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Instant Expert: Secrets & Features of iOS 8.0
By Jesse Hollington | 09.17.14

Originally unveiled at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June, Apple releases iOS 8 today, the eighth major release of its mobile operating system for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.

While last year’s release of iOS 7 debuted a whole new design paradigm, this year Apple once again focuses on a more iterative approach, polishing up some of the user experience and adding a handful of small “quality-of-life” improvements while making much bigger changes under the hood with new frameworks and APIs to allow developers to do a lot more with their apps than has been possible in the past. With iOS generally having reached maturity over the past couple of years, it seems possible that Apple may be settling into a two-year cycle for iOS releases, with big sweeping changes being pushed out in the odd-numbered releases, and small enhancements and developer frameworks coming in the even-numbered ones.

We have also posted a review of iOS 8 if you want our opinionated take on the subject; what follows is a more technical guide to the features that we felt were most worthy of your attention, from major sweeping changes to some of the smaller, interesting details.

Downloading and Installing

As usual, iOS 8 is a free update for all supported iOS device models and is also the default version of iOS that will come installed on the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, as well as upcoming iPads.

To download and install iOS 8, users can select the “Check for Updates” option found on the Device Summary page in iTunes, which should locate, download, and install the update automatically. In some cases, iTunes may have already discovered the update by itself, in which case you will see an “Update” button rather than a “Check for Updates” button. For an over-the-air (OTA) update, you can simply go into your device’s Settings app and choose General, Software Update to check for and install the update. Note that to receive OTA updates your device will need to be connected to a Wi-Fi network and should be plugged into a power source or have at least 50% remaining battery life for the update to successfully install.

The usual caveats and warnings apply here as with any iOS update: the installation may or may not preserve all of your existing data. It may result in the wiping of your device’s data under certain conditions, and it is therefore a good idea to make a full backup of your device before beginning. Be sure that all of your media content and apps are in your iTunes library, as these do not form part of the backups made by iTunes, as Apple reasonably expects that you should be able to re-sync this information from your iTunes library following a full restore. You can check the status of your backup before beginning by visiting the “Devices” section in your iTunes Preferences.

Supported Devices

As with prior iOS releases, iOS 8 drops support for some older devices, although this time only the iPhone 4 actually drops off the list. The 2011 iPad 2 and iPhone 4S remain supported, although as with iOS 7, iPod touch support remains limited to only the fifth-generation model, now hanging off to the side of the supported devices list like an outsider.

 

Regional Differences

Most of the same regional limitations still apply in iOS 8 for features like Siri, Maps, and of course the iTunes Store, although Apple continues to expand worldwide support for these features behind the scenes. Apple has updated its Feature Availability Page for iOS 8, highlighting the countries with support for specific features, and adding sections for new features such as QuickType Keyboard, Spotlight Suggestions, and Apple CarPlay.

 

With the release of iOS 8, Apple seems to have also produced a more consistent set of new features available across all of the supported devices. Although like Passbook before it, the new Health app is limited to the iPhone and iPod touch, the only major feature that older devices are excluded from is Continuity, which Apple lists as requiring an iPhone 5 or later, iPod touch, fourth-generation iPad or later, or any iPad mini model.

Photos

One of the biggest new features in iOS 8 centers around Apple’s new approach to photo management. Three years ago, Apple debuted iCloud Photo Stream in iOS 5—a free feature to allow users to wirelessly sync photos between their iOS devices and desktop computers. The original Photo Stream was not without its limitations, however—only the last 1,000 photos or 30 days of photos could be transferred, and videos were excluded completely. On the upside, however, the feature was not only free but stored photos did not count against the user’s iCloud storage limits at all.

iCloud Photos

While Photo Stream was a useful way of keeping recent photos in sync across multiple iOS devices, it was clearly designed primarily to be a conduit to facilitate the transfer of photos to a desktop computer—usually a Mac running iPhoto or Aperture. Photo Stream was treated as a separate storage area on iOS devices, and while unwanted photos could be removed from Photo Stream manually, there was no way to edit or organize them.

 

With iOS 8, Apple will be taking the next logical step—providing users with the ability to store their entire iOS photo library in iCloud, provided they’re willing to shell out for the necessary iCloud storage. We say “will be” as the feature gets a “beta” tag and apparently does not even appear consistently for all users at this point.

