Review: Apple Inc. iOS 7
Apple clearly enjoys replacing highly successful old products with re-imagined sequels. After successfully killing the popular iPod mini by establishing the unmatchable iPod nano as its heir, Apple began to use "revolutionary replacement" as an occasional alternative to "evolutionary advancement." Sometimes the strategy works perfectly; iPod mini cloners were left with millions of dollars of suddenly worthless devices. But at other times, including the famously troubled debuts of Final Cut Pro X and iOS 6's Maps, users howled in protest after discovering critical flaws and omissions in Apple's replacement products. Apologists generally try to write off these complaints as whining, but the company eventually winds up fixing what's wrong, typically at some point after its angriest customers begin exploring competing options.
iOS 7 is certainly one of the most significant replacement products in Apple history. As a free download and the sole operating system for Apple’s iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch devices, any iOS release has an immediate effect on hundreds of millions of people, now ranging from 1 to 100 in age. Kids around the world use iOS devices to learn and play. Teenagers, adults, and seniors choose iPhones, iPads, and iPods for everything from phone calls to web browsing, business, and entertainment. Some people—including disabled users—now literally depend upon iOS to let them communicate with the world. Consequently, an iOS change as seemingly trivial as tweaking font legibility can actually mean the difference between some people being able or unable to read. With nearly 600 million iOS devices in the wild, most of them capable of running iOS 7, the stakes are now higher than ever before.
After spending three months in “beta” form, “finished” versions of iOS 7 for iPads, iPhones, and iPods will be publicly released tomorrow. Our editors have spent considerable time testing iOS 7 across multiple devices, and as we noted last month, we collectively agree that iOS 7 will succeed despite a variety of divisive issues. That having been said, iOS 7 will launch to a mix of confusion, excitement, anger, and plenty of discussion as to whether its changes were necessary and good, versus merely optional and different. Internally, we still have not reached agreement on these topics; some of us have warmed to almost all of iOS 7, while others aren’t as positive. We’ve decided to offer this brief review of iOS 7 to share some additional perspective, at the very least to provide feedback, as well as to help some users decide whether to upgrade now or later.
Ten Topics Worth Understanding Before You Install iOS 7
1. Installation. Although it looks very different during the initial installation process thanks to stark white screens with bare, thin text, the process of setting up iOS 7 is virtually unchanged from iOS 6 regardless of how you start it. In-place upgrades, backup restores, and fresh starts all worked perfectly during our testing, and apart from a few new options—primarily focused on enhanced device security—the only other differences here are cosmetic. Installation serves as a clean introduction to the new black-text-on-white-background look of iOS 7, and it’s as positive of a first-year segue into the OS’s new look and feel as we could imagine. We had zero issues with corruption of old settings, interrupted installations, or other installation hiccups; everything is just silky smooth, though visually dry.
2. Lock Screen. Typically skipped over during the installation process, iOS 7’s new Lock Screen is one of its most impressive features visually, but also one of the most confusing functionally. Apple starts out right: rather than abruptly turning the screen on as was done in the past, iOS 7 dramatically fades the Lock Screen in, bringing text elements to light just before the background. Gone are the contrast-enhancing bars or obvious controls—Apple has left only lines of floating text and icons.
Some people will love this “opening up” of the Lock Screen, which increases the space that can be used to display a photo or art of your choice. Others will note a wide variety of problems Apple’s new approach has created. Far too often, text blends into self-supplied Lock Screen wallpaper, forcing an aggravating search for imagery that works or a hunt for Accessibility Settings to fix the text. Additionally, non-intuitive bracket and bar icons have replaced some of the ingenious sliders Apple originally came up with to unlock the device’s features. Due solely to some of these questionable design decisions, children experiencing iOS 7 for the first time will tell parents that their iPads and iPods aren’t working. Yes, they’ll quickly or eventually learn the new controls—including handy one-swipe Notification and Control Center access—but it’s hard to exit this screen without feeling that some designer’s personal aesthetic sensibilities trumped the brilliant usability decisions Apple previously pioneered.
3. Home Screen. Despite widely diverging opinions on the rest of iOS 7’s design changes, the one OS element that we internally agree Apple got wrong this time was the Home Screen redesign. There’s plenty of room to argue about the individual elements, but the overall look of the Home Screen has generated more negative discussion than any other part of iOS 7. Here’s a brief list of issues that may or may not bother you.
* Some of us found the thin text below icons almost unreadable. It too frequently blends into background imagery, and “new” apps are now bizarrely indicated with title-crunching blue dots.
