iOS 7 is being heralded as the most significant update to iOS since the debut of the iPhone back in 2007. But are the changes enough to keep up with the mobile competition?
iOS 7 is now available and as millions of users are learning, it’s different. Really different. Since its debut at WWDC in June, commentary about the OS has been mixed. The first few betas were rough — both in looks and in stability. We’re happy to report that the official release of iOS 7 is polished, thoughtful and packed full of new features.
The most visceral change to iOS 7 is its interface. As we’ve discussed (and dissected) before, iOS 7 is a complete visual rewrite of the operating system. Literally every pixel, every screen, every icon was redrawn and rethought for the new OS. The results are stunning.
Although the initial beta versions of iOS 7 left some users — and online commenters — feeling less than friendly, the final result is incredibly well executed.
Let’s set one thing straight — calling iOS 7’s UI “flat” is not accurate. Yes, the heavy textures and intricate icon details from iOS 6 and below are gone, but the amount of shadow, gradient and subtle texture in iOS 7 is anything but “flat.”
The parallax 3D background effect — while subtle — is one of my favorite parts of the new UI. It’s playful and whimsical — the opposite of the sterile, emotionless effect that often accompanies more “flat” interfaces.
The bigger change is actually with the color palette. Richer, more earthy tones are out and bright, bold primary colors and gradients are in. White space is also in abundance and when combined with accent colors and the Helvetica Neue typeface, everything looks ultra-crisp and modern.
Beyond just the look of icons, Apple has also changed the way apps interact. Animations are abundant — opening an app or popping into a folder is Ken Burns-esque. Gestures to move forward or back are viewable throughout the OS, especially in Safari.
Moreover, as I said when discussing the first iOS 7 beta, everything just feels faster and more fluid.
The visual language for text also received an overhaul. Not only did the system font change to Helvetica Neue, buttons have largely moved from icons to being driven by text. Some will appreciate this change while others will prefer the old glyph style.
Text takes a big priority in Notification Center — with natural language replacing the old widgetized look.
Notification Center and Control Center
Apple introduced Notification Center back in iOS 5. Originally, it was just a place to store app notifications, as well as offer a look at stuff like weather, calendars and reminders.
With iOS 6, Notification was improved, but the basic conceit was the same.
In iOS 7, Notification Center not only gets a big visual overhaul, it gets increasingly more useful too.
Now, instead of having all notifications displayed in one window, They can be grouped into three categories “Today,” “All” and “Missed.” The “today” tab is fabulous because it shows a textual overview of weather as well as your next Calendar event. Beneath, there’s visual overview of what’s happening on your Calendar that day. You can also see your stocks and a text preview of your events for tomorrow.
In the “all” tab, you see notifications from various apps. This includes text messages, email notifications and other app updates. The “missed” tab shows any notification you missed, either while your phone was locked or in another app.
For me, this has made Notification Center infinitely more powerful and useful. My only lament is that it’s no longer possible to compose a tweet or Facebook post from the Notification Center. This was one of my favorite quick-action features of iOS 6, and it’s sad to see it go.
The other “center” in iOS 7 is the new Control Center. Control Center answers a long-standing gripe amongst iOS users and offers easy access to frequently updated settings.
Pulling up from the bottom brings up a window that provides access to music controls, brightness, one-tap access to Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Night Mode and Orientation Lock. You also have one-tap access to a new flashlight, the timer/alarms, the calculator app and the camera. AirPlay and AirDrop are easily accessible as well.
The whole concept of Control Center is old hat to Android users, who have had easy access to these kinds of settings either through widgets, OEM skins or from Android proper since at least the Eclair days. In fact, some of the earliest Jailbreak tweaks for iOS were to add this sort of quick-toggle functionality. I’m not claiming that this feature is innovative — I’m just glad it’s finally on iOS.
If I have any complaints, it’s that there isn’t a Safari button on Control Center. Having one-tap access to the browser from any other place on the phone would be excellent.
