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Apple iOS 9 review: Better battery life and slick new features make the most out of your Apple devices

The latest version of Apple's mobile operating system revamps old apps, stretches your battery life and transforms the iPad Air 2 into an office workhorse.

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Nate Ralph
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Nate Ralph

Associate Editor

Associate Editor Nate Ralph is an aspiring wordsmith, covering mobile software and hardware for CNET Reviews. His hobbies include dismantling gadgets, waxing poetic about obscure ASCII games, and wandering through airports.

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10 min read

A new version of Apple's iOS might not draw the same crowd as a fancy new phone or a super-sized tablet, but today's release of iOS 9, the company's new mobile operating system, marks the first taste many folks will get of Apple's vision for the future of mobile devices.

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Apple iOS 9

The Good

With iOS 9, Apple's iPad Air 2 sees new potential as a bona fide office work device. Low power mode will also help you squeeze some precious extra time out of your device.

The Bad

The new office-focused multitasking features are limited to the iPad Air 2 and newer devices. The phone changes are iterative and there's nothing here that significantly changes the OS. The News and Map apps aren't as feature-rich as competitors on the App Store.

The Bottom Line

If you own a recent Apple device, you'll want to make the jump to iOS 9: Better battery life, improved native apps and multitasking prowess on the latest iPad make this upgrade a no-brainer.

The software upgrade brings with it a slew of changes and new features. Battery life has marginally improved, and a new low power mode just might help you make it through your next drained-battery catastrophe. Siri and the oft-neglected Notes app learn a few new tricks, Apple tries its hand at current events with News, and even Apple Maps gets a bit more useful.

What's new in iOS 9 (pictures)

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If you've bought a mobile Apple gadget in the last few years, you should be good to go with iOS 9. The new operating system is compatible with the iPhone 4S, iPad 2, original iPad Mini and the fifth-generation iPod Touch, and all of the devices that followed them. You can grab it right now, as an over-the-air download through the iOS settings, or through iTunes.

But the real stars of the show are the iPad Air 2, iPad Mini 4 and upcoming iPad Pro: iOS 9's new multitasking powers transforms those tablets into real office machines, offering up the ability to run apps side by side (called "split view") and watch videos or chat on FaceTime with nary a hitch or drop in performance. Other recent iPads get pared-back upgrades, including better on-screen keyboards, picture-in-picture video and a more limited side by side app mode called Slide Over.

And there's plenty more besides. Let's take a look at some of the best that iOS 9 has to offer.

A smarter Siri and Search

Apple's digital assistant Siri has learned a few new tricks. Shutterbugs searching for a particular shot can get a lot more specific: say, "Show me photos I took in Oakland" or "Show me photos I took last April" and it will do exactly that. If you're looking at a bar in Maps or writing an email to a friend when you're suddenly interrupted, you can say "remind me about this later," and Siri will make that note for you. It's a simple little touch that just might see you talking to your device more often.

If you're not especially keen on chatting with your gadgets, you'll find more to like in the improved search functionality. You can now get to Search by swiping to the right on the homescreen, as well as by swiping down. And it's quite a bit more useful, too: search for a contact, and you'll see important calendar dates (such as birthdays) and see shortcut keys to message or call them right away. Search for something else, and you'll see related results from the supported apps on your phone, including Notes, Apple Music and Maps, when applicable. Search is now also a bit more proactive: it'll show you recent or frequent contacts, locations of interest that are nearby, and attempt to suggest apps or places of interest based on things you've done in the past.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A new source for News

Apple's News app is an attempt to muscle in on the ever-growing realm of apps and services such as Flipboard and Feedly that try to corral our interests into a single, personalized newsfeed. There are quite a few publications to choose from, and an even broader range of topics to sift through. You can swipe between stories in your feed, share things of interest to contacts or other apps, and save things to read later.

Things feel a little disorganized, though: I'm currently subscribed to the Camera Lens, Digital Cameras and Photography topics, which generally point to the same publications, and the same stories. There's also no real way to organize the reading experience. With the RSS reader Feedly, I've manually organized publications into categories that I can sift through at my leisure -- the "Tech" category gets scoured first thing every morning and regularly during the day, while I might save "Comics" or "Gaming News" for the evening, or the weekend. No such luck with Apple News: there's just a firehose of headlines, and while I could drill down to individual categories or publications, that's just not as efficient as the tools I'm already using.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Getting around with Maps

Apple Maps has gotten a bit of an overhaul, too. Don't snicker -- the service has come a long way since its debut, when famous landmarks melted into the landscape or disappeared altogether. In iOS 9 you'll find support for public transit routes (finally), so you'll be able to factor the local bus or subway into your plans for your next jaunt.

