Cleaner, more modern look; Improved multitasking; Control Center provides easy access to settings; Smart photo organization
Icons don't update or change with info; Still lacks customization of Android phones; Some redesigned icons are confusing; No actionable notifications
Apple's iOS 7 software offers a sleek modern design, easier settings access, and better multitasking, but it still trails Android in some areas.
Colorful, stark and tres minimaliste, Apple's iOS 7 represents an extreme makeover for a mobile platform that has sported the same look since President George Bush was in office and Hannah Montana was in season one. That was 2007, when Steve Jobs introduced the world to the original iPhone. Over the years Apple has added many features to its software, but the overall aesthetic and navigation has largely remained the same. That all changes with iOS 7, which boasts an all-new design and welcome new features such as Control Center and improved multitasking. Has Apple gone far enough to narrow the user experience gap with Android, or has it gone too far?
Editor's Note: We tested a developer preview build of iOS 7 (GM Seed 11A465) for our review.
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However, some features will only work on more recent iOS devices. The iPhone 4S won't have camera filters or AirDrop; the iPhone 4 and the third-generation iPad won't have camera filters, AirDrop, or Siri; and the iPad 2 will not have camera filters, panoramic photos, square photos and videos, or Siri.
Much has been said about iOS 7's "flatter" interface, but overall, it's a welcome refresh that makes everything feel cleaner and less cluttered than iOS 6. It's like going from your aunt's house cluttered with Hummel figurines to MoMA.
Icons are much more minimalist. Take, for example, the Camera icon. Instead of a detailed image of a camera lens, the icon is now a dark gray camera with a few white lines. Skeuomorphic cues, such as the leather background of the Calendar, wood grain of the Newsstand, and paperlike Reminders have all been replaced with white, slightly textured backgrounds.
Other icons, such as the App Store, Messages, Music, and iTunes, have all lost the star burst and reflective backgrounds in favor of simpler, but brighter, colors. Subtle differences abound; tiles are no longer shaded, and folders no longer have a gray border. The text beneath the tiles is also thinner, and instead of permanent shading, as on iOS6, only appears when you have a lighter colored background. If you choose an all-white background, the text turns black -- a nice touch -- but the Calendar, Photos and Game Center tiles, which also have white backgrounds, lose the square edges.
In going for simplicity, though, some of the icons have become more inscrutable. The Safari icon now lacks the North, South, East and West markings, but it's still a compass -- which makes little sense. Game Center has gone from game icons to a cluster of bubbles.
Animations are also different. When you first open the Home screen, the icons fly in from above, rather than the sides. When you open or close an app, it expands or contracts from the location of the tile itself, instead of the center of the screen. The icons all fly in at different times, which looks cool, but takes a split second longer than iOS 6.
One of the fun new aspects of iOS 7 is its parallax feature, which shifts the tiles relative to the background image as you tilt the phone. It'll have you twisting the phone for the first 10 minutes just to see what it looks like.
For all the aesthetic changes, though, we wish that tiles in iOS 7 had an interactive element, as with Windows Phone 8, which shows you updated information about contacts and email, for example. And, unlike Android, iOS 7 doesn't support widgets.
Sharing options are still limited when compared to Android. In multiple apps, such as Safari and Maps, you can share content via Message, Mail, Twitter, Facebook and, in the case of Photos, to Flickr, but that's it.
There's no way to share to LinkedIn, Google+, or any other apps within iOS 7's sharing menu.
However, others take multitasking further. Samsung's TouchWiz interface, for example, lets you run two apps side by side, and both LG and Samsung let you open an app in a floating window. While this is less of a drawback on the iPhone's smaller screen, we could see this type of functionality being very useful on an iPad.
At the top of Control Center are buttons to activate Airplane, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb and Rotation lock. Beneath these is a slider for screen brightness; below that is audio control (as well as a thumbnail of what music is playing).
An Airdrop icon comes after, and at the bottom are icons for the Flashlight, Timer, Calculator and Camera apps. We're sure that more than a few developers will be miffed that Apple has created its own Flashlight app.
Although it's not as extensive as Samsung's TouchWiz menu, Apple hit all the important notes with Control Center. However, we'd like to be able to customize the buttons at the bottom, so that we could quick-launch apps of our choosing.
Gone are the two buttons that let you send Facebook or Twitter messages. The current weather is also more minimalist; the little icon that shows whether it's cloudy or sunny is gone in favor of just text.
Below the date and weather are calendar listings for the day, stock quotes (if enabled), and calendar events for the next day. Somewhat maddeningly, it says "There are 4 events scheduled, and the first one starts at 10 AM," but you can't press this notification to actually view the events.
While we miss the little cloud and sun icons from iOS 6, the new Notifications drawer makes it easier to view information at a glance. We also like its translucent background, which feels more sophisticated than the gray cross-hatched background of iOS 6.
Still, the revamped Notification Center feels behind Android, as well as OS X Mavericks. For instance, if you select an email from the Notifications tab, it will open the Mail app. Why not an option to respond right from Notifications as you can from OS X Mavericks alerts? Similarly, you can't add calendar events, or message those going to the same event to say you're running late, which Android offers.
