iOS 8 beta 4 review
Welcome to Macworld's iOS 8 hands-on review, where we'll be reporting on our experiences with the fourth beta version of iOS 8. (The final public version of iOS 8 is likely to be slightly different, but rest assured that we'll post a detailed review of that as soon as we get our hands on it.) Following iOS 8's official unveiling at WWDC 2014, we'll look in depth at the host of brilliant new features, design and interface changes and new possibilities opened to app developers.
We also consider whether you should upgrade to iOS 8 on your iPad or iPhone, and detail when iOS 8 will launch to the public and how you can upgrade to iOS 8 before then, which iPads and iPhones it will run on, and other important iOS 8 facts.
In the video above we discuss our favourite new features in iOS 8, along with OS X Yosemite; read on for our in-depth thoughts on iOS 8's new features and all the elements of iOS 8 beta 4, which we've been testing since it came out.
iOS 8 review: A history of the iOS 8 beta versions
Before we get on to the main review, a quick note on beta versions. We tested out iOS 8 beta 4, but here's a brief summary of all the beta versions seen thus far, and the differences between them. (And when we expect the final couple of beta versions to be released.)
- iOS 8 beta version 1 was the preliminary version of iOS 8 showcased at WWDC 2014. While visually it's hardly changed at all, iOS 8 beta 1 offers many new features (and significant tweaks too existing features) that set it apart from iOS 7.
- iOS 8 beta version 2 saw various updates on the initial version. The Podcasts app was made a mandatory (and non-deletable) pre-install, just as iBooks had been in the first beta. And Safari gained an auto-blocking feature to prevent adverts on web pages pushing the user to the App Store. QuickType, the promising and eerie-looking predictive keyboard system unveiled at WWDC but only previously made available for the iPhone, was rolled out to iPads.
- iOS 8 beta version 3, released on 7 July 2014, featured some minor tweaks: a toggle to switch QuickType on or off, a new grey/white gradient wallpaper, changes to the Weather app's interface, and updated iCloud Drive and Handoff settings. The Health app can now track your steps using the M7 co-processor in the most recent generation of iDevices. Many users also reported that it felt faster than beta 2. Oh, and Shared Photo Streams were renamed to Shared Albums.
- iOS 8 beta version 4, the most recent beta at time of writing, fixes many of the bugs found in beta 3; counterintuitively, beta 4 also removes the Bug Reporter app that enabled so many of these to be communicated to Apple. We also get a new Display and Brightness Settings menu and a new-look Control Center. Finally, beta 4 adds a Suggested App feature, and a new Tips app.
- iOS 8 beta version 5 was seeded to devs on 4th August, and adds some minor cosmetic tweaks - new themed icons for the iCloud apps, for instance - as well as a useful easy-access switch to turn QuickType predictive typing on or off, and a potentially lifesaving option to display your health information on your device's lock screen. And
- iOS 8 beta version 6, probably the last beta, is now predicted to land on 18 August, followed a few weeks later by the final release.
iOS 8 review: Will my iPad or iPhone be able to run iOS 8?
We've looked at this in more depth in a separate article - Will my iPad or iPhone be able to run iOS 8? But to sum it up: the iPhone 4s and later, the iPad 2 and later, both iPad minis and the iPod touch 5G will all be able to run iOS 8. Plus, of course, any new iOS devices launched in the rest of 2014 - presumably the iPhone 6, and potentially the iPad 6, iPad Pro (assuming it doesn't run Mac OS X instead - that's one of the rumours) and iPad mini 3 if and when these devices are launched.
iOS 8 review: When will iOS 8 launch?
iOS 8 was officially unveiled/previewed to the public at WWDC, Apple's annual developer conference, in June.
We got to see what iOS 8 looks like, how the design has been tweaked from iOS 7 and what new features we can look forward to in the new version of iOS. When can civilians get their hands on iOS 8?
Initially it will be restricted to a beta testing programme, which app developers (or those willing to claim they are app developers) can pay to sign up to. These betas will be unfinished versions of iOS 8 that are likely to contain flaws, glitches and design elements that are later changed, but joining the beta means you can get a good idea of iOS 8's broad design ideas and main features before committing to the final version.
