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Apple iOS 9 review

The future starts now

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Apple is a mobile device company. It makes the vast majority of its money from the iPhone, and everything else it does is starting to look a little like a side hustle. The real game for Apple is in these mobile devices, and the software that runs on them is the most important software that Apple makes. That software, of course, is iOS.

But iOS is much more than just the software that runs on the iPhone. It’s the closest thing we have to seeing what Apple envisions for the future of computing; heck, CEO Tim Cook said as much on stage when he introduced the forthcoming iPad Pro.

So Apple doesn’t take it lightly, and it very rarely makes drastic or sweeping changes to it. That careful approach is in full view with iOS 9, which will be available for download for free on most iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches starting today. There aren’t any major visual changes in iOS 9, especially on the iPhone, and it feels very similar to iOS 8 and even iOS 7.

That doesn’t mean Apple hasn’t been hard at work — iOS 9 is a much more stable experience than iOS 8 was when it launched, and there are a few new features here that are genuinely useful. But if you pay close attention, you can get a glimpse at the future Apple is planning for computers. And that future looks pretty great.

Apple iOS 9

iOS 9 is not a shock and awe visual redesign like iOS 7 was two years ago. Install it, and you might be hard-pressed (no iPhone 6S pun intended) to tell the difference between it and iOS 8. The visual updates are subtle: there’s a new font called San Francisco, an updated keyboard with distinct uppercase and lowercase characters, and a revamped notification center that finally groups alerts by time and date, and not by app. iOS 9’s Notification Center still lacks a Clear All button, but the new grouping by date makes it much easier to clear batches of alerts than before.

A new font and redesigned app switcher are the major visual changes

Apple has also redesigned the recent apps switcher, which is now a cascading fan of cards. It’s very pretty, but I find it more difficult to use than the old method. It seems like it was custom designed for the new iPhone 6S, which lets you jump into multitasking with a hard 3D Touch press — but on older phones I just find it less useful than the before.

Fortunately, a new feature in iOS 9 makes it much easier to bounce between apps without having to jump to the recent apps view or back to your home screen. It’s essentially a back button that appears in the upper left corner of the screen whenever you are in one app and click a link or notification to go directly to another app. Tap that back button and boom, you’re instantly back in your ebook after checking out that Twitter notification. It works, and is something Android users have had for years, but I wish Apple had spent more time actually designing the button — as it is now, it’s just a basic line of text that blocks your signal bars and is easy to miss.

Apple iOS 9

Under the hood, Apple says it’s improved efficiency and performance across the board, and iOS 9 can squeeze out another extra hour away from the charger over iOS 8. In practical use, I haven’t noticed a huge difference in stamina or performance with iOS 9 on the iPhone 6. But the new Low Power mode, which lowers the screen brightness and disables some background syncing, does help out when you’re away from a charger. Apple says you can get up to three more hours of life than before, but I didn’t get results quite that good.

iOS 9 is more efficient and informative than iOS 8

The battery obsessed (myself included) will also appreciate the new reporting tools in iOS 9, which show exactly how much each app is eating up. You can see what services each app is using, and how much battery life they are consuming in the background, which might help pinpoint why your battery is dead by 3PM. (It’s Twitter, it’s always Twitter.)

iOS 9 is also the first version of the platform to support the 3D Touch features in the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. That enables things like extra shortcuts on app icons when you press harder, or the ability to peek into an email before opening it fully. Some of the design decisions in iOS 9 seem to be dictated by 3D Touch, such as the aforementioned recent apps switcher, but for the most part, if you don’t have a device with 3D Touch, you’ll be none the wiser.

Apple iOS 9

Those optimizations are nice, but the potentially transformative changes in iOS 9 are in Siri and Apple’s new predictive features. Swipe over from your main home screen and you enter the new Siri screen (for lack of a better name). Here, Siri presents you with suggested contacts and apps based on your usage patterns: message your boss a lot in the morning and they might show up as your first contact, while in the afternoon your spouse might be in that primary speed dial slot. Same goes for apps: depending on your usage patterns, the time of day, and your location, this screen will serve up different apps it might think you’re looking for.

Not only that, the Siri screen displays various headlines from Apple’s new News app and shortcuts to nearby places in Apple Maps throughout the day, making it a sort of dashboard of important information for you.

It’s all designed to make you more efficient with your iPhone: instead of swiping down from the top of the screen and typing to search for an app (or God forbid, swiping through pages of apps and folders to find what you’re looking for), Siri will just put it front and center. Siri can also give you traffic and departure time notifications for calendar events, or suggest updates to your contacts with info culled from email in your inbox.

Siri's improvements are designed to make using the iPhone more efficient

All of those features will likely sound pretty familiar if you’ve used an Android phone over the past few years. Google’s Now service does a lot of what iOS 9’s predictive features do, and often times in better and more varied ways. Microsoft’s Cortana in Windows 10 also offers similar services and features. But while iOS 9’s predictive features may not be wholly new or original, they are a welcome addition to the platform and lay the foundation for even more capabilities in the future.

