iOS 9! It comes down the intertubes today! I’ve been testing iOS 9 on an iPhone 5C (equivalent to an iPhone 5) since the first beta, using a Three PAYG SIM so that it would have to connect to the mobile network (to test such things), and an iPad Air 2, and also an iPad 2.
My takeaways: Apple’s given you more battery life and more storage for free. Plus some other nice things. Definitely worth any hassle in upgrading.
More phone storage, for free
iOS 9 is reputed to require less storage than iOS 8 – a feat that I think may be done by removing some unneeded resources from the packages, so that you only get what you need. Ars Technica’s review suggests that the savings once installed are minimal – a few hundred megabytes – in a comprehensive testg. (Joanna Stern at the WSJ says it needs less free space to install too – 1.3GB v 4.58GB for iOS 8.)
“App thinning” (officially it’s “App Slicing”, apparently) means that apps only download the resources that they need for the device you’re using. Put like that, it’s amazing that they didn’t to begin with, isn’t it? Still, given the proliferation of screen sizes, this should avoid games in particular from bloating up and taking over your preeeecious storage. (There’s also a method called “On Demand Resources” where games in particular can download just stuff needed for a particular level, which can then be deleted when it’s not needed. Apple’s taking the same approach with its Apple TV tvOS.) This means that you want developers to update their apps, so they take advantage of this: your phone should actually get emptier. Apart from those photos you take.
And also, for its next trick, iOS 9 updates will be able to work in chunks – so that you won’t need a colossal amount of storage free to do the incremental updates. (The iOS 8 ➡️ 9 update, less clear.)
A battery upgrade, for free
Android has had a “low power” mode since forever, but it isn’t on by default; you have to hunt it out and turn it on.
iOS 9’s Low Power mode (found in a new Settings er, setting called “Battery”) isn’t on by default either, but when you hit 20% and 10% battery and the “20% battery” dialog comes up, you’ll get an option to activate it. And of course you can turn it on any time you like. When you recharge, it automatically turns off at 70% of charge. (Note: it’s only available on iPhones – not iPads.)
I’ve run my test phone on Low Power from 100% and got huge lifespans – around two and a half days, which included a fair bit of use. This is a big improvement. Note though that it will seriously slow down a lot of apps, and kills background refresh. But if you’re not using the phone for anything for a while, it’s great for extending the life. You’ll know it’s on: the battery icon turns an anaemic yellow. The screen brightness goes down, but I didn’t notice this particularly.
There’s also another battery-saving feature: if the phone is face-down (on a table, say), notifications don’t light the screen. Subtle, but worthwhile.
Even without using Low Power, I was getting good lifespans from both the iPhone 5C and iPad Air 2 I tested iOS 9 on: pretty much always better than iOS 8. This is unusual in a beta.
A poke in the eye for battery/storage upgrades
Low Power and the storage saving together represent something clever: Apple saying that battery life on its own and storage on its own aren’t enough to merit a device upgrade. After last week’s iPhone/iPad event, there was no shortage of people moaning that they’d rather have a thicker phone with a longer battery life, or more storage for the base model.
Actually: that wouldn’t drive new device sales, which is what Apple wants. A slightly thicker device wouldn’t suddenly last two days – you’d have to roughly double the thickness to get that. Furthermore, people would say “I’ll buy a battery add-on thanks – it’s cheaper.” This would Not Be Good for iPhone sales.
And storage: well, of course Apple upsells you from the low-end phone to the mid-range one. If you’re surprised by this… would it shock you to know that companies actually try to make profit? I find the argument about storage slightly tired; there’s more cloud storage available through Dropbox et al (though – shocker! – they will charge you too). But taking out unnecessary content from apps and the OS is a great way to reclaim some of that phone storage.
Parsimony in the cloud
Certainly, it’s annoying as hell that Apple only offers 5GB of iCloud storage – an amount that hasn’t changed since its introduction in 2011, although the prices for the larger storage amounts has fallen. 5GB isn’t enough for most people, but they equally can’t be bothered to update their storage, and certainly not pay for it.
