What's right (and wrong) with iOS 7

What's right (and wrong) with iOS 7

Summary: While iOS 7 undoubtedly has potential, in many ways it feels like an iTunes software update. Things have been moved and a whole lotta stuff looks different, but overall it doesn't feel much better.

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TOPICS: Mobility, iOS, iPhone, iPad
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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).
iOS 7 folders
  • 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.
iOS 7 Mail app
  • 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?
iOS 7 keyboards
  • 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"). 
iOS 7 home screen
  • 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).
iOS 7 colors
  • 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.

But...

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.

Topics: Mobility, iOS, iPhone, iPad

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98 comments
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  • A few things

    Apps like Find My Friends aren't baked in, they're a separate download from the App Store, and they are being updated at the moment (I think the Store App and Airport Utility updated yesterday).

    For the most part it seems okay, and in places extremely good. I don't get the Windows Phone comparison many are making - it doesn't remind me of Modern UI at all. There is some lost functionality - the Music app seems to have lost the Show All Albums view when looking at Genres. This means that for genres like Soundtracks, you have to know it was Hans Zimmer who composed the music for that movie for example.

    PhotoStreams have taken 2 steps forward and one step back. The new activity view is a good idea, but looks messy. In iOS 6 if I wanted to share a photo from my cameras roll, an album, or even another PhotoStream I just had to go to the pic, click the share button, and then select PhotoStream from the share sheet that popped up. Now it appears I have to go to the PhotoStream I want to share it to, tap to add photos and then find and add the photo. This is much less convenient than quickly sharing by "take photo, go to camera roll, pick photo, share".

    I think there is too much stuff and white space in notification centre now. The calendar stuff is good, but why are emails showing up as missed? Why at thy under missed and all?

    So a few rough edges, but it feels like a brand new phone, and feels very cools and modern. Which is good!
    Ben_E
    • I think you are misguided.

      I think iOS7 will be fine. It might take until iOS7.1 to fix everything, but it will be fine.

      On another note, Adrian, you need to stop writing these blogs from your iPad. The autocorrect is atrocious and your articles are so full of mistyped errors it is embarrassing. Try using Word and let the grammar and spell checker do their jobs.
      gomigomijunk
      • @gomigomijunk THANK YOU!!!!!

        The poor grammar/spelling was the first thing that caught my eye and I had to stop reading the article. A few gaffs are expected, but this was downright painful. I had to skim the rest of it to overlook the 5th grade content.
        jbjtkbw00
        • Glass houses, stones

          gaffes*
          FenrirMX
          • Rich on tech liked it!

            Our tech on TV, Rich, said he rather liked it.
            Ashtonian
    • IoS, Android and Metro

      Can you really not see the similarities to Metro? My immediate take on installing IOS7 (I use Windows, IOS and Android) was surprise at Apple's bare faced cheek. They've taken a long time to release software which copies Metros design cues and apes Android's feature set, then calls it revolutionary.

      Take a look at Microsoft's OWA for IOS if you want to see what I mean.

      I have had IOS devices back to the original iPhone, including each iPad up to No.3. Truth be told, looking back, there have been no big strides forward, each iteration is a mild improvement on the last, with 2 steps forward and one back.

      I suspect there is truth in the oft heard view that Apple aficionados tend to be insular. They simply assume Apple devices/software are the best, don't try the alternatives and don't realise they've fallen behind (high cost, small screens, heavy device, poor battery life, terrible keyboard, restricted inter-operability between apps, no extended storage).

      It may be that IOS has had some big make-over under the surface and we'll see the benefits in future. Here's hoping.
      CaptainCrane
      • Genuinely I don't see it

        Don't get me wrong, I run Windows 8 and see the Metro interface every single day. I can see maybe one or two similarities in use of fonts, and potentially some of the details of the OS with the backwards arrows etc. but for the most part to me Windows phone 8 and iOS look totally different. There is somewhat more in common with recent versions of Android, but I always thought the Android interface is very cluttered compared to iOS - even more so now in this new version!
        Ben_E
        • Wouldn't disagree

          Yep, I switched to Android from IOS (because I wanted good battery life, swappable batteries, extendable storage, a bigger screen, lighter phone, a useful keyboard, not because of IOS) but IOS always had a more coherent 'look and feel' than Android. I suggested people swap for hardware reasons, not because of the OS.

