When iOS 7 shipped last Autumn it was undoubtedly the biggest iOS release in Apple’s history, radically altering the way the iOS looked and worked. The next BIG instalment of iOS –– iOS 8 –– arrived this week, and while it is a very big deal in its own right, most of the cool stuff his hidden away under the now-familiar face of iOS 7’s flat, modern-looking UX.
iOS 8 is all about features; giving users and developers access to the things they’ve been demanding since time immortal (2007). Indeed, out of all the updates Apple has issued to date, iOS 8 is perhaps its most open yet with its emphasis on open APIs, customisation options and new, back-end software like HomeKit and HealthKit; two things we’ll be hearing A LOT more about in the coming months and years.
Lets get down to it… what are the best new bits you’ll find inside iOS?
iOS 8 Review: Keyboards
Keyboards in iOS 8 get two new features. The first is Apple’s new QuickType keyboard. And yes, if you’ve ever used an Android phone this type of keyboard will be instantly familiar. Above the top row of keys sits a bar that suggests three words at a time. Tap a word to insert it into the text field you are writing in.
QuickType is contextually aware like SwiftKey, meaning it uses an algorithm to figure out which word comes next, meaning you can start typing and have QuickType finish the word for you. Another feature Apple “borrowed” feature from SwiftKey is QuickType’s ability to tap into past emails, texts and IMs in order to learn more about your writing style. The end result of this, after a few days of typing, is QuickType –– like SwiftKey –– begins thinking like you tap.
For example: it might know you call your friend, “playa” because you’ve written that word a lot, so then QuickType would suggest the word “playa” when its relevant in the context in which you are writing (in this sense, your good friend, Graham –– AKA the Playa). It’s important to note that the mining of your emails and messages for use in contextual QuickType awareness is done locally on the phone--Apple never backs up this data to the cloud.
Then of course there are third-party keyboards in iOS 8 as well. This is a huge feature that has been long requested by users (and something Android has had for years). But the reason it took Apple so long was because they wanted to get security right. For instance, a custom keyboard on iOS never has access to your custom user dictionary, and Apple forbids custom keyboards from phoning home to a networked server anywhere, so no developer ever has a chance of capturing your keystrokes. In addition, iOS 8 will also force its own keyboard on password and credit card fields as an additional security measure so there is no way a custom keyboard could ever learn your credit card info or passwords.
Upon launch there will be a dozen or so custom keyboards available, but that’s sure to grow in the coming months.
iOS 8 Review: Extensions
Extensions allow apps to share their functionalities with other apps. For example, a photo app can make an extension available to social media apps that allows a user to edit or apply filters to a photo using that photo app’s editing features right from within the social media app.
To access an Extension just tap the Share button in any app. Extensions appear as icons in the menu that pops up. Tap an extension to use its capabilities. Needless to say extensions are a huge time saver and have the added benefit of forgoing the need to create multiple versions of, say, the same photo, in different apps.
iOS 8 Review: Messages
As a huge iMessage user one of the best things about iOS 8 for me are the new Messages features. The most useful new feature is the ability to quickly record a voice message (just like you can on WhatsApp) and insert it right into a text conversation. Simply tap the new microphone icon and record your message, then swipe up to insert the message into the conversation. It’s a brilliantly simple workflow that makes adding voice messages no more difficult than typing text.
Better than the ability to insert voice messages, however, is the new Details page for conversations. Tap the Details button to be taken to the Details page where you can see all the members of a conversation, send your current location or share your trackable location, and see all the media attachments you have sent in the conversation in one place.
The ability to share your current location is something I’ve been wishing iOS had for a while. No more typing in addresses or postcodes; your contact will know where you are and how to get to you. Of course, this feature can be turned off if you wish –– you don’t want EVERYBODY knowing where you are at all times.
iOS 8 Review: Health app
iOS 8 does have two new apps inside iOS 8; one called Tips, which gives users basic tips about iOS, but the major one is Health. The Health app is an interactive dashboard where you can check out your vitals. Some of these vitals are propagated automatically (like calories burned and distance walked) thanks to the motion sensor in the latest iPhones.
But the real power of the Health app comes from its ability to pull your health data from the tens of thousands of fitness apps and dozens of health fitness accessory makers. What this does is give you one central dashboard to get a detailed overview of your health. I don’t own a lot of health accessories personally, things like wireless body scales or fitness trackers, for example, so my Health dashboard was fairly sparse, but for the connected health and fitness addicts out there, this is going to be one of the best features iOS 8.
iOS 8 Review: Photos
Taking photos is one of the most common things we do with our iPhones and Apple knows as we take more and more the ability to navigate them all quickly and easily becomes increasingly important. With that in mind Apple has built in some great new search features into the Photos app. You can now search for photos based on location, date, or album name –– or any combination of the three. For example, I searched for pictures of all the photos I took of my trip to Lisbon in July and within seconds had them all right in front of me.
