iOS 8 review: worth the wait and the bugs
Each year, Apple brags about the hundreds of new features and changes made to its operating system.
The fact of the matter is, most of those changes will go completely unnoticed. It’s like an iceberg – we only see a small fraction of the changes; the rest are buried deep within the OS or simply don’t pertain to us, like new support for languages we’ll never learn.
The last two years have been different, however. Last year, iOS 7 brought a much-needed, long overdue facelift to the UI that had gone practically unchanged (minus things like the addition of wallpapers and folders) since 2007. Apple flattened the bubbly UI elements, established an interface hierarchy, and instilled a new translucent interface that’s sort of reminiscent of looking through a foggy shower door. Oh, and it also introduced an entirely new color palette, consisting of neons and pastels.
The visual changes this year were definitely more subtle, and Apple treated third-party developers to an unprecedented level of integration – at least on iOS. It’s telling of a more open, more lax Apple … or is it?
This year’s update is as feature-packed as ever, and it brings many features users have been begging for since at least 2010. Is it just what iOS needed? Does it breathe new life into a platform that, outside its thriving ecosystem, had begun to grow stale? Find out in our iOS 8 review.
iOS 8 Review Video
A Rocky Start
This was, by no means, Apple’s smoothest software rollout.
iOS 8 was officially released on September 17, two days prior to the iPhone 6 release. Despite the usual calamity over how the software stuttered and all but killed the performance on three-year-old hardware, all was fine.
One week later, things took a dramatic turn. Following the massive #bendgate drama, Apple released a minor bug fix update, iOS 8.0.1, on September 24. It’s not unusual for an update meant to squash some bugs to come so soon, but it is unusual for a bug fix to render a number of phones completely useless. The update killed cellular connectivity for an undisclosed number of users and disabled TouchID for those on compatible hardware.
The 8.0.2 update has since fixed that issue, but an iCloud Drive bug has also surfaced. If you reset settings on an iCloud Drive-endabled device, all documents in iCloud Drive will be deleted, also deleting said files on any other synced devices.
Apple also had to make some compromises this year. Since the release of the iPad, iOS and Mac OS have started to borrow features and grow more dependent upon one another. That’s more true than ever now, since one of the major features announced at WWDC, Continuity, isn’t even rolling out with iOS. Nor is iCloud Drive. We’ll get to what these features are all about later in this review, but both features are only half working until the Yosemite update for Mac is released.
Needless to say, it’s been a rather rough start for Apple this time around.
Keeping Up Appearances
Superficially, you wouldn’t think iOS 8 is all that different from iOS 7. That’s because in a visual sense, it isn’t. iOS 7 was the major UI update that was arguably years overdue.
The noticeable aesthetic changes are just a few things scattered throughout the OS. Control Center, for instance, looks cleaner. Notification Center has been simplified too, now including just two columns of information: one for missed notifications and one for Today Widgets. Also, you can now swipe notifications to the left to remove them one by one. Previously, you could only clear all notifications from a specific app at once.
The only other noticeable UI change is recent and favorite contacts, which now appear above app previews in the task switcher menu. Tapping on one of the chat head-style icons will reveal all the contact methods for that specific contact.
If you’re on newer, larger hardware, you will notice optimizations, like an extra row of icons on each home screen or that the UI can now rotate 360 degrees – meaning, yes, you can flip your phone upside down and use it. Settings, Messages, Mail, Safari, Contacts, as well as other optimized applications will also show a more tablet-like interface. Most show split-pane views in landscape, but Safari shows tab previews and moves all the navigation buttons to the top, on either side of the address bar.
In landscape, the stock keyboard also displays a few additional dedicated buttons, like copy, paste, punctuation, and other formatting buttons. If you type in landscape often, this new keyboard will prove very useful.
The optimizations for larger screens are fine, but we’d rather see a more novel approach to displaying more information on the screen, not unlike scaling the display for a Retina MacBook Pro. There is, however, a Display Zoom mode, which simply makes everything … bigger. We’d like to see the opposite, as well.
