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Apple iOS 7 offers major improvements, with a few disappointments

Here are our first impressions of the new OS for Apple devices

Published: September 20, 2013 11:15 AM
Photo: Apple

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It took a little more than an hour to download Apple iOS 7 to my iPhone 5 on Wednesday, but only a few seconds to appreciate its many improvements. There are new capabilities such as Air Drop for wirelessly sharing pictures, Web pages, and other content with compatible iPhones and iPads; a Pandora-like service called iTunes Radio; and a new Find My Phone control that makes it a lot harder for thieves to reactivate and use your iPhone.

More dramatic are the improvements to existing features and controls, which for the most part function better and look better. Improvements begin with the pastel-palette desktop (think Easter M&Ms), with more helpful notifications and slick new moves for juggling and shutting down apps.

Not every change was a triumph. Mail from multiple accounts, for example, still looks the same in the inbox, so you can't tell which account a message came from until you open it. And while the circular buttons on the new keypad look cool, the keypad for the phone app does not appear as easy to read as the older one.

Here are more first impressions of iOS 7.

Delicious desktop

The more colorful, slightly larger icons (as in the photo above) make it a little easier to find some often-used apps. For example, the dull sunflower that adorned the photo gallery's icon has been replaced with an eye-popping, multi-colored daisy-like pattern that's hard to miss.

Better still, the desktop's new recent apps feature now shows you a view of what you were doing in an app, such as the message your were composing or the Web page you were reading, in addition to an icon of the app itself. To shut down an app, just flick its view toward the top of the screen. (This feature is almost identical to the method introduced by Palm's abandoned webOS.) One interesting note: If you switch to the recent-apps view while you're shooting a video, the camcorder will continue to record. Only when you open another app will it pause.

Nice notifications

Even when the phone's screen is locked, iOS 7's new interface presents a scrollable preview of your new notifications, including messages and calendar appointments. And you can jump directly to any of those items directly from that screen—even if you have to type in your PIN to do it.

You can get a better picture of your most recent alerts from the pull-down notifications bar, which neatly groups every recent e-mail, text message, calendar appointment, reminder, stock update, and more next to a mini icon of the app from which it came. The notifications bar also gives you the option of viewing all your recent alerts, or just the ones that came in today, or those you missed when you went to the coffee machine.

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Return my iPhone—or else

The Find iPhone app has a new feature that promises to make it harder for thieves to reset and sell your stolen iPhone. When this free feature is activated, you have to type in your Apple ID before you can disable the app, wipe your iPhone, or reactivate and use your iPhone.

While this may not be the hardware-based kill switch disgruntled state attorneys general were clamoring for a few months ago, it may be just as effective. What's more, unlike a kill switch, this anti-theft feature can easily be retrofitted to existing iPhones. I look forward to trying it out on my friends in the lab. If it works with the new iPhone 5 S I'm testing, maybe they'll let me keep it.

Air Drop

This feature is clearly Apple's answer to Samsung's S Beam, a feature that enables Samsung high-end phones and tablets to wirelessly share photos, videos, and other items with each other. Apple's Air Drop offers the same sharing capabilities with compatible Apple products. I look forward to testing it when my other iOS 7 devices come in.

Convenient control panel

This is another much-appreciated nod to a good idea made popular by Android phones. Just a quick swipe up from the bottom of the screen presents the user with on/off switches to key controls such as Airplane mode, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.

You'll also find a button for locking and unlocking the phone in portrait mode, as well as buttons for such apps as flashlight, stopwatch, calculator, and camera. You can even resume playback of the last song you were listening to on your phone.

Four options for incoming calls

Mail's new bag

Even though mail from multiple accounts still looks the same in the inbox, the app does something new that heavy e-mail users will appreciate: Swiping your finger right to left over any e-mail in the inbox presents you options for sending, storing, and deleting it.

PIN/keypad

Apple replaced the virtual keypad's trademark matrix of square buttons with a more modern-looking, slightly smaller array of round buttons, which I found harder to see and possibly harder to use. Under this arrangement, the Call button at the bottom was widened, which is good. But accommodating its wider girth meant pushing the Add Contacts and Delete keys to the top of the screen and making them much smaller and harder to reach.

The phone number's black-colored font on a white background doesn't stand out as well as the iOS 6 version's, which was a bolder, white-colored font knocked out of a dark blue background. The keypad for PIN numbers to unlock your phone has the same round buttons, but they're easier to see because they're white against a dark background.

Clever call options

Busy bodies will appreciate the new display for incoming calls, which presents you with the option to turn down a call with a preset or custom text message, and to set a reminder to call that person back. These options were available before, but now they conveniently appear as the call comes in. Do Not Disturb can now be set to “Always” instead of only when the screen is locked.

Great new camera

The camera's new interface and controls are much better than before. Now you can take a burst of still shots by leaving your finger on the shutter key (old news for Android users). The still camera has nine new filter options for photos (more old news for Android users), though they all look very similar. But at least you can undo or change these enhancements after you apply them.

Sliding your finger up or down the viewfinder quickly moves you into four possible modes: Video, Photo, Square (better shape for pics destined for social networks), and Pano (rama). Switching between the video and still camera modes takes noticeably less time in iOS 7 than it did with iOS 6.

Grouped gallery

The photo gallery in iOS 7 groups pictures and video clips—whether taken with the camera or downloaded from the Web—in the iPhone's gallery according to where (via GPS) and when they were taken. This capability is similar to the Events feature on the HTC One. For iPhone users who may find this type of collation creepy, Apple made it very easy to switch to the conventional Album view.

The new number buttons are harder to see and possibly harder to use.

iTunes Radio

The big news in the Music app is the button for Apple's new Pandora-like iTunes Radio service, which has a plethora of options for streaming—and especially buying—songs from iTune's vast library. The free version of iTunes Radio, like other services, lets you skip a maximum of five times an hour within any station, and you can go back. Subscribing to iTunes Match for $25 a year eliminates some of those annoyances.

But there are still lots of customizations you can make on the fly without an iTunes Match subscription. For example, you can select a song as a favorite, ban it from playing again, or add it to your iTunes Wish List. You can even create personal stations based on the artist or song you're currently listening to. iTunes Radio's default settings automatically block explicit tracks. But you can allow them (on all stations) with the flip of a virtual switch. You can also annoy your friends with a link to your song via the phone’s many sharing options.

Even more streaming videos

Just one pleasant surprise: When I launched the Video app, every iTunes movie I downloaded to my desktop PC—even from several years ago—was suddenly available to stream to my phone. Yay!

I'll have more on iOS 7, including the new iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C that come with it preinstalled, in the coming days.

—Mike Gikas

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