This fall, Apple will be releasing the next version of its mobile operating system, iOS 9. Unlike iOS 7 or 8, which introduced massive revisions to how the platform looked and worked under the hood, iOS 9 is a subtler update. Still, it does have a number of new features for the iPhone and iPad that should make the platform easier and more efficient to use.
Update: Read the Apple iOS 9 review.
It’s been available for developers to test for some time now, but if you're daring, Apple just released a public beta that anyone can install. Apple's beta software isn’t like the some of the other beta software you may have used in that it’s usually a “true” beta that still has bugs and crashes that can seriously keep you from relying on it from day to day. The company warns against installing it on your main device, and you should heed that advice. We've gone ahead and bit the bullet and installed it on an iPhone 6 Plus and iPad Air 2. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of rough edges and wonky areas that Apple will likely clean up by the time this reaches final release in the fall. There are also a bunch of incompatibilities with third-party apps that haven't yet been updated to support the new platform. But overall, there’s a lot to like, even in these early stages. Here are our early impressions.
Look and feel
Visually, iOS 9 doesn't look much different than iOS 8, and an untrained eye will have difficulty telling them apart at first. Apple has largely been tweaking and refining the look of iOS since version 7’s major revamp two years ago, and iOS 9 does include some small changes. The most notable one is the system-wide use of Apple’s own San Francisco font, which replaces the Helvetica Neue it used before. San Francisco first debuted on the Apple Watch this year, and it’s a clean, readable font that works well at a variety of sizes. Most people probably won’t be able to spot the difference between Helvetica Neue and San Francisco, but it is pleasant to look at.
Other minor (or major, depending on who you ask) updates include proper casing in the virtual keyboard to denote lowercase or capital letters, a toolbar for Bluetooth keyboards that adds word prediction and quick cut / copy / paste tools, and a cascading cards system for recent apps. The new cascading cards system replaces the app thumbnails that scrolled left-to-right with a stacked layout that's oriented right-to-left. It works nicely on the iPad, which has a lot of screen space to work with, but on the smaller display of the iPhone, we prefer iOS 8’s more static system that also offers quick access to recently used contacts. Apple could add back the quick-access contacts in later revisions of iOS 9, but for now, they aren’t there. Mostly, the new system adds visual flair without much added functionality.
Visually, the differences in iOS 9 are largely minor
The last big change is to the search screen, which you can access with a swipe left from your first home screen or swiping down from any screen. When you swipe left into it, Apple gives you a bunch of app suggestions, local points of interest, and favorite contacts. It’s also the starting point for Apple’s new intelligence features, which we’ll get into more below.
Proactive & Intelligence
On your iPhone, the biggest changes in iOS 9 revolve around Siri. The interface has been tweaked slightly to match Siri on Apple Watch, as mentioned above. Apple’s personal assistant will now analyze what’s on your iOS device (calendars, contacts, email) and your habits (i.e. apps you open at certain times of day) and make suggestions whenever you swipe to the left of your home screen. Siri will offer up the contacts and apps she thinks you’re looking for, along with quick links for nearby restaurants, movie theaters, shopping centers, and gas stations.
Siri is smarter
Beneath those two sections, the search screen also provides the latest news based on your location and what’s trending in the headlines. Search is getting smarter in general. Start typing, and it’ll quickly pull up sports scores, the weather, or iCloud documents. We haven’t used iOS 9 nearly long enough to judge how a more "proactive" Siri compares to Google’s extremely smart Google Now, however. For privacy reasons, Apple’s solution focuses only what’s on your device, whereas Google pulls from its hugely popular web services to surface relevant data.
