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.

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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.

Another new feature that arrives with iOS 7 is AirDrop. It's a dead-simple way to securely share files from your iDevice to anyone else with an iDevice running iOS 7. AirDrop is located in the Share Sheets screen in supported apps, above iMessage, Mail, Cloud and social media sharing options.

Anyone with a device running iOS 7 (with AirDrop turned on) will show up in the AirDrop section of the Sharing sheet. To send a file, tap on the recipient's image and, after the recipient is alerted and accepts the transfer, the data is beamed over using Wi-Fi. For security, the point-to-point transfer is encrypted between the two devices.

Apple iOS 7
AirDrop allows for easy file swaps between iOS 7 devices -- when it works. It's still a bit flakey.

AirDrop settings are located in the Control Center, so turning it on/off and selecting whether to accept files from everyone or only people in your Contacts is easy. Also note: To use AirDrop, both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi must be on, although you don't actually need to be connected to a Wi-Fi network.

When it works, AirDrop works well. The recipient device avatars are supposed to show up automatically in the Sharing Sheets, but there were several times during testing that devices didn't show up until I toggled AirDrop on and off. Once the devices could "see" each other, AirDrop proved to be a fast and easy way to transfer files. It seems if you're relatively close to the other device -- within about 15 feet -- the transfer will begin reliably begin. Further away than that and you may have problems. Apple engineers need to improve the reliability, and make it possible to transfer files between Macs and iOS devices. The concept is already killer; it's the implementation that needs more polish.

Multitasking

Multitasking is greatly improved, as is the interface for switching between apps. Previously, when you pressed the home button twice, a small row of icons appeared at the bottom of the screen so you could quickly jump to recently-used apps. Depending on the direction of the swipe, you could also access other functions like music and brightness controls. In iOS 7, you still press the home button twice to switch between recent apps. But now the interface seems to zoom out to show you application previews above each app's icon. This makes it even easier to find what you're looking for.

Manually quitting an app is easier, too. You simply swipe up on the app when it appears in the multitasking bar. That's a lot better than having to double-tap Home, press and hold your finger on the app, and tap the X for the app.

Apple iOS 7
Double-clicking the home button brings up the new multitasking view, showing which apps have been launched. To quit an app, just swipe up toward the top of the screen.

Background multitasking has been expanded, making iOS 7 the first version to allow full-on background processes for third-party apps that can take advantage of the new features. System apps that shipped with the device were always allowed more leeway than third-party apps, and Apple engineers had to craft APIs that allowed common functions to occur in the background.

iOS 7 can now intelligently track when and how often you use an app, and if you're consistent, it'll update any data before you launch the app.Let's say you check Facebook or a news app every morning during breakfast; iOS 7 will spot that pattern and update that app's content so it's ready before you even open it. The same thing happens when you get a notification -- say, a breaking news alert from your favorite news source. The notification triggers the app to update with the latest info, so it's available immediately.

There are also silent notifications that can trigger an app to download information such as the latest magazine or book you subscribed to or bought.

iOS 7 also has some networking tricks that helps ease the burden of multitasking on a resource-limited device like an iPhone or iPad. For instance, even though apps are capable of silent background downloads and updates, iOS 7 will smartly update data whenever the device is activated by a Swipe to Unlock and connected to a strong network signal. Because updates are intelligently queued together and run in groups -- instead of done sporadically throughout the day -- battery life won't take as big a hit.

And if you're worried about using up your monthly data allotment, you can restrict which apps use cellular data for updates or turn that option off all together. That's done in Settings>Cellular. (You can also disable automatic downloads of purchased music, apps, books, and updates in Settings>iTunes and App Store.)

On a final note, apps can update their preview state in the multitasking switcher, so you get an updated view without having to launch the app; a glance at the multitasking switch screen should tell you what you need to know at a glance.

Users who rely on the system-wide Spotlight search will find that it's now accessible via a pulldown swipe from the Home Screen; just use your thumb to swipe down anywhere on the screen and a keyboard will slide up, allowing you to type your search query. As before, Spotlight can search for apps and contacts, look through email and media like music, podcasts, videos and audiobooks, and search for events, reminders and messages.

Music and iTunes radio

In keeping with the new look, Music now sports a white theme with a bright reddish-pink text. Although the functions are more or less as they were before, there are a couple of notable exceptions. First, Coverflow is gone. In its place is a new view that shows you about 15 or so album cover thumbnails, and you can swipe side-to-side to browse through your library. When you find the album you want, tap on it to zoom into that album, where you can browse track listings and start listening.

The biggest addition -- and this will be huge -- is iTunes Radio. Like other streaming music services, iTunes Radio can build stations of similar music based around any artist, genre or song you choose. To get started, there are more than 300 stations based on genres, Twitter trends and even a bunch of stations put together by guest DJs.

To add a station, just click on the Radio toggle located at the bottom of the Music app. Doing so drops you into a screen where you can play one of the Featured Stations, pick one of your own stations or create a new one.

Once the station is set up, the interface looks just like the music player except there's no skip back control. In iTunes Radio, there is instead a star icon. Pressing that brings up a list of options: Play More Like This, Never Play This Song and Add to iTunes Wish List.