Since 2011, the cost of storage has gone through two Moore’s Law cycles (halving in cost), so on that basis Apple ought to be offering 20GB for free. Then again, Dropbox only offers 2GB for free to begin with; it’s pretty easy though to upgrade that to 10GB through a few encouraging tweets, or used to be – I’m somehow at 10GB without paying anything.
iCloud backups don’t have to include your photos – iCloud Photo Library is a great way to get your photos into the cloud and out of the “iCloud backup” space. You can also get Dropbox to suck them up, or Livedrive, or of course Google Photos. iCloud backups remain terrific, though, and better than Android’s current offerings, because they back up all the app data, as well as most settings (excepting some mail and other important passwords). Some more would be nice, though.
Settings are now searchable
Oh God I’ve been asking for this since forev… well, for a few years (iOS 6?) because Settings have become gigantic. Where does the passcode live? App Store restrictions? And so on. Now you just search (pull down in the main part of the Settings menu).
Keyboard: now in lower case
Everyone else seems to be delighted that the keyboard now has upper/lower case – so that when you type, the keys Go Up And Down With Capitals. Personally, I find it distracting, even though I understand that for a lot of people this eases a frustration they’ve felt for ages. (Android users of course have had this since forever). If like me you don’t like it you can turn it off in Settings ➡️ Accessibility ➡️ Keyboard ➡️ “Show Lowercase Keys”.
A Back button? Sort of
Again, Android has had a “Back” button since forever. But it has UI/UX gotchas: if you pressed it, where would it take you? If you had jumped from one app into another (say from an email into the browser), would the Back button take you to the canonical place in the browser app – say, the last thing you had been looking at in the browser before that – or back to the email app? Usually it would be the email app, of course, but this wasn’t explicit.
The thing about the Back button is that it can be a user puzzle, but for a power user it’s great; if you’re the sort of person who keeps a mental stack of what you’ve been doing on the way through the phone, the ability to go back and back in time appeals. Windows Phone has had the same feature from its inception, so there’s clearly a perceived need.
Apple has bowed to the (perhaps) inevitable, but done it in its own way. The “Back” instruction isn’t a button; instead it’s a tab at the top left of the screen telling you how to get back, and which app it’ll take you back to.
It’s generated when you follow a notification that pops into the top of the screen (and haven’t we all prodded one of those by accident?), or when you follow a link such as “Show in Calendar” from apps such as Mail or Messages.
I see this as having a dual purpose. First is a user frustration/behaviour thing. Watch people using an iPhone, and you’ll often see them follow a link from an app to another app, where they do something; then to return to the previous app, they press the Home button and then launch the previous app. That’s evidently wasteful, and though you can say “people should use the app switcher” (double-tap on the Home button) it’s clear that they don’t.
Second, implementing the “Back tab” helps with what I see as Apple’s intention to get rid of the Home button.
The Back tab is some distance from perfect. It obscures network settings such as mobile signal strength or Wi-Fi connectivity, and knowing about those is often more important to me than figuring out which app to go back to. It doesn’t persist across screen on/off (so if your screen locks and you unlock it, the signpost back is gone). It’s also in the most inaccessible part of the screen if you usually hold your phone in your right hand.
iOS 9 uses a new font – San Francisco. I’ll be honest: I never noticed. I’m not generally a font person, unless you try to replace a serif face with a sans-serif one, in which case I’ll punch you. It’s the same as that on the Watch, which in my experience is more legible than that on iOS 8. But I’ll leave the dissection of the curve on the “6” and the length of the descender on the “p” to others.
Swipe left or downwards from the main screen, and you’ll get the phone-wide search that was there in iOS 7 and taken out (eyeroll) in iOS 8. But you also get “suggestions” – apps you might like, or if you’re out and about, things you might be looking for (food and petrol often came up). Proactive is hard to evaluate until you’re using something as your main phone for quite some time; I was using iOS 9 on a secondary phone. Like Siri, this may be one of those things that improves quite substantially once more people are using it.
The “Proactive” pane also now contains your recent contacts, with fast access to phone/messaging. Discussion is below in the “odds and sods” section.
Hey, Siri, how did you get better?
