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iOS 6 now available, here's what you need to know

As Apple promised it would be, iOS 6 is here.  We gave it — and the 200 or so new features it brings — a close look. Here's are the key things you need to know about the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system.

Can your device handle iOS 6?

According to Apple, you should be able to run iOS 6 on an Phone 3GS, an iPhone 4, an iPhone 4S, a fourth-generation iPod Touch, an iPad 2 or a third-generation iPad. Yes, this means that folks with older iPod Touch devices, the original iPhone, or the iPhone 3G are officially out of luck.

Now, that's the official word. But it's worth noting that — like some other updates — this particular iOS version might leave some of the older supported device feeling a bit sluggish. Keep that in mind, especially if you're using an iPhone 3GS, which was already left feeling a bit slow after the jump to iOS 5.

What makes iOS 6 so much better than older versions of iOS?
There are over 200 new features to be found in iOS 6, but — as always — some stand out. Here are the key changes to know.

Siri has gotten some significant improvements in iOS 6. She's learned a lot of new languages (Italian, Mandarin, Cantonese, and more) and become friends with a lot of new services (such as OpenTable, Yelp, Rotten Tomatoes, and others).

This means that you can now get way more information directly from the personal assistant instead of being told that she'll search the Web for you. Now Siri will provide you with sports scores, movie times, and detailed restaurant information. On top of that, she can even help you make restaurant reservations, tweet for you, and even launch apps.

While Siri still isn't perfect, these changes are rather great and make it more likely that you'll actually use Siri for certain task instead of just treating her as a joke generator. 

Although ... if you do use Siri to amuse yourself, you may be happy to know that she's picked up some more jokes since the last time we explored how she says the darndest things.

A new app called Passbook can store many of the things which normally clutter up your pockets. Boarding passes, discount cards, movie tickets, gift certificates, and so on can be contained securely within Passbook. 

Since the app has location support, it will also pull up the relevant item when you are near the place in which you'd use it. This means that your Sephora loyalty card will be right on your screen as you reach for a new lipstick, your boarding pass will appear as you arrive at the airport, and your Starbucks card will pop up as soon as you smell the coffee beans.

Like Twitter, Facebook is now deeply integrated into iOS. You can post directly to the social network using a "tap to post" button in the Notification Center, from the Photo Roll, and more. And to make your life easier — in theory, anyway — you can allow events and birthdays which are listed on Facebook to populate in the Calendar app.

Do Not Disturb
Words can barely convey how incredibly useful the "Do Not Disturb" mode found in iOS 6 is. This little feature allows you to silence alerts and calls for a while in way significantly more clever than what's offered by the regular volume toggle. 

You can designate regular "quiet hours" during which Do Not Disturb mode will automatically kick in, you can choose to allow calls from people who are listed in your favorites or contacts to ring through, or you can tell your iPhone to ring if someone calls twice within three minutes.

Not everyone will like how the Maps app has changed in iOS 6. Apple has ditched Google Maps and now uses its own mapping solution (which is powered by TomTom). This means that the Maps app is a wee bit different. There's Yelp integration, traffic information based on crowd-sourced data, automatically re-adjusting routes, and turn-by-turn directions. 

Yes, you read that right. There are finally turn-by-turn directions directly in the Maps app. And they're rather solid. (If they manage to get someone as — ahem — lacking in navigational skills as yours truly somewhere, they'll get anyone where he or she needs to go.)

Oh! And Apple also added something called "Flyover" to Maps. This feature makes the whole world look a bit like a Sim City game by showing 3-D models of geographical features and buildings.

There are naturally some downsides to the revamped Maps app, of course. Without Google's gigantic and well-established pile of data, the Maps app can occasionally fail to find certain points of interest, lacks detail at certain zoom levels, and lacks public transportation information. They're tolerable shortcomings, but the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg went as far as calling them the "biggest drawback" of the iPhone 5 (which ships with iOS 6) when he reviewed the device.

The new "Privacy" menu in the iOS 6 settings will help you sleep far more soundly at night. It breaks down the various items to which an app might request access (Contacts, Photos, Location Services, etc) and allows you to toggle each app's access to the item on and off.

This is a great way to check whether you accidentally gave an app more information than you intended — and to simply take back some control later down the line.

Reply With Message and Remind Me Later
Odds are that you'll occasionally find yourself in a situation which prevents you from answering a call which matters. It's inevitable. But with iOS 6 you at least have the option of quickly replying with a preset text message or setting a reminder to return the call at a later time.

You can do either of those things in about the same amount of time it would take you to swipe your finger across your iPhone's screen.

What do you need to do before upgrading your device to iOS 6?
Before you try upgrading your device to iOS 6, you need to make sure you have the latest version of iTunes. After you've taken care of that, you should really consider backing up your device — just in case something goes wrong.

All you need to do in order to back up an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch is connect it to your computer, open up iTunes, right-click the gadget in the "Devices" menu, and select the "Backup" option. The software will take care of the rest. Once the backup process is complete, feel free to tap the "Check for Updates" button to get the iOS 6 download started. iTunes will walk you through the rest of the upgrade process. (Alternatively, you can also just update your device "over the air" by opening up the Settings app, tapping on "General," and selecting "Software Update.")

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