Apple introduced iOS 9 at WWDC 2015, and now we’ve installed the first beta on our iPhone 6 Plus and an iPad Air 2, so we can see what’s new, what’s great, and what’s not. The new software contains most of the cool new features Apple announced during its keynote, but not all, so this isn’t a comprehensive review — but a glimpse of how the latest version of iOS is shaping up so far.
With this in mind, and taking into account the short time it has been available, here are our first impressions of the iOS 9 beta 1:
Looks like iOS 8, but with new apps
While the first iOS 9 beta looks visually very close to iOS 8, there are a handful of great new features that change the user experience. One of the first things you’ll notice are the new baked-in apps. Gone is the colorful Passbook app, which held your boarding passes, tickets, and Apple Pay credit cards. In its place is the Wallet app, which besides having a new icon, looks exactly like Passbook when you open it up. Soon, Apple Pay will support rewards cards, but that feature, alas, was not in the first beta.
There is a new-but-old addition in the shape of Find my Friends, which looks to see if your contacts are nearby, and helps you more easily share your location with them. Previously available as a standalone app, in this first beta of iOS 9 it comes pre-installed and can’t be deleted. (stop putting apps on my phone, Apple. I’ll make the decisions here!) You have to have AirDrop activated on your iPhone for the feature to work, so if your friends are Android users, or they don’t use the feature, it’s not terribly useful.
The other new app is iCloud Drive, which you can activate in the Settings > iCloud > iCloud Drive >Show on Home Screen. The app will show you everything you’ve got in iCloud Drive, which unless you use Pages, Numbers, and other Apple services with iCloud, may be entirely empty (at least mine was). For those who use iCloud Drive, though, the app could be quite useful.
Sadly, The News app, which looks really awesome from what we’ve seen in the preview, isn’t here yet, either. Luckily, that’s it for new apps that are on your phone forever in iOS 9.
In terms of design changes in iOS 9, they are few and far between. Siri has a new Apple Watch-esque wave at the bottom of the screen when you activate it, Music has a new look (more below), and a six-digit passcode is now the default, though you can revert to four digits if you’re lazy.
Proactive will be awesome
Apple’s Google Now competitor is just getting started in the first iOS 9 beta, but it sure looks promising. A quick swipe to the right from the home screen brings you to Proactive, in much the same way a swipe right opens Google Now to some Android users. There’s a search bar at the top, which can be used via Siri or with the keyboard. You can search for anything from apps, websites, contacts, news items, and more, and Proactive will find it for you.
It also brings up a list of suggested contacts, apps, attractions nearby, and news items right from the get-go. These suggestions will start to make more sense as you use iOS 9 and Proactive daily. Soon, the feature will show you things like upcoming flights, the weather where you are, traffic warnings, and other relevant items of information. Proactive has huge potential, and it could become a true Google Now competitor, assuming Apple gets it right.
However, right now, Siri needs to get to know me a lot better before Proactive starts to work in earnest. It’s a very early beta, and because I’ve barely used the feature, it’s understandable that the best apps didn’t pop up right away. If you don’t use iMessage or the phone app very much, perhaps because of apps like WhatsApp, the contact recommendations come out a little skewed at the moment. Proactive will only get smarter, and by the time the consumer version of iOS 9 launches, developers will have been able to tap into its powers to make the most of it.
Siri understands natural language
Apple showed off some pretty impressive stats on how much people use Siri at WWDC, and now that she’s gotten so much smarter with iOS 9, it seems likely that even more people will start turning to her for help. For a while now, Siri has lagged behind Cortana when it comes to natural language and contextual awareness — Not so anymore, though.
Siri understands when I say, “Remind me to buy milk on the way home today,” I want her to create a reminder to alert me when I’m leaving the office and on my way home. She promptly created a reminder in the Reminders app and told me she’d ping me when I left a specific address, which was almost the correct address for where I work, but not quite (Oh, Apple Maps…).
Siri also lives in Proactive, so you can call upon her to search for any content on your phone, the Web, apps, and so on. Now that Siri is making sense of conceptual terms like, “today,” “tomorrow,” “that,” and so on, it’ll be much easier to talk to her, and more natural. Although I’m not big on using voice assistants, Siri’s new abilities are a big deal for iOS 9, and consequently for those who do like talking to their phone.
Apple Maps gets Transit directions
For the first time in my life, I may actually start using Apple Maps — that is, I’m going to try. Why, you may ask? Because Apple finally added transit directions. When you live in a big city and take public transit every day, a maps app that doesn’t have transit directions is almost completely useless. Now Apple Maps is connected to the NYC subway and bus system, I can actually start using it.
