IT IS TIME TO UNLOCK YOUR EXPERIENCE OF THE iPHONE
Apple spells out the significance of its new iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 updates right in the release notes. iOS 14 “updates the core experience of iPhone” thanks to redesigned widgets that can be placed anywhere on your home screen and a new App Library feature for managing app overload and organisation. iPadOS 14 is a bit less grand in scope, with Apple saying that it “introduces new Apple Pencil features and redesigned apps that take advantage of iPad’s large multi-touch display.” One marks the biggest shift for the iPhone in years, and the other continues to augment the creativity and productivity power of Apple’s tablets.
For both platforms, the new software includes a long list of improvements to Messages, Maps, the Music app, Siri, and more. And Apple continues its quest to put privacy at the centre of everything, with new privacy protections for your personal data and indicators that reveal just when apps are accessing your device’s camera, microphone, or even the clipboard.
But first let me touch on something that’s equally important to new features: performance and reliability. Apple shipped iOS 13 in tatters last year, quickly releasing iOS 13.1 (with bug fixes aplenty) just five days later, and I’d say things didn’t feel truly stable and dependable until a couple more updates after that. Despite what feels like a sudden rollout, iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 seem to be in a much better place out of the gate. I’m still encountering the odd bug on occasion — widgets not refreshing when they should, minor visual glitches, and so on — but I haven’t come across any showstoppers. In day-to-day use, it’s all solid.
WIDGETS AND APP LIBRARY
Android users: it’s time to let your iPhone friends have their moment. Apple previously dipped its toes in the widget waters by letting you add them to the left-most “Today” panel, but with iOS 14, the company is going all-in. You can now put widgets wherever you want across all of your home screens. You can pick between small, medium, and large sizes, and each app can have several different categories of widgets. (For example, NBC News has dedicated widgets for top headlines and the latest COVID-19 stats.) Apple’s menu for picking a widget is elegant, but it’s not always obvious how to actually add widgets to the home screen. You also can’t readjust the size of widgets after placing them; if you decide a larger or smaller version would fit better, you’ve got to go through the process of adding it again. I hope Apple fixes this soon because it’s rather confusing that the “edit widget” option doesn’t include resizing.
I’m a big fan of widget stacks, which let you pile multiple widgets on top of each other so you can quickly swipe between them. If you don’t want widgets strewn across your home screen, this lets you find one perfect spot for a bunch of them. You can go one step further and make “smart” stacks that automatically rotate the visible widget based on the time of day, your location, and your typical usage patterns.
iMessage remains the iPhone’s top app, and this year Apple is trying to flesh out a richer chat experience with inline replies, mentions, and the option to pin conversations with anyone you want (including groups) at the top of Messages. But I think the company overthought some of the user experience elements.
For example, pinned conversations take up a ton of space in the messages list since those people show up as enlarged avatars at the top of the screen. Seeing text bubbles appear there whenever a new message comes through still feels a little foreign, and unless you just received a message, all you usually see is just that person’s avatar — so you lose context for where those conversations left off unless you tap into them. This isn’t an issue with the regular messages list.
I’m sure some people will prefer the clear visual separation, but I wish Apple had offered a choice between the supersized avatars and keeping the old view with pinned conversations just… pinned at the top of the heap, as expected. Mentions and inline replies work well, and I appreciate that you can now fine-tune notifications for busy group chats so that you’ll only get them when mentioned.
COMPACT NOTIFICATIONS AND PICTURE-IN-PICTURE
Yes, it really took until iOS 14 for Apple to stop incoming phone calls or FaceTimes from covering up the entirety of your screen. But finally (it’s appropriate here) you’ll no longer be abruptly pulled out of whatever you were doing — whether it was scrolling Instagram or playing a game — when you receive a call.
You can answer or reject a call right from the compact notification. Swiping down on it will bring you into the regular, full-screen call interface, where you can access the number pad and other settings. Swiping up will dismiss the call. There’s a small learning curve to the swipes, but these new compact notifications are less disruptive and a huge improvement over the old way. Siri also shares this compact view, and developers can add it to their apps (like Skype, WhatsApp, etc.) so you won’t have to worry about those aggravating screen takeovers anymore. The more compact design of call notifications thankfully extends to iPadOS 14.
iOS 14 also picks up picture-in-picture mode, which was already available on iPad. If you’re watching a video in Safari or an app that supports the feature, you can multitask and use other apps while the video continues playing in a corner of the screen. You can resize the PIP window and move it to whichever corner works best. If all you care about is hearing the audio, just swipe the video off the left or right side of the screen and you’ll still get the sound. Picture-in-picture is useful for entertainment, but it can also be used for FaceTime. Now you can shrink the video call and still see who you’re talking to if you need to check an email or text message. It’s a genuinely useful feature to have on iPhones with big displays.
