iOS iOS 7 News, Article, Internet, iphone, Mobile phones, Reviews, smartphones, Software, Technology — September 19, 2013 12:06 — 0 Comments
iOS 7 review: looking to bigger things and swiping away the past
With the original iPhone software nearly six years old, Apple has taken a bold step that hints at larger screens through the use of bright colours, swipe gestures and animation
Can we admit that the iOS interface, as introduced in January 2007, was getting long in the tooth? Sure we can. Conceived in an era when capacitative screens were an expensive novelty and “retina-quality” (ie high pixel density) displays weren’t available on phones, it has done well. But it was time for a change.
While iOS has chugged on from year to year (rigidly eschewing the back button favoured in Android and, latterly, Windows Phone), other user interface ideas have come in. WebOS and the BlackBerry PlayBook brought the idea of viewing your multitasking apps on a flat carousel, and killing apps by swiping them upwards, or choosing them by pressing on them. BB10 introduced the neat swipe left to move back to a previous screen. Android offered quick ways to access your Wi-Fi and other settings without necessarily unlocking the phone.
So iOS needed an update. The defenestration of Scott Forstall last autumn gave the reins of both hardware and software design to Jonathan Ive. And he grabbed the opportunity. iOS 7 is alive with light. It’s brighter, easier, flows better than its predecessors.
It also performs a neat, and necessary, optical illusion: not its “parallax” effect (put a photo on the lock screen and tilt the phone; the photo seems to gain real depth), but making the phone’s screen seem larger. This, together with its introduction of screen-invariant gestures, may be the most important thing it does.
Seeing’s a sort of believing
Above are screenshots of a lock screen, one running iOS 6, the other iOS 7. One looks bigger. Howcome? iOS 7 removes more of the chrome, and especially gets rid of the black bars at top and bottom of the screen. At first this is disconcerting; it feels like being on stairs without a handrail. But it quickly becomes familiar, so that going back to iOS 6 feels like walking back into a cave.
The importance of this “bigger screen” effect can’t be overstated. I think that Apple has a real challenge on its hands in the smartphone market. Lots of people expected it to zig towards a much cheaper phone in order to attract buyers in Asia and Europe who have to buy the phone outright, rather than through the US subsidy model. It zagged instead to one which costs the same as the iPhone 4S.
Where does Apple get its customers from? People upgrading, and people switching from old featurephones and other smartphones. (There’s traffic in the other direction, from iPhone to Android and others, though in the US at least substantially more coming in than going out.) But here’s the thing: hardly anyone switches from a bigger screen to a smaller one. So someone who gets a large-screen Android phone is far less likely to switch to smaller iPhone than the other way, other things being equal. But Apple hasn’t changed the size of iPhone screens this year. (It did that last year.) So iOS 7 has to make screens look bigger than iOS 6 did. How? Get rid of the black bars, and the darkness generally.
Another thing that iOS 7 does, I think, is to lay the groundwork for larger iPhone screens – because navigation can increasingly be done through gestures at the screen edges, rather than reaching diagonally with your thumb across to a “back” button. (It’s physically impossible to do without shifting your hand position on an HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4; it’s only just possible on the iPhone 5.) I think Apple is getting developers and users ready for bigger screens – something the Wall Street Journal (which has a good record on this topic) suggested are being tested even now.
Start at the lock screen
Even at the lock screen, things look different. Rather than the classic bars showing phone signal strength, you have dots. Rather than the rails of the “slide to unlock” system (from those far-off days of fuzzy screens), you have the same words highlighted by a helpful animated glow. But you don’t have to slide the words to unlock the phone; anywhere on the screen, left to right, will do.
But wait, don’t unlock it just yet. A line at the bottom of the screen suggests something down there (not well enough in my opinion; something like a filled semicircle would suggest a “tab” better). Drag up, and you have Control Center (sic) – Apple’s solution to the vexed question of rapid access to often-used controls. It’s a translucent layer which you drag up and which offers rapid access to Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb (which holds phone calls and alerts except from nominated people) and Screen Rotation Lock.