True multitasking is one of the few things that comes to mind when dealing with larger smartphones – Samsung’s Multi Window feature is a perfect example of how running two apps side by side can be useful.
Items like Apple’s new Reachability feature, which slides the whole UI down a half-screen upon double-tapping the home key, shows how Apple is hanging on to its one-handed usability ideals with new hardware that essentially requires two-handed use.
In other words, we’re happy with the larger display because it suits our needs and use cases, not because the accompanying software brings any notable value to the extra display space.
Old Apps on New Hardware
The other side of the bigger hardware equation is third-party developers and what they have – or haven’t – done to accommodate the size and resolution changes.
Apple’s site claims “iOS 8 was designed to allow your apps to be compatible with the large Retina HD displays on day one.” That’s not entirely untrue. Applications designed for the 4-inch 1,136 by 640 pixel display of the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s don’t scale like they do when you install them on an iPad: they’re not letterboxed in the middle of the screen. Instead, they’re stretched. What this means is that yet-to-be-optimized applications look fuzzy and they display a blown-up view of the status bar, shown below.
If it were just one or two applications, it would be more tolerable. But even applications that have been updated for iOS 8 don’t necessarily come with official support for the new resolutions. Instagram, for instance, was updated just yesterday, yet it still displays the stretched status bar and a fuzzy-looking Instagram logo. Google+ and Hangouts are particularly bad, Facebook is a little stretched, and a number of applications have oversized text that unnecessarily cramps the display.
Over time, this problem should solve itself. We’ve seen some applications, like Tweetbot, undergo updates bringing proper layout and resolution. Most, however, have not.
Apple made it very clear that this update was all about the developers. In what it calls Extensibility, third-party developers can now inject their applications deeper into the operating system. Third-party integration can be found in just about every inch of the OS. That’s something we never thought we would ever say about iOS – but we’re happy we can.
Before, Apple integrated the official Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr apps for sharing from the stock iOS share menu. Outside those three third-party services, sharing was limited to the stock Mail app, Messages, or printing wirelessly. Now, any application which uses these Extensibility APIs can be accessed through this share menu. For example, you can send web articles to Evernote or share them to Pocket from within Safari or Chrome. From Safari, you can sign in to your accounts using LastPass or 1Password. Or you can send pictures straight to Day One, Snapchat, or Evernote straight from the Photos app.
The problem is, functionality like this takes time to grow. Not many third-party applications – at least not nearly as many as we would have hoped – are available in the stock share menu. Despite many of the applications we use showing “updated for iOS 8” in the What’s New section of the App Store update menu, many of the apps we’d like to use Extensibility with can’t do it … at least not yet. Copy, Dropbox, Skype, Hangouts, Alien Blue (for reddit), Tweetbot, Google+ and several others are they sort of apps we’d love to see show up in the Photos share menu, yet none of them do.
More third-party sharing services will hopefully appear in the months ahead. And best of all, if you don’t need or want support apps to appear, you can simply toggle them off – something you can’t do on, say, Android.
The other major third-party integration is keyboards.
Apple updated its very own keyboard with what it calls QuickType, predictive software that learns not only how you type, but how you talk with specific people. Over time, it will begin to suggest appropriate words for different types of conversations. For example, it probably wouldn’t suggest the word “bro” when you’re talking with your boss. Likewise, it probably won’t suggest “sir” when talking with your cronies.
Apple’s QuickType is the less interesting bit of keyboard goodies in iOS 8. Third-party keyboards can now be installed. Popular keyboards like SwiftKey, Swype, Minuum, Fleksy, and more are available in the App Store.
Activating third-party keyboards is as simple as choosing which one you’d like to enable in the keyboard settings and toggling through the globe key until you arrive at the desired keyboard.
If you want, you can even disable the stock iOS keyboard, but that doesn’t guarantee it will be disabled for good. The stock keyboard will reappear at random – often for hidden passwords. But it’s not unusual for the system to cycle back to the stock keyboard for no reason, even when it’s disabled.