It’s been a long time coming, but Apple is finally supporting mass transit directions with iOS 9. The feature be launching in select cities to start (Baltimore, Berlin, Chicago, London, Mexico City, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Toronto, Washington, DC, and a number of cities in China round out the list), but Apple can at least say it’s done a thorough job where available. Transit gets its own layer in Apple Maps, and you’ll see the whole underground layout for nearby stations with entrances helpfully marked on the map. Transit directions pull in schedules for bus, ferry, subway, and train — and will also alert you of interruptions and delays. Within the search page, Maps also gets a new "Nearby" section that can instantly show restaurants, cafes, shops, and other places in close proximity to your current location. Apple faces a monumental task in trying to compete with Google Maps, but seeing as most iPhone owners use the built-in apps, the addition of Transit is sure to be appreciated.
Apple’s basic Notes app has felt a bit like a forgotten stepchild in iOS, but in iOS 9 it's getting some significant upgrades. Notes now supports the ability to insert maps, photos, checklists, and more into each individual note. You can also draw pictures with the tip of your finger and browse all of the attachments to your notes in a single view. If that sounds a lot like Evernote, that’s because it is. If you’re already committed to a different notes service, such as Evernote, iOS 9’s new Notes app likely won’t make you switch. But if you’re using Notes now or you still haven’t figured out a way to give up those Post-Its, the new Notes is a much more serviceable option than before.
Multitasking / Picture in picture
iOS 9 on the iPad introduces some new ways to multitask on the device. A new Slide Over feature lets you swipe in from the right of the display to look at another app without closing the app you’re currently in. The iPad Air 2 also has the benefit of a full, split-screen mode that lets you run two different apps at the same time. The split-screen mode is essentially an extension of the slide over, which only covers a portion of the display and renders the app below inactive. It’s very similar to the split-screen modes that have long been available in Windows and Samsung’s Android devices, but it’s a completely new idea for the iPad.
Split-screen multitasking lets you compose an email while looking at a website, browse a map while reading a note, or send messages while paging through a news article. It has the potential to make the iPad a much more productive device for getting work done. Unfortunately, in this early version of iOS 9, only Apple’s native apps support split-screen functions. You can compose in Messages while looking at The Verge in Safari, but you can’t look at your Twitter timeline while reading your email. We’re pretty excited about this feature and are eager for the final release of iOS 9, when third-party app developers are able to take advantage of it.
New multitasking features have the potential to dramatically change the iPad experience
The other new multitasking feature in iOS 9 on the iPad is picture-in-picture video, which, as you might expect, lets you watch a video in a smaller window while working in another app. Again, it’s a feature that other platforms have had for a while, but before now, if you wanted to do something else while a video was playing in iOS, you had to exit the video entirely. It currently works with Apple’s native video player and any apps that make use of that, but unfortunately YouTube and Netflix are not compatible with it. Apple has said it takes a minimum amount of effort for developers to enable it, so hopefully they will be by the time iOS 9 ships.
Of all of the new features in iOS 9, the News app is one of the few entirely new apps debuting with it. It's essentially Apple's answer to Flipboard, Feedly, and the countless other RSS-based news reading apps. It aggregates articles from many sources on a variety of topics you pick, and presents them in an easy-to-read format on the iPhone or iPad. But it also allows publishers to format articles specifically for Apple’s platform, with typography and pictures that match the iPad and iPhone layouts. There aren’t many publications taking advantage of this just yet, but Apple has a dedicated section in the app showcasing them. Other articles in News can either be complete or just stubs that link out to the version on the web, but either way, they are quick to load and easy to browse. News is without a doubt a nice app, but at this stage, it's hard to see how it's any different than the many other news reading apps already available.
These are just a few of the highlight features of iOS 9, and there are certainly many more that we haven't covered in detail here. Little things, like better organization of the Notification Center, better support for Apple's new Music service, faster performance, the new Wallet app that replaces Passbook, better battery life, better security, and an improved way to handle system updates are all pretty small in their own merits, but add up to a better overall experience. Apple will be iterating on iOS 9 based on user feedback during this public beta trial, and there are some things that could certainly change before it launches widely this fall. Until then, it might be best just to sit back and wait, unless you have a secondary iOS device kicking around, of course.