Below is the brightness control; music controls; AirDrop settings; and in a row under that Flashlight (invaluable; you’ll use this a lot), Alarms/Clocks/Timers, Calculator and the Camera.
You can’t configure which controls or apps appear in the top or bottom rows. That will bug Android enthusiasts, who’ll see an opportunity missed. Certainly you can see that you might prefer to trade, say, access to alarms for one-touch access to Spotify, or whatever your favourite app is. I have a suspicion some configurability might come in a future iOS version – but not this year.
That said, Control Center is no-brainer useful. Use it for a week, and try to go back to iOS 6, and you’ll grind your teeth in frustration. (You can decide whether it appears on the lock screen or not.)
Wait, we’re not done on the lock screen.
When Apple didn’t include NFC (Near Field Communications) technology in the iPhone 5, there was much wailing, though commentators couldn’t decide whether it was Apple or the NFC community which had lost out on the chance to institute a wireless payment system. Clearly, they hadn’t been paying attention: Apple introduced AirDrop, a peer-to-peer encrypted ad-hoc Wi-Fi and Bluetooth data transfer system in its Lion desktop OS in July 2011. Pretty much everyone ignored it.
A year later there’s still no NFC; instead, Apple is bringing AirDrop to iOS 7-compatible phones. That changes a lot. In use, it’s very simple: a “sharing” icon in an app lets you send a file, link or other piece of data to those willing to receive it. You choose AirDrop and you get a list of people in the vicinity. Press their icon, and it’s done. The receiver gets a message popping up on their screen where they can accept or reject the data – photo, file, link. (Developers might think of more – in-app payments, real cash?)
Obviously, one can think of worrying uses if Anthony Weiner gets his hands on this in a crowded room, but you can switch AirDrop to accept offers of files from Everyone, or “Contacts”, or off. (The latter leaves Wi-Fi and Bluetooth settings untouched.)
Of all the features in iOS 7, this is one of the most intriguing in its possibilities. Paired with another technology – called iBeacon, which will let merchants send you offers or maps when you’re in Bluetooth range. Dislike the idea? Set AirDrop to Contacts.
Last year iOS 6 introduced the Notification Centre – offering little gobbets of information from your email, or stocks, or Twitter, or games. It was pretty basic. Now it’s split into three elements – Today (a calendar and weather update), All (the things you used to find in the old Notifications) and Missed (appointments, calls). The calendar element is like Windows Phone, though more useful (you get a day view). You can decide what is visible in the lock screen – it won’t show all your notifications if you don’t want.
Apple’s Mail had lost out to Google’s Android versions, especially for handling Gmail. Dealing with email beyond deleting things was too slow. Android offers press-and-hold to bring up options; now Apple has gone a couple of steps ahead.
First is the gesture control for messages. When you need to perform triage on your mailbox, you swipe from anywhere on the left of the message to reveal a set of options: delete the message, or a submenu with a list. (That other options are in the submenu implies most people just delete, though arguably you should have all the options available at once.)
Or, if you press on a message to read it, you can swipe (left to right) back to the list in the mailbox. It’s far less effort than in iOS 6: again, swapping back will make reading email seem arduous. (The gesture feels, let’s say, emulated from BlackBerry’s BB10, which uses the left-to-right swipe to “peek” at its message centre. BB10 has all sorts of user interface pitfalls that iOS 7 avoids, though.)
There are also smart mailboxes – though not as configurable as you might wish: you can only pick individual elements (unread, flagged, with attachments) or a particular mailbox (eg your spam, if you’re a masochist), from across your mailboxes. It’s not quite like the desktop version, where you might choose email matching arbitrary strings. Still, it’s better.
