The iPhone 8 could end up being an amazing, transformative 10th-anniversary iPhone. At first glance, iOS 11 doesn't seem quite so ambitious. It's more of a series of targeted upgrades, with some of them being downright fantastic.
Apple's newest version of its operating system for iPhones and iPads doesn't formally arrive until later this year, but it's here in public beta form now. You can install it on your own iPads and iPhones, if you dare. Don't do so on your primary device, however, only experiment with it on a secondary device, and be ready for plenty of bugs. Betas do weird things sometimes and App Store apps aren't optimized for it yet anyway.
I've already been using it for a few days, testing it on an iPhone 7 Plus (for this story) and a new 10.5-inch iPad Pro (to see all the extra features it adds on the iPad). With the caveat that this is a beta -- and not a feature-complete one at that -- here are my first impressions.
The killer features:
You can pluck the best shots from Live Photos
When Live Photos first launched in 2015, they seemed clever but gimmicky. My brother-in-law asked me back then, can Live Photo pick another shot to grab a moment you thought you missed? It couldn't before, but it can now. Editing a Live Photo now allows any of the shots to become the "primary photo." Missed your kid's smile? Maybe you didn't. It's now a time machine for snapshots and a backup plan. I'm never turning it off after the iOS 11 upgrade. Added GIF-like loop effects and a nice long exposure trick are great too, but nothing beats editable shots.
A one-page Control Center
The iPhone's handy swipe-up panel sprawled into a weird multi-page monster with iOS 10, but it fits on one pane in iOS 11. New features are added, too, and shortcuts to key apps can be added or removed like widgets. Nice adds are Notes, Voice Memo and a great Apple TV remote tool built-in. I can keep my lost Apple TV remote wedged in the sofa permanently. Still, it could have added even more. Control Center doesn't use 3D Touch as much as I thought it would to deep-dive further in settings. But, hey, it's progress.
It's not going to be for everyone, but it's so easy to start recording what you do on your iPhone, even add voice-over commentary and share as a video. How-to videos and self-help sites are going to benefit tremendously. Maybe I'd use this to show my mom how to adjust her phone settings the next time she calls -- I could just email the video.
Marking up (almost) anything
The next time you want to share what you see on your iPhone (or iPad), remember that screenshots (home plus the power button together) now launch a markup tool that lets you scribble or highlight anything. Well, almost anything... movies and protected videos ended up blacked out (on iOS 10, that doesn't happen). Circle a weird comment, add a note with your finger. Safari has a "markup as PDF" feature that does the same thing. It'll be great for Twitter or Facebook. In a similar vein, PDFs are easy to make and even add signatures to.
A built-in scanner in Notes
Apple's Notes app keeps getting serious upgrades, pushing it further into Evernote country. Tables can be added in iOS 11, and there's also a scanning tool to add receipts or other documents. It does a pretty good job stretching and evening out off-angle scans, but it doesn't convert into editable text.
Some other things to try:
Siri sounds different and can translate
Siri is supposed to be somewhat smarter now. I didn't see a giant boost yet, but Siri definitely sounds different. The "more natural" style actually threw me off a bit. Siri's nicest new feature is instant audio translation into French, German, Italian, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. It's in beta -- so be wary of relying on it in a serious setting -- but it's nice to have at a quick button press. (Google Translate is still my go-to, though.)
A little iOS 11 trick is to press and hold the "emoji" button in the keyboard to get a new left- or right-hand-squished keyboard optimized for one-handed typing. It's reminiscent of the old compressed keyboard on the iPhone SE.
The Files app
There's now a place to consolidate folders and apps locally or in cloud accounts. It's taking some getting used to in the beta, but it's finally a central place to dump your stuff. But, so far, I found I couldn't just instantly make folders on my iPhone without putting them into pre-existing folders... which is disappointing.
Portrait mode for 7 Plus gets flash/HDR/effects
Extra camera modes mean Portrait mode's bokeh-type effects can be used in more situations.
'Do Not Disturb While Driving'
At long last, iPhones have a new filter to remove messages while driving. It's a more targeted variation of "Do Not Disturb." It can be triggered automatically, manually or while connected to a car's Bluetooth, and it also auto-replies to contacts (or only some of them) to let them know you're driving. I haven't used this a ton yet, but I'm curious.
Not so hot:
The new App Store
Apple's redesign of the store feels like Apple Music, Apple News and many recent redesigned parts of iOS. After a few days in it, I'm not sure it's easier to discover what I'm looking for. There are a lot more Apple-curated lists, it seems, and articles written about featured apps by Apple's editorial staff. Games are split off from the rest of the App Store to allow other apps to be featured better. Does it make things better?
Added Siri suggestions in News and other things
Supposedly, Apple News makes suggestions from what you're looking for in Safari. I haven't seen that emerge for me yet. Quick-type suggestions in Safari's keyboard bring up more specific things, often based on what you're looking at. But not always, and I found some oddities.
What you don't get yet (but will eventually):
Apple'sdoesn't have any apps or demos to show off in this beta, so you'll have to wait for software developers to show their stuff in the fall... or watch online.
Apple Pay in iMessages
In-message person-to-person Apple Pay promises to challenge Venmo, Paypal and other peer-to-peer payment solutions. But it's not launching until the fall.
reading•iOS 11 public beta: What it does for the iPhone
Jan 19•Tim Cook: I keep my tween nephew away from social networks
Jan 19•What you need to know about free trials in the iOS App Store
Jan 19•How to recycle your old phone or electronics
Jan 19•Samsung Galaxy S9: Everything we know about the launch date, specs and price