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

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Many users, of course, won’t easily discover those gestures, but those that do will find them a time-saver—think of them as the equivalent of keyboard shortcuts for your iOS device. In fact, in iOS 7 Apple has begun expanding the use of gestures throughout the OS: In any app where you can go “up” a hierarchical level—think Mail or Settings—you can swipe to the right to do the same thing, instead of tapping the button in the top left corner. It’s a nice touch, and definitely simpler when it comes to using devices one-handed—especially with the larger-screen iPhones and iPod touches. The only downside is that you might end up trying to use it in apps where it doesn’t work.

Put it on my tab: The 3D tab interface is an improvement in Safari for the iPhone, as is the more prominent private browsing option.

Safari’s tab interface has gotten a redesign on the iPhone as well. Instead of a one-at-a-time thumbnail view of your pages, you get a series of tilted, 3D-esque cards to represent your tabs. It’s easier to flip through them, and you can for the first time rearrange your tabs on the iPhone by tapping any of them and dragging them to their new position. You can also swipe a tab to the left to close it, which is a little easier than trying to hit the small close widget. And Apple has finally broken the only-eight-tabs-at-once barrier on the iPhone; I’m not sure how many you can have open at the same time, but I do know it’s more than 16.

iCloud Tabs have also moved to the tab interface; you scroll down past your list of open tabs to see what pages are open on your other devices. Plus, in a very smart move, Apple has moved the Private browsing feature here, rather than burying it deep in the Settings app. This makes it much easier to use, and far more likely that people will actually remember that it’s there.

Links to the past: The other major new feature in Safari is Shared Links, which is accessible via the Bookmarks button (it’s represented by the @ icon). It’s essentially a collection of the URLs shared by people you follow on Twitter. Tapping on any will load the linked page, and when you scroll to the bottom you’ll have the option to go automatically to the next linked item. (You cannot, however, scroll back up to the previous link once you’ve gone past it.)

Not-so-missing link: Shared Links might be useful, but for regular Twitter users it feels kind of redundant.

The utility of Shared Links largely depends on you. Personally, as someone who keeps up with Twitter regularly, I tend to follow up on the links I’m interested in via my Twitter client or occasionally save the links to a service like Instapaper. Shared Links can help you find a link if you’ve misplaced it or if you can’t remember who posted it, but for the most part I think this feature isn’t for me. It may, however, be just what you’re looking for.

(It’s worth noting that Reading List in iOS 7 gains the same “continuous scrolling” ability, though it doesn’t get much else in the way of new features.)

Radio, radio

Streaming music’s nothing new—it’s not even anything new for Apple, which offers the ability to stream your purchases from the cloud in iTunes, or from your iTunes library via iTunes Match. But iTunes Radio is something new for Apple: For the first time, the company has opened up its extensive music catalog for streaming without purchase.

Radio days: Apple offers a number of “featured” stations, as well as the ability to create your own based on your tastes.

Pandora users will probably find iTunes Radio pretty familiar: Pick a song, artist, or genre, and iTunes will try to construct an ad-hoc “radio station” around it. It may include the song or artist you picked, or it may not, but it should contain other songs like the ones you selected. The selection of content is pretty broad too, though, as always, I’m sure fans of some genres will have better luck than others. I tried a variety of genres including rock, jazz, pop, and even movie soundtracks with pretty good results. You can also create a new station from any song or artist in your library by tapping the Create button while you’re playing that track.

Tune it up: You can adjust the stations as you go by suggesting that iTunes play more of the same or by deep-sixing the track.

You can tune stations as you listen by tapping the star icon—don’t worry, it doesn’t automatically mean you like that track. You’ll get a submenu that allows you to decide whether iTunes should play more songs like this or never, ever play this song again.

If you’re looking at a station you create, you’ll also find a nifty little slider that lets you choose between hearing popular hits, more-obscure tunes, or a mix of the two. That’s not available on Apple’s own stations, which are more like playlists (it seems as though you largely get the same songs); you can’t choose the more-songs-like-this or never-play-this-song options from those curated collections.

