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Apple iOS 7 review: a worthwhile upgrade for your iPhone and iPad

A new look for iOS plus new features galore

iPhone 5S running iOS 7

We’ve been looking forward to the launch of iOS 7 since it was unveiled at Apple’s WWDC back in June 2013.

Now that Apple has flipped the switch and you can download it to your iPhone 4 (or newer), iPad 2 (or newer) or iPod touch 5th-gen, it’s time to take an in-depth look at the new operating system. See also: How to update to iOS 7

The radical departure from wooden bookshelves and other real-world textures is mainly because Jonathan Ive, the man behind the hardware design at Apple, designed iOS 7.

The most noticeable difference is a set of new, brightly coloured icons, and of transparent layers to convey depth. It’s all part of a so-called flat design that replaces the pseudo-3D interface of previous versions of iOS.

Plus, there’s a whole lot of white. Time to don the Ray-bans, then.

iOS 7 review: Fonts and graphics

Like it or not, iOS 7 has a new font - Helvetica Neue if you’re a font geek. The entire OS is much plainer and simpler than before, with coloured text used sparingly to indicate buttons and interactive elements. This minimalist approach matches the iPhone and iPad’s design, of course.

iOS 7 font

Gone is the baize background in Game Center and the yellow notepaper in Notes. Now, everything is scaled back to a basic, almost Spartan level.

But the simplistic style takes some getting used to. The icons in particular have polarised opinion, and there has been plenty of comparison with Windows Phone’s bright, childish colour scheme.

Making radical changes to an operating system is a risky business. Just look at how Windows 8’s new Start screen has left many users floundering, unable to perform basic tasks that they weren’t even that comfortable with in the Windows 7, Vista or XP. And mobile devices are much more personal than PCs.

Sensibly, Apple hasn’t really changed the way you interact with iOS, so although it looks new, it feels very familiar.

iOS 7 review: New features

You might instantly love iOS 7, since it makes it feel as if you’ve just been handed a brand new phone or tablet, but others may not be as keen.

Some of the new features are sure to be universally loved, though. Control Center, which is long overdue in our minds, provides easy access to common settings such as Flight Mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and brightness. On an iPhone you can even toggle the LED on and off, making ‘torch’ apps virtually redundant.

It’s available everywhere, even from the lock screen. We’re not convinced Flight Mode should be switchable without unlocking the phone, however, since turning off all comms will prevent Find My iPhone from working.

Other features, such as the parallax effect where your wallpaper moves slightly as you tilt your device, are fun but have no real use. Apple has introduced new ‘dynamic’ backgrounds, with bubbles that slowly move across the screen as you move your iPhone or iPad.

The jury’s out on whether all of iOS 7’s animation, 3D and blurring effects negatively impact on battery life.

The 3D effect when opening and closing apps was previously only available to jailbroken iOS devices. In iOS 7, when you tap on an icon, the app zooms in to become full screen. Hit the home button and it zooms out, with the home screen icons flying back into place. This works on folders of icons too, and aids your navigation.
It’s a shame Apple doesn’t allow you to customise the 3D effect, nor change the simple slide transition between home screens, but the changes are a step in the right direction.

iOS 7 review: apps

In terms of apps, Apple has been more reserved about changing things, with a few notable exceptions. Generally, features haven’t been changed, so everything you could do in iOS 6 you can do in iOS 7.

The Music app, for example, now lets you browse your music via a scrolling list of cover art, with a quick tap zooming onto the album, displaying a tracklist.

iOS 7 music

The Camera app has been overhauled completely. You now swipe to change between modes: normal, square, panoramic and video and, in keeping with the current trend, you can apply filters in the edit mode.

Note that only the iPhone 5S has the burst photo mode and slo-mo video. The iPhone 4 still doesn’t get the panorama option, but you can now take square photos. Woooo.

iOS 7 camera filters

Safari, finally, has an all-in-one search and address bar, so you don’t need to think about which box you tap to search for a website. The old limit of eight tabs has gone and there’s a new 3D view when switching between tabs which we like a lot.

Web pages are automatically displayed full screen – as with several apps, including Photos, the controls fade from view when they’re not required, giving the content maximum screen real estate.

iOS 7 Safari

Calendar, though, is perhaps the best example of how iOS 7 uses colour to draw the user’s attention to relevant information. The current date is highlighted with a big red circle, with the same shade of red used to highlight other interactive elements. Yet, many have criticised Calendar for lacking functionality – third-party apps are still your best bet.

