It's that time of year again, when we look at the new iOS update and try to decide whether to install it or not. Apple failed to shock anyone by naming this year's iPhone software update iOS 14, but there were plenty of surprises in the feature list and potential upgraders have much to think about.

In this article we compare the upcoming iOS 14 with the current iOS 13, and help you decide if the new version is right for you. Note that this is based on Apple's announcements at WWDC, and the software itself isn't finished; we'll post a review when the final version comes out.

Release date

Now, before you get too attached to iOS 14, be warned that it won't roll out officially until the autumn - most likely mid-September. Before then you can try out the iOS 14 beta, which is now available to the public as well as to developers. The public beta lags slightly behind the developer one, but it's still a great way for adventurous iPhone owners to dip their toes in the waters of iOS 14.

Here's how to join Apple's beta programme.

If you're not on the beta programme and go to Settings > General > Software Update before iOS 14 is available, you'll be offered the latest version of iOS 13 instead. At time of writing that's iOS 13.5.1. The first public version of iOS 13 came out on 19 September 2019 but smaller point upgrades have been coming out ever since.

iOS 14 vs iOS 13

Which iPhones can run iOS 14?

The first question to ask is this: can my iPhone get iOS 14? If it's currently running iOS 13 then you're in luck, because every model from the iPhone 6s onwards will also be able to install iOS 14.

Here's the complete list of iOS 14-ready iPhones:

  • iPhone 6s & iPhone 6s Plus
  • iPhone SE (2016)
  • iPhone 7 & iPhone 7 Plus
  • iPhone 8 & iPhone 8 Plus
  • iPhone X
  • iPhone XR
  • iPhone XS & iPhone XS Max
  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone 11 Pro & iPhone 11 Pro Max
  • iPhone SE (2020)

Plus of course the various models of the iPhone 12 will come with iOS 14 preinstalled.

Design & interface

Looks alone can be important - we all recall the jarring effect when iOS 7 brought in a radically different design language. But an operating system's interface transcends mere cosmetics. It's fundamental to the ease with which you can navigate the apps and settings that the OS hosts.

iOS 14 has three notable changes in this department.

Widgets

Probably the biggest change to iOS 14's interface, and debatably the one that's been requested for longest. (Default third-party apps may dispute that.)

Widgets, which is to say small cut-down versions of apps that you can use without actually opening the app, have been available in iOS before now, but were confined to the Today View. In iOS 13 you swipe right from the home screen to see summaries of the weather, your calendar, news headlines and so on. (You can select which widgets appear here by scrolling to the bottom and tapping Edit.)

In iOS 14 the widgets have broken loose. You can select them from the new Widget Gallery, resize them to suit and drag them into the area of the screen where you want them to sit, just as you'd reorder your app icons. With one exception. An eagle-eyed colleague who normally writes about Android has spotted that you're not allowed to place a 2x2 widget in the centre of your iPhone's screen - it has to be pushed to the left or right.

iOS 14 vs iOS 13: Widgets

Google fans will insist on proclaiming that this feature has been available in Android for years, but it's a big step forward for iOS.

No more fullscreen for Siri and Phone

Siri and the Phone app used to get special privileges in terms of interface real estate: when activated (when a phone call was coming in, in other words, or when you said Hey Siri) they would take over the entire screen. Other apps are more discreet when trying to grab your attention.

iOS 14 vs iOS 13: Siri

Those privileges have been withdrawn in iOS 14, which is brilliant: both are now confined to small notification boxes. It will be much easier to ignore an incoming call, and Siri won't take up more screen space than he/she needs.

App Library

This new way of viewing your apps will appeal to those who have so many apps that they are split across numerous pages. App Library is a single view that automatically arranges your apps according to categories such as Entertainment, Health & Fitness, and Social.

These categories look like app folders, but (aside from the fact that you don't have to arrange the folders yourself) have a couple of smart features. The icons shown vary in size; iOS will know to make an icon bigger if you've used the app more often or more recently than others in the category, which could help you navigate things more easily and launch apps with a single tap, without having to go into the folder.

iOS 14 vs iOS 13: App Library

There's also an especially clever category called Suggestions, which operates in a similar way to the Siri App Suggestions widget. It will offer apps that it reckons you're likely to want at a given time and place.

Picture in picture

This brings an existing feature on iPadOS to the iPhone. You can play a video, shrink it, and then have it playing in corner while you use a different app. Very handy when trying to multitask - taking notes from an online lecture, say.

Performance

Does iOS 14 speed up your iPhone, like iOS 13 did, or slow it down like a number of previous updates? It looks like the answer is… neither.

It's a funny one. Most of us expected this year's update to focus on stability, which generally means 'not so many bugs' (we hope that will still be the case) but in some interpretations also encompasses minor tweaks to performance, particularly on older devices. But Apple didn't mention speed at all.

We're fairly sure we're not about to go back to the bad old days when installing an iOS update on a phone that was more than, say, three years old was a recipe for slowdown. But don't expect a speed boost either - if that was on offer, we're sure Apple would have mentioned it before now.

When the finished version of iOS 14 rolls out we'll run some speed tests and report back on both benchmarks and subjective feel. We feel that it wouldn't be fair to run tests on a beta version, since that's not finished - although that hasn't stopped plenty of sites doing precisely that, and discovering that performance on the first developer beta of iOS 14 is roughly the same as on iOS 13.5.1.