* iOS 7 replaces the previously detailed app icons and badges with cartoony, amateurish alternatives. Some merely look bad, like a boring compass for Safari, while Newsstand’s icon received a function-crippling redesign that replaces your actual publications with generic magazines.
* Folders have gone translucent, and commonly look poor atop wallpapers.
* Only nine icons inside each opened folder are shown at once, regardless of device.
* Small tweaks to the battery and charging indicator icons have made both look worse.
* An oversized and now nearly opaque dock reduces visibility of background imagery.
* Apple has added gimmicky parallax effects and one set of underwhelming dynamic wallpapers as background options.
* Everything is wrapped in overzealous transitional animations, delaying every act of folder and app opening or closing, an effect that doesn’t become any more natural even after extended use.
On the positive list, Spotlight searches are now easier to access from any Home Screen page, and folders now can hold over 100 apps across multiple pages. That’s it—a very short list of real improvements, a bunch of steps down, and a few things that are at best different rather than better. Taken together, these Home Screen and Lock Screen changes have led many observers to suggest that iOS 7 now looks like Android or Windows 8. We don’t fully agree, but there’s no doubt that the overlap between competing OSes has increased. The only good thing about all of the aforementioned problems is that they should be easy to fix all at once, assuming Apple cares to do so.
4. Major New Features. Once you get past the Lock Screen and Home Screen, iOS 7 begins to shine. Arguably long overdue, Control Center—a translucent panel that slides up from the bottom of the screen to reveal one-touch volume, playback, brightness, wireless, AirPlay and AirDrop controls—is functionally and visually superb, causing issues only in in apps that have conflicting middle- or bottom-of-screen swipe controls.
AirDrop, a peer-to-peer file sharing feature for nearby iOS devices, is incredibly simple and useful once it properly discovers the presence of another device. But like AirDrop on Macs, the feature is a little slow to make that discovery; it also doesn’t (yet) work to share files with Macs.
Auto App Updating eliminates one of the biggest pains in earlier iOS releases—the need to manually approve every change to every app on a device. At some point, there’s going to be a big problem when a popular app receives a poorly tested, automatically applied update, damaging files irretrievably, but thus far, this feature has worked remarkably well and achieved wonderful results.
And iTunes Radio, an addition to the Music app, suddenly gifts your iOS device with unlimited, free access to millions of songs—so long as you’re willing to listen to them in the uncontrollable, radio-like order Apple’s servers play them in, and deal with ads (assuming that you’re not an iTunes Match subscriber). We found that iTunes Radio even works pretty well over a cellular connection in a car, experiencing only small hiccups and issues that in our view were far preferable to the lower sound quality and heavier advertising found on traditional radio stations. Dynamic stations based on artists and songs you enjoy find relevant if predictable related content to play, helping you to learn about similar tracks you mightn’t have heard before. Pandora, Rdio, and Slacker Radio are going to need to radically change their business models in order to remain viable on iOS devices.
5. Subtle New Features. Apple claims that 200 new features were added to iOS 7, and although some of them are hard to spot, they collectively improve the user experience. For instance, take the Camera app’s new Burst feature—publicly demonstrated by Apple running at roughly 10 shots per second on the iPhone 5s, but quietly functional at 3 shots per second on the prior iPhone 5. All of the sudden, you’ll find that older devices can rapidly start snapping images without waiting for you to hit and release the shutter button, an impressive change.
Another tweak: in some countries, the Videos app has gained unfettered access to Movies and TV Shows in the Cloud. Just like the Apple TV, you can start streaming these otherwise gigantic, space-consuming files directly to your screen without wasting gigabytes of memory; Videos just needs enough room for a buffer.
It is in large part because the major and subtle new features are collectively so great that iOS 7’s other issues become easier to live with over time. However, few if any of these features required iOS 7’s dramatic cosmetic overhaul, and except for Control Center, none benefit from it in any way.
6. Siri. Somewhat underwhelming when it debuted as a signature feature of the iPhone 4S in 2011, Apple’s Siri virtual assistant has remained in “beta” form for two years, losing some users due to seemingly random server failures and functional limitations. Thankfully, Siri has grown a lot in iOS 7. Users can now select markedly improved male or female voices, get useful answers to a much wider collection of inquiries, and dig deeper into Apple’s integrated apps, including settings. We never stopped using Siri despite its prior issues, but the new version demands revisiting for those who did. Additionally, users with vision limitations will find the latest Siri superb for transcription, reading of certain text content, and efficient location of even more factual information than before.