Tapping the info (i) button at the top of the screen will tell you more about the current track, let you browse the album it’s from, create a new station from the artist or song, add the station to your own personal list if it’s one you didn’t create, or share the station with someone else. You can also choose whether or not to include explicit tracks.

Heavy rotation: Want to hear more-obscure tracks? Prefer the familiar hits? You can adjust your stations to your liking.

And, of course, you can buy any song you stream, which is what the labels and Apple are both counting on. Just tap the price button in the top right corner, and you’ll be treated to an experience similar to the iTunes Store experience.

You can skip songs, too, by tapping the next-track button, but you’re limited to just six per station; they seem to reset every hour or so. Because I’m an iTunes Match subscriber, I didn’t run into any ads—my colleague Chris Breen said he heard one for the iTunes Festival before enabling iTunes Match, and I encountered a “station identification” on one of Apple’s own stations.

Streaming works very well for the most part, though I did run into occasional interruptions based on my network connection.

At the end of the day, iTunes Radio is very, well, nice. It’s well-put-together, it works, and by building streaming natively into iOS it ensures itself a solid audience. It may not be revolutionary or even really that evolutionary; it’s simply a solid implementation of an existing idea, and one that has the potential to bring more revenue in to Apple, along with letting users discover new music.

Wrapping up

I’ve focused mainly on the highlights, but there’s a lot more that’s new in iOS 7, and you’ll find plenty about it all elsewhere on Macworld.

All those changes have their positives—who doesn’t like new stuff?—but there are also downsides. Any major new release is going to have some bugs. Some will be minor: graphics that render badly, apps that lock up and crash. Some may be more painful, like apps that quit on launch, and some  bugs we may not be able to anticipate at all. Third-party apps may not be updated to work with new features, or may run into other bugs, or their design may simply not mesh with iOS 7’s right away.

Those are reasons not to upgrade immediately, but they’re not reasons not to upgrade ever. The only reason not to do that, as far as I can tell, is if iOS 7 doesn’t perform well on your device, which it may not on older hardware, such as the iPhone 4 or iPad 2. My test devices were an iPhone 5 and a third-generation iPad; the former performed like a champ, while the latter, while functional, was a bit sluggish; it’s worth noting that the iPad version of iOS 7 is still rather uneven at present.

But all that aside, iOS 7 is the way of the future for Apple’s mobile platform—the company is not going to turn around next year and say, “Just kidding! Back to the iOS 6 style!” And yes, I know I’ve said this a lot, but it bears repeating: It’s going to require some adjustment.

Head to toe: There are plenty of changes to all of iOS's standbys, including Compass (left), Weather (center), and Reminders (right).

I’ve spent a decent amount of time with iOS 7 since its debut earlier this year. I like it. There—I said it. I’m pro-iOS 7. To me, the new interface looks sleek and clean and modern. It smacks of purpose-driven design. Whenever I returned to my iOS 6 reference devices, the interface seemed funny and cartoonish—the same way I think the early Aqua stylings of OS X would look from the vantage point of Mountain Lion. The world has moved on, and a smartphone OS today doesn’t need to do the same thing that it did six years ago when the market was still brand new.

In my opinion, there’s a lot to love about iOS 7, even with its rough edges. As third-party apps start to be built around its new capabilities and embrace its new design, I think there will be even more to recommend it to users. But for now, it’s clear which way the wind is blowing, and even if you hold off upgrading to iOS 7 today (or this week), its arrival on your iOS devices is inevitable.

So, kick back and relax. Pump some jams from iTunes Radio, fiddle around with Control Center, browse through your photos and relive some memories. Because iOS 7’s greatest triumph is making the familiar feel a little unfamiliar to us, affording us anew that joy of discovery and wonder—and you rarely get a chance to experience something again for the first time.

Updated at 11:20 a.m. PT with a video review.

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


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


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