Folders, Spotlight, Gestures
In the past, iOS was limited to 16 apps per folder on iPhone and 20 on iPad. This may seem fine for some users, but if you have hundreds of apps on your phone, you’ll be like me and have three full folders just of photo apps. In iOS 7, you can have an unlimited number of apps in a folder. Instead, folders now have pages that are easy to swipe through.
Spotlight search is also improved. In earlier versions of iOS, you had to swipe to the right of the first page of apps to access Spotlight. Now, you simply pull down any home screen (except for from the top or the bottom strip of “permanent” apps) and a Spotlight search pops up. This is easily one of my favorite features because I frequently use Spotlight to quickly access apps rather than navigating through folders.
The swipe-down-for-Spotlight feature is just one of the many gestures added to iOS 7. With iOS 5, Apple added experimental multi-finger support for the iPad. This allowed users to open, close and scroll through apps more easily.
This has been expanded in iOS 7 and also includes more iPhone gestures. Swiping to the left or right on a tabbed top menu layout (like in Notification Center) swipes between tabs. In Safari, swiping to the left or right of the screen acts as back or forward.
Just as pinch-to-zoom naturally made sense as soon as it was released, the multi-touch gestures — especially for navigating forward and back — just feels right.
If you’ve ever used Palm’s webOS, you know how multitasking works on iOS 7. Double-tapping on the home button brings up an app selector — just as in prior versions of iOS — but instead of seeing icons, users see full previews of their other apps in a card-like fashion. Tapping the app window launches the app and flicking the app window towards the top stops it from running.
This is a much more preferable way of switching between apps than prior versions of iOS. It’s also easier for users to decide to stop an app or shut it down.
In addition to the new multitasking metaphor, Apple has given applications the ability to continue to update in the background. This is similar to the way Android apps work, and it lets apps perform tasks even if they aren’t currently open or being used.
In the past, Apple has restricted background operations to apps that use certain accessibility settings, some location settings (for things such as turn-by-turn navigation) and built-in applications. With iOS 7, developers now have an API that can allow an app to refresh in the background, grabbing new content and pushing it out to the user.
This is both a good and bad development.
It’s good because it means that a podcasting app — say Downcast or Pocket Casts — can automatically download new episodes in the background. The same is true of an RSS reader or an app such as Instapaper or Pocket. This type of background refresh was available to Newsstand apps in earlier versions of iOS — allowing users to have new issues of a publication automatically downloaded and ready as soon as they launch the app.
The extension to more types of apps theoretically means that loading apps that regularly poll data servers should be faster than ever.
To be clear, this isn’t a full adoption of Android’s multitasking system — which is closer to the “full” multitasking systems that desktop operating systems such as OS X and Windows 8 employ — but it does let apps get more information without being open or actively running.
The bad part of background app refresh (as Apple calls it) is that it also means that apps can suck more battery power.
Users can opt to turn off background app refresh — or select what apps have permission to refresh in the background via a panel in Settings — but let’s be honest: Most users aren’t going to be obsessed with finely tuning their background app controls.
As a result, apps that users don’t use very often might be able to make background requests, and this could drain battery life. I’ll be interested in seeing how Apple support starts advising users to use background refresh. In my own tests, once apps with background refresh became available, I noticed a more significant drain on my iPhone 5.
It’s not just the UI that changed with iOS 7; Apple also gave its built-in apps a fresh coat of paint, and in many cases, new features.
The Reading List feature gets a big update with support for links from your Twitter followers. Any link that’s included in a tweet from someone you follow on Twitter shows up in a stream. Tapping on the link opens it up and you can choose to read it now or save it for later.
iTunes functions the same as before, except it now has iTunes Radio — Apple’s long-expected Pandora competitor. We’ll cover iTunes Radio more in-depth in a future review, but it works well on the iPhone and iPad.
