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iOS 7 review: a new look or a new beginning?

Your iPhone or iPad is about to feel very different

iOS 7 lead (1024px)

Apple may deserve more credit than anyone for the way our smartphones look and work, but six years after our first glimpse of the iPhone a lot has changed. Google continued to design and re-design Android; Windows Phone introduced a colorful, vibrant operating system; yet iOS stood mostly still. Until this June, that is, when CEO Tim Cook announced Apple had been working on “the biggest change to iOS since the introduction of the iPhone.”

That change is iOS 7, a complete aesthetic overhaul of the interface millions of iPhone owners have known for years. From the moment you turn on an iPhone running iOS 7 through nearly every interaction you have with it, it’s different. This free update changes every menu, every option, every app. Even Siri has become an entirely new person, with new thoughts and a new voice.

But for all the sweeping statements and pervasive changes, when we first saw iOS 7 it felt like change for change’s sake — a fresh coat of paint on the same old house. So what is iOS 7? Is it a new idea for a new era of smartphone users? Or is it a veneer of innovation on top of a familiar foundation?

Look and feel

Less is more

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The key conceit of iOS 7 is simple: you already know how to use a smartphone. Where previous versions offered explicit visual guidance at every turn — this looks like a Rolodex, so it must be my contacts! — iOS 7 assumes you know to click on "Inbox" to go back to your inbox, or that you swipe from left to right to open your phone. You know how to use an iPhone, Apple seems to be saying, so we’ll just get out of your way.

Except iOS 7 doesn’t get out of the way — not quite. Skeumorphs and guidepost icons have been replaced mostly by bombastic animations, which tell you both what to do and what’s happening. On the lock screen, light glides left to right across the words "Slide to unlock," hinting at the direction you should be swiping, in case the arrow pointing to the right wasn’t hint enough. When you tap to open an app, it appears to open from within its icon, expanding to fill the screen; when you close it, it disappears back into its icon once again. The animations are fun, but annoyingly slow — waiting a half-second for every app to open like a beautiful flower doesn’t feel good to me. It feels like lag.

I mostly like the look, with its white backgrounds unencumbered by borders or chrome. Every screen looks bigger and richer without black borders and big overlays. A light Helvetica Neue is everywhere, and it’s understated and handsome even if it’s a little hard to read on the iPad mini’s lower-res screen. The one huge aesthetic problem is Apple’s new app icons. They’re a devastating mix of ugly — the four colored bubbles of Game Center, the generic magazines in Newsstand, the too-big Messages speech bubble — and inscrutable, like the color pinwheel and the oven burner that supposedly represent Photos and Settings.

These odd, gradient-rich icons come on a bright, airy wallpaper, and the combination comes off toylike and childish. The parallax wallpapers are cool, giving your phone a deep and dynamic home screen that appears to move around as you look at it. But if you simply change your wallpaper and move your icons around a bit, the effect isn’t nearly so intense. My home screen looks like it always has, just with slightly flatter colors and gray folders instead of black. And it moves a little.

Where there used to be big, gray icons, now there are only letters. Nearly every clickable item is just a word, which can get really confusing if you don’t know your way around. There’s little guidance, only feedback; the only thing the new version tells you about itself at first run is that you launch Spotlight search by swiping down from anywhere on the home screen. For everything else, you just have to tap on something blue and hope it works. iOS 7 isn’t harder to use, just less obvious. That’s a momentous change: iOS used to be so obvious.

Using the OS

A few new tricks

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Rather than keep everything buried inside an app, Apple’s trying hard to make more information easily retrievable. It starts with a redesigned notification shade, a semi-transparent three-paned window you drag down on top of whatever you’re doing. The first panel, "Today," is a handy overview of your day — calendar events, reminders, the weather, even what time your alarm is set tomorrow. The other two panels, "All" and "Missed," are strikingly similar lists of notifications that adopt the same old iOS setup.

Notifications still pop up over whatever you’re doing, sit in Notification Center until you painstakingly clear them one by one, and offer basically no interaction. OS X Mavericks now lets you reply to messages straight from the notification, why can’t iOS 7? The Today screen is a nice improvement, a sort of ersatz Google Now, but notifications on iOS remain fundamentally unsolved.