          I'm looking at my iPad. I've changed the wallpaper to a light blue to try and make the folders and task bar less ugly (they were a dull grey on my preferred black wallpaper) but it still looks worse than it did in IOS6. There is no longer that subtle aesthetic advantage to IOS.
          CaptainCrane
      • Translation: People who disagree with

        me are idiots.
        baggins_z
        • Not at all...

          it was a genuine question, it seems so obvious to me.
          CaptainCrane
      • There aren't that many UI similarities

        despite all the hype and hoopla.

        As I've written elsewhere, Metro is all about colourful monochromes and typography. iOS7 is all about vector-looking icons, gradients, and pastel colours.

        Microsoft's approach to skeuomorphism is to get rid of it. Apple's, this time around, was to stylize it. Newsreader still has a bookshelf with magazine, but they are iconic and cartoon like.

        One can argue about which is better, and that is a legitimate debate. But I know of no evidence that iOS7 just copies it.
        Mac_PC_FenceSitter
        • Yet OWA no longer looks out of place

          as it did before the change to IOS 7
          CaptainCrane
      • Airdrop?

        Is that just like AirDroid? Haven't there already been lots of apps like that for iOs?
        stano360
  • Different experience

    I checked my contacts, calendar and clock and they're white and black like everything else so check some off your settings especially the accessibility ones. As far as people concerned with data usage, automatic app updating only happens over Wifi by default. You have to go into the settings and enable updating over cellular.

    What's been looked over is the new enhancements to the parental controls which now included a built-in web filter that allows total control over what websites you allow your kids to visit. Needless to say that after learning of that, it went on the kid's iPad real quick.
    jmiller1978
    • Read again...

      He specifically said white on black versus black on white. In other words, some apps have white text on a black background, while others have black text on a white background. I agree with him that this is annoyingly inconsistent. If they're going to try to sell us based on the fact that they redesigned the entire interface, they should at least make it all match.

      For me, this OS update isn't particularly exciting. It's just different. Then again, I had no problem with the old interface. I'm really looking for bigger hardware changes more than anything, at this point. I'm still using a 4S and I'm having trouble justifying the expense of upgrading to a 5S just to get a slightly improved back side camera and slightly bigger screen. I don't know if I can wait another year to see if they make some big hardware changes on the 6. A few years ago, we'd get a camera upgrade that was better than anything else out there. With this minor upgrade, they didn't even catch up with Nokia.

      There are so many things they could have done which would have showed us they were actually thinking about the way phones are used now. For example, the front facing camera on virtually every phone out there stinks. Why didn't Apple upgrade that? Why didn't the iPhone get the same storage bump that the iPad got? They always seem to be holding back. It's as if they've run out of ideas and they're trying to spread the few ideas they have out over a longer period of time.
      BillDem
      • RE: inconsistencies

        I meant black on white but there's no edit feature. I don't have the inconsistencies he's referring to.
        jmiller1978
      • RE: features

        Apple did upgrade the front-facing camera starting with the iPhone5 and it was a huge improvement over the POS camera the 4/4S had. Do you really need 128GB of storage on a phone especially with iTunes Match, iTunes Radio, Pandora, etc, etc? What in the world are you lugging around that warrants that kind of space on a phone besides more memory = less battery. What's more important to you?
        jmiller1978
        • I agree with Bill

          More memory would be nice move to a 32, 64, 128 model would keep the phone more competitive. People are storing more video clips and music these day and the extra storage is needed. We are dealing with this issue right now at my house. For me the 16GB is fine for work but the wife takes video of the kids and needs more space but $300 for 32GB is high these days.
          KBabcock75
          • RE: agreeing with Bill

            I do agree about the 16GB variant being increasingly useless as that's the one I have and regret not getting the 32GB one because games like Infinity Blade II/III take upwards of 1GB of storage each. I do notice that if you're an iTunes Match user that music you downloaded to the phone but haven't listened to in 2-3 weeks gets removed from the device automatically as a space saver.

            I still think 128GB is overkill and cramming that storage into the phone would prove a challenge engineering-wise without making the phone slightly bigger but make the 32GB model the base model at $199 and the $299 model the 64GB one.
            jmiller1978
      • A Waiting game

        Bingo !!!!

        Their Innovation left the building with Steve .. and that is Sad ..
        and now I wait for Android's next s/w version and make a choice ..
        kooltech