First shown at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June, Apple released iOS 9 today, the ninth major release of its mobile operating system for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.
iOS 9 continues the more iterative approach that we’ve seen over the past two years, again polishing the user experience much like iOS 8 did, and adding another collection of smaller but more interesting improvements, with a focus on trying to make iOS become more of a proactive assistant that can bring up relevant information when you need it, through Siri, Spotlight search features, and notifications. As with last year’s iOS 8 release, this major update continues to show that iOS has generally reached maturity as an operating system, and enhancements are therefore focusing more on the smaller details and the foundations of iOS rather than the sort of large and sweeping changes that the iOS 7 redesign introduced two years ago.
Downloading and Installing
As before, iOS 9 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 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, as well as the iPad mini 4. The new iPad Pro, not expected to debut until November, will more likely ship with iOS 9.1, which has already entered developer beta.
To download and install iOS 9, 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 percent 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.
Unlike most prior iOS releases, iOS 9 actually continues to support all of the same devices as iOS 8 did, going back as far as the 2011 iPad 2 and iPhone 4S, although as usual, some features will only be supported on newer devices. Several reports have also suggested that one of Apple’s goals in iOS 9 was to improve the performance of the operating system on older devices, so users of the iPhone 4S or iPad 2 might actually notice a performance improvement after updating to iOS 9.
Most of the same regional limitations still apply in iOS 9 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 9, highlighting the countries with support for specific features, and adding a section for Apple Pay as well as new features in Maps and Siri. Notably missing from the list is iOS 9’s new News app, which for now is launching only in the U.S., U.K., and Australia.
For the most part, new features in iOS 9 are available across the entire family of iOS devices, with the exception of the new split-screen and picture-in-picture features on the iPad, which are limited to newer iPad models. Siri continues to be available on all supported iPhone and iPod touch models, but as before, the iPad 2 and third-generation iPad are left out of the party.
Siri & Proactive Assistant
The most significant system-wide enhancement in iOS 9 is found in Apple’s new “Proactive Assistant” features. Primarily accessed through Siri and the Search screen, the “Proactive Assistant” actually encompasses a number of core improvements designed to present the apps and information you need at the appropriate times, places, and situations.
Many of the improvements aren’t readily visible, but work entirely under the hood. For example, iOS 9 will keep track of the playlists you listen to and when and where you listen to them, so when you plug in your headphones to begin your daily workout, or connect to the car for your morning commute, it will be able to automatically bring up the appropriate playlist. In a similar vein, core apps such as Phone, Mail, Contacts, and Calendars have been even more tightly tied together, allowing appointments to be automatically created from emails, and phone numbers for incoming calls to be looked up from a user’s mailbox. For the most part, these features work behind the scenes, although a new “Events Found in Mail” Calendar provides a repository for auto-discovered appointments, and banners will appear at the top of email messages to highlight appointment and contact information found in those messages. Creating new email messages and calendar appointments will also suggest additional recipients/invitees based on who you normally include or what subject lines you’ve used before, and “time to leave” notifications will now appear for appointments, factoring in traffic in the process.
The more visible aspects of iOS 9’s new intelligence features can be found within the Search screen, which has been significantly improved. Swiping to the left of the main home screen will display a new “Siri Suggestions” section which shows recent and suggested contacts and apps, and — in supported countries — nearby location categories. Below this, a “News” section shows news headlines and summaries. Tapping on a contact will expand a set of icons for calling, messaging and viewing details, location categories will open a search in the Maps app, and news headlines will open in the News app in the U.S., U.K., and Australia, or simply in Safari if you’re in a country where the News app isn’t supported.
A new Search API has also been added in iOS 9 that will allow searches conducted from this screen to search through third-party apps and deep-link directly into the relevant content. Developers will of course need to update their apps to specifically take advantage of this, but the good news is that we’re already seeing apps which support this appearing on the App Store, and hopefully there will be many more coming.
Searching has also become more intelligent and offers new features such as looking for sports, weather, stocks, and even performing calculations right from the search field. While these are things that you could previously ask Siri, sometimes it’s easier or more appropriate to just type them in, so this will be a welcome enhancement for some. Similarly, when searching for information, iOS 9 will take context into account, such as who you’ve recently contacted, any appointments in your calendar, and your normal daily routine, and try to provide more relevant results ordered near the top.
Siri has undergone some improvements as well, both in terms of the quality of recognition, and new search and reminder features. Siri can now create reminders from specific content — such as an email message, Safari page, or Messages conversation — simply by bringing up Siri while you’re looking at a given item and asking it to “remember this.” An item will be created in the iOS Reminders app with an icon that will link back to the message or web page you were looking at. Similarly, asking Siri to remind you to call a contact will present a Phone app icon next to the reminder that will link you to that contact so you can place a phone call right from the reminder. If you’re using OS X El Capitan, these links also sync through to the OS X Reminders app where appropriate, so they can be accessed from your Mac as well. Unfortunately, while Siri works reasonably well for creating these linked reminders, the ability to do so without talking to Siri remains limited; while “Reminders” has been added to the iOS Share Sheet, apps such as Mail and Messages don’t support “sharing” their content in this manner, so if you want to link to an email or iMessage conversation, you’ll have to speak up and tell Siri.
A new “car” location context has also been added, allowing you to create reminders for getting into and out of your car, based on when your device is connected to the car’s Bluetooth or CarPlay system. These can be created from Siri or set from the “Remind me at a location” field in the Reminders app.
Siri also gains support for searching through the iOS Photos app, including your iCloud Photo Library, based both on time and location, so you can say things like, “Show me my photos from last month” or “Show me last year’s vacation photos” and Siri will bring them up right in the Photos app.
The App Switcher has a new look in iOS 9, providing an overlapping view of open app screens, which allow you to see more of your recently-used apps in a single view. With this change, Handoff now moves down to a banner at the bottom of the screen, assuming you have anything available to be handed off.
As part of the new search and linking features, iOS 9 now also offers backlinking between apps, so when you open something from search, or even from another app, the top left corner of your screen now provides a link to return to where you were last, superimposed over where the carrier and signal strength normally appear. These even work when responding to notification banners, allowing you to pop into an app like Messages to view a notification and then easily return to exactly where you were before the notification came in. It’s a handy feature and should help users feel a bit less “lost” when switching between apps, and it’s especially useful when opening web links, since these usually take the user out of their current app and into Safari.
Lastly, iOS 9 has also improved the “Hey Siri” feature, adding a new training mode that should hopefully help to reduce false positives. The iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus will also now support “Hey Siri” even when the iPhone isn’t plugged into power.