Refinements make iOS better, along with killer new features

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/ Updated: 14 April 2015 6:35 pm BST

Editors' note, April 14, 2015: This First Take has been updated in line with the most current software version.

Two days before the launch of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus , iOS 8 was ready for download, bringing with it a lot of minor new features that added up to an attractive package. Every change was welcome, but there were features that had to wait until subsequent minor updates launched in iOS 8.1 and 8.2.

8.1 gave us the long-awaited Apple Pay features for iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, while 8.2 opened up core features to third party developers, letting us use custom keyboards and photography apps that had more access to the iPhone camera.

Now that iOS 8.3 is available to everyone, we're seeing fewer new features and more bug fixes to smooth out the rough edges. Still, one long-awaited feature was added that should have been there from the beginning. While a seemingly small feature, new racially diverse emojis are a welcome addition and were a pretty big miss during the last 7 years of iOS updates.

But iOS 8 by itself simplified and enhanced features you already had in iOS 7 and added more conveniences to the apps you already used. It wasn't a drastic change like the redesign in the previous version, and it wasn't even as big an overhaul as iOS 6. But now that we know what has come in subsequent point releases, it's definitely something you'll want to download for the improvements it adds across the board.

Apple Pay

Using new near-field communication (NFC) technology in the iPhone 6, the most notable new addition to iOS is the ability to use your iPhone at the checkout counter of many popular stores. Apple calls it Apple Pay. With an easy scan of your credit card using the iPhone camera, you can store all your credit and bank cards using Passbook. Then, when you're at the checkout counter, you can hold your iPhone up to the touchless payment system, verify with your fingerprint on the home button, and your purchase is finished. CNET's Sharon Profis wanted to see how it worked and took Apple Pay (and other apps) out for a shopping trip to see whether it was useful.

As of iOS 8.1, the Apple Pay system is now available for many large stores and restaurants, including Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Walgreens, Subway, McDonald's and several others. The recently announced Apple Watch will also be able to take advantage of Apple Pay once you have paired it with an iPhone 5 or above.

It's true that Android users have already had NFC payment systems on their phones, but we also know that almost nobody uses them and only a few stores are set up for the service. It remains to be seen if Apple's addition of NFC will be the thing to make paying with your phone more mainstream, but as more stores commit to using NFC, it seems inevitable.

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While chatting, if you touch the Details button in the upper right, you can see all the attached photos sent and received with that contact. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

More to do with Messages

Third-party messaging apps such as Whatsapp Messenger and Kik have been big hits in the App Store because they often included more things you could do than what the regular Messages app offered.

In response, Apple has added new features in iOS 8 to the Messages app to make it much better than before. For starters, there is now a details page accessed from a button in the upper right of a text message that gives you more options. At the top of the Details page, you have contact info with buttons to call, initiate FaceTime, or look at that person's full contact information. Below that you can quickly send your location with a map (much like Whatsapp Messenger). But you'll also be able to share your location so your friend knows exactly where you are at the farmers' market, for example, and you can set it to share for one hour, until the end of the day, or indefinitely.

There are also a lot of push-to-talk third-party apps in the App Store, so Apple added a method in Messages to record your voice on the spot. Whether you want to share the sound of a nearby musician or say something in a funny voice that will add to the conversation, you can use the microphone button on the right. While you hold it down, the sounds around you will be recorded and then you can just swipe upward to send it immediately or swipe left to cancel the recording.

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Go into the Details screen to quickly add your location into the chat. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The Messages app now helps you manage group messages better and makes it easier to browse through all the attachments in a conversation. Group messages let you name the group, such as "Las Vegas trip" so you know the group chat is about planning your vacation. Don't worry if the group gets a bit too active in the chat while you're in a meeting or at dinner, though; Messages has a new Do Not Disturb feature in the message Details section so you can temporarily mute the conversation until later.

Finally, my favorite feature of the new Messages app in iOS 8 is also in the Details section. Now, instead of scrolling through a long chat over time to find that one photo, the Details section keeps all the photos, locations, audio clips, and videos in one place. It makes it incredibly easy to find the photos you never saved to your library, which I can tell you from experience is something I wish I'd had since the beginning.

