Despite iOS 7’s messy 2013 launch, which was marred by both major bugs and debates over its redesigned user interface, the dust eventually settled. Apple substantially reduced the crashes and reboots that once made iOS 7 particularly unpleasant on iPads, and the “flat” UI is officially here to stay. This year, the company brought similar design elements over to the Mac with OS X Yosemite, and will continue the theme with upcoming software updates for iTunes 12 and the Apple TV. It’s also building on iOS 7 with this week’s release of iOS 8, which once again feels more like a 0.5 release than a full upgrade, but nonetheless improves the user experience over its predecessor.
Once again, Apple is proclaiming this to be “the biggest iOS release ever,” even though regular users certainly won’t feel that way—on the surface, it looks like what iOS 7 should have been, including a collection of small but welcome new features that make iPhones and iPads faster tools for communicating, editing media, and holding different types of data. Under the hood, it contains a collection of major enhancements for developers that will result in faster and more powerful apps in the future. Despite some notable issues, it’s also pretty stable, running smoothly on iPhones and iPods alike, while continuing to support nearly all of the devices that could run iOS 7 last year. We’ve assembled a list of the top 10 things you should know about the new update, as well as a recommendation for whether or not to install iOS 8 now.
1. What’s The Same: iOS 7’s user interface returns all but unchanged in iOS 8. The overly thin Home Screen text, low-contrast Lock Screen text, and copious translucent panes are all back this time, assisted by subtle shading tweaks that sometimes improve the contrast between words and graphics. If you didn’t like iOS 7’s pixel-thin Safari icons or border-free buttons, you probably won’t be thrilled to find that iOS 8 has retained all of them, albeit with small tweaks such as Safari’s use of a more obvious book icon to indicate bookmarks, and enhancements to previously introduced UI controls in Accessibility. Given how much Apple has improved upon iOS’s iconography for OS X Yosemite, it’s surprising that the most significant visual additions to iOS 8 are a collection of unusually dark new background wallpapers, though the previously limited dynamic wallpaper options have unfortunately not been improved or built upon in any way. On a more positive note, all the similarity means a great deal of third-party app compatibility with iOS 8, and we haven’t had issues with any major piece of software during weeks of testing.
2. Speed + Memory Usage: iOS 8 is at least a little faster and better at using memory than iOS 7. Apple has tightened up the timing of animations, shaved milliseconds off of some app launch times, and done a better job of preserving your place in one app or Safari web page when you transition to another. While the changes aren’t night-and-day different, iOS 8 is typically better than iOS 7 at doing the same things. It also increases your efficiency in other ways: for instance, the multitasking screen has gained contact shortcuts to let you quickly reach out to your most recently contacted people via phone, messaging, or FaceTime. Though it’s an awkward place to include that feature, Apple is clearly trying to save people time by making the double Home Button click a way to get back to both recent apps and people.
3. Photos: Arguably the biggest and yet unfinished change to iOS 8 is its new approach to photo management. The good news is that iOS 8’s Photos app is considerably more powerful as an editing tool than ever before. Hitting the Edit button now brings up sophisticated crop, 1-degree rotation, and 90-degree rotation tools, plus a collection of user-adjustable automatic filters. Most importantly, Photos adds advanced color, brightness, and black/white adjustment controls that are even more impressive than ones that used to be in the standalone iOS app iPhoto. It’s now possible to completely optimize an image using Photos without the use of any other app, which is fantastic, particularly if your iOS device has a color-accurate screen.
On the other hand, Apple is still in the process of finalizing a new feature called iCloud Photo Library, now conspicuously marked within iOS 8 as being “Beta,” and currently available only for iOS users; a Mac version is planned for early 2015. At some point, iCloud Photo Library will probably replace Photo Stream, the cloud-based system that has synchronized your last 1,000 photos across all of your Apple devices. iCloud Photo Library is supposed to hold your entire photo and home video library in the cloud, albeit requiring users to pay monthly iCloud storage fees in the process. Because Photos is supposed to handle both editing and library management going forward, Apple is getting rid of iPhoto, the free iOS and Mac photo editing and management app, as well as Aperture, the Mac-only pro version of iPhoto. iPhoto won’t even launch on iOS 8 devices.
Right now, Photo Stream and iCloud Photo Library work in parallel; you needn’t give up the former’s free 1,000-image storage in order to use the latter’s paid, potentially unlimited storage, though you can turn one or the other off. We wouldn’t be surprised if this changes by iOS 9, as the current overlapping system is unnecessarily confusing for users; Photo Stream will most likely disappear. If that happens, we hope that Apple will offer a free iCloud Photo Library tier akin to or better than Photo Stream, because most people have no interest in paying for online photo storage regardless of the price or capacity.
