Alternate to buying iOS Devices in 2012

Buying a new iOS device isn’t the only way to hot new features and improved usability. With our tips and a few free apps, you can smarten up what you already have..

Tips & Tricks Better than iOS 6

Photo Streams

What’s special about iOS 6’s shared photo streams is that their contents already exist in the cloud. The downside is that Photo Stream can be a bit ‘all or nothing’. You might not want any of your photos automatically uploaded and synced to other devices. Or you might prefer to managed a static photo collection to which you add pictures, rather than a dynamic stream of only your most recent photos

Flickr

Although it’s no longer as dominant in photo sharing as it once was, Flickr is still one of the most comprehensive services and has a fully featured iOS app from which to upload, manage and share your photos

Instagram

Far more than just a camera app with a zillion retro vignette effects, Instagram is a social network for snappers that’s fun to use from iOS

Shared photo streams

What’s in iOS 6?

iCloud’s Photo Stream feature conveniently uploads photos as they’re taken. It allows you to review your snaps on a Mac, Apple TV or another iOS device, as long as it’s signed into the same iCloud account, with-out having to manually sync.

It’s only with iOS 6’s improved Photos app that you’ll finally be able to pick out a selection of photos from your stream and republish the subset as a shared photo stream for other people to view a comment on. This is a useful new feature, but implemented within Photo Stream it’s a little awkward.

Setting up a shared photo stream is essentially similar to posting pictures to an album on Facebook or to a set on Flickr, or, as you might once have done, to a gallery on Apple’s defunct MobileMe. What distinguishes Photo Stream is iCloud’s tight integration into iOS, which allows it to automatically upload photos in the background. Within seconds of you picking out the snaps you want to share, friends will be viewing them.

That’s because the shared photo stream you’re creating just strings together the copies that already exist in the cloud, so you don’t have to wait for a duplicate copy to be uploaded. With other methods of sharing, there’s an inevitable wait for photos to be uploaded.

The catch is that Photo Stream is still predicated on archiving only you’re most recent photos, from which you have to remember to select and repost pictures before they’re pushed out by new ones. iCloud will also back up photos from any device that has this option enabled (within the limits of your iCloud storage), but these backups aren’t accessible except to restore them wholesale.

What’s the alternative?

Social networks offer an alternative approach to sharing pictures between your own devices and with other users, from the starting point that you’re storing and managing a selective photo library on their servers. It’s under your control, not streaming past according to its own rules.

One of the most famous photo sharing services, of course, is Instagram, which started as an iPhone app and became a billion-dollar social network, acquired by Facebook in April.

The Instagram app remains free and notably cute, with the much talked-about range of creative effects available to apply to each image. A recently added feature is the ability to view your Instagram photos on a map.

Flickr’s app isn’t the most beautiful in the world, but works well, and has recently been updated to make it easier to upload multiple photos. It also handles video.

A development- if you’ll pardon what’s about to look like a pun- that we’ve been waiting for is apps connected to photo printing services, so that you can upload pictures while on holiday and have hard copies arrive with Granny before you get back, for example. So far, several such services have iPhone apps, including Shutterfly and Snapfish, but they only let you upload from iOS, not order prints.

Its gap that’ll surely be filled- and third-party providers could beat Apple to it, since it currently offers photo printing services form iPhoto in OS X, but not from the equivalent iOS app.

Phone

What’s in iOS 6?

Although you can install alternative apps to browse the web, make video calls and perform other tasks on your iOS device, calls to your iPhone’s telephone number are always directed to the Phone app. In iOS 6, this has some neat conveniences: for example, you can quickly send a text message letting the other party knows that you’re unable to answer a call, and can set a reminder to call back later on.

And the alternative?

You can take this idea further whether or not you have iOS 6, and without needing additional apps, by setting up text shortcuts for commonly used responses, so that you can trigger meaningful responses in the Messages app by typing just a few characters.

