Apple iOS 7 full review
iOS 7, the latest version of Apple's operating system software for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, heralds the biggest change to the visual style of its mobile interface since the first iPhone was demonstrated in 2007. For the first time, the new look is the brainchild of Jonathan Ive, the person behind the hardware design of Apple's products since the original Bondi Blue iMac.
The most noticeable differences in iOS 7 are a set of new, brightly coloured icons and a simpler, more minimal design aesthetic. It's all part of a so-called 'flat design' that replaces faux-3D elements such as bevelled buttons and embossed toolbars that were used in all previous iterations of iOS. Yet transparent layers and other neat visual tricks convey depth in more subtle ways.
iOS 7 review: New features in iOS 7.1 & iOS 7.1.1
Update, 30th April 2014: Before we get on to the major changes from iOS 6 to iOS 7, we'll quickly cover the smaller (but often significant) tweaks and design updates that have arrived since iOS 7.1's initial launch. These have been released in Apple's two latest point updates, iOS 7.1 and iOS 7.1.1, both of which are free to download.
(Bear in mind that, barring some clever jailbreaking or similar hacks, you have to install the latest OS when updating. At time of writing, if you want to update from iOS 6 to iOS 7, that means iOS 7.1.1. iOS 7.0 is no longer an option for most of us.)
iOS 7 and iOS 7.1.1 new features: Visual changes
The most obvious change in iOS 7.1 is visual. This update saw some of the more controversial aspects of iOS 7's design toned down and softened to appeal to a wider audience.
Take the 'toxic' bright greens that people found so objectionable, for instance. Those are now darker and less eye-catching. This has mostly been applauded, although we now miss the old look ever so slightly. I guess we got used to it.
Some interface changes are more obvious. The Phone app, for example, sees a lot of bar-style buttons replaced by round buttons, and the old caller ID image, which used to take up the whole screen, has been shrunk to a little thumbnail:
iOS 7.1 includes a number of other visual updates, including some changes to typography and colour choices, as well as updated interfaces in Apple apps.
iOS 7 and iOS 7.1.1 new features: Performance changes
The most controversial aspect of iOS 7 wasn't the look, however - it was the performance penalty seen on older hardware. The iPhone 4 was supposed to be able to handle iOS 7 (it was the lowest level of iPhone ratified for this) but many iPhone 4 experienced slowdowns after updating.
iOS 7.1 addresses this, and benckmark tests show that an iPhone 4 is faster on iOS 7.1 than on iOS 7. (For more on this, read Can iOS 7.1 improve iPhone performance? How to speed up a slow iPhone 4 or other older iPhone) It's still slower than on iOS 6, however, and our advice to iPhone 4 owners would be not to update from iOS 6 at all.
iOS 7 and iOS 7.1.1 new features: New Siri voices
iOS 7.1 included new Siri voices. In the UK that means at long last the option of a female voice - hooray! You can stick with the bloke if you prefer.
iOS 7 and iOS 7.1.1 new features: CarPlay
As expected, iOS 7.1 brings CarPlay compatibility. We've got more on that here: CarPlay buying guide: which cars and models come with Apple CarPlay?
iOS 7 and iOS 7.1.1 new features: Touch ID
This one will only affect iPhone 5s owners, but iOS 7.1.1 includes some improvements to the way Apple's Touch ID fingerprint scanner works.
That covers most of the major changes in iOS 7.1 and iOS 7.1.1, but you can get all of the details in our article What changes does iOS 7.1.1 bring to iPad, iPhone and iPod touch? All of the remaining screenshots in our iOS 7 review, including the one below this paragraph, are based on the original iOS 7.0.
iOS 7 review: Thin and flat interface design
A thinner system font, Helvetica Neue, is used throughout the system. Borders around many apps are plain white with simple black text, with a colour tint used to indicate buttons and interactive elements. This minimalist design reminds us of the approach Jony Ive favours for the seamless aluminium casing of Apple's hardware.
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Certain apps such as Game Center and Notepad, which previously used graphical replicas of real-world objects to convey their function, such as yellow notepaper and green table felt, have been scaled back to only provide visual information relevant to the task they perform.
But the flat, simplistic style takes some getting used to. When Apple first demonstrated iOS 7, the initial response was not entirely positive. The icons in particular have polarised opinion, with many describing the bright colours as garish, childish, or plain ugly, compared with the previous established designs.
Changing the look of a software interface familiar to millions is a delicate procedure, with the risk that by confusing users, they may abandon your platform and opt for a competitor's product instead. Sensibly, although Apple has made radical changes to the appearance of iOS 7, the method of interacting with the devices is just about identical. This is no repeat of Microsoft's Windows 8 debacle, where users were left floundering for their way around.
