iOS 11 preview: Full of promise, especially on bigger screens

As always, Apple spent a considerable chunk of WWDC earlier this month hyping up iOS 11 and all of the new features it brings. Now it’s your turn to take them for a spin. The first public release of the iOS 11 beta goes live today for people participating in Apple’s testing program, and we’ve been playing with it for a few days to get a better sense of what it has to offer. Long story short, it’s already shaping up to be a very valuable, very comprehensive release.

In order to find out for yourself, you’ll need the right hardware: an iPhone 5s or newer, an iPad mini 2 or newer or a sixth-generation iPod touch. Before you replace your iVessel’s perfectly functional software with something that’s still months away from being ready, keep reading for a primer on what to expect.

But first…

Before we go any further, here’s the usual disclaimer: This software, while mostly functional, is a long way from being finished. Over the past few days of testing, I’ve seen my share of lock-ups, app crashes and overall funkiness. (As I write this, my iPhone’s “home row” has disappeared and I can’t figure out how to get it back.)

Since we’ve had a limited time with this preview, we haven’t been able to test all of the updates it contains either. Even though I work for Engadget, my home resembles that of a Luddite, so I didn’t have much of a need for the updated Home app. And since my car is relatively ancient, CarPlay was also a no-go. Meanwhile, other things just weren’t ready for prime time, including multi-room support in AirPlay 2 and the ability to send cash to friends via iMessage. And while we’re starting to see some really neat augmented reality tricks made with ARKit, none of those are available in the App Store yet. Long story short, just make sure you know what you’re getting into before you agree to the install.

Familiar, but different

The iOS aesthetic has undergone some major changes over the years, but that’s not really the case here if you’re using an iPhone. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a difference until you swipe up in search of that flashlight. The iOS Control Center no longer looks like a handful of pages with quick options; it’s a more condensed cluster of buttons and controls that you can finally customize. I appreciate Apple squeezing all of this functionality into one place; it generally works well, and if your iOS device supports 3D Touch, you can press on these icons to access more controls. That said, I’ve already screwed up my screen brightness while trying to close Control Center maybe a thousand times, and I’m not sure I love the look either.

You can also view all your recent notifications from the home screen just by swiping up from your lock screen, which is nice if you need to get caught up on things quickly. That said, if you’re a digital pack rat (like me) and never clear your notifications, this is a great way to see iOS lag.

You’ll also see a big focus on big text: It’s meant to be clear and visually punchy, but if you didn’t like the Apple Music redesign, you’re probably not going to like this either. That bold approach is used everywhere to some extent, from the Messages app to your list of albums in Photos. The best new example, however, is the revamped App Store. It’s not just a place with lists of apps (though those still exist) — it’s more curated, and there’s a strong editorial bent. Featured apps get miniature articles (crafted with help from the developers), lots of big imagery, and more video to help explain what makes them so special. It kind of feels like Apple squeezed a teensy blog into the App Store.

And for the first time, games and apps are kept separate from one another. Sifting through these distinct lists is definitely more convenient than before, but it mostly benefits developers. With these lists now separate, apps won’t get pushed down in the Top Paid and Free lists by whatever the buzzy game of the moment is.

Intelligence everywhere

Apple’s pushing the concept of “intelligence” really hard with this release. With Core ML, developers will be able to weave machine learning features into their apps, and hopefully make them more responsive to our desires and behaviors. Too bad none of those apps are ready yet. There’s still one concrete example of Apple’s pronounced focus on intelligence here, though: Siri.

For one, it sounds profoundly more natural than before. There are still small tells that you’re talking to a collection of algorithms, but the line between listening to Siri and listening to an actual person is growing strangely thin. (You’ll notice the improved voice in other places too, like when Apple Maps is giving you directions.) Hell, Siri even sounds good when you ask it to translate something you’ve just said in English into Spanish, French, German or Chinese.

It’s also able to act on more unorthodox requests like “play me something sad,” which happens to launch a playlist called “Tearjerkers.” And if you’re tired of hearing Siri altogether, you can now type queries and commands to it instead. Unfortunately, you’ll have to disable the ability to talk to Siri in the process. Ideally, Apple wouldn’t be so binary about this, but there’s at least one workaround. Worst-case scenario, you can enable dictation for the keyboard, tap the button and start chatting with it.

If some of this sounds familiar, that’s because Siri actually has a lot in common with Google Assistant. While the feature gap between the two assistants is closing, Google is still better for answering general-purpose questions. Apple’s working on it, though. The company says Siri now pulls more answers from Wikipedia, which may be true, but you’ll still just get search results most of the time.

