The iOS 5 Beta was made available to Apple developers yesterday after the WWDC Keynote, and we’re here to provide you some first impressions, screenshots, and information about this new upgrade. Will iOS 5 change the way you use your iPhone? While the base experience remains the same as it always has, the features added in iOS 5 improves the usability of your iDevices in a major way. Here’s some of our favorite stuff:

iOS 5 Beta on iPad and iPhone - First ImpressionsWireless Setup

My family got my grandma an iPad for Christmas last year. It was supposed to be an easy way for her to check her email, check up on Facebook to see how her grandkids are doing, and play solitaire and other casual games. However, Christmas came around and I ended up on an hour long phone conversation with her trying to get the thing set up. She had to update iTunes to sync the iPad, which required a Windows update, multiple restarts and tons of hassle just so she could set up her iPad.

Those days are gone, however, as iOS 5 allows for hassle-free setup right on the device itself. Just turn it on and you’ll see “iPhone” “iPod” or “iPad,” and a “slide to set up.” After sliding, you’re walked through the whole setup step-by-step, including naming the device, restoring from a backup (from either iTunes or iCloud), joining a Wi-Fi network, and carrier device activation. So easy your grandma could do it, and no iTunes or USB cables involved.

iOS 5 Beta on iPad and iPhone - First ImpressionsNotifications

Notifications are far and away the best new feature of iOS 5. They were in dire need of a fix, and fix them Apple did. The end result is a combination of how Android and webOS handle notifications, with a little Apple shine thrown on top. Here’s how they work:

  • If you get notifications while your device is off, they will appear in a bubble on the lockscreen (see right image). Multiple notifications no longer “stack”, they will all display at once in a row. To jump to the app that sent you the notification, just slide its icon across the length of the bubble.
  • If you get notifications while you are using your device, you can choose how you want them to behave on a per-app basis. You can select that an app gives you a “Banner,” which is the new style, a small bubble at the top of your screen that doesn’t interrupt you and goes away after 15 seconds or so, an “Alert” which is the old style popup box that freezes whatever was going on behind it, or you can even set it to not notify you at all, but still keep the alert in the “Notifications Center”
  • iOS 5 Beta on iPad and iPhone - First ImpressionsNotifications Center (left image) is the place where all your notifications are stored. You can access this by swiping down on the title bar, and inside are any notifications that you haven’t dealt with already. There are also two widgets that you can put here, Weather and Stocks, and we hope that Apple makes it easy for developers to make more widgets for this area and sell them on the App store.

Overall, the notifications work exactly like you would expect them to, and this is no longer an iOS weak point. By combining some of the best solutions and adding some ideas of their own, Apple has really created an awesome system here.

iOS 5 Beta on iPad and iPhone - First ImpressionsiMessages

iMessages is Apple sticking it to the carriers, telling them “People don’t want to pay you for SMS!” Integrated into the default “Messages” app on iPhone and its own app on iPad and iPod touches, iMessages allows you to send pictures and video to other iOS devices without having to pay SMS and MMS fees. The best part about it is that it’s invisible — if you send a text to an iOS 5 user it will automatically send via the iMessage service, but if you send a message to an Android user or a non-smartphone user, it will instead revert to MMS or SMS. While this service won’t make everyone drop their unlimited texting right away, it definitely has potential to shake up the ridiculous price carriers charge for texts.

iOS 5 Beta on iPad and iPhone - First ImpressionsiCloud

Much to my surprise, Apple’s iCloud service is already ready to be used on devices that have the iOS 5 beta installed. I installed the beta on my iPad and iPhone 4, enabled iCloud on my Apple ID, and iOS took care of the rest.

Like Steve Jobs said in the keynote yesterday, iCloud makes keeping your iOS devices in sync with each other easy. You can control what you’d like to sync across devices in the iCloud settings page, and if any of these things are set to “On” you can be sure that they will be the same across all of your iOS 5 devices.

One of the coolest features of iCloud is the Photo Stream, which syncs your photos across all of your devices. I took a photo on the iPhone camera and less than a minute later it appeared inside the photos app on my iPad. Apple has said that photos will also sync to iPhoto on Mac, but I was not able to test this as the correct iPhoto version is not out yet.

iCloud also will make sure that any apps, music, and videos you have on one device are easily accessible on your other devices. In iTunes and the App Store on iOS 5, there’s a new tab called “Purchased.” Inside is all of the content that you’ve ever bought from iTunes or the App Store, and you can re-download it to any device with a single tap — I was able to re-download all of my apps in record time after setting up iOS 5. You can even set it up so that any apps you buy on one device are automatically downloaded on the other, but I decided against this due to the differences between iPhone and iPad apps.

iOS 5 Beta on iPad and iPhone - First ImpressionsCamera

The improved camera app is just that: an improved camera app. You can access it by double-tapping home on the lockscreen now, and it has nifty new features like a “Grid” which will assist all you budding photographers with your rule of thirds. Also added is the ability to take photos using the Volume Up button on the phone. Good stuff, but nothing revolutionary here.

Miscellaneous Notes & Conclusion

  • While Apple claimed that you will be able to sync with iTunes via Wi-Fi, I was unable to get this feature to work. The only time I was able to sync was if I was plugged in via USB, but as a bonus you are now able to use the OS while the phone is syncing (no more “Slide to cancel sync”!)
  • iOS 5 Beta on iPad and iPhone - First ImpressionsYou can now move the iPad’s keyboard around with a button in the bottom right corner of the keyboard. You can adjust its placement on the screen as well as split it up into a “thumb keyboard” (see left image) that makes typing with your thumbs while holding the iPad much, much easier.
  • Gone are the days of the “iPod” app (which was called “Music” on iPod touches). The app is now simply “Music” across all devices and has a music note icon instead of an iPod icon. In addition, the iPad music app got an interface redesign, streamlining the look of the app with the rest of the OS.
  • iCloud provides you with 5 GB of storage for free (Music & Photos don’t count towards your limit). In the iCloud settings area you can see how much of your space you are using up, and there is a button to “Buy More Storage.” This button does not work yet, but it looks like there will be an ability to pay a fee if you want more cloud-space in the future.

Overall, iOS 5 is a huge improvement. I’ve been using it for a day now and it feels like my iPhone and iPad are all new again. While some of these features have been available in other OSes prior to this point, only Apple seems to have the ability to tie everything together in a nice looking, easy to use way. The notifications are great, iCloud works exactly as advertised, and the nice little additions to the OS here and here really make it feel like the best iOS upgrade yet. You should be very, very excited for this Fall.