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iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 review: foundational fixes

Apple’s latest updates lay good groundwork, but don’t add many big new features

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iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 are strange updates. 

Some iOS updates bring huge new features; iOS 13 had dark mode (and a lot of bugs) and iOS 14 had widgets. Some, like iOS 12, brought much needed behind-the-scenes fixes to performance and battery life

But iOS 15 (and its companion, iPadOS 15) does neither. It’s the most incremental and iterative iOS release in years, a grab bag of new features that, while nice to have, don’t really move the needle or change your iPhone experience much. 

Looking at the changes and additions in Apple’s latest mobile software, there’s not much to point to in major design changes or UI overhauls; at the same time, Apple doesn’t seem to have made the kind of game-changing performance and battery life improvements that defined quieter updates like iOS 12, or iOS 10’s changes to how it lets third-party apps hook into the OS.

The most incremental and iterative iOS release in years

It doesn’t help, of course, that some of the biggest and most interesting features coming to iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 aren’t actually here at launch. The flashy SharePlay feature has been delayed to later this fall, while Universal Control — presumably on deck for macOS Monterey’s release — hasn’t even popped up to try in beta yet. 

Other big features are still in the works, too: the new detailed 3D view for Apple Maps is limited to just New York, London, San Francisco, and Los Angeles at launch, while iCloud Plus’ VPN-like Private Relay will start off as a beta feature

iOS 15 was already a relatively minor release, but those delays and omissions leave what is here at launch feeling even more anemic. It’s not a new vision for Apple’s mobile software as much as a bit of fresh paint and polish for what’s already been here, to the point where it’d probably be fair to call it iOS 14.5 (if Apple hadn’t already released that earlier this year, that is).

Apple’s updates are occasionally hit or miss (looking at you, iOS 13), so before we dive into features, a word on performance and stability: Functionally, the two new releases work well; I haven’t run into any major issues with performance or battery life on the final version of the software. (I will caveat this note by saying that I’ve been testing the new OSes on an iPhone 12 Pro and an M1 iPad Pro, so performance issues here would be an ominous sign.)

With that out of the way, let’s dive into features:

Coming soon to a FaceTime near you

With SharePlay not shipping with the initial iOS 15 release, this fall’s update is (at least for now) missing out on its biggest and flashiest feature. FaceTime itself is getting some updates unrelated to SharePlay, though, chief of which is the ability to create a link to a FaceTime call that you can send to Windows and Android users (who can join through a web browser). 

FaceTime’s bigger updates are coming later this fall

There is also the equally long-overdue grid view, which (combined with the new links) makes FaceTime much more of a viable group video chat solution than it was before. Also added are some new audio features to help your phone better zero in on who’s speaking and a blurred background portrait mode. 

Even with the new additions here, I don’t think FaceTime is going to replace Zoom or Google Meet as a business solution (nor do I think that’s Apple’s goal here), but iOS 15 does make it much easier to use FaceTime for more casual calls with multiple participants — even if it’s mostly playing catchup here. 

Going on Safari

When it comes to changes that will impact virtually every iPhone owner, Safari’s update is the most significant thing in iOS 15. The browser is getting an Apple-wide redesign across iOS, iPadOS, and macOS (the latter coming as part of macOS Monterey later this fall), and it’s the biggest visual change in this year’s update by far. It’s also the most controversial new piece of iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, to the point where Apple has added the ability to opt out of most of the changes here

iOS 15’s biggest change comes to Safari, which has a whole new design.
iOS 15’s biggest change comes to Safari, which has a whole new design.

On the iPhone, the default view is still Apple’s new “tab bar” mode, which places the URL bar at the bottom of the display and allows you to swipe between open tabs (similar to swiping between apps on a Face ID iPhone). The relocated URL bar is definitely an adjustment, but after a few weeks, I’ve mostly come around to the new design — being able to swipe between tabs is useful, and Apple’s fixed the behavior of the URL bar so that it stays at the bottom of the page. That said, if you prefer the old style, you can easily switch over to it in the Settings app. 

A new look for Safari

The iPad also gets a new, swipeable tab bar, although it’s located at the top of the display (Apple calls it a “Compact Tab Bar”). Unlike on the iPhone, I much prefer Apple’s old design here, which keeps the URL bar on top and a row of tabs underneath it; the scrolling compact bar is harder to use, and has the unfortunate habit of obscuring the rest of your open tabs whenever you click on it. (Incidentally, it seems that Apple agrees the design wasn’t optimal, as the legacy style “Separate Tab Bar” is the default here.) 

