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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Pottery Barn’s AR app will preview your future furniture

When you’re looking to purchase the perfect couch for your living room, you probably want to make sure that it looks good next to your end table. Pottery Barn hopes to entice shoppers into its stores with a new augmented reality app set to do just that when it launches later this month.

3D Room View will give you the option to see any Pottery Barn product in any of your existing rooms, even if it’s empty. You will be able to add, move and remove furniture, rugs, lamps and pillows and change the color of the pillows and upholstery. Two other AR apps will be available later this month, too: one to help teens design their own rooms around a desk from Pottery Barn and another that shows you couches in 360-degrees. Why you’d need a separate app to spin a couch around is anyone’s guess, however. Update: these last two are web-based tools for desktop and mobile, not native apps.

The new Pottery Barn app is made possible by Google’s Tango, an augmented reality technology that’s already been used by BMW and the Gap (as well as by mummy-studying scientists). Unfortunately, there are only two Tango-enabled phones, the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro and the Asus ZenFone AR; you’re out of luck if you have an iPhone or any other Android handset. The app is also only available in the San Francisco Bay area for now, with plans to roll out across the country later this year. Sorry, east coasters. Update: The app itself is available to everyone, but the pilot program that pairs interested customers with design specialists who can show the Tango-enabled tools in-store is only in the San Francisco area.

Ikea and Lowe’s already offer AR apps, while East-coast competitor Wayfair launched its own last November. Pottery Barn isn’t really innovating so much as playing catch-up. Still, if there’s one way to get a bunch of Silicon Valley tech bros to boost your bottom line, it’s with a gimmicky smartphone app.

Via: SF Chronicle

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iOS 10 preview: Apple’s software takes a big step forward

Rumor has it that Apple isn’t going to reinvent the iPhone this year, but you definitely can’t say the same about its software. iOS 10 was unveiled to the world late in the company’s Worldwide Developer Conference keynote, and for good reason — there were many, many new software features to unpack.

And now it’s time to play. Assuming you have the guts to install unfinished software, you’ll be able to grab the iOS 10 public beta soon (as long as you’re part of the Apple Beta Software Program, anyway). As a quick reminder, the preview is compatible with the iPhone 5 and newer, the iPad mini 2 and newer, and the sixth-generation iPod Touch. Before you choose your sacrificial iDevice, though, read on to get a better sense of what works in the beta, what doesn’t and how Apple’s approach to software continues to evolve.

The caveat

I’ve been using the public beta build on an iPhone 6s for two days, and so far it’s been remarkably stable. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve already encountered a handful of hiccups and bugs, but I haven’t run into any full-blown showstoppers either. Still, if you’d prefer not to troubleshoot or restart your phone, you’re better off steering clear of the Apple Beta Software Program. But that goes without saying.

Here’s what you need to keep in mind: Not all the features Apple previewed at WWDC are live yet. In fact, some of the most interesting ones aren’t. (Same goes for Apple’s macOS Sierra preview, as a matter of fact.) Most of Siri’s improvements center on linking up with third-party apps to let you send money through Square Cash, for instance, or track runs with MapMyRun just by asking. Sorry! You can’t do that today; it’ll be a few months yet before developers get their SiriKit-enabled apps ready.

Ditto for applications like Skype and WhatsApp: When updated this fall, they’ll display calls on your lock screen as though they were regular phone calls. This version of iOS 10 also doesn’t consistently transcribe your voicemails either, or get lyrics for your songs, or let you use Apple Pay on the web. The list goes on. Suffice to say the software going live today is just a taste of the software Apple plans to ship in the fall.

The look

It’ll likely be a while yet before we see a redesign as thorough as what we got with iOS 7, but hey: iOS 10 still feels like a refreshing change of pace. Apple’s typeface is thicker by default and notifications and widgets are neatly contained in bubbles, all of which goes a long way toward making things feel cleaner. Speaking of notifications, you can use 3D Touch on supported iPhones to take action without even having to jump between apps. Think: giving a Facebook message a thumbs up or archiving emails in Outlook. Alas, you can’t do any of this while the phone is locked.

Those bubbly new widgets appear when you use 3D Touch on supported apps too, and from there it takes one more touch to add it to your Today feed. They can be a little temperamental, though: Only after two days of testing did the weather widget finally decide to display the outside temperature. (The answer: too darn hot.) Naturally, Apple redesigned lots of other bits and bobs for this release. The Control Center you invoke by dragging up from the bottom of the screen has been split into two pages, one of which is reserved for music controls.

Now, back to the big, bold aesthetic Apple is pushing this year: It can be hard to avoid. Perhaps the best example of this is the radically redesigned Music app, which is… divisive, to say the least. It’s all about punchy colors and extreme legibility. I don’t mind it, but others who have seen it are not thrilled. Pro tip: You can change the font size used in the Music app from the device’s settings. This new aesthetic carries over into other redesigned apps like Health (which now also lets you opt-in for organ donation) and the Clock app (which now has a bedtime mode to keep you well-rested).

The fun

Nearly all of the neat features in the updated Messages app work just fine. You can “handwrite” notes by turning the iPhone on its side, send heartbeats with digital touch, leave “tapback” reactions on things people send you, and more. My favorite so far: using bubble effects to basically yell at other people using iOS 10. Quickly sending GIFs with the included #images iMessage app is a close second; in case you forgot, Messages is one of those Apple-made apps that will soon benefit from third-party developer support. For now, though, the only other available iMessage apps let you share your recently played music or share animated images like the ones Apple uses on its Watch.