Control Center is the best thing about iOS 7

The new Control Center in iOS 7 is a better solution to a similar problem, if a bit of a cluttered eyesore. No matter where you are on your device, a swipe up from the bottom bezel brings up another semi-translucent menu. This one contains quick toggles for Wi-Fi, Airplane Mode, and others; sliders for volume and screen brightness; audio controls; and for some reason, shortcuts to the calculator, flashlight, and timer. I love the idea — turning on Airplane Mode used to take far too long — but there are too many options and too many icons, and there’s absolutely no reason this shouldn’t be customizable. Even still, Control Center is great. (It took awhile to re-train my finger to swipe instead of double-tap every time I wanted to switch songs, though.)

Plenty of iOS’s other hallmark features have been changed, too, but less dramatically. Siri is now out of beta and far more useful: you can search in more places, change settings like brightness and Bluetooth, and she (or he, thanks to new voices) can even read your text messages or play your voicemail. I previously used Siri to set my alarm and nothing else, and the new version dramatically increased the number of things I asked the virtual assistant to do. Siri still lacks the versatility and contextual awareness of Google Now, but it’s catching up.

Spotlight, on the other hand, is now limited to messages, apps, music, and other content on your phone; the previous options to search the web and Wikipedia have been removed. Siri is the new gateway between iOS and the wider world, but without any kind of third-party integration it’s still incomplete — why can’t she search my Pocket queue, or play something in Rdio? The beta might be over, but Siri still has a long way to go.

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Microsoft, Google, Palm, and now Apple all seem to have agreed that there’s one right way to handle multitasking. When you double-tap the home button in iOS 7, a menu pops up with icons and screenshots of all your running apps — scroll through until you find the one you want, which pops open. If you want to close an app, just fling its screenshot upward. It’s all a good idea, except the icons and the screenshots move at different speeds, the screenshots are only updated when you open the app, and it’s all a little slow and stuttery right now. It’s a big improvement, sure, but that’s faint praise here; this still isn’t a great multitasking interface.

There’s more happening in the background you don’t notice, though. Apps can finally, mercifully update without being open, which means when you open your email or Twitter you’ll have an actually current view. No more clicking on notifications, then waiting while new stuff downloads.

You can choose which apps can update in the background, but iOS handles the timing automatically: if you open the New York Times every morning at 8:00, it’ll learn to update at 7:59. Few apps currently support this process yet, but I imagine it’ll be adopted in short order. It makes iOS feel alive and connected, rather than like a series of levers you have to pull to make anything happen.

The new Today screen, Siri, and the background updating lay a base for what could be great new features, but for now Control Center is the only thing that actually affects how you’ll use your device. Everything else is at best invisible, and at worst affectation — like AirDrop, theoretically a nice tool for sharing pictures and notes but so clumsy that I quickly stopped even trying to use it.

If Facetime Audio were like iMessage, working perfectly for Apple users and failing gracefully to make phone calls for everyone else, I’d love it, but it doesn’t, so I eventually gave up on it too. In so many places in iOS 7, it feels like Apple sketched out the right blueprints for an interconnected, clever, advanced operating system — and then didn’t have time to finish connecting all the pieces.

iOS 6’s cartoonlike visuals may have been dated, but the system felt tight, consistent, and fluid. iOS 7 feels like a bunch of ideas hastily built together in a way that doesn’t always make sense. The sharing menu is expanded, but only slightly; good luck sharing to most of the apps you want or even choosing the apps in your list. The right-to-left "back" gesture works in some apps, but not all of them. Sometimes a word is a menu, other times it’s navigation.

Prettier notifications don’t mean better notifications; more visual multitasking doesn’t mean better multitasking. Until Apple figures out how to use its developers and its ecosystem to bring these features into a cohesive whole, many of these new ideas count as feature creep over refinement.

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Apps

Old apps, new look

Goodbye, yellow legal pads and terrible leathery borders. Apple has used iOS 7 as its opportunity to simplify nearly every one of its core apps, from Mail and Calendar all the way down to Stocks and Compass. That’s mostly a very good thing: Reminders and Notes, two otherwise solid apps effectively ruined by their previously hideous design, are finally worth using. Same goes for Calendar, which still doesn’t offer the advanced features you’ll get from an alternative like Fantastical but is finally a glanceable, useful app.

Safari’s better-looking than ever, with a new roundabout wheel of tabs, a unified search / address bar, and toolbars that finally get out of your way (except on iPad). I’m a die-hard Chrome user, just because tab and bookmark syncing remains so much more effortless, but Safari is fast and simple enough to make me switch whenever possible.