In the Settings> General> Keyboard> Add New Shortcut, add abbreviations that you’ll easily remember for phrases- which can be complete messages- that you’ll commonly need to send. For example, the abbreviation ‘I8car’ might be set to expand to ‘Sorry, I’m caught up in traffic and running xx minutes late’; having triggered this, you’ll be able to quickly replace the ‘xx’ by double-tap-ping on it and typing a number. You’ll save precious seconds compared to typing the message from scratch especially in circumstances where you can’t easily text at all.

If you’re clinging to an older iPhone that can’t run a more recent version of iOS, the TextExpander app can be used to store such boilerplate replies. It’s an extra step to launch the app, but once there you can quickly activate one of your precomposed texts and create a new text message or email based on it, without having to copy and paste.

Mail

What’s in iOS 6?

If you’ve used the new VIP feature in OS X Mountain Lion’s Mail app, you’ll be pleased to know that it also exists in iOS 6. With an iCloud account set up, your list of VIPs is synced between devices, so it doesn’t matter which device you’re using; you can always filter out the noise by looking at the VIPs mailbox instead of your inbox.

What’s the alternative?

You don’t actually need iOS 6 and iCloud to get this effect. If you use Gmail, it can be simulated very easily. You might be able to mimic it with another email provider, too, if it offers server-side rules to process messages as they’re received. For Gmail, log into your Gmail account from a Mac, then click the cogwheel button near the top right of the page and choose Settings. Click Labels, look for the button marked ‘Create new label’ and create one called VIPs. Next, click Filters and create a new one. Type a contact into the Form: field. You needn’t create a new filter for each VIP- just type the keyword OR between contacts to specify more of them.

However, you can set up separate rules that apply the ‘VIPs’ label to distinct groups of people. You might do this so that people involved with a specific project, for instance, are kept together. That way, the whole group can be downgraded to regular inbox status when the project ends by deleting one filter, rather than by picking one their names from a more complex one.

Since these rules are created and applied as messages are received by the mail server, they’re consistently applied to incoming messages, so it doesn’t matter whether you pick up messages on your Mac, your iOS device, or in a web browser elsewhere.

On your Mac, the ‘VIPs’ label appears as a mailbox in the left pane. It’s easily added to the favorite’s bar, where you can then keep an eye on how many new messages there are from VIPs.

In iOS Mail, unfortunately, you can’t opt to display a mailbox at the top level, next to the inbox. Instead, you’ll have to swipe through the list of other mailboxes, which negates the point of prioritizing VIPs. As a workaround, try using the free Gmail app alongside Mail, purely to keep an eye on activity from VIPs. It integrates with Notification Center, and triggers a sound distinct from the one used by Mail, so you can tell which incoming mail is important.

Configure Gmail

Set up a ‘VIPs’ label through the web interface and you can filter Google mail in the same way as iCloud handles VIPs

Gmail app while the Mail app supports Gmail, you can keep an eye on your VIPs more easily via Google’s free Gmail app, which works with notifications

Maps

What’s in iOS 6?

To say that Apple has overhauled the Maps app would be selling short its efforts. It’s wrenched Google’s map out of iOS and replaced them completely with its own newly drawn cartography- a massive undertaking.

The catch is that new look of Maps doesn’t seem as legible as before. Where Google’s roads are green, orange and yellow, Apple’s are all white, and – so far, at least, bearing in mind that iOS 6 hasn’t been officially released at the time of writing- labeling seems less clear. We’d guess a lot of users are going to miss the Google style.

What’s the alternative?

If you aren’t convinced by the new look, this is one case where you can do better than iOS 6 simply by not installing it. The problem doesn’t have to wait; it’s that once you do upgrade your device, you’re stuck with the new Apple maps. You’ll still be able to access Google’s maps by going to maps.google.com in Safari: rather than showing you the same website as in a desktop browser, this automatically delivers a web app version designed specifically for your iOS screen. Although the web app’s interface isn’t a replica of the old Maps app, it works in much the same way. The site provides an iOS icon, so if you tap the Action button and add Google Maps to your Home screen (as you’re invited to do when you visit for the first time), you can access it just like an app.