It’s been a long time coming, but iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 let you choose your own default apps for email and web browsing. Developers need to update their apps to be eligible, but several of the big hitters (including Chrome, Gmail, Microsoft Edge, Outlook, and others) have already done so.
Once you’ve switched the setting, your preferred app will load instead of Mail or Safari whenever you click on an email link or URL. It works as promised, but after feeling the freedom of switching these defaults, I’m hoping Apple gets more open next year and lets us pick new favourites for messaging, music, and more. Currently, there’s a bug where your defaults will switch back to Apple’s apps if you reboot your device, but I assume that’ll be fixed soon.
The Music app in iOS and iPadOS 14 gets a new default tab, Listen Now, that has personalised sections like “Top Picks” and “Made For You” and the usual recommendations based on your listening history. Music also has a much better layout on iPad now, with a sidebar for quick navigation and full-screen lyrics (for Apple Music tracks). Search for Apple Music subscribers is more convenient, as there’s a new top row for quickly getting to albums, playlists, and other filtered results.
My favourite thing about the Music app is actually the refreshed now playing screen, which has a background of shifting colours that match the album art of whatever you’re listening to. In early iOS 14 betas, Apple really ran wild with vibrant colours. The effect was super eye-catching and made albums feel more alive. But the final version leans more into subdued tones, which might have been done to improve accessibility.
Many of us aren’t currently traveling very often, so that has a way of making new Maps features feel less valuable than in years past. But Apple is still paying the app a fair bit of attention with iOS and iPadOS 14: Maps has added cycling directions and will now guide riders along bike lanes and bike paths. It’ll also show you a ride’s elevation, whether the streets on your route will be busy, and you’ll get a heads-up if there are steep inclines or stairs along the way. At the outset, cycling directions are available in New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and several cities in China, but Apple has promised that many more areas will be added over the next few months. Look, I can’t ride a bike, so I can’t speak to whether Apple’s suggested routes are sensible or overly convoluted. But the company is starting small with cycling in part to get it right.
Maps also now features electric vehicle routing, so your trip will include charger station stops. In a bid to keep pace with Google Maps, Apple has also added curated recommendation guides for things to do and places to eat in popular cities — once we eventually get back to doing that. And as of iOS 14, you’ll start seeing alerts for speed cameras and red light cameras. Another nice touch is that you can now quickly use your iPhone’s camera to help improve your location and orientation in Maps just by pointing it at nearby buildings. This is useful in urban cities where tall buildings can mess with GPS reception, making it harder for the app to tell which direction you’re facing or exactly what intersection you’re near.
App Clips make it possible to use certain functionality of an app without downloading the entire thing. If developers adopt this new iOS 14 feature, you’ll be able to do stuff like pay for street parking, order food for takeout, rent a scooter or e-bike — all by using just the necessary sliver of the full-size app you’d normally need for that purpose. App Clips can be shared through messages, incorporated into QR codes, or launched from the web, and they’ll temporarily stay in your App Library in case you need them again or decide to install the entire app. They also support the “Sign In with Apple” feature that lets you hide your actual email address and other personal info.
IPADOS 14: SCRIBBLE AND SIDEBARS
Last year, Apple sent the iPad on its own course by renaming its software to iPadOS and adding new features designed for the tablet form factor. For iPadOS 14, instead of rethinking the home screen as it’s done on iPhone, Apple wanted to make the Apple Pencil more useful than ever before.
It starts with a new feature that Apple calls Scribble. It allows you to write into any text field on your iPad with the Pencil, and that writing is automatically converted into typed text. You can also select your scrawled handwriting in an app like Notes and copy it as plain text for easy pasting elsewhere.
All of this works extremely well, and more often than not my handwriting carried over into plain text without any glaring mistakes. Apple’s handwriting recognition isn’t infallible, though. If you’re in a hurry and write messy, you’ll probably need to fix some things. Scribble comes with its own new gestures for manipulating text with the Pencil, like scratching out a word or sentence to erase it or circling a phrase to highlight it. You’ll get those ones down in no time, but other gestures — like pressing and holding the Pencil tip down to create more space for handwriting or drawing a vertical line to separate or connect words — are easier to forget.
iPadOS 14 also adds sidebars to a number of apps including Music, Photos, Files, and Shortcuts, which in turn makes using all of them more efficient and productive. The sidebars might seem like a minor thing, but they give the iPad more of a Mac-like feel.
