One month with iOS 7: An old soul with style and substance (review)

Summary:While the revamped user interface takes some getting used to, iOS 7 packs a powerful punch in the new features department, even if it requires a little relearning at times.

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Apple's latest mobile software will bring more than just visual changes to its existing and next wave of customers.

For 30 days, I ran a pre-release version of iOS 7 (which iteratively improved when newer updates were released and installed) on my iPhone 4S. While first impressions are important — these were covered in part in the review of the user interface and experience changes — the critical check is the test of time.

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The purpose of this particular review was to see how an average user's productivity and user experience altered, if at all, over the course of a longer-term period, such as one month.

There were occasional (and expected) bugs and crashes, but, as with the previous review, these were not considered because, as with pre-release versions, they do not represent the full, final, and finished state of the software.

My iPhone has been with me for about six months. It's not a grand amount of time, but enough to already feel a little old, dated, and weary. Aside from a fresh lick of paint in the user interface department, iOS 7 packs in so many new features and functionality that it's absurd to think that one lived without it for so long — unless one traveled down the "illicit" path of jailbreak alley.

Consider the user experience for a moment: The shell of the interactive buttons and labels are in the same locations, so there is a strong sense of familiarity with the software.

The software is in effect the same old iOS that users have come to love. In that sense, it's "old." But the way you interact with the device will be on the most part the same as you always have. New users may, in fact, find the "compact" nature of slide-in panels and drawers more instinctive to find, and natural to use.

Despite its bumps and scratches after six months of use, it felt as though I had a brand new iPhone resting in the palm of my hand.

Users reclaim granular control settings with Control Center

For too long, users had to delve into the depths of the Settings menus to toggle Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other radios, among other hardware functions. Enough is enough; the much-discussed Control Center is a breeze to use, and a breath of fresh air for those who are conscious of their battery life.

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Consider the draw-up panel as your iPhone or iPad's always-on "cheat sheet," a quick-access panel to apps that you need on the fly. Separated into four distinct panels (or five, when an AirPlay device is detected), each section offers different core device options, such as radio access or screen brightness.

Tucked away at the bottom are quick-launch apps, including a flashlight feature in the bottom left, freeing up home screen real estate for the apps that matter to you.

The translucent, blurry layer sits on top of all other facets of the platform, so that users know the previous view is just a swipe-down action away. This feature will replace add-ons that performed in much the same way for jailbroken phones.

iOS 7 gives users granular controls over their device's core functions, something that will be explored later as part of what appears to be a running theme across the new software. It's simple yet beautiful, but crucially, it's useful. The Control Center acts first and foremost as a central focal point for users.

Notifications are less cluttered; elegant and sophisticated

From swipe up to swipe down, hidden and "rolled up" at the top of the display is the Notification Center, ready to update you on the progress of your day — and then some.

Three tabs lie across the top of the display, although it's not immediately clear how the "all" and "missed" tabs work together. I doubt everyone will use these tabs, as they can receive most notifications on their lock screen. That said, the "today" view of upcoming appointments, date, and weather is bright, clear, bold in size, and laid out well. The entire panel is blurred, giving a sense of dimension as the colors of the icons still appear through the frosted glass.

The written-out information is an interesting touch. The weather is spelled out, word for word, instead of icons signifying outdoor temperature highs and lows. Not everyone will appreciate this, given the extra momentary glance it takes to read the text, though it's an elegant touch and an appreciated subtlety.

Multitasking now offers an "at a glance" view with live tiles

Double-pressing the home button typically "lifts" the home screen to reveal its undercarriage of controls, which previously housed some of the features now seen in the Control Center.

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Switching between apps adds live preview panes of what the app is currently doing, as well as the "traditional" app icons with badge counters, stating how many pending notifications or updates there are.

On a Retina display iPhone, which iOS 7 now only supports, it's clear to see even the minute details of what the app is doing. You can see emails as they arrive, and videos carry on playing as you're working on something else. It's a simple change that many will appreciate. And with the flick-up gestures to close apps, it's effortless to close them one after the other, unlike in earlier versions, which required fingertip precision.

