A shorter version of this article was originally published on UNWIND. Check it out here.
If you’ve bought an iPhone sometime in the past five years, chances are you got a notification telling you to update to iOS 12. I spent the past few weeks testing it on my iPhone 7 plus to give you this quick rundown of the changes and improvements Apple packed into their latest and greatest.
iOS has never really had an “S” year like iPhones do. For the past few releases, the software engineers at Apple have dutifully taken a giant leap forward.
Last year’s iOS 11 bought a completely revamped control center and overhauled the iPad’s interface with changes borrowed from MacOS. 2016’s iOS 10 axed the “swipe to unlock” feature that has been a cornerstone of iOS (and a lawsuit) and beefed up iMessage to include reactions, effects and third-party apps, among other features.
That’s why it was a bit strange when Axios reported in January that Apple delayed a number of major updates until 2019, choosing instead to focus on performance and reliability. To be fair, that announcement was a welcome one given iOS 11’s buggy history. (The phrase “planned obsolescence,” although a myth, also comes to mind.)
So, then, has it worked?
In a word, yes. Little actions like swiping into the widgets pane of the notification center feel noticeably faster and smoother than before. Quickly switching between apps produces less jitteriness and stuttering, and, the camera launches faster.
They aren’t monumental improvements, and the update won’t perform better in resource intensive apps like games, but given the hundreds to thousands of little interactions I have with my device in a day, even my two-year old iPhone 7 Plus felt pretty close to a new device.
This is a pretty big deal, simply because the way iOS dealt with notifications before was horribly messy. Notifications would appear one after another in the notification center, where they would sit for weeks at a time before I bothered to clear them. When I wanted to go back and find an alert or message that came through earlier, I’d have to make an educated guess as to when it came in, scroll back down and try to pick it out in a sea of white boxes.
If you hadn’t taken the time to go through all your apps and decide which deserve to send alerts, notifications center would start looking like a messy email inbox with maybe a handful of relevant notifications lost in a haystack of irrelevant alerts.
So Apple went and took a page out of Android’s book and introduced grouped notifications. When multiple notifications for the same app or conversation come in, they appear stacked. Tap on a stack and it expands to show you every notification that’s appeared.
The end game is that it’s now much easier to pick out exactly what you’re looking for, since you can look for the app instead trying to pinpoint the individual alert.
Apple also added new options to controlling how you get your notifications, including an option to “deliver quietly” to the notification center without pinging your phone. I haven’t found it to be particularly useful, but those that want a more discreet experience might enjoy it.
The entire concept of “smartphone addiction” isn’t exactly new– there has been plenty written about how developers use psychological tactics to entice us to use our devices as frequently as possible. I’d be lying if I said that incoming notifications never triggered an urge to immediately pick up my phone.
That’s why both Apple and Google have rolled out their own versions of programs that track how much time you spend within certain apps, which was was something that previously required a third-party app to do. (RescueTime was the one I tried previously)
The idea is to give you an idea of how much time you’re spending on your phone, show you what in particular you’re doing and if needed allow you to set time limits. Apple’s implementation even tracks how often you pick up your phone.
There’s also a chart that shows you how many notifications each of your apps is sending you, which might be an interesting way to show which apps take up most of your time, but not something I can see myself referring to on a regular basis.
It’s a bit early to say whether this will really cause me to spend less time on my phone, but I will admit that it doesn’t exactly feel good to see that I picked up my device 16 times over one hour, or that I spend an average of about an hour scrolling through Reddit every day.
Shortcuts are an extension of the “Workflow” app that Apple introduced last year. It offered the ability to execute more complicated actions or sequences with a few presses. For example, I had one set up where I’d select what caffeinated drink I just had and the system would automatically log the appropriate amount of caffeine intake in the health app. In another, I’d enter a sequence of text and the app would add to my clipboard a mini-drawing of a bunny holding up whatever I just typed in.
You get the idea, it takes actions that normally span different apps or take many steps, simplifies it, and puts it in an easily accessible widget.
With iOS 12, Shortcuts adds a couple of things.
One: the ability for you to assign custom phrases to your shortcuts so you can trigger them via Siri. For example, one of the premade shortcuts allows you to tell Siri “heading to work”, and the system will get you directions, tell you your first calendar event and start playing your favorite playlist.
Two: actions within third party apps. What the past few updates have shown is that Apple has become more liberal in allowing users to interact with third party apps and services, and this is a good example of that. CityMapper, for instance, has already announced several shortcuts that can give you everything from commute times to train statuses.
A massive disappointment is that Spotify doesn’t support shortcuts (natively, at least- there are currently some workarounds). I’d been looking forward to be able to trigger playlists or songs with just my voice, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.