Expect iOS 8 proper to be rolled out to the public around September or October - most likely alongside the iPhone 6.
iOS 8 review: Visual design and interface
After a succession of operating systems that looked roughly the same, iOS 7 was a stark departure: brighter, lighter, less skeuomorphic and far more modern than iOS 6. As we expected, Apple hasn't done anything as radical as this for iOS 8.
iOS 8's broad aesthetic cues are as far as we can tell almost exactly the same as iOS 7, with the same clean, minimal icons, and transparency effects in place of iOS 6's skeuomorphic design elements. It retains the bold (but very slightly toned down) colour palette of later iterations of iOS 7, which saw the bright green of iOS 7.0 darkened a touch.
iOS 8's interface is largely the same as iOS 7's too. But there are a few changes. Take the app-switching interface. As well as your open apps, this now shows circular thumbnails of recently 'used' contacts. Tap one of these and iOS 8 offers icons that let you ring, FaceTime or text that person, depending on what contact details you have available.
However, most of the changes to iOS's interface are designed to cope with new features, which we will look at next.
iOS 8 review: New features for users
iOS 8 has a host of brilliant new features, which we'll look at one by one in the following section. But it's worth remarking before we start on one interesting aspect to Apple's presentation: a lot of emphasis was given to developer-specific, highly techie parts of iOS 8, and the new openness Apple is allowing in the things that app developers can do within iOS 8. So we'll divide this into two parts: innate features that iOS 8 itself can do, and developer features that will allow apps to do new things.
If you'd like to see how we got on in our feature predictions leading up iOS 8's unveiling, take a look at our article 'iOS 8 release date, rumours & concept images'. You can also compare what we actually got with what we wished for, in the next section.
iOS 8's new features: Messages
Messages - which Apple software head Craig Federighi pointed out is the most used app in iOS - gets lots of handy tweaks.
Group messages are organised far more conveniently. You can use iOS's Do Not Disturb mode on a per-thread basis, such as situations when a group message thread has got out of hand and your device keeps buzzing with notifications of new messages. Or, in a more drastic measure, you can leave a group message thread at any point. If lots of people in the thread have been posting images or videos, you don't need to worry about keeping track of them all, because Messages organises all the attachments in a Messages thread at the bottom of the thread. Finally, you can share your location with other members of a thread indefinitely or for various limited periods of time.
You can send voice and video messages which, Federighi said, self-destruct (to save memory) after a certain period of time unless you choose to save them.
Brilliantly, voice messages sent via Messages appear in the lock screen with a waveform graphic (above), and you can listen to the message in question by simply lifting the iPhone to your ear - iOS detect the motion and interprets the gesture automatically (as usual, we look forward to testing this out and seeing how accurate it really is). You can then reply, again without pressing any on-screen controls; speak your reply, then lower the phone and the message is sent.
iOS 8's new features: Mail
The Mail app has been updated with gesture support and a wide range of small but convenient tweaks and new features.
You can use gestures to delete, flag or 'unread' messages, swiping across a message to perform the chosen action: it's a single swipe to mark as unread, flick across and tap to flag, or drag all the way across to delete. We've seen gesture support like this in third-party apps but it's nice to see Apple taking developments on board.
You can swipe across an email to flag or delete it
In a form of in-app multitasking, you can flick a message down to the bottom of the screen, check or copy material from another message, and then return to it with a single click. From the demo, it appeared to be roughly the same as minimising a window on a desktop OS - highly convenient.
And Federighi showcased the ability of Mail to recognise an invitation in a marketing email as an event, and offer to add it to Calendar.
iOS 8's Mail is able to recognise event in emails and offers to add them to the Calendar
Last of all, a new feature called MailDrop allows emailed attachments to be stored in the cloud rather than sent directly with the message, so that the recipient can read the rest of the message (and download the attachment separately) even if a full server would previously have caused a bounceback.
iOS 8's new features: Interactive notifications
As you'll have noticed when we replied to a voice message from the lock screen, iOS 8 lets you accomplish far more without leaving the app you're in, thanks to more responsive notifications.
Facebook, Messages or Twitter notifications pop down into your screen and can be responded to there and then - you get the option to reply or Like, accept or decline Calendar invitations and so on, all from the lock screen or Notification Centre. Alternatively, notifications can be flicked away.
Previously, swiping across a notification would take you to the app it represented - which was fairly convenient. Now you can just pull down and a keyboard appears, letting you reply there and then
Here Federighi is liking a Facebook comment from the Music app
iOS 8's new features: Continuity
This could be the biggest attention-grabber of all, and affects Mac OS X Yosemite as well. It's a very cool concept.