On the other hand, Siri’s new user interface is one of Apple’s saddest changes to iOS 7. Prior to this, Siri appeared to be forging a new and in some cases beautiful design direction for iOS, a surprisingly rich sub-app with handsome new content-specific background themes and a cool glowing microphone icon that clearly let you know Siri was listening. iOS 7 tosses literally all of this away in favor of blacking out the entire screen—regardless of whether you were going to ask Siri something based on what you were reading—while displaying white text. Siri also eliminates the useful “I’m done speaking” microphone icon in favor of displaying an ever-shifting sine wave. The stark new interface confirms former Apple Senior VP Jon Rubinstein’s recent lament that the company’s designers are all too willing to sacrifice functionality for purely cosmetic reasons; couldn’t Siri’s prior interface have survived until something truly better was developed?
Apart from that, Siri’s remaining issues are third-party app compatibility and server-related. As much as we love using Siri when it works, we never know when the service will be unreachable due to a wireless connection-switching bug in iOS or an outage in Apple’s servers. Based on our testing, iOS 7 doesn’t appear to improve this at all. And it still doesn’t allow third-party developers to leverage Siri to improve their apps, either. Beta, it’s not, but it’s still not finished, either.
7. Third-Party App Compatibility. While it may strike some users as too trivial to note in a review, iOS 7 has worked properly with virtually every third-party application we’ve tried, running apps almost flawlessly even before formal compatibility updates were submitted to the App Store. It’s a tribute to Apple in general and the iOS team specifically that a major update like iOS 7 can be achieved without breaking the whole universe of previously-released apps. The biggest issues we’ve noticed tend to be related to text formatting, and even then, they’re not actually big issues.
If we have any complaint on this topic, it’s that some third-party developers are—not surprisingly—taking up Apple’s challenge to redesign their apps around iOS 7’s sometimes questionable interface changes. In some cases, developers have been directly or indirectly compelled by Apple to abandon their pre-iOS 7 apps, offering separate iOS 7-ready versions as full-priced apps rather than discounted or free upgrades. Other apps are wrestling with just how much personality to strip out of their prior UIs to match Apple’s baby-with-bathwater fresh start. We’re all for actual improvements to previously-released apps, and wouldn’t begrudge developers the opportunity to charge once in a while for major redesigns, but Apple’s current upgrade policy doesn’t let them strike the right balance.
8. iOS 7 and the iPad. Rumors before Apple’s September event suggested that the company would delay the iPad version of iOS 7 to at least October in an effort to polish the iPhone and iPod touch versions before release. While the millions of users anxious for iOS 7 on their iPads will be glad to get an earlier start using it, they’ll also have to deal with a variety of small but obvious issues that demonstrate Apple’s willingness to release “good enough” software.
On the functional side, most of the iOS 7 iPads we’ve seen have experienced seemingly random restarts, sometimes looping until they’re physically powered off and on, and app crashes are more common, particularly on lower-end iPads. Aesthetically, Home Screen animations sometimes feel under-optimized for smoothness, nine-app folders look ridiculous, and now screen-filling features—Notification Center, Siri, and Newsstand—just don’t look right on such large displays. Apple’s prior use of screen-splits and modal windows wasn’t perfect, either, but it got far more right on the iPad than the current “flood the screen” approach. None of the iPad issues are deal-killers, but the time has really come for Apple to reconsider how iOS’s tablet and pocket interfaces should diverge for the benefit of users.
9. Sounds and Backgrounds. Added very late in the iOS 7 beta cycle, Apple’s new collection of ringtones, sound effects, and background art is a mixed bag of goodies and annoyances. We’ll openly acknowledge that one person’s trash is another’s gold, but if Apple is actually aiming for elegance across iOS, its integrated content still doesn’t hit that mark, particularly in the audio department. Too many of the ringtones sound like intermission songs and samples from 16-bit video games, while the bizarre collection of organ/bird chip noises called Summit could have been a demo track for a 1980’s Casio keyboard. We shudder just thinking about hearing these sounds coming out of users’ pockets in stores, restaurants, and other public places, though every classic iOS “Old Car Horn” or “Old Phone” ringtone they replace will be… better off.