But right now, Siri’s new predictive features are more exciting in their potential than in actual use. The local suggestions aren’t as up to date or useful as Google’s or Foursquare’s are (unless you really love chain restaurants). And in order to take full advantage of these features, you have to use Apple’s native apps, such as Mail and Calendar, which you may not want to switch to if you prefer a third-party option, like Microsoft’s excellent Outlook app.

Apple iOS 9 on iPad

Split-screen and Slide Over multitasking on the iPad with iOS 9

Over on the iPad, iOS 9 brings a few more significant updates, if you happen to have a recent iPad, at least. There’s a new split-screen multitasking mode, which lets you run two apps side by side. This drastically improves productivity on the device, as I can have a document open in Pages and reference a website or email at the same time. Another multitasking addition is called Slide Over, and it lets you temporarily slide one app partially over another to peek at it. It essentially shows you an iPhone view of that app, but your interaction is very limited: you can scroll around and input some text, but you can’t really do more than look before dismissing it and getting back to the task at hand. There’s also a new picture-in-picture video player that lets you have a video window hover over other apps, though it doesn’t yet work with a lot of apps where you might want to watch video (namely Netflix or YouTube).

Not every iPad will be able to take advantage of these new features (the split-screen mode in particular is limited to just the iPad Air 2, iPad mini 4, and forthcoming iPad Pro), and I wasn’t able to test any of them with third-party apps. (I suspect that many third-party apps will be updated to support them shortly after iOS 9 is available.) They are also not necessarily ground-breaking ideas: Samsung and Microsoft have had split-screen multitasking on their tablets for years. Even so, these features are already a dramatic improvement for the iPad.

iOS 9 makes working on the iPad much more efficient

The iPad also gets an updated on-screen keyboard, with quick access to paste and undo / redo controls and easier cursor control. Put two fingers side by side on the keyboard at the same time, and the keyboard essentially switches over into a giant trackpad, letting you slide your fingers around to reposition the cursor. It’s a much easier way to edit text than iOS’s old tap-and-hold function, and I kind of wish it was available on the iPhone. (Apple says that iPhone 6S owners will be able to activate the trackpad function with a 3D Touch on the keyboard.)

Apple News in iOS 9

Apple News in iOS 9

Every iOS device gets to take advantage of iOS 9’s new and updated apps, which include a revamped Notes app, Maps with transit directions, and Apple’s brand new News app. All of these apps feel a bit like catch-up: the Notes app borrows a lot of features that Evernote has had for years, and Google Maps and numerous other third-party apps have offered transit directions for a long time. If you’re already using Evernote, I can’t think of much of a reason to switch to Notes, and while it’s nice to have transit directions in Apple’s native Maps, Google Maps is still better at finding hot local spots to go to when I need a caffeine fix.

Apple News is a beautiful and fast news reader, with a lot of different sources pumping content into it. But it feels a bit like it’s trying to reinvent the RSS wheel. If you already have a go-to app for your news consumption, whether that’s the New York Times app, an RSS reader, Flipboard, or even Twitter, I’m not sure why you would switch to Apple News. Apple clearly thinks that this is the future of news consumption, but I don’t think it’s quite there just yet. That might change over time, as publishers figure out the best way to take advantage of it.

Apple iOS 9

On the surface, iOS 9 looks like a very incremental update. That’s not really a bad thing — it’s more stable and efficient than iOS 8 was and remains a reliable and easy-to-grasp platform that everyone from beginners to power users can take advantage of. It requires less space to install than iOS 8, and little improvements here and there add up to a more enjoyable experience. There’s really no reason not to upgrade.

But if you look deeper and take the new things Apple added to iOS 9 as a whole, you can see how it’s one of the most future-looking updates to the platform in a long time. Apple is betting that we’ll want smarter devices that not only provide information when we ask for it, but serve it up before we even know what we’re looking for. It’s betting that touchscreen devices with detachable keyboards are going to be the devices that replace laptops, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but maybe sooner than you think. And it’s betting that by working with publishers and content makers, it can provide an attractive alternative to the world of annoying pop-ups and data-tracking ads that the open web is quickly becoming.

None of these bets are unique or new: Google has been pushing predictive intelligence for years, Microsoft has launched multiple generations of the Surface tablet / laptop hybrid, and Facebook is also working directly with publishers to accomplish many of the same goals as Apple News. And iOS 9 is still far from showing returns on any of these forward-looking bets.

But while Apple is often far from the first to launch new ideas, interactions, or features, its implementations often prove to be better and longer lasting. I’m not saying iOS 9’s multitasking or prediction features are radically better than what we have on other platforms — frankly, they aren’t — but they lay the foundation for future improvements. It’s up to Apple to keep iterating on these features and improving them (which it does, once a year, with major iOS updates), turning this foundation into a skyscraper of future computing.

While iOS 9 doesn’t tower over any other platform yet, it is the ground floor of that skyscraper. I can’t wait to see where the elevator takes us next.