The brightly coloured new icon designs used in iOS 7
iOS 7 review: Transparency, depth and three dimensions
iOS 7 definitely grows on you over time. Behind the simple appearance are subtle and complex ideas. The redesigned Notification Centre has a translucent background, allowing the wallpaper and icons to show through, enhancing the sense that each UI element is a physical object lying atop whatever's underneath.
The new Control Centre, accessed by swiping from the bottom of the screen upwards, is similarly see-through, as is the Search bar, which now appears when you swipe down on any empty area of the wallpaper. Control Centre provides easy access to commonly adjusted settings such as Flight Mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Flashlight toggles, something users have been requesting.
The transparent effect is striking. Choose a wallpaper with a range of sharp blues, for example, and UI elements such as the new translucent dock glow with a frosty appearance, almost as through a pane of glass. Change to a purple background - Apple's new set of included wallpapers have been carefully chosen to highlight this - and the UI looks totally different.
Another small touch Apple has added to the wallpapers is a clever parallax effect, where you can tilt your device to slightly roll the background image behind the icons, giving the subtle impression that they are physical objects on a different plane from the background.
The effect is nifty, and enhances the idea that three-dimensional space is created from interface elements, rather than via the more basic shading of buttons on iOS 6 and earlier.
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There's another 3D effect when opening and closing apps. Tap on an icon and the app neatly zooms in to become full screen. Hit the home button and it zooms out. This works on folders of icons too, and gives the impression you're drilling in and out of various sections of iOS 7, again to make it seem the OS is built from layers of physical objects. Words don’t easily convey how impressive this looks in the flesh, but it's undoubtedly one of the best visual improvements of the software.
On the down side, mind you, a number of users with vestibular disorders have reported that the many animation tricks within iOS 7 trigger motion sickness and related problems. Apple has been reasonably responsive to concerns, and you can tone things down by going to Settings > General > Accessibility > Reduce Motion, but not everyone is satisfied.
With these caveats, however, iOS 7 is on balance a design triumph, full of attractive visual touches. The passcode lock screen, for instance - which might seem trivial, but is a screen the average user will be seeing a lot of - has been given a much more modern look:
iOS 7 review: New features
Watch our video below for a quick run-through of the new features in iOS 7.
In what ways is iOS 7 different to iOS 6? Compared with the radical overhaul made to the appearance of iOS 7, Apple has been more reserved when it comes to adding or removing features from the software. It's a fair assumption that if a certain function was present in iOS 6, you'll find it in iOS 7 - although it may look quite different.
iOS 7 new features: Music
The Music app now lets you browse your music via a scrolling list of cover art, with a quick tap zooming onto the album, displaying a tracklist.
Tap an album cover to be taken to a tracklist. Choose your track, then tap Play.
iOS 7 new features: Voice recorder
The voice recorder, which previously showed a redundant picture of a real microphone, now displays a simple spectral analyser and a list of recordings, along with a big red button to start capturing audio.
iOS 7 new features: Camera
The Camera has received perhaps the most attention, and is all the better for it. You can quickly swipe through photography modes: normal, square, panoramic and video, with a set of Instragram-like filters to apply, such as chrome or sepia. The iPhone 4 doesn't get all these features, though.
iOS 7 new features: Safari web browser
Rather than being limited to eight, you can now open as many tabs as you like in Safari, which has a smaller border around webpages to display more information on the screen. When browsing through your open tabs on an iPhone you can swipe through screenshots of each page, presented as a 3D roll of pages.
Safari in iOS 7 also sees improved navigation and performance tweaks, a unified search field, new bookmarking features and more. We details the updates in our iOS 7 Safari review.
iOS 7 new features: Calendar
Calendar is perhaps the best example of how iOS 7 uses colour to draw the user's attention to relevant information. The current date is highlighted with a big red circle, instantly drawing your eye to it, with the same shade of red used to highlight other interactive elements.
But there are drawbacks to the aggressive minimalism of iOS 7's calendar, and we can see many users looking elsewhere for a calendar app.
On the iPad, month view lets you see a few words of each appointment or birthday, but the iPhone - which surely is the platform on which most people use a calendar app - is far less useful: in portrait mode you only see a little dot to indicate that something is happening (we advise switching off indicators for Facebook birthdays and such like, or you'll find that almost every day has a dot). And in landscape mode you only see a 5-hour snatch of three days at a time, making it hard to quickly skim your free nights.
iOS 7 new features: Maps
Apple's much-criticised Maps are still present, as expected, but with a few small additions. There's a scale indicator in the corner, and bookmarks are now saved in iCloud and shared across devices, a handy addition we think that should have been there in the first place. Mac users can look forward to being able to send maps and directions directly to their iPhone using the desktop Maps app in OS X Mavericks too.
iOS 7 new features: Siri
Two years after it launched, Siri is no longer in beta. The interface is slightly changed, but the big addition is a wider range of search abilities. Ask it to search Wikipedia, and it comes up with the article without going into Safari and loading the page.
