iOS 8 coming September 17 with widgets, new keyboard, home automation, health, Touch ID for all

/ Updated: 9 September 2014 6:45 pm BST

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James Martin/CNET

Apple officially announced that iOS 8 will become available Wednesday, September 17, two days before the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus go on sale. Big-ticket features include a new NFC payment system (with iPhone 6), "widgets," Touch ID for third-party apps, a brand-new keyboard that learns as you go, and software for home automation.

Before we get into those details, let's get one thing on the table: iOS 8 doesn't undergo changes to its visual design. Last year's major overhaul with its flat icons remains, and iOS 8 focuses heavily on building out software enhancements across the board.

Apple Pay

Using new NFC technology in the iPhone 6, you'll now be able 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'll be able to hold your iPhone up to the touchless payment system, verify with your fingerprint on the home button, and the purchase is finished.

The Apple Pay system will be available for many large stores and restaurants at launch, including Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Walgreens, Subway, McDonalds, and several others. The Apple Watch will also be able to take advantage of Apple Pay once you have paired it with an iPhone 6.

What's this about widgets?

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 by letting you respond to events, even from the lock screen. Beyond replying to messages, you'll also be able to interact with eBay bids, for instance. iPad users get widgets as well, plus a tab view and sidebar for handy-dandy access.

Here's a little navigational gem: in addition to seeing the apps you've recently used, double-tapping the home button gives you quick access to the people you've spoken to most recently with icons of their faces across the top of the screen. From there, you'll be able to call, text, or Facetime with only a couple of touches.

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 is extending its digital fingers into two very personal areas: your home and your heart. HomeKit (the name of the tool pack for developers) is Apple's systemwide OS foray into home automation, letting iOS device (including the Apple Watch) owners control elements like your thermostat, alarm, garage door, and lights. Hooking in Siri means that 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.

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

Typing, messaging, and more

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 lexicon when you're talking to your boss or grandma.

The new keyboard still doesn't natively support tracing, as Android does, but there is now support for third-party keyboards, which is a big deal for iOS users who so far haven't been able to use keyboards like SwiftKey. With all the lead time since WWDC, expect several third-party tracing keyboards to launch in the App Store soon after iOS 8's September 17 launch date.

Another feature we like is tucked into Safari, where support for extensions will let 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 dropdown menu, then get your translation inline on the Web page to read it naturally in your language.

A little more control over messaging should go a long way with iOS 8. You'll be able to send an audio message to any contact. Apple calls this Tap to Talk, and you can listen to incoming audio messages from the lock screen, which has become a busy place in iOS 8.

Here's another change: all your attachments, such as audio messages and pictures, appear in the details page for a chat thread. This means you won't have to scroll all the way through a conversation to get a specific photo, for example, because the details page keeps all attachments like photos and audio notes together in one place.

Also in the messaging realm, you'll be able to name group message threads, which will help you keep tabs on multiple conversations. Better yet, you can mute "noisy" chat threads that go off on tangents.

Email on the iPad gets 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'll be able to 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 e-mail, drop in your attachment, and send the completed email.

In this release, iOS 8 gets some feature parity with Mac's OS X 10.10 Yosemite, like iCloud Drive and the Spotlight feature. iCloud Drive works across Mac OS and iOS 8. What excites us more in terms of day-to-day use is Spotlight, which gives you a bevy of online and offline suggestions, including Wikipedia entries and suggestions for relevant apps you don't even have yet. Searching for a movie pulls up local theaters and showtimes, right on the phone, and without you having to fire up a browser.

Photos and Siri

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. Fans of manual photography also get thrown a bone, because Apple announced that those controls will be available for developers to tap in iOS 8.

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 slider seemed to work surprisingly well.

Now, every photo you take through iOS is available on any other iOS device (with the Mac getting the same experience sometime early next year), and edits to photos and video show up across devices as well. 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 talked about in a recent post.

As we guessed it might, Siri supports Shazam music recognition for identifying songs as well as your speech, and plug-and-play compatibility with Siri in cars means you can touch a Siri button built in your steering wheel to ask a question while you drive. Siri will also support streaming voice recognition (showing you what you're saying as you say it) for quicker results, with support for 22 new dictation languages.

In the app store...

Another addition is to the iOS 8 App Store that lets developers create short video app previews, and sell multiple apps in bundles, which means that device owners can 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.

What else?

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 is beefing up iOS gaming with Metal, a new graphics engine that promises 3D graphics rendering that Apple says will be as much as 10 times more efficient than it is currently.

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.

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

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