Apple has also greatly expanded the editing tools in the Photos app. They are now more refined and powerful, and if you have a newer iPhone you'll really notice the speed at which edits can be applied. But my favourite feature about the editing tools in the new Photos app is that, thanks to iOS 8’s extensions features, the editing tools from any third party photo apps can be accessed right from within iOS 8’s dedicated Photos app. That’s a huge plus as the Photos app is where all my photos are stored and I now no longer need to go to a different app just to use a specific editing tool.
iOS 8 Review: iCloud Drive
iCloud Drive is Apple’s much-needed answer to Dropbox. It is essentially one location to store all the files on your Mac, PC, iPad, and iPhone. The big thing about iCloud Drive is that it makes all your documents available to any app on Mac, iOS, or Windows PCs from one location: your iCloud Drive. But it gets even better because if you open a document in one app, the edits you make are immediately available to all the other apps that can read it.
iCloud documents used to be very limited with regards to which apps could access them, and most of the time when you made a change the changes wouldn’t reflect in the other apps. Indeed, previously opening up a document that was stored in iCloud would often times create a new, separate copy of that document instead of opening the original, but all this has changed with iCloud Drive. The only drawback is that there is no dedicated iCloud Drive app on iOS. You need to launch an app that supports iCloud Drive integration in order to browse through your files.
A word of warning about iCloud Drive however: when upgrading to iOS 8 Apple gives you the option to enable iCloud Drive now or to wait. If you’re a Mac user you’re going to want to wait to upgrade. That’s because iCloud Drive isn’t available in OS X until next month when Yosemite ships. If you upgrade to iCloud Drive now you won’t be able to sync any of your iCloud documents (such as iWork documents) between your iOS 8 devices and your Macs running OS X 10.9.
iOS 8 Review: Continuity and Handoff
These last major features of iOS 8 are dedicated to users who own more than one iOS device and/or a Mac.
Continuity allows your Mac and iOS device to immediately know they are near one another with zero configuration on your part. If both devices are on the same Wi-Finetwork, Continuity is in effect. So just what does this Continuity allow you to do? Four main things: make and receive calls from your Mac, send and receive plain old text messages on your Mac, handoff current tasks from your iPhone to your Mac, and create an instant hotspot between your Mac and iOS device.
The first two features are probably the biggest. Thanks to iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite when your iPhone is on the same Wi-Fi network as your Mac you can make and answer phone calls on your Mac even if those phone calls are to/from traditional landlines. Continuity allows your Mac to become an extension of your phone. It works by wirelessly transferring the call information over your Wi-Fi network from your iPhone to your Mac and vice versa.
If your iPhone is plugged in by your nightstand upstairs, but you’re at your iMac in your home office, and you mom calls from her home landline (eg: not a VOIP call), you don’t need to run to answer your phone. The call will be pushed from your iPhone to your Mac over your wireless network. A caller ID will appear on your Mac enabling you to answer or decline the call. Again, the reverse is true too: you can dial a number from any webpage or contact on your Mac and the number will be pushed to your iPhone in your house, which will dial it out, and then Continuity will push the entire conversation back from your iPhone to your Mac--all without you noticing this is happening.
And just as you can now make and receive calls from your Mac, you can also now make and receive texts –– non-iMessage texts (even from Android users!) –– right on your Mac.
Continuity’s other two big features are called Handoff and Instant Hotspot. Handoff allows you to automatically pass whatever you are doing on one device to the next. For example, if you’re composing an email on your iPhone or creating an iWork document on it, you can simply switch to your Mac and pick up composing the email or editing the iWork document right where you left off. As for Instant Hotspot, it allows you to automatically tether your Mac to your iPhone so you can share your data connection with zero setup required.
Do note that you currently won’t be able to use any Continuity or Handoff features with your Mac until OS X 10.10 Yosemite ships next month. Continuity and Handoff are not supported in the current OS X 10.9 Mavericks.
iOS 8 Review: Verdict?
The features above are just the biggest ones that I've enjoyed using in iOS 8 so far. But there are far more, smaller features that don’t necessarily have as big a “wow” factor, yet when taken as a whole make this iOS the best yet. Some of these smaller features include things like new gestures in Mail so you can swipe to mark a message as junk, new, or delete it. Notification Center has gotten smarter with an improved Today view and third-party widgets, and Siri and Spotlight are both capable of doing more now.
With Siri, for example, you can now say, “Hey Siri” to activate the digital assistant. Siri also has Shazam music identification capabilities built in, so you could say, “Hey Siri, what’s this song?” and she’ll tell you. Spotlight search has also gotten more comprehensive. It’s now a proper search engine with access to web results (not Google) and things like Wikipedia for answers to your questions, as well as news snippets, search results from websites, and also iTunes Store, App Store, and iBookstore results.
iOS 8 isn’t Apple’s most mind-blowing update to date (that was iOS 7) but it’s the most refined. It’s too bad that not all of its features will be implemented until OS X Yosemite ships next month, but once that happens it’s safe to say iOS 8 will widely be considered the most powerful, useful, and important mobile OS Apple has ever shipped.
Some Continuity features are being held back because they require OS 10.10 Yosemite, which doesn’t ship until next month. Mac users shouldn’t upgrade to iCloud Drive just yet.
iOS 8 is the most refined mobile OS to date. Everything from its new interactive notifications to its tighter integration with the cloud and OS X to support for third party keyboards and extensions makes this the most beautiful and powerful iOS yet.