Hands-on with iOS 7


Last week Apple – as we expected – took the wraps off iOS 7. The seventh incarnation of its mobile operating system, set to hit the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, later this year (it says summer, so bank on the usual September release) is the biggest redesign the Cupertino company has undertaken. Many have complained about iOS looking dated and lacking essential features. To remedy that Apple has borrowed a few ideas, added some pretty graphics, and called them its own.

We’ve spent a few days with the first developer beta of iOS 7, since the announcement. It’s difficult to call many things right now, especially since this is still software that’s in development, and there are many reports that certain parts of the operating system (even the icons) have yet to be finalised. What we can comment on, though, is what Apple has unveiled and how it works. These features might change by the time the final version lands, but keeping track of progress will be a good measure for how Apple listens to the community of designers and developers that have made its OS a success.

So far, here are the good bits – the parts of iOS 7 that most people will use – and our initial impressions.

Control Center

It's a centre. For controlling things. Really.

It’s a centre. For controlling things. Really.

It’s taken Apple a while to offer this, and Android users will know all too well how useful it is. Control Center (accessed by swiping up from anywhere in the OS) gives you controls for common tasks. You can manage wireless settings, flight modes, do not disturb, and orientation. Then you can control brightness – a huge help when the auto brightness doesn’t work; those who’ve used their phones in movie theatres know how obnoxious a fully bright display can be. Music controls used to be accessed by double-tapping the home button and swiping right, but now they’re here – far more usable. AirDrop is file sharing for iPhones, and putting it here makes sense rather than adding another icon for an Apple-only app.

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The coolest are those four icons at the bottom. A flashlight, timer, calculator, and camera. Those apps are usually a pain to navigate to (how many times have you fumbled with your phone in a restaurant while trying to get a calculator for the bill?). Control Center is a brilliant and very welcome addition to iOS.

Notifications bar

Three separate views for managing your notifications.

Three separate views for managing your notifications.

In iOS of old you had all your notifications bunged in a single area. The new one, still accessed by swiping down from the top of the display, separates things into distinct areas. There are today’s notifications, dealing with the current date, weather, and calendar appointments. Scroll down and there’s a sneak peek at what you’re up to tomorrow.

All notifications will show you notifications from applications like Mail, Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Sadly, you still cannot dismiss individual notifications, so you’re going to have to clear them on a per-app basis.

The missed tab deals with missed calls and any messages you might not have actioned in the last 24 hours. Messages show up here once you’ve unlocked your phone and not seen a message that’s arrived while it was locked. Handy.

Multitasking

A visual way for handling your active applications.

A visual way for handling your active applications.

When Apple first added multitasking to iOS it was a very primitive implementation – only certain apps could run in the background, and only when certain calls were made to the OS.  Now there are more options for apps to fetch data in the background, and the OS will even learn which applications need to fetch data, and when. For instance, if you read news using a certain app every morning, iOS can wake that app and fetch data before you’ve even opened it. Working smarter, not harder, then.

The multitasking interface has also been given a big upgrade, now using WebOS-style cards. Double-tapping the home button no longer just brings up a row of icons representing open applications, but it shows those icons along with previews of the app you want to switch to. It makes multitasking a whole lot faster and intuitive. Swiping up on an open application will also close it.

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Photos

Photos are gathered into moments, which can either be dates or places.

Photos are gathered into moments, which can either be dates or places.

Apple openly admitted that the previous Photos application would just show you a single, never-ending roll of snaps. Now it’s been fine-tuned to take advantage of all that metadata. The data for places and times you took photos are used to create albums. Now you can see those photos you took over Christmas. Or at the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. It’s a mighty improvement on anything else we’ve seen, and the fact that you don’t have to manually intervene is a huge plus.

Camera

You want square photos with filters? You got 'em.

You want square photos with filters? You got ’em.

The Camera app has also been given a fresh look, and some new features. Previously you’d have to hit a toggle switch to switch between stills and video, or navigate sub-menus to activate panoramic mode and enable HDR. Now you simply swipe between four camera modes (video, still, square, panorama). The square mode is just a jab at taking Instagram-like photos – if anything taking a square photo from the get-go will make your Instagram adventures easier. As a bonus, there are nine filters to choose from, each viewable in real time as pictured above. HDR mode is now a simple on-screen button, and taking an HDR photo will no longer require you to wait for processing to take place.

Safari

Safari is now very powerful and takes advantage of social integration.

Safari is now very powerful and takes advantage of social integration.

Safari has seen some competition on iOS, with Opera and Chrome showing up as alternative browsers. Apple obviously wants people to use its browser, and with that in mind its mobile Safari app has been given a whack of new functionality. Tabs are now dealt with in a flashy 3D flip viewer. It’s faster than before, and the same screen also lets you enable private browsing – a new feature. One of the best additions is Shared Links. Here you’ll find links that have been shared on social media, thanks to deep integration with Twitter and Facebook. It’s a great way to catch up on reading without opening up those respective apps. Safari also ties in with Keychain, the password manager on Mac OS X. The integration will only arrive when Mac OS X Mavericks becomes available, but it’ll mean the end of writing down your passwords or using third-party apps to sync them across your computers and mobile devices.

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