iOS 13 full review

It's the summer, so it must be time for an iOS update. At this year's WWDC get-together we heard about iOS 13, which brings dark mode (at long last!), swipe typing, major updates to Reminders, Maps, Photos and more, and a new privacy-friendly app sign-in option.

There's lots to discuss, but how worthwhile is this year's update, and is it right for you? In our iOS 13 first look review we walk you through the design changes, performance tweaks and new features, and help you decide whether to make the update. If you'd like a direct comparison with the current OS, see iOS 13 vs iOS 12.

Note that our first impressions article is based on the announcements at WWDC and the preview Apple offered afterwards.

Release date & availability

iOS 13 was announced at WWDC 2019 on 3 June, and will be released on a staggered schedule.

It was immediately made available as a developers-only beta; a public beta will follow, most likely in early July. (Here's how to install an iOS beta.) The final, complete version of iOS 13.0 will be rolled out to the public in September.

Which iPads & iPhones are compatible?

iOS 13 works with the iPhone 6s or later, including the iPhone SE - good news, since rumours before the event had suggested that both the 6s and the SE were in danger of missing out. It also works with the 7th-gen iPod touch. But it doesn't work with any iPads at all, since they are going to get their own dedicated iPadOS platform.

Here's a full list of compatible devices (to which we will be able to add new iPhones in autumn):

  • iPhone XS
  • iPhone XS Max
  • iPhone XR
  • iPhone X
  • iPhone 8
  • iPhone 8 Plus
  • iPhone 7
  • iPhone 7 Plus
  • iPhone 6s
  • iPhone 6s Plus
  • iPhone SE
  • iPod touch (7th generation)

Design & interface

On first blush it doesn't look like much has changed in terms of overall design language - this certainly isn't a repeat of the earth-shaking iOS 7 update that caused so much consternation.

iOS 13 review: Design

Look more closely, however, and you'll find a number of changes to the interface.

Dark mode

Most obviously there is now a system-wide dark mode which affects preinstalled apps (we've seen it in Calendar, Home, Mail, Maps, Messages, Music, Notes, Photos and Reminders) and general OS furniture. It will also affect third-party apps, but only if the developers choose to implement it - virtually everyone will, but in a few cases there might be a delay before it gets rolled out.

iOS 13 review: Dark mode

We've been waiting ages for iOS to get a dark mode, which Android has offered for years. Better late than never, though: and if you look beyond the fun novelty of a new black-dominated interface look, the feature should also make iOS more pleasant to use late at night, and less of a strain on the eyes.

We've already had some experience here, since Google Maps for iOS has had a dark mode (which automatically activates at night) for some time. And it's great - instead of looking down and being dazzled by a white interface, then looking back up and having to readjust to the darkened road, the eyes are more easily able to adapt. It will be great to have this system-wide since even when apps are used indoors it's more restful to have a darker interface.

As for how dark mode is triggered, there are multiple methods. You can open Settings > Display & Brightness and tap Dark at the top of the screen to enable it manually. Or you can tap the Automatic toggle below: once this is engaged you'll be given various scheduling options, such as Dark Until Sunrise.

App redesigns

Dark mode affects the entire OS, but Apple also announced redesigns to the interfaces of certain individual apps. Reminders, for example, gets smart lists, a better layout and organisation options, plus people tagging which syncs with Messages for collaboration. This is good news because Reminders' previous interface could be a little confusing.

We also like the look of Notes' new Gallery view, and the extensive new customisation options for Memoji. Apple has added piercings and makeup, and more hats and hairstyles.

iOS 13 review: Memoji

Performance

As with iOS 12, Apple says updating an iPhone to iOS 13 can significantly improve speed of performance. We haven't tested this out yet, and it will vary depending on which handset you're using, but here are the claimed figures:

  • 30% faster Face ID unlock
  • 50% smaller app download sizes
  • 60% smaller app update sizes
  • 2x faster app launches

This is refreshing stuff. In the past, iOS updates have been nerve-wracking for owners of older handsets; sometimes the flashy new features place additional strain on the processor and result in a loss of speed. But Apple is moving to a point where it goes the other way.

New features

Speed and flashy new looks are all very well, but what can iOS 13 actually do? Let's look at the highlights from the new feature list.

Maps

We mentioned Google Maps earlier - good old Google Maps, how we love it - but Apple Maps has been hot on its rival's heels for years, and gets another set of improvements in iOS 13.

Most interesting is a new feature called Look Around, which corresponds almost exactly to Street View in Google but appears - based on the following embedded tweet by a developer who's tried it out - to be significantly smoother.

As in Street View it enables you to explore cities in 3D, looking around as if you were actually there, but it's the near-seamlessness that appears most impressive. Coverage is less dazzling at this point, although that's to be expected given that Apple has been collecting data for less time; Look Around is currently limited to certain cities in the US, with no European coverage at all, but this will improve.

Maps also gets a new more informative map overlay, although this too is initially limited to the US - other countries will follow in 2020.

Sign in with Apple

Here's a potential opinion divider. With the launch of iOS 13, all third-party apps that feature a sign-in option will be obliged to also - or instead - offer 'Sign in with Apple'. This will let you use your Apple account to sign in instead of an app-specific one, much as you can currently sign into a lot of apps and web services using a Twitter and/or Facebook login.

iOS 13 review: Sign in with Apple

For iPhone users this should be convenient, since creating a separate account for every app is a pain, but it's still useful to be able to log in so you can access preferences, high scores and so on from your other devices. Apple also has a hard-earned reputation for respecting and even fighting for user privacy, and assures us that it won't track users; personally we'd feel happier handing over our data to Apple than to most app developers.

It's probably a slightly less pleasing development if you're an app developer, not least because it represents compulsory extra development work for all those whose apps include a login option. But more seriously, some developers rely on user data to generate revenue and will see this as a significant blow to their business model.

We hope this won't cause too much of a headache for app developers, but on the whole Sign in with Apple strikes us as a positive step. Note, however, that even those on iOS 12 could be affected by it - if you update one of your apps once the developer has added Sign in with Apple, you should get it regardless of whether you've got iOS 13 or not.

Swipe typing

Since the iOS 8 update in 2014, Apple has allowed iOS users to install third-party keyboards, such as Swype - which enables you to swipe across the screen from letter to letter in a continuous motion.

Many of us dearly loved Swype, but it was sadly discontinued in 2018. Which makes it particularly nice to hear that iOS 13 adds Swype-style typing to the system keyboard.

iOS 13 review: Swipe typing

Verdict

It's early days, and our verdict will have to wait until the final release in September. But we love what we've seen of iOS 13.

An additional speed boost is welcome (although we look forward to testing iOS 13 on a variety of devices to see how this shapes up in practice) and we're happy to see the return of swipe typing following the sad demise of the Swype keyboard. It's also great to see dark mode make its debut at long last, and the privacy benefits of Sign in with Apple are obvious.

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