More important, the underlying intelligence that makes Siri work has been woven into other apps. Siri can help suggest stories you might be interested in inside the News app, and if you register for an event within Safari, Siri will add it to your calendar.

Getting social

Sometimes I wonder why Apple doesn’t just go all out and create its own social media service. Then I remember it did. It was called Ping, and it flopped hard. So it’s a little worrying to see Apple bake a stronger social element into Apple Music. At least the company’s approach this time is based on delivering features people actually use. In addition to creating a profile (which only partially mattered before), you can now share your playlists and follow other users. Sound familiar? Well, it would if you were a Spotify user. Apple’s attempts to stack up more favorably against major social services doesn’t end here, either.

With the addition of new features, iMessage has become an even more competent competitor to apps like Line and Facebook Messenger. You want stickers and stuff? Apple made it easier to skim through all of your installed iMessage apps, so you can send bizarro visuals to your friends quickly. You’ll get a handful of new, full-screen iMessage effects for good measure, and it’s not hard to see how the newfound ability to send money through iMessage itself could put a dent in Venmo’s fortunes. (Again, this feature doesn’t work in this build, so don’t bother trying to pay your friends back via text.)

And then there’s the most social tool of all: the camera app. The all-too-popular Portrait mode has apparently been improved, though I’ve been hard-pressed to tell the difference. (It’ll officially graduate from beta when iOS 11 launches later this year.) You’ll also find some new filters, but the most fun additions are some Live photo modes. You can take the tiny video clip associated with a Live Photo and make it loop, or reverse itself, or even blur to imitate a long exposure. Just know this: If you try to send these new Live Photos to anyone not on iOS 11, they just get a standard Live Photo.

The iPad experience

The new update brings welcome changes to iPhones, but it completely overhauls the way iPads work. This is a very good thing. Thanks in large part to the dock, which acts similar to the one in macOS, they’re much better multitaskers. You can pull up the dock while using any other app to either switch what you’re doing or get two apps running next to each other.

Just drag an app from the dock into the main part of the screen and it’ll start running in a thin, phone-like window. Most apps I’ve tested work just fine in this smaller configuration, since they’re meant to scale across different-sized displays. And you can move these windows apps around as needed. To get them running truly side by side, just swipe down — that locks them into the Split View we’ve had since iOS 9.

Having those apps next to each other means you can drag and drop images, links or text from one window into the other. This feels like a revelation compared with having to copy and paste, or saving an image to your camera roll so you could insert it somewhere else. Now it just needs more buy-in from developers. Literally all I want to do sometimes is drag a photo from the new Files app into Slack to share it, but that’s just not possible yet.

Oh, right, there’s a Files app now. It’s another one of those things that do what the name implies: You can manage stuff you’ve saved directly on your iPad, along with other services like Dropbox and Google Drive. Those third-party integrations are sort of theoretical right now, though: Dropbox sync isn’t ready yet, and navigating your Google Drive doesn’t really work the way it’s supposed to. It’s a great idea in concept, and I can’t wait to try it when it actually works.

When you’re done dragging and dropping, one upward swipe on the dock launches the new multitasking view. The most annoying part of this new workflow isn’t how your recent apps are laid out as a grid instead of the usual cards. No, it’s that you can’t just swipe up on those cards to close an app like you used to; you have to long-press the card and hit a tiny X to do that. I get that it’s more akin to the way you delete apps, but the original gesture was so much more intuitive and elegant. Otherwise, sifting through open apps to pick up where you left off is a breeze.

That said, it’s odd to see the Control Center to the right of those app windows. Having all these extra control toggles shoved into the side of the screen looks kind of lousy to me, but don’t expect that to change anytime soon. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of thoughtful touches on display here. Consider the new on-screen keyboard: Instead of tapping a button to switch layouts for punctuation and numbers, you can just swipe down on a key to invoke the alternate character. I still haven’t gotten completely used to it, but I’m much faster than I was on day one. Hopefully, your muscle memory resets more easily than mine. The Notes app also has been updated with the ability to scan documents on the fly, which has already made my life easier when I’m filing work expenses.

And don’t forget about the Apple Pencil. It was always kind of a hassle going through multiple steps before I started writing a note — you had to unlock the iPad, open Notes and tap a button to enable pen input. Now I can just tap the lock screen with my Pencil and I’m already writing. Longtime readers probably know my handwriting sucks, but it’s generally clean enough for iOS to parse it, so I can search for things I’ve written straight from Spotlight. Tapping a result brings up my note, and, even in its unfinished state, it’s honestly a little crazy how fast Apple’s handwriting interpretation works. Then again, Apple is pushing on-device machine=learning processes like this in a big way, so if we’re lucky, behavior like this will be the rule, not the exception.

