Apple iOS 7 review
Apple's new operating system, iOS 7, is finally here. Designed by Apple senior VP of design, Jony Ive, it promises a brave new world for Apple users.
It's one that ditches the so called "skeuomorphism" - where a design object represents itself by a real-world visual counterpart - of green felt, yellow note paper, and faux leather, instead moving in a new direction, one with a fresh and modern look. It's flatter, more colourful and very Jony Ive.
But what else does it offer? And should you resist this year's upgrade for as long as you can, in fear that it will grind your Apple device down a gear, or jump feet first into the new era?
Pocket-lint has been using the new operating system on an iPhone 5 and iPad mini since the first iOS 7 beta was released in June and, more recently, on the iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S models for a week of use to try to grasp how your Apple world is about to change. Here's the good, the bad and the pretty.
Everything is different, everything is the same
Apple's operating system has always been a facilitator for other companies' apps to shine. It's what, rightly or wrongly, sets Apple apart from other phone and tablet manufacturers. Apple provides the basic core apps and then turns to others to empower the iPhone. That's stands in contrast to many of its rivals. The likes of HTC, Samsung and Sony have added a series of technologies, treats, features and apps within apps to enhance Google's Android offering, while Nokia and its endless pursuit to make Windows Phone a better place rolls on, all pouring more and more of its own experience into another platform.
But with Apple, the approach is different, an inherent advantage of pairing hardware and software. The camera app takes pictures and records video, that's it. It isn't a camera that lets you correct faces so they smile, it isn't a lens for finding a job, it isn't a way of stitching together a series of shots to make a movie. If anything it's the most basic of them all, but among the most used and praised across the web.
Apple's approach, whether you like it or not, has always been to give you the basics and then let dedicated companies develop apps to enhance beyond that. If you were expecting something different this time around, then iOS 7 will disappoint: Apple's latest operating system is an old dog learning new tricks - some lovely new tricks - but one that is still the same as it was yesterday and, more than likely, the same one that you'll get tomorrow.
iOS 7 is the operating system you know and love - so don't expect any confusion - but, at the same time, it's an operating system where everything is different.
If the crux of the OS hasn't changed, the design certainly has. Ive and his team have done a complete makeover to bring iOS up to speed with the cutting lines and hard finishes of the Apple hardware, such as the iPhone 5S. For the first time in the iPhone's six year history, the software finally matches the hardware in terms of design language and that is very much welcomed.
READ: Apple iPhone 5S review
That marriage has been achieved through a number of changes beyond simply getting rid of a foot in the past. A thinner font, a wider use of a colour, and a layering approach are just some of the tricks being used to give you a sense of the new.
When we first saw iOS 7 in June we described the OS as "joyful". And now, three months later, we have to say that word was right. Whether it's the large circular buttons of the lock screen or the use of bright colours for the default icons, Apple is playing with colour like never before. The iTunes logo is a bright purple, the calculator bright orange, messages and phone bright green. It gives each app icon a distinct separation. The corporate world could and probably will turn its nose up, before realising that it doesn't have to be grey, and certainly doesn't have to be boring.
Layers upon layers
Beyond the new colour palette and a crisper, cleaner look, is layering. It is one of the core approaches to the new OS and one that is built on the premise that everything is layered on top of each other like a pack of cards, or a pile of papers.
At the very bottom of the pile is the wallpaper. There are static and now "dynamic" wallpapers to choose from and, to give a sense of depth, Apple has introduced a parallax movement so that when you move the iPhone or iPad there is a slight shift to give you the feeling that the icons are sitting in front of the wallpaper rather than being a part of it.
You then have the icon layer to rack up those apps, and on top of that again are the notifications panel and quick settings panel. Just as the parallax wallpaper helps increase the perception of depth in the design, whatever is on the screen when the notifications panel or quick settings panel are on show shines through from underneath.
When using iOS 7 it's all just faster; everything goes "pow", or certainly feels that way. Open an app and - pow - it springs into action. Close the app and - pow - it shrinks back down into the icon. Pow, pow, pow. At first it can be incredibly disorientating. Apple hasn't done this before on the iPhone, and neither does Google with Android, Microsoft with Windows Phone, or any OS we've seen in the past like Palm OS or even Tizen.
Notification panel and Control Centre
The notifications layer, or panel, has been enhanced. Now split into three elements, iPhone users will be able to see what's happening today and tomorrow, view all the notifications from different apps and messages, and those various things you might have missed. Switching between the three is easy, and if you've been a fan of notifications before then you'll love the new features.
