iOS 7: My Favorite Things

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 10.26.19 PM

After seven (mostly) bi-weekly beta releases to developers, iOS 7 is now available for public consumption as of today. You can go to Apple.com to read about the new look and feel and get an overview of the features. I’ve been using iOS 7 since Beta 1 was released in June and I’ve watched it steadily change and improve. Over time I have become fond of several features that I think you should know about. Here they are in no particular order.

  1. iTunes Radio -I’ve used Pandora and other streaming music services before and I thought they were OK but none of them had the level of integration that I wanted. iTunes Radio does. It’s built into the OS, it’s easy to use, and it makes it easy to save the content that I like. The lock screen view is fully functional (play/pause/next,volume, song progress) and allows me to easily add the song to my wish list for later purchase, ban it, or hear songs like it more often. I can easily see a full history of the music I’ve listened to inside the app and it even connects to my car and displays song info just like any of my other music would. I’ve listened to a few stations and been pleased with the mixture of music. I do hear some songs several times but every day I hear new ones as well. I will definitely be listening to it during work and can’t wait to have it in iTunes on my Mac. iTunes Radio is ad-supported and you occasionally hear an ad or two – maybe a few an hour, both audio and video. The initial content was minimal but has started to become more varied the closer it came to the public release.
  2. Dynamic Wallpaper – This has got to be the one thing that I’ve wanted from Android forever. On Android it is called Live Wallpaper but it works the same – it’s an animated background that can react to tilts and taps. In iOS 7 it only reacts to the movement of the phone but on Android you can actually interact with it. It is totally a gimmick but I’ve always loved the idea of animated wallpaper and now I can finally have it! There is only one style available at the moment (blurry circles that move around) in several different colors. I haven’t seen any way for developers to add new ones but hopefully Apple will add additional options in future releases.
  3. App Switching – With the introduction of limited multitasking in iOS 4 Apple added a relatively easy way to switch between “open” apps. Double pressing the home button brings up a row of icons that show what is running. Tapping on an icon switches to that app. If you want to close something you must tap and hold an icon until they jiggle and then hit the X. This interface works fine but it has a couple of issues. First, it doesn’t show the app state in any way, just the icon. Second, quitting an application isn’t straightforward and takes a bit of time. With iOS 7 Apple reimagined app switching to add live previews of the app’s screen and a slide gesture for quitting – simply slide the app up and it will disappear. This makes it much easier for me not only to see my apps but also to explain how to quit them to someone when one gets stuck. This functionality was one of my favorites on WebOS.
  4. Background App Store Updates – It has taken far too long for these to come to iOS. I love them. App updates are automatically downloaded and installed at regular intervals. When you go into the updates tab of the App Store it shows you a list of  the apps that have been updated as well as the ones that are pending an update. You will still see a count on the App Store icon, but it will usually stay low as updates are installed frequently. Generally the pending apps will be updated by the next day and a notification will be added to the Notification Center. Since installing iOS 7 in June I’ve only updated manually once or twice to pick up an update that I needed immediately. This feature has been available on Android since the beginning and I am so happy that it finally has made it to iOS.
  5. Background Apps – This is something that I hoped for in iOS 5 and iOS 6. Three years later finally get with iOS 7. The limited multitasking that Apple added with iOS 4 only allowed certain operations to happen in the background – audio streaming, VOIP, GPS. There was no way to arbitrarily wake an app for a few seconds so that it could download something off the web or update its state. That meant that every time I opened Facebook, my RSS reader, or eBay I had to wait for it to update. With iOS 7 Apple has finally added a way for apps to request background updates so they are ready when you open them again. iOS even analyzes your app usage so that it can schedule the updates around the times that you usually use the apps. In addition it only allows updates to occur when there is a strong network connection and groups background updates for multiple apps together so that it doesn’t eat your battery alive. Updates  still won’t be instant but they will be much closer to real-time than they are now.  Since it requires developers to modify their apps to take advantage of it, I haven’t had a chance to see it in action yet. I’m expecting a flurry of app updates to come in soon so I can take advantage of it.
  6. Control Center – I can sum up my love for Control Center in one word: brightness. I don’t know how many times I’ve wanted to change the brightness of my iPhone and had to unlock it (or exit my current app), go to settings, and scroll to brightness to access it. Annoying. The iPad has had a brightness control to the left of the app switcher for years and I never understood why it wasn’t available on iOS. Now the control center makes it available in any app, even from the lock screen. It has other stuff in there too like the music controls, a flashlight (far more useful that I originally thought), a wireless toggle and a couple more. It will also make testing at work more easily as we tend to toggle wireless a lot. Again, Android has had this forever; I’m glad it has made its way to iOS.
  7. Today View – The new tabbed design of Notification Center includes something called “Today View” which shows you the weather, a preview of your calendar, and your stock information. It is accessible from anywhere on your phone, including the lock screen. It is a nice and simple display of pertinent information that is long overdue. It reminds me of features from the Palm Pilot I had when I was in college.
  8. Back  / Forward Gestures – Mac OS 10.7 Lion introduced a two finger swipe gesture in Safari that allowed you to go back to the previous or next page in your browser history. This has become a natural action for me while web surfing and Apple brings it to iDevices with iOS 7. In addition to working in Safari it actually works in list-detail views as well – just swipe right and go back to where you came from.
  9. Improved Smart Playlists – Smart playlists are playlists whose contents are created using queries of your iTunes library. They have been part of iTunes since the early days and they are extremely useful. For instance, I have a smart playlist that automatically includes all songs that were added within the last month. As soon as the song’s Date Added attribute is longer than four weeks the song is automatically removed. These playlists are synced to the iPhone just like any other playlist but they only update when you sync again. If I bought music on my phone or iPad my new music playlist wouldn’t contain them until I synced up with my Mac again (assuming the songs had downloaded to it as well). The only way to get to my newly purchased music on my phone was to go to the Purchased playlist (a special one that actually gets updated), scroll through all of the music I had ever bought on the phone, and find my songs. With iOS 7 that has changed and smart playlists finally update when you buy new music from the iTunes Store. Thank you Apple.
  10. Improved Lock Screen Music Controls – As far back as iOS 3 you could press the home button twice while on the lock screen to see information about the currently playing song. You’d see the album art and play/pause/next/previous buttons but you couldn’t see how far along you were in the song unless you were on an iPad (and you were running a later iteration of iOS 6). With iOS 7 Apple adds a song length indicator that not only tells you were you are in the song but also allows you to scrub through it. A minor addition, but a useful one. Oh, and you only have to press the home button once when you want to see the lock screen controls.