Continuity is the name Apple is giving to enhanced compatibility between its new desktop and mobile platforms, enabling you to for instance answer iPhone calls on your Mac (a notification will appear even if your iPhone is downstairs charging), or continue a message started on iPad on Mac or vice versa. If you're composing an email on your phone and walk up to your Mac, Mail on the Dock in Mac OS X will prompt you that you're composing a message; you can click it to carry on writing the email on your Mac.
Finally - and much requested - iOS 8's Continuity allows you to AirDrop between your mobile device and the Mac.
Thanks to the Continuity feature of iOS 8 (and OS X Yosemite), an incoming call appears on all three devices, just like a FaceTime call
We look at the new Continuity features in more detail in a separate article: Apple announces Continuity for Mac and iOS.
iOS 8's new features: QuickType predictive typing
iOS 8 offers a major step forward on the keyboards front.
We'll return to typing in the developer section (superbly, iOS 8 allows the installation of third-party keyboards), but by default iOS 8 supports QuickType, a form of predictive typing that looks far more ambitious than the modest auto-correct-level predictions in previous versions. We're not just talking about completing words you've nearly finished typing - in Messages, Mail and similar contexts, iOS 8 will offer entire words that it suspects you may wish to use based on context, in a little palette above the keyboard.
For example, if you type a message to a friend suggesting dinner, predictive typing might add "and a movie". Eerie, no? And naturally this cries out for exhaustive testing.
Our testing suggests that QuickType is a potential timesaver that will improve as both the service and the user learn more about the other. On occasion we found ourselves able to type out an entire sentence with single clicks because QuickType was in a particularly astute mood, but in others it was effectively auto-complete with good PR.
QuickType has recognised the simple two-option question being asked, so automatically suggests responses that make sense. Will it be able to cope with more complex contexts? Time will tell
Furthermore, Apple says iOS 8 will be able to learn the words you typically use and understand the context in which you're typing, such as a business or personal communication - messages it sense are intended for business use would see more formal suggestions.
This sounds amazing, bu we didn't notice a particularly nuanced grasp of context - although this may be something else that improves with time. The best we could say is that QuickType appeared to sense differences in tone on a per-app basis: in other words, it tended to offer more casual words in Messages, and was more formal in Mail.
We'd got the impression from the keynote that it would be more subtle than this (detecting lexical tendencies relating to specific people and specific conversations, for instance), but more testing will be needed before we can comment on that.
Context sensitive: Federighi is typing exactly the same sentence in each message, but because one feels like 'business', QuickType suggests formal adjectives. The more friendly message on the right gets vernacular words like 'epic' instead
In order to safeguard privacy, all the information QuickType acquires about your writing style will stay on the device, Federighi insisted.
This is a really exciting and ambitious feature that we want to test more thoroughly in the coming months. Read more information about QuickType in our article Coming in iOS 8: Apple knows you so well it can finish your sentences.
iOS 8's new features: Safari
Here's a small but attractive change to the Safari interface: on iPad, you can get a 'bird's eye view' of all the tabs you've got open. And the sidebar from Mavericks is now present in Safari on iOS.
iPad Safari's new bird's eye view of open tabs
Safari's sidebar in iOS 8
Apple didn't announce it during the event, but Safari users will be able to use DuckDuckGo - highly privacy-focused search engine - as the default search. This was one of several subtle shots at Google - whose business model is built around gathering large volumes of user data - that Apple took during the night (along with a few less subtle ones).
In a further nod to privacy fans, Safari on iOS 8 will enable Private Browsing on a per-tab basis.
The main changes in the way you use Safari, however, are likely to be seen in the developer changes we'll discuss later - the ability for third-party apps to share data with Safari and be added to the sharing pane, for instance. (The examples given were a Pinterest 'pinning' feature and an in-Safari translator by Bing. Neither of these are innate to Safari, but third-party apps will be able to create new optional features that you can import.)
iOS 8's new features: Camera
Apple didn't discuss this on stage, but there are some nice updates for the Camera app.
If you tap the screen to focus on a point in the frame, a slider appears underneath that allows you to adjust the exposure compensation on the fly. The implementation is a bit odd - it seems more effective to swipe across the entire screen, when the intuitive thing would be to move the slider itself - but it's a handy extra feature.
Here are some of the other updates in the Camera app in iOS 8:
Time-lapse video: Probably the most imagination-catching of the Camera updates; it's a surprise this didn't get a mention on stage. iOS 8 introduces a new Time-lapse video mode, whereby the Camera app will take photos at dynamic intervals to create a, well, time-lapse video.
Camera timer: Odd this hasn't been included before, really. iOS 8 will feature a camera timer.
