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Apple iOS 7 REVIEW: Change Is Hard

by Brandon Russell | September 19, 2013September 19, 2013 2:00 pm PDT

When Apple introduced iOS 7 back in June, I had mixed feelings. After years of sporting a largely unchanged appearance, the company’s mobile playground was suddenly much different, transformed. What we saw under the direction of Jony Ive was a drastic change from iOS’s (in)famous skeuomorphic past. There was now less clutter, shadows, and analog imitation. Instead, iOS 7 was now all about white spaces, animations, layers. Jony Ive said his goal was to establish a hierarchy, in turn promising a completely different experience. Much of the talk surrounding iOS 7—now that it’s been rolled out to the public—will focus on how the look has changed, how icons and apps appear different. But this update is actually much deeper than that.

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When I first got my hands on iOS 7 a few weeks back (beta 6, and then the GM last Wednesday), iOS surprisingly felt a little foreign, disorienting; for once, there was a slight learning curve—that’s not something usually associated with Apple’s ecosystem. It does, however, indicate how Apple’s wider userbase will react to the shocking update, especially if they had no prior expectations beforehand; it’s bound to alienate some users. After a few days of heavy use, though, that foreignness quickly subsided as I began to familiarize myself with Apple’s new-look OS, and it was, strangely, as if I suddenly had a new phone.

In apps such as iMessage, where I spend most of my time, or using Safari, the experience of iOS 7 felt completely fresh; the staleness that’s been creeping up on the platform is no longer weighed down by the past. There’s absolutely no indication Jony Ive’s vision of iOS is in any way connected to Scott Forstall’s, who was previously in charge before being ousted late last year. The functionality is largely the same—people won’t forget how to take a picture, or write an email, or call their friends—but there’s very clearly a departure from what was; it’s only forward-looking from here on out.

There’s now depth and the clear distinction of layers; no more chintzy ornamentation and reliance on visual familiarity. With Parallax, apps now float above the wallpaper, giving iOS 7 a look of three-dimensionality, and the added layers further fortifies Ive’s insistence on hierarchy. The odd frosted glass look might not be for everyone, but it certainly elicits a completely different feeling, like everything is strangely floating. For the most part, Apple’s new approach is consistent throughout, though iOS 7 has received a lot of criticism for appearing like it was designed in part, creating a visual clash of how one app looks compared to the next. I never felt isolated from one app to the next, but others might.

Saying iOS 7 is only about its redesign isn’t looking at the bigger picture. Apple didn’t just give the platform a makeover; there’s now a Control Center, a more information dense Notification Center, and a completely overhauled camera. Even multitasking is different, made to look like webOS’s much-loved cards implementation. Each of these things add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve never been a particularly heavy smartphone user—it doesn’t matter what device I’m using, iOS or otherwise—but I found myself completely beguiled by how different iOS 7 is, using it much more than I otherwise would have.

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With the absence of skeuomorphism, Apple’s future is much cleaner, brighter, filled with less leather-bound simulation. The departure is certainly jarring, but it’s surprisingly easy to get used to. Switching between apps becomes more intuitive, quickly accessing settings is actually possible, and taking pictures is much quicker; the camera app itself now offers much more functionality over the previous version; there are filters, a “square” mode if you’re particularly obsessed with Instagram, and for the first time the app actually shows you exactly how your photo will be cropped. Apple makes it super simple to swipe between each of these modes, too, making the camera very usable and easy. Additionally, the Photos app has been changed, organizing images by moments and location.

Many of Apple’s other built-in apps mostly stick with their previous functionality; Calendar is now just a white grid; the same goes for Notes and Reminders. Contacts, too, is also just a bunch of white space. In many of these apps, Apple has ditched buttons for a more light weight text, and has introduced new swipe functionality to jump back to the previous screen. That might not be something many people use—I often found myself forgetting I could simply swipe back—but it’s a nice little detail, and makes navigating the OS really manageable with one hand. Safari is improved, though it takes some getting used to. Mail is cleaner and easier to manage, while Music got a facelift and the addition of iTunes Radio, which I’ve found to work quite well.

Deeper beneath just how apps look, iOS 7 acts completely different, which is why there’s such a feeling of newness attached to using the updated platform. Things are more effortless, less gimmicky, and the sheer simplicity lends itself to the OS’s charm. Without the visual clues Apple used to rely on, you’d think the experience would be the exact opposite, but iOS 7 begins to feel familiar in no time. The new transitions, the way apps burst out of their icons and get sucked back in, makes everything feel much more dynamic, alive. Some of the animations are a little slow (not because of the iPhone 5’s hardware) for my taste, so I’d like to see Apple speed it up a bit in future updates.