4. Health, Tips, iBooks and Podcasts: Two new apps are the most conspicuous additions to iOS 8’s Home Screen, though they’re not the most important ones. Health is Apple’s aggregator of health metrics — everything from nutritional intake to fitness and sleep data, supplied either by manually inputting data points or synchronizing data from compatible accessories. Apple has suggested for months that this app will become vital in the future, potentially offering users a voluntary way to share health data with doctors and hospitals. But right now, the app doesn’t do that, and relies far more heavily on manual input than compatible accessories. The jury is out on whether it will achieve its aims, and for now, Health doesn’t run on iPads.
Tips is Apple’s way of educating iOS 8 users about new features that might not be completely intuitive or obvious. It starts with a handful of tips, and displays a push notification whenever a new tip is added. Each tip consists of simple text and an animated image that clearly demonstrates how to use the feature. It’s a nice addition to iOS 8, but like some other integrated iOS apps, would benefit from a “hide this app” toggle for users who don’t want to use it. On a related note, iBooks and Podcasts—previously optional App Store downloads—have been directly integrated into iOS 8 as well.
5. Passbook/Apple Pay and HomeKit: Like Health, Passbook began as an empty aggregator of data — here, purchased tickets and passes — but in iOS 8, it has evolved to include Apple Pay credit card transaction functionality on the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Apple Pay is going to be a big deal, enabling users to authorize secure payments at retail stores and restaurants, though we’ll have to wait until it officially starts to roll out next month to see how widely available the payment terminals are. Even on older devices, the Passbook icon has been updated with a red stripe to suggest credit card support, so it’s possible that we’ll see at least limited Apple Pay functionality for Apple Stores added to the Touch ID-equipped iPhone 5s.
HomeKit is something of a different story. Apple announced iOS 8 support for third-party home automation accessories, enabling a wide variety of companies to connect their remote-controlled light switches, door locks, and thermostats to Apple devices. But as yet, there’s no integrated iOS 8 app to centrally control all of those devices. We suspect that Apple will unveil one at some point over the next year. Like several of iOS 8’s other marquee features, HomeKit is presently of more interest to developers than consumers.
6. Streamlining: iOS 8 contains a number of small tweaks to prior apps and UI elements. Replying to Messages by pulling down on the notification pane is quick and simple. Notification Center now has two panes rather than three, reducing clutter, while allowing you to add widgets—mostly yet to be released—that can display Internet-acquired data at a glance. Mail lets you quick-swipe to delete messages and swipe down on draft messages to read existing ones, the latter a subtle but great improvement when composing emails. Safari’s multi-tab and iCloud tabs page is even better than before; on the iPad, its reductions and expansions of top-of-screen favorites, taps, and icons are nicely animated as you scroll up or down through pages. Spotlight draws upon a greater collection of on-device and Internet-based content to return results. Features that launched or continued to be half-baked in iOS 7 feel like they’ve been carried through to their conclusions or next logical steps in iOS 8.
7. Continuity: An extension of the iCloud Tabs feature introduced for Safari synchronization between iOS and OS X devices, Continuity uses iCloud for automatic pairing of iOS and OS X devices—an inspired idea—to quickly share content and certain features. Amongst other things, Continuity can shift currently-in-use conversations, emails, iWork documents, and Safari pages between your iPhone, iPad, and an OS X Yosemite Mac. The feature is great when it works, creating a new OS X dock icon for the iPhone or iPad app, or a Lock Screen icon for the iPhone or iPad. It’s also designed to enable zero-configuration sharing of an iPhone’s cellular Internet connection with a Mac, assuming the iPhone has the ability to tether devices.
But between the still-in-beta OS X Yosemite and Mac hardware limitations — only certain Macs with certain Bluetooth 4 chips will work — we found Continuity to be spotty in practice. Even if you have a Mac with Bluetooth 4, it’s hard to know what will and won’t be shared between your iOS device and computer. One potentially killer Continuity feature, enabling an iPad or Mac to serve as a Bluetooth speakerphone for an iPhone, also is somewhat dicey in execution right now. Callers reported less than great audio quality from the Mac’s integrated microphone system, and some calls continued to ring through to the Mac after being answered on the iPhone. We are anxious to see this feature working properly, because it could be great, and OS X Yosemite may improve before it’s officially released to the public. SMS Relay, a related feature that passes iPhone SMS messages off to your Mac or iPad, worked comparatively well in our testing, but was recently badged by Apple as a “coming soon” feature for October. We look forward to seeing Apple get everything working right.