These are all valuable improvements, and I’m sure I’ll wind up using these features a lot. At this point, though, I still wouldn’t choose an iPad over a traditional notebook or convertible as my primary machine. The situation will improve as more app developers embed support for all these features into their software, but the foundation still doesn’t seem to be as flexible as I need.

The little things

As always, there are lots of little changes baked into these releases that don’t require a ton of words. Let’s see…

  • There’s a handy one-handed keyboard in iOS 11, but it’s disabled by default. I have no idea why.
  • When you’re on a FaceTime call, you can now take a screenshot of what you’re seeing without that pesky box with your own face in it.
  • Do Not Disturb While Driving is good at knowing when you’re using an iPhone in a car — just be sure to add a toggle for it in the Control Center for when you’re a passenger.
  • It’s basically impossible to miss when an app starts using your location: You’ll see a blue banner at the top of the screen telling you as much.

Even in its unfinished state, iOS 11 seems promising, especially for iPad users. I’ve always maintained that iOS 10 was a release meant to weave Apple’s sometimes disparate features and services into a platform that felt more whole. It was maybe a little unglamorous, but it was necessary. When iOS 11 launches in the fall, we’ll be able to get a better sense of its character and value.

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The new iPad Pro packs a bigger screen into a familiar body

The tablet market isn’t in great shape, but Apple is still convinced that the iPad represents the future of mobile computing. That’s where the Pro models come in: They’re designed to bring serious horsepower to everyday tasks in hopes that people could use them to replace traditional computers. Now we’ve got a new one, the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, which replaces the 9.7-inch model we reviewed last year. After a bit of hands-on time, one thing is clear: If you’re looking for a premium tablet, this is one slate you can’t ignore.

The Pro 10.5 (which I’m now calling it, for brevity’s sake) is basically the same size and weight as older 9.7-inch Pro, which is no longer for sale. That Apple was able to squeeze a bigger screen into the same trim body is fantastic; the bezels flanking the left and right sides of the screen are dramatically smaller, which means there’s less stuff to get in between you and the glories of the internet. I was concerned that those smaller bezels around this bigger screen would make the iPad awkward to hold. After all, where are my thumbs supposed to go? Well, it’s not really a problem. The combination of a sleek body and minimal, one-pound weight means the new Pro is just as easily to grasp as older models.

Apple refined the display, too. Beyond the bigger size, it packs familiar True Tone tech that tweaks the screen’s color temperature depending on your surroundings, and refreshes at 120Hz. It was tough to see the difference in action (especially in Apple’s dimly lit demo room), but scrolling and writing on the Pro with an Apple Pencil was remarkably smooth. Don’t worry, we’ll compare it more thoroughly to the other Pros when we get one in for review.

Dana Wollman/Engadget

Now, there’s more to that sense of smoothness than just an improved screen. The Pro 10.5 uses a new A10X Fusion chipset; it’s a more powerful version of the chip we got in the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, though it’s not clear how much RAM there is inside. Older iPad Pros had already reached the point where everything felt seamlessly smooth, so you might not notice a difference just swiping around and launching apps. Where all that extra horsepower should shine is when it’s applied to graphically intense games, not to mention the forthcoming iOS 11 update.

These Pros were running an early version of iOS 11, as you could probably tell by the dock at the bottom of the homescreen. To be clear, you are definitely not getting features like that when the 10.5-inch Pro launches next week. It’s still iOS 10 all the way. The wait may be a tough one, though: Apple showed off a load of new features that should make iPads more capable across the board. You’ll be able to access the dock while using apps to launch other ones, and even drag them into the two-paned multi-window mode. You can now drag content back and forth between apps, too, a handy touch for multitaskers. And some other features, like swiping up with four fingers to see all your running apps, feel a lot like ones already baked into macOS.

In other words, the line between iPads and Macs is blurring.

With a blend of improved hardware and a smarter OS, the new iPad Pro seems poised to shine when it starts shipping next week — stick around for a full review shortly.

Get all the latest news from WWDC 2017 here!

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Moto G4 and G4 Plus review: Bigger and (mostly) better

When it comes to getting the most smartphone for your dollar, the Moto G line has been your best choice for the past few years. We adored the previous model, which came in at a mere $ 180. Now with the Moto G4 and G4 Plus, Motorola is literally aiming to make its budget lineup bigger and better. They’ve got larger and sharper screens, improved cameras and, of course, speedier processors. With those upgrades come compromises, though. For one, they’re more expensive: The G4 starts at $ 200 and the G4 Plus at $ 250. Motorola also made some curious design decisions, which in many ways feel like a step back. Still, they both manage to carry the mantle of Smartphone Value King.

