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Apple iOS 10 review: iOS 10: What we like, and what needs to get better

Apple's new operating system for iPhones and iPads has its charms, but some annoyances remain.

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Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Money, How-To & Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads the CNET Money, How-To, and Performance teams. A California native who grew up in Silicon Valley, she's passionate about connecting people with the highest standard of advice to help them reach their goals.

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8 min read

Apple's iOS 10 has been available on most recent iPhone and iPad models since September 13. We've been using it since then, and...it's fine. It's perfectly good. It's better than iOS 9.

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Apple iOS 10

The Good

iOS 10 introduces fun and convenient new features -- like an updated iMessages and raise-to-wake -- that make it worth the upgrade, especially if you have a HomeKit-compatible device or a Mac running MacOS Sierra software.

The Bad

Some features are clunkier and take more steps than they should, and Apple fails to address fundamental issues in the Siri voice assistant and Touch ID.

The Bottom Line

iOS 10 serves up plenty of useful quality of life improvements, but a few rough edges keep it from shining too brightly.

But it could be even better.

The software update -- and its most recent 10.1 upgrade -- brings a heap of glittering new software features to Apple's mobile devices: incredibly interactive messaging, a lock screen that acts more like a control hub, and some cool payment capabilities, like pressing your thumb on the phone to buy goods on your Mac. There's also that sweet Portrait mode that adds an artistically blurred bokeh effect for the iPhone 7 Plus. For the most part, the new iOS delivers. But as we've lived with over the past few weeks, we've found that some promising features aren't fully baked, and others we thought we'd love wind up as more fluff than substance.

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iOS 10: New features, but some need refinement.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Several new additions are also cumbersome, like responding to texts from the lock screen, swiping through three Control Center pages to see all settings, and dismissing now-larger notifications (which hang around and are easy to accidentally open).

But the software's biggest problems are fundamental: Pressure-sensitive 3D Touch on compatible iPhones pops up for some apps but not others and menus open slowly. Plus Siri still falls behind Google Now (and the newer Google Assistant) in how well it gathers and displays most information -- and how well it understands you in the first place.

And for iPads, the new features are super-subtle. It's disappointing that Apple hasn't added any major iPad difference-makers this year, unlike last year's fantastic upgrades like Split View in iOS 9.

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Voicemail now transcribes your messages.

Josh Miller/CNET

So should you upgrade to iOS 10? Short answer: yes, if you have a supported iPhone or iPad. Voicemail transcription -- if your carrier supports it -- and new Messages features are worth the upgrade. The raise-to-wake screen (available on 6S models and later) is also helpful for checking quick messages. You're also setting yourself up for more benefits down the road, provided more hooked-in, third-party Siri-compatible apps and iMessage apps arrive.

Meanwhile, if you have a Mac running the new MacOS Sierra software update, you'll be able to use iCloud to bridge both devices for things like copying and pasting text, and sharing documents and desktop files. But we do hope Apple smooths out iOS 10's rougher edges as the company keeps delivering updates -- from 10.2 and beyond.

What we like: The best new features in iOS 10

iMessage upgrades: The upgrade to Apple's built-in messaging app gives you a ton of fun new ways to express yourself with other iOS 10 users. Stickers and new flashy animations (lasers!) borrow liberally from Facebook Messenger -- they're fun but hardly necessary. They do get addictive, though, and the total sticker package avalanche gives Messages a more social-app feel. But the apps are the promising part: you can already make payments via Square Pay or add a ton of other features like restaurant reservations or movie showtimes.

The new Home app: If you have any HomeKit-compatible home products, iOS 10 finally offers the tools to access your products and create easy-access controls and settings -- from any screen. The only problem is, you need HomeKit-compatible products.

Raise-to-wake: On iPhone 6S and later models, lift the phone to jostle the screen to life long enough to see if what messages await. It's a natural gesture that gives your thumb a break, and makes the iPhone a more glanceable tool. It's just a shame that the widgets on the lock screen don't have 3D Touch or work more like mini-apps. Learn how to use the lock screen here.

Take a look at the features of iOS 10

See all photos

Apple Pay on a Mac using your phone's TouchID: Now you can use your iPhone's TouchID home button to complete Apple Pay payments on a Mac if you have MacOS Sierra. (Of course, if you're planning on getting a new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, that model's built-in Touch ID fingerprint sensor means you won't need your iPhone at all.) When you need it, it's pretty helpful. It doesn't work for the Mac App Store, though, weirdly enough. Here's how to use Apple Pay in Safari.

Collaborating on a note or a project, or working between devices: Collaborative tools in iWork and in Notes make sharing a whole lot easier, even with Mac users. Add into this the ability to copy and paste from iOS into MacOS Sierra directly from each machine, and there's a lot more seamlessness between devices in work situations.

Voicemail transcription: Visual voicemail has been around for a long time in Android, and it's welcome here too. Your Voicemail tab in the phone app now includes a full transcription when you tap a message, which means you may not have to give it a listen. Just note that it's not always 100 percent accurate, and it only works on compatible wireless carriers.