New features

This is the meat and potatoes of this article: the New Things You Can Do. What can an iOS 14 iPhone do that an iOS 13 iPhone cannot?

There are, as ever, lots of brilliant new features. Here are the headline attractions.

Default apps

iPhone owners have been asking for this for years, and at last they've got their wish.

If you've got an (unjailbroken) iPhone running iOS 13 or earlier, Safari is your default web browser and Mail is your default email app. If you click on a web link or email address in most apps - and certainly all Apple apps - then you'll be sent to Safari and Mail respectively. This obviously makes it rather pointless to install a third-party browser or email app, even if they are otherwise excellent.

Now - and surprisingly quietly - Apple has allowed us to make third-part browser and email apps the default in iOS 14. Apps will have to go through an additional vetting process to make it on to the list of options, so don't depend on this happening overnight. There are also other types of app where changing the default would be handy, such as mapping, and we'll have to wait longer until that happens. But baby steps, and this is good news.

App Clips

This is a neat idea. Ever had that experience where you try to park somewhere, but the company running the carpark insists that you pay using their own dedicated app, which is ten times bigger than it needs to be and takes forever to download? Now you'll be able to download a much smaller version, called an App Clip.

iOS 14 vs iOS 13: App Clips

App Clips won't be accessed via the App Store - or not only from there. Companies will be able to put Clips on their website, with a link to download it when you want to pay for your shopping or rent a room or whatever. There will also be links in the real world: signs that combine a QR-style code with an NFC chip that takes you to the App Clip.

App Clips are designed to let you do one single thing that an app offers, without having to download the rest of the app. It sounds like they will disappear after a while, too, although it's not yet quite clear how this will work.

Siri

We already mentioned that Siri doesn't take up the entire screen any more, but she gets some more upgrades in iOS 14. She has, Apple reckons, 20 times more facts at her fingertips than three years ago, and in iOS 14 is able to tackle more complex questions than ever before. We will put this to the test, but it sounds promising.

Translate

Let's stay on the theme of voice recognition. iOS 14 brings in a new app called Translate, which can translate spoken words in real time. Only 11 languages are supported initially, which is a long way behind Google Translate, but the big advantage is that Apple's app does it all on device - a genuinely big deal, as anyone who's tried to order food in a French restaurant without running up a huge data-roaming bill will attest.

Translate has a neat conversational mode, too. Again, this is something already offered by Google but this streamlines things by offering only a single microphone button - instead of having to tell it when each person is speaking, it listens out for the languages and assigns them to the correct side of the conversion.

iOS 14 vs iOS 13: Translate conversation mode

This sounds excellent, but obviously calls for extensive testing: at this point we can't depend on Translate hitting the ground running any more than Maps did in its early days. However, it's worth observing that, should Translate prove to be useless at this stage in its development, iOS 14 iPhones will still be able to run Google Translate just as well as iOS 13 ones.

This is the case with most of the new things in an iOS update: if you like them, you can use them, but if you don't, there's no harm done. The exceptions to look out for are changes to the way things work, rather than simply new features you now have access to.

There will also be a handy translation feature coming to Safari. Read about how to translate web pages.

Messages

Changes in this section are mostly focused on Messages as a group communications tool, and some seem intended to challenge work tools such as Slack. You'll still be able to send messages to and fro with a single contact, but the improvements affect the experience when talking to multiple people.

iOS 14 vs iOS 13: Messages

Conversations have icons which show the various participants, and the ones who've 'spoken' most recently are bigger. There will be inline replies so you can follow threads within a larger conversation, and you can set notifications in such a way that you don't hear about every single message sent to the conversation, but are instead notified only when you're 'mentioned' - when someone chooses to flag your name in a message. That's one of the best features in Slack, and welcome here.

You'll also be able to pin a conversation to the top of the screen, and there are 20 new hair and headwear styles for Memoji.

iOS 14 vs iOS 13: Memoji

Verdict: Should I update my iPhone to iOS 14?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is that it's a bit early to say but the new features look good and it's unlikely that there will be any drawbacks to upgrading.

What are the downsides to upgrading? It's a bit of hassle and takes some time; tweaks to the interface will take some time to get used to; and there could be bugs. But there are bugs in iOS 13 - a lot of bugs - and app updates generally fix far more bugs than they introduce.

The very curious will want to install the public beta of iOS 14 and take a look for themselves, but we'd advise against this, or at least warn that it will be less polished than a final release. For your primary devices (the ones you can't afford to have misbehaving) we'd say that it's better to wait until autumn, when iOS 14 launches officially - indeed as ever we'd recommend waiting until a day or two after that, because it will give you a chance to see if any really egregious bugs have made it through beta testing, and because the servers will be quieter and it shouldn't take so long.

But being able to select third-party web browsers and email apps as your default is a big step forward. App Clips and the Translate app both sound really cool, and fall into the category of 'if it works well I'll use it, and if it's rubbish I can just ignore it'. Home-screen widgets, finally, are an essential inclusion.

Note finally that this applies to the final version of iSO 14.0 which will be released in the autumn. Installing the iOS 14 beta is a different matter, since it's unfinished and bound to be full of bugs. Unless you're determined to get bragging rights, or you're a developer, we'd wait until September.