Burst and Panorama modes get more inclusive: In iOS 8, graphics optimisations will give users of older iPhones access to the quicker burst mode previously only available to the iPhone 5s (other phones used to get a slower version of this, which only snapped images once every half-second or so). And the iPad gets access to Panorama photos.
Separate focus and exposure controls: You will soon be able to independently control the focus and exposure of a scene in iOS 8. There are several ways the Camera app could implement this, including tap-to-focus with an exposure slider or two separate tap-to-focus reticles.
For more on the new iOS 8 features that didn't get much discussion last night, see 20+ iOS 8 features Apple didn't talk about.
iOS 8's new features: iCloud Drive
iCloud Drive is a sort of Dropbox-esque cloud storage service with seemingly wide cross-platform, cross-app compatibility (although we'll need to test this all out).
If you're in an app like Sketchbook, for instance, you can bring up the iCloud Drive pane, and access the files there. Any edits you make are saved back to the original location. You'll have access to all of those documents on your Mac and Windows as well. There are implications for the Photos apps too, which we'll come to in a bit.
iOS 8's new features: Health
We expected this. Health is a new app that brings together a variety of health and fitness-related metrics - collated from fitness bands and various third-party devices - that you can monitor easily in a single interface.
Some analysts expected new hardware to accompany Apple's health-related software updates - maybe even a health-monitoring iWatch. But instead, these features will work with a range of third-party fitness bands and health accessories. (Nike and Withings products were displayed as examples.) Naturally, that doesn't rule out some kind of wearable or health-monitoring accessory in the future.
Related to this, Apple also announced HealthKit, which will enable third parties to build their own compatible software. Given the many differences between the healthcare systems in Britain and the US (not least the corporate spending power it commands in America), it's debatable how much we'll see the examples shown last night - a healthcare monitoring system from a private firm called Mayo Clinic - replicated over here, but it all looks well designed.
For more on HealthKit, see Apple's HealthKit in iOS 8 unites health data, talks to doctors.
iOS 8's new features: Family Sharing
Family Sharing is a lovely idea, that sounds like it will be both safe and convenient. You set up as a family (informing iOS of the various members of your family and their devices) and it will automatically configure photo sharing, location tracking and the free sharing of digital media across up to six family members (they need to share a credit card). It looks simple, although of course we'll have to reserve judgement until we've wrestled with the feature ourselves.
In a nice response to some controversies with high-spending toddlers lately, Family Sharing includes a parental lock feature for app downloads: when your kids try to buy an app, they have to get permission (and a permission request automatically appears on your device). Federighi didn't specify whether this would apply to in-app purchases, but we would assume so, since that tended to be the cause of the worst spending sprees.
iOS 8's new features: Photos
Photos is where iCloud Drive comes into its own. Photos shot on any iOS device are automatically saved in the cloud and accessible on all of your other iOS devices.
To cope with the enormous volumes of photos this is likely to create on each of your devices, Apple is talking up the enhanced smart search features in iOS 8 Photos. Search terms are returned as locations, times and album names.
You can edit photos within the app (using auto straightening and cropping, for instance, and smart editing based on 'intelligent image analysis') and the edits are transferred across to other iOS devices, pretty much instantly.
All of this worked seamlessly in the demo, needless to say. Will our mileage vary? We're also a little concerned about the free allocation of space provided with iCloud, which may get used up quickly. Whether users will be willing to pay for more storage is debatable - although the pricing schemes announced tonight do seem quite reasonable.
iOS 8's new features: Siri
Another new feature we expected was Shazam, and sure enough, it's integrated into Siri: Siri can recognise songs that are playing nearby, and then lets you buy them from iTunes. But that's not the only upgrade for Siri in iOS 8.
Apparently car-bound Siri users can now fire it up by saying "Hey Siri!" No need to tap the controls. (Presumably this means the device is always listening out for commands? Will this impact battery life?) And there's 'streaming voice recognition', which simply means Siri displays what you're saying (or what it thinks you're saying) while you're saying it. If nothing else, this will be a godsend for those moments where you say a long question and then see Siri had absolutely no idea what you were saying.
Last of all, there are 22 new languages accepted for Siri voice recognition, and 24 new dictation languages.
iOS 8's new features: Weather
One last - and relatively minor - change relates to the Weather app. Apple's weather data was formerly proved by Yahoo; now, it's from The Weather Channel. We looked at the two forecasts on iOS 7 and iOS 8 at the same moment, and it was pretty much the same - just the odd degree in a few days' time, and a difference of a minute on that day's sunset.
iOS 8 review: New features for developers
This might not seem relevant to the average iPhone or iPad user, but the developer-centric updates in iOS 8 are likely to result in some very interesting new apps and app features. Its new willingness to allow app developers more freedom in modifying the user experience and (with permission) affecting the behaviour of other apps is a totally new direction for Apple.
