my favorite addition — the option to save web pages offline to your Reading List.

(MORE: Live Coverage: Apple’s iPhone 5 Event)

I’m convinced after using one for a year-and-a-half that the 3.5-inch iPhone’s screen is terrible for rapid, accurate typing, emailing, texting or otherwise (the iPad, on the other hand, is a joy to type on — it really is just a space thing). It’ll be interesting, once I get my hands on one, to see if the new iPhone’s extra screen real estate makes this less of an issue. So I’m intrigued but still skeptical of stuff like the Mail makeover … well, less of a makeover than a few tweaks to the interface, ostensibly making it easier to read and write while adding the “pull down to refresh” mechanic already present in other parts of iOS. The real draw this time: VIP lists, which let you flag messages from friends or important contacts.

So that’s iOS 6. What about this new iCloud-enabled iteration of iTunes Apple announced at today’s show?

For starters, Apple’s redesigned the iOS versions to have a consistent visual flow across all devices. The new look is more Apple TV-like, with larger, more eye-catching graphics for books, music and videos stacking in rows below a cover-flow bar. Apple says you can preview media samples while browsing (no more song stopping if you click out of preview mode), and that it’s improved the search features as well (I didn’t catch the “how” on this one). And, as noted earlier, this version of iTunes will include Facebook and Twitter support, so you can reference whatever you’re interacting with, without leaving the iTunes environment.

For the Mac and PC versions, Apple’s done away with the left-hand column and essentially extended “grid” view to give things an edge-to-edge vibe (the left-hand column is still there when viewing your full library to add songs to a playlist). Just clicking an album splits the screen slightly, like opening an iOS folder, to show drill-down details like the track list and artist info. An “up next” feature lets you see upcoming songs and tweak play lists on the fly, and the mini-player’s been redesigned. You’ll be able to see the top songs or albums from a given artist as well as related recommendations, and — this was an interesting wrinkle — artists will have the option to share photos with fans.

What about iCloud? Apple says your purchases now essentially live in iCloud, so if you’re watching a movie on one device, say your Apple TV, and move to your iPad, you can pick up where you left off.

When You Can Get Them

If you’re going iPhone 5, iOS 6 comes with the phone, so consider yourself covered. For those with older iPhones — specifically the iPhone 3GS, 4, 4S, iPad 2 and new iPad — Apple says it’ll cost you nothing, just like iOS 5, and you can download it on Sept. 19, so next Wednesday.

The new version of iTunes, on the other hand, is a little trickier. Apple’s releasing a point update, 10.7, later today that’ll enable the iOS changes detailed above. But the fully revamped version — possibly verison 11.0 though Apple’s just calling it “new iTunes” in the press release — won’t be available until “late October.” In other words: ready, set … “coming soon.”

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