Apple’s initial release of iOS 8 last month got off to a somewhat rocky start, with problems related to HealthKit apps, Bluetooth connectivity issues, App Store problems with some of the new app extension features, and a maintenance update that rendered many users’ iPhone 6 and 6 Plus devices all but completely useless. In addition, Apple held back at least two features that were originally supposed to be delivered with iOS 8, choosing to instead defer them until this month’s release of iOS 8.1.
This week’s release of iOS 8.1 brings with it three big new features and a laundry list of bug fixes that many early adopters of iOS 8.0 have been eagerly awaiting — more evidence that more and more with each new iOS release, the “.0” versions are best skipped by users of older devices.
Downloading and Installing
As usual, iOS 8.1 is a free update for all supported iOS device models and is expected to be the default version of iOS for the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3.
To download and install iOS 8.1, 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.
Note that even if you’ve decided to skip iOS 8.0, you can still update directly to iOS 8.1 in the normal manner—there’s no need to install iOS 8.0 first.
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.
iOS 8.1 adds support for Apple Pay for iPhone 6 and 6 Plus users who are in the U.S. The Passbook app has been extended to add support for registering credit cards for Apple’s new payment service. We cover the process in more detail in our Easy Guide To Setting Up And Using Apple Pay In iOS 8.1.
Users outside of the U.S. and those on older iPhone models won’t notice any differences here, however. If you don’t get Apple Pay support, Passbook continues to mostly look and work exactly as it did before, although Apple has added the ability for Passbook passes to be shared between devices using AirDrop.
While syncing between a user’s own devices has been available via iCloud, AirDrop support provides a useful way to quickly share passes between family members.
When Apple took the wraps off of iOS 8 in June, one of the biggest new features centered around iCloud Photos—a whole new approach that the company is taking for photo management.
Although Apple arguably made an attempt at this with iCloud Photo Stream three years ago, this service was not without its limitations — 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 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 8.1, Apple takes the next logical step—providing a user with the ability to store his entire iOS photo library in iCloud, provided he’s willing to shell out for the necessary iCloud storage.
The upside to iCloud Photo Library is that users can take advantage of a completely synchronized library — including videos — across all of their iOS 8 devices, online at iCloud.com, and eventually on their 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 get an app or iCloud Control Panel extension to take advantage of this feature, or will instead have to rely on web-based access.
Although iCloud Photo Library was available for some users in the initial version of iOS 8, Apple has now officially released the feature in “Public Beta” in iOS 8.1, suggesting that there may still be growing pains with the service, and users should continue to use an alternate method of backing up their photos rather than relying entirely on iCloud. Fortunately, iCloud Photo Stream is still around, and can be used alongside iCloud Photo Library, so you can continue using this to wirelessly backup your photos to your computer as before. This works much like 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, Photo Stream works as an “upload-only” feature — new photos are sent to the Photo Stream and will be available in iPhoto, Aperture or the Windows iCloud folder, but will only appear on other iOS devices that do not have iCloud Photo Library also enabled.
iCloud Photo Library integrates directly into the existing iOS 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, including albums and sorting orders.
Enabling iCloud Photo Library
iCloud Photo Library remains an optional component, particularly since it’s in beta, and will in fact be disabled by default. If you don’t turn it on, everything on your iOS device will work in mostly the same way as it did in iOS 7, although you’ll still benefit from new features such as Favorites and the “Recently Deleted” album.
When you first enable iCloud Photo Library, all of the photos that are presently stored on your device will be uploaded to iCloud, subject to your available storage space. If you don’t have enough storage space, your iOS device will generally tell you so, and of course encourage you to purchase more in order to continue uploading. As noted earlier, once enabled, iCloud Photo Library works transparently within the iOS Photos app; there are no discrete sections for on-device photos versus those in the cloud, the two are essentially treated as one and the same.
Optimizing Photo Storage
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.
