iOS 7 review: The perfect balance of ‘new’ and ‘now’

Review
iOS 7 Review

Apple’s task in renovating its mobile platform with iOS 7 could not have been more difficult. In every sense of the phrase, it would be a balancing act. iOS is one of the most popular computing platforms in the world and when it comes to revamped operating systems, users are beyond finicky.

It’s far too easy for companies to fail.

On one hand, you have something like Windows 8, which was too new. Longtime Windows users didn’t know what to make of the new tile-based Start screen and they panicked. As a result, Windows 8 went nowhere fast.

On the other hand, you have a platform like BlackBerry 10, which was far too now. BlackBerry’s latest mobile software indeed features a fresh coat of paint, but it doesn’t really add any compelling new features that rival platforms are lacking.

So with iOS 7, Apple’s tremendously difficult job was to create the perfect balance of new and now.

UPDATE: iOS 7 is now available to the public.

There is no question that iOS was getting a little boring for longtime users. Loyalists might have been afraid to admit it until Apple unveiled iOS’s new look this past summer, but once Apple’s cards were on the table, most seemed to happily confess that the platform was due for an overhaul.

Apple first debuted its mobile OS in January 2007 — more than six years ago. Since that point in time, the look of iOS hadn’t really changed at all until now. Six and a half years is a long, long time, especially in the smartphone and tablet markets where everything moves at breakneck speed.

It was definitely time for a change.

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The problem, though, is that change is scary. When you have a platform being used by hundreds of millions of people around the world, big changes are a gamble. Push the envelope too far and users panic. Don’t push it far enough and users get bored. Just ask Microsoft how difficult it is to strike the perfect balance.

I think Apple has managed to come as close as any company can to perfectly balancing new — an exciting new look that recaptures users’ interest — and now — enough familiarity that panic will be kept to a minimum.

Make no mistake, there will be panic. But it will subside quickly as users see that there’s really nothing new to learn in order to use iOS 7. It looks different, very different in fact, but at the same time it’s quite familiar.

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Interestingly, the first thing many users will notice when they upgrade to iOS 7 just so happens to be my least favorite thing about Apple’s iOS update, visually: the icons.

They’re hideous.

I have joked about the icons here on BGR and on my Twitter account as well, but in all seriousness, most of Apple’s iOS 7 icons are shockingly bad. Some are just kind of ugly while others are downright embarrassing. I’m really not sure how this could have happened.

It seems trivial, but it’s unbelievable to think that a company known for its designs created these Adult Swim-looking monstrosities. Reminders, Game Center and Newsstand are particularly atrocious.

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Moving on, the iOS user interface has been completely overhauled in iOS 7 from top to bottom. Nothing was left untouched. All of the realistic textures that mimicked materials such as leather and paper have been stripped. What’s left is a flat, minimalistic interface that will absolutely be jarring to longtime iOS users at first.

But once the initial shock wears off, the user makes an important realization: the iOS 7 interface is actually just as familiar as it is fresh.

The look of the operating system has indeed undergone some major changes, as has every single Apple-built application. The look is flatter, the colors are brighter and many shapes have been smoothed out. The layouts of Apple’s various apps have for the most part remained unchanged, however, which means there is almost no learning curve for a user who is already familiar with iOS.

This is huge.

For one thing, Apple device owners update quickly — more than 100 million iOS devices were updated to iOS 6 within a week of its release last year. For another, iPhone owners are more loyal than any other smartphone users by a healthy margin. This means scores of users with old Apple devices that might not be compatible with iOS 7 will likely be updating to the iPhone 5s or iPhone 5c in the coming weeks and months. When they do, even if they have never seen iOS 7 before, they will be met with a brand new look that will be far easier to adapt to considering layouts, logic and workflows remain largely unchanged.

Refreshing, yet familiar — another remarkably difficult balance that Apple has managed to strike.

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Since much of the operating system and the core apps within it are so similar, I won’t bother going through everything piece by piece. Instead, here are some notes on a few items of particular interest.

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Control Center: I love it. Apple is finally offering users a simple and elegant solution to provide access to common settings, controls and apps. A swipe up from the bottom of any screen reveals the new panel, which includes an airplane mode toggle, a Wi-Fi toggle, a Bluetooth toggle, a Do Not Disturb toggle, a rotation lock toggle, a flashlight toggle (to illuminate the camera flash), a display brightness slider, music playback controls, AirDrop, AirPlay and quick access to the Clock app, the Calculator app and the Camera app.

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New Notification Center: I hate it. Apple wanted to add a lot of new functionality to Notification Center and splitting it into three panels might have been a good approach on paper. In practice, I find that it’s a pain.

The addition of the new “Today” view also corresponds with the loss of Apple’s weather widget, which was the only thing making the fact that it’s always sunny in iOS somewhat bearable. In its place is a daily text-only weather report that isn’t even on the main Notification Center tab, but on the Today tab instead.

I’ll be looking forward to some much-needed rejiggering and retooling in future iOS releases.

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New task manager: For a company that wasn’t afraid to call Samsung out for ripping off its designs, Apple had no problem whatsoever pulling its new task switcher design right out of Palm and HP’s back pocket.

iOS 7′s app-switcher is webOS’s app-switcher. It consists of a series of screenshots (or cards, as they were called in webOS) that represent each running app on the phone. Swiping from side to side scrolls through the various apps and flicking a card toward the top of the screen closes it.