The aftermarket keyboards are sometimes unpredictable, too. They disappear and appear, seemingly at random. Swype has often lagged or refused to materialize at all. SwiftKey and Minuum are far more reliable, but they’re dumbed-down versions of their Android counterparts. We can’t be sure if this is an Apple guideline put in place to make its own keyboard seem better (which wouldn’t be a first; witness the Nitro debacle). There are no number previews on the keys of these keyboards, like on their Android versions, and they operate a lot like the stock keyboard, except they look a little different and some have gesture typing.
Don’t get us wrong: typing with and trying new keyboards on iOS is sublime. But they need to mature. They’re riddled with bugs and we can’t possibly know if it’s an iOS issue or if the blame falls on Apple.
Third-party support also seeps down into the new Photos app, which in itself has been greatly improved with a very solid photo editor that reminds us of both iPhoto and the photo editing app Snapseed (which Google snapped up with its acquisition of Nik Software two years ago). With the built-in editor, you can enable extensions – or third-party photo editors – which can be opened right from within the stock photo editor.
For example, Camera+ is a popular aftermarket camera app with a fairly powerful built-in editor. Instead of going into Camera+, importing a photo you want to edit, and saving it back to your gallery once you finish, you can simply find the picture in the Photos app, hit the Edit button, open the extensions menu, and edit in Camera+ from within the Photos app, not unlike how third-party sharing works.
Just a side note: Apple’s iMovie can be enabled as an extension for editing videos on the fly from the Photos app as well. As we mentioned in our iPhone 6 review, t’s pretty damn capable for a mobile video editor.
Finally, third-party widgets are now available. While most are just for at-a-glance info for news applications, agendas, or, say, table reservations using OpenTable, some provide shortcuts or quick access to vital apps or services. Evernote’s widget allows quick entry for text, camera, photos, reminders, and list posts. Widgets can be added or removed very easily and arranged in just about any order.
This surprised us as one of the highlights of iOS 8. They’re simple in nature but very useful in practice.
However, widgets are also revealing of how Apple isn’t quite used to third-party support just yet – it’s not really as open to developers as, say, Google is with Android. I hate to make that comparison, but one of the most intriguing widgets of all, Launcher, was unexpectedly removed from the App Store. Apple’s explanation was that it was a “misuse” of widgets. All Launcher did was provide shortcuts to the user’s favorite apps from the Today view. For whatever reason, the company didn’t like it and pulled the plug on the app. For all its recent changes, Apple is still Apple.
Third-party support is the backbone of this iOS update, meaning much of the update’s performance hinges on third-party developers and their support for the new APIs. As it stands, support is sparse at best – not that we imagined it would be any different. Third-party keyboards are buggy, apps available in the stock share menu are limited, and most of the apps we installed don’t have widgets or extensions for the Photos app, though some of them should.
Continuity and iCloud Drive
Apple wanted to bring iOS and Mac OS even closer together, so with iOS 8 and the upcoming Mac update Yosemite, Apple introduced Continuity: the ability to start a task on one Apple device, then pick up another one and continue where you left off.
The specific feature that comes to mind (and the only one we’ve had even brief experience with) is Handoff, the ability to answer incoming calls to your iPhone from your iPad or the ability to send SMS from the iPad. This feature worked in the initial beta release of iOS, but has not worked for us since. In the time it was live, it worked very well. We had no issues sending SMS from the iPad, though we’ve never been able to “start a message on the iPad and finish it from the iPhone” or vice versa.
Other Continuity features are answering calls from your Mac, picking up web browsing in Safari where you left off on a different device, and Instant Hotspot, the ability to activate the Personal Hotspot on your iPhone from your Mac.
Unfortunately, most of these features, as promising as they are, won’t fully work until Yosemite hits later this month.
The same goes for iCloud Drive. You can enable it on your iPhone or iPad, but without Yosemite, there isn’t a lot you can do with iCloud Drive. You can access and add files from the iCloud website or import files to compatible iOS apps from iCloud Drive (this works in Dropbox, for instance), but this feature is also quite limited without full Yosemite support.
