Apple's iOS 7 is Much More Than a Pretty Face

iOS 7 officially arrives today, giving iPhone and iPad users a mobile OS that looks radically different and offers a slew of new features. Columnist Michael deAgonia walks you through the highlights of the update.

Apple has officially released iOS 7, the latest update to the software that powers the iPhone, iPad and the newest iPod touch. The free upgrade packs many new and improved features, including a visual style that forgoes heavy-handed graphics for bright colors and a text-centric layout. The new user interface is thoroughly modern, while still referencing the less serious days of multicolored iMacs and the original candy-colored Aqua interface of OS X.

Apple iOS 7
The iOS 7 home screen shows off the new color palette used for app icons.

While the updated look is the most noticeable feature, there are plenty of other changes deserving attention. There's the new Control Center (which gives you quick access to a handful of settings and apps); the revamped Notification Center (sporting at-a-glance details about your day -- like weather, appointments, missed notifications and more); a new multitasking interface and background processing for apps; and an easy way to exchange data between iOS devices using AirDrop. There's also iTunes Radio -- the new streaming music service tied to the iTunes Store that's aimed at other streaming services like Pandora -- and an enhanced Siri.

The other big change with iOS 7 is that the OS itself is 64-bit, meaning it can take advantage of the 64-bit A7 chip in the iPhone 5s, which arrives on Friday.

Device compatibility

iOS 7 represents a massive overhaul of the classic iOS interface in favor of a simpler design. But many of those "simple" on-screen effects (like transparencies) and built-in features (like AirDrop, Siri, and live photo filters) actually require pretty modern hardware.

As a result, iOS 7 is compatible with the recently announced iPhones, the iPhone 4, the 4S and last year's iPhone 5. The only supported iPods are the 5th-generation touch models; iPads are supported going back to the iPad 2, including the 2012 iPad mini.

But not all features will work on every device. For instance, Siri is still only available on the devices that shipped with support, so don't expect Apple's virtual assistant on anything before the iPhone 4S, 2012's iPad 3 (with Retina display), and the aforementioned fifth-gen iPod touch. Other features have been scaled back, dialed down or removed entirely on less powerful devices; and still other features -- such as the 3D Flyover in Maps -- aren't available in all regions.

If you're curious about which model supports what features, scroll to the bottom of this page for details. Apple also has a feature compatibility page so you can check to see what features are supported in your area.

Installation

For this review, I tested iOS 7 on an iPhone 5, an iPad mini and an iPad 2, with a focus on features for the U.S. market.

Before updating to iOS 7, I highly recommend that you navigate to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup > Back Up Now and do a backup of your data. If you're upgrading by installing the update through iTunes, update to the latest version of iTunes first (In OS X, go to the Apple Menu > Software Update and check for updates), and then make sure to initiate a backup in Tunes under File > Devices > Back up.

Take this step seriously. It's easy to do and if something goes wrong in the update, your data is preserved.

To install iOS 7, there are a few options. From an iOS device, you can navigate to Settings > General > Software Update and run the update from there. After the download is complete, your device will update in place, leaving all of your settings, data and apps intact.

If you upgrade by connecting your device to a computer running iTunes, you'll have the option to either Restore or Upgrade. The Upgrade option leaves your settings, data and apps in place; the Restore option deletes everything on the device first before installing a fresh operating system. If you've been having issues with your device, or if you've modified the OS in ways Apple hasn't sanctioned (such as Jailbreak), then a Restore may be the best bet.

Apple iOS 7
The Lock Screen shows very little except the time and date, and the slide to unlock message.

Welcome to Apple's future

After the installation is done and your device has restarted, you get a multi-language welcome screen. Right off the bat, the brighter interface is noticeable; the white screen and new fonts are a hint of what's to come.

With a Slide to Unlock swipe, you're launched into a Set Up Assistant that walks you through the process of configuring basic settings such as connecting to a local Wi-Fi network, toggling on/off Location Services and, if you're starting from scratch due to a Restore, options to set up your device as new or restore from backup via iCloud or iTunes. Restoring from backup brings all settings, contacts, mail accounts, iTunes purchases, etc. to your iPhone. That way, when the restore is finished, your device is just as it was.

After a few simple setup questions, you'll be dropped off into the new Home Screen. Welcome to iOS 7.

A new home (screen)

At this point, as you scan iOS 7's new look, you're either smiling or frowning.

When this new design was first revealed in June at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, various Mac techies debated whether it was a good idea. My take now is the same as in June: iOS 7's color scheme looks as if the folks behind Flower Power iMac and the new iPod touch models had stormed Apple's design office, raised their minimalist, multicolored pirate flag and looted all things shiny in the old iOS.

If you think back to 2007, the first iteration of the iPhone operating software was leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. Since then, Apple has continued to improve the iPhone experience, each year releasing a major new version featuring hundreds of changes, tweaks and additions, both large and small. Even as features were added, the overall interface remained consistent: drop shadows, detailed textures, and app designs based on digital equivalents of real-world elements (called skeuomorphism . The original goal of skeuomorphic element design was to ease iPhone customers into using and navigating a touch screen.

However, this approach was clearly more suited to the iPhone audience of six years ago; since then, nearly all mobile devices have built-in touch screens, and most of today's device-buying population understands the concept and basic navigation principles of multi-touch screens. That has allowed Apple design guru Jony Ive and his team of designers to break free of an interface built around digital metaphors for real-life objects. The result is an OS that, instead of doubling down on showy graphics, actually shows restraint.