Hide unwanted stock apps, or other things: You won't delete them entirely, but you'll rid your screen of the cluttering icons of previously undeletable Apple apps. Here's how. (But keep in mind, you still can't remove some.)

Improvements to Photos include better library-scanning, and Memories: If you use Apple's iCloud Photo Library to sync and store your photos, the new Photos app adds some helpful tools. The whole collection gets scanned on-device and photos are better sorted by faces and places. There's also a "Memories" feature that creates automatic slideshows based on themes. It's a little random (why "On This Day: November 3, 2014," Apple?) but the results are great, although similar to what Google and Facebook do.

Portrait mode for iPhone 7 Plus is awesome, and better than Pixel's version: If you have one of Apple's newest iPhone 7 Plus models, you're obviously upgrading to the latest version of iOS 10.1 or later anyway. But that new Portrait mode, which creates a depth-of-field effect for photos, is so good that pictures end up looking like they were shot on a high-end camera. It's not perfect, and the effect has a lot of limitations (it uses a more zoomed-in telephoto lens, and requires certain lighting and distance from the subject), but when it works it's special.

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Siri still needs improvement.

Josh Miller/CNET

What let us down:

Siri's (lack of) smarts: You may be able to order an Uber or launch a Skype call with your voice, but Siri still trails far behind Google's voice assistant skills. Siri asks you to consult your iPhone too much, and isn't a hands-free experience at all. We found ourselves constantly having to course-correct for basic music searches, restaurant recommendations and sports scores.

Uneven 3D Touch implementation: 3D Touch has spread across more of the iPhone, but it's still not nearly as universal or useful as it should be. Pressing in on the pressure-sensitive screen still opens secondary menus slowly. New widgets that pop up above some apps offer quick-access info like weather forecasts and sports score recaps, but not enough apps use it, and it's impossible to predict which do. That being said, 3D Touch -- which is only available on the iPhone 6S, 6S Plus, 7 and 7 Plus -- at least does more than it did a year ago. The flashlight now has three brightness settings, and you can set timers with a quick swipe. But it still feels barely implemented -- how about being able to hot-switch Wi-Fi networks? -- and hardly takes advantage of its amazing levels of pressure sensitivity.

Notification changes: Larger notifications and alerts interrupt what you're doing. They hang longer on the screen, are easy to accidentally press and harder to swipe away. It's best to just wait for them to leave. That's fine a few times, but adds up over the course of the day...and sometimes interferes with apps that are in use. To interact with them, you need to use 3D Touch or press and hold, which feels a lot clunkier than iOS 9. Learn what's new with Notifications.

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3D Touch is an inconsistent experience.

Josh Miller/CNET

Lock screen message replies are more trouble than they're worth: Again, the implementation is the main problem here. First you have to swipe, then press "View," then "Reply" (or archive), and then you have to unlock your phone. Not much of a shortcut at all, if you ask us.

Control Center's sprawling redesign: It now takes several swipes to get between basic settings, Music controls, and a new Home panel for HomeKit-connected appliances and accessories. We'd prefer a taller hub that fits in more, or a more customizable set of icons (with even more 3D Touch menus, please).

Apple Music is better, but not there yet: Apple's redesign of the Music app has a new look, but it's not really any easier to use. Menus can get confusing, features are hidden, and even simple actions like "shuffle album" still feel like they're hard to find. It's cleaner-looking, but it also feels like it's harder to find some music now.

Siri's lack of third-party app support: You can now ask Siri to do a few things for you on third-party apps, like call an Uber, send Square Cash and send a message through What's App. Until more developers hop on board, it's still limited. Sending a What's App message wasn't very accurate or fast, but Uber was easy to bring up...however, it's still nicer to open the app to make sure your pickup location is accurate. Out of 185 apps installed on one of our iPhones, only four or so apps are Siri-enabled.

Messages' lack of intuition: As we said, the new WhatsApp-style responses in iMessage are actually pretty fun. But using them isn't super-intuitive. Consider the "tip the phone to landscape for handwriting mode" and the drag-and-drop sticker implementation. And let's not even talk about installing sticker packs, which boots you out to the App Store.

Apple's Maps app: Apple allows app extensions to work in its Maps app now, and those that work are nice to have: Uber can book rides, and OpenTable makes reservations. And there aren't many apps that work in Maps yet, nor are their hooked-in functions always easy to find in the Maps user interface. So, despite the fact that Apple Maps has come a long way, we're still toggling between it and Google Maps.

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Control Panel now has multiple panels which require more swipes.

Patrick Holland/CNET

iOS 10.2 and beyond

What improvements do we want to see? Well, for starters -- fix or improve everything listed directly above.

And there's plenty of other possible step-ups, too. How about Apple Pay cash transfers in Messages, for instance? Or a lock screen that could fully launch mini apps that did more things with just a few touches? And why not just finally adopt some of Android's best features, like a full-on app drawer or real customizable home-screen widgets?

All in good time. The good news is that you no longer need to wait a full year for iOS improvements. Version 10.1 is already here, and 10.2 is already in public beta. Here's hoping that our wishlist items listed above get addressed in those point upgrades -- or in 2017's inevitable iOS 11.

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