iOS 8 is, in Apple’s own words “the biggest iOS release ever”. Available in the wild since 17th September, it promised a slew of exciting new features, but on the surface at least there seems to be few major changes; rather, it appears to be more of a refinement of the user interface, as well as under-the-hood improvements that should allow developers more flexibility and control. iOS is finally becoming more Android-like in its customisability while still being easy to use and intuitive to newcomers.
As a committed iOS user and self-professed early adopter (my current Apple devices are an iPhone 5S, an iPad Mini Retina and a MacBook Pro), I was highly anticipating some of the features promoted at this year’s Worldwide Developers’ Conference (WWDC) in June. For example, the ability to install third-party keyboards such as Swype and the Continuity feature that relays phone calls between a Mac and an iPhone. Arguably, some of iOS 8’s best new features have been available for Android for years, so it’s fair to say that Apple has been playing catchup to a degree.
Does iOS 8 turn the iPhone into a magic and revolutionary device?
Before we delve into our own experiences with iOS 8 over the last 2 weeks, it’s worth a recap on the eventful two weeks that Apple has just endured…
An embarrassed Apple recalls iOS 8.0.1
Hot on the heels of the iOS 8 release, version 8.0.1 followed just one week later. Unfortunately, it caused an outcry among iPhone 6 owners who discovered that Touch ID had stopped working and more importantly, cellular radio was broken.
The release was quickly withdrawn and iPhone users were provided with manual rollback instructions, followed a few days later by iOS 8.0.2 which did resolve the issues and provided various other bug fixes.
What went wrong with Apple’s release process?
According to Bloomberg, the person responsible for iOS quality assurance (Josh Williams) also oversaw the infamous Maps release – a debacle which resulted in the eventual ousting of senior Apple executive Scott Forstall and a well-publicised apology from CEO Tim Cook. To be fair to Apple, Maps has come a long way since then…
Despite all this negative publicity, consumers seem unconcerned and iOS 8 adoption is fairly respectable. Current figures from Apple show that it’s already on 46% of devices. In contrast, iOS 7 falls to 49% which is down from 91% two weeks ago. For reference, this time last year iOS 7 had already reached 65 percent.
iPhone 6 Bend-Gate blown out of proportion?
To add insult to injury, it has been a bad few weeks for Apple since the release of the iPhone 6. The aptly named “Bend-Gate” incident caused an Internet sensation with the news that iPhone users had inadvertently bent their phones. As it turned out, only 9 out of 10 million users had actually complained. To counter the claims, Apple invited journalists for a rare glimpse inside its top secret product test facility in Cupertino, an attempt to stem the media outcry and avoid an incident as embarrassing as “Antennae-Gate” or last year’s “Scuff-Gate”.
Consumer Reports then conducted their own ‘three point flexural tests’ last week and concluded that the iPhone 6 Plus could actually withstand 90 pounds of pressure before deforming, beating the HTC One which came in last at 70 pounds. Under ‘normal use’ conditions this compares fairly well to the other phones on test, though not as well as the exceptionally strong iPhone 5 at 130 pounds. The clear winner was the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 which could withstand 150 pounds of pressure.
But seriously, it seems that common sense should prevail – it’s no surprise that Apple’s thinner, lighter iPhones would be more delicate than previous models. Unfortunately, irresponsible members of the public have taken to attempt bending the iPhone 6 at Apple stores all over the UK.
It seems the fuss is not going away just yet…
Impressions of iOS 8 after two weeks
Rather than conduct a detailed review of every feature and nuance of iOS 8 (that information is available just about everywhere by now), I will briefly describe my personal impressions of using it incessantly over the past two weeks. Installation itself was painless, if a little slow to obtain the download. And unlike Ewan’s iPhone 6 backup and restore problems, I experienced no iCloud issues with my iPhone – admittedly I performed the update with an iPhone 5S rather than an iPhone 6…
Apple usually supports iOS on the last 3 generations of iDevices. That means iOS 8 is compatible with every iPhone dating back to the iPhone 4S (sorry iPhone 4 owners, it’s time to upgrade). In practice, while iOS will run on older phones, those users can expect below-par performance simply due to the processor and performance requirements. After all, the latest A8 processor found in the iPhone 6 is considerably more powerful than the A5 in the 4S.
In recent CPU benchmarks such as GFXBench, iOS 8 performance is almost identical to iOS 7, and the good news is that Apple normally releases updates that address performance as time goes on.
In my experience, I have not noticed any slowdown directly caused by iOS 8. Of course, in the iPhone 6, benchmarks show the A8 chip is between 24 to 46 percent faster than the A7 in last year’s iPhone 5s – a distinct advantage when pushing all those extra pixels.
