Review: Should you upgrade to iOS 8?

18 Sep 20141 Share

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Well, the wait is over and the much-anticipated iOS 8 mobile operating system from Apple is here. The OS includes hundreds of new features and signals a willingness by Apple to let developers shake things up.

The new OS became available on this side of the world last night and like anyone else who tried to be in the first echelon to get iOS 8 I was in for a long wait. By the time I got to bed the new OS