Apple’s much-maligned Maps app has been updated a lot recently. There are also a few interface tweaks including a scale indicator in the corner, and bookmarks are now saved in iCloud and shared across devices, a handy addition that should have been there in the first place. Mac users can send maps and directions directly to their iPhone using the desktop Maps app in OS X Mavericks too.

Two years after it launched, Siri is no longer a beta product. The interface is slightly changed, but the real update is a wider range of search abilities.
Siri can now search Twitter and Wikipedia, while Bing is now the default web search – an indication of Apple further severing ties with Google.

Here’s an in-depth look at Siri in iOS 7.

iOS 7 Siri

The Newsstand app now runs full screen, with an opaque background that allows your wallpaper to glow through. Also, you can now move the app into that ‘unused’ folder everyone creates for apps they don’t want cluttering up their home screens but can’t uninstall.

Talking of folders, there’s no limit on the number of apps you can put in a folder, but only nine are displayed at once. If there are more, you have to swipe across to show them, which isn’t ideal, but it does mean you no longer have to have multiple folders such as ‘Games 1, Games 2, Games 3’ and so on.

iOS 7 multitasking

Double-tapping still lets you switch between apps, but the multitasking interface is completely revamped. There’s a thumbnail of each running app displayed above its icon, letting you instantly see what’s what, and you now swipe up to close an app.

We like the new (but retro-sounding) ringtones, and the fact that the old ones are kept in a ‘classics‘ folder. If you have custom ringtones, these are also kept.

Expect updates to non-Apple apps which adopt an iOS 7 ‘look’ with transparency and a flatter design.

iOS 7 review: iPad differences

As in iOS 6 and previous versions, the main differences between the iPhone and iPad are layout related, with a prominent use of split-views (such as in the Settings app) to display more information on the larger tablet screen. Siri is now full-screen on the iPad, with larger text and images.

iOS 7 iPad settings

A few apps on the iPhone aren’t available on the iPad, and vice-versa. The iPad still has no Voice Memos, Passbook, Compass, Calculator or Stocks apps, while the iPhone misses out on the fun Photobooth app.

iOS 7 review: Performance

We’ve been following iOS 7 developments since the first beta, and have seen every enhancement and adjustment Apple has made since. The list of devices that support iOS 7 is fairly long, namely: the iPhone 4, 4S, 5 and of course the new 5S and 5C which ship with it. There’s also the iPad 2, iPad mini, the third and current fourth-generation models, plus the fifth-generation iPod touch.

While it mostly runs well on all the iPads and is fine on the 4S and above, on the iPhone 4 we found it a slower experience than iOS 6. However, we’re fairly sure Apple will be able to improve performance as time goes on.

It’s the iPad which seems to struggle most with iOS 7. Even simple tasks such as selecting a wallpaper can take over ten seconds, and that’s unacceptable.

We timed the iPad mini, 3 and 4 and the results were surprising:

 

iPad mini

iPad 3

iPad 4

Preview wallpaper

2s

5s

3s

Set as Home screen

4s

13s

5s

Battery life on the devices we tested hasn’t been as spectacular, sometimes running low after less than a day’s light use. But again, we expect future updates will improve this.

Bugs are rife. For example, when scrolling through cover art, a rubber band effect is used when you try to scroll beyond the content, but this occasionally became stuck, leaving a black bar on the screen, which only disappeared after rebooting the phone.

iOS 7 review: Verdict

If anything, iOS has long been overdue a redesign. It’s remained essentially the same for five years, and that’s an eternity in the fast-paced mobile world.

With the seventh version, iOS looks fresh and modern, with features that help keep it on a par with (if not ahead of) Android, Blackberry 10 and Windows Phone.

However, iOS 7 still lacks customisation, so anyone hoping for Android-style widgets, or merely the ability to change the default keyboard, will be disappointed.

Apple’s walled-garden approach hasn’t changed, and that’s largely a good thing. You can’t install apps except through the App Store, which means tight security and less piracy.

It’s interesting that Microsoft ditched transparency in Windows 8, since this is a major part of iOS 7. Apple says it helps to orient you, and we can’t help but agree.

With so many changes, it will take you a while to get accustomed to your ‘new’ smartphone or tablet, but as long as you own an iPhone 5, 4S, iPad mini or iPad 4 you should be happy with performance.

iOS 7 could signal a change of direction at Apple, at least in terms of the look of its software and it’s no coincidence that the iPhone 5C’s five colours match the new icons in iOS 7.

Overall, iOS 7 is a success and given that it’s a free update there are few reasons to hold off downloading it. If you do decide to bite the bullet, just make sure you read our updating guide first.

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