iOS 7 review: Radical redesign is more than skin-deep
At a Glance
iOS 7 sports a revolutionary new design, under-the-hood features like Control Center and card-based multitasking, and app updates.
In addition to Today, there are two more panes in Notification Center; you can move between them by tapping toolbar tabs at the top of the screen or simply by swiping left. The All pane is similar to the Notification Center of old: All notifications are collected by app, and you can organize them to list the app that had the most recent notification at the top or you can organize them manually via Settings. There’s still no way to remove individual notifications, but that’s actually okay because now there’s also the Missed tab.
The Missed tab is what I’d been looking for from Notification Center all along: a place that just shows those notifications that I didn’t act on— in other words, I didn’t tap on or dismiss them when they popped up, or I didn’t act on them from the lock screen. The Missed view is an improvement over the All view because it reduces the notifications to the bare minimum; if you don’t view them within 24 hours, they automatically get weeded out of the list. (That way, you don’t have to worry about stale items clogging it up.) On occasion, however, I noticed items that I thought would appear in the Missed tab that didn’t, such as certain Mail notifications.
Like Control Center, Notification Center is available anywhere in the OS; unlike Control Center, though, you can only prevent it from appearing on the lock screen. But there you can enable or disable the Today and notification views separately.
There are a couple of other notification-related improvements: In addition to the VIP notification options introduced in iOS 6 for Mail, you can also set up Messages and Game Center to alert you only about notifications from your contacts. (There’s still no contacts-only option for Mail, though; it’s either VIPs or everybody.)
Talk to the screen: Two years later, my relationship with Siri remains firmly in the love-hate category. I want to love the voice-based interface, and when it works it often shines. But expectations are so high that when it fails—as it invariably does—it’s usually the target of heated invective.
Apple has, to its credit, greatly expanded Siri’s capabilities in iOS 7. The assistant understands more queries than in the past, and now has access to more features of your phone—such as the ability to turn on Airplane Mode, enable or disable Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and go directly to specific Settings screens. Siri has also expanded its abilities to deal with other information: It can now read the entire text of emails sent to you, play back voicemails, and search for tweets about a subject or by a specific person. (It still can’t read tweets aloud to you, however; you’ll need to refer back to the screen for that.)
And, catching up to Google’s voice-search offering, Siri can now show—and read to you—answers to some questions without leaving the assistant’s interface. For example, ask the age of actor Sean Connery, and Siri will tell you he’s 83, and will show you a capsule of his Wikipedia entry.
Siri also told me actor Cary Grant’s real name (Archibald Leach) and read me the definition of the word foundering. However, while the assistant was able to retrieve the correct answer for the alter egos of Batman and Superman from Wolfram Alpha, it wouldn’t read them aloud. (Interestingly, it did tell me that Spider-Man’s secret identity is Peter Parker—clearly Wolfram Alpha is a Marvel fanboy. Or maybe Wolfram Alpha had multiple alter egos for Supes and Bats, but just the one for Spidey.) In a sign of the further dissolution of Apple and Google’s partnership, Siri’s search results are now provided by Microsoft’s Bing, with no user option for changing the search engine.
Besides its new functionality, Siri gets a new interface in iOS 7. Visually, Siri now fades in on top of your current screen (which you can see, as if through frosted glass, beneath it); instead of the purple-highlighted microphone, you now see a sound wave that reacts when you speak. The virtual assistant also has a new speech engine, which provides not only a more natural-sounding voice, but also, for the first time in U.S. English, both male and female options. You still aren’t likely to mistake Siri for a flesh-and-blood human, but that gap is closing all the time.
Though some, including my erstwhile colleague Lex Friedman, swear by Siri’s capabilities, I’ve found myself more likely to swear at the virtual assistant. iOS 7 has certainly improved its capabilities, but none of that matters when you run into situations where Siri simply shrugs and says it can’t take any requests right now. I’d love to trust the voice-based assistant to do things when I’m in the car, but much of the time it’s still simply not reliable enough.
Working, even when you’re not
A number of the improvements in iOS 7 deal with keeping your phone’s apps and information up-to-date without the need for your involvement. But if you want control over those features, iOS 7 offers that, too.
Pick a card, any card: When it first arrived in iOS 4, Apple’s implementation of multitasking on its mobile devices was greeted with a mix of enthusiasm and derision. The company made the choice to allow only certain types of tasks—playing audio, tracking location, and conducting voice calls, to name a few—in the background. The reason behind the limitations was to prevent background apps from running amok and sucking up all your device’s battery life and/or network bandwidth. Besides, the argument went, what else did you really need your apps to do in the background?
A lot, it turns out. So in iOS 7, that decision has been updated for the modern era. Any app can now run in the background, updating whenever it feels the need. Apple still acknowledges that background tasks can put a hit on a device’s battery, but the company has beefed up iOS’s capabilities for managing those processes, using techniques like pooling updates so that they occur at the same time (preferably when you have a good network connection), prioritizing apps that you use more often, and allowing silent push notifications that can wake up an app that’s running in the background.
It’s hard to judge exactly how well these features work right now, since they rely on a new application programming interface (API); existing apps will have to be updated to take advantage of them. It is gratifying, however, to see that Apple has left us some element of control over the process: In Settings, a new option called Background App Refresh allows you to stop any app—or all apps—from running in the background, just in case a particular piece of software runs amok or eats up too much of your battery.