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Keyboard changes make communication easier

To make texting an emailing even more efficient, Apple has done some really promising work with the keyboard to make it extremely context-sensitive and adaptive to your lingo. Called QuickType, you get word suggestions in panels at the top of the keyboard (in the manner of Android) in 16 different languages. And since it learns your conversational style as you talk with certain people, it might helpfully predict words and phrases like "hecka" or "snoozer" when you chat with a friend, and pull from a different, more polite lexicon when you're sending an email to your boss or grandma.

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Whether you're answering a text via notification, chatting, or emailing, the new keyboard will try to predict the next word. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The new keyboard still doesn't natively support tracing, as Android does, but there are now third-party keyboards you can download that do the same thing. Check out this post from CNET's Sarah Mitroff where she explores some of the new keyboard apps you can download for iOS.

Speaking of keyboards, iOS 8.3 adds several bug fixes and feature tweaks, but one seemingly small addition was something that was sorely needed from the beginning. Emojis -- those cute icons you can use to spice up your messages -- let you choose little graphics for food, vehicles, buildings, faces and tons of others. The only problem? There was almost no racial diversity for the people emojis all the way since they were introduced to the OS. Finally, in iOS 8.3, you'll be able to touch and hold a face emoji to see a popup that gives you several options for race. They will also stay that way as the default until you change it again.

Though it's a seemingly small feature tweak, it's an important change that makes messages more inclusive to all people who use iOS.

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Better searches in Spotlight

Like Apple's latest desktop operating system, Mac OS X Yosemite, Spotlight in iOS 8 has been expanded to search for things on the Internet. Instead of just using search to find apps and emails, you can enter the first few letters of a movie or restaurant, and Spotlight gives you results on the Web. In the case of movies, it will also search for show times.

It's not just limited by things around you, however. When you search for a location, such as "Golden Gate Bridge," you'll get appropriate maps and Wikipedia articles so you can read more. One thing I noticed while testing the Spotlight features is that you're not going to get the same volume of results you would get with a Google search, but there's usually enough there to learn more about a subject, get directions to a restaurant, or whatever the item or activity you're searching for.

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Spotlight now gives Web results when you search for things like restaurants and movies. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Widgets and Notification Center

Widgets are finally here, but don't go imagining that they look and act as enlarged home screen icons a la Android -- they don't. Instead, think of them as enhancements to the Notification Center designed to interact with the apps on your iPhone; even those made by third-party developers.

We already had widgets in earlier versions of iOS, but most will remember they were limited to things like stocks and weather. Mac OS X has had widgets for a long time as well. But with iOS 8, third-party developers give you instant access to their apps from the Notification center, so you can respond to an eBay bid, for example, without having to open the app directly.

Notifications got an upgrade, too, making them easier to manage by letting you respond to events, even from the lock screen. When a text comes in, for example, you could be working in another app, but instead of leaving that app as you would in iOS 7, you can respond by typing into a field at the top of the screen, then hitting Send.

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With Notifications you get the enhanced Today view and new widgets. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

You also can respond in third-party apps. For example, you might get a direct tweet from a friend and instead of touching the notification to enter the Twitter app, you could touch it and reply from within that banner at the top of your screen.

All of these are merely time-savers rather than ground-breaking new features, but it will definitely make it much easier to respond to notifications without being forced to leave the app you're in.

Home and Health

Last year, Apple promised that Touch ID would work with third-party apps -- and now, it finally can, while keeping fingerprints secure.

Apple has extended its digital fingers into two important areas: your home and your heart. HomeKit (the name of the tool pack for developers) is Apple's system-wide OS foray into home automation, letting iOS device owners (including the Apple Watch) control elements like your thermostat, alarm, garage door, and lights. Hooking in Siri means that, for instance, uttering the command, "Get ready for bed" can engage them all to lock up the house, adjust the thermostat, and turn down the lights for the night.

Several third-party apps have since come out for controlling your home environment including Honeywell Mobile Home, Lutron Home Control and several others. Here's a list of several products that use HomeKit from CNET's Megan Wollerton.

Taking a page from Samsung's book on seeing digital health as the next frontier in mobile development, Apple's Health app tracks your vitals by bringing together all your health data in one place. It works with other manufacturers' hardware like the Jawbone and Fitbit. It also works with third-party apps to notify the Mayo Clinic, for example, to get word to your doctor in an emergency.

What results is a Health app that tracks all your fitness apps and wearables at once to give you a comprehensive look at your overall health. It's also loaded with categories to help you track everything from iron intake to flights of stairs traveled with data you enter yourself. Any of these tracked items can be put on the app's dashboard so the graphs of health data you care about most are always front and center. With iOS 8.2 and the launch of the Apple Watch, you'll also be able to see health data on your wrist.