In Android, if you receive a text message, you can reply or call the person back right in the notification drawer. While you can read texts in iOS 7's notification drawer, pressing on the text itself opens the messaging app.
The numbers on the Passcode screen are much larger, taking up a majority of the screen, and are in big circles, rather than in a square grid.
We still find iOS 7's lock screen too limited. On most premium Android phones, you can unlock to any app you want right from the home screen, which saves users time.
When we asked Siri "What was the score of the Yankees game," both iOS 6 and iOS 7 Siris (which drew their info from MLB.com and Yahoo) responded accurately. When we followed this up with "Who pitched," both Siris answered correctly.
You can get around Bing by saying "Search Google for...", but results will be opened in Safari, rather than in Siri's interface.
While there's still a microphone icon at the bottom, once you start speaking, it turns into a sine wave that reacts to your voice, a nice animation that lets you know you're being heard. Siri's female voice now sounds more natural and smoother than iOS 6; a male voice is now available, although it sounded slightly choppy in the developer preview we tested.
In addition to everything you could search for previously, you can now have Siri search Twitter for a particular user or subject. This feature worked well. "What's Joanna saying on Twitter" showed the 10 most recent tweets from our friend Joanna, and asking "who's tweeting about Miley Cyrus" brought up a number of tweets regarding the singer.
Siri can also be used to control iTunes music and radio. Commands such as "Play iTunes radio" and "Pause track'" worked quickly. You can also switch stations, but you have to be specific about which station you want to switch. The generic "Switch to a different station" didn't work, but "Play Bruce Springsteen station" changed channels.
Within Control Center, you can activate AirDrop, and make your device visible to everyone, or only your contacts.
After, select the item you wish to share (which can include a photo, video, app or music info, or map location) and press the Share button (the square with an arrow pointing out the top). In the window that appears, any AirDrop-enabled devices in range will appear as small circular icons. Select the one you want, and an alert will appear on that person's device. Once they press "accept," the file will transfer.
It's too bad you can't send files from your iPhone to your Mac. As of this writing, you can only share content, such as photos, between iOS devices, or between OS X notebooks. Also, AirDrop will only be available for the iPhone 5 and later, iPad 4th generation, iPad mini and iPod touch 5th generation.
While the typing experience on iOS 7 is quite good, Android keyboards offer better features, from next-word prediction to dedicated number rows. Also missing from iOS 7 is offline voice typing; dictating on Android phones is still considerably faster.
Just below the center portion of the screen are options for switching between shooting modes: Photo, Pano, Square and Video. Photo, Pano and Video are the same as on iOS 6, but the new square mode, as its name suggests, changes the aspect ratio from a rectangle to a square. This latter feature makes photos more Instagram-friendly, but nothing beyond that.
To switch between modes, just swipe the main section of the screen to the right or left. The screen will blur for a second as it changes modes.
At the bottom of the screen is a large circular shutter button in the middle, a square Photos icon on the left, and an icon made of three small circles on the right. In Video mode, the shutter button turns red, and a timer appears at the top of the screen.
Holding the shutter button down activates Burst mode, which will fire off up to 10 shots per second; a small counter appears above the shutter button, letting you know how many photos you've taken. To review these shots, press the square button in the lower left; the app will present what it thinks is the best shot from the entire sequence. However, by dragging your finger to the left of right, you can view all the images as well.
Borrowing a page from photo organization apps such as Flavyr, the Photos app in iOS 7 organizes your images based on time and location. At its most zoomed-out, Photos sorts all the pictures you took by year; each is a tiny thumbnail, and the presentation looks somewhat artistic in this view.
In Collections, pressing the cluster of photos opens the Moments view, which sorts images by date. As with the Collections view, pressing on the location header at the top of each Moment will open the map view.
Curiously, you can't use the Share button to share a photo via AirPlay; for that, you have to select a photo first, then press the Share button in the lower right corner.
At the bottom of the Photo app are three options: Photos, Shared and Albums. The latter shows you how many photos are in your Camera Roll, Photo Stream, Videos and Movies. Shared lets you share, and view shared photos with others using iCloud.
Those who take hundreds, if not thousands, of photos on their iPhone, will appreciate the new organization methods of Photos. It makes it much easier to search for an individual image throughout your entire collection. In the future, we'd also like to see face tagging, a feature on Facebook that also makes it easy to search for particular images.
Press the Edit button in the upper right, and you're presented with some new options. Now, instead of just being able to reorganize the order of the mailboxes, you can show mailboxes based on different criteria. For example, you can have a mailbox of all flagged email, one showing just unread email, or one showing all email with attachments.
As before, at the bottom of individual emails are icons to flag, move, archive, reply and write a new email. However, as with Safari, the icons are now blue on white, rather than white on blue.
The menu bar at the bottom has the same controls as before (forward, back, share, bookmarks and tabs), but the icons are now blue outlines on a light gray background, instead of filled-in white icons on a blue background. The interface feels a lot airier.