Design choices aside, the new version of Safari also adds a new tab group feature (which syncs between devices through iCloud) to help sort the chaos of all your open websites across your devices, and the ability to install third-party extensions. 

You can still install a different browser if you’d like (and even set it as a default), but since iOS 15 still keeps Apple’s limits on requiring all third-party browsers to use Safari’s rendering engine, you still won’t see any performance differences; just a new UI or different cross-platform syncing. 

Focus up

Focus modes can filter out your notifications for you.
Focus modes can filter out your notifications for you.

On the flip side of things is Focus modes, something that I suspect will be ignored by a lot of iOS users. Effectively a souped-up version of Apple’s existing Do Not Disturb, Focus modes let you establish specific apps and contacts to ping you at specific times. But it’s a lot more useful than that: Focus modes can intelligently trigger at times of day or at geographic locations, and toggle specific home screen layouts. You can also let iOS 15 intelligently switch Focus modes based on when it thinks you’ll want them on or off, but the automated switching is very hit or miss.  

Practically, I’ve been using Focus modes to create a “Personal” mode that shuts off notifications from Slack, my work email, Google Calendar, and anything else that might pull me back online during weekends or evenings, and it works amazingly well. A “Work” focus mode, on the flip side, kicks in whenever I’m at The Verge’s office or during work hours and does the reverse, shutting down Instagram notifications so I can focus (pun intended) on my job. It also swaps in a new home screen with calendar and email widgets, and quick access to things like my 2FA app. 

Focus is Apple’s smartest new feature

When you’re in a Focus mode, notifications that come in filter though in a separate bundle (which you can view in the notifications drop down, should you want to double check that nothing’s on fire at work). Apple will also let apps send “time sensitive” notifications that break through Focus limits, for things like your bank urgently letting you know that someone made a withdrawal or if someone rings your video doorbell. 

It’s a smarter version of Apple’s previous efforts to make users more conscious of how and when they’re using their phones, recognizing that there might be times when you only want to use some of your phone, without the binary on / off mode that Do Not Disturb is. 

A smarter smartphone

Apple’s been beating the local machine-learning drum for years, and iOS 15 has two of its most significant moves in that direction yet: Live Text and offline Siri. 

Live Text still works like it does in the beta, which is to say impressively well. You can point your camera at any text, be it handwritten or typed, and Live Text will pull that information into copyable text.

An example of all the places that Live Text can work and pull text from.
An example of all the places that Live Text can work and pull text from.
Image: Apple

Live Text works system-wide too: in the camera app, with photos you’ve saved, in Safari, and even in most text fields, you can tap and hold to pull up a “live text” icon in the same pop-up menu that copy / paste commands live in to snag text directly into a message or email. It’s extremely technically impressive, but in the months I’ve been using iOS 15, I haven’t run into many practical applications for it in my day-to-day life.

Siri also now processes speech entirely on device, allowing (theoretically) more secure and faster interactions, as well as offline Siri commands for the first time. Those are obviously limited in what they can do, but you can kick your phone into airplane mode and still accomplish basic tasks like opening apps, setting timers, and toggling settings. I didn’t notice Siri working dramatically faster in my experience, but the added benefits are nice. 

iOS 15 also marks the rollout of an upgraded version of Apple’s iCloud service, iCloud Plus. The new subscription service is bundled with existing paid iCloud storage subscriptions, and adds a few new features. There’s a new “Hide My Email” service, which creates burner email addresses that forward to your regular account — similar to a feature offered with Sign In With Apple, but one that you can use for services that don’t work with Apple’s login feature. iCloud Plus expands Apple’s unlimited HomeKit Secure Video storage to more of its plan (the base $0.99 / month plan, in particular, is now included) and lets you have an unlimited number of security cameras pipe into it with the 2TB plan (it was limited to just five before). 

The biggest feature though, is Private Relay, a VPN-style service that aims to mask your internet traffic from your iPhone. There are a few caveats, though, that separate Apple’s version from a true VPN. First is that you can’t use Private Relay to spoof your location (say, for sports or streaming content), since the service only allows you to anonymize your data within your country and time zone.

Second is that it only works in Safari, not other apps or browsers. And lastly, the service isn’t available in several countries, including China, Belarus, Colombia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Uganda, and the Philippines for regulatory reasons. 

Private Relay also isn’t quite ready to go, either: Apple is releasing the feature as a “public beta” to start in iOS 15. It’ll be disabled by default (although it’s simple to turn on) as Apple works to get more feedback and make sure everything works properly. 