However, one major feature is missing from the web-based version of Google Maps, and that’s Street View. In the Maps app up to iOS 5, you could tap the Street View decal to the left of the label attached to any pin dropped on a map to go into Street View, where available. Apple’s Flyover 3D view is an amazing alternative, but its more aerial perspective isn’t so well suited to checking out a neighborhood. Of course, Google could reintroduce its own full- blown mapping app, with Street View, through the App Store- if it chose to, and if Apple allowed it.

Navigon, a navigation app, has licensed Street View and now includes it in all its iOS versions, but at £59.99 it’s worth buying just for this feature.

Passbook

What’s in iOS 6?

The new Passbook app keeps digital store cards, boarding passes and other forms of ID in one place. These can be used to authorize access or payment quickly and simply, without you having to remember logins or enter credit card numbers.

But Passbook is very new, and there’s no way of knowing how quickly it’ll catch on or how many companies will choose to take advantage of it, especially outside the US.

What’s the alternative?

While you wait and see, you can make clever use of apps such as 1Password and Acrylic’s Wallet to keep scraps of key information tidy and safe. Wallet is typically used to store things like software serial numbers, but lets you create new collections and customize what’s stored in each item. An item can hold a single line of text, such as a reference that you need to collect pre-booked train tickets. Pictures from your Camera Roll can be stored too, so if an airline doesn’t support Passbook, you can take a screenshot of an electronic boarding pass from its own app or web page and attach it to an item in Wallet.

Large blocks of text can be pasted into an item’s notes field, so this is a good place to copy and paste confirmation emails for bookings made long in advance. By the time the event rolls around, the email may not be recent enough to be visible on your device, and you may not have an internet connection to find it again by searching on the server. With Wallet, you’ll have a copy of it immediately to hand-and getting into the habit of storing things this way will mean you know where to look for it. Wallet is available for Mac as well as iPhone and iPad, so it’s easy to get information into it, and it can sync over Wi-Fi or using Dropbox.

Besides serving as ID, Passbook is expected to become a way to make payments- iOS’s rival to Google Wallet on Android. You might sign up for a Starbucks pass and add a prepayment to it, just like with a proper, physical store card. In store, you would open Passbook and scan the screen to deduct your bill from your credit.

Apple’s intention is that you should be able to store multiple IDs in one place. But retailers may disagree, and Passbook could find itself sidelined if they choose not to invest in supporting as iOS- specific payment method, and instead continue to rely on branded apps that are developed with a variety of devices in mind.

Other internet companies have tried to establish generic payment apps. PayPal offers two: its eponymous app, which requires you to follow a manual process to make a payment, and PayPal InStore, which lets retailers scan your iPhone’s screen to take a payment. Few retailers in the UK are signed up for the latter, and its online retailers who are most likely to accept transactions through the main app.

Google Wallet is an app that can store your debit, credit and store card details and transmit them to till points using near-field communication (NFC) technology; you just place your device near the reader for a second. But this can only work with devices that have NFC built in, which at the time of writing means selected Android smart-phones. Fortunately, you don’t have to buy a new phone to benefit. Barclays is rolling out a system called Pay Tag that works on the same principle; you may already have received yours if you’re a customer. PayTag doesn’t actually require a device at all to make it work- it’s just a sticker, serving the same purpose as a credit card but about a third of the size. Sticking it to your phone is a good way to ensure you have it handy.

It’s still early days for NFC. PayTag is only available to Barclaycard customers, and more retailers need to deploy readers before we can really exploit its convenience. But it can work for any ad hoc payment, while Passbook can only initiate transactions based on an established relationship between you and a retailer.

Safari and Reading List

What’s in iOS 6?

