Apple’s iOS 7 offers not only a refreshing new look for the company’s handheld devices, it also provides some cool — and in some cases, long-awaited — new features.
I downloaded the latest update to the operating system that underlies the iPhone and iPad this morning to three different iPhones and an older iPad. I’ve been testing the new software and its features and plan to write an initial review later today. But so far, I’ve been fairly impressed.
The guiding theme of the design of the updated system is to present information in multiple, flatter layers and simpler layouts. Gone are the rounded icons and buttons and virtual textures that dominated previous versions of iOS. In their place are simple text commands like “Menu” and “Done” and icons that embrace their two-dimensionality.
The operating system retains enough of the familiar that users should be able to adjust to it fairly easily. App icons are still arranged on a series of homepages and can still be placed in folders. The notification area is still in a tray that you pull down from the top of the screen. Users still have to “slide to unlock” their devices. And frequently used apps such as the phone dialer and the Safari browser are still available in a task bar at the bottom of the screen.
But the new look is a refreshing change and, in some ways, is easier to understand and navigate, once you get the knack for it. For example, Spotlight, a universal search feature that can be used to look for applications located on a device, information on the Web or a particular address book entry, can now be accessed from any homepage by a simple swipe down from the middle of the screen. Previously, Spotlight was relegated to a separate homepage to the left of all the app icons.
But iOS 7 offers a lot more than just a new look. With the update, Apple has included a number of features long desired by iPhone and iPad users.
One of the best new features is Control Center, which offers iOS users an easy way to adjust common settings and to access popular features. Available with a simple swipe up from the bottom of the screen on any homepage or even, if you turn on the option, within apps, the feature allows users to do such things as turn on or off airplane mode and their WiFi and Bluetooth radios. They can also adjust the volume and brightness of their device and quickly launch the camera and clock apps.
In past versions of iOS, users would have had to launch the settings app and dig through multiple screens to adjust such features, which could be a time-consuming and frustrating process. Control Center makes the process much, much easier.
But it does more than adjust settings. Apple has also built into Control Center the ability to quickly turn on the flash on the iPhone so that it can be used as a flashlight. And Apple has also moved in to the Control Center the music player widget, which users formerly could access only through the task switching feature on the phone. With the widget, users can play, pause, replay and fast forward songs from their music player or music services such as Pandora.
Quick settings areas have long been standard on devices running Google’s Android operating system. The lack of one has long been a significant shortcoming in iOS. So, it’s great to see Apple finally fitting in such a feature.
Another great new feature is AirDrop. Since the launch of its Galaxy S III phone last year, Samsung has been touting the ability of its devices to easily share photos and other files with other Samsung handheld gadgets by simply being bumped together. With AirDrop, Apple has taken that idea and made it much more useful.
AirDrop allows users to wirelessly share photos, contacts, home videos, Web pages and more with any other iOS users in the room. After turning on the feature and tapping a “share” button in a particular app, users will see other nearby iOS users with whom they can share files. They start the process by simply tapping on the person to whom they want to send the information. That person has the opportunity to accept the file or reject it. Assuming the file is accepted, it’s sent immediately over WiFi. It’s fast and easy. Users concerned with security can turn the feature off or only allow people in their address book to send them files.
I used AirDrop to send photos, videos and Web pages between my iPhone and my wife’s. It worked very well.
Unfortunately, AirDrop only works with iOS devices. So you can’t use it to send pictures or anything to someone in the room who has an Android device. That may be expected, but it’s also incompatible with Mac computers, which have a feature of the same name. But AirDrop on the Mac only works with other Mac computers.
The other shortcoming of AirDrop is that in order to send a file to a nearby device, that device has to be turned on with its screen unlocked. If it isn’t, AirDrop won’t detect it.
Another cool feature of iOS 7 is the way it handles multitasking. In previous versions of iOS, users were able to see recently used applications by double pressing the home button. But they only got to see icons of those apps.
In iOS 7, users also see shrunken versions, or “cards,” of the actual applications, not just their icons. That new presentation makes it easier to find a particular program you wanted to return to. It also makes it easier to close apps: You do so by simply swiping the app “card” off the screen. Apple has borrowed this gesture from WebOS, the ahead-of-its-time operating system from Palm. I loved it then and love it now. It’s a lot easier than the old way in iOS, which required you to long tap a particular icon and then try to press a small minus sign next to it.
Not everything is great about iOS 7. In fact, I had a devil of a time getting it installed on my iPhone. Before I could even download the update, Apple warned me that I needed to have 3.1 gigabytes of space available. Considering I had less than 50 megabytes available at the time, I was forced to do a wholesale cleanout of apps and data to make room.
Even after I did that, though, I ran into problems. The update failed to install and I was forced to restore my phone by connecting it to iTunes on my computer. In the process, I ended up losing the data stored in some of my old apps. Then I couldn’t re-install iOS 7 through iTunes, because I didn’t have the latest version and for some reason, Apple wasn’t showing that an update was available. I finally ended up installing iOS 7 directly to my phone, but it was a brutal process.
Fortunately, it was easier on my other devices.
That aside, there are other things I didn’t like about iOS 7. For one thing, as I pointed out recently, some older devices either can’t upgrade to iOS 7 and many won’t get some of the coolest features. AirDrop, for example, is only available for the iPhone 5 and the latest versions of the iPad and iPod touch.
I also didn’t like some elements of the new design. The new app folders are translucent squares that frankly look ugly. They make it look like someone has taken an eraser and repeatedly smudged out bits of the homepage’s background.
Another thing I didn’t like was the way iOS handles notifications. The notification center has been updated and some great new features, such as giving you an encapsulated view of your day ahead. But just like in prior versions of iOS, notfications, whether they come as top-of-the-screen banners or middle of the screen alerts, are still obtrusive. They still cover over important parts of whatever app you happen to be using at the time, preventing you, say, from tapping buttons or interacting with that app. It’s annoying and I wish Apple had fixed it.
But those are generally minor quibbles. I really like iOS 7 so far. It’s a great new look for Apple handhelds.
Photo courtesy of Apple.