The settings layer, called Control Panel, is completely new and one that is very much welcomed. It borrows heavily from takes on Android, where you drag from the top of the screen downwards, to access the most commonly used hardware settings. Apple has enhanced that concept further with features it feels its users will want rather than letting you set your own.
There's no customisation here, however. Working from the top down, you get the ability to turn on Airplane mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, lock orientation, and do not disturb at the press of each appropriate icon.
Beneath that is a slide bar to set brightness, and beneath that again the chance to control any music you are listening to. You can also select the new AirDrop feature - which is new to iOS 7 and allows you to share to other iOS 7 devices at the press of a button - or quickly fire up one of four features: torch, timer, calculator and the camera.
There are plenty of new tricks, in apps and at a core OS level, but ones to take note of include that you no longer scroll left to get universal search - it's now a pull down when you are on the homepage - and that there's a new screen to close active apps should you need to.
Closing apps in still initiated by a double tap of the home button, however instead of iOS revealing a line of apps, four at a time, you are presented with a number of "app cards" that show the apps you have running. You can close those apps by flicking them off the screen regardless of whether you are running them at that moment or not. It's an idea "borrowed" from the now defunct Palm OS, but also in various guises across the different takes on Android. There still isn't a "close all" button, but at least now it is easier to close the apps you have open, not that Apple claims you need to.
Other tricks include the clock icon that can actually tell you the time, complete with a moving second hand, and for the iPad version there are moving wallpapers for the first time.
Another biggie, especially for those who have lots of apps, is that Apple has added an Auto Update feature to all apps. Set it up so the apps take care of themselves and that's exactly what they do. It's another idea "borrowed" from Android and one that we've found useful, although it has on a number of occasions meant that we've missed being alerted to new features added.
Developers are going to have to double their efforts on detailing updates, possibly within the app after an update for the more major ones. As in iOS 6, version 7 app updates are restricted by size and if, say, Real Racing 3 insists on a 390MB update it won't be forced on you if you are on a mobile connection only. However you can still be caught out, especially if you've got a number of updates all under the limited file size. As Android owners will tell you, it is certainly something to be careful of if you are roaming.
The basic Apple apps
As you can imagine, Apple apps have had a complete design makeover with the new iteration of the OS. There are no completely new apps introduced here, nor has every Apple app had a complete overhaul beyond the design. Any sense of "skeuomorphism" has been ditched: the calendar app is cleaner, Notes is squeaky clean, and the Compass is very digital.
Weather has had a complete makeover utilising the full screen width to show the weather wherever you are heading, and on the surface is very similar to the award-winning Yahoo app launched earlier this year. It's not the same, obviously, but it's light years ahead of what the former weather app used to look like. When it's raining it's raining in the app, but the visualisation doesn't go as far as HTC's old weather offering with the full-on windscreen wipers. Still, it's a big bump in the right direction for Apple.
The iPhone is the most-used camera on Flickr, so making sure that feature is up to scratch is clearly a priority for Apple. In iOS 7 the camera app has been refined considerably. The focus is now on a single button used to take pictures.
To change modes you simply swipe from left to right and that gesture accesses video, square photos, and panorama. Square is new, and clearly an attempt to woo Instagram users away from Instagram - especially when those ads start turning up. The new filter feature - another Instagram-style offering - can be used to shoot in real-time or added to after taking a shot, and neither has a destructive result on the images you save as the original also remains available. Filters include Fade, Mono, Transfer, Tonal, Instant, Chrome, Noir, and Process. Make of that what you will.
We've found that Chrome - not the Google web browser, we might add - offers the most punch to our images and Noir gives a grainy black and white look. Switching between the four modes in the camera app is easy, as is turning on features that you've been able to use previously like HDR and the flash.
Unlike the camera interfaces from other manufacturers, Apple hasn't tried to complicate things here. There are no "clever" shooting modes. Take your picture and be done with it. If you want to see what wine you are drinking there is probably an app for that and you should be using that rather than this.
Once you've snapped your photo you probably want to share it, and that's where the all-new Photos gallery interface comes into play. Sharing is now more of a minefield, though, or it is to begin with. Press the new icon that looks like a piece of paper with an arrow pointing out of the top and you are presented with a number of choices, including Messages, Mail, iCloud, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. Rivals on other platforms will see this is a fairly basic sharing arrangement, especially compared to Android's easy share-to-anything approach.
