Earlier this year, Apple unveiled iOS 7 at its Worldwide Developer Conference, revealing an entirely new design for the company’s venerable mobile operating system and thereby introducing the most dramatic visual change since the iPhone was first released in 2007.
The new design in and of itself will be quite polarizing—in our experience people who have seen it either love it or hate it—and it’s likely to leave long-time iOS users feeling at least initially unsettled. On the other hand, the new UI is largely like a fresh coat of paint on your house: your rooms, fixtures, and light switches are pretty much all in the same places as before, only the furniture has been moved around a bit.
That said, as with any major iOS update there’s a lot more here than just a UI overhaul. iOS 7 adds several significant new features and improvements that should help make the transition worthwhile. We have a full review of iOS 7 if you want our opinionated take on the subject, as well as an article to ease your transition from iOS 6 to iOS 7; what follows below is a guide to the features we felt were most worthy of your attention.
Downloading and Installing
iOS 7 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 5c and iPhone 5s, as well as upcoming iPads.
To download and install iOS 7, users can use the “Check for Updates” option found on the Device Summary page in iTunes 11, 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 + Model Differences
As with prior iOS releases, iOS 7 drops support for some older devices, although this year brings a slightly more inconsistent collection, with the fourth-generation iPod touch—only discontinued this past spring—falling off of the list while the much older iPad 2 and iPhone 4 remain supported, albeit with a somewhat limited feature set. The logic here on Apple’s part seems to be to only provide support for devices that were still being sold by Apple prior to its September 10th event; the iPad 2 and iPhone 4 qualify, while the earlier discontinuation of the fourth-generation iPod touch allows Apple to strike it off the list of iOS 7 supported devices. Memory constraints of older devices likely played a role, as well.
There are few surprises with iOS 7 in terms of support for new features on older devices. Existing features like Siri and Panorama remain limited to the same devices as before, and obviously the new iPhone models. The iPad 2 is excluded from most new camera features, while live filters in the Camera app are limited to the iPhone 5 and later and the fifth-generation iPod touch only; other devices—except for the iPad 2—only gain the ability to use filters when editing photos in the Photos app.
The new AirDrop feature is particularly restricted due to its requirements for dual-band Wi-Fi hardware, with support only on the iPhone 5/5c/5s, iPad mini, and fourth-generation iPad—an unfortunate omission for a technology that’s explicitly designed for sharing data between iOS devices. The third-generation iPad, released only last year, does not offer AirDrop support.
Older devices such as the iPhone 4 will further lack support for some of the new visual effects features simply due to a lack of processing power to handle them.
While iOS 7 doesn’t introduce any significant regional-specific features, many regional limitations still apply for features like Siri, Maps, and of course the iTunes Store. Apple has updated its Feature Availability Page for iOS 7, highlighting the countries with support for specific features.
New User Interface
The most striking change users will notice in iOS 7 is the completely redesigned user interface, which eschews all of the former skeuomorphic design elements and textures in favor of a new design with flat layers and translucency. After six years in which the design of iOS remained largely static, many users will find the new experience to be jarring, and it will definitely be a matter of personal preference whether this shift is in a good direction or a bad one. Our own editors remain somewhat split on the merits of this new design, with more widely differing opinions than we’ve probably ever had on a new Apple product or OS release. Some will like it, some will hate it, but nobody will be able to say it isn’t an “interesting” change.
Home Screen + Icons
Every built-in iOS app gets a new icon as part of the iOS 7 deal, with the new versions taking on a much flatter, almost cartoony look. While some icons such as Phone, Mail, and Messages remain relatively true to their original forms, others such as Camera and Newsstand have taken sharp left turns bearing little resemblance to their iOS 7 predecessors, while still others like Photos and Game Center don’t even seem to clearly illustrate their functions any more.
Text on the Home Screen is also rendered in a much thinner font than before—a change that may only bother users who rely more on titles of their apps rather than icons, but definitely something that we’ve heard concerns raised about. Fortunately, this can be easily corrected with a quick trip into the iOS 7 Accessibility settings to enable the “Bold Text” option.