The best of the rest

Apple Maps is rolling out a very fancy looking new 3D map. The new, more detailed maps look great, but they’re extremely limited. At launch, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and London are supposed to be available, but I’ve only seen the new look in the two California cities so far. The additions are nice: trees, bridges, and major buildings now appear in Apple’s stylized 3D view, and streets even show individual lanes when you zoom in. 

Apple Maps looks better than ever.
Apple Maps looks better than ever.

There are also new AR directions, better transit directions, and improved driving directions (which use the aforementioned improved maps) to help make sure you’re taking the right lane. A lot of this is stuff that Google has offered for a while, but for those who prefer Apple Maps, it’s good to see that Apple is working to stay up to date. 

The built-in Weather app has a new design after Apple’s purchase of Dark Sky, adding Dark Sky-style gradient bars for temperature, a Dark Sky-style precipitation notice for the next hour, and Dark Sky-style maps for temperature, precipitation, and temperature. There are also some flashy new animations: a thunderstorm will light up the app with lightning flashes, and rain will bounce off the top of the UI’s boxes and run down the sides of the screen.

The new overhauled Dark Sky-style Weather app in iOS 15.
The new overhauled Dark Sky-style Weather app in iOS 15.

Despite the Dark Sky purchase, though, Apple is still relying on a combination of first-party data, The Weather Channel, and other third-party sources for its forecasts (even though Dark Sky produced its own weather data API in the past).

Both the Notes and Reminders have a newly added tag system, along with smart folders that can automatically pull in those notes and reminders using those tags. As someone whose Notes app in particular has become an endless pit of hastily jotted down text, it’s a useful addition (although it’ll be even better once macOS rolls out and I can access them on my computer). 

Memoji have clothing now. It’s that kind of update. 

There’s a new “Shared with You” section that’s been added to several of Apple’s apps, including Photos, Music, Safari, Podcasts, and Apple TV Plus. It’s a useful reminder of Apple’s vice grip over core services on your phone. If people send you links, photos, Apple Music songs, TV Plus shows, Apple News articles, or podcasts, those pieces of media will now be highlighted in Apple’s corresponding apps. The links and photo aspects are the most useful, surfacing old pictures that friends and family members had sent me over the years.

Shared with You pulls links from Messages into a helpful area in Safari.
Shared with You pulls links from Messages into a helpful area in Safari.

But it’s a very Apple kind of feature: only things sent in Messages will appear, and only Apple apps will work. If a friend sends a link to an Apple Music playlist over iMessage, you’ll see it in the Music app. If they send it over WhatsApp, though, or share a Spotify song instead, you’re out of luck. 

Some things still haven’t changed from iOS 14, either: App Library still won’t let you move around or edit app categories, so you’re stuck with whatever Apple classifies apps as. Default app support hasn’t meaningfully advanced from the additions of email and web browsers last year, either. 

iPadOS 15-specific updates

As I noted back in my beta hands-on over the summer, iPadOS 15 is virtually identical to iOS 15, except for a few iPad-specific improvements. 

Two (mostly) welcome changes are the addition of the widget and App Library system added to the iPhone in iOS 14. Where last year’s iPad update added widgets, they could only be viewed in a specific area on the left of the home screen; now, though, iPad users get the same home-screen widgets that iOS has had for a year, along with the App Library feature (so you can hide apps without deleting them entirely). 

Widgets and App Library finally come to the iPad

Apple is offering an even bigger widget size option for the iPad, though, which takes up an entire third of the screen in a four-icon by two-icon grid and is physically about the same size as an iPhone 12 when viewed on a 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Given that iOS widgets still aren’t allowed to be fully interactive, it’s not the most useful addition, but you can get truly massive calendar previews and contact lists. So far, the best implementation is the Photos app, which can act as a sizable photo frame on your home screen now. 

As a side effect of the expanded widget support, though, Apple bewilderingly reduced the number of icons you can have on an iPad home screen in iPadOS 15. On a 12.9-inch iPad Pro, the 6x5 grid for icons gets bumped down to a 4x6 grid the second you add a widget, giving the tablets the same layout as an iPhone when incorporating widgets into a home screen layout.

I’m not entirely sure what Apple’s thinking here is — visual cohesion across devices, perhaps — but the net result is that a 12.9-inch iPad can display approximately the same amount of icons on a home screen as a 5.4-inch iPhone 12 mini. 