The one more advanced sharing option we were excited about was AirDrop, new to iOS 7, but it doesn't work in conjunction with the computer-based side of Mac. That means no sharing from iOS 7 to Mountain Lion. Lame, given that it shares the same name.
You can also copy the image, create a slideshow to bore people with, AirPlay it to a nearby Apple TV, assign it to a contact, use it as your wallpaper or print it if you are feeling old school. iCloud has been simplified so you don't have to mess around with specific photo streams and that has an effect on the way you can view images you are sharing with others, for the better.
If most people who have an iPhone use it to take pictures, being able to enjoy those pictures is important. Photos are now split into three areas: Photos, Shared, and Albums within a dedicated Photos app or accessible via the Camera app as before. The first is what you expect it to be: all the photos you've ever taken with your iPhone or uploaded to your iPhone. Apple, realising that people now probably have a lot of photos, has broken these down by year, then by Collections, then by Moments.
Using GPS tagging, Photos are now automatically broken down into locations, and then the shot time attributed to the individual photo. It makes finding photos quickly a lot easier, as you can browse by location - say, photos taken in 2013, in England, on the Isle of Wight - for a more logical experience.
Shared has also undergone a simplification process. Now instead of letting you share only to a stream you've created, sharing with iOS 7 allows multiple people to share to the same stream at once. That's a huge improvement over iOS 6 as it means you and your family can have a single shared folder of photos rather than insisting on your having one for you, one for your partner, one for you mum and so on.
It also means that Apple can now display an Activity feed that monitors all the streams you belong to and give you the photos you and others share in a single place. Think of it like the Facebook News Feed but just for photos.
The final option is Albums and this lets you quickly see your camera roll, your photo streams, the panoramas you've shot, videos you've captured, and any other albums you've created. Since we've been using iOS 7 we've looked at this feature once. Not taken by it.
There's a big new Mail feature in iOS 7: the ability to search your complete inbox for specific terms rather than being limited to To, From, Subject. It makes a huge difference. You can also limit your search to a specific folder, or the thread you happen to be in.
Other features we've noticed and are enjoying include, like Gmail, a swipe-left motion to open up more options like delete, flag, read/unread and forward without needing to open. Sadly there are still features missing that we would like to see, such as the ability to tap on a contact and immediately see what other emails they've sent in the past. There are also too many button presses to navigate through the app.
Overall it's a vast improvement and the clarity of the design just feels better on the eyes too. We've been able to blitz through hundreds of emails at a time and whittle down our inbox quickly, and seemingly easier than when using iOS 6.
While you would like to believe that the reason you bought your iPhone is so you can make calls to your loved ones, one of the most frequent things you do is surf the web for cat videos.
Like most of the core apps in iOS 7, Safari has been given a huge overhaul in terms of features as well as the look and feel of it all. The design has been simplified immensely. It's fast, simple and easy to use. On the iPhone you are no longer restricted to eight tabs, and those tabs are now displayed in a Rolodex-style so you spinning through them to find the page you want. If you don't want one to be there any more then you can swipe it to the left and it's gone.
Likewise Favourites are easier to get to, as are your reading list saves and, new to the mix, shared links by your contacts from Twitter and Facebook. It's also easier to turn on private browsing within Safari rather than having to go to the settings. Porn fans looking to avoid being caught will be happy - you don't need to download Firefox or Chrome any more.
Siri iOS 7 has come out of beta and gets a couple of new tricks, the main one being the ability to ask what someone is saying on Twitter. "Siri what's Lady Gaga saying on Twitter," now details that persons Twitter feed to save you having to make a search for it. Useful or useless? We're not sure. It's totally gaga.
There's other chatter too as iOS 7 introduces new alerts, sounds, and ringtones. It's not Vienna Boys Choir, but it all sounds a bit more exciting that it was previously.
The new music service from Apple aims to take on Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, Nokia Music and everyone else that offers a free or ad supported music service. Like every other service available you can create your own stations based on a single artist or song and let it do the rest. Apple says that the more you listen the more personalised your station becomes. Of course there is the option to buy the track from iTunes if you like it that much.
We were able to use iTunes Radio in the US, seeing as it is currently only available in the region. It's conveniently placed in the Music app you've come to know and love - listed simply as "Radio". Apple lists featured stations like "iTunes Top 100: Alternative", Pure Pop, and a Guest DJ performance by Katy Perry. Beneath are a list of the stations you've predetermined from a specific artist, genre or song.