It’s awesome, just like it was in webOS.

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iTunes Radio: Apple’s streaming music service had been tossed around the rumor mill for years and the rumors seemed to paint a pretty good picture of what we could expect once the offering finally launched. They almost all ended up being wrong.

In the end, iTunes Radio basically turned out to be Apple’s version of Pandora. There are a handful of genre stations to start with, and then custom stations can be created using an artist, song or genre. Songs can be liked or disliked to help fine tune a station and of course Apple makes it very easy to buy any songs that are played.

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New camera UI: Meh. Apple’s iOS camera app has been updated to fit with the rest of the iOS 7 user interface. It looks nice and it still captures fantastic high-quality photos, but it lacks many of the great new features Apple’s rivals have been rolling out over the past few years. While other companies pile on nifty new features, Apple added photo filters a la Instagram, and the ability to capture square images instead of just 4:3.

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AirDrop: Apple has steered clear of NFC in its mobile devices so far. The decision is often debated and while NFC doesn’t really add much to the mobile experience at this point, there are some ways it can make life easier. One of them, close-range file sharing, has now been addressed thanks to AirDrop and it’s a pretty solid solution.

Using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, AirDrop lets people share photos, documents, contacts, videos and more with another iOS device quickly and wirelessly. Simply tap AirDrop while viewing the file or contact you want to send and select the recipient.

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New Safari browser: Apple’s redesigned Safari browser in iOS 7 has a great new look and, more importantly, several much-needed new features.

For one thing, the separate search bar is finally gone and a unified address/search field now sits atop the browser. You can also move forward and backward with simple swipe gestures, the tab interface has been completely redone, and webpages get as much screen real estate as possible because all controls disappear after a page loads along with the address bar.

On one hand this is a nice feature, especially on the iPhone’s relatively tiny display. Having to tap around to get the controls back can be annoying at times, however. Even worse, you can’t tap a link that’s at the very bottom of the screen. When you first try to tap it, the controls reappear and then you have to tap again to actually hit the link.

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Siri: Apple’s virtual personal assistant is still a bit of a mixed bag, but Siri has been updated in iOS 7 with a new interface and some extended functionality as well. Siri pulls data from more sources now, including Bing and Wikipedia, and it also can perform new tasks like playing voicemails and returning calls.

Personally, I still don’t use it very much and I probably won’t until Siri shows up where it really belongs, but I’d say I have about an 80% success rate when I do try to do something with Siri.

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In the end, iOS 7 is a fine update. The new look of the operating system is fantastic once the icons stop triggering your gag reflex, there are tons of new APIs for developers to take advantage of — the most important of which may be more expansive background functionality — and there are several great new features like Control Panel and iTunes Radio. There are even fresh new wallpapers and ringtones to enjoy.

As I already noted in my iOS 7 preview back in June, it’s important for the more enthusiastic among Apple’s users to understand that this update is all about renovation, not innovation. Don’t expect to be blown away by exciting new functionality when you fire up iOS 7 — it’s just not there. And iOS still lags rivals in some key areas, such as giving users the ability to quickly and easily view real-time information. The groundwork has been laid, however, and I for one will be eagerly awaiting some real innovation in next year’s iOS update now that the renovation is complete.

While some may be disappointed that Apple didn’t really push the envelope with iOS 7, it’s important to look at the big picture here. Despite the stories told by many industry watchers, Apple is not in a foot race right now and its mobile business is not on the verge of collapse. Quite the contrary, in fact: Apple’s mobile business is still growing, and the iPhone 5c may very well open new doors that spur faster growth in new markets.

Long story short, Apple has time.

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Rival vendors like Samsung often fall into the feature-spam trap, seemingly dumping as many new bells and whistles as they possibly can into new devices. This is one approach that may be fine for Samsung — its profits certainly aren’t hurting right now — but Samsung’s phones are becoming so packed with all these features that users probably don’t even know many of them exist. This is inevitable to an extent, but when functionality that a person might really benefit from goes unnoticed because it’s buried under a pile of features he or she doesn’t care about, it’s a problem.

Apple took a different approach.

On one hand, it’s easy to appreciate Apple’s point of view. iOS is one of the most popular software platforms on the planet, and hundreds of millions of people are about to be slapped in the face with a brand new interface. Piling too many unfamiliar new features on top of that would inevitably result in things getting lost in the shuffle. Some power users might not be so understanding, however. Once the novelty of iOS 7′s new design wears off, the scarcity of exciting new functionality might feel like treading water.

I’m excited for the future. iOS 7 itself is a terrific update packed full of detail that users will still be discovering months from now. The smooth subtlety of the new transition animations, the way the blue conversation bubbles in Messages fade as they reach the top of the screen, the 3D parallax effect on the home screen and lock screen, the beautiful animated backgrounds in the new weather app, and dozens of other touches combine to create a user experience unlike anything else currently found on smartphones and tablets. And now that the new design is in place, the door is open for innovation.

iOS 7 is a balancing act and Apple did a tremendous job of balancing new and now. Moving forward, we can only hope Apple will also massage in some exciting and innovative new features that make the new and improved iOS even better.

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