Spotlight haphazardly relocates, packs power

iOS 7 brings its own dedicated device search engine to iPhones and iPads, and now lets Safari handle web searches.

The logic behind relocating the Spotlight search function from the very left-hand pane to between the top row of icons and network indicators is unclear. It still feels a little clunky to get to, squeezed away between the search bar and the on-screen keyboard. But it makes up in what it kicks out.

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The power behind Spotlight's search has increased significantly, and it's now able to load up dozens of different types of results in microseconds. The first thing you might notice is the circled initials of contacts' names, so that when a picture is not available, it will display the first letters of the forename and surname. Surprisingly, it's easier to pick out the contact you require.

Events and birthdays, emails, messages, music and video, applications, and a plethora of other content are listed in an array of instantly appearing subheaded results. The animations are smooth and briefly concatenate before pushing the previous result group out of sight.

Siri 2.0: Grows up, packed with new features

Siri has, for some time, been the runt of the Apple pack. In spite of its beta tag, it was half-finished from the day it was released. Now, with the same old voices but refined vocabulary, along with greater speech recognition support, there is more of a reason to use the "intelligent assistant."

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Siri's beta tag was ripped off like a sticky band-aid: It's refined and polished, and, above all else, it works. No longer is Siri frustrating to use — the intelligence assistant has "grown up" to accommodate a vast array of different features and services, including hardware support.

Its blurred façade and bright white text is easy to read and welcoming. And its responsive on-screen voice analyzer may be a little on the sci-fi side, but it responds and reacts instantly to your voice.

And though I rarely use or used Siri — there was just no need to — it has been fun discovering the new features it supports: Launching apps, setting up events using natural language, checking sports results, finding movie times, and so on. Though you still look a little silly talking to your phone in public, the on-screen data feedback is often in a far better and easier-to-read format than one would find when searching for it on the web.

Apps updated for elegance, style, and practicality

A sign that iOS has grown up is the removal of skeuomorphism, the user interface design elements that make an app look like its real-life counterpart.

No longer do the apps come with green felt and faux leather binding — and not a moment too soon. Instead, a real-world natural effect sometimes edges in, such as with the Weather app, which takes up every pixel of the display and looks stunning.

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Instead, we have bright white spaces and full-screen backgrounds that take advantage of the space, but also instantly inform users of what they need to know. These two apps, for instance, could not look more different from each other.

The array of apps that come with iOS 7 are very minimalistic, with vast, white spaces and lots of text. Some follow a fauvist pattern, with bright colors and larger but infrequent text. There do not appear to be any logical consistencies between the two, or across the board. That said, both designs are visually appealing and work well in contrast.

iOS 7's secret sauce: Choice, customization, and consistency

Some big changes have already wowed the crowds. The newly improved Notification Center, the slide-up Control Center, and the sideways-swiping multitasking view: These features will be enough to make headlines on their own.

And while a number of smaller, inconsequential changes — such as automatic app updating, message blocking, contact photos in favorites, and so on — individually appear iterative and do not fix any significant or major problems or issues, they will be well received nonetheless.

But putting the smaller things together, Apple is giving us a little more of the rope to play with in iOS 7. The biggest silent surprise to many will be how much control over our devices we are now given.

Yes, the software may have had a lick of paint too much to the point where it looks almost burlesque in nature, as though Apple's suffered a mobile mid-life crisis that has it slathering animations and gyroscopically activated wallpapers. But beneath the exterior is the same old mature mobile operating system that becomes wiser with every major software version.

We are given more control and more choice over what our iPhone and iPad do, in spite of the "walled garden" approach to third-party apps that Apple has adopted. Version on version, users are given more to do and more to play with, and greater power over the devices we hold in our hands.

While it's refreshing, the software retains a sense of uniformity that maintains "extreme" levels of customization, à la Android, which ultimately keeps iOS users coming back for more, release after release.

This review was first published August 13, 2013 at 5am ET. 

Topics: Apple, iOS, iPad, iPhone

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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