9 ways iOS 9 changes your iPhone (pictures)

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Tap on a bus stop or train station, and you'll get a list of the lines that run there, and a departure schedule -- much like Google's offerings. Apple Maps still has a ways to go, though, as there are still missing bits -- including entire transit lines. This isn't going to replace Google Maps any time soon, but if you're wholly enmeshed in Apple's ecosystem, things are looking up.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Take a note with Notes

I've never given the Notes app much thought. It was there if I ever needed to jot a quick note, but the other apps I've got running on my iPad, including Evernote and OneNote, can handle that and so much more. But with iOS 9, the humble Notes app gains support for some relatively sophisticated sketching and doodling tools. You can now create checklists on the fly, tuck images into your notes, and share things from other apps, such as links from a browser or addresses from Maps. There are also formatting options, so you can add some style to your jottings.

It's a much improved experience. iCloud support, as well as easy folder creation, could make this a good option for Apple fans who want a simple way to stay organized with a built-in app. Sure, it won't replace more robust tools, but if nothing else fits the bill it remains a neat option.

Other odds and ends

There are quite a few smaller quality of life improvements, too. The app switcher sports a new look, showing your currently open apps as slightly narrower pages to shuffle through, instead of taking up the bulk of the screen. It's a small touch, but means that you can see more of your open apps at a time, and quickly get to the one you want, or close the ones you don't. The keyboard has also received a rather welcome change: press the shift key, and the letters on the keyboard will become capitalized. Release it, and they're all lowercase. Again, an infinitesimal change, but one that makes entering passwords quite a bit easier.

Some features are exclusive to the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. James Martin/CNET

The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus

I bet you're wondering about the other newfangled features you've been hearing about. Things like context-sensitive menus that show up when you press and hold on an app icon, or being able to say, "Hey, Siri!" to get the digital assistant's attention whether your phone is plugged in or not.

Unless you're picking up the upcoming iPhone 6S or iPhone 6S Plus, you're out of luck. Both of those features are tied to the hardware in Apple's new devices, with functionality that presumably can't be tied into a software update.

Slide Over lets you peek at another app without switching entirely. Nate Ralph/CNET

The iOS 9 iPad experience

Upgrade an iPhone to iOS 9 and you'll be getting a familiar experience backed by a few welcome improvements. That upgrade represents something entirely different on the iPad, where the fun-focused tablet gets a taste of the productivity-centric future some of us will encounter when the Apple iPad Pro starts shipping in November.

Let's start with Slide Over, a simplistic take on multitasking. Swipe in from the right side of the iPad's display and you'll get a short list of apps you can temporarily call up into a sidebar. It's currently limited to native Apple apps, and it dims the rest of the screen, so it's best suited for quickly responding to someone in Messages, or jotting something down in Notes, before jumping back to whatever it is you're doing.

The next little extra comes in the form of picture-in-picture video. Fire up a full screen in a supported app (like Safari), and you'll see a new little pop-out icon. Press it, and the video you were watching will shrink down into the corner of your device hovering over your apps, or the home screen, or anywhere you want to put it -- just drag it about, and pinch with your fingers to shrink or enlarge it.

The keyboard has also received a small tweak that makes typing and editing large documents far easier. Press and hold two fingers on the virtual keyboard while you're typing, and all of the keys will disappear: you're now dragging your fingers across a faux trackpad, and can put your cursor wherever you'd like. This'll be a moot point if you've got a keyboard case, but as someone who's grown accustomed to tapping out prose on the iPad's display, this is an awesome addition.

True multitasking, but it feels a little cramped. Nate Ralph/CNET

If you're running iOS 9 on an iPad Air 2, you'll have access to proper multitasking -- provided you're using the right apps. It's a bit of a toss-up at the moment: fire up a native Apple app such as Safari, Notes or Maps, and when you pull that Slide Over sidebar in from the right, you'll have the option to pull things just a tad further until the iPad's display is split into two halves. Unlike Slide Over, they'll exist independently of each other: you can browse Safari on the left half of your iPad, and jot in Notes on the right, in a seamless, smooth process that feels akin to working on a far more robust device.

I know what you're thinking, and you're right: Samsung's TouchWiz-powered Android devices have let us run two apps at the same time for quite a while, and the rest of the "advances" here are par for the course if you're using a Windows-based tablet such as the Microsoft Surface 3 or the Surface Pro 3 .