Just like the sound effects, iOS 7’s backgrounds could have used some extra help. One of Apple’s signature features is the addition of parallax-shifting flat backgrounds that are supposed to add “depth” to the device’s screen, using accelerometer motions to pan the photo or art slightly while icons stay in place. Some of the new Apple-provided wallpapers look gorgeous, featuring space, fields, plants and water themes alongside some sketchy abstract backgrounds. Unfortunately, the motion of the backgrounds impresses far less in real-world use than in demonstrations, moving so modestly as to be boring, while frequently compromising readability of on-screen text. They also force you to unnaturally crop and zoom into whatever self-provided photos you’d prefer to use, while breaking images that looked great in prior versions of iOS. Apple also includes seven unremarkable “dynamic” backgrounds—actually just one background, in multiple colors—that barely scratch the surface of what changing backgrounds have been doing on other platforms for years.
10. Music, Photos, Safari, and Other Integrated Apps. While most of iOS’s integrated apps received white- or blackwashing treatments, scrubbing away textures and shading in favor of flat screens with plain text, a handful of apps received more significant upgrades. Yet again, Apple has redesigned the Music app in a manner that generally looks beautiful and works well on smaller iOS devices—apart from an almost useless Cover Flow replacement that fills the screen with a grid of album icons—while exhibiting some major layout issues on iPads, particularly in landscape mode. A much-touted redesign of Photos that groups images by dates and locations is similarly striking, and works as well on the iPad as on the smaller devices; Apple’s related addition of video sharing to iOS 7’s Photo Stream is similarly very much welcome.
On the other hand, Apple’s redesign of Safari is nearly a mess, particularly on the iPhone and iPod touch. Also used in other apps, the company’s new ultra-thin icons are most significantly annoying here, replacing thick, highly visible triangular arrows with scant bracket icons, a bookpage-themed bookmark icon with what now looks like an abstract butterfly, and the clearly-labeled “Reader” button with a set of four bars in a paragraph-like fashion. Safari feels like someone was trying to design a futuristic web browser without taking core things such as icon legibility and user experience into account.
None of the individual icon changes is as annoying as Safari’s automatic removal of the entire bottom icon bar when you start to scroll on pocket devices, or the iPad’s replacement of the current page with bookmark icons whenever you go to type in the now-combined URL and search box. Is the overall web browsing experience terrible? No. But it’s inconsistent, at once visually flashy by offering 3-D page previews on pocket devices, and simultaneously looking threadbare on the iPad. The same issues are obvious in apps such as Maps, Game Center, Notes, and Compass, all of which just look different than before, rather than better; Maps notably still has the terribly melted 3-D city models that helped to make last year’s debut such a disaster. It’s only mildly comforting that under-the-hood changes are improving their functionality, even if they don’t look excellent yet.
After six iterations of iOS that were nearly trouble-free—apart from one that brought certain old models to a crawl, and last year’s introduction of the controversial Maps app—Apple’s release of iOS 7 is a different story. Unlike iOS 6, which after the release of Google Maps became a no-brainer upgrade for every device that could run it, iOS 7 will inspire “do I have to?” discussions between couples, delays for parents with iPod- and iPad-using kids, and even more serious consternation for some visually disabled users. We are by no means surprised that users are still wondering today whether this radically redrawn version of iOS 7 will break something, introduce confusion, or just make great devices look bad. Even at the eleventh hour before release, Apple has publicly treated iOS 7’s launch as no more of a concern than iOS 5’s or iOS 6’s, despite quietly preparing its employees for all sorts of questions from confused users.
As we signaled last month, our view of iOS 7 is mixed but generally positive: this is a visually flawed iOS update that otherwise improves enough upon the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch user experience to be worth using anyway. Relatively stable, highly compatible with old apps, and reasonably well-equipped with features that make old iOS devices better, iOS 7’s solid underpinnings enable a smoother transition than might be expected from its new exterior. And though that exterior isn’t where it should have been, too completely swapping skeuomorphism for overanimation, dark shadows for bright gradients, and distinctive fonts for variations on Helvetica, the premise points in a direction that could become great in iOS 8 next year. So yes, we would all willingly upgrade to iOS 7, but not without some sense of what’s been lost from iOS 6.
If there was one feedback point we would pass along to Apple after using iOS 7, it’s this: overarching design philosophies are wonderful, but they need to result in superior finished products, not just a consistently plain look and feel. Ridding the world of green felt and fake leather is a noble goal, but if your proposed alternative is to bleach everything plain white, most people will conclude that you’re just changing things for the sake of changing them, rather than moving things forward. At this point, iOS needs to be doing things better than its (lower-priced) rivals, and to the extent that iOS 7 often achieves that, it’s a qualified success. This year, however, iOS 7’s biggest assets are in how it works rather than how it looks, and it’s now up to Jony Ive’s team to achieve a superior balance for iOS 8.