In the fledgling days of iOS — before it was even known as “iOS” — it wasn’t uncommon at all to see significant new features added to “point” releases. As the platform has matured, however, Apple seems to have for the most part relegated these smaller releases to only providing bug fixes, minor improvements, and under-the-hood changes for developers. Last year’s addition of Apple Music to iOS 8.4 was a refreshing change from the drudgery of Apple’s usual interim releases, and we’ve definitely been pleased to see Apple continuing this trend with iOS 9.3, which adds a number of useful user-facing improvements, introducing a new display mode, polishing up the Notes, News, and Health apps, and catching CarPlay up with last year’s iOS 8.4 and iOS 9 changes.
We’ve been playing with the iOS 9.3 beta since it appeared in January, and with this week’s final release of iOS 9.3, we’ve taken a closer look to see what Apple has refined on the beta period to provide an overview of what users can now expect from this latest release.
Downloading and Installing
iOS 9.3 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 SE and 9.7-inch iPad Pro.
As with the past several iOS releases, users can choose to either install iOS 9.3 as an over-the-air (OTA) update or over a USB connection using iTunes on their Mac or PC. For an over-the-air (OTA) update, go to 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. To install the update from your computer, 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.
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. If you’ve loaded content onto your iOS device from iTunes, be sure that all of your media content and apps are already in your iTunes library — 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 iTunes and iCloud backups before beginning by visiting the “Devices” section in your iTunes Preferences. If you’re not using iTunes, you can check the status of your iCloud backups, and make another manual backup if necessary, by going into Settings, iCloud, Backups.
As a more minor “point” release, iOS 9.3 supports the same devices as iOS 9, still going back as far as the 2011 iPad 2 and iPhone 4S. As usual, some features are only supported on newer devices. For example, the new Night Shift feature is only available on the iPhone 5s or later, iPad Pro, iPad Air, iPad mini 2 or later, or sixth-generation iPod touch.
Most of the same regional limitations still apply in iOS 9.3 for features like Siri, Maps, and of course the iTunes Store, although Apple is still expanding worldwide support for these features behind the scenes. Apple’s Feature Availability Page highlights the countries with support for specific features. Notably, despite other enhancements in iOS 9.3, Apple’s News app, first launched in iOS 9, continues to be available only to users in the U.S., U.K., and Australia.
Night Shift (iPhone 5s and later, iPad Air, iPad mini 2 and later, sixth-generation iPod touch)
The headline feature of iOS 9.3 — and probably the most interesting from an innovation point of view — is “Night Shift.” The sheer number of people now using smartphones and tablets in recent years have prompted several studies suggesting that exposure to bright blue light in evening hours can actually impact a person’s sleep cycles. In response to this, the new Night Shift mode in iOS 9.3 shifts your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch screen colors over to the warmer end of the spectrum.
Night Shift can be accessed from the Display & Brightness section in the iOS Settings app, where it can be toggled or setup on a schedule in a manner similar to the Do Not Disturb feature; you can schedule Night Shift to toggle on or off at a specific time, or you can set it to be enabled from Sunset to Sunrise, based on your location. You can also adjust exactly how warm you’d like your display using a Color Temperature slider at the bottom of the Night Shift settings screen.
A new button in the iOS Control Center also allows you to toggle Night Shift on and off manually, temporarily overriding any preset schedules — much like Do Not Disturb, any manual activation or deactivation of Night Shift will only take effect until the next time it’s scheduled to be turned on or off automatically.
It’s also interesting to note that, for whatever reason, Night Shift and Low Power Mode are incompatible. When an iOS device is put into Low Power Mode, either manually or as the result of a low battery notification, Night Shift will automatically be disabled, and Night Shift settings will be inaccessible for as long as Low Power Mode remains on.
In iOS 9, Apple made some significant improvements to the Notes app, adding support for folders and rich content such as attachments, checklists, sketches, photos, maps, web links, and more. With so many more advanced capabilities, it’s only reasonable that many users will want to store a lot more information in the Notes app rather than looking to third-party alternatives. iOS 9.3 builds on these changes by adding the ability to secure individual notes with a password or Touch ID, along with new sorting options, allowing you to organize your notes by date created, date modified, or alphabetically.
Tapping the Share button in the top-right corner of a note will reveal a new “Lock” option in the second row which is used to protect individual notes. Notes are unprotected by default, and must be locked on a note-by-note basis — there’s no global lock option beyond the normal iOS lock screen that protects your entire device. The first time you lock a note, you’ll be prompted to set a password, password hint, and choose whether to use Touch ID (if your device supports it). After this, any future notes you lock are automatically protected with the same password with no further prompts.