Safari: Reading list and more
Safari really blows away the chrome; the screen again looks bigger compared to iOS 6. It adds AirDrop as a means of sharing links. There’s also “Reading list”, which lets you read offline, and “Shared links” – a personal favourite: it pulls in tweets or Facebook posts from your contacts which link to URLs. It’s Twitter and Facebook with just the links.
“Jailbreaking” iPhones has increasingly become a minority sport – probably because Apple has plugged many of the holes that used to exist and which let people crack its software. It can’t however stop thieves stealing a phone in a run-by or ride-by grab – police get scores of reports of these every day.
Of course you use a passcode lock, and a SIM lock on your phone (of course! Because otherwise thieves can wipe and reactivate the phone, and use your SIM to rack up gigantic phone bills; don’t wait to find out). Even so, the phones are still an attractive target.
“Find My iPhone” now adds an extra dimension of post-theft security: you can track it while it’s on, and if it’s turned off (thieves’ favoured method) then powering it up again will present a screen requiring your Apple ID (used to activate the phone) and password. Without those, the phone remains encrypted – and effectively useless to anyone else. It’s possible that this will make the post-theft value of iPhones running iOS 7 drop to zero once a few thieves have run into this problem. Will it make the number of thefts fall to zero? Well, here’s hoping.
Everyone knows the curse of trying to find a particular photo in their photo gallery. Scroll, scroll, scroll.. and usually give up. Apple’s Photos app borrows from its iPhoto desktop product to organise photos by day and place (“Moments”) and then hierarchically into months and years.
The “years” organisation looks like a min-tapestry – but hold a finger on it and little thumbnails pop up, letting you go directly to a photo. It’s very clever; it may be the single most useful user interface change on the whole OS. Aside from gestures, that is.
To go with its new-look interface, there are sounds aplenty. To my ears they’re quite abstract and Android-y, though the new calendar alert sound is a welcome change from the “Beep-be-de-beep!” you hear all around the past seven years.
Multitasking and app updates
There are plenty of people who don’t know you can double-click the home button in iOS to get a palette of recently used apps. (The apps won’t necessarily be running, though.)
This lets you navigate to recently used ones more rapidly than clicking to the home button and finding the app you want. In iOS 6 and earlier, it was a row on the bottom of the screen; now it’s a flat carousel in the screen centre. Apple has, um, borrowed liberally here from WebOS and BB10, introducing a swipe upwards to kill an app (much simpler than in iOS 6). As before a swipe through the carousel – more visual here – locates the app.
Apps can now update in the background if you allow them, say for messaging or mapping. And – celebrate! – apps can be updated automatically (bringing iOS finally on a par with Android). This setting is enabled the first time you log into the App Store.
Isn’t available in the UK so far; so I couldn’t test it.
Launched as a “beta” two years ago, Siri is adding more elements. It can open apps, turn Wi-Fi or Bluetooth on or off, turn on Airplane mode (at which it asks HAL-style “are you sure? I won’t be able to operate”), and adds Twitter searching. The fact that you don’t necessarily see many people using Siri doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t used; as a culture, we’re still shy in front of other humans if we talk to machines (unless it’s to shout at them for not working). Car drivers can find it a boon for texting and sending email, with a headset (Bluetooth or wired). And the voice recognition has improved.
Remember Apple’s first attempt at maps? No, it wasn’t perfect. Yes, Google’s were better. Yet quietly, Apple has been working away at the problem. Google still has more cartographical information, and its cleverly exaggerated representation of roads makes it much easier to navigate. But Apple’s Maps are improving; the representation in iOS 7 is clearer, and the POI (points of interest) database is getting better. There are spoken directions for walking too. Personally, my experiences with Apple’s Maps, and directions, remain good.
Any Other Business
There’s actually a huge amount more that has changed. Often it is to add subtle animations, or brighter colours, or to make something more sensible. The big change, the one that rings through the entire operating system, is the end of skeuomorphism – building software which mimics real-life objects. “Photos” doesn’t show a photo; Game Center doesn’t have green felt; when you delete something in Passbook (for holding tickets) it doesn’t animate putting the ticket through a shredder. (My heart sank at Scott Forstall’s evident glee when he demonstrated that at last year’s iPhone launch.)