When you start scrolling down a Web page, the bottom bar disappears, and the top bar is minimized, another smart use of available real estate.
This new tabbed look only appeared in the iPhone version of iOS 7. On the iPad mini, Safari still had a more traditional tab interface.
At the bottom of the Tabs view is a button to enter Private mode -- Safari won't track your history or cookies. When you enter or leave Private mode, Safari asks if you want to close your existing pages, or keep them open. We wish it were a little more obvious when Private mode was activated. The only indication is that the menu bars change to a dark gray from a light gray.
The Bookmarks menu has been cleaned up a bit. At the top are three tabs: Bookmarks, Reading List and Shared Links. In iOS 6, the Reading List was merely the topmost Bookmark; separating this feature into its own category feels more natural.
Pressing the Share button brings up similar menu options as in iOS 6, the biggest difference being the AirDrop sharing option at the top. Below that are options to share a Web page via instant message, email, Twitter and Facebook. At the bottom are options to bookmark a page, add it to your reading list, home screen, copy and print.
Music and iTunes Radio
Press the little radio icon (skeuomorphism lives!) in the lower left corner of the Music app, and the screen shows a horizontally scrolling list of features stations at the top, and My Stations beneath. Press the Plus sign to create a new station, and you can choose from a number of preselected genres, or type in a genre, artist or song in the search bar at the top.
Press the Info button at the top of the screen, and a drop-down window appears with options to create a new station based on the artist or song currently playing, Allow Explicit Tracks, and Share the current station. Above these options is a button to purchase the song currently playing from iTunes, or other songs from that artist.
iTunes Radio feels like a natural extension of iTunes, and was easy to use. However, like some other features in iOS 7, it feels as if Apple is borrowing an idea from other companies.
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When you first open Maps, you're shown an overhead view of your current location. While the top of the display is the same, with a button to plan a route, search bar and bookmarks, the bottom controls are slightly different. Now, a white translucent bar runs the length of the bottom, with options to center yourself, turn on 3D maps and share your location. Instead of an upturned corner, which pulls the map back to let you switch map views (Standard, Hybrid and Satellite), show traffic, drop a pin and report a problem.
The beige street blocks are much lighter, and major streets -- not just highways -- are now yellow instead of white. Other shading, just as the mottled green of parks, has been reduced. Like before, traffic shows up as yellow dots or red dashes, as do 3D building details.
Yelp info is also integrated into Maps; tap on one of the pins, and a tag appears, showing the distance in time to that location, as well as its Yelp rating, and the number of reviews. Press the caret on the right, and you get additional Yelp information, such as contact information, reviews, photos and hours of operation.
When we performed a Siri search for "directions to Yankee Stadium," Maps smartly started the route at our current location. You'd think this was an obvious starting point, but earlier versions of the Maps app would assume our starting location was miles away from where we actually were.
Maps also integrates with the Calendar app, as well as OS X Mavericks. If it detects an address in a calendar appointment, you can press it to open it in Maps.
In addition to Featured, Top Charts, Search and Updates, there is now a "Near Me" category at the bottom that shows what apps are popular near your location. We're still trying to figure out why we'd be interested in what apps those around us have.
If you select an app in the store to view its details, the Share icon appears in the upper right corner. In addition to sharing a link via AirDrop, instant message, email, Twitter or Facebook, you can also add it to your Wish List or gift it to someone.
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By necessity, menu options on the iPhone are more limited: along the top are Genres, Featured, Charts and the drop-down for Wish List, Radio and Previews. At the bottom is Music, Movies, TV Shows, Search and More.
Regardless of the platform, the Music and Audiobooks pages have white backgrounds, while Movies and TV shows have a dark gray background. It's a simple visual cue that helps differentiate audio from video content.
Along the bottom is a list of popular games, and below that are menu items that replicate the balloons' functions. It's odd to see this kind of redundancy from Apple.
Gone from Voice Memos is the old-school microphone and decibel meter, replaced with a stark black and white interface that may not look as fun, but is more functional. The red Record button is now much larger, and instead of a somewhat vague button on the right, you press the plain-as-day "Done" when you're finished recording.
When you start a recording, the volume of what you're recording is shown along a timeline, and the amount of time elapsed is also displayed in large numbers.
VerdictLG G2 or Galaxy S4, the screen feels cluttered by comparison. iOS 7 is more streamlined and unified.
However, in a reverse of when iOS debuted, Apple is now the company playing catch-up in terms of features. Enhancements such as Control Center, card-like multitasking, camera filters and streaming audio have all been done before, and in some cases, better. At the same time, Android phone makers continue to out-innovate Apple in other ways. For instance, you can wake up the Moto X with your voice and go straight to Google Now. Not so with Siri. And on the S4, G2 and HTC One you can erase photobombers from pictures.
We're not advocating the kitchen-sink approach taken by Samsung, LG and others, but Apple needs to invent and incorporate industry-leading features into the next version of its mobile operating system. Ultimately, iOS 7 won't persuade anyone to switch from Android, but it is a welcome upgrade for anyone running iOS 6 on their iDevice of choice.
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