It’s also now dead simple to share a recent photo since you have a live camera preview as soon as you tap the photo icon. One touch snaps a shot and preps it for sending, though there’s a noticeable delay in this beta build. Oh, word to the wise: If you don’t want to get caught in flagrante delicto, hold off on sending racy messages. If you send a message obscured by invisible ink to someone who doesn’t have iOS 10, the message appears normally with a follow-up that says “sent with invisible ink.” The app sometimes says the secret message hasn’t been delivered to the non-iOS 10 device, but it almost always was.

Apple has added plenty to the traditional messaging experience, and it’s all pretty fun, but it sometimes feels like a bit much. Apple is facing stiff competition from Snapchat, Facebook’s Messenger and others, but with all that’s going on here, I can’t help but think the company is just throwing stuff against a wall to see what sticks.

It’s not strictly part of the upgraded Message app, but there’s a lot of fun to be had with the keyboard as well. By default, the keyboard suggests an emoji when it detects a word that matches it. If you switch to the emoji keyboard in that case, all the words that can be emoji-fied glow orange. Tapping any of them replaces the word with the pictograph. Too bad that other keyboard tricks, like free time suggestions based on your calendar, don’t seem to work all the time yet. For now, only specific phrasing (like “I am available at…”) seems to trigger the schedule suggestion.

The helpful

You’d be forgiven for thinking Apple didn’t do much with its Photos app; at first glance, there aren’t many obvious changes. (Your albums are now laid out in a grid instead of a list, so enjoy.) The biggest difference here is that iOS doesn’t just use your photos’ metadata to organize everything; it can organize them based on what’s depicted in them too. It’s a lot like Google Photos, except all of the machine learning magic happens on the phone itself. The downside? If you have a ton of photos like I do, it takes iOS a long time to initially scan them all. Side note: Don’t be shocked if this blows through your battery.

The results are usually great. You can now search for broad categories like “cat” or “drink” or “bikes” in addition to just places, and the results have been almost completely been right on the mark. One search result for “bikes” returned a photo from Barcelona where a moped lay at the bottom of the frame, shrouded in shadows. Not bad, Apple. Your photos automatically get bunched into Memories too, like “Best of the Year” and “Last weekend.” There’s more to memories than just an array of photos; you’ll get to see where the photos were taken and who’s in them.

It’s too bad the auto-created video montages Apple (“memory movies”) have never loaded properly for me. Maybe your luck will be better than mine. On the plus side, you can edit Live Photos now, and all the changes you make apply to the still and the video that surrounds it. Live Photos still aren’t my thing, but this is still a welcome move nonetheless.

Engadget’s parent company might own MapQuest (which is apparently still a thing), but I’m all about Google Maps. My devotion has been more or less unwavering, but Apple Maps in iOS 10 just scored major points with me thanks to the improved (and enlarged) navigation interface. Seriously, it’s so much easier to read at a glance than Google Maps that I can almost see myself switching. There’s also a little weather display in the corner, and the app is better about suggesting places you might want to go to and how to get there. You’ll eventually see other apps like OpenTable hook into listings you find in Maps, but we’ll have to wait a few months before that functionality becomes available.

The overdue

There’s a lot more going on with the Music app than just a new look: The whole flow has changed. By default, you’re dropped off in the Library upon launch, where you can access all the songs you’ve saved or downloaded. Simple enough. It’s the For You section that seems to have gotten the most attention. Instead of just giving you a bunch of random playlists you might like, Apple now does a better job of explaining why its choices might be up your alley. The Connect tab is gone this time, so posts from acts you follow are in For You as well. Thankfully, they’re buried at the bottom and easy to ignore if you find them as utterly pointless as I do. Perhaps the most important interface change is that search gets a tab of its own, making it easier to find your perfect summer jam.

Like Music, Apple News also received a facelift that’s big on bright colors and big text. And again, the biggest change is the For You section, which is to say it now actually works. The Top Stories were the same between devices running iOS 9 and the iOS 10 beta, but the update brings subsections of stories that seem better tuned to your interests. In my case, those subsections included the Middle East, currency markets, startups and technology — all things I dig, and have searched for recently. Throw in notifications for breaking news and we finally have an Apple News that feels like it’s worth using.

The odds and ends

Not everything fits neatly into a box, but here are a few changes to the iOS formula that you should definitely be aware of.

  • Yes, you can remove Apple’s first-party apps, and yes, it is glorious. Technically, it’s just user data that’s deleted; the app itself remains hidden on the device, but I’ll take that symbolic victory.
  • Raise to Wake does exactly what it says, and it works remarkably well for checking the time and your notifications
  • You can swipe left from the lockscreen to launch the camera. (It takes a little getting used to.)
  • I didn’t always love how fast the TouchID sensor worked on the 6s and 6s Plus. Coincidentally, Apple now requires you to push the home button to unlock instead of just laying a finger on it. No more inadvertent unlocks (though you can revert to the old way in settings)!
  • You can access Spotlight search from just about anywhere, since the search bar now appears at the top of the drag-down notifications shade.
  • Apple’s Home app is pretty (there’s that bold aesthetic again), but I couldn’t properly test it since I didn’t have any HomeKit gear on hand. Check back for our impressions in our eventual full review.

We can’t issue a verdict on iOS 10 until it launches this fall, but Apple has taken some significant steps forward here. iOS 9 built the foundation for a lot of these features, and with iOS 10 we’re seeing Apple try to figure out how they best work together. Sometimes that means rewriting the rules, and other times that means letting other people build on top of the existing platform. How well that will all work is the big question, and we should have our answer in a few months.

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