The upside to iCloud Photo Library is that users will be able to take advantage of a completely synchronized library—including videos—across all of their iOS 8 devices, and eventually Macs when Apple releases the companion Photos app for OS X as a replacement for its Aperture and iPhoto applications. It remains unclear whether or not Windows users will be able to take advantage of this feature.

 

iCloud Photo Library integrates directly into the existing iOS 8 photos app, and works transparently—users can continue to create albums and edit photos as they did in iOS 7, however with iCloud Photo Library enabled, everything gets automatically synced to other devices via iCloud. A new option under Photos in Settings allows you to specify whether you want to keep full-size original photos on your iOS device, or device-optimized versions with the originals in iCloud to save local device space; in our testing, the latter option resulted in about a 30% savings on storage space on an iPhone 5s with a library containing 864 photos and 53 videos.

 

Despite all of this, however, Photo Stream has not disappeared entirely. Likely as a concession to the fact that iCloud Photo Library is not quite yet ready for prime time, Photo Stream remains in place and continues to work mostly the same as it did in iOS 7, although the separate “My Photo Stream” album no longer appears; Photo Stream photos are simply included in the main photo collection. If both iCloud Photo Library and Photo Stream are enabled on a given device, Photo Stream works as an “upload-only” feature—new photos are sent to the Photo Stream and will be available in iPhoto/Aperture, but will only appear on iOS devices that do not have iCloud Photo Library also enabled.

 

For now, iCloud Photo Library has the advantage of providing a fully synced library between iOS devices, but desktop users are pretty much left out of the equation until Apple ships Photos for OS X sometime next year. Most users will likely want to continue using Photo Stream unless they do most of their photo editing and management only between iOS devices, such as an iPhone and iPad. That said, if you’re willing to pay for the storage, iCloud Photo Library isn’t a bad solution for keeping your photos and videos backed up in the cloud—just be aware that for now, you’ll only be able to restore them back onto an iOS device.

Photo Management

Regardless of whether you’re using iCloud Photo Library or not, the iOS 8 Photos app sports a few additional new features. Photos can now be individually marked as favorites by tapping the small heart button when viewing photos; these are organized into a “Favorites” smart album for easy access, and of course synced to iCloud Photo Library if it’s enabled.

 

A new Search feature has also been added to quickly locate photos by location, time frame, or album name. Tapping on the search icon displays a search field that you can type into, with a number of suggestions shown below such as “Nearby” to find photos taken near your current location, or “Home” to find photos taken at home. Recently used searches are also shown farther down. While the search options are somewhat limited, it’s definitely a necessary step in the right direction, particularly with Apple’s push toward storing entire photo libraries in the cloud.

 

In addition to Favorites, several other new smart albums now appear in the Photos app to help you find and organize your content such as “Slo-mo” for slow-motion videos, “Bursts” for grouping burst shots, and “Time-lapse” for videos recorded with the new time lapse feature. Oddly, the “Panorama” smart album no longer appears for grouping panorama shots.

 

As noted earlier, the old “Camera Roll” and “My Photo Stream” albums no longer appear. Since photos in both of these categories appear in the main “Photos” screen, the separate albums were somewhat redundant. Instead, a “Recently Added” album appears at the top showing all of the photos added within the last 30 days.

 

iOS 8 also introduces a sort of “trash bin” for photos in the form of a “Recently Deleted” album, where deleted photos are retained for up to 30 days. Going into the “Recently Deleted” album will show all of your deleted photos with an indicator over each as to how many days are remaining before they’re removed. Photos can also be removed directly from this album should you want to get rid of them right away. If you have iCloud Photo Library enabled, your “Recently Deleted” album and photos also sync across all of your devices.

Photo Editing

iOS 8 also expands on the on-device photo editing capabilities with new smarter and simpler tools for making adjustments. With the Photos app in iOS 8 you can now automatically straighten and crop photos, and use simpler individual controls that blend multiple settings. For example, a new “Light” control intelligently adjusts exposure, brightness, contrast, highlights, shadows, and black point, all with a single slider, making it much easier for the average user to adjust their photos.