Once a note is protected with a lock, a padlock icon will appear beside it in the Notes list. Tapping on a locked note reveals a screen that indicates the note is locked with a “View Note” link, as opposed to taking you directly a password entry or Touch ID authentication screen. Tapping “View Note” will prompt you to use Touch ID or enter your password to view the note — however, this won’t permanently remove the lock. Locked notes that you’ve opened will remain accessible for up to three minutes, as long as the Notes app remains open in the background and the iOS device remains unlocked. You can also re-lock an individual note manually by tapping on the padlock icon near the top-right corner of the screen while viewing the note, and you can lock all notes manually by tapping on the “Lock Now” link that appears at the bottom of the main Notes screen.
If you want to unprotect a note, you can remove the lock by using the Share button and selecting the “Remove Lock” option, which will revert it back to a standard note. Locked notes and passwords synchronize via iCloud to other iOS 9.3 devices and any Macs running OS X El Capitan 11.4. Touch ID can be used to view notes on other iOS devices that share the same iCloud account, although on Macs you’ll need to rely on the password to view locked notes.
The handling of passwords in the Notes app deserves some extra explanation here as well, as it can be a bit confusing. Two options can be found under Settings, Notes, Password: Change Password and Reset Password. The first lets you change your Notes password in the usual manner — you’ll be prompted to enter your old password, followed by your new password twice, followed by a new password hint. The second option lets you set a new Notes password without knowing the existing one, although you’ll be prompted to enter your iCloud password to proceed.
When you change your password using the normal “Change Password” option — by supplying your existing password and the new one together — iOS will go through and update the password on all of your existing notes. However, if you’ve forgotten your existing password and need to use the “Reset” option, all of your previous notes will remain protected using the password that was set when they were originally locked. It appears you can still access these older notes using Touch ID, if you’ve enabled it, although in our testing we found a couple of situations where we were prompted to enter the old password instead. If you’ve forgotten your older password, we recommend using the “Remove Lock” option on your protected notes with Touch ID before using the Reset Password option, after which you can then re-protect your notes with the new password.
If you’ve used the Reset Password option, entering the current Notes password on an older note will display a message stating: “That’s not the correct password for this note,” along with the previous password hint (if one was set), as opposed to the standard “invalid password” response. If you then correctly enter the older password at the second prompt, you’ll be asked whether you want to update all of your notes to use the current password. This provides a quick way to update your password if you’ve forcibly reset it, but later remember what it was.
While the ability to lock notes is a great enhancement, it’s unfortunately not quite as comprehensive as we would have hoped — for whatever reason it’s not possible to lock notes if they contain PDF, audio, video, Keynote, Pages, or Numbers attachments, so you’ll still need to resort to third-party apps if you need to secure these types of files.
The Notes app also gains a few other smaller features, including the ability to switch between displaying large photos and smaller thumbnails in a note via the tap-and-hold context menu, creating new sketches in a note using a two-finger swipe gesture or a “New Sketch” button found in the top-right corner, and a new checklist button at the bottom of every note for quickly creating checklists.
Apple’s CarPlay feature continues to gain traction as a great way to use your iPhone on the road — providing of course that you have a supported 2016-model car — although Apple has been a bit slower than we would have liked at getting CarPlay features up to par with their core iOS counterparts. Fortunately, even though it lags a bit behind, CarPlay has the advantage of being controlled almost entirely on the iOS side, so it merely takes an iPhone software update to add new CarPlay features without requiring any involvement by the maker of the in-dash equipment.
In iOS 9.3, CarPlay users gain the ability to use the full suite of Apple Music capabilities introduced last summer, with the “For You” and “New” sections now appearing on the dashboard console, along with the full list of Apple Music Radio stations.
Siri can also now be used more reliably to search the entire Apple Music library, making it a handy way to pull up just about any random song while driving. The “For You” and “New” sections more or less mirror what you’d see on the iPhone screen, albeit optimized for the CarPlay display. In some cases, this screen optimization can be a bit confusing — for example, it’s more difficult to distinguish playlists from albums on the CarPlay “For You” screen than it is on the iPhone display, although we do prefer the clearer menu hierarchy of the “New” screen as compared to the all-in-one presentation on the iPhone.
CarPlay users now also gain access to the “Nearby” feature in Apple Maps that originally debuted in iOS 9 last fall. In addition to recent destinations, tapping “Directions” now provides a series of icons at the top of the screen allowing you to select a list of nearby Gas Stations, Parking Lots, Restaurants, Coffee Shops, and Grocery Stores, complete with ratings, price indicators, and travel time shown for each. Sadly, much like the main CarPlay search screen, no specific addresses are shown, so if you don’t know the neighborhood and are looking for an item in a specific area, you’ll be left with a bit of guesswork. Directional arrows will appear when you’re moving along a route, however, so at least you’ll know the approximate bearing of each entry so you can get an idea of how likely it is to be off your beaten path.
