Apple's mobile operating system iOS 7 is out and waiting to be downloaded and installed onto hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads and iPod touch devices. But is it any good?
A few points I want to make right before we start on this journey of exploration.
First, this is a first impressions piece. The final software has been available for download for only a few hours (and it takes days, if not weeks, to get a full picture of an operating system), far too short a time for a full review. And since I wanted the full end user experience, I didn't make use iOS downloads aimed at developers that was available ahead of the official release because this isn't how everyone else gets iOS 7.
Secondly, I've been using iOS for long time. I owned an iPod touch (1st generation) and since then have owned several iPhones and iPads, so I have a long history with the platform.
Finally, I'm testing iOS 7 on flagship hardware — the iPhone 5 and iPad 4 — and have yet to try it on older hardware.
What's right with iOS 7?
- It works: No small achievement for a modern operating system.
- Robust: I've thrown at lot at both the iPhone and iPad, and both seem rock solid under pressure.
- Folders now hold more icons: Now I don't need to have multiple folders called "Games," but there is a catch (see below).
- Easier to close running apps: The new behavior feels more like how Android works, which feels nicer and is a lot easier to carry out.
- Edge-to-edge design: iOS 7 makes great use of the available screen real estate, and makes Android seem utterly wasteful.
- Auto app updating: A real timesaver — even if there are some drawbacks (more on that shortly).
- Improved Mail app: The new gesture controls are nice and give users more control over the scourge that is email.
- Better security: iDevices are now more securely bound to Apple IDs, and wiping a device doesn't nuke its link to an Apple ID. This means that hardware should be less attractive to thieves.
- Maps are better: Quite a lot better, as a matter of fact.
- AirDrop for iOS is a killer feature: But there's a catch (see below).
- Lots of little refinements: Such as being able to see timestamps in Message (swipe to the left), send and receive files using AirDrop, smoother Mail app, better Photos app, and being able to block people from getting in touch.
Now we've taken a brief look at some of iOS 7's highlights, let's now take a look at what's wrong with Apple's mobile platform. And I'll warn you from the start, there's a lot of ground to cover.
What's wrong with iOS 7?
- Cryptic error messages at installation: When iOS works, it's great. But when it doesn't, the user is presented with cryptic, ambiguous error messages such as "Software Update Failed," which are way up there with the worst of what Microsoft could throw at users when something goes wrong.
- Lag: I'm running iOS 7 on an iPhone 5 and an iPad 4 and still I'm feeling the operating system to be laggy and slow to respond to taps and swipes. Right now, I'm not sure if this is a built-in stylistic lag or whether the hardware is struggling to drive the interface. Either way, this is not a pleasant experience and requires optimization.
- Poor response to touch: Finding myself having to tap and then retap often. More of a problem on the iPad.
- Inconsistent keyboard: Some apps feature the new keyboard, some the old keyboard. Why, all of a sudden, do we have fragmentation at the keyboard level?
- Mystery meat interface: The flat user interface look fresh ("flat" is the new "three-dimensional"), but at times it left me scratching my head trying to figure out what I'm supposed to click on.
- Gestures battle royale: With iOS 7, Apple has added a whole bunch of features to the swipe up gesture, using it to bring up the new Control Center. The problem is not all apps are ready for this, and it can cause confusion in apps such as games. The only solution to such conflicts at present is to disable the feature.
- Siri's new voices: The new voices sound like Siri has a kazoo rammed down its throat.
- Home screen parallax is gimmicky at best: At best it is a cheap gimmick, and at worst it's something that will give me motion sickness. The parallax effect also can push icon badges over the top of the status bar at the top of the screen, which looks ugly and unpolished. Fortunately, if you don't like this effect you can turn it off in the settings ("Reduce Motion" under "Accessibility").
- Garish color schemes: iOS 7 seems to pick a color scheme for the operating system based on colors found in the background wallpaper, and while some of the choices are OK, some throw up a primordial soup of greens and browns that are neither aesthetic nor easy on the eye. It's time for Apple to allow users to custom pick colors.
- Too much contrast and inconsistencies: The Reminders app has a white on black user interface, as does the FaceTime app, while Contacts, Calendar, and Clock is black on white. The Find My Friends app still has that leather skeuomorphic look. Is there some paradigm that Apple is going for here? If that's the case, it's too subtle for me.
- Background updating and refreshing eats battery life: iOS 7 has the ability to both refresh app data and update apps automatically in the background, but my limited testing suggests this is very heavy on the battery. Turning this off helps (under "Background App Refresh and Settings" in "iTunes and App Store" settings).
- Background updating and refreshing could be hard on data plans: With iOS doing more in the background, users could find themselves putting a lot more pressure on their data plans, which could make iOS 7 expensive.
- Folder views only show nine icons: While the number of icons that a folder can hold has been increased, only nine icons are shown at any one time. This is a poor use of screen real estate and forces users to swipe unnecessarily.
- Notifications panel is too big: It's too big and doesn't present enough at-a-glance data.
- Poor color choices: Take the new Notes app as an example. Here we have yellow text against a white background. Not the clearest user interface. You can improve on this by increasing contrast (under the "Accessibility" setting).
- Lock screen behavior has changed for the worse: When an older iOS 6 device was locked, a double-click of the home button would bring up the media controls when songs or audiobooks were playing. This feature has been replaced with a swipe, which feels trickier to do when on the treadmill for example.
- AirDrop support too fragmented: Great feature but only works with the iPhone 5 and newer, the iPad (fourth-generation and later) and iPad Mini, and the iPod touch (fifth generation and later).
- Settings app is too unwieldy: Microsoft had to add a search mechanism to Control Panel, and I think Apple needs to follow suit.
- Tons of small bugs: Individually, nothing more than pin pricks, but cumulative it's death by a thousand pin pricks. These will be picked off over the coming weeks and months.
The bottom line
Time for a few conclusions. Right now, I'll admit to having mixed feelings about iOS 7. While I can't say that it is any worse than iOS 6, it's hard to conclusively say that it much better either. It's a case of ten steps forward in some areas, five steps back in others, and a few steps sideways in others.
Some aspects of iOS have certainly been improved. Core apps such as Messages, Photos, and Mail have been dramatically improved, and new features like AirDrop have the potential to be game changers. But most of these features could have been added to iOS 6.
A balance has been struck between revolutionary new features and evolutionary improvements.
While I think that iOS 7 has potential, I have to admit that I'm also worried. In many ways it feels like an iTunes software update, in that things have been moved and a whole bunch of things look different. Overall it doesn't feel much better. In fact, it feels confused and unfinished. The complexity of the "Settings" app alone also makes it quite evident that Apple hasn't yet come up with a good way organizing everything.
The state of iOS 7 at release, with its glaring user interface inconsistencies and strange development decisions, also casts doubt on whether lead Apple designer Jony Ive is any better at steering the look and feel of iOS than Scott Forstall was before he was pushed out of the company. It's also clear why we've had to wait over seven years for some basic features to be present of the iPhone — the problems related to consistency and complexity still haven't been figured out.
While new features are welcomed, packaging them into a new user interface feels like change for the sake of change, and makes the user learning curve far steeper than it need be.
Developing a fully-featured mobile operating system that works on limited screen space isn't easy.
iOS 7 might be out, but Apple has a lot of work left to do.
Edited on September 19 at 12 midday ET: With corrections and additions.