iOS 15's biggest new features: FaceTime, Apple Wallet and Notifications get new tricks
Apple's new operating system, previewed at WWDC, will launch this fall, likely with the iPhone 13.
Patrick HollandManaging Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
iOS 15 has officially arrived. On Monday, during an online keynote for WWDC, Apple's annual developer conference, the company presented a preview of iOS 15, the next major version of the iPhone's operating system. It's a follow-up to last year's iOS 14 and will fully launch this fall and likely debut on the heavily rumored iPhone 13.
iOS 15 brings an enormous number of new features, improvements and refinements. FaceTime bulks up with more Zoom-like features, including links that let Android and Windows users participate in a FaceTime video call via browser. You can have your phone bundle less important alerts and deliver them to you as a Notification summary. Live Text is basically Apple's version of Google Lens. You can watch videos and listen to music with friends over a FaceTime call. Messages can gather and organize links and content so you can view them all at once when you choose. You can even add your driver's license to Apple's Wallet app.
A developer version of iOS 15 will be available to download, and a public beta will launch this summer.
Watch this: WWDC21: iOS 15 and all its best features
iOS 15 adds FaceTime support for Android, Windows
One of the biggest updates comes to FaceTime, Apple's app for video and audio calls. Over the past year, many of us have relied on video calls to stay in touch with friends and family and collaborate with colleagues. Apps like Skype and Zoom became the norm, while FaceTime suffered because of its limitations. iOS 15 makes FaceTime a bit more like Zoom while keeping some of its quirkiness.
Apple's Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi said that the goal for updating FaceTime in iOS 15 was to make it feel more natural and comfortable to use. You can now schedule FaceTime calls and create links in advance. FaceTime links can be accessed on Apple devices, or via a browser on Android phones and Windows computers.
FaceTime's video interface gets an overhaul with a new grid view. Gone are the random-sized tiles, replaced with a neat grid of similarly sized squares of all your callers. Grid view makes it easier to see at a glance who is speaking. FaceTime in iOS 15 adds portrait mode. Just like portrait mode for photos on the iPhone, which separates you from your background, FaceTime turns the background of your video call into a nice artistic blur.
There are also new tools to improve audio. FaceTime in iOS 15 supports spatial audio during a call and makes your friends and family sound more natural, giving the effect that they are in the room with you. Your microphone gets smarter and can isolate your voice or widen its pickup to capture all the details in your environment. Apple showed a video of two people having a FaceTime call. Behind one of the people was a kid using a leaf blower. When voice isolation is enabled, the sound of the leaf blower goes away. (I don't know how many people would gift their child a leaf blower, let alone let them use it indoors, but it was a fun example.)
Watch films, listen to music over FaceTime in iOS 15
Another new feature to FaceTime is called SharePlay, which lets you share your screen, your music or videos over a video call. For example, if you're on a FaceTime call, you can play a song in Apple Music and listen to it over the call with your friends and family. The feature works with Apple Music, as well as video content from Apple TV Plus, TikTok, Disney Plus, HBO Max and Hulu, among others. Developers can add the SharePlay API to their apps, so maybe there's a hope YouTube will adopt this?
Watching a video over FaceTime can also be shared to your Apple TV. SharePlay looks like it adds an enormous wealth of multitasking and service integration when you're on a FaceTime call.
Messages gets new design and content is more organized
Messages gets a visual overhaul and becomes more organized. In an iMessage conversation thread, photos are shown in a new collage design or, when there are many, in a photo stack. You can swipe through a photo stack just from the in-thread view or tap to open all of the photos into a separate screen.
Another new feature called Shared with You, which takes videos, music and story links people shared with you in Messages and organizes them in a new tab for the corresponding app. For example, if a friend sends you a link to an Apple News story via iMessage, it's automatically added to the Shared with You tab in the Apple News app. The tab not only shows the link but who shared it with you. When you tap on the person's name, you're brought back to that place in your Messages conversation with them.
Shared with You also brings photos that are shared with you in Messages into your Photos app. Apparently the Photos app will only import those that you care about. Screenshots and memes won't be added.
Shared with You works in the following apps: Apple Music, Apple News, Apple TV, Safari, Photos and Podcasts. You can also pin a message, link or content and have it be elevated in Shared with You and show up in search.
iOS 15 overhauls notifications, adds tools to help you focus
The notifications on your iPhone get revamped to help you deal with all of your phone's alerts. Notification Summary is a new feature that lets you schedule when unimportant notifications get delivered. It can prioritize which ones are most important and bundle the rest for a delivery in the morning (or whatever time you choose). Siri can now automatically read time-sensitive messages when you don't have your phone with you. For example, if you order a food delivery and it arrives, Siri can read the notification via a HomePod or your Apple Watch.
You can also use the new Focus tool in iOS 15 to help you concentrate on certain things when you're using your phone. For example, if you're at work, you can choose to only be notified by coworkers for apps like Mail, Calendar or Slack. Other settings for the Focus tool include Do Not Disturb, Personal and Sleep, which you can schedule to come on when you set your bedtime. Read more:iOS 15 overhauls notifications with summaries and focus tools
Live Text lets you digitize and interact with text in your photos
Live Text in iOS 15 uses artificial intelligence to find text in photos or through your iPhone's camera viewfinder. You can copy and paste the text, or if it's a website you can open the link. It sounds similar to Google Lens.
In the Photos app, Live Text automatically generates photo tags to its device-wide Spotlight search feature. With a new search feature called Visual Lookup, you search the word "beach" and the iPhone will display any photos that have a beach in them or were taken at a beach. This seems like it's a huge improvement when it comes to searching through your photos and might help the Photos app catch up to the detailed photo searches you can do in Google Photos.
Add your driver's license to Apple Wallet in iOS 15
The Wallet app in iOS 15 lets you add corporate keycards and driver's licenses. Apple says that it's working with the TSA on ways to accept it in US airports. This comes on top of being able to carry credit and debit cards, transit fare cards and car keys (for phones equipped with Apple's U1 chip for ultrawideband).
There is so much in iOS 15. For people like me, it's fun to dig deeper into features and try ones out that never got screen time, like new outfits for Memoji stickers. I'll be updating this article as I find more.