Hardware

You won’t find any premium aluminum or chamfered edges on the G4 and G4 Plus. They’ve got practical and simple plastic cases. Still, they don’t feel like budget phones. Their curved edges make them easy to hold, and the slightly textured rear cover feels a bit luxurious against your palm. Both phones are also noticeably larger than any previous Moto G, thanks to their 5.5-inch 1080p screens. At least they’re thinner than their 11.6mm thick predecessor, clocking in at just 7.9 millimeters to 8.9 millimeters. Strangely enough, they weigh the same 155 grams (0.34 pounds) as before.

The G4 and G4 Plus feel pretty solid for plastic encased phones. There’s little flex or creaking when gripped tightly. Long-term durability might be a concern though — somewhere during my week of testing I nicked the top of the G4 Plus’s plastic edge. I never dropped it, so your guess is as good as mine as to how it got damaged. It does make me worried about how well they’d stand up to months of everyday use.

Both phones sport removable back covers, just like all the previous Moto G models. In addition to the nano-SIM slot, there’s a microSD slot for up to 128GB of additional storage. They pack in 3,000mAh non-removable batteries, a nice bump from the last Moto G’s 2,470 mAh offering. It’s a shame that the battery can’t be swapped out, but it’s also large enough that that shouldn’t be a huge issue. (We didn’t have a problem with it last year, either.)

Powering all of this budget goodness are 1.5GHz Snapdragon 617 octa-core processors. Both phones offer 16GB of storage by default, but you can bump up to 32GB with the G4 (a no-brainer $ 30 premium) or 64GB with the G4 Plus (for another $ 100). They come with 2GB of RAM, though the 64GB G4 Plus gives you a luxurious 4GB of RAM.

Given that they both share so much hardware, you’re probably wondering what makes the G4 Plus, well… Plus? The most obvious difference is the fingerprint sensor on its front, which sits right below the software home button. The G4 Plus also packs in a 16 megapixel rear camera with phase detection and laser autofocus. The G4, on the other hand, has a 13 megapixel shooter without the added niceties.

One unfortunate downgrade from last year: Neither phone is waterproof. Instead, Motorola is calling them “water repellant,” thanks to a “nano-coating” technology that protects them from spills. That means they should be fine during light rain, or if you spill coffee on them. Just don’t go fully submerging them in anything.

Display and sound

There’s nothing budget about the 5.5-inch 1080p displays on the G4 and G4 Plus. They’re not quite as fancy as the quad HD displays we’re seeing in some flagships, but they still pack in 401 pixels per inch, which is plenty sharp for typical usage. Colors were bright and bold, even in direct sunlight, and viewing angles were surprisingly great. I didn’t notice much of a difference between my iPhone 6S while reading long articles from Pocket and the New York Times app. Videos also looked uniformly great. The big downside is that they’re less capable when it comes to mobile VR. It’s no wonder they’re not Google Daydream ready (though nothing is stopping you from plugging them into a Google Cardboard headset).

On the sound front, Motorola made the curious decision of replacing the last Moto G’s solid stereo speakers with a single one. It’s plenty loud, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good as before. Now that Bluetooth speakers are cheap and small, I’d recommend just snagging one as an accessory.

One nice feature that I never thought I’d have to call out in 2016: both phones have headphone jacks! For the uninformed, you use them to connect a wide variety of audio devices, including headphones. Someone should tell Motorola that these audio ports, which have been universally supported for decades, would be a nice addition to their flagship Moto Z lineup. That’s especially true for the Z Force, which is thick enough to fit a headphone jack. (Yes, the Moto Z comes with a dongle, but that comes with plenty of compromises. You won’t be able to charge the phone when the dongle is plugged in, for example.)

Software

Motorola delivered a nearly stock OS on the G4 and G4 Plus, specifically Android 6.0.1. Marshmallow. The phones are devoid of the junkware and sponsored apps you often find on budget devices. None of this is new for Motorola, it’s been trying to deliver vanilla versions of Android since it was under Google. But it’s nice to see the company stick with that philosophy under Lenovo.

Motorola’s unique gestures, which made their debut on the original Moto X, once again make an appearance. Twisting either phone twice, similar to turning a door handle, quickly loads up the camera from anywhere in the OS. Making a double-chopping motion turns their flashlights on and off. What’s particularly nice is that both features work consistently even when the phones are in standby mode.