When you search for directions, you can choose the transit tab right under the search bar. It’ll show you what Apple thinks is the best route to your destination at the bottom of the screen and on the map in the center. If you want more details, you tap on the route. You can also ask for more routes, which you may have to do, if the first suggestion is wrong.
Transit on Maps looks nice and clean, and it works. However, it’s still a work-in-progress. For example, when I was searching for directions home from work, it suggested a route that included the Long Island Railroad and the 7 train. Great, but there’s just one problem with this suggestion: It’s something I’d never do, especially when the E, F, and M trains are all just as close, and don’t require me buying an extra ticket on another type of train service. Apple Maps needs to learn things like that, and presumably, it will — once I actually start using it regularly. Luckily, the second and third suggestions were right on the money.
Split screen on the iPad needs more apps
Rejoice, multitaskers! Split screen apps are now available on the iPad in the iOS 9 beta. Split screen on iOS works just like it does on Android and Windows 8. You open two apps side by side, and adjust the ratios, so you can have one app bigger than another, or both equal. It’s a great feature that iPad users have wanted for a very long time. It works smoothly, and it’s effortless to enable the feature.
You simply open an app like Safari, and the swipe over from the right to see a list of apps that you can add as the second window. You pick one, pop it in, and decide how much of your screen real estate you want to dedicate to each app. When you’re done, you can swipe down to make it disappear and choose another app to put in split screen. Alternatively, you can close the second app window all together and go back to a single app view.
Right now, the app selection is limited, so you can’t pull up third-party apps — only Apple-made ones — but that will soon change, now that developers have their hands on the iOS 9 beta. Sadly, this feature doesn’t work on the iPhone 6 Plus (believe me, I tried).
Music gets streamlined, but Beats isn’t in here yet
The brand-new Music app is missing, but some aspects of the standard Music app’s UI have been updated. There’s a search bar at the top, and the bottom menu bar has three sections: My Music, Playlists, and Radio.
My Music: Your albums and playlists are more streamlined, with recently added music at the top with nice, big graphics, and a list of the artists whose music you have in iTunes below. If you tap on the word Artists, a menu will pop up with the options of artists, albums, songs, music videos, genres, composers, compilations, and so on.
Playlists: All your playlists show up here, and much like the My Music tab, your recently added playlists are up at the top more prominently.
Radio: The Radio tab shows a bunch of iTunes Radio stations right now, and it looks rather plain. Presumably, this is all going to change in a big way when Apple Music launches in July.
Other small updates
The first beta holds a number of smaller updates — many of which are so subtle most users will miss them. One of the coolest ones is the new battery saving feature. It lives in Settings under the section labeled Battery. There you’ll find a little toggle for a battery saver mode, which will extend your battery’s life in times of crisis.
Anyone who owns an iPhone will love this feature, as iPhones offer notoriously poor battery life. We’ve all had those days where an extra 10 percent of battery would have saved the day (and prevented our mothers and significant others from freaking out when we don’t answer a text late at night). The feature will preserve your iPhone’s battery just long enough to get you home when you need it. You’ll know it’s turned on when you see the battery icon in the upper right of your screen turn bright yellow.
Apple also updated the default keyboard with cut and paste options, the new font, and other little do-dads that should make it easier to use. It’s a small thing, and only useful to those who don’t have a third-party keyboard of choice installed.
The Photos app now has a scrollable gallery underneath each photo when you tap on it, and more options for sending the pictures to other apps. Notes now has folders for categorizing your ideas, offers better search, hand-drawn items, and a recently deleted list for those times when you hit delete by accident. HealthKit finally offers entry spots for reproductive health and a few other metrics, too.
And finally, the Settings menu now has a handy search function, so you don’t have to scroll through that massive menu. There are many more small alterations in the first iOS 9 beta, but these are the key ones.
Apple’s iOS 9 is a refinement of iOS 8 that offers a few huge improvements, all of which center on making iOS smarter. Context is king in today’s world — We want what we want NOW, not five minutes from now. Because Google has so much data from us, its services are hyper aware of our needs and even manage to anticipate them in advance. Apple is more privacy focused, and has held off on developing its smarts to predict our every move, but with iOS 9, Apple takes a a big step forward in that direction.
Proactive also has a great deal of potential, but it needs to individualize users before it becomes a Google Now for iOS users. Siri is finally getting as smart as Cortana, and Maps has perhaps the biggest improvement at the moment, thanks to transit directions. The updates seem small, and they have their share of problems in this first beta, but the future is bright. Do Proactive, Maps, and Siri trump Google’s alternatives? Not yet, but thanks to iOS 9, that answer may soon change.
This was a first look at iOS 9 beta 1. We’ll offer more detailed thoughts on the new features once iOS 9 is publicly available.