The upper part of the Now Playing screen displays the iTunes price of the current song -- with a tap or two, you can purchase it without leaving the music player. There's also an "i" button you can tap for more information. Here, you can see album information on the iTunes store (which opens via an in-app sliding sheet); create a new station from the current artist or song; tune the station for songs based on Hits, Variety or Discovery; toggle explicit tracks on or off and share the station.

Apple iOS 7
iTunes Radio allows you to create your own "station" based on artist, genre or even a single song.

iTunes Radio plays an occasional ad, but if you're an iTunes Match subscriber ($24.99 a year) and Match is enabled on your device, iTunes Radio is ad-free.

The Phone app

The Phone application picks up the lighter, brighter theme and details of iOS 7, but for the most part, it has stayed pretty much the same. The dial screen gets a frosted glass translucence that dynamically changes depending on your background. Otherwise, there are only a couple of significant updates.

First, the Phone app now supports FaceTime audio over Wi-Fi. That means you can make free calls to anyone with an iOS device using FaceTime audio -- something I'm sure wireless carriers must love.

And second, tapping the More Information icon to the right of listed numbers in Favorites, Recents and Voicemail -- or just selecting a contact -- gives you access to the redesigned Contacts.

If you scroll to the bottom, you can select individual callers to block. Whenever blocked numbers call your phone, they're pushed to voicemail. You can see a list of blocked callers under Settings > Phone > Blocked. Blocked numbers aren't just limited to the Phone app, though; you can also block contacts from making FaceTime calls and messaging attempts. Messages, FaceTime, and the aforementioned Phone Settings all have the Blocked feature.

Finally, while you can still activate FaceTime from within a contact, iPhones now have a separate FaceTime app.

Safari and browsing

Safari has gone through an interface overhaul, too. Tapping on the text entry section at the top of a browser window displays bookmarks (or bookmark folders) between the virtual keyboard and the text box. The text entry area is now a unified smart field and supports both search and URL entries. Safari displays live results as you're typing; it gathers and displays data from your search provider, Safari history and bookmarks, and text located on the current page.

Safari embraces the idea of iOS 7's unobtrusive nature: Once you begin scrolling on a website, the Safari UI slips away, allowing you to browse using the full screen. Need the browser controls back? Just scroll to the top of a page or tap the area where they would be at the top or bottom of the screen; the UI elements slowly come back into view.

Safari has supported multiple browsing sessions before, but now they're stacked so that a page preview is displayed, like a vertical Coverflow. No longer limited to eight open tabs, you can quickly close out of any listed Safari session by swiping that session to the side, or you can rearrange their order by tapping and holding a page for a second, and then dragging and dropping the tab to the spot you like. If you continue to scroll down through Web page previews, you'll find a list of iCloud tabs that lists what you've been browsing on other devices.

>Safari embraces iOS 7's minimalist nature.<

Tapping the bookmark icon in Safari brings up your bookmarks, Reading List and Shared Links screens -- the last displays links from Twitter and Linked In. Saved articles in Reading List scroll continuously from one story to the next, so you can catch up without needing to continually access the list.

The Weather app

The Weather app has been redesigned, with white text and basic graphics providing forecast details like hourly conditions and daily highs and lows, while an animated example of the current weather plays in the background. Tapping the location and temperature info at the top of the screen brings up info on humidity, rain chances, wind and direction, and what the temp outside feels like. Tapping this area again brings you back to the default view.

Apple iOS 7
The Weather app offers much more detailed information, along with animated weather previews of your saved locations.

Below that is a strip showcasing an hour-by-hour listing of temperature and a little icon representing the forecast. You can swipe sideways to see what the forecast will be for the next 12 hours.

As before, you can check weather for multiple locations by swiping right or left. With a pinch or by tapping the lower right graphic, you can call up quick views of your saved weather locations; they all display city, local time, temperature, the current weather animation and night/day status.

Camera and Photos apps

The Camera app gets a variety of new features. You can now swipe between the different shooting modes using a sideswipe gesture, toggling through still shots, video, panorama and the new square mode. There are live filters built in (if your device supports them), and you can hold down the shutter (either the virtual button onscreen or the physical volume-up button on the side of the iPhone) to get a continuous burst of shots.

Photos has also picked up some very cool tricks. There are now three tabs to choose from, located at the bottom of the screen: Photos, Shared and Albums.

The Photos tab uses GPS and time-stamp data in every photo to organize your pictures by Years, Collections and Moments. Moments represents individual photos, and you can swipe through them as before. But if you tap the upper left part of the screen, you're brought to the Collections screen, in which the thumbnails of your photos are grouped by date/time and location. If you tap the upper left again, you're brought to the Years screen, which displays thumbnails based on the year the picture was taken.

In the Years and Collections screens, you can tap and hold on a photo, and a larger preview appears above your finger. You can also drag your finger through the photos to find the one you're looking for, and the photo preview will cycle through your photos as you drag. Guiding your fingers over photos is actually useful if your iDevice has a Retina display; it's sharp enough to show the differences in the preview popup between normal and HDR photos.

The Shared tab displays your Shared Photo Streams, those you subscribe to as well as those you host. There is a new Activity section that organizes Photo Streams based on recent activity such as posts, comments and Likes; it's like the Facebook wall in that it shows all of the activity across your shared and hosted Streams.

Photo Stream now allows subscribers to share their own photos on your stream -- and videos can be shared.

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