iOS 8: An Upgrade With Potential

First of the big Apple products to land from last week's glitter laden event is the next major release of iOS - version 8. Given that this will shortly be the operating system powering more phones than any other it's worth reviewing what it brings to the party.

After iOS 7 introduced a new visual style (which is still divisive, one year on) iOS 8 was never to make many changes in the look and feel department. Instead there are many underlying changes which offer developers the opportunity to do more with parts of the iPhone that were previously closed off to them. For an excellent discussion of all the minutia of the new release you won't go wrong with Ars Technica's comprehensive walk through, here.

In terms of how it feels to the end user, I'd say it's pretty disappointing. The addition of Android-like features such as widgets in the Today screen, third-party keyboards and wider access to sharing APIs are definitely a step in the right direction. They just feel like too small a step.

The Evernote widget, for example, offers a shortcut to creating different note type. Excellent, that's a big jump forward from having to jump into the app and start the new note process there. You can even re-arrange the order of the widgets so that your key shortcuts are at the top of the list (barring calendar and traffic info, which reserve pride of place). On Android however, the Evernote widget allows you to do this and pin folders (with mini-versions of your notes) to your home screens. It would be nice to see similar capability on iOS in the future.

Spotlight still doesn't surface apps installed on your iPhone - an incredibly annoying and basic failing, especially given that there's no way of automatically sorting apps in to alphabetical order. If you've several pages of installed apps and you're searching for a relatively rarely used one that's annoying. The best option here is to use Siri, but voice control isn't always convenient.

Extensions and third party keyboards are much better updates though. The arrival of a LastPass extension for Safari, with TouchID integration promises to be  a game changer as far as web login security is concerned. The arrival of TouchID on the iPad and MacBook is all that's needed to close this particular loop. Swiftkey is the only third party keyboard I've used thus far, but that too feels like an excellent upgrade. Previous iOS keyboards have been nothing short of awful, but the use of Swiftkey's Flow mode makes it a pleasure to enter data on the iPhone. Much quicker too.

The addition of favourite users to the top of the multitasking screen is a poorly thought out change and feels most un-Apple like. Probably why Apple allows you to disable it. Finding the setting may prove challenging though, as Apple has tweaked some of the settings menus.

Safari still can't handle Wikipedia
pages, despite using it as a resource
One thing I was looking forward to as the introduction of the 'Hey Siri' feature - however as neither the current iPhones nor the coming iPhone 6 generation, sport the low power hardware to make this ubiquitous, the feature is only available when the iPhone is plugged in and charging. For most people that means overnight, so I'm feeling incredibly short-changed, even if my disappointment is aimed more at the iPhone 6 than iOS.

Last of the visible updates is the change to the way search works in Safari. The search bar is much more intelligent and surfaces results in the drop down box as you type. One of the sources for this information is Wikipedia, so it's a shame that Safari doesn't handle the default Wikipedia mobile view at all well. At least there is now the opportunity to request desktop view when mobile pages won't get the job done.

So the iOS 8 upgrade doesn't massively change the way you'll use your iPhone - it still looks and feels like the same phone once you've completed the upgrade. The new features feel like an effort to catch-up with features that Android has made work well. It's not an upgrade that's going to persuade anyone to jump ship from one platform to another and in that respect it's a safe upgrade for Apple.


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