Only a few apps are more than a new look

Weather is without question the best-looking core app, in large part because it’s basically a new wrapper around the beautiful Yahoo Weather app. It’s a wonderful mix of pretty and usable, showing you the current weather and a week’s forecast and letting you quickly swipe between cities. It’s not powerful enough to sate the most demanding of amateur meteorologists, but it’s plenty for everyone else.

Interestingly, the App Store and iTunes might be the most improved apps, and maybe the most improved parts of iOS 7 in general. For one thing, the App Store will now automatically update your apps — if you allow it, your only indication that things have changed will be a blue dot next to the app’s name just after it updates. Both apps are crisper and faster, and handle purchases much better — you see everything you’ve purchased in your iTunes library, which then downloads upon request. Add in the Pandora-style iTunes Radio, a simple but handy way to roll your own radio station, and iTunes is actually an app worth using for a change.

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In this sea of whitewashed minimalism, there’s only one app that has more going on: the Camera app in iOS 7 is more powerful than ever, and has a lot more interface and chrome to show for it. I quite like the app, though: it feels much faster without the faux aperture blade animation closing and opening every time you take a picture, and options like HDR and panorama are much easier to access. There are even filters, which put a slightly subtler-than-Instagram tint on your photos that you can change or remove whenever you feel like it thanks to iOS 7’s surprisingly robust image editing tool.

With the iPhone 5s ushering in a new level of camera performance, Apple’s betting you’re going to take a lot of pictures with your iOS 7 device. So the Photos app has been redesigned to automatically sort your photos both by time and event, so instead of one chronological list of every photo you’ve ever taken you get something resembling an actual library. Photo Stream is still a confusing mess, but the local experience with pictures is pretty fantastic.

Taking pictures is easier, faster, and better

Just about every app has been improved, but with the exception of the camera and possibly Safari, none are yet good enough to make me switch away from the likes of Fantastical, Simplenote, and Mailbox.

From a performance standpoint, there’s little to report. There are some definite bugs on the iPad with iOS 7, which is clearly well behind the iPhone in the development cycle, but even those are mostly minor. I’ve seen no worsening in battery life on any of the recent devices I've tested, only the occasional stutter and lag, and generally really solid, stable performance.

Test

Wrap-Up

iOS 7 could be the start of something great — or the end of something mediocre

Apple’s on a mission to convince buyers that it’s still relevant, still innovative, still interesting. iOS 7 is full of big, sweeping changes to that effect, and there’s real power in making something look fresh and bright, but in the end the new visuals don’t offer much change under the surface. Not yet, anyway.

There are plenty of APIs and tools in iOS 7 that might make it easier for developers to build beautiful new apps that offer remarkable functionality and tie into the interesting new parts of the OS. But Apple needs to help. The Today screen could eventually be a fantastic Google Now-like experience, with all the information you need quickly, but only if developers can access it. Siri could get better and better, and ultimately let you do everything on your phone with your voice, but only if Siri learns what Evernote is and how she can search it for me. There is finally a more robust sharing menu, but it’s woefully underpopulated. Apple needs developer support, yes, but it’ll get that; what I don’t know is whether Apple will open its doors and give developers access to its best, most integrated features, rather than deciding for its users which three places we want to search or send our photos.

Today, as it rolls out to users everywhere, iOS 7 is still on most levels the same operating system it’s been for six years. Meanwhile Android has become a fun, efficient, flowing operating system that makes it easy to move data between apps, easy to share things, and easy to see only the information you need at the moment. Where iOS 7 still feels like jumping in and out of a series of apps, the best moments of using Android make it feel like a cohesive, unified platform. There’s no question iOS 7 has the foundational strength to match that experience, but Apple has to throw open the doors and let its huge ecosystem build on that potential.

iOS has always been an excellent operating system, and iOS 7 remains an excellent operating system. But if Apple’s goal was to match the power and flexibility of its rivals, iOS 7 feels very much like the beginning of a project rather than its conclusion.

GOOD STUFF

  • Control Center is really useful
  • Today makes notifications a lot better
  • The photos experience is much improved

BAD STUFF

  • Design is disjointed and confusing in places
  • Aesthetic improvements can't mask missing functionality
  • Icons everywhere are horrible

THE BREAKDOWN

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  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 8
  • Ecosystem 10
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