There’s no mystery in why Siri is better now than it used to be; more people are using it. Apple artificially restricted it to the 4S upwards on its introduction in 2011 (it had worked fine as a third-party app on lots of earlier phones, because it’s a network-connected service; Apple wanted to make it a reason to upgrade). Since then, hundreds of millions of people have been using it and processors have got faster, so there’s a huge corpus of data to work with. It’s great on the Watch; it’s getting used a lot now.
In iOS 8, a charging phone would respond to “Hey Siri” plus your query (eg “what’s this song” – always nice). In iOS 9, it’s available when not charging too. This could be problematic (news reports about Syria are often a cause), but there is training to your voice. We’ll see how this goes. And yes, Motorola did have this a couple of years ago. Apple, though, has been cautious about the potential battery hit. Plus, of course, it’s a temptation to upgrade.
Content blocking, and Safari everywhere
Unmentioned in the WWDC keynote, but a “wow!” moment for those who twigged it, is the ability to block content – including websites and scripts – from Safari in iOS 9. On its own, that wouldn’t be so dramatic, but iOS 9 also lets any app that shows a web view, such as when you click a web link in a tweet (which usually brings up a proto-web browser inside the app) use Safari to do it, still inside the app.
This has a couple of benefits: if you’re viewing a page that needs a username/password (say, a subscription paper such as the FT or WSJ or Economist) then Safari’s iCloud Keychain can fill it in for you automatically; second, the aforesaid content blocks come into play.
And wow indeed – content blocking, aka adblocking, makes a big difference. Pages are cleaner, less annoying, load tons faster. There are going to be lots of people making good money from adblockers in the App Store very soon. Installation is straightforward: you download the “app”, and then in Settings ➡️ Safari ➡️ Content Blockers, and it will appear there as an option. As it says, none can send any information back about what they’ve seen or blocked. You can also configure particular things about the blocking within the apps themselves.
I tried three – Crystal, 1Blocker and Blockr. Crystal is simplest; Blockr the next; and 1Blocker has a huge list of options, making it super-tweaky configurable. Crystal and Blockr have already been approved for sale through the App Store.
Noticeable among 1Blocker’s blocking groups is “adult sites” – which suggests another use for content blockers inside enterprises, where IT departments, not to mention management, don’t want staff viewing Teh Pr0n on company phones. Locking them down and installing a content blocker is going to be popular, I think.
Note though that Content Blocking doesn’t work inside apps that use their own layouts – so Facebook is protected from this incursion. And as we’ll see, Apple’s own ad-served app is safe too.
Content Blocking will only work on 64-bit devices, which means the 5S upwards. This is due to compiler limitations (according to an Apple staffer.) This is frustrating, since they worked fine on my 32-bit 5C. Even so, I think Content Blocking is going to have a huge impact.
Public transport directions
Apple made much of how iOS 9 has public transport directions – something that had been missing ever since the ejection of Google as the mapping default in iOS 6 which left a huge gap for Google Maps and Citymapper and various others to work back in to. (Citymapper seems to get the usability vote.)
While it seems to be great if you live in China (300 cities!) or the US, it’s not that stunning in the UK. Major cities are covered (London, obviously) and major train routes (London to Brighton, for example, and Birmingham) but it’s far from comprehensive: no public transport data for Edinburgh or Glasgow, for instance.
Apple is updating these all the time, though, so this may be more of a stealth improvement, rather as has happened with Maps – which are unrecognisably better than when they launched in 2012.
On the iPad Air 2, and any other device with a large-enough screen and 2GB of RAM (the iPad mini 4, iPad Pro.. and 6S Plus? Not sure about the latter) you can bring in other apps by sliding in from the side (charming, you can hear Microsoft saying), and then scroll them simultaneously, and resize them – to half-and-half, or 3:2. No other sizing is allowed.
Multitasking is one of those things where you need a specific use case; watching a video while you read something, perhaps, or (the one I found) copying data from a web page into a spreadsheet. Clearly it’s Apple chasing after business users who will have more uses like that than the average person sitting at home drifting through Facebook.
All the news that’s fit to.. something
Remember all the excitement over the new top-level domains, things like “.amazon” and “.balloons” and “.weboughtthisforbraggingrights”? Well, someone bought “.news” and now Apple (which didn’t buy it) is making use of it.
The Apple News app has a ton of sources, though in the beta I could only get access by changing my region to the US; once it’s live, it should be available in the US, UK and Australia.