The savings when using the “Optimize Storage” option are actually quite significant, and it appears that Apple has improved this since the unofficial iOS 8.0 release of the feature. In our initial look at iOS 8, we reported about a 30% savings, but in iOS 8.1, the numbers are closer to 90%, with a 13.4GB iCloud Photo Library taking up less than 1GB of storage on an iPhone 5s. Since the stored versions are optimized to a specific device, and recent photos appear to be stored in their original resolutions for a time, these numbers may vary, but it seems clear that iCloud Photo Library really does have the potential to allow users to access years of photos without being constrained by their on-device storage.
How this works in practice is that when choosing to “Optimize Storage,” only low-resolution versions of your photos are stored on your device for older photos, with higher-resolution ones downloaded “on-demand” as needed. A small download progress indicator appears in the bottom-right corner even when simply viewing a photo that is stored in iCloud, and a clear difference in sharpness can be observed once the photo finishes downloading. Further, even after the higher-resolution “preview” version has been automatically downloaded, editing a photo requires that you wait until it finishes downloading an even larger — presumably full-resolution — version before you can begin editing.
The higher-resolution photos appear to be kept on the device for about two weeks, both in the case of newly-added photos and those that are viewed or edited on the device. Going into your Photo settings and switching from “Optimize Storage” to “Download and Keep Originals” will immediately begin downloading (and keeping) full-resolution versions of all photos onto your device. Similarly, you can switch to the “Optimize Space” option at any time, leaving the originals in the iCloud Photo Library while reducing your on-device storage to only the lower-resolution versions
For now, iCloud Photo Library has the advantage of providing a fully synced library between iOS devices, but desktop users are pretty much left with limited web-based access until Apple actually releases its new Photos app for OS X sometime next year. Logging in at iCloud.com provides a Photos web app that generally resembles the iOS Photos app, allowing users to view or download content from their entire photo libraries. Users can also delete photos or mark them as favorites, but that’s about it — there are no editing features at all, and photos can be removed from albums but not added. Further, while all of your user-created albums will appear here from your iOS devices, most of the default smart albums do not; only All Photos, Favorites and Videos are available here. There’s also no integration here with Shared Photo Streams or other online sharing tools at all — you’ll need to go back to your iPhone or iPad for that, or simply download your photos and share them manually.
Once Apple releases its Photos app for OS X next year, it’s expected that users should be able to get a similar photo management and editing experience between their iOS devices and Macs, but until then you’ll probably want to stick with Photo Stream and Aperture or iPhoto unless you do more of your photo work only between your iOS devices. 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 and shared across your devices—just be aware that for now, you’ll only be able to really organize or work with them on your iOS devices. Moreover, paying for photo storage may be a non-starter for many users.
Disabling iCloud Photo Library
Unlike iCloud Drive, enabling iCloud Photo Library is not a one-way trip. You can decide to disable the feature at any time; you’ll be given the option to download all of your photos and videos onto your local storage — presuming of course that you have enough storage space available to do so, of course — and then your Photos app and library will return to working the way they did before, with photos stored and managed locally.
In addition to the “favorite” feature introduced in iOS 8, you can also hide photos from your main timeline view. Tapping and holding on a photo will reveal a “Hide” option on the context menu. Tapping this brings up a confirmation, explaining that the photo will be hidden from the “Moments, Collections, and Years” views, but still be shown in any albums that it’s been explicitly placed into.
Once you’ve hidden at least one photo, a new “Hidden” smart album will also appear in the Albums list, giving you quick access to any photos you’ve hidden. Unhiding a photo is done in the same manner as hiding a photo — tap and hold on the photo you want to unhide, and the context menu will show the “Unhide” option.
The Return of the Camera Roll
In what turned out to be a rather unpopular move, Apple removed the “Camera Roll” album in iOS 8, replacing it with a “Recently Added” album including only the photos added within the last 30 days. In response to rather vocal customer feedback, Apple has returned the old “Camera Roll” to its rightful place in iOS 8.1, eliminating the “Recently Added” album entirely. If you’ve enabled iCloud Photo Library, this gets named “All Photos” instead of “Camera Roll” but the function and concept is essentially the same: A place to view all of your photos in a single stream without worrying about the time or location groupings of the main collections view.
