Shiny new iPhones always get the most attention. But it’s iOS 7, the updated version of Apple (AAPL)’s mobile-device operating system, that will have the biggest impact on users.
The new operating system, now being installed on hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads and iPods, introduces a host of useful new features and functions. To appreciate it, you’ll first have to get used to its revamped look and feel, by far the most significant makeover since the 2007 launch.
Apple users who don’t like change may initially have a tough time with iOS 7 and its core apps. Gone are most of the familiar muted-palette design elements and those meant to mimic real-world objects -- the wooden shelves of the Newsstand app, for instance, and the image of the desk calendar.
In their place are flat, brightly colored icons that, depending on your taste, are either hip and modern-looking or cartoon-like.
I’ve used the new software on the iPhone 5s and 5c, as well on an iPhone 5 and a third-generation iPad. To me, it seems most at home on the new iPhone 5c, with its colored plastic body. On the iPhone 5 and 5s, with their more elegant lines and materials, iOS 7 feels a little like cotton candy at a dinner party.
But it’s potent cotton candy. Behind the new look are a host of changes, mostly for the better, in how iDevices actually work.
Chief among them is the rewritten Camera app. Gone are many of the controls, like the slider to switch between still and video and the Options menu needed for, among other things, putting the phone into panorama mode.
In their place is a straightforward text strip you swipe through to choose modes: still, video, square (that is, Instagram-friendly), panoramic and, on the new iPhone 5s, slow-motion. Depending on the device, you can also apply filters to your shots directly from within the application, and the accompanying Photos app has been redone as well with several new ways to organize your pictures.
Another key new feature, which may take users a while to discover, is FaceTime Audio. As the name implies, it’s Apple’s video-chatting service, minus the video.
While the service only works if both parties are using iOS 7, I found the calls to be of far higher quality than my usual AT&T (T) voice service. Plus, when using it over Wi-Fi I was consuming neither minutes nor bytes from my phone’s cellular plan. It’s certainly a challenge to Microsoft (MSFT)’s Skype and Google’s voice services -- and, potentially, to wireless carriers like Verizon (VZ) and AT&T.
IOS has always made heavy use of tapping, but version 7 introduces several new functions built around the finger swipe.
Swiping down from the very top of the screen, for example, summons a revamped Notification Center with a new Today mode that includes a snapshot of your calendar, weather and traffic.
Move your finger down a bit from the top of the screen and swipe to bring up the Spotlight feature that lets you search the contents of your phone or tablet. And swiping up from the bottom summons the new Control Center to give you quick access to the most-used settings. It’s a good idea that seems to have been borrowed from Google (GOOG)’s Android.
Dragging your finger in from the side in the Safari browser lets you go back and forth among the web pages you’ve visited. And when you double-tap on the home button to see all your running apps, you now close one with a finger-flick.
Not all the changes in iOS 7 are for the better. Forwarding or deleting texts in iMessage is less obvious and more cumbersome. Instead of the “edit” button, you now have to press on a message, keep your finger on it until a menu opens up and select “More” before you can choose the messages you want to manipulate.
I’ve encountered one nagging issue on the iPad, where the screen sometimes abruptly goes black and briefly displays the Apple logo as if it were rebooting -- but then resumes, tossing me onto the lock screen.
Overall, though, iOS 7 represents a significant advance. My guess is users will keep discovering things for weeks if not months. Hey, you can easily block callers! Hey, Siri is no longer labeled “beta” and works noticeably better! Hey, Senator John McCain: Apps can now update automatically! While the new look takes some getting used to, the new features are well worth it.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.