I had mixed results; News only appeared in beta 3. I chose to get news about technology, science and business; I was nonplussed then to get CNN stories about celebrities. But more recently it has improved somewhat. I think that pressing the “Love” button at the bottom of a (read) story will improve the results you get.
You can share stories you read on Twitter or Facebook, and this is where the “apple.news” bit comes in – links you share begin “http://apple.news/”. This presumably means Apple can see what stories are getting the most traction and have been read.
For those who like a good conspiracy, note that Apple is offering its own publishing service into Apple News, and that this will be monetised via its iAd service (ie advertisers buy space on iAd, rather than just showing the publisher’s ads).
And guess what? Content blocking (aka adblocking) doesn’t work in Apple News. So if you follow a link to a story inside News, you see ads; if you open the same story in Safari when you have adblocking running, you don’t see ads. I predict this will have some publishers furious. I don’t see Apple retreating from having content blocking enablers on Safari, though. Get some popcorn.
Odds and sods
The app switcher (double click on the home button) is changed: rather than a side-by-side set of frames of the apps, it’s now an overlapping fan of the apps, which you pull to the right. Same method to kill apps (swipe them upwards).
The app switcher change also means that the “recent contacts” and “favourite contacts” that used to appear above the app switcher in iOS 8 are now in the Proactive search screen. Clearly, too few people used the app switcher, and too few used those contacts via the app switcher, for them to merit that space. (I can’t recall a time that I contacted someone via that above-the-app-switcher method.)
Notes have been updated so that they can do to-do lists, and alaso take your crude finger drawings, and you can stuff things into them from Safari via the share sheet. I didn’t test this, as if you update the format it’s not back-compatible with iOS 8 or earlier. (You get a suitably big warning.)
More camera folders. Selfies and screenshots get their own default folders, along with (deep breath) Favourites, Panoramas, Videos, Slo-mo, Bursts, and Recently Deleted.
Quick replies in all apps, not just Messages. When Notifications come down from the top of the screen, you could respond quickly in messages; now you can do it for all apps where replies are possible.
Folders can now contain other folders. So if you want to hide those Apple apps you can’t (yet) delete really thoroughly, here’s how.
Look! It now recognises that some humans menstruate and ovulate. Amazing, sure. This was well overdue; it should have been in last year’s release, and would it have killed Apple to include it in a point release some time in the past 12 months?
There must be a load of other things that I’ve overlooked. Let me know what they are in the comments.
All these things – the longer battery life, the extra storage, the public transport directions, the content blockers (particularly those) – are going to be available from about 1700 GMT, if Apple’s servers can bear the crush. (There’s also a 9.1 beta available if you want to live in the future.) iOS 9 will run on every phone since the iPhone 4S, and iPads since the iPad 2. If you’re running iOS 8 on any of those, it should be an improvement in speed, battery life and storage.
We can predict that within a month or so, iOS 9 will have at least 50% adoption, based on previous experience: in the past two releases, it has hit 50% or more after five weeks.
That’s about 200 million or more iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches running it. All the changes in this – especially those four picked out above – are going to get a lot of discussion. Apple has been very canny. iOS 9 takes some ideas from Android – upper/lower keyboard, back button, low power – and made them slightly more usable. But then it’s gone to places that Android hasn’t, and made them a reason to stick with iOS. Content blocking in particular is tricky on Android – you have to download a specific browser and make it your default, or sideload an app; neither is a big pursuit. With mobile viewing so big, it might be a cold Christmas for some publishers. (Read my views on adblocking, if you haven’t already.)
Android fans will mutter about the things Apple has finally caught up with. But that misses the point. Apple is playing its own game: and this one is about keeping its existing iOS users loyal, and tempting non-users aboard with things that are both familiar and unavailable.
Should you upgrade? Yes. Back up first to iCloud (if you can – dammit) or iTunes. And then enjoy it.
Other stuff you might also like to read here:
• Review: this is the worst Apple Watch ever. (Think about it.)
• Analysis: Q2 2015: Premium Android hits the wall
• Analysis: the adblocking revolution is months away in iOS 9 – with trouble for publishers, advertisers and Google