Spotlight Search has been moved away from its former position to the left of the first Home Screen; it is now accessed by swiping downward from the middle area of any Home Screen, revealing a search field in a manner similar to the UI within apps that support searching, such as Mail and Music.
Dynamic Wallpapers + Effects
As part of the new layered approach, a parallax background wallpaper effect creates the feeling of iOS 7’s icons “floating” above the background. This new parallax effect may range from cool to annoying depending on your vertigo tolerance and your choice of background wallpaper. Fortunately, it can be turned off in iOS 7’s Accessibility settings.
Also for the first time, iOS 7 adds a new set of “dynamic” wallpapers. Bearing a very superficial resemblance to the “live wallpapers” found on Android, these are built-in animated backgrounds that float behind the icon layer.
Apple only includes a set of seven built-in dynamic wallpapers (six on the iPod touch) which really differ only in their colors—options that have been quite obviously coordinated to match the iPhone 5c. Sadly there appears to be no facility for adding custom dynamic wallpapers or doing anything else interesting with them beyond a simple animation.
The Lock Screen in iOS 7 also gets a dramatic new design treatment, cleaning up the previous controls and shaded bars to allow the background wallpaper to further show through. Notifications on this screen generally create a translucent layer, blurring the actual background wallpaper but allowing the general color to be seen. The passcode entry screen provides a similar translucent layer effect over the background wallpaper. Again, support for this translucency varies between devices.
Sliding to unlock can now be triggered by swiping any part of the screen from left to right, rather than having to focus on the specific control slider, although Lock Screen notifications continue to behave as before, activating a specific notification when swiping on that area. A small right-pointing carat provides a tiny visual cue for users as to which direction to swipe.
The status bar icons at the top have also been slightly enlarged on the Lock Screen, presumably to improve visibility of things like signal strength and battery status when glancing at a locked iPhone.
Users can still access the camera from the Lock Screen by swiping up from the bottom right corner, where a small translucent camera icon can be seen. By default, the Lock Screen also provides access to the new Notification Center and Control Center features without requiring the device to be unlocked by swiping down from the top of the screen or up from the bottom of the screen, respectively—horizontal lines appear at the top and bottom as visual cues for these features. Control Center also provides the ability to open the Clock and Calculator apps directly from the Lock Screen without needing to unlock the iPhone or iPod touch, as well as adding a flashlight feature that turns on their rear LED flashes; the Calculator and flashlight features aren’t available on iPads. Lock screen access to the Notification Center and Control Center can be turned off individually from the iOS Settings app; the horizontal indicator lines will disappear from the lock screen accordingly when their respective features are disabled.
Music playback on the Lock Screen now shows playback controls on the screen automatically, rather than requiring a double-click of the Home Button to make them appear. Triple-clicking the Home Button will bring back the clock temporarily, however this will revert back to the playback controls the next time the device is woken from sleep.
iOS 7 adopts a new translucent design for Home Screen folders, but more importantly removes the limit on the number of apps that can be stored in a single folder by allowing users to swipe through the content within a folder. The tradeoff here, however, is that each folder only displays nine icons now, rather than the 12 or more that were previously shown on various device models. In short, you can stuff a huge number of icons in a folder, but you won’t see as many of them in a single view as you used to.
The folder icons on the Home Screen inherit a similar light gray transparency, making them look quite different from the darker background used in iOS 6.
The application switcher has been entirely redesigned in iOS 7, eliminating the older dock-style tray in favor of a full-screen view complete with previews of each running app. This is accessed by double-tapping the Home Button in the same manner as before, although it’s worth noting that the previous features for things like volume control, AirPlay, and orientation lock have been moved to the new, separate Control Center instead.
Apps can be removed from this list simply by swiping upward on the preview screen, effectively “flicking” the app out of view. Further, unlike the Home Screen, the multitasking view will display in landscape view on the iPhone and iPod touch when accessed from that orientation.
This view will show a list of all recently used apps, even across restarts of the device. It’s worth keeping in mind that much like previous iOS versions, most of the apps shown here are not actually running, but merely suspended in their previous state, and therefore not consuming any resources.