Siri has also gotten a bit less loquacious when being used through CarPlay, getting more to the point when reading back and composing messages, and providing other types of responses.
News (U.S., U.K., Australia)
While Apple’s fledgling News app remains limited to only three countries, iOS 9.3 makes some efforts at increasing its usefulness for users in the U.S., U.K., and Australia by creating a more focused “For You” section. Apple now promises to tailor it better to each user’s particular interests, and trending topics and Editors’ Picks now appear in “For You” as well.
Videos in stories can also be played directly from the user’s News feed without a need to open the article, and landscape mode has been added for iPhone users.
Although Apple’s Health app has been around since iOS 8, it’s often been difficult to track down apps that integrate with the HealthKit framework. As a result, in iOS 9.3 the Health app now shows recommended apps in key sections such as Weight, Workouts, Sleep, and Running.
The Health app now also includes move, exercise, stand data, and goals from a user’s Apple Watch, and makes some of this data available to third-party apps via the HealthKit APIs. 3D Touch support has also been added for quick access to the Dashboard and Medical ID from the iPhone 6s or iPhone 6s Plus home screen.
While iOS 9.3 introduces more new features than we’ve seen in a point release in some time, it also includes a number of smaller enhancements that may go unnoticed by comparison.
“Add Playlist Songs to My Music” and other Music enhancements
A new option under Settings, Music now allows you to decide whether you want Apple Music tracks that you add to a playlist to also be added to your music library. Previously this always happened; users can now disable it if you’re building playlists but don’t necessarily want those tracks included in your core library.
Beats 1 Radio also now shows the program that’s currently playing directly on the “Radio” tab so you can see what’s on without having to tune in. Music videos can be played full screen on the iPad, and you can navigate to a song’s album from the “Now Playing” screen by tapping on the name of the song.
Duplicating Photos and Live Photos
The iOS 9.3 Photos app includes a new “Duplicate” option in the actions row of the Share Sheet, allowing you to duplicate a photo or series of photos.
This can also be used to extract a still image from a Live Photo. In addition, Live Photos can now be shared between iOS and your Mac using AirDrop or Messages.
iCloud for iBooks
Although users have been able to synchronize purchased iBooks between devices for quite a while now, other content types in iBooks such as PDFs have been left out; you could synchronize things like page positions for PDFs that were already on multiple devices, but the PDF files themselves had to be loaded in using some other method, such as syncing from iTunes. iOS 9.3 adds an “iCloud for iBooks” feature that fills in this missing gap — once enabled, all of your content in iBooks will synchronize between iOS devices that are signed into the same iCloud account.
Last year in iOS 8.4, Apple somewhat quietly shifted audiobooks into the iBooks app, shifting the last non-music audio file type away from the newly redesigned Apple Music focused app. Other than that minor change, audiobook support in iBooks was largely put on the back burner, and audiobooks failed to gain some of the iTunes Store related sharing and purchase history features — until now. With iOS 9.3, users can now redownload audiobooks they’ve previously purchased on the iTunes Store, and family members can share purchased audiobooks via Family Sharing.
iOS 9.3 also adds some new features for the use of iPads in a classroom setting. While these aren’t features that the typical home or business iPad user will be able to take advantage of, it should greatly assist school administrators and teachers in properly deploying and managing iPads in educational environments. A new “Shared iPad” feature is being previewed that will allow multiple students to use the same iPad at different times through the day, although it sounds like Apple doesn’t necessarily consider this fully ready for prime time yet — we suspect it will be a significant new feature when the next major version of iOS ships later this year. Notably, this feature seems to be restricted to an educational setting; at least for now there is no indication that it will facilitate shared iPad use among family members.
Support for “Managed Apple IDs” has also been added in iOS 9.3, basically allowing school administrators to provision Apple IDs for students, which can then be managed by the educational institution. Of course, this includes the ability to manage everything associated with that Apple ID, such as App Store content, iMessage, FaceTime, and iCloud. A new “Classroom” app has also been introduced that will require iOS 9.3, and new management options will allow administrators and teachers to control the layout of apps on the home screen and choose which ones to show and hide. iCloud Photo Library and Apple Music can also now be controlled through device management restrictions.
With iOS maturing, there seems to be fewer and fewer reasons to avoid updating to the latest releases, except perhaps in cases where users are running significantly older devices. That said, iOS 9.3 performs just as well on our iPad 2 as iOS 9 did — it’s not going to win any performance awards, but it definitely remains usable and doesn’t appear to create any problems; despite reports of the iOS 9.3 update “bricking” iPad 2 models, we haven’t even been able to reproduce that particular issue. For everybody with newer devices, however, iOS 9.3 is a worthwhile upgrade, and if you’re using your iPhone with CarPlay, or making heavy use of the Notes app, you’ll especially appreciate the improvements in this latest version.