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Hits, misses in new iPhone operating system

Looks like Apple Inc. wasn’t quite prepared for the demand for the new iPhone 5, as the company sold out of its available units in just a few days.

And it turns out Apple wasn’t quite ready in the software department, either. Its new iOS 6 operating system for iPhones and iPads has a couple of major new features that fall far short of Apple’s usually exquisite standards. Still, there’s plenty to like in iOS 6, especially for those with older iPhones who want a dose of the latest-and-greatest.

After all, iOS 6 is free, and can be installed on any 3GSor newer iPhone, the fourth- and fifth-generation iPod Touch, and on the last two versions of the iPad. But, not all of the software features will work on those older devices. For instance, iOS 6 adds the Siri system to the newer iPad and iPod Touch, but it still won’t work on the iPhone 3GS. Sorry.

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The new Siri lets you launch apps with your voice. Instead of hunting through dozens of icons for Cut The Rope, just tell Siri to start the game and there it is.

There are lots of small, welcome improvements like this one scattered throughout iOS 6. For instance, the Safari browser can share your Internet browsing activities across multiple devices, through Apple’s iCloud online service. Say you started reading a Boston Globe story on your iPhone, and want to finish it on your iPad. Touch the iCloud icon, and there’s a link to the Globe article.

Facebook is everyone’s favorite photo-sharing app, so it’s good to see it integrated into the iOS photo service. Indeed, Facebook is now built into many of the phone’s services. You can instantly publish your high score from a favorite game, or use Siri to update your Facebook status by voice.

The most basic iPhone service of all — the phone — can now send pre-packaged text messages when you haven’t got time to talk. When the phone rings, slide your finger upward to see a menu of prepared responses. Tap one to send it.

Yet two of the most visible changes to iOS 6 could use a good deal of improving. The new map feature has already earned notoriety for its bizarre satellite images of landmarks such as New York’s Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges. But more annoying is the lack of features we once took for granted when Apple used maps from archrival Google Inc. The new iOS maps don’t offer anything like Google Street View, which often shows ground-level photos of the building you’re looking for. Also missing is a built-in public transit guide, if you want to take a bus or train to your destination. Instead, Apple points you to a selection of apps, some free, some not, that will provide transport info.

On the upside, Apple now joins Google in providing free turn-by-turn driving instructions. It worked just fine for me on a drive from Quincy to Worcester, but of course, results may vary. Still, Google navigation had its share of bugs in the early days; Apple’s is bound to get better in the months ahead.

I expect the same from another tempting but clumsy new feature called Passbook. It’s Apple’s answer to Google Wallet, the feature that turns certain Android smartphones into credit cards. Google Wallet uses a chip inside the phone that can talk to many credit card readers. But Passbook instead displays a barcode on the iPhone’s screen that retailers can scan at the checkout counter. Passbook can act as a credit card, but also as a retail store discount card or airline boarding pass.

But for now, the service is limited. You must separately download apps that connect to Passbook, and there aren’t many. For instance, there’s no Passbook app for my bank, so I couldn’t add my debit card. But I did find apps for retailers Target and Walgreens that let me get discounts or cash in coupons. Linking the two apps to Passbook is a confusing process that took several attempts.

Apple claims that Passbook is location-sensitive. When you’re near a Target store, for instance, the phone is supposed to alert you to deals. It didn’t happen for me; maybe later.

Passbook isn’t as good as Lemon Wallet, a free app that offers many similar functions and is far easier to use. Lemon Wallet lets you photograph your credit, debit, or discount cards, then use them through the phone. Lemon Wallet could teach Apple a thing or two about software design.

But then, so could the many disgruntled users of iOS 6. It’s a simple lesson, really: Cool new software is even cooler when it works properly.

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