One of the more useful features of iMessage has been its ability to sync and carry on text message conversations using any Apple device, since iMessages travel over the Internet using your Wi-Fi or cellular data connection. While this is great for friends, family, and colleagues who are also iOS device users, most of us also have friends who are on non-Apple devices that we can only exchange SMS messages with, and these were limited to your iPhone only, creating an inconsistency in what was otherwise a great user experience for users of multiple devices.
Fortunately, iOS 8.1 and OS X Yosemite fill this void by allowing SMS and MMS messages to be sent and received using any device registered to your Apple ID. Your iPhone is used as the gateway, effectively transferring SMS messages from your cellular carrier network to your other devices via iCloud.
Once you’ve updated your iPhone to iOS 8.1, your other iOS 8.1 devices or Macs running OS X Yosemite may prompt you to let you know that you can now use this feature, provided they’re all signed into the same iCloud account. Alternatively, you can enable or disable your other devices directly from your iPhone by going into Messages in the iOS Settings app and choosing “Text Message Forwarding.”
Regardless of how you choose to enable another device to send and receive text messages, you’ll be required to go through a quick verification procedure that displays a number on your Mac, iPad, or iPod touch screen that you will need to key into your iPhone to validate the connection between the two devices.
Once you’ve gone through this procedure, sending and receiving SMS/MMS messages from other devices should work as seamlessly as iMessages usually have. Note that unlike other Handoff and Continuity features, SMS Continuity doesn’t require your iPhone to be in actual physical proximity to your Mac, iPad, or iPod touch — the SMS/MMS messages are synced between your iPhone and your other devices using the iCloud/iMessage network, as opposed to a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection, so as long as your iPhone and other devices have an Internet connection, you should be able to send and receive SMS/MMS messages regardless of where your devices are in relation to each other.
iOS 8.1 includes a list of other smaller fixes and improvements, including fixing some Bluetooth connectivity problems reported by many iOS 8 users, Wi-Fi performance problems, and more. There are a few other specific small changes worth noting, however.
When Siri was originally introduced three years ago, it came with the ability to also dictate text into any text field by pressing a key on the keyboard. The two features, however, have been linked until now—if you wanted to turn off dictation, you needed to disable Siri entirely, and vice-versa. With iOS 8.1, a new Dictation option now appears under General, Keyboards in the Settings app that can used to toggle this feature on or off independently of Siri.
iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, and AirPlay Mirroring
One thing that we noticed early on with iOS 8.0 and the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus was that AirPlay mirroring to an Apple TV was significantly broken for at least some users, not working at all or showing sub-optimal results. iOS 8.1 appears to address most of these issues, allowing AirPlay to function between an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus with both second- and third-generation Apple TV models. The iPhone UI mirroring appears noticeably cleaner than before, and completely fills the screen of the TV when the iPhone is in landscape mode, rather than appearing with letterboxing.
Despite the 1920×1080 resolution of the iPhone 6 Plus, it seems unlikely that this is true 1080p streaming, but likely either downsampled or compressed, as is usually the case with AirPlay. Video streaming also appears to be choppier under some circumstances with older second-generation Apple TV models, as well.
Arguably, iOS 8.1 is basically what iOS 8.0 should have been — a more polished, refined user experience delivering all of the features that Apple originally promised for iOS 8.0. Although features like iCloud Photo Library are still tagged as “beta” and therefore not completely glitch-free, in general Apple appears to have fixed most of the problems users encountered with iOS 8.0, and now seems to be on track in terms of properly supporting third-party apps that take advantage of new iOS 8 features such as HealthKit. We have heard reports, however, of some new device-specific bugs that did not appear to be present in iOS 8.0; it remains to be seen how widespread they are.
The bottom line is that if you’re already running iOS 8.0, you’ll probably want to upgrade to 8.1 for a more stable experience. If you’ve been waiting to upgrade to iOS 8 due to some of the problem reports, iOS 8.1 appears to be a considerably safer bet, though not completely trouble-free.