Picture-in-picture seems like a great idea, but where to put the video? Nate Ralph/CNET

That said, these new features have breathed new life into my iPad Air 2. But they also feel a bit off. Multitasking feels great, even if the list of supported apps is a bit anemic at the moment. Picture-in-picture playback is also surprisingly smooth -- I've browsed the Web, dove in and out of apps, and even played games without affecting the video I was watching. But the iPad's 9.7-inch display feels really cramped when you've got a pair of apps side by side, or if you actually try to watch a video while doing anything else.

It's a great argument for picking up an iPad Pro, though. The iPad Pro will be able to run two full-sized apps side by side, and you should have less trouble finding a place to stick a video on the Pro's 12.9-inch screen. I'm not entirely sure I need a ginormous iPad, but for the time being, it's starting to make a lot more sense.

Performance

We ran an iPad Air 2, an iPhone 6 and the sixth generation iPod Touch through a battery of synthetic tests to see what effect (if any) iOS 9 would have on performance. Suffice to say, it's a bit of a wash.

Performance: 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

iPod Touch (iOS 8.4.1) 15,498iPod Touch (iOS 9.1) 15,919iPhone 6 (iOS 8.4.1) 17,325iPhone 6 (iOS 9.1) 17,527iPad Air 2 (iOS 8.4.1) 21,495iPad Air 2 (iOS 9.1) 21,755
Note: Longer bars are better.

Performance: GeekBench 3

iPod Touch (iOS 8.4.1) 1,378 2,433iPod Touch (iOS 9.1) 1,385 2,425iPhone 6 (iOS 8.4.1) 1,627 2,920iPhone 6 (iOS 9.1) 1,624 2,904iPad Air 2 (iOS 8.4.1) 1,810 4,481iPad Air 2 (iOS 9.1) 1,828 4,584
  • GeekBench 3 (single-core)
  • GeekBench 3 (multicore)
Note: Longer bars are better


Apple devices running iOS 9.1 edge out their iOS 8.4.1 incarnation in almost every test, but the difference is so slight as to be inconsequential. I suspect those numbers might shift as these benchmarks are better optimized for Apple's Metal API, but we'll just have to wait and see. The same is true of the general performance: things feel a bit zippier, and multitasking on my iPad Air 2 feels impressively smooth. I expect older devices will feel a bit lighter on their feet, so to speak.

Battery life

Apple has been touting about an hour of extra battery life (versus iOS 8) from an iOS 9 device before the need to recharge and, indeed, that's exactly what we got in anecdotal testing. In my own experience, I've regularly squeezed out just shy of 60 extra minutes without making any changes to my behavior, when switching from iOS 8.4.1 to the iOS 9 beta. Your mileage will vary, but my usage consisted primarily of editing images in Adobe Lightroom, streaming music via Apple Music, sifting through links on Reddit and general email triage.

That contrasts with our video playback battery drain tests, which didn't show too much difference between iOS 8.4.1 and iOS 9 beta. This makes sense: our playback tests focus on offline and streaming video playback -- a "set it and forget it video loop" -- so it's less of a real-world analog of your daily routine of flipping between a dozen or so apps.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple claims that energy savings come care of nebulous "improvements" across the operating system, but there's also a new low power mode, which takes the brute force approach to squeezing more life out of your hardware. Low power mode works much like the battery saver on Android phones: it stifles unnecessary visual effects and will limit background activities such as automatic email retrieval, app updates and app refreshing, to help your device last a bit longer on your next hunt for an outlet.

Apple says you can see about an extra hour of life out of your device -- in my experience, I've seen the iPhone 6 last for roughly an extra 45 to 50 minutes before throwing in the towel. It's also an option you can set and forget: once my test iPhone 6 was fully charged, low power mode was disabled, and my messages were free to flow. This is a nice touch, especially if you'd rather not babysit your device, but don't want to be kept out of the loop if you're waiting for an important email.

Conclusion

If you own an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad or iPad Mini, this upgrade is a no-brainer. You're getting better battery life, smarter native apps and new features such as low power mode and a more useful keyboard, that'll make life with your Apple devices a little bit better.

I can't help but feel that the best stuff, such as true multitasking and always-on Siri, is limited to the newest Apple wares. But those are the usual caveats. And some won't hesitate to point out that much of iOS 9's improvements bring features other platforms have had for some time -- you'll find no argument from me there. But as these mobile operating systems mature, and amble towards parity, revolutionary new features are going to be harder to come by. I, for one, am excited to get some new use out of my iPad -- and more importantly, to see what Google will have to offer in response.