Overall, things can get complicated if you’re trying to set up shortcuts from scratch, so I recommend that most people look through the (really expansive) library of pre-made ones.
I’m personally very excited about this change because it makes logging into apps and sites on my phone much less painful.
iOS has had the ability to call up saved passwords for a while now, but it’s been limited to their own iCloud keychain. For users like me, who rely on third-party password managers to store passwords for roughly 100 different sites, it meant navigating to an entirely separate app to complete a login.
Now, however, third-party password managers such as LastPass, Dashlane, and 1Password can all be accessed straight from the keyboard. Rejoyce!
Side note, not a lot of people I know use a password manager, but it’s a really good idea (especially because DIT forces password changes every semester).
As I mentioned, there weren’t a lot of groundbreaking updates and additions this time around, so here’s a rapid fire list of some of the other changes.
- The battery menu in settings now gives you usage charts like the ones on Android. You can see a graph of your battery percentage throughout the day, among other details.
- The new Photos app includes a “for you” tab, as well as better sharing settings. It’s a valiant attempt to catch up with Google Photos, but I really don’t see it as much of an improvement. Until Apple can offer unlimited photo backup like Google does, I’ll manage my photos there.
- The voice memos app’s interface was updated so that the record button is at the bottom and easier to reach. It also adds a feature where recordings are auto-titled based on their location (which almost always happens to be UMD, go figure).
- Devices capable of running Apple’s augmented reality framework (iPhone 6+ and later) now get a native ruler app, allowing you to use your camera to measure distances. Previously, there were several third party apps that did this, but it’s nice to see it being built into iOS.
- Some system notifications, such as Now Playing and Do Not Disturb While Driving now have a darker hue than normal app notifications. It’s not a huge functionality improvement, but it’s a good visual differentiator.
- If you enable Do Not Disturb while you sleep, iOS now does a couple of things. First, the entire screen/wallpaper is darkened so you don’t get blinded when checking your phone at 3 a.m. Notifications are also automatically hidden by default until you wake up or manually go into notification center. Finally, when you wake up, your iPhone doesn’t greet you with what you missed overnight, but instead gives you a simple weather update for the day.
- Other system apps, such as Stocks, Books and News have all been give visual refreshes.
- There are a few new Animoji, and you can now create your own digital doppelganger in the form of Memoji. However, it’s worth mentioning that I’ve never seen anyone outside of tech bloggers use these, so your mileage may vary.
- If your car or infotainment system is compatible with Apple’s in-car interface CarPlay, you can now use Google Maps or Waze as your navigation app. Currently, the implementation isn’t perfect, but it’s exciting because, let’s be honest, Apple Maps isn’t really that great an option.
- AirPod owners can now enable an accessibility setting that allows them to pipe audio from their iPhone’s microphones into their headphones. It’s useful if you’d like to get a sense of your surroundings without fully removing your headphones.
- The camera now gives you a little haptic tap when you press the shutter button. It’s not huge, but it’s a nice touch that helps the cohesiveness of the overall user experience.
- Your phone can now auto fill confirmation codes sent via text. It’s is a good little time saver that makes the choice of enabling two factor authentication a no-brainer. (Two factor authentication is a good security measure offered by many online services. What it means is that your account can’t be broken into by anyone who manages to find your password- they must also possess a second factor, such as a code texted to your phone.)
- (Updated 11-23) With the release of iOS 12.1, you can now make group FaceTime calls.
On the same day, Apple also released the fifth version of its wearable operating system. It added things like a walkie talkie mode, new watchfaces and the ability to auto-detect when you’ve begun a work out.
If you’re a big Siri fan, you’ll be glad to hear that she’s more accessible than ever. Now, you can give your commands as soon as you raise your wrist, without saying “Hey Siri” out loud or long pressing the digital crown. It takes a bit of practice to get your timing exactly right, though. I’m sure some people will find this useful, but it’s also hard to ignore how far Siri has fallen behind competing assistants such as Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.
In my opinion, the truly exciting change to WatchOS 5 is the ability for audio apps to store files directly on your watch, something previously only available for Apple Music.
What this means is that if you’re just out for a quick run, you can leave your phone at home and just stream audio via bluetooth headphones paired to your watch. It works with apps such as Pandora, Audible and Overcast, but sadly Spotify doesn’t seem to be playing ball.
To be clear, despite the length of this piece, this was in no way a comprehensive explainer on iOS 12– I picked out the features that I think are the most important and the ones I think most people will actually notice. (If you’d like a deep dive, this three-hour read is available).
In spite of Apple’s initial downplaying of this update, however, I still think that iOS 12 has its importance. The trillion-dollar company hasn’t done much to explicitly address the longevity of its devices in recent years, and this is a good step towards that ideal.