Apple’s web browser has gained several enhancements in iOS 6 to help you view pages without clutter and carry on reading when you switch between devices. They work fine, but other apps already do the same things better.

What’s the alternative?

iCloud Tabs syncs the addresses of the pages that are currently open to your iCloud account. The idea isn’t unique to Safari: the recently released iOS version of Google’s Chrome browser provides an equivalent feature. You’ll need to sign up and log into a Google account in the browser to sync your tabs with Chrome on other iOS or Android devices, Macs or PCs.

Safari’s Reading List is now able to save pages to your device, rather than just book- marking their addresses, so you can catch up or articles later even when an internet connection is unavailable. It’s also just a good way to quickly make a note of a page, without cluttering your main bookmarks. But more accomplished apps have done this for years, and offer extra features that you might find makes them more useful. For starters, it won’t matter if you prefer Chrome or another browser to Safari.

Instapaper and Pocket install a special bookmark that allows the current page to be added to your reading list. Many reading apps for iOS integrate with them, allowing you to add interesting material found on Twitter, in a newsreader on elsewhere. The ability to add to your reading list from a broader range of sources is a huge benefit over Apple’s more limited alternative.

Pocket is a good option if you’re storing a lot of articles for research. Multiple tags can be assigned to an article. This makes it easy to retrieve information by subject at a later date, and without the bother of having to file articles in a rigid folder structure that might grow too unwieldy proportions.

Browsing on the small screen of an iPhone or iPod touch isn’t always comfortable. In landscape orientation, the screen is typically wide enough to read to the ends of lines of text, but Safari’s toolbars take up an unfortunate amount of the screen. In iOs 6, the toolbars become hidden in this orientation, though semi-opaque controls for moving back a forwards in your browsing history and bringing back the toolbars appear, so you can type an address and use other features.

Other alternatives to Safari have offered this type of view for years. Atomic Web Browser and Mercury Web Browser each provide a full-screen mode that works in portrait as well as landscape mode- and it’s included in their free editions, not just the paid-for versions.

As in Safari, semi-opaque navigation buttons are displayed. But you get the option of up to seven controls, and you can choose which of a list of useful features is assigned to each position. The list includes searching within the current page (Mercury), going to the top of the page (Atomic) and displaying the Actions panel to share a link to the page (both).

To avoid cluttering the screen with too many controls, however, both browsers allow the use of gestures to trigger certain features instead. For example, you might choose to swipe down with two fingers to enter a new address. The extra gestures even work on the iPhone’s small screen.

The drawback to using an alternative browser is that Apple doesn’t make the speedier Nitro JavaScript engine available to other apps, so you might notice poorer response times in sites that make heavy use of the technology.

Skype

You can call any Skype user from the iOS app, and they could be on a PC or Android device- it’s not limited to Apple kit

FaceTime

Apple’s built-in video calling feature only works between Apple users, and only two people can be in a conversation

What’s in iOS 6?

In iOS 6, FaceTime is no longer limited to WI-Fi: you can make and receive video calls over a 3G connection. But FaceTime is still quite limited in its functionality, so it continues to face stiff competition from Skype, which lets you hold video conversations with people who aren’t using an Apple device, and with more than one at a time.

What’s the alternative?

So you know when a call is coming in, Skype needs to be configured to display push notifications, which is done in the Notifications section of the Settings app. If there’s no internet connection, notifications can’t be delivered and calls can’t be made. But that’s true of FaceTime as well.

Skype goes one better than FaceTime with group video calls. This requires a Premium account, but you might consider that worthwhile if several family members want to catch up together, or you want a basic video conference for work.

The drawback is that you’ll have to set up and share your Skype contact details with people, whereas FaceTime allows you to be reached using your phone number or email address. It’s a small inconvenience in contrast to Skype’s benefits, though.

Whichever service you choose for video calls, bear in mind that they’ll quickly use up the data allowance included with your tariff. Check if WI-Fi is available and activated before making a call and you won’t spend more than you need to.


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