Camera

This is where the Moto G4 and G4 Plus truly diverge. Should you settle with a 13 megapixel camera, or spend the extra cash for the G4 Plus’s 16 megapixel one loaded with autofocusing upgrades? Based on my testing, the G4’s camera is a bit hit or miss. Sometimes it delivered sharp and vibrant photos, but sometimes its color rendering was all off. It was also a constant disappointment in low light. The G4 Plus was a lot more consistent — it was able to lock onto subjects much more quickly, and it was actually useful in low light. Looking at both phones shows how far we’ve come in the world of mobile cameras. But, if I had to choose, I’d opt for the G4 Plus’s shooter without any hesitation.

While Motorola used a light touch with most of the software, its camera app is a very different experience from Google’s stock entry. There’s a radial exposure meter right next to the focusing ring, which lets you lighten or darken the image by dragging it up or down. Flash, HDR and timer settings are also on the left side of the screen, instead of the top. If you want to take panoramic photos, or simply want manual controls, you’ll have to use a separate app, like ProShot or Open Camera.

Performance

While I was bracing for a slow experience with the Moto G4 and G4 Plus (due to increased rendering demands for 1080p screens, last year’s display was only 720p), both phones surprised me with their relatively smooth performance. Sure, they’re not as instantaneously zippy as expensive flagships, but they also don’t feel like “budget” devices. Browsing around Android Marshmallow, launching multiple hefty apps like Pokemon Go, and juggling through them was relatively painless. There was the occasional slowdown on the G4, but nothing show-stopping. If anything, their performance feels more in line affordable mid-range phones like the Nexus 5X.

And when it came to demanding usage, I was surprised by how well both phones held up. I was able to capture 1080p videos of both phones’ displays using the AZ Screen Recorder app while running Pokemon Go and jumping through several apps. The Moto G4 showed a bit of slowdown, but Pokemon Go was still totally playable. And the resulting video didn’t have any major hiccups or dropped frames. The Moto G4 Plus with 4GB of RAM fared even better, with no slowdown during screen recording.


Moto G4 Moto G4 Plus Moto G (2015) Moto G (2014)
AndEBench 16,159 16,371 4,259 3,929
Vellamo 3.0 2,762 2,819 1,992 1,669
3DMark IS Unlimited 9,841 9,851 4,518 4,679
GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 6.6 6.6 1.7 N/A
CF-Bench 61,030 60,998 20,999 14,470

The benchmarks for both phones reflect the strong performance I saw. Compared to last year’s Moto G, they scored four times higher in AndEBench, three times faster in CF-Bench and they were more than twice as fast when it came to the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited. Of course, benchmarks aren’t everything, but huge performance bumps like these are noteworthy. I wouldn’t have dared play a complex 3D game on the last Moto G, but the G4 and G4 Plus ran games like Racing Rivals without any issue.

The fingerprint sensor on the G4 Plus was easy to set up, and it had no trouble accurately recognizing my fingers. Its placement on the face of the phone is confounding, though. Motorola would have been better off placing it on the rear of the phone like LG, or making it an actual home button like Samsung and HTC.

As for battery life, neither phone disappointed. Their 3,000mAh offerings had no trouble lasting me throughout a full day, even when I decided to go on some impromptu Pokemon hunts. In our test, which involves looping an HD video at 50 percent brightness, they both lasted around 12 hours and 30 minutes. The previous Moto G, lasted 10 hours and 40 minutes.

The competition

At $ 200 for the Moto G4 and $ 250 for the G4 Plus, both phones are practically in a class of their own. There are cheaper phones out there, including Motorola’s own Moto E and HTC’s $ 179 Desire 530, but they all have significantly worse performance in every respect. If you wanted a big upgrade, you could step up to the Nexus 5X, which currently sells for between $ 280 and $ 350, and remains one of the best Android phones on the market. Beyond that, there are the affordable high-end options like the $ 399 OnePlus 3.

If you’ve only got $ 200 to spend, there’s no better option than the Moto G4 right now. Stepping up to the G4 Plus gets a bit more confusing. If you want the 64GB version with 4GB of RAM, you’d have to shell out $ 300. At that point, the Nexus 5X is more tempting thanks to its faster hardware, though you’d have to live with its smaller 5.2-inch screen.

Wrap-up

Motorola’s big problem with these new phones is that the last Moto G was simply too good. In pushing for larger screens and other upgrades, it also introduced some compromises. Ultimately though, the good outweighs the bad. The Moto G4 and G4 Plus offer plenty of power and versatility without breaking the bank. And they show that, once again, nobody does budget phones better than Motorola.

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