 

The iOS 8 Photos app also adds extensibility to allow third-party developers to create filters and editing tools that can be used when editing photos in the Photos app without having to resort to opening photos in a separate third-party app.

Apple also promises that edits made within the Photos app will be non-destructive, and if you’re using iCloud Photo Library, edits sync non-destructively across all devices.

Camera

The iOS 8 Camera app gains a new “Time Lapse” video mode that can create time-lapse videos by stitching together photos taken at dynamically chosen intervals. As with most iOS Camera features, there aren’t really any options available—it’s simply a matter of swiping to the right to select “Time-lapse” and then hitting the record button.

 

A self-timer feature has also been added to the Camera app, allowing users to set the shutter to go off in either 3 or 10 seconds so that you can jump into the shot. In addition to an on-screen countdown, the LED flash will blink with increasing rapidity when using the rear camera as a visual indicator of how much time is left before the shutter goes off. Also, on iPhone 5s and later models, the self-timer feature will automatically take a 10-photo burst shot to give you the best chance of getting the best picture.

Continuity

Apple has also taken steps to tighten the user experience in iOS 8 for those users with multiple iOS devices, such as both an iPhone and iPad, with a new feature set dubbed “Continuity”—a feature that will also be extended to the Mac with the release of OS X Yosemite later this year.

Handoff

One of the core features to the Continuity experience is Apple’s “Handoff” feature, which allows apps to share work-in-progress across multiple devices. For example, you can begin writing an e-mail message on your iPhone and then pick up where you left off and finish the e-mail on your iPad or your Mac. Handoff works by using a combination of Bluetooth and iCloud connections between devices, and when available on an iOS device, a small icon representing the app being handed off appears in the lower left corner of the lock screen of the other device, opposite the camera icon.

 

Swiping up on the Handoff icon will place you directly into that particular app — whatever work was in progress on the original device will be brought up, ready for you to continue. Out of the box, Handoff will work in built-in iOS 8 apps such as Mail, Safari, Maps, Messages, Reminders, Calendar, and Contacts, as well as Apple’s Pages, Numbers, and Keynote apps. Third-party developers can also build Handoff into their own apps.

Calls

iOS 8 also now allows users to place and receive calls via their iPhone from other iOS 8 devices or Macs running OS X Yosemite. An option under FaceTime in the Settings app for “iPhone Cellular Calls” allows this feature to be toggled on or off, and it must be enabled on both the iPhone and the other iOS device in order to work.

 

When enabled, incoming calls will ring on all iOS 8 devices that are on the same Wi-Fi network and signed into the same iCloud account, and calls can be answered from any device. Similarly, calls can be placed from an iPad or iPod touch via the iPhone cellular connection in the same way as dialing a FaceTime call.

SMS / MMS

When Apple debuted iMessage, one of its more useful features was the ability to carry on text message conversations from any Apple device, since iMessages travelled over the Internet using your Wi-Fi or cellular data connection. However, while this was great when communicating with your friends, family, and colleagues who happened to also be iOS device users, sending traditional SMS and MMS text messages remained an iPhone-only feature.

 

The Continuity feature in iOS 8 fills this void by allowing SMS and MMS messages to be sent and received from any device, effectively using the iPhone as the gateway. Users must still have an actual iPhone to use this feature, although Apple’s iCloud servers take care of transferring messages between other devices and the iPhone itself.

While the feature was available and seemed to work well in during the iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite betas, it would seem that Apple has chosen to delay the release of this particular feature until October.

Personal Hotspot

Although the iPhone and cellular-capable iPads have been able to perform duties as a personal Wi-Fi hotspot for a few years now, this feature normally required the user to specifically enable it on their device settings and deal with entering a Wi-Fi password on the client device.

 

iOS 8 Continuity now simplifies this by allowing devices signed in with the same iCloud account to simply select the hosting device’s ad hoc Wi-Fi network—this toggles Personal Hotspot on automatically on the hosting iPhone or cellular iPad and allows the client device to connect in a single step. Once the client disconnects, Personal Hotspot is automatically toggled off. In addition, cellular signal information and strength and battery life for the remote device is also now shown beside the Personal Hotspot host device name.

 

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