In some of the built-in apps such as Mail and Messages, users can now swipe to the right, starting from the very left edge of the screen, in order to go back to the previous screen. This is useful for features such as returning to a message list when viewing an e-mail or messages conversation, and much like the pull-to-refresh gesture added to Mail in iOS 6 is something that Apple has clearly borrowed from third-party apps.
Presumably as a result of this change, swipe gestures for tasks like deleting messages have been modified to only work with right-to-left swipes, a change that will unfortunately confuse many experienced users and for which Apple doesn’t provide any real help or guidance following the update to iOS 7.
Perhaps one of the most useful new features in iOS 7 is Control Center, a significantly improved implementation of controls previously found in the recent apps tray. Accessed by swiping upward from any screen—including the Lock Screen—Control Center provides access to not only volume, AirPlay, playback, and brightness controls, but also now provides shortcuts for toggling Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb, and Orientation Lock. Media playback controls also now include a positional scrubber in addition to a volume slider
Once again, on the iPhone and iPod touch, additional buttons at the bottom of Control Center provide quick access to the Clock, Calculator, and Camera apps as well as support for a new built-in flashlight feature that can now be used to toggle on the flash LED—and leave it on—from anywhere, including the Lock Screen, eliminating the need for third-party flashlight apps.
Control Center is rendered a bit differently on the iPad. Since those devices lack a built-in Calculator app or LED light, buttons are provided only for the Clock and Camera features. Also, since the side switch can be customized for either orientation lock or mute, the Control Center button for this purpose switches to the opposing function, much like it did in the recent apps tray in iOS 6.
Note that the buttons in Control Center are fixed to specific functions and cannot be customized. The only options available for Control Center in the iOS Settings app simply allow the user to decide whether it should be accessible from the Lock Screen or within third-party apps.
The Notification Center in iOS 7 has also received some significant enhancements, moving it from simply a place to gather notifications into a more full-featured organizational view. Now divided into three panels, the first pane provides a “Today” view which includes a summary of birthday reminders, weather information, time to next destination, a daily calendar, stocks, reminders, and information about any upcoming alarms in the Clock app. The Weather and Stocks features on the Today view replace the separate “widgets” previously found in the iOS 6 Notifications timeline.
Notifications are now split into two different views: All and Missed. The first works in the same way as Notification Center did in prior versions of iOS, simply collecting all of your Notifications in one screen until they are dismissed. The new Missed view allows you to see only new notifications that you haven’t addressed in the past 24 hours—a useful feature for users who receive a lot of notifications and don’t regularly clear them out.
The Today view in Notification Center can be customized from the iOS Settings app, with the ability to switch the different elements on or off. Tapping the “Edit” button in the top-right corner allows the Calendar Day View, Reminders, and Stocks elements to be reordered by dragging them up or down the list, however the Today Summary, Next Destination, and Tomorrow Summary remain fixed in their positions at the top and bottom of the Today view.
Options can also be found here to turn off access to either the Today View or Notifications View from the lock screen. The usual per-app Notification Center settings can found by scrolling down, and work in the same way as they did in iOS 6. It’s worth noting that accessing the Notification Centre from the lock screen respects the “Show on Lock Screen” and “Show Preview” settings for notifications—if a notification isn’t shown on the lock screen, it won’t be shown when pulling down the Notification Center from the Lock Screen either, allowing users to leave Notification Center access enabled from the Lock Screen while keeping more personal notifications secure.
With the update, however, the “Sharing Widget” used for making quick posts to Twitter and Facebook has been removed from the Notification Center entirely.
Next Destination and Frequent Locations
Note that the “Next Destination” feature found in Notification Center works a little bit differently than most would expect. Rather than simply trying to read appointments from your Calendar, what iOS 7 actually does here is track locations you frequently visit and attempt to discern a pattern from these. For this to work you must have Location Services enabled and ensure that “Frequent Locations” remains turned on within the Location Services settings under Privacy in the Settings app.
From here you can actually view your location history—essentially a list of places that your iPhone has been. iOS 7 can use this information for a number of purposes, including making improvements to Maps and providing “Next Destination” information in the new Notification Center.
A “Clear History” option is here to allow users to erase this location information and start over in the event of privacy concerns or irrelevant locations having been recorded, however there appears to be no way to remove individual location information—it’s an all-or-nothing process.