There is animation and movement throughout iOS 7: when you return to a home screen, the icons zoom in from the sides. When you open an app from one of those screens, the icons zoom back out towards the centre; it’s a bit Star Trek. In the weather app, it rains, or pours, and clouds drift by. Necessary? No. Enjoyable? Yes.
Got someone annoying you in phone calls? You can block their number permanently. This also works for FaceTime Audio, which is Apple’s voice-over-internet play. It has come at this from either end – iMessage for over-the-top messaging, FaceTime for video calling. FaceTime Audio is very promising (especially for 4G).
Overall? The colours are brighter, and lighter. It’s as though someone went and did a big spring clean and got rid of all the cobwebs. The usability improvements – through gestures – make a lot of difference.
And one tiny thing: you want animated live tiles? The clock icon shows the correct, updating time. You can golf clap now.
Yes, yes, but how does iOS 7 stack up against its rivals? Looking again at Android (I studied HTC Sense on the One, and Android 4.3 on the Nexus 4) I’m struck by how much wasted space they have, and how dark it seems – giant strips top and bottom, huge gaps between the icons. Of course iOS 7 has to put things closer together; its screens are smaller. Even so, it feels like there’s wasted space. As to Android’s configurability – yes, it’s great. Also, potentially confusing as hell. And iOS 7 trumps it now for rapid access to functions such as turning functions on or off. And that flashlight. Trust me, you’ll use it.
Windows Phone – well, the same problem of information density remains there (it’s all elaborate fonts, not enough information, even on big screens), added to unintuitive navigation. BB10? If you give it time, it makes sense, and its use of gestures is (was, now) smart. But there are other UI foibles (for example, why do your Twitter direct messages live in the BlackBerry Hub, but you can’t reply to them there?). BB10 has some nice ideas, but it’s incoherent.
There are places where iOS 7 shows its hurried origins. When you’re in the Pictures app, you can’t pull back from “Moments” to “Collections”, or “Collections” to “Years”, even though both are hierarchical changes just like that in email (from message to listing to mailbox). At the time of testing, the Find My Friends app still has the awful “stitched leather” effect (I hope that changes, and soon).
It can also be hard to read if your eyes aren’t pin-sharp, though there is an “Increase Contrast” setting (in Settings -> General -> Accessibility). Use it – there’s nothing to lose.
And while mentioning Settings: although the search on the phone has improved hugely from iOS 6 (pull down in any home screen to get the search bar), the Settings app is now so big that it needs its own separate search system. Finding the mobile data usage setting (will it be in “Mobile” or “Usage”?), for example, is just a typical problem.
So many things haven’t changed in iOS 7. In particular, you still can’t change default apps (though as usual apps can have their own browser). But so much has: it’s a very different experience, and once app developers have optimised their apps for it (as you’ll soon see; a number already have), you’ll be unable to go back without making futile left-to-right swipes.
But it’s the features that have had the least public visibility – especially AirDrop – which could have the biggest impact. The idea of mobile payments is always waved around, but even just being able to pass photos or URLs to a large group rapidly, and wirelessly, is attractive.
And the use of gestures (which to me indicates the potential for – or even planning of – bigger phones) really does speed up work; using iOS 7 in testing, I was repeatedly disappointed when an app didn’t allow the “slide back” gesture to retreat one screen. Android has the back button, which its devotees swear by; iOS 7 introduces the back swipe, which may become as beloved. And potentially more important: with Android so dominant, and large screens so popular in Asia – where Apple needs to grow if it is to thrive – having an OS that works well on multiple screen sizes is a lot more important than it was a year ago. With iOS 7, this is only the beginning.
iOS 7 will be a free download on Wednesday evening from Apple for the iPhone 4, 4S, and 5, and iPad 2, 3, 4 and iPad mini.
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