iOS 8 Review: The biggest iOS release ever

iOS 8 The iPhoneHacks Review

This was a huge year for Apple, entering a new category (wearables), launching a new phone in two sizes and also releasing the latest iteration of iOS — and while it all sounds like just another year at Cupertino, I can’t help but wonder how they pulled it all off this time. While iOS 7 represented a quantum leap in the way Apple’s mobile OS looked and worked, iOS 8 builds upon the solid foundation of iOS 7 to improve the user experience, integrate more tightly with Mac and iCloud, and enable increased interoperability between iDevices as well as between apps.

iOS 8 looks quite the same as iOS 7 (lock screen)
iOS 8 looks quite the same as iOS 7

And that’s just what you see on the surface. Besides user-facing improvements to the OS and core apps, Apple has built frameworks to support home automation, health and fitness, in-car entertainment and navigation, and interoperability features, and we can expect to see scores of developers and manufacturers taking advantage of them to bring new functionality to the platform. In short, iOS 8 is perhaps the most significant update to the mobile OS ever, and there’s a lot to be excited about.

iOS 8 looks quite the same (home screen)

So what can you look forward to with iOS 8?

When you launch your newly-updated iDevice, you’ll see that lots of improvements have come to Photos, Camera, Messages, Mail, Safari, Reminders and more. There are also big new ideas at play. iCloud will now let you store any file to share and access on your devices and desktops. Family Sharing will allow you to buy and share apps and content with up to 5 more people. Continuity lets you work on the same file across your Mac, iPad and iPhone as you flit from one device to the other, seamlessly. So, what you’ll find in this iteration is Apple trying to make iOS more robust and letting users do more, while still maintaining the simplicity and consistency of the user experience.

iOS 8 also presents developers with numerous opportunities to add functionality to their apps as well as core apps, beginning with Extensibility: this new feature will allow you to, say, save an article to Pocket to read later, or use custom filters from a photo editing app from within Photos, or even annotate an image from a web page in Safari. The ability to handle app extensions will help iOS 8 scale as new apps and functions become important to users and developers. Similarly, apps will also be able to use TouchID for secure logins, and hopefully even payments.

On to more tangible benefits: iOS 8 ships with several neat features that you’ll get to experience right away, across the interface and within core apps. Let’s take a look at what’s new:

Design details

Right off the bat, iOS 8 looks identical to iOS 7 and how you feel about that mostly depends on whether you’re a Jony Ive disciple. However, there are some interesting updates that both camps will enjoy:

  • Interactive notifications
    You’ll now be able to mark emails as read, reply to texts, snooze calendar events and check off to-do list items right from Notification Center and without having to launch separate apps. While some core apps already have interactive notifications for you to play with (try swiping left on an incoming text message to reply), you’ll need to wait a bit for third-party apps to implement them in their own updates.

    Interactive notifications let you take action right from the lock screen and Notification Center
    Interactive notifications let you take action right from the lock screen and Notification Center
  • Widgets
    While they won’t share real estate with icons on your home screen, widgets from various apps will have their own space in the Today view, kind of like how Weather has been available in Notification Center since its introduction. These widgets will be able to display data and allow you to perform actions like bid on an auction — but you won’t be able to invoke the keyboard from here. While this isn’t exactly the implementation everyone’s been asking for in iOS 8 Wishlist posts, I think it supports the established user experience in iOS 8 and prevents inconsistency.
  • Multitasking interface now shows favorite and recent contacts
    You’ll find a row of contacts above your recent apps; tap once to view messaging/call options to get in touch quickly. I really like this as it reduces the number of taps required to call someone back or reply to them, and the implementation here works brilliantly.

    The Multitasking interface now lets you access favorite and recent contacts quickly
    The Multitasking interface now lets you access favorite and recent contacts quickly
  • New wallpaper manager
    Launch Settings > Wallpaper to browse through your Camera Roll for wallpapers and see your recent wallpaper images too. You’ll also find a collection of new wallpaper images for iOS 8, as well as dynamic wallpapers that respond to your phone’s orientation. Unfortunately there are only a bunch of bubbles for now, but let’s hope we get some more fun backgrounds to toy with.

    The new Wallpaper manager lets you set wallpapers easily and also has some Dynamic ones to play with
    The new Wallpaper manager lets you set wallpapers easily and also has some Dynamic ones to play with

While these changes are great for iOS fans, they won’t impress users who are looking for a more customizable experience. I myself prefer an app drawer separate from my home screen and would love to be able to customize folder icons — but clearly, that’s not what iOS is about, and that’s not the end of the world.

