iOS7 Has Been Released

Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS7, was first announced back in June, and has been now been made available for general release. It has been called a major new innovation, but only by Apple. Is it worth downloading?

As ever with any major Apple event, the latest release is accompanied by boundless reams of self-congratulatory prose. Here is a typical example: “When a product is designed properly — when you don’t have to adapt to the technology because it’s already designed around you — you develop a connection with it. It becomes more to you than just a device. iOS 7 invites that kind of connection. Interactions are dynamic. Animations are cinematic. And the experience is lively and spirited in so many unexpected yet perfectly natural ways.”

The key message they’re determined to convey this time around is ‘simplicity’. There are several long and turgid explanations for terms such as ‘design’. Get used to it, and try to quell the cynical response that this is precisely how one might seek to sell a host of changes that are largely cosmetic.

The fact is that to a large extent, iOS7 allows iPhone users to do little they couldn’t do before. Presumably this is because they "don’t add features simply because we can, because it’s technologically possible. We add features only they’re truly useful.” It’s a convenient tactic, in that it usefully heads off just about any conceivable criticism of missing features. There’s no explanation of why cinematic animations are necessary, but there you go. Anyway, enough of that. What features were so useful that they did need to be added?

Control Center

The first, and easily best, new feature is the Control Center. By swiping up from the bottom of the screen you can now access many common functions and settings in one place. These include apps such as the calculator and a new inbuilt flashlight app (hooray), and settings such as WiFi, Bluetooth, volume and brightness toggles. Previously you’d have to venture into the Settings menu to find most this stuff. For a flashlight you’d have to use a third party app. The new inbuilt one is simple, and works perfectly well.

On the other hand, there are some functions missing. You’ll still need to delve into the Settings menu to do certain key tasks, such as choosing actual WiFi networks and toggling the Personal Hotspot. This last one is the omission that I find most inconvenient, since I'm often switching tethering on and off. There is sadly no way to customise the settings that are included in the Control Center. Still, overall, the Control Center is an excellent reason to upgrade.

Airdrop allows you to share just about anything shareable from your phone with other users running iOS7 over Wifi or Bluetooth. This is of course functionality that other mobile operating systems have had for a while, but it’s nice to see that Apple has finally decided it is sufficiently useful to add. 

That really covers the actual new features. Everything else is purely an upgrade or reiteration on things that were there already. This isn’t to say that these changes aren’t useful, or even great. Many of them certainly are pretty.

Design

Apple’s much-advertised and over-defined new ‘design’ is readily apparent the first time you open your phone after the update. It all looks new, not new as in different, but as in a new version of something you already had. All the icons have been replaced, and are now flatter, less shaded (and, dare I say it, less visually nuanced). Menus are now slightly transparent. The keyboard and keypad visuals have changed. (There’s some argument in the Dog and Bone office as to whether this particular change is for the better.)

The range of possible gestures has also been expanded, or at least changed. You no longer swipe right from the home screen to access search, but down from the middle of any screen. The search now overlays the existing screen. The bars showing coverage strength have been replaced by wee circles. Adorable. As mentioned, swiping from the bottom up reveals the Control Center.

The Notification Center is still accessed by swiping from the top, but has been simplified (Apple speak), meaning it contains less information (normal speak). It’s certainly less cluttered. Notifications can be organised by Today, All, and Missed, enabling users to wistfully revisit all those meetings they didn’t go to.

The multitasking interface has also gotten a bit better. Whereas double tapping the home button used to just bring up rows of icons at the bottom of your screen, now you also get a display of currently open windows, including separate tabs in Safari. This enables more precise switching. Apps can also be closed from here by swiping the windows up and away. Multiple windows can be closed at a time. It’s more fun than it sounds.

Apps

All the same apps are present, but every single one of them has been overhauled in order to do the same thing slightly more efficiently. Safari has a new look, and features tabbed browsing which lets you see what is actually on those other tabs. This is nice. Notes looks vastly better, and cleaner, and less, well, brown. I can’t tell if the Weather app has actually improved – I’ve always found it to be less reliable than various third party offerings – but it certainly looks gorgeous. Prevailing atmospheric conditions are now right there on the screen – rain and snow actually fall, and generate a lovely illusion of depth by occasionally crossing over in front of the text. I suppose this is what Apple meant by cinematic animations.

Siri now boasts a range of genders – two is the range – and accents, and has apparently gotten smarter. I’ll persist in calling it a ‘she’. In side by side tests on the same phones (I tested on both iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S) she was noticeably faster with the new OS. She still cannot conjugate Latin verbs, for what it’s worth. Overall, however, there was a definite improvement. Maillooks cleaner – whiter- but doesn’t seem to have improved much. It’s still a pain to mail attachments, and it’s still annoying to organise your mailboxes.

The Camera app has improved markedly, with a range of new features. This is probably the change that average users – a purely theoretical group if ever there was one – will notice the most. Formats and filters can now be found and selected far more logically (intuitively, as Apple would have it). Photos are now stored better, and can be (automatically) sorted in new ways, such as by time and location. Again, there’s nothing here that will radically alter how you do things.

Performance and Verdict

Upgrading to iOS7 on an iPhone 5 should have no impact on performance. I certainly noticed none – everything was as perfectly smooth as before. However, on an iPhone 4S there was a discernible degradation in the smoothness of the overall experience. This wasn’t crippling, though, and iPhone 4S users won’t be scarred by the experience.

As to the question of whether you should upgrade: I cannot see any reason not to. While the new iOS is less epoch-shatteringly revolutionary than Apple would have us believe, there’s almost nothing that has gotten worse. All the same, if you’re particularly attached to the way iOS looks now, then I can’t see a compelling reason to change, unless you really love the thought of the Control Center, and perhaps Siri with a male Canadian accent.

Also, be aware that upgrading will require 3.1Gb of free space on your phone, which is a lot.