Search the web (amusingly now with Bing, a further severing of Apple's ties to Google) and you get all sorts of relevant information directly in the app. This is a far better approach that makes Siri more useful in itself, rather than as a voice-controlled launchpad to other parts of the system.
The Notifications Center has had a major redesign, as seen on the iPad
iOS 7 new features: Newsstand
The Newsstand app now runs full screen, with a gorgeous shaded background that shows your wallpaper through it, rather than expanding like a folder as in iOS 6. And thank goodness, if you don't use it, it can now be dropped into the obligatory 'unused' folder everyone often ends up with on their device, rather than occupying space on the home screen.
iOS 7 new features: Multitasking
Multitasking, to simply switch between already open apps, now works as it does on Android or HP's WebOS software. There's a snapshot of each running app displayed above the icon. Swiping up closes the app.
Multitasking now more resembles Palm's Web OS: simply swipe up to close an app
iOS 7 new features: Visuals, ringtones and backgrounds
As before, Apple has aimed for a consistent experience between the experience of using iOS 7 on both the iPhone and iPad, using the same colours, design choices and identical functionality. The major differences are related to layout, with a prominent use of split-views (such as in the Settings app) to display more information on the larger tablet screen.
A small addition that will be welcomed by many is the inclusion of a new set of tasteful ringtones. The old ones are still there too in a 'classics' folder, if you're quite attached to the familiar default Marimba tone, for example. There's also a range of dynamic backgrounds, with bubbles that slowly move across the screen if you move the device.
This makes use of a new physics API built into iOS, one of a long list of under-the-bonnet enhancements in iOS 7 that third-party developers can take advantage of.
In the coming days, weeks and months, expect your favourite apps to be updated with similar design language, transparency and flat simplicity that Apple is using for in its own software.
iOS 7 new features: Miscellaneous updates
The hard limit to the number of apps you can keep in a folder has been removed, a major irritation for people with a lot of apps on their device, which often resulted in a messy folder system such as 'Games 1', 'Games 2', 'Games 3' and so on.
Once again, a few apps on the iPhone aren't available on the iPad, and vice versa, wherever Apple has deemed them less relevant. The iPad has no Voice Memos, Passbook, Compass, or Stocks app (thankfully for many unconcerned by city finances) while the iPhone misses out on the Photobooth app.
(As before, you aren't allowed to delete Apple's pre-installed apps from your iPad or iPhone, although there are some ways around that.)
Apple iOS 7 review: Performance, speed and battery life
We've been following iOS 7 developments since the first beta, and have seen every enhancement and adjustment Apple has made since. The list of devices that support iOS 7 is fairly long, namely: the iPhone 4, iPhone 4s, iPhone 5, iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s can run it; along with the iPad 2, iPad 3, iPad 4 and iPad Air, the iPad mini and iPad mini 2 with Retina display, plus the fifth-generation iPod touch. (Here's a little more detail on the iPhones and iPads that support iOS 7.)
While it mostly runs well on all the iPads and is fine on the 4s and above, on the iPhone 4 we found it a notably slower experience than iOS 6. We'd recommend iPhone 4 owners not to jump in and upgrade immediately, at least until they've seen it running on another device of comparable age and power.
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Battery life on the devices we tested hasn't been as spectacular, sometimes running low after less than a day's light use. But again, we expect future updates will improve this.
We noticed our iPhone 4s occasionally becoming warm in use, even while running the release version of iOS 7. We also spotted the odd bug that hasn't been fixed yet. For example, when scrolling through cover art, a rubber band effect is used when you try to scroll beyond the content, but this occasionally became stuck, leaving a black bar on the screen, which only disappeared after rebooting the phone.
iOS 7 review: How to downgrade from iOS 7 to iOS 6
As with all iOS releases, once you click update in iTunes, it's pretty much impossible to go back to a previous version. (Here's the only remaining way you can downgrade from iOS 7 to iOS 6 - it's hopelessly difficult.) We're hoping point-release updates will improve iPhone 4 performance in time, though.
Other than the performance issues that may face iPhone 4 users, we'd generally recommend sticking with iOS 7 (and in most cases you won't have much choice). In this video we explain the seven things we most love about iOS 7:
iOS 7 review: How to jailbreak iOS 7 iPhones and iPads
Finally, a quick word on jailbreaking. (What is jailbreaking?) When iOS 7 was released, it closed the coding loopholes used by jailbreakers to crack iOS 6, and thus for a while hackers were unable to jailbreak new iOS devices or older devices that had upgraded to iOS 7.
Predictably, however, a way has been found to jailbreak iOS 7 too. We explain how to jailbreak iOS 7 in a separate article. Bear in mind, however, that this jailbreak is in turn blocked by changes in the iOS 7.1 update; and so the eternal dance continues.