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iOS 7 review: Radical redesign is more than skin-deep

At a Glance
  • Apple iOS 7

    Macworld Rating

    iOS 7 sports a revolutionary new design, under-the-hood features like Control Center and card-based multitasking, and app updates.

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In short, though Apple’s solution is promising, we’ll need some more time with both iOS 7 and updated apps to determine whether it really delivers on everything that the company has claimed.

That said, the under-the-hood improvements aren’t the only changes to multitasking in iOS 7. There’s an entirely new interface—a card-based metaphor that will look pretty familiar to any who used the all-too-quickly-extinguished webOS. You swipe through a carousel of cards, each showing the screen of a different app accompanied by the program’s icon.

Getting carded: Multitasking’s new interface is more intuitive and useful than that of its predecessor.

In addition to its interface being more helpfully visual than the old multitasking bar, there are a couple of other advantages here: First, you can actually refer to information on a card without bringing the app to the foreground, which can save you some taps if you’re, say, writing an email and need to refer to something in another app. Second, you can now force-quit an app by simply flicking the card upward—far easier than the old tap-and-hold-then-tap-again interface in iOS 6’s multitasking bar.

Apps updated while you wait: Glory be and hallelujah. If you’ve ever picked up an iOS device you haven’t used in a while and seen that red badge on the App Store icon, you’ve probably sighed and wondered if it’s even worth it to update your apps. (My poor full-size iPad was set aside at the arrival of the iPad mini, and when I first charged it up after several months of non-use, it had well over 60 app updates queued up.)

Automatic app updates work well—almost too well, in fact: Unless you either catch the elusive new app-update icon or check the Updates tab in the App Store (which now, thankfully, tells you which apps have been recently updated and with what changes), you may not even realize you have a new version. If that doesn’t fly with you, you can always disable the automatic updates under Settings > iTunes & App Store; you can also opt to have those updates delivered over cellular data connections as well as via Wi-Fi.

Always up-to-date: App updates in iOS 7 can happen automatically, meaning you might not know what apps have been upgraded without looking in the App Store.

There is a potential wrinkle to auto-updating, of course: What happens when an app developer pushes an update that has a bug in it? It may not happen often, but it does happen, and there’s no way to downgrade to an older version of an app. I’d argue that this is one of those places where the onus is on Apple to either do a better job of reviewing app updates or provide a way to rollback updates or quickly push out bug fixes. But it’s something for users to keep in mind when they enable the feature.

Cell it somewhere else: iOS 7 makes it easier to keep track of how much data you’re sending over the cellular network—and which apps are the culprits.

I’m with the band(width): Speaking of cellular data connections, iOS 7 has another welcome improvement: the ability to enable or disable cellular data use on an app-by-app basis. It’s hiding under the Settings > Cellular section, and you might also notice that below each app is an amount, like 1.1MB or 29.6KB—that’s how much data that app has transferred over your cellular connection since the last time you used the Reset Statistics button at the bottom of the screen. Scroll down to the bottom of the list, and you’ll even find a System Services submenu that documents how much iOS’s own services have consumed, though you can’t disable them.

As someone on a metered data plan who occasionally exceeds his data allowance, I appreciate gettin this information straight from the horse’s mouth, although it’s most helpful if you remember to reset it every month at the end of your billing cycle. I double-checked the overall cellular data number against both my carrier’s website and the third-party app DataMan Pro, and though there was a range among the three of them, they were within 7MB—pretty good.

Pictures, perfected

Because our smartphones (and, to a lesser extent, tablets) are increasingly the devices we use to take pictures, every iOS update has its share of photo-related improvements, and iOS 7 is no exception. Organization and sharing are the keywords this time around, along with a few tips of the hat to the popular photo trends of the day.

All those moments will not be lost in time: Finally, finally Apple has rethought the organization of the Photos app. Earlier versions were fixated on the idea that photos would live more or less on your Mac in iPhoto and you would use your smartphone as a portable viewer—how else to explain the lack of any organizational capabilities in iOS’s camera roll?

In iOS 7, the Photos app finally treats the pictures you take with your iOS device as first-class citizens. As in iPhoto on your Mac, your pictures are automatically organized based on when and where you took them. At the lowest level you have Moments, which are photos usually grouped around a single place over a day or two. They’re listed by location and date, and tapping on the header will give you a map view for that Moment, showing where photos were taken; this is a replacement for the Places view in earlier versions of iOS.

Collector’s edition: Years, Moments, and Collections are a more intelligent and just plain better way to organize photos taken on your iOS devices.

One level up from Moments are Collections, which group photos from longer spans of time and a geographically wider area—think the pictures you took while on a vacation in Italy. As with Moments, you can view those pictures on a map. But you can also tap and hold on any tiny image in the mosaic Photos presents and get a pop-up thumbnail of that image; drag across the mosaic, and you’ll see a blown-up view of whatever picture your finger is resting on.

The reorganization and thumbnail pop-up make it (roughly) three-hundred-and-forty-seven times easier to find a specific picture than scrolling through the camera roll in iOS 6 and earlier. That’s even more impressive when you jump up to the Years level that resides above Collections; it turns out that even when you’re looking at a year’s worth of photos, it’s surprisingly easy to pick out specific moments.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    iOS 7 sports a revolutionary new design, under-the-hood features like Control Center and card-based multitasking, and app updates.

    Pros

    • Extensive, eye-catching redesign
    • Control Center gives quick access to frequent features
    • More extensive multitasking capabilities

    Cons

    • Minor bugs are not uncommon
    • AirDrop feature lacks Mac compatibility
    • iPad version feels uneven, sluggish
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