The other big iPad-specific change here is in how Apple handles multitasking. As I noted over the summer, Apple is largely sticking with its existing system, built primarily on split-screened applications and floating sidebars.  What is new, here, though, is a multitasking menu that’s designed to make it easier to set up (or exit out of) split-screen app views, or to move an app into a hovering sidebar view. 

There’s also a new “shelf” view, which appears as a sort of in-app dock that shows all the open windows you currently have open for a specific app, similar to the Control-Down command on a Mac. The app shelf pops up whenever you open an app, or when you tap the multitasking bar, and helps make it easier to wrangle different app windows.

The updated Safari on iOS 15, along with a look at the new multitasking bar and shelf view.
The updated Safari on iOS 15, along with a look at the new multitasking bar and shelf view.

Notes on the iPad is getting a new Quick Note feature, which is tailor-made for the Apple Pencil — swipe up from the corner of the screen, and you can jot down a quick note (as the name implies). It pairs really nicely with last year’s handwriting recognition additions, too. On the flip side, it’s another flavor of pop-over window in an OS that already has enough modal things going on without a great way to organize them. 

After using an iPad with the final version of iPadOS 15 for a few weeks, though, it’s clearer than ever that even with the new changes, it’s still the same old iPad multitasking. My thoughts haven’t changed from when I first tried an early beta this summer:

iPadOS remains unpredictable: I’m never 100 percent sure what version of an open app or app windows will open when I tap in on my home screen. Just opening a new window is still an opaque process that involves dragging and dropping things around in split view. Slide-over panels still live in their own, separate confusing world. Split view is still frustratingly rigid, letting you have exactly two apps open with a third visible as a slide-over panel, instead of any other configuration (like one large app on the left and two smaller ones on the right).

Ultimately, the new multitasking and split-screen views are a refinement of the older system, rather than some grand new paradigm for how to use an iPad. Those who like the iPad’s software abilities will likely find the new additions and enhancements to those modes nice. But those who were hoping that iPadOS 15 would offer a wildly overhauled windowing system — especially in the wake of Apple’s M1 upgrade in the latest iPad Pro — are going to be disappointed.

There’s still a LOT going on with iPadOS 15’s multitasking, though.
There’s still a LOT going on with iPadOS 15’s multitasking, though.

The most interesting feature coming to iPadOS, however, is Universal Control, which promises a new, seamless way to jump back and forth between a Mac and an iPad using a single mouse and keyboard. It’s the sort of thing that could offer users the best of both worlds of Apple’s computing vision, but we’ll have to wait to see how it actually works later this year; it’s not shipping yet, or even available to try in a beta. 

And, since this is an iPadOS review, I have to note that, once again, Apple has refused to add multi-user support in iOS 15, a feature that it offers on both macOS devices and Apple TVs running tvOS. There’s also no weather app (despite Apple now owning a company that makes an iPad weather app), no calculator app, and — especially relevant for anyone with ideas of using the new iPad mini as a defacto smartphone — no phone app. Maybe next year. 

Here’s the good news: your phone or tablet will not be worse off for installing iOS 15 and iPadOS 15. Unless you really, really hate Apple’s new Safari design (which, following a series of beta changes, are less dramatic in the final version than when they were first revealed), it will likely be better. But the ways that iOS and iPadOS are improving are smaller than ever. The new features are more subtle, and the changes — while still helpful improvements generally — won’t really change how you use your phone or tablet.

I noted in my initial preview earlier this year that it felt like a lot of these changes were simply being saved up for a big fall release, even if it would have been possible and made more sense to release them earlier (like many of the FaceTime features, which would have come in handy during the earlier, even more isolated stage of the COVID-19 pandemic). But on the other hand, had Apple done that, it’s hard to see what it could have used as the centerpoint of its Big Annual Software Update.

After a decade and a half of OS updates, there’s simply fewer things to left to fix

And maybe that’s the point. iOS is now on its 15th major version, a number that doesn’t count significant point releases (which have been tending towards more substantial updates in their own right). Apple has spent a lot of time making it into a great mobile operating system, but after a decade and a half of improvements, updates, and tweaks, there’s less it needs to do. 

As the saying goes, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, and 15 versions in, there’s not a lot left in iOS that needs to be fixed. There’s almost certainly going to be bigger iOS updates in the future, massive platform changes like iOS 7 or macOS High Sierra that rethink what the iPhone looks like and works like. 

But those inflection points are few and far between, and the future of iOS updates will probably look more like iOS 15: smaller and subtler. 

Photography by Chaim Gartenberg / The Verge