Messages

Messages has got some great new features that users of Whatsapp, WeChat, Line and the like will be familiar with. You can now take and send pictures and video, as well as record voice messages to share instantly, and even share your location for a chosen period of time. And of course, there’s now group messaging, which supports the aforementioned features and allows you to mute conversations when you’ve had enough too. Admittedly, it’s a lot like its third-party messaging competitors, but Apple’s implementation of these features in iOS’ core messaging app is solid and well thought out.

Messages - Record and send audio in a snap
Messages – Record and send audio in a snap

Want to hear your received voice messages? Just open your conversation and lift the phone to your ear to listen to them. Been sharing lots of pictures, GIFs and video with your mate(s)? Check them all out in one place with the new attachments view in a conversation. iPhone out of reach? Reply to messages with attachments right from your paired Mac desktop! It’s these little details that make Messages a lot more exciting this time around, and make the app an easier choice for multimedia texting. I guess it’s only a matter of time before we see stickers being made available too.

In Messages, tap on a contact to view details, share location and see your shared attachments
In Messages, tap on a contact to view details, share location and see your shared attachments

Overall, this is a neat refresh for a iOS’ baked-in messaging service, allowing it to go head-to-head with popular third-party messaging services and taking a step towards bringing a unified messaging experience to both mobile and desktops.

Photos & Camera

The iPhone 6 is all about its incredible camera with its large 1.5-micron pixels and powerful new HD video capabilities, so naturally Camera has been beefed up to make the most of it. For starters, you’ll notice a new Time-lapse mode that shoots several frames and stitches them together automatically — meaning no painful setup and manual post-processing.

Try your hand at Time-Lapse photography with the new mode in Camera
Try your hand at Time-Lapse photography with the new mode in Camera

 

You’ll also find separate controls for focus and exposure while shooting: touch anywhere to focus, and swipe up or down in your frame to adjust exposure. There’s also a timer that lets you set up your shot with a 3-second or 10-second delay to shoot a burst of 10 photos, so you don’t have to be left out of a group shot. It’s not exactly the full monty, but it’ll help most users get great results in their photos easily.

Camera now includes a timer (top middle button and separate exposure (center) and focus controls
Camera now includes a timer (top middle button and separate exposure (center) and focus controls

Photos adds a bevy of new editing tools to play with: from automatic straightening, to a neat crop tool with straightening and ratio options, to a set of 8 basic photo filters a la Instagram, to intelligent adjustment controls to tweak your shots.

The provided filters are a bit heavy-handed
The provided filters are a bit heavy-handed

 

The straightening and crop tools work really well, while the filters are a tad too heavy-handed; it would have been nice to be able to control the strength of the filters being applied, so as not to overdo it. However, at this point it’s worth noting that thanks to a new feature called Extensibility, developers will be able to make their own custom filters available to use right from within Photos. So, you could soon open a picture in Photos, tap through to launch VSCO filters, and then move on Over to add some stylish text overlays, and save the image to Camera Roll to share as you please.

Camera - new editing tools including auto straightening and intelligent adjustments work great
Camera – new editing tools including auto straightening and intelligent adjustments work great

The real fun begins when you start to play with the intelligent adjustment controls. You can adjust Light, Color and B&W by choosing any of these and turning a dial to increase or decrease each of these parameters. With Light and Color, you’ll find that your chosen adjustments are applied with a delicate touch, instead of merely turning up the exposure or boosting only the saturation. With B&W, you’ll be able to see a diverse range of B&W treatments as you dial the effect up or down — it’s kind of like playing with the Curves tool in Photoshop.

Intelligent adjustment controls let you make fine tweaks easily
Intelligent adjustment controls let you make fine tweaks easily

So what’s really going on under the hood here? Within each of these three controls, you’ll find a bunch of individual parameters to tweak. Under Light, for example, you’ll find Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Brightness, Contrast and Black Point — and you can adjust them all one by one. When you tweak the main Light control, all these parameters are being adjusted with a view to preserve the fidelity of your image as far as possible. But if you feel like the effect is overwhelming, you can drill down into those parameters to get just the right look.

Adjust your photos till they look just right
Adjust your photos till they look just right

Up until now, I used to rely on VSCO Cam for this sort of advanced editing. With all these new dials and knobs to turn, there’s enough fine-grained control to keep photo enthusiasts busy for days. The only department that’s not pulling its weight is the filters section: they’re heavy-handed and don’t offer enough variety to help differentiate your shots edited here than those edited in Instagram. Plus, you can’t adjust the strength of the filters, which means you’ll often end up with colors that are too strong and unnatural. VSCO can’t be beat on that front yet, but let’s hope for better control in an update to iOS 8.