The functionality doesn't stray too far from what is found in Spotify, Pandora, and the other major players. iTunes Radio gives a song it thinks you will enjoy, and you're left to continue listening, "play more songs like this", "never play this song", add it to your iTunes wishlist, make the purchase to keep it in your music library, or skip to move on the next track. There wasn't anything that stood out in terms of music selection; it seemed pretty on par with other services available.
It's enticing if you're an iTunes Match subscriber. Apple will give you unlimited skips and no advertisements, making iTunes Radio a neat feature for your £21.99 a year payment. If you want to listen free, you'll be limited in your skips and be given an audio advertisement every 15 minutes and one video advertisement every hour.
If you're already deeply embedded into Apple's Music app, we see no reason why you wouldn't use iTunes Radio.
iPhoto, iMovie, Pages, Numbers, Keynote
Apple has now made its iWork and iPlay apps free for all new iOS 7 devices for all new devices activated after 1 September. That should mean that all iPhone and iPad users who are upgrading to iOS 7 should get it when they re-activate the device, but we are waiting confirmation from that come update day.
Not mentioned in the iOS 7 keynote, apart from appearing on a side and yet to be realised in an app, the idea behind iBeacons is that an iPhone running iOS 7 will be able to connect to a proximity sensor via Bluetooth. The idea which could transform shopping is that the sensors would be in your local supermarket and be on the look out for your phone to enter the 50m hot zone.
By doing so you could then be sent vouchers or even use your phone to pay. It's similar to an idea already in practice by Qualcomm. The benefit here is that although iBeacons is an Apple terminology, the technology is already available in Android 4.3 making in much more universal and much more fitting with the Internet of Things mantra currently gaining momentum in Silicon Valley.
Battery and performance
We've been doing most of our testing for this review on the beta versions of iOS 7, and we've seen noticeable performance and battery improvements within the beta releases. But after iOS 6 causing many iPhones to slide towards poor performance that's not a total surprise - it's something that needed to happen.
That said if you are upgrading your iPhone 5 to iOS 7 from iOS 6 don't suddenly expect to have a faster phone or a longer-lasting battery than you had yesterday. The final version of iOS 7 won't offer giant leaps, not on existing Apple handsets anyway. In our tests with the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C we've got a full day battery with both devices on the new OS.
iPhone 5S-only features
And that's where the new 64-bit iPhone 5S comes in to play. Here iOS 7 brings with it features such as slo-mo video and a burst mode in the camera - but that's down to the more powerful processor on board.
There's also a fingerprint scanner in the 5S so you can bypass the need for having to typing in your passcode every time you want to unlock your phone.
iOS 7 now also supports 64-bit apps, you lucky new 5S owners. But, the thing is, there aren't any as yet.
The new M7 processor in the iPhone 5S will be able to determine what you are physically doing with your phone and offer greater support for motion-based apps in the future. Apple is already using this support in its native apps - Apple Maps, for example, can determine when you've got out of the car and automatically change directions to be on foot without you needing to so much as press a button.
When you first install iOS 7 on your iPhone or iPad you'll no doubt panic that everything has changed and that you won't have a clue what is going on any more. The colours will dazzle you, the apps will pow and pop at you, and you'll wonder why you pressed the upgrade button so quickly. But after a brief moment, the panic subsides and you'll realise that you've got an OS that makes your phone seem shiny, new - and enjoyable.
For Apple, there are so many iPhone users that it can't risk upsetting the apple cart. It can't completely reboot everything in one quick move like Microsoft (look how that's gone) and so change has to come slowly. Getting a new fresh look is the mission statement for this year's Apple update, and we suspect that next year will be about new features. For most, Ive and Apple's efforts will be happily received.
Ive hasn't re-invented the wheel though, and there are no groundbreaking moments that will make you sit bolt upright in the middle of the night and wonder why a certain feature didn't exist before. But you will enjoy the new crisper, cleaner look. It will make you enjoy your iPhone once again and you'll ask why it hasn't always been like this.
If you've got bored of iOS, iOS 7 might make you stick around for a little longer. But you'll soon realise this is a polish, a veneer, and the problems you may have grown tired of still remain. There's comfort and security in the familiarity, but you may still find yourself with the 7-year itch. Not the iOS 7 itch.