In fact, iOS 8 games that use the new Metal language may even run faster and more smoothly due to optimised graphics performance. Right now not many games use Metal, but even an iPhone 5S running iOS 8 can expect better graphics performance as developers start to adopt the new framework.
iOS 8 also adds some minor but welcome changes to the built-in apps. In Messages it’s possible to record short audio clips, photos and videos and send them with a quick upwards swipe. Likewise, it’s much simpler to view a contact’s location directly in Messages without opening the Find my Friends app. The default keyboard also gains much better predictive capabilities – three suggested words appear above the keyboard and there’s an extensive set of Emoji characters. This might seem like a minor addition, but since the keyboard is used in almost every app you will really notice the difference and extra versatility.
There is also a Tips app (which cannot be deleted), which is great for novice users but would perhaps be better as a free download in order to save storage space. The most obvious addition in iOS 8 is the Health app, which on its own doesn’t do much (except count footsteps using the iPhone’s motion coprocessor) but is in fact more of a central repository for all sorts of health accessories, such as Jawbone’s Up and Fitbit wearables. A handful of compatible apps are available in the App Store, which means that besides those dedicated apps, their data can be viewed in Health.
Despite not yet owning any fitness accessories, I switched from using the third-party activity tracker “Moves” to the Health App (it seems to have less impact on the battery) and I can see the huge potential for holistic health monitoring when the Apple Watch is released next year.
Notifications were long overdue an overhaul prior to iOS 7, and they have continued to be refined and improved in iOS 8. The most noticeable change is that each notification can be actioned or dismissed without switching apps. For example, just pull down on a notification and relevant options are presented (for example Reply or Trash).
As a heavy iPhone user, I’ve found the new notifications considerably more convenient. Whenever emails arrive that I simply want to delete, it’s just a case of swiping down and tapping the relevant icon. With dozens of emails arriving in my inbox every hour, the usefulness of this feature cannot be underestimated.
I also find the tweaks to Notification Centre extremely welcome – the Today screen can be customised with widgets such as news or LinkedIn profile views (depending which apps you have installed) and the Missed Notifications panel has been removed – it was never clear before how notifications fell into the missed category.
Subtle tweaks to the menu colours and transparency also make it slightly easier to see which icons are selected, so on the whole, it’s much more functional.
Camera and video
Keen photographers will appreciate the refined camera controls in iOS 8 – it’s possible to manually adjust most of the point and shoot options such as brightness, or simply to leave them on the recommended default settings. For post-editing photos, again there are lots of new settings to play with, though I still think the Windows Phone camera app is easier to use. A time-lapse video mode also makes an appearance, as does the ability to apply third-party filters to your photos without needing to open those other apps; instead, it can all be done in the main Photos app.
The camera is one of the features that I use the most on my iPhone, and the changes introduced in iOS 8 are certainly for the better.
The biggest complaint about the iPhone is always its battery life. With WiFi and Bluetooth enabled, it can be hard to achieve a full day’s charge with even moderate use. The various activities and processes in iOS all contribute to the continuous drain on the battery, made worse when lots of apps are installed and constantly updating themselves. I have found battery life under iOS 8 almost on a par with iOS 7, which is not necessarily a good thing, but it’s not markedly worse. To make use of the new Continuity features (more on that below) I now run all day with Bluetooth enabled – there is undoubtedly an impact on battery life but it doesn’t appear to be making a noticeable difference.
Continuity and handoff
Probably the two most promising features in iOS 8 aren’t even fully usable yet. Continuity and handoff, when used together allow a limited set of applications (such as Mail, Messages, and Pages) to be used on one device and seamlessly picked up on another, exactly where you left off. This currently only works between iPhones and iPads, but Mac support is planned for OS X Yosemite later on this year.
Handoff is of limited practical value at the moment, but it should come into its own when iPhone calls can be received on the Mac (routed between the two using a combination of Bluetooth and WiFi).
Song recognition in Siri
Sadly Siri is one of those features that once the novelty has worn off, many people never use. That’s a shame because Siri is often the quickest way to create reminders and search for items on your phone (e.g. songs, contacts or settings). In iOS 8, Siri has gained some genuinely useful abilities – notably more relevant search results and what’s on guides in your local area.
Personally, my favourite Siri feature is the ability to recognise any song via Shazam. Simply ask her what song is playing, and she’ll listen for 30 seconds before telling you the name of the song plus a link to the track in the iTunes store.
Is it worth upgrading?
For anyone with an iPhone 5 or newer, upgrading to iOS 8 should be a painless process that brings lots of visual tweaks and enhancements, plus some great new usability features. Not least, the ability to install third party keyboards might be a clincher for some people, but in just about every way iOS 8 improves over its predecessor.
By waiting a month or two before upgrading, you’ll benefit from a more stable release with fewer bugs (and a few speed enhancements to boot).
On balance, iOS 8 is a welcome evolution of what was already a great operating system.