In January, I called on Apple to allow iOS users to customize the notification sounds on their devices beyond the nearly two dozen built-in sounds offered on the iPhone 4 and iPad. Back then I said, "The iPhone has been on the market for going on four years now, and yet we still haven't been blessed with the ability to use our own sounds for these alert tones. My only question: why the hell not?"
If I sounded a bit cantankerous, it's only because the most advanced smartphone on the planet lacked a simple feature that other phones have had since before the iPhone even came to market. The good news is this feature gap has been addressed: as of iOS 5, Apple has at last made it so users can assign almost any sound they want to iOS notification alerts.
As before, in the Settings app under "Sounds" you have the ability to alter the notification sounds for Ringtone and Text Tone. New to iOS 5 are tone settings for New Voicemail, New Mail, Sent Mail, Calendar Alerts, a sound for Tweets via iOS 5's built-in Twitter integration, and a setting for alerts sent via the new built-in Reminders app.
Drilling down into the next menu allows you to change the tone, but it's here that the similarities end with iOS 4 end. I'll use Text Tones as an example. In iOS 4.3 and earlier, the only tones you could use on an iPhone 4 were the built-in sounds -- 23 in total. Owners of older iPhones had a still more limited selection, with only the original six sounds available. That's changed in iOS 5. The old, built-in Alert Tones are still available, with "Tweet" and "Swoosh" (the default "Sent Mail" sound) thrown into the mix. Scroll past those sounds and you'll see a new category right below those sounds: Ringtones.
The Ringtones list is split in two between ringtones of your own that you've loaded on the device and the 25 sounds included with iOS. These can be tones you've purchased from iTunes or tones that you've created yourself through one means or another (GarageBand is my weapon of choice). One restriction that Apple hasn't gone out of its way to advertise, however, is that alert tones have to be less than fifteen seconds or so in order to show up in the list of available sounds. If you have ringtones longer than that, they'll still show up in the list of available sounds for when your phone rings, but you won't be able to use that 30-second clip of "Poker Face" for your SMS notification sound. I'd call that a blessing.
The upshot of all this is that instead of being limited to the sounds Apple's chosen to include with the device, you can now assign virtually any sound you want to your alert tones for Messages, Mail, Calendar Alerts, and so forth. After all these years, at last my iPhone can make the "Get new item" sound from the Legend of Zelda series when I get new email, which unlike the "Ding" default makes the New Mail sound something that's actually audible from more than three meters away.
Daring Fireball's John Gruber likes to throw tomatoes at bloggers for using the word "finally" when it comes to Apple introducing features or updates, but I don't feel bad at all using it here. Four years was a long time to wait for something as basic as the ability to use our own sounds for notifications, but at least the wait is finally over.