Odds and Ends
Surprisingly, Siri didn’t get a major overhaul this year. It wasn’t updated to compete with the smarter and more capable Google Now or Cortana. Instead, she was granted a few parlor tricks.
Now she can identify songs playing using Shazam’s music recognition engine. Tapping a recognized song will sling you into iTunes, where you can purchase the song or album. Also, in an increasingly popular move industry-wide, Siri can now be summoned completely hands-free with the command “Hey, Siri”. Being big fans of Motorola’s Touchless Control, we were really fond of this feature, but there’s a catch. Your phone or tablet must be plugged in to a charger for it to work. This is a move that was almost certainly made to help avoid battery drain, but a surprising and limited one nonetheless. Also, Siri will wake up to anyone, so any nearby iOS devices that are charging will respond to the command, irrespective of who says it. A Moto X this is not.
Spotlight can now search nearby places, movies, news, Wikipedia, iTunes, App Store, and iBooks. Relevant information from Wikipedia, IMDb, and other sources provide in-line articles and cards of information. The process is very smooth and creates a great all-in-one search experience from the home screen, almost rivaling the search function of Google Now. Almost.
Our only takeaway is that we’re not thrilled that all Spotlight searches are handled by Bing. In Safari, you can choose between Google, Bing, Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo as your default search engine. With Spotlight, unfortunately, there is no choice.
For families, iOS 8 brings a really neat feature more ecosystems honestly should have: family sharing.
Rather than creating a separate iTunes account for all to share and passing around the password, iOS 8 users can now add up to five additional users in their family to share App Store, iTunes, and iBooks purchases with. The family organizer can set different levels of users and can approve or deny purchase requests from other users. Members of a Family Share account can also sync calendars, photos, and location with their family, seamlessly.
Family Sharing may seem like a small, niche feature, but it’s definitely one of the under-valued products of iOS 8.
Like third-party integration, the new HealthKit features will take some time to grow into something truly useful and amazing.
Third-party health and fitness apps can now tap into your health data to provide some very useful information on your fitness level. You can collect important information and send it straight to your doctor. Again, fitness tracking isn’t anything novel, but the amount of information Apple is capable of tracking and presenting –in a beautiful manner– is definitely impressive. It bodes well for the future of mobiles and how they can increase our awareness of our own personal health.
Without a doubt, one of our favorite – albeit small – additions to iOS 8 is the ability to see battery usage by app. This allows you to see the percentage of drain caused by individual applications over the course of the last 24 hours or the past week. You can see if there’s a rogue app eating all your battery, allowing you to act accordingly by either closing or deleting the app.
In all, iOS 8 is a long-overdue update that brings a host of features iOS users have been begging for. Third-party integration is found all throughout iOS now, from the keyboards and sharing to photo editors, widgets, and health apps. Siri and Spotlight are somewhat smarter; families can now share content without having to buy apps and media multiple times; and there’s at least something to make dealing with no actual file browser a little easier.
However, this has to be one of the buggiest official iOS updates we’ve ever used. Performance is still fluid and the overall user experience is great – improved, even. But crashing apps, disappearing keyboards, and orientation issues have constantly occurred in our time with iOS 8.
Overall, we’re pleased with iOS 8 and the direction the platform is headed – towards a more open future. Apple is making leaps and bounds to bring iOS up to speed with its competitors, but it’s going to take some time while third-party developers take advantage of all the new features.
It’s a smarter, more convenient operating system, but it’s also opened up to a whole new world of bugs and glitches. That’s the cost of doing business with third-party support and loosening the reins on user experience. Part of the iOS experience is now in the hands of third-party developers, for better or worse.
It may be difficult to see it now, but this is a major turning point for Apple. While iOS 8 is currently a little disheveled (not a total disaster, mind you), things will improve in time, especially as third-party developers sharpen their teeth and begin to get creative with all the new possibilities. And the growing pains are something most will probably be willing to put up with for the added ease of use and not having to constantly switch apps just to edit a photo or share an article.
Despite the hiccups, iOS 8 is refreshing to use and we’re hopeful for what the future of the platform brings – that is, if Apple doesn’t continue to stifle creative developers.