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Tap the search field to get suggestions, but you also can search on locations or dates. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

New photo library and camera features

Photos are always a big deal with Apple, and iOS 8 adds a heap of new features to help you edit, perfect, and find photos. Auto-straightening and cropping are two headline tools in the new Photos app, but you also get a couple of automatic color-correction tools to make your photos look better. Apple also opened the door to developers to make their tools available from within the Apple camera app in iOS 8.

Since iOS 8 was released, several apps have already come out to take advantage of more controls in the iOS Camera. Apps like Manual, Proshot and several others give you options for adjusting ISO, white balance and other tweaks you couldn't do before with the standard iOS camera.

Another great addition to the Camera app is the capability to shoot time-lapse videos. Along with options for photo, video, square, pano, and slo-mo, the time-lapse option works as intuitively as the rest. Just point your camera at a busy intersection, toward slowly moving clouds, or out the front window of your car and start recording. When you're finished the app gives you a good looking time-lapse video you can save to your camera roll, send to friends, or share on social networks.

To make your photos look better, Apple has added two new sliders for lightness and color. But don't think of them as basic brightness controls; With each slider, the app analyzes the photo at hand and makes adjustments across several categories to give you the best-looking shot. So lightness includes varying adjustments to shadow, highlight exposure, black-point and contrast. You can still adjust each of these individually, but for a quick fix to your photos, the smart sliders work surprisingly well.

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New smart sliders make several adjustments behind the scenes or you can tune each of them individually. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Search filters at the top of the app help narrow down categories like location of the shot or the date. You can search for pictures taken a year ago, or grouped by location, singly and in albums. Unfortunately, the photos app still doesn't have individual photo-tagging features, which is something I think iOS sorely needs.

Siri goes hands-free

Siri now supports streaming voice recognition (showing you what you're saying as you say it) for quicker results, with support for 22 new dictation languages.

iOS 8 also brings hands-free control of Siri, but only when your iPhone is plugged in. Whether it's charging on your desk or in the car, you'll now be able to say "Hey Siri!" to have her listen to your question, whether it's a quick question about sports scores or if you want to call a friend while keeping your hands on the wheel.

In my testing here in the office, I found one problem with the voice-activated controls. With the phone sitting between my coworker and I, she was able to access Siri and send text messages to my contacts. Obviously, this wouldn't be a big problem most of the time, but the teenage version of me might have sent a text to a friend's crush as a joke. Really, there are all sorts of pranks that could be played with this feature, but I haven't heard any complaints yet.

App Store gets easier to navigate

Another addition is to the iOS 8 App Store, which lets developers create short video app previews and sell multiple apps in bundles, allowing device owners to buy groups of apps at a discounted rate. Apple's editors' choice insignias also pop up to guide user choices, and integrated TestFlight lets developers beta-test apps to interested users without them having to buy anything or side-load apps.

Now, on the money side, parents who want a little more control over how many apps their kids buy get a little more say-so with a new feature called Family Sharing in iOS 8. When a kid, for example, requests to buy an app on a family account, the card owner can approve or decline the purchase. This works for up to six family members who pay for apps through the same credit card.

As a side note, the Family Sharing features also lets one person in the plan use Find My iPhone to send a ping to another family member's phone to help them find it.

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In the App Store you'll now see trending searches, and search results let you quickly browse vertically. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Several other highlights

iOS 8 has hundreds of new, minor changes in addition to the ones listed here. One new convenient feature lets you double tap the home button to bring up currently running apps like before, but now you'll see photo circles for contacts across the top. On the left, you have the people who you've designated as favorites so a quick call, text, or FaceTime to your mom or best friend can be done in seconds. To the right of your favorites are people you've recently called. Between the two, you'll be able to talk to the most important or currently relevant people in your life much faster than swiping through your contacts. Need to call the plumber back? No problem.

Another feature I like is tucked into Safari, where support for extensions lets you do a number of tasks inline. Here's a good example: when you open up a Web page in a different language, you can select the Bing translate extension from a drop-down menu, then get your translation inline on the Web page to read it naturally in your language. More extensions continue to come out, and I'm excited to see what people come up with.

