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iOS 8

New features unapologetically round out Apple's previous flat design

By Matt Swider | Sep 18, 2014, 04.43 PM IST

Verdict

iOS 8 isn't a facelift like last year's update, but new messaging features and third-party extensions for keyboards and Touch ID make iPhone and iPad easier to use than ever. The best has yet to come, with Mac OS X Yosemite promising even better integration next month.

PROS:

  • Share location in Messages
  • AirDrop between iOS and Mac
  • Manual camera controls
  • New keyboards
  • Third-party extensions

CONS:

  • Best features await OS X Yosemite
  • Hey Siri requires plugging-in
  • No multitask close all button
  • No Control Center customizations

Introduction, design and messages

There's a lot more to iOS 8 than meets the iPhone. Sure, it doesn't usher in a dramatic new look like last year's mobile operating system makeover from Apple. Instead, it rounds out that flat iOS 7 redesign with less obvious, but equally important extra features.

It's free to download and install iOS 8 today, whether or not you're upgrading to iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus for their larger displays. Apple has made the update compatible with iPhone 4S and later, iPad 2 and later, both iPad mini and iPad mini 2 and iPod touch 5th generation . In fact, the iOS 8 compatibility list only severs ties with the now-four-year-old iPhone 4 .

Apple's broad legacy device support is complemented by this year's overarching theme of "convergence." iOS 8 features tighter Mac OS X Yosemite integration while loosening the restrictions on extensions and the Touch ID fingerprint sensor for third-party app developers.

iOS 8 review
iOS 8 review

Not all of the cross-platform software perks are available right now. OS X Yosemite is still in beta, Apple Pay may have to wait until iOS 8.1 and Apple Watch is expected in early 2015. But Apple's iOS 8 roadmap ties everything together between iPhone, iPad and Macs better than anything Google has envision for its Android L beta so far.

Design

iOS 8 looks and feels the same on its surface. Apple didn't swap out the default backgrounds or change the way the homescreen functions. However, almost every other menu has design tweaks that make your iPhone and iPad snappier to use.

Double tapping the home button, for example, sends multitasking into overdrive. In addition to its usual swiping through open apps, the top of the screen now features circular profile photos of your most recent contacts.

iOS 8 review
iOS 8 review

Swiping to the left lists your favorites in the same setup. This is great for quickly making calls, sending texts and starting FaceTime chats with the most important people in your life. No more digging through the contacts or phone menu anymore.

Spotlight serves a better purpose in iOS 8. It now considers broader sources of data including Wikipedia, the news, movie showtimes and suggested websites. It understands your context and location when doing this, which means Apple is taking one aspect of Google Now. Calling or navigating to the local pizza shop is as easy as typing in its name.

More time-savers come in the form of interactive notifications at the top of the screen. Swiping down on incoming message gave me the chance to respond without leaving my current app. This applied to SMS, emails, Facebook and Twitter messages. Even quicker is the way to reply to calendar invites via simple accept or decline buttons. Checking off or snoozing reminders, retweeting or favoriting tweets and trashing or marking as read emails received the same treatment.

Messages

By actually opening up that Messages app, you'll find more more ways to communicate than before. The messages text box is now flanked by a camera and a microphone icon.

The camera icon on the left we've seen before - it previously attached photos to messages. It still does that, but it also does some new tricks. Holding the icon down reveals a menu overlay that enables quick selfies via the front camera and take video. It's faster to send photos and videos than Snapchat, and though it doesn't have the goofy photo editing perks, it's all integrated into the conversation.

iOS 8 review
iOS 8 review

The new microphone icon on the right isn't for dictation. That's still cramping the spacebar in the bottom left corner of the keyboard. Instead, it opens up a similar menu overlay in which you can record audio messages. Again, it's fast to send and the person doesn't have to load a separate app or player in order to listen. It all happens in-line with the new Messages.

You can also share your real-time location in the middle of a Message conversation. This has to be my favorite new addition to iOS 8. I put this to use over the weekend when I arrived at an amphitheater for a comedy tour overrun by 15,000 attendees. I beamed a snapshot of my location to friends without having to randomly describe my surroundings. The map pinpointed where I was at, all from the Messages app.

Your can also share your roaming location for a set period of time: one hour, until the end of the day and indefinitely. It's easier to use than the similar Find My Friends app because there's no setup or separate login screen required. Apple is one step closer to eliminating the pointless "Where are you at? Wait, which street corner?" and I couldn't be happier.

Rounding out the iOS 8 changes to Messages, the new "details" button in the top right corner of conversations replaces "contact" and it's littered with new options. You can set individual and group conversations to "Do Not Disturb" and rifle through attachments including every last photo you've sent someone and they've sent you. Just make sure to delete inappropriate pics before showing off this cool, new feature to mom and dad.

Keyboards, extensions and camera

Keyboards and extensions

iOS 8 comes with what Apple likes to call its smartest keyboard yet, and it's hard to disagree. Sure, the keys remain in the same place, but above them are clutch word suggestions that predict word you're typing and then what you're going to say next. Better yet, it's supposed to learn as it goes times goes on. It'll also suggest different words if you're casual on the SMS front, but all business in the Mail app back.

Quicktype mimics the suggestions candidate bar introduced by third-party Android keyboards like SwiftKey, Swype, Fleksy and others. Like those options better? They're actually part of iOS 8 too. Sliding around one of these keyboards to spell words without ever - literally - lifting a finger is a welcomed addition to Apple's ecosystem.

iOS 8 review
iOS 8 review

I appreciate that these new keyboard extensions learn from my habits on Facebook, Twitter, Evernote and Gmail to improve predictions, come with custom themes and log my email address. I can finally quit typing that into every single username form. QuickType doesn't have can these perks at the moment, as much as I prefer Apple's virtual keyboard layout that has become second nature over the last seven years.

