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iOS 12 beta now available: What's cool so far, and what's missing

Memoji? Yes! AR and Shortcuts? Not so much.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The open beta for iOS 12 is available today, and -- unlike the developer beta that launched on June 4 -- anyone can download it. I've been trying out the public beta on a test iPhone X for the past few days, and can report to you on what's worth trying out and what's still missing.

Before we dive in, let's note the usual caveats:

  • While iOS 12 is generally more stable and polished than most iOS betas at this point in time, it's still a beta: Don't install it on your primary phone or everyday device -- an older phone or iPad is a much better choice.
  • If and when you do install it, don't expect a radical change from iOS 11.4.
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Keep in mind that iOS 12 is more about fixing problems and maximizing performance, and less about introducing big new features and ideas.

That said, there are a handful of interesting new things under the hood. Here's what I liked best -- and the stuff that I haven't had a chance to test in depth yet.

The best of iOS 12 beta

Memoji and more Animoji (iPhone X only)

They're absurd, but they're also awesome: Apple's make-your-avatar Memoji are adorable and very functional. Memoji can't automatically be generated to match your face, but I made a decent Scott Stein-alike in about a minute. The best part was sticking a Memoji on my own head. It's like Snapchat, sure, but it's something that my kids were thrilled with.

Memoji tools are buried in the Messages app and in FaceTime, and the Memoji-on-head trick is even harder to find (you need to tap a camera icon in Messages, then tap the filter effect button and select Animoji/Memoji.) This should live standard in the Camera app, but it doesn't yet. 

Yes, there are some new Animoji, too, if you prefer them to Memoji-creation. Apple added a dinosaur, a ghost, a koala and an adorable little tiger cub.

No one really needs any of this Memoji or Animoji stuff. But you know you'll want to try it.

iOS 12 Public Beta

Downtime can shut down apps, but adults can override it easily.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Screen Time

If you've ever been curious about how much of your life you're wasting on your phone, Apple's new tool, Screen Time, aims to help. A chart inside Settings shows usage by app and how many times the phone's been picked up, which ended up being as depressing as I expected.

If you want to go further in trying to cure your screen addiction, Downtime sets a period where phone apps are deactivated... or at least discouraged. You can snooze the deactivation, or turn it off completely when any app is launched. I found myself blowing right past the Downtime pop-ups. (I'm also the sort of person who deletes the Twitter app and reinstalls it minutes later.)

Added kid content and screen-time management controls mean that parents can finally set up the kid's iPad or iPhone to restrict Fortnite and Snapchat time to certain hours and time limits. It's one of the most useful iOS 12 beta features to play with.

Better notifications

iOS 12's also trying to fix the flood of buzzing, beeping messages your phone gets with some clever extras. Similar types of notifications, like Twitter or a news feed, can now get nested into a stack from the lock screen, clearing space for... more notifications. And it's also easier to mute those notifications if they're getting annoying: Tapping on particular notifications can turn them into silent messages that appear on the lock screen with no vibration or sound. More advanced Do Not Disturb settings can be set for more situations, too.

Other tweaks: Better Voice Memos app, added Photos search and suggestions

I use Voice Memos all the time, which is why I'm happy that Apple has now added rewind and fast-forward controls and iCloud storage. Apple's Photos app has extra contextual search terms, and recommends photos to share with others. Both are worth exploring.

Group FaceTime

I used the public beta on my own, but I can't wait to try joining up with up to 32 people for weird massive video chats, using Animoji and Memoji and filter effects. Apple's group FaceTime also automatically switches emphasis to whoever is talking, which should get interesting.

iOS 12 Public Beta

The most exciting AR trick you'll be performing in iOS 12 public beta is measuring stuff.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What's not really here yet

Enhanced augmented reality with ARKit 2

iOS 12 allows lots of ways that AR can start to look even more amazing: multiplayer games, integration in the Safari browser and lots of new tricks that can layer virtual objects over real things more realistically. But that requires third-party apps, which won't arrive in the App Store until the fall with the final version of iOS 12. Right now, all that's new is Apple's Measure app, which does a decent job as an augmented reality tape measure. But there already are apps that do this, so Measure isn't all that exciting.

Shortcuts with Siri

Eventually, third-party apps will be allowed to add hook-ins that add shortcuts via Siri, and a standalone Shortcuts app will allow all sorts of programming of voice shortcuts to launch actions and control iPhones and iPads. Anyone who's used the Workflow app on iOS (which Apple acquired) should expect a similar Siri-enabled experience in Shortcuts.

But that new app, and the third-party apps, aren't here yet. Instead, you can try customizing your own prompts for Siri Shortcuts in Settings for Apple's first-party apps as they automatically appear. It's a little confusing, mostly because it's really a half-launched feature in the beta.

The same goes for automatic Siri suggestions from the lock screen, designed to look for patterns over time and suggest actions preemptively. Third-party apps aren't here to hook into this yet.

Performance tests to come

iOS 12 promises some big performance gains for current and older iPhones and iPads, and that's great news (also, perhaps, a reason to try the beta if your older device is currently performing terribly). I've only tried the public beta on one test iPhone X provided by Apple, but stay tuned for more performance comparisons on older devices as we get to test it out.