Email on the iPad got some refinements as well, like even more sliding gestures in the sidebar to delete and flag emails. While you're composing a new message, you can tap and slide the menu bar to the bottom to get it out of the way so you can grab an image from elsewhere in your inbox. With the attachment copied to the clipboard, you can touch the bar at the bottom to reopen the email, drop in your attachment, and send the completed message.

In this release, iOS 8 gets some feature parity with Mac's OS X 10.10 Yosemite as well, like iCloud Drive and the Spotlight feature (mentioned above). iCloud Drive works across Mac OS and iOS 8 and will let you store any file -- not just photos, videos, and docs that are created by an Apple app.

iOS 8 also works seamlessly with Mac OS X Yosemite while you work on different devices. Continuity features make it possible to Handoff work from one device to the next. So, for example, you can be working on a presentation in Keynote on your iPhone, then pick up your iPad when you get home to see a small button appear in the lower left. Then just touch it to bring what you were just working on to your iPad screen so you can continue working. The same is true for the Mac (with Yosemite). Start a project on any device, and you can switch to another to keep working using Continuity.

Too many tweaks to mention

With all the hardware launched at the September 9 event, Apple covered some of the more prominent new upgrades throughout the show, but -- with hundreds of new changes -- there simply wasn't time to talk about everything. Fortunately, at WWDC Apple let gamers and game developers know about a behind-the-scenes change that could really take mobile gaming to new heights: Apple has beefed up iOS gaming with Metal, a new graphics engine that has 3D graphics rendering that Apple says is as much as 10 times more efficient than it was before.

So while Metal is not a new app or interface element, we now know that third-party developers have some really cool tools to work with for making graphics-intensive games in the future. Several games have already come out that use Metal as of March 2015, and so far they have been very impressive.

Though Apple didn't show it at the September 9 event, at WWDC a slide on iOS 8 displayed numerous "hidden features." These are all things you'll get with iOS 8, but weren't talked about during the announcement keynote:

  • Auto night mode in iBooks
  • Panoramic photos on iPad
  • Battery usage by app
  • Travel time notifications
  • 24 new dictation languages
  • Camera timer
  • Instant burst mode
  • Separate focus and exposure in Camera
  • RSS feeds in Shared Links
  • Improved zoom for accessibility
  • In Case of Emergency card
  • Purchase iTunes content with Siri
  • Rich text editing in Notes
  • Touch ID to exit from Guided Access
  • Indian, Tagalog, Irish Gaelic, and Slovenian keyboards
  • Private browsing per tab in Safari
  • See your books as a series in iBooks
  • DuckDuckGo support in Safari

Some things we didn't get

For all the bigger changes and hundreds of minor enhancements in iOS 8, there are still a few things that need to be done. I've harped on these things for a long time, but they're worth mentioning again.

You still can't have multiple user accounts on one device, so your kid can still easily get access to your chats, emails, game histories, and other information. Not everyone will care about this omission, but there are definitely families that have one iPad shared among several people, and it would be nice if there were a system in place that let you change accounts to personalize the experience for each person.

You also still can't replace the default apps. I'm fine using Safari for casual browsing, but I have friends who prefer Chrome who wonder why they can't make it the go-to browser on their iPhones. This might be an issue that never goes away, because Apple wants you to use its flagship apps for Web browsing, email and other core features.

Neither of these are reasons not to install iOS 8, but it's worth knowing about if they are changes you were looking out for.

Conclusions

Apple's iOS 8 isn't the drastic design change we saw in iOS 7 so there's no reason to worry about it completely changing the way you do things with your device. Instead, it makes a number of smaller refinements that will save you time, from the expanded options in the Messages app to better ways to search your photo library.

The NFC payment system through Apple Pay is one of the more exciting additions, but even with support from many of the big stores, it only works with iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and the Apple Watch. So, like many of the changes in iOS 8, we're still witnessing how it works in the wild. Early reports have been promising, but it's safe to say Apple Pay hasn't replaced our wallets just yet.

Even with all the smaller tweaks, with this update Apple is partly playing catchup with Android and partly striking out on its own with new features. But as our smartphones have matured over the same time period, we're getting to a stage where there's not much left to add on to any smartphone platform. So the tweaks we're seeing seem to focus more on making things efficient while adding some new, unique features that will make daily use easier.

Now that iOS 8.2 is available, Apple Pay and support for Apple Watch fulfill the promises made when Apple first released iOS 8. We're still not sure if Apple Pay will make NFC payments mainstream, but the features work as promised, and subsequent iOS updates have definitely made several iPhone features easier to use.

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