Apple iOS 7 review: Massive makeover makes iOS feel new again

New in iOS 7.1, iPhone 5S users can now use an automatic HDR feature. This smart HDR feature automatically detects the scene in front of you and turns on the HDR when needed.

iTunes Radio
Gunning for Pandora, Google Music, Spotify, Slacker Radio, and pretty much any other music service, Apple's new iTunes Radio expands the pre-existing iTunes with familiar features that include radio stations you can build around a favorite artist, and featured stations.

iOS 7
While a song is playing in iTunes Radio, you can buy it without stopping the music (left). You also can select from featured stations or create your own. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Of course, iTunes Radio will be tied to your Apple ID, so you can use it wherever you have iTunes installed. It's free and will be ad-free for iTunes Match users.

In version 7.1, iTunes Radio gets a little bit better with a search field at the top where you can create stations based on an artist or song. You could already do this by navigating to the My Stations section and touching the New button, but having it at the top of the main screen makes a lot more sense.

While there's not much new in terms of capabilities here that popular third-party streaming radio apps like Pandora or iHeartRadio don't already have, it's nice to have it included as part of the iOS. And as CNET's Jaymar Cabebe says in his full iTunes Radio review, Apple delivers a much better experience than those competing apps. For those keeping score, Android doesn't have a built-in streaming-radio feature, and Windows Phone was the first of the bunch with included streaming-radio features.

Siri matures
Apple's favorite digital voice assistant gained some more personality in iOS 7. In fact, "she" has a brand-new voice; several, if you count the different accents and male and female versions added in iOS 7.1. The male voice and other language choices clearly can answer all the same questions, but seem to sound a bit less robotic to me -- your experience may vary.

A new sound wave animation appears at the bottom of the screen when you speak, and Siri's results come up in full screen, not just as a tiny card. We did notice that Siri is a little faster to respond to search queries in iOS 7, but Google Search still holds the speed record for voice search response time.

Another tweak that's new to iOS 7.1 is that you can now control how much Siri hears. When iOS 7 launched, you could touch and hold the home button and ask your question, then Siri would detect when you stopped talking to automatically look for an answer. With 7.1, Siri looks for an answer once you let go of the Home button. This is a welcome change because often you might be a loud area and more than just your question would be picked up by the microphone. Hopefully giving you the control over what Siri hears will help her to find your answers faster.

By far the most substantial addition, and one that's truly useful, is that iOS 7's Siri can trigger actions on your phone's system settings, like playing a past voice mail, turning on Bluetooth, and increasing the brightness settings. Many voice assistants can't do this, so it's nice that Apple has increased Siri's capabilities this way. You can also now ask Siri to search Wikipedia and Twitter.

iOS 7
The weather app (powered by Yahoo) changes the background based on the weather in each location. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

FaceTime audio
The days of abandoning FaceTime every time you want to make a straight audio (rather than video) call from your iOS device are coming to a close. High-quality calls over Wi-Fi complement video calls for those who would rather talk without racking up huge long-distance bills.

One thing I noticed in my testing was that you can go from a FaceTime audio call to FaceTime video call without hanging up. But once you're taking part in a FaceTime video call, you can't switch back to audio. It might be a minor point, but I think it should go both ways for flexibility.

Automatic updates
An enormously time-saving addition, especially for those with a lot of apps installed, are automatic app updates in iOS 7. You'll now be able to turn automatic updates on and never be bothered with the number indicator on the App Store icon again. Having a ton of apps, I really appreciate this feature, but it's bittersweet. While I don't like constantly looking at the updates notification, there are some apps that I want to see the new features of before I update. Unfortunately, there is no middle ground here; you can only have the feature always on or always off.

iOS 7
With multitasking features, you can swipe left and right to browse open apps or swipe upward to quit an app. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Multitasking
Apple may sneer at Microsoft, but it certainly likes its rivals' approaches to multitasking. Now, double-tapping the home screen brings up not just tiny thumbnail icons of your open apps, but also a tall preview (like a mini screenshot) of what you're looking at, comparable to what you see on a Windows Phone device. And borrowing from Android's recent app list layout, swiping the preview upward in iOS quits the app completely. Wherever the ideas came from, the new way of multitasking with full-page previews is definitely an upgrade, and being able to quickly quit an app without going into "jiggle mode" is a better experience.

One other useful multitasking feature is how iOS 7 handles switching between two apps. As an example, when working on something, I'll often need to switch back and forth between apps to paste from one into the other. From one app, I can double-tap the home button to bring up the list of currently suspended apps. From there I can switch to the app I want with a tap. When I go back, I can double-tap the home button again, and it automatically goes back to the previous app. This will make it much easier to work between two apps.