Apple Maps was given a visual overhaul. The realistic 3D maps are still there, but the mapping view is cleaner, and similar to what you see with Google Maps. Transit maps still aren’t built in, but we hope the recent acquisitions of HopStop and Embark mean that will soon become a native feature. Speaking of Maps, if you haven’t used them in a while (and I hadn’t), it’s worth revisiting. Most of the biggest problems from iOS 6 are fixed and I find the location data just as good as what you get with Google, albeit without built-in transit.
Siri gets a big update with iOS 7 — by way of an updated female voice and a male option for the U.S. Siri can also now be used to do system tasks — “open settings” or “open brightness,” for example. Siri is also better integrated with Twitter and can search tweets and mentions.
The camera software in iPhone 5 got a total overhaul. You can now easily move between photo and video with a swipe and take photos in a square format. There are also an array of live filters you can use for taking photo or video. The burst button lets you take shots in quick succession.
Viewing photos is now easier as they are auto-arranged by date and location, making it super-easy to find the right shot.
FaceTime now supports audio-only calls, which means you can have a voice call with a contact.
The phone dialer looks new and fresh, but otherwise works as you would expect.
AirDrop works on the iPhone 5, iPad 4, iPad mini and fifth-generation iPod touch or later. It requires that Bluetooth and WiFi be enabled and it lets users quickly share items with one another.
It’s a proximity-based technology — you can’t be more than about 15 feet away from a person in our test — but it allows for seamless sharing of files or photos. AirDrop is a snap to use. By default, you can share only with those in your contacts — but you can also enable AirDrop to work with anyone around you.
It’s not NFC, but for file transfer, it’s every bit as good.
Automatic Updates and New Built-In Services
By default, all app updates are applied automatically. This is great for users that hate having to slog through their updates. If you want to turn off this option and update manually, you can.
Vimeo and Flickr are now built-in to iOS 7 — just like Facebook and Twitter. This means you can share photos or videos directly to those services from the camera app and in other share sheets.
On the iPad
As of right now, the iPhone version of iOS 7 seems a bit more solid and refined than the version on the iPad. This isn’t to say iOS 7 is bad on the iPad — it’s not — but it doesn’t feel as polished or as finished.
On my third-generation iPad (the first with the retina display), I noticed that some tasks seemed a bit slower. This wasn’t as evident on an iPad 4 or iPad mini, so that just might be my device.
Some applications, such as Safari, weren’t modified as much on the iPad. Aside from the new omnibar — which lets you search or enter a URL in the same field — and icon theme, Safari looks the same as it did before.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see a point update to iOS 7 arrive in conjunction with the next wave of iPad devices. That update might also bring one of the only features not included with iOS 7 — iCloud Keychain. iCloud Keychain was available in the iOS 7 developer betas, but since it works so closely with OS X Mavericks, it makes sense that it won’t launch until Mavericks arrives later this fall.
iOS 7 is a massive update. It’s not only an overhaul of how the system looks, there are tons of new features under the hood that change the way developers build apps and change the overall “feel” of the OS.
The new look might have been polarizing at first — but I firmly believe most users will come to really like it over time.
You really need to fully use iOS 7 for a few days to really get a sense of the changes. This is a big update but one that makes the OS feel more modern and complete.
Many Android users point out that many of the newest marquee features are merely playing “catch-up” with Google’s mobile OS. That’s a fair point, but it misses one fundamental bit of truth: iOS 7 still feels more polished and unified than even the pure Google implementations of Android.
iOS 7 has a little bit of something for everyone. For power users — the improved folder support, the ability to have background apps pull in new data, and Siri’s improvements really make life easier. For regular users, the new look and bits of UI whimsy are a fun addition.
As more and more apps are updated to support iOS 7, the more we’ll really start to see just what this OS can do. From game-controller support to better features for wearable devices, there’s a lot of stuff in iOS 7 that is still undiscovered. We can’t wait to watch it get better.