In my last posting about iOS 7 Beta 5 I noted some of the things that were missing, namely using existing playlists to add music to new playlists and accessing list view in the calendar. Playlist access is still missing but I’m happy to report that list view has been there all along, it’s just been hiding under search. If you tap the search icon on any screen it will bring up the search box on top of the list view. Thank GOD! It’s in an odd place but it’s still there. Phew. I’m hoping my playlist additions come back in a later update…

The biggest change in iOS 7 is of course the look and feel. From a foundational standpoint it’s still the same as it always was: there is a home screen, a home button, lots of list views, and navigation at the top of the screen to move you around (no stupid back button). All of your old apps will work just fine (mostly) and will actually still look like they did in iOS 6 (keyboard, icons, navigation bar and all). It’s true that things are “flatter” visually but the fundamentals are the same. I’m still not a huge fan of the icons, I still prefer borders around my buttons, and I still don’t think that drop shadows and textures are evil, but I don’t mind the design of iOS 7. The transparency, blur, and layering of it makes it less child-like than Windows Phone and more refined than Android. Functionally the UI had nothing wrong with it, but visually and behaviorally it was starting to seem outdated in comparison to other platforms. iOS 7 has a fresh face that Apple can build on in the coming years. It takes a little bit of time to get used to but it’s nice. I’m sure those of us who do not handle change very well will be grumpy for a bit but we’ll all be fine by this time next year (iOS 8!).

Now that iOS 7 has finally been released to the public I can eagerly wait for app updates to come out (and automatically install!) so that I can take advantage of background tasking and new visual designs in my favorite apps. It will take months for all of the apps that I use to be updated but I’m sure the major ones will update quickly (Facebook, eBay). Due to the huge amount of change undertaken in this release I expect several updates from Apple coming out relatively soon after 7.0. There is already evidence that Apple has been working on 7.0.1, 7.0.2, and 7.1 updates since August. I expect 7.0.1 and 7.0.2 to arrive within a month of 7.0 and 7.1 to arrive no more than 3 months after, including some visual tweaks and new features. Apple has a new canvas and I expect them to paint on it continuously this year.

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