A lot of the most intriguing stuff in iOS 8 isn't about the features Apple is providing, but about the opportunities it's creating for third-party app developers. Widgets, Extensibility, Touch ID API, keyboards, home-automation APIs - we'll only grasp the significance of all this once the developer community has got its claws properly into the new kits.
Here are some of the most appealing new dev features.
iOS 8's new developer features: App Store improvements
First up, Apple announced some changes that will make it easier for developers to sell their wares on its store. App bundles are now allowed: if developers and publishers allow it, you'll be able to bundles of multiple apps with a single click (and presumably a discounted price).
As well as screenshots, devs will be able to post preview videos on the App Store. And the apps should be easier to find: Apple says its new Explore search facility is far better at showing the apps you want. (Spotlight also now suggests purchasable apps that fit your search criteria when you search within iOS itself, which may lead to a few extra sales.)
Finally, you'll be able to join beta tests of new apps using Apple's TestFlight beta test service.
iOS 8's new developer features: Extensibility and widgets
Apps can now 'talk to each other', sharing data and modifying each other's behaviour in small ways, although Apple was keen to stress the security measures designed to safeguard this process - any data transferred will move via iOS's own security.
This means, for example, that Pinterest can share its data with Safari and allow the user to add a Pinterest entry to the Safari sharing pane. Or Safari could gain a Bing translate feature, as seen below. (Interesting for Apple to be pushing Bing, isn't it? One in the eye for Google.)
But doesn't that sound a bit like... widgets? Yes! iOS 8 finally gets widgets.
Craig Federighi demonstrates a SportsCenter widget that he's added to the Notification Centre
You can download widgets from apps and customise their position on the Notifications screen. The example Craig Federighi gave was a (rather brilliant) eBay widget that lets you observe the progress of your auctions, and make a bid from the Notifications Centre itself. (In general, the Notification Centre has been empowered to make far more actions without resorting to the individual apps' own interfaces.)
iOS 8's new developer features: Third-party keyboards
On a related theme, but worth its own entry because of its significance, iOS 8 is open to system-wide third-party keyboards. This is huge, and tackles one of the biggest complaints we had about iOS in the past - its inflexible and backward-looking keyboard.
With this change, you'll be able to download a Swype-style swiping keyboard (an actual Swype keyboard upgrade was shown in the demo - see below) and use it throughout iOS 8. This small, simple feature - Swype lets you type by moving your finger smoothly across the letters you want without leaving the screen - is the single element in Android that we used to be most envious of.
Between this and QuickType, iOS 8 now has state-of-the-art typing options. Assuming QuickType is as good as it looks, typing will be great out of the box, with a range of system-wide upgrades available for power users.
iOS 8's new developer features: Third-party Touch ID
Touch ID, the fingerprint scanner offered on the iPhone 5s (and presumably on further iOS devices yet to be launched) is now being opened up to third parties too. So instead of being confined to unlocking your device and a few key preinstalled apps, you can use your fingerprint to log into banking apps, make secure payments and so on.
As with most of these new developer tools, it remains to be seen how this will actually affect the user. But we'd be surprised if we don't see extensive use of the Touch ID API in third-party apps, because of its great security and convenience.
Touch ID being used to log into the Mint personal finance app
iOS 8's new developer features: Home automation & HomeKit API
The last of the features we predicted, under the speculative heading of 'iHome'. Instead it's known as the HomeKit API, which will let devs build home-automation apps to work with iOS.
One example given was the ability to say "Get ready for bed!" to Siri, causing the system to check that all doors are locked and lights are dimmed, but the possibilities are endless.
iOS 8's new developer features: BitCoin and other virtual currencies
A small one, this, but a change to the App Store guidelines may allow virtual currencies to be transferred and accepted.
The relevant clause in the "Purchasing and Currencies" section reads as follows: "Apps may facilitate transmission of approved virtual currencies provided that they do so in compliance with all state and federal laws for the territories in which the app functions."
iOS 8's new developer features: Metal graphics system
We're really getting into developer tech now, but the nutshell summary of the new Metal graphics system is quite appealing: more efficient rendering of detailed 3D graphics. Obviously we look forward to testing the fruits of Metal thoroughly and seeing for ourselves how effective it is.
