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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The Albums tab gives you separate listings for Camera Roll, iCloud Photo Stream, Panoramas and videos, and it's where you store your own, customized collections of photos.

Although the default theme for photos sports a white background, if you tap your photo once, you can replace the white background with black and hide the on-screen information overlay.

App updates, security and Siri

One great new feature in iOS 7 is the arrival of Auto Updates for apps. Any apps downloaded from the App Store can now update themselves in the background. If you're like me, there are some apps you like to keep track of to see what features have been added or changed. The Notification Bar lets you know when an app has been updated so you can tap and view the change logs. This one feature has effectively cured my OCD regarding app updates, while still allowing me to keep track of the apps I want to know more about.

Apple iOS 7
Siri now features in line results.

Device security has also been beefed up in iOS 7. Find My iPhone has been a popular service, allowing you to see where your iPhone is at all times on a map. If it got lost, you could send messages to the phone, activate sounds and even remotely wipe it. Unfortunately, doing so would restore the device to factory defaults, saving your data from falling into a stranger's hands, but practically gift-wrapping it for the new owner to start anew.

With iOS 7, turning off Find My iPhone requires your Apple ID and password, as does reactivating the device, even if you erase it. Custom messages also remain on display the Lock Screen -- again, even after you wipe your data.

Unless someone comes up with a workaround, this should act as a deterrent for iDevice theft. If enough people use the feature, thieves may realize that stealing an iPhone is a waste of time.

Siri has been given a makeover -- audibly, visually,and in terms of functionality. Apple's virtual assistant now displays over frosted glass -- once again emphasizing the layered look of the OS -- and has a pair of smoother male and female voices. They can be toggled under Settings > General > Siri.

Apple iOS 7
Siri gets an optional new male voice and shows a waveform animation that moves as you speak.

When Siri is active, there is a waveform animation at the bottom of the screen, showing that the virtual assistant is in listening mode. Many answers are now displayed inline instead of dumping you off into another app. Siri can also now toggle settings like Bluetooth or Do Not Disturb on and off, and it can adjust screen brightness and play voice mails.

While Siri is more capable and faster at processing commands, you still have to be connected to a network for it to work. I look forward to the day where this is no longer an issue.

There's a handy guide showing examples of what Siri can perform located to the bottom left of Siri's screen. But the best way to see what Siri can do is still to ask. You never know what she may say.

Final thoughts

After a few months of using iOS 7, I grew accustomed to the changes, even the ones I didn't like such as the look of the Music app and the overly bright white theme of the OS overall. The only giveaway that there was something different about my iPhone was the looks I'd get from friends or coworkers if they happened to glance at my screen. In other words, the UI changes are initially dramatic, but they don't really force you to change existing workflows too much.

The biggest surprise for me came when I had to briefly use an iOS 6 device after I had been using iOS 7 for a while. At first, I thought the new design felt more modern and elegant, but at the expense of the warmth that seemed prevalent in earlier versions. Somewhere along the way, iOS 7 grew on me, and now the look and feel of anything that came before it triggers the same nostalgic waves that the Platinum interface in MacOS 9 does.

That's when I realized that Apple needed the UI rewrite iOS 7 delivers. From admittedly anecdotal discussions with friends, colleagues and in online forums -- as well as my own curiosity about rival OS interfaces -- it now feels to me that the look of iOS had become stale. Clearly Apple thought so, and under the guidance of Jony Ive, took steps to change that.

If color and design can convey a feeling, then iOS 6 was grown-up, solid, staid. In contrast, iOS 7 feels more cheerful, optimistic and fun. I do miss some of the old graphics and I would much prefer a black theme in Music and Photo apps, but I generally appreciate the changes that arrive with this new OS.

Among some iDevice users, the move to iOS 7 from iOS 6 will be a source of contention. I expect more heated debates about the new look...even as most users update and move on. But any nerd-rage about the interface changes will quiet down as millions buy new iPhones and iPads loaded with iOS 7. The vibrant color scheme diffused across the frosted glass interface should work well with the new iPhone 5c and 5s.

There are a few caveats, which is usually the case with the first version of any new OS. In addition to the inconsistent behavior of AirDrop, I've seen a minor decrease in battery life. But, for the most part, iOS 7 is a solid OS with no show-stoppers; I'm actually surprised I haven't run into more bugs, considering the radical changes this update delivers, both in terms of looks and functions.

As I always advise, if you're leery about updating to iOS 7 when it's released Wednesday, wait a few weeks for Apple's inevitable bug-fix update. (That will also give laggard developers more time to update their apps to take advantage of the new features in iOS 7.) But who am I kidding? Most users will update immediately, if for no other reason than a chance to weigh in on the changes and try iOS 7 out for themselves.

When Apple unveiled iOS 7 in June, I was both curious and hesitant about all of the changes included with this update. After some time with it, however, I find that I'm really liking the new design direction. Other than the obligatory warning about running a 1.0 release of software, I very much recommend iOS 7.

Michael deAgonia, a frequent contributor to Computerworld, is a writer, computer consultant and technology geek who has been working on computers since 1993. You can find him on Twitter ( @mdeagonia).

Read more about ios in Computerworld's iOS Topic Center.

This story, "Apple's iOS 7 is Much More Than a Pretty Face" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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