Photos is also better at organizing your shots than before: you can now search for pictures and video by date, location or album name, and even discover your other albums with search suggestions. I found these features more intuitive than the map view to locate albums and collections, because I remember the names of places better than where they are on a map. You can also hide photos and videos so they won’t be visible in Moments, Collections and Years views (but will show up in Albums view), so that you can pass your device to others to have a look without worrying about them stumbling upon your private media. And best of all, you’ll be able to view your entire photo library across devices when syncing with iCloud.

Photos - Get suggestions when searching for pictures to rediscover old favorites
Photos – Get suggestions when searching for pictures to rediscover old favorites

Mail

When I rounded up the best email apps for iPhone recently, I got to take a closer look at how various companies were trying to help users manage their inboxes, and there are several great mail clients out there with unique approaches. Mail got a mention there only because it’s built into iOS and works with Siri — but with iOS 8, there are more reasons to try the default client. Mail is better now with swipes to mark messages as read, flag, archive and access more options.

Swipe to take action on messages in the new Mail
Swipe to take action on messages in the new Mail

 

Plus, when you’re typing a reply, you can pull the composition window down to reveal the received message for quick reference. Purportedly, switching between composition windows and messages is even better on the iPad, where you have more room. In addition, Mail recognizes reservations, flight confirmations and phone numbers, so you can simply tap these to add an event to your calendar or a phone number to your contacts.

Mail - pull down the composition window to switch back to the inbox for quick reference.
Mail – pull down the composition window to switch back to the inbox for quick reference.

While these updates are certainly useful, they don’t go far enough in making Mail a good choice for handling your email — particularly when there’s such strong competition out there in the form of apps like Dispatch and CloudMagic. I personally find it difficult to stray from Gmail’s app because of its smart message organization and notifications. Still, if you’re keen on sticking with Mail, there’s at least something new to look forward to.

Safari

Safari hasn’t been the browser of choice for power users who are more comfortable with feature-packed browsers like iCab Mobile and Mercury — but it might be worth taking a look at in iOS 8. Private mode lets you switch quickly between incognito tabs and normal tabs; DuckDuckGo is now supported as a search engine option, for those who don’t want their browsing habits tracked; tabs show up as a neat grid on iPad, and tabs from the same site are grouped together; recently opened tabs can be accessed faster (tap the tab switcher button and then hold +); desktop versions of sites can be requested, and finally, you can enter your credit card details by scanning your credit card when prompted on a site.

Safari - the new Private mode lets you switch back to normal browsing in the same session
Safari – the new Private mode lets you switch back to normal browsing in the same session

Safari will also support extensions, which means you’ll soon be able to enjoy an enriched browsing experience tailored to suit your habits. One of the coolest extensions we’ve already heard about comes from 1Password, which stores your web login details for several sites, and through its extension, allows you to login to sites on iOS Safari using TouchID. I believe online payments will similarly become a lot simpler, and we can expect to see more browsing innovations from third-party developers in the days to come.

Keyboard

While the new QuickType keyboard in iOS 8 looks very similar to what you used on iOS 7, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye at first glance. You’ll notice a bar with suggested words just above the keyboard, and this pops up even before you begin typing, with smart prompts for one-tap replies to messages and email. Check out the screenshot below to see what I’m talking about.

The new QuickType keyboard does a great job of predicting input, even before you've begun typing
The new QuickType keyboard does a great job of predicting input, even before you’ve begun typing

QuickType also predicts what you’ll say next as you type, based on your input history and the context. That means that the keyboard will learn the style you converse in in Messages vs. Mail and also how you communicate with friends and colleagues. I’ve got to say that the prediction system is pretty great: I found myself tapping words more often than typing, which allowed for quicker replies than ever before. And with less keys to hit, I’m a lot more accurate too. In tandem with iOS’ autocorrect (which is right 90% of the time), this new feature really makes a strong case for sticking with the default keyboard.

However, those looking for other options like swiping to type and always-on multi-language support will be able to add third-party keyboards in iOS 8 — TouchPal, SwiftKey and Swype are already on the job. It’ll be interesting to see what people choose to use, given how clever QuickType is.

Family Sharing

If yours is a multi-iDevice household, you’ll be glad to upgrade to iOS 8: with the new slew of Family Sharing features, up to six family members can share iTunes and App Store purchases. When you’ve got it set up across accounts, family members can access media and apps from each other’s accounts easily. Plus, you can pay for purchases and approve/deny purchase requests from other family members’ accounts. Finally, a method to the app purchasing madness!