Search has been redesigned in iPadOS 14 with a new compact interface that better ranks the most relevant results, makes it faster to search the web, and allows for in-app search for apps like Mail, Messages, and Files. Launching apps from search is quicker, too, which is something that I increasingly find myself doing since there’s no App Library yet.
One area of iPadOS that remains unchanged is multitasking, which still feels more complicated and less cohesive than it should. Apple needs to refine how multitasking elements like split-screen and Slideover come together. The company decided to punt on shaking anything up this year, but I hope evolving the iPad’s multitasking is in the cards for next fall. Same goes for proper multi-user support (especially in this period of remote work and learning), which is still nowhere to be found.
For years now, Apple has worked to bolster the security and privacy of iOS and give customers greater control over how much apps can glean from their iPhone. iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 put an even greater focus on transparency, with new colour indicators that appear in the upper right corner when apps are actively accessing your camera (green dot) or microphone (yellow dot).
After updating, you’ll quickly notice a new permission request when an app “would like to find and connect to local devices on your network”; this is required for smart home apps to communicate with gadgets around your house and for apps to cast to your TV, for example. You’ll even see a small banner at the top of the screen whenever you paste something into a text field, telling you where the copied text originated.
I think the microphone and camera indicators are terrific additions and should always be there, but I wish Apple would let you configure or toggle off these other prompts — at least the clipboard ones, which have struck me as a little overboard in my time using iOS 14.
Another neat new privacy trick is the option to grant apps access to your approximate location instead of the usual pinpoint accuracy. Obviously, you’ll want to keep the regular permission in place for an app like Waze or Uber, but does Tinder or your favorite weather app really need to know your exact location? Probably not. I’m already limiting a lot of apps to this new approximate setting, and it feels good.
Lastly, you now have control over what photos in your library an app can see. When an app like VSCO asks for access, you can pick specific images you plan to edit or grant access to your whole camera roll. I’m still generally giving most photo apps full access, but it’s a nice tool to have if you want to get more granular than the all-or-nothing choice Apple offered before. If you accidentally choose an individual album and instead want to give an app full privileges, you’ll have to go to settings and find that app to change its photo access.
Later this year, app developers will have to start creating “report cards” that clearly lay out what kind of data their apps collect. And Apple plans to continue making it harder for advertisers to secretly track you across apps, though it’s giving the ad industry a few extra months to adjust to the coming changes. For now, you can still see all the ad trackers that Safari has blocked on any website.
iOS 14 marks the biggest change to the iPhone’s software in years. At least, it does if you want it to. Taking advantage of widgets (once more become available) and App Library can legitimately improve the day-to-day experience of using your iPhone, opening up new ways of keeping things fresh and personalized to whatever suits you. If you ignore those new features completely, it’s still worth updating to iOS 14 for the less annoying call notifications, the richer Messages app, and other additions like picture-in-picture.
iPadOS 14 doesn’t radically shake up the user experience in the same way, but it continues building on the strengths of Apple’s tablet lineup. Scribble turns the Apple Pencil into more than just a tool for drawing or retouching photos, and apps now put the iPad’s bigger screen real estate to better use with sidebars and pull-down menus. The end result is an iPad that feels more productive than ever, even if it still comes with the same little issues that can limit its appeal as a laptop replacement for some people.
There’s more that I didn’t touch on much here, including Apple’s brand-new Translate app for iPhone — a solid first effort that will likely cut into Google Translate downloads. The Home app has seen a handful of improvements, like suggested automations when you add a new device to your smart home and adaptive lighting for smart bulbs. AirPods Pro have picked up a trippy spatial audio feature that tries to replicate surround sound. And Apple has continued to make strides in accessibility: there’s now a headphone accommodations setting that can tune audio output to your hearing, and iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 can add VoiceOver support even for apps that don’t have it baked in.
Unlike iOS 13, which shipped in a buggy state, these latest updates are mostly stable and dependable for everyday use. The release came sooner than expected — without a new iPhone to showcase these new features on — but perhaps that’s for the best. More than most updates before it, iOS 14 shows how Apple’s software can breathe new life into the hardware you already own.