It only took a few minutes of using the iPhone’s new StandBy mode before I started using it all the time. After a few weeks of testing the early betas of Apple’s iOS 17, I’ve already changed my daily phone routine around it — and acquired a new desk accessory in the process. I can’t remember the last time a new iOS feature clicked so well for me, and I almost can’t believe the iPhone hasn’t always had it.
StandBy, in case you missed it during this year’s blisteringly fast WWDC announcements, is a new docking mode for the iPhone. If your phone’s screen is off and it’s charging and rotated to landscape orientation, it becomes a widget machine. You can see a full-screen clock, a clock next to your calendar, a full-screen slideshow of your photos, controls for your music, your activity progress for the day, the weather, Live Activities, or lots of other things. Basically, StandBy turns your iPhone into a teeny-tiny smart display. You can interact with Siri and see notifications, but mostly, it just gives you something to look at even when your phone is off.
You don’t need a special accessory to make StandBy work, just a charger and some way to prop the phone upright on its side. I haven’t been able to figure out the exact angle of uprightness required to activate StandBy, but it’s somewhere in the range of 45 degrees. Flat on a table: no StandBy. Leaning against my coffee mug: StandBy. A windowsill and a Lightning cable make for a perfectly serviceable StandBy rig.
You don’t need a special accessory to make StandBy work — but you might want one
But I’m always game for a reason to buy gadgets I don’t really need, so I picked up a HiRise 3 from Twelve South — it’s a wireless charger for the iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods and holds the phone up off my desk at a nice angle. (If you’re curious, Apple doesn’t sell its own dock, but its employees’ unofficial dock of choice seems to be Twelve South’s Forte, a $40 dock you stick your own MagSafe charging disc into. There are countless variations on this idea out there if the Forte isn’t your style.)
The first time you enter a StandBy-friendly setup, you’ll get a pop-up asking you to turn on and configure the feature. All that means, really, is picking which widgets you want to appear. I ended up with a digital clock on the left side — a simplified version of the watch’s Utility face — and a Smart Stack of scrolling widgets on the right. I can flick through the weather, my upcoming calendar events, my to-do list from TickTick, the battery status of all my Apple gear, and my Activity scores for the day. I can, of course, look up a lot of that information on my Apple Watch, too, and they’re handy in the exact same way: they’re just right there, a tap or a swipe away without dumping me into a homescreen full of icons and other notifications.
StandBy is brand-new, and most apps don’t seem to support it yet. In theory, any app that supports the smallest widget size on your iPhone (that small square one that takes up four icon slots) will work with StandBy, too, but developers have to do at least a little updating to get it to appear in the menu. I suspect most will because they’re also working to make their widgets interactive (which is the other best feature of iOS 17). I’ve only been able to test a couple of interactive widgets so far, but I love being able to check off a task without opening the app at all or add a tally to my habit tracker from my homescreen. All the interactivity works in StandBy, too, so you’ll ultimately be able to do lots of things without ever seeing your homescreen.
Apple’s approach to widgets in general is fascinating and important. The basic paradigm of phones has been the same since the advent of the App Store: your phone is a collection of apps, and you spend your life inside those apps. But over the last few years, Apple has been trying to find ways to surface some of the information behind those app icons so you can find it and interact with it more easily.
App Clips are a part of that effort; the whole history of the Apple Watch is, too. But interactive widgets that appear and work across all of your devices are the most powerful and useful version of that idea yet. The Mac has widgets now; the Apple Watch is basically all widgets now. If the Vision Pro is going to work, it’s going to have to embrace a widget-filled world rather than an app-filled one.
I’m all in on the widget-y future of everything, but StandBy does still need a lot of work (and obviously, a lot more widgets). Its biggest problem is that it’s a landscape feature on a portrait device with a relatively small screen — most of the time, if you tap on a widget to open the corresponding app, that app will just awkwardly render sideways. The “Night Mode” is still way too bright for my bedside table, too, and the “Always On” feature that supposedly turns off StandBy when you’re not using it doesn’t seem to work at all. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to get to my homescreen from StandBy without picking my phone up off the dock. The next version of StandBy needs to be integrated much better with the rest of the iPhone experience.
Even in this still-very-beta early stage, though, StandBy is the most useful new iPhone feature in a long time. (I think picture-in-picture mode, in iOS 14, is probably the last thing I liked this much — that or dark mode in iOS 13.) It’s a massive improvement on the iPhone 14 Pro’s existing always-on display mode because it makes the iPhone useful both when you’re not using it and when you’re not even close to it. I no longer have to reach over and turn my phone on a thousand times a day just to check the time; it’s just on the dock, showing me the time and my next appointment.
I hope developers see StandBy as a reason to make even bigger, better, cooler widgets because there’s so much new screen space for them. I hope Apple eventually brings StandBy to the iPad, too, which would actually be a much more natural home for the feature — most iPad apps work in landscape mode, and you probably don’t pick up and put down your iPad as often as your phone. Of course, the iPad doesn’t have any kind of dock ecosystem to speak of, nor does it have MagSafe built in, but Apple could surely solve those problems, too. Apple is reportedly working on a standalone smart display, but a StandBy-equipped iPad might be even better.
For now, I’m plenty happy with the tiny smart display that lives on my desk. If only Siri were better, I might never touch my phone again.
Photography by David Pierce / The Verge