8. Siri: Apple’s personal assistant has had years to improve since its 2011 introduction with the iPhone 4S, and this year’s jumps are arguably the best ever. In iOS 8, Siri gains the (optional) ability to respond automatically to the phrase “Hey, Siri” when it’s plugged into power — yes, it’s listening all the time, which is handy in the car but might be uncomfortable next to your bed — as well as performing advanced realtime transcription, and responding to a wider variety of commands. Siri can read recent emails and messages aloud, show you in realtime what it’s transcribing as your response, and play voicemail messages, just to name a few of the new tricks.
During most of our testing, we had far fewer of those annoying “can’t help right now” error messages, but they began to pop up again after Apple released the iOS 8 gold master seed—it’s possible but not certain that these issues will be resolved in the “final” iOS 8 release. Apple also promised that Siri would be able to identify ambient songs using Shazam, a feature that worked in iOS 8 betas but has apparently been disabled in the gold master seed release; this too could be remedied at any time. Siri’s real-world performance continues to be highly dependent on Apple’s servers, though there have been tangible improvements to both its on-device processing capabilities and ability to smoothly transition between Wi-Fi and cellular connections.
9. Messages: It’s hard to recall that the original version of iOS’s Messages app was for nothing more than cellular text messaging for the iPhone — and that users once begged for it to rival or replace the powerful OS X app iChat. Little tweaks here and there have gradually improved Messages to the point where it’s incredibly useful, and this year’s version is the best yet. It’s now super easy to quickly share pictures and video, thanks to new hold-and-swipe gestures, and the addition of voice messaging with short audio clips is very much welcome. Your ability to look at photo galleries of all past attachments from a given contact is handy, as are a Do Not Disturb feature for specific individual or group discussions, and the ability to “expire” text, audio, and video messages on separate schedules. Messages has come a long way, and for many people is becoming a viable email replacement; iOS 8’s new capabilities will hasten that transition.
10. Extensions and Little Things: iOS 8 includes a collection of small but welcome developer-side improvements that will take some time to fully settle out. Metal and Swift were introduced as new programming technologies that will invisibly improve the apparent speed and power of existing devices. On the visible side, Apple is enabling developers to create extensions—effectively mini-apps that can be run as requested by other apps, such as a plug-in to save files to a specific cloud storage location—a change that could profoundly improve the power of existing apps, and the pervasiveness of new ones. 1Password (above) is able to store encrypted passwords and other data, now sharing it with other apps on an as-requested basis, and optionally using Touch ID to unlock its digital wallet.
On a related note, in addition to a revamped official iOS 8 keyboard with context-specific word suggestions — a feature that sounded nice, but was annoyingly prone to accidental word replacements during our testing — iOS 8 includes support for third-party keyboards, which have yet to be widely released. Family Sharing is a long-awaited way to unify several iTunes and iCloud accounts under one umbrella for media, app, and location sharing, and works quite well. A timer and a timelapse video mode have been added to the Camera app, and iCloud Drive has been added as a browsable, cloud-based repository for documents and folders across multiple apps. Most of these features won’t be obvious to the average user on day one using iOS 8, but in time, they’ll almost certainly enhance the overall iOS experience.
Taken as a whole, iOS 8 is a dichotomy: the typical consumer will initially find it to be fairly ho-hum, packed with lots of little nice improvements that really take time to fully appreciate, while developers will be energized by Apple’s numerous and major under-the-hood changes. The litmus test of whether you’ll be pleased or seriously impressed with iOS 8 is whether you fully understand this sentence: Apple has laid out an incredible foundation for the future of iOS, adding new APIs, services, and “kits” that will continue to yield app feature and performance dividends for years to come.
Based on what we’ve experienced, iOS 8 is stable enough to use on current-generation devices with relatively few issues; depending on whether Apple squashes the bugs before the final release, you may notice unusual iPhone battery drain, missed push notifications, and on the iPad, occasional Wi-Fi connectivity hiccups that require flipping Airplane Mode on and off to resolve. If you can live with these sorts of problems, upgrade to iOS 8 as soon as you can; otherwise, you may want to wait for iOS 8.0.1—hopefully not iOS 8.1—to take the plunge. This version of iOS’s best days are clearly ahead of it.
Company and Price
Company: Apple Inc.
Model: iOS 8
Compatibility: iPad 2/3rd-/4th-Gen, iPad Air, iPad mini, iPhone 4S/5/5c/5s/6/6 Plus, iPod touch 5G