Tim Sweeney, the boss of Infinity Blade developer Epic Games, was brought on stage to demonstrate a new Zen Garden game built with the Metal technology. He described the new possibilities as "an order of magnitude increase of detail" - with 10,000 petals at one point being simulated, and 3,500 individually animated butterflies.
You'll soon be able to see for yourselves how impressive this all is, because the Zen Garden demo app will be made available for free on the App Store in due course. But the real test of the technology will come in the quality of commercial gaming apps launched in the next few years.
iOS 8's new developer features: Swift programming language
Last of all (and exciting the developers in the audience very much), Apple announced a new programming language for both iOS and Mac software, called Swift. After reporting Apple's (by this point quite openly technical) announcement that Swift features "closures, generics, namespaces, multiple return types and type inference", our US colleague Dan Moren pointed out that "the biggest cheer at this event, you heard it, came at 'namespaces'."
Swift is something we'll be hearing a lot more about in the future. For now, take a look at our article Apple unveils Swift, a new programming language for iOS, Mac for more details.
iOS 8 preview: How do I upgrade to iOS 8?
Upgrading is easy - once the update is rolled out to the public. You simply go into the Settings app, General, then Software Update, and if there's a new version of iOS, you can download and install it from this screen. It will be a free upgrade.
(Bear in mind that in theory you will only be able to upgrade to the absolute latest version of iOS at the time of upgrading. If iOS 8.1 has come out by the time you upgrade, for instance, you’ll be able to get that one, not iOS 8.0. But occasionally iOS users have found themselves forced to upgrade via an intervening version. That's not supposed to happen, but doesn’t seem to cause any long-term problems.)
To get iOS 8 ahead of the launch, you'll need to join the beta programme - see below.
iOS 8 preview: Will I be able to downgrade from iOS 8 to iOS 7 (or iOS 6)?
Based on past behaviour, probably not - so beware.
iPhone and iPad owners who signed up to the iOS 7 beta, and therefore got access to the operating system before it officially launched, could go back to iOS 6 if they didn't like it. This downgrading process was relatively simple.
But once iOS 7 launched to the public, that window closed, and users had to find new (and far more difficult) methods to downgrade to iOS 6. We explain the only remaining downgrade method in our article 'How to downgrade an iPhone or iPad from iOS 7 to iOS 6', but it’s not easy, and only works in certain situations.
Now, it's possible that Apple will run things differently with iOS 8. We hope so; it would be nice if Apple let members of the public try iOS 8 and then go back if it wasn't for them. But this would be a surprise.
See also: How to downgrade from iOS 8 to iOS 7.
iOS 8 preview: How should I prepare for the iOS 8 launch?
(For more on this subject, see our dedicated article, How to prepare for the iOS 8 launch.)
It's worth reading the above article about downgrading to iOS 6 and checking up on the elements you'd need to go back - you need to save your blobs from before you upgraded, for example. Here's how to save your SHSH blobs. If you're planning on upgrading to iOS 8, it might be worth getting into the habit of saving these now - although, as I said, it's possible that you still won’t be able to downgrade because you're using the wrong hardware, or because Apple finds a way to close this loophole.
You could also try joining the iOS 8 beta program ahead of the launch. This would give you early access to the software before civilians get access, and (assuming Apple repeats its policies for iOS 7) give you a get-out clause if you don't like it.
But there are down sides to joining the beta, some of which are ethical - the beta programme is for app developers, not for iPhone users who fancy a look at unfinished software, or the opportunity to boast about having pre-release software, and a lot of blameless apps suffered with unfairly low review scores last time around because people who didn’t know what they were doing signed up to the iOS 7 beta and then found that (obviously) many apps weren't yet optimised for it. Don't be like them. (On which topic, take a look at 'Please enjoy the iOS 7 beta responsibly'.)
Joining the beta also costs money, whereas an iOS update is normally free.
Ultimately the best plan for the iOS 8 launch is to frequently check tech sites you trust (we hope this includes Macworld) for details of new features and design changes from iOS 7, and then if possible (and if one of your friends takes the plunge) try the new software on a friend's device. Make your mind up as far as possible, then upgrade.
Check back for an updated verdict once we've had some time with the finished software, but our impressions from the fourth beta of iOS 8 are hugely positive: it has a host of small but convenient tweaks (particularly in Messages, Mail and Photos, but throughout the system), and opens up new possibilities for app developers to get creative. Widgets are a big addition, third-party keyboards are a huge addition, and we can't wait to see what games developers do with Metal.