Apple iOS 7
The new Control Center at the bottom of an iPad Lock Screen gives quick access to basic controls. The translucent look allows colors "under" the Center to show through.

While iPhones and iPods have always been somewhat immersive, it's clear that Apple's designers hope to make iOS even more immersive by downplaying overly elaborate interface pizzazz and prioritizing content.

Different, yet familiar

iOS 7 may look and behave a little differently from its predecessors, but if you look past the new fonts, brighter color scheme and new animations, iOS is still pretty much the mobile OS you already know.

The Home Screen still sports the same number of apps and folders, and you still navigate by tapping and swiping. The main difference is in theme and behavior. Basic animations accompany navigation: icons zoom onto the Home screen after the device is unlocked; tapping a folder zooms again; tapping an application zooms into the app. The system apps and folder icons sport a brighter, more vibrant 2D look, but the use of multiple visual planes in iOS 7 gives everything a subtle 3D feel.

The Home Screen also offers a more layered feel, as if the applications float just underneath the device's glass screen; this layered look is emphasized by the parallax effect Apple applies, where the background shifts subtly based on how the phone is held. It's a neat effect, and it's subtle enough to not be obnoxious. (You can turn it off, if you want, under Settings > General > Accessibility > Reduce Motion, or you can double-down on animations by choosing backgrounds that move under Settings > Wallpaper > Dynamic.)

iOS 7, as a whole, is structured in layers, with zooms, overlays and, of course, the parallax effect that highlights the new design direction. Your choice of background even influences how some portions of the OS and apps look. Some spots in iOS -- including the Notification and Control Center, phone dialer and passcode unlock screens -- reveal whatever color is beneath the current layer, using a diffused and translucent frosted glass effect.

Apple iOS 7
The translucent look of iOS 7 allows background colors and images to affect layers "above" them, such as this Lock Screen password entry keypad.

The all-important Lock Screen

The Lock screen features a less cluttered look that will still feel familiar to anyone who's used iOS. There is still the requisite time display at the top of the screen and the date underneath that. As before, Swipe to Unlock is located at the bottom. The camera icon on the lower right offers quick access to the camera, and there are a couple of matching graphical slits at the top and bottom of the screenthat point to the Notifications and Control Center. More about those two in a minute.

There are differences from iOS 6, mostly in the realization that graphic elements -- like the top and bottom borders that framed the time/date and Swipe to Unlock -- have been stripped away; the words just float in the same visual plane as the time, date and other interface elements, providing a largely unblocked view of your background.

Another change between the iOS 6 and iOS 7 Lock Screens is that you can log in by swiping anywhere on the screen; you're no longer limited to the Swipe to Unlock slider. I'm not sure about this feature; I found this change problematic. On more than one occasion, I found my iPhone open and running apps in my pocket, a problem I never had until the entire screen became an unlock zone. This hasn't happened in the final release of iOS 7, but I don't know for sure if Apple tweaked the design just before release or if I've simply been lucky so far.

The iOS 7 Lock Screen is more useful, too. If you play tunes a lot, you'll notice that when music is playing you no longer have to tap the Home button twice to bring up the Lock Screen music display. Album art, title and music controls automatically show up once the screen is active, making it easy to change songs or turn off your music altogether.

Notifications

Another Lock Screen staple: app notifications, which now fade into view after you swipe down from the top of the screen. If there is more than one notification already on display, the others fade away, becoming mostly transparent for a few seconds to emphasize the newest notification. As before, swiping a notification takes you directly to the app.

Apple iOS 7
The Notification Center can now be accessed from the Lock Screen. Note: Your background image will change how the Notifications screen looks.

The Notification Center is still activated by swiping down from the top of the screen, and in iOS 7 you can now access this feature from the Lock Screen. It's also been refined to sport the frosted glass look and has been divided into three separate sections: Today, All and Missed. They deliver exactly what you'd expect: today's notifications, all notifications that have been pushed to your phone or iPad, and any you may have missed in the last 24 hours. You can use side-to-side swipe gestures to quickly navigate between the three sections, and up and down gestures to scroll through the lists.

The Today section contains virtually everything you need to know about your day. iOS 7 learns where you spend time -- such as work or home -- and gives you information about how long it would take to get, say, back home from your current location, automatically accounting for current traffic conditions. The Today view displays the date, current weather and expected forecast, birthday information of friends due that day or coming up soon, your calendar info, reminders, stock quotes and even a sneak peak about your next day.

One welcome change is that once you've viewed something in Notifications and dismissed it, you've effectively dismissed it on other iDevices.

Control Center and Airdrop

New to iOS 7 is the Control Center, a centralized location for quick access to basic settings, apps and features. Using a bottom-to-top swipe gesture -- the exact opposite of the Notification Center gesture -- gives you access to Airplane mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the Do Not Disturb option, Rotation Lock toggles, brightness, music controls, AirDrop and AirPlay settings, and, finally, Flashlight. (Until now you had to use a third-party app to turn on the camera's LED flash for use as an ad hoc flashlight.) The Control Center also gives you easy access via shortcuts to the Clock/Timer/Alarms/Stopwatch, Calculator and Camera.

This feature is well-implemented, with the quick access to Music and AirPlay feeling more natural here then on the Multitasking tray. Moving the AirPlay function here means that the Music and Video apps are a little less cluttered, and since Control Center is system-wide, beaming content to an AppleTV via AirPlay is just a bottom-up swipe and a tap away.

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