The most notable addition to iOS is Control Center, which allows users to quickly access settings, camera, calculator and more by swiping from the bottom up. For the most part, the gesture works without issue, but I found it didn’t always want to pop up, and found it particularly frustrating if the keyboard was onscreen during an iMessage or email. However, I never ran into an issue where I accidentally launched an app instead of Control Center, so the feature for the most part is pretty solid. That being said, I only found myself using Control Center for review purposes, and actually haven’t used it very much, if at all, during normal everyday use. Of course, every person’s “normal everyday use” is different, and I imagine it’ll be a popular addition to the platform.

Meanwhile, Apple’s new Notification Center I found to be particularly useful, especially with the addition of Today view, which is essentially iOS’s underdeveloped answer to Google Now. Notification Center is for the first time divided into three separate columns: Today, All and Missed, in that order. All pretty much shows you every push notification, missed call and text that comes streaming in, while Missed shows any call you may have missed. Today attempts to lay out your day in a single pane of information, including the day, weather, calendar events, reminders and anything that’s coming up tomorrow. It even tells you if you have an alarm set, and for what time.

For the most part, Today is passable as a vessel to quickly glance at what’s happening that day, but it’s strange there’s so little integration between the apps themselves and the information that’s displayed, especially with Calendar. You can’t add anything directly from Today, and jumping into events or reminders is very specific; you can’t tap on the app icons themselves to go directly to that app, but you can tap on an event or reminder directly. The inclusion of Calendar, in particular, is a little unfulfilled; it only shows you a portion of what’s ahead, and you can’t scroll through to see what else you have on deck. If you have more events on your calendar, it would be nice to see all of them without going into the app itself, and it would be equally as nice if you could jump into events scheduled for tomorrow directly from Today view; for now, it simply shows you a divided section for “Tomorrow” and some text. The Missed column, for me, just seems incredibly unnecessary, especially with an All tab already included.

As a completely overhauled experience, iOS 7 for the most part hits the mark. The design is an acquired taste, but the focus on hierarchy and depth makes the platform feel new and fresh, which is what it sorely needed; the added functionality certainly helps, too. The initial shock of iOS’s new look, combined with less reliance on analog cues will certainly shake up Apple’s platform. But it all comes together so well that it quickly feels familiar, more engaging, like this is what iOS should have been all along. You get a feeling that now Apple will really start to push the platform forward, rather than being so conservative in years past.

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Conclusion

Apple’s iOS 7 made my phone feel fresh and new, and is far better off under the watchful eye of Jony Ive.

There are some additions that don’t quite soar, like AirDrop; it works, sure, but not consistently, and setting it up and finding a friend was not worth the hassle. Maps, for the most part, is still Maps, and you still can’t set default apps, which is probably something that won’t ever happen. Many people will be quick to point out that iOS 7 feels a lot like a combination of competing mobile operating systems, and some ideas are certainly lifted. But so what? If you enjoy Android, keep on enjoying Android. Same goes for any other OS; don’t fault someone for liking something you don’t.

I was surprised at how new my iPhone 5 felt with iOS 7 installed. After using an iPhone for the past few years, and jumping over to Android in the meantime, I’m encouraged by the direction Apple is going under Jony Ive. Sure, the colors are a little wild and maybe even childish, and there’s a bit of a learning curve, especially for those so used to the skeuomorphic feel of previous version of iOS. Yesterday, talking to some non-tech savvy friends about iOS 7, there were mixed reactions; some were dismayed, some reacted like I did.

Much of the experience, though, is improved, and some of the new functionality, not to mention redesigned built-in apps (camera in particular) are truly useful and intuitive. There are new ringtones (ooh) and wallpapers (ahh), and more sharing options than you can shake a stick at. You can now hide Newsstand, and even create unlimited folders. Features that iOS should have had months and months ago. But they’re here now, and they’re pretty great. iOS 7 is by no means a home run, but it manages to inject some much-needed invigoration into the platform. Jony Ive has done something truly remarkable in a short amount of time. Hopefully Apple will continue to introduce big updates like this going forward, and not fall into bad habits by introducing one or two small things going forward.

Brandon Russell used iOS 7 beta 6 for five days and iOS 7 Gold Master for six days.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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