Extensions go beyond keyboards. 1Password, for example, has an extension that unlocks its password vault and automatically fills in your credentials with Touch ID. The app, now free and more popular than ever on the App Store charts, works with Safari and just thirty apps. If you're using an unsupported app or a different mobile browser like Chrome, you're out of luck.

Camera

You won't get that enhanced 8-megapixel camera with focus pixels unless you upgrade to iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus , but there are new features for the iOS 8 camera app. Apple is now giving manual camera enthusiasts a little more freedom to shoot and edit.

Apple's camera app lets you fine tune the exposure on photos without the hassle of having to apply filters in post-production. Sliding your finger up and down on the viewfinder, aka your iPhone screen, adjusts a sun icon and vertical slider bar that appears.

iOS 8 review
iOS 8 review

Still not satisfied? Jump into the editing menu to use new tools like smart crop, tilt and rotate and then fine tune with controls for the light, color and black-and-white in your Kodak moments. My one complaint is that the default camera's there's been no change to the way you switch between photos, square pictures, portraits, video, slow-mo and the new time lapse modes. It works exactly as it did in iOS7 , which seems to confuse every old person who begs me for help while accidentally recording the entire thing.

There's a new search icon at the top of the iOS 8 photos app, letting you hunt down photos taken in specific places and dates. Rapidly scrolling up and down your entire gallery to show someone one particular picture is now a thing of the past - partially. People's names and captions have never been a part of this app, so there's only so much data to sift through. I also wish there was a way to sort by size. When I was a lowly 16GB iPhone 5 owner always at my memory cap, I would have seriously appreciated that.

Today and notifications Menu

The swipe-down gesture on iOS 8 now reveals a simplified Today and Notifications menu, in effect condensing last year's All and Missing tabs into Notifications. It's cleaner and easier to keep track of notifications, though they're still grouped by app. An option to sort notifications by time (from newest to oldest) would be appreciated whenever a lockscreen notification passes me by and I want to take a second look. I'd rather not have to track down which one says "Now" in a long list of uncleared notifications.

The basics of the Today menu don't change without your input. It lists the day and date, peoples' birthdays and the weather. Calendar appointments come next followed by reminders and tomorrow's events - if you so choose. iOS 8 makes all of these settings editable. Add in traffic conditions, headlines from the Breaking News app, upcoming OpenTable reservations and Evernote. These new widgets options show up automatically in the edit menu as widgets.

iOS 8's new Today menu is more bare than I'd like it to be, but it's a potential challenger to the know-it-all Google Now interface on Android phones and through a separate iOS app. I've yet to see shipped packages being tracked, flight check-in reminders and where I parked notifications, but hopefully third-party apps can populate this data on iOS 8 soon.

Odds and ends and more to come

Odds and ends

These are just the main iOS 8 features that Apple has made available today. There are also smaller tweaks, and future Mac OS X Yosemite integration will one day round out this update package.

iOS 8 review
iOS 8 review

Take the new battery usage list as a great example. It's buried in the settings menu and isn't a visual show-stopper, but it's important to nearly every power-hungry iPhone owner out there. Knowing why your battery is draining and shutting down background app refresh on weighty apps you had no idea were still open is a feature Android owners have been reveling in.

I just wish there was a "close all" button on the multitasking window to quickly clear all open apps. It's still not here in iOS 8.

Apple also matches Android's "Okay Google" trigger word with "Hey Siri." Siri asks "How can I help you?" without having to hold down the home button. That's great for the car when you want to initiate hands-free driving directions. Sadly, Siri's always-listening mode only works when you're plugged in. We're still waiting for Apple CarPlay to make it even smoother.

iOS 8 review
iOS 8 review

We've tested out the Health app, but there's more to come from third-party developers that haven't been able to access Apple's new stat-tracking ecosystem. The iPhone 5S M7 motion co-processor still logs our steps, but we're waiting on Jawbone Up24 and Fitbit Force to start incorporating everything from flights of stairs climbed to hours slept.

Right to go right now, however, is Apple's potentially life-saving Medical ID card. It gives you a chance to list your medical conditions, blood type, allergies and medications among other health stats. Emergency contacts are just one press away, and this data can - optionally - even be access through the lockscreen. If it catches on and medical workers know where to look, it could become vital a tool if you're ever in an emergency.

iOS 8 review
iOS 8 review

Just as clutch is the Send Last Location buried within iOS 8's Find My iPhone menu of iCloud. Turn it on to automatically beam your device's location to Apple's servers when the battery becomes critical. You won't be frantically searching for your dead iPhone that way, you'll know if a nefarious crook walked off with it or if it's innocently between the couch cushions... again.

Mac integration and more

The most exciting features for Mac owners who seldom leave their desk during the day have yet to hit the iTunes update screen. iOS 8 promises deeper Mac OS X Yosemite integration with cross-talk between your Apple-owned devices.

In fact, even if you're experimenting with the OS X 10.10 beta, you won't find features like Handoff, which allows you to pick up on a Mac what you've started looking at on an iPhone, and vice versa. This works between iOS and iPad today, but not your biggest screen of all.

iOS 8 review
iOS 8 review

AirDrop between iOS devices and Macs is here and you can receive calls on your computer, but we're anxiously awaiting the SMS relay option that mirrors text messages to our Macs. It works exactly like iMessages, but ensures you quit ignoring your green-bubbled Android during the middle of the working day.

We'll update this ongoing iOS 8 review when that happens and as new features are tested out with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus .

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