Family Sharing lets you share iTunes and App Store purchases, as well as your location with 5 family members
Family Sharing lets you share iTunes and App Store purchases, as well as your location with 5 family members

Family Sharing also makes it possible to share photos, calendars, reminders and locations — making it easy to find each other as well as devices, schedule family events and share chores. It’s a huge step towards making Apple products more a part of your family’s daily life, rather than just separate devices you each use in different places.

iCloud Drive

Here’s Apple getting serious about cloud storage: iCloud Drive allows users to store, sync and share any kind of file from their Mac/PC desktops and iOS devices, with paid plans starting at $20 for 1TB/month. Of course, this means that you can not only back up your app data and photos; all your iWork files will also be synced across devices, and you should soon be able to attach any file you store with your emails (once apps include support for iCloud Drive). Big news indeed, but it’s worth noting that Dropbox charges half that price for their well-established storage service — and they already have an email client (Mailbox) that plays nice with cloud files.

Health

Fitness tracking will perhaps become as commonplace in devices as GPS, and iOS 8 is gearing up for when the world wants to get in shape. You’ll notice a new app on your home screen labeled Health; while the app doesn’t do a lot by itself, it features a Dashboard that will pull and display all your health and fitness data from apps and tracking devices, so you can visualize your current condition and progress towards your wellness goals. The HealthKit framework also allows various health apps to talk to each other and share your fitness data securely to give you a better idea about your well-being.

In the future, you’ll be able to send stats like your blood pressure and heart rate to your doctor for remote monitoring. For now, the app only presents data as graphs and lets you create a medical ID that includes info like your blood type and allergies, that can be accessed from your lock screen in case of an emergency. What we’re seeing now is iOS becoming a central nervous system for our data, apps and devices, and with HealthKit, it’s clear that Apple has big plans to bring it all together, rather than just sell handsets and watches.

Create a Medical ID in Health to display from the lock screen quickly
Create a Medical ID in Health to display from the lock screen quickly

… and more

There are several more updates to discover in iOS 8, but here are my current favorites:

  • Siri responds to ‘Hey Siri’ when your device is plugged in.
  • Siri now features Shazam integration and can identify music that’s playing around you. Just invoke Siri and say, “What song is playing now?” Works like a charm.

    Say 'What's playing now' and Siri will Shazam it for you
    Say ‘What’s playing now’ and Siri will Shazam it for you
  • You can pair your phone with your Mac and respond to calls and texts right from your desktop.
  • Calendar events can now accept travel time input.
  • Spotlight now shows results from several new sources, including movie showtimes, App Store results, iBooks Store results, iTunes results, news, Wikipedia results, nearby locations and more.
  • Find My iPhone can be set to send your phone’s last location to the server when your battery is really low.
  • Safari suggests strong, secure passwords on registration pages, and saves the passwords in Keychain on iCloud.

    Safari suggests strong, secure passwords on registration pages, and saves the passwords in Keychain on iCloud 2
    Safari suggests strong, secure passwords on registration pages, and saves the passwords in Keychain on iCloud 2
  • Launch Settings > General > Usage > Battery Usage to see which apps are hogging power the most.

    See which apps hog the most battery life on the Battery Usage screen in Settings
    See which apps hog the most battery life on the Battery Usage screen in Settings
  • A new Tips app to help users get the most out of iOS 8.
  • WiFi calling on some carriers like Sprint.

Any complaints?

While it’s not an iOS 8 issue per se, Apple Maps is still crummy, and that’s a huge problem because you can’t switch out default apps for various functions in iOS, including maps for locations and navigation. Plus, Siri works only with Apple’s core apps, and for most power users who spend money on great third-party alternatives, that just doesn’t cut it. Interface customization also seems to be low-priority this time around, particularly when you consider the flexibility Android users enjoy with home screen widgets, icon packs and such.

Conclusion

iOS 8 is a step in the right direction for Apple, making it easier to own and manage devices and content. The most notable improvements that users will enjoy out of the box are in Photos, Camera, Messages and the keyboard, and the updates certainly help make a strong case for iDevices being a good choice for new smartphone/tablet users, while accommodating longtime mobile device owners too.

What’s also exciting about iOS 8 is that it allows for The Internet of Things, wearables and smarter automobiles to integrate with our lives. In the next couple of years, we should see several new devices and appliances making use of Apple’s frameworks to become easier to operate and manage via our mobile devices — think switches, smart lighting, thermostats, door and window locks, and more. Plus, It’ll be worth keeping an eye on how developers implement app extensions to increase the utility of their apps with widgets, sharing capabilities, custom actions on content (such as text translation in Safari) and file storage services.

With iOS 8, Apple has made its intentions of world domination — one household at time — as clear as a Retina display behind Ion-Strengthened Glass.

What are your favorite features in iOS 8? Do you feel like something’s missing? Let us know in the comments below!

Note: We’ll continue to update this review as we test custom keyboards, widgets and App extensions released by developers, which we’re extremely excited about.