Apple Maps app
The Maps app was much-maligned when it was first released, but has come a long way since launch with more accurate mapping, locations, and turn-by-turn directions. Besides under-the-hood enhancements, there is not much new in the Maps app, but you will now be able to sync your bookmarked locations with your other devices for easy access.

Security on the iPhone 5S
An iPhone 5S-exclusive feature in iOS 7 is Touch ID, Apple's new iPhone security system. With an enhanced Home button scanning system, you'll now be able to skip the passcode step for unlocking your iPhone, and simply place your finger on the Home button for a fingerprint scan. Apple says this will also work for buying apps and music at the iTunes Store. You can program in several fingerprints (such as those of people in your family) so you can designate exactly who can access and use your iPhone.

iOS 7
The Photos app shows you all the photos you took this year (left), but tapping on the year brings up collections by date and location. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Other additions and tweaks
Most of the newest additions are cosmetic but are still worthy of noting here. Voice Memos work almost exactly the same as previously, but you'll now see a sound wave when you record, and you can listen to previous recordings by scrolling downward. The Weather app has been updated to look more like the Yahoo Weather app (iOS Weather is powered by Yahoo), and you can now look at multiple cities on one screen. The Messages app also got a useful new minor feature, letting you swipe to the right to view time stamps for every message. There are a lot of smaller tweaks like these in iOS 7 that won't change how you use your iPhone, but will make day-to-day use easier.

Another new addition are enhanced CarPlay features that let you access your music, apps, messages, and calls from supported built-in dash computers. I'll update this review once I've seen the CarPlay features in action.

Update: One change I wasn't as happy about when iOS 7 launched had to do with the Calendar, but I later found out how to make it work. The Calendar app features the new layout that lets you zoom in on months and days, and it has a new color scheme to match up with the iOS 7 design aesthetic. But in iOS 6, it also had a day view that gave you a list of the day's appointments at the top so you could see them at a glance. When I looked at the new version initially, I couldn't find the list and thought you could only look at the full-day view, requiring that you scroll through the day to see your appointments. Fortunately, a reader pointed out to me you could still see the list, simply by touching the search magnifying glass at the top of the Calendar.

In iOS 7.1, Apple has moved the list view to a much more convenient location, letting you touch a button at the top to see your day's priorities in Month view. It's a small change, for sure, but I like that the company made the feature more easily accessible rather than hiding it in an unintuitive location.

Will my iOS device work with iOS 7?
The answer to this question is yes, probably. iOS 7 will run on the iPhone 4, 4S, 5, 5C, and 5S. It will not work on the iPhone 3GS. As for the iPad, iOS 7 will run on the iPad 2, the Mini, and the newer iPad, but not the original. iPod Touch users need the fourth or fifth generation of the device.

The larger question might be, "What features will work on my device?" Here is a chart that shows what will work on which device:

iPhone 5S iPhone 5/5C iPhone 4S iPhone 4 iPod Touch (5th gen) iPad 2 iPad 3 iPad 4 iPad Mini
iTunes Radio X X X X X X X X X
Siri X X X n/a X n/a X X X
AirDrop X X n/a n/a X n/a n/a X X
Panorama camera mode X X X n/a X n/a n/a n/a n/a
Filters in Camera app X X n/a n/a X X n/a n/a n/a
Fingerprint scanner X n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a

Conclusion
iOS 7 is the first major redesign of the OS since the first iPhone's release in 2007, signaling a shift to a more modern look that still stays true to Apple's sharp, clean aesthetic. It makes even an old iPhone feel new again and I like this daring step forward. It's compelling, calm, but also complicated when you first jump in.

Indeed, it took me some time to get used to a new way of doing things. Though most apps work the same way as before, others do not, and you'll have to scroll a lot more to see the same information on some screens. For some time, I imagine there will still be a contingent of diehards that will buck at the unfamiliar look. But give them more time, and I think they'll be won over.

For features, it's a different story. Outside of the long-awaited Control Center, you're not going to get many game-changing additions here, but the update will make a lot of your everyday actions easier. And that, along with the revamped design, makes iOS 7 well worth the download.

What you'll pay

    Pricing is currently unavailable.

    Don't Miss

     

    Join the discussion

    Conversation powered by Livefyre

    Where to Buy

    Apple iOS 7

    Part Number: apple.com/ios/ios7 Released: Sep. 18, 2013

    Free

    Quick Specifications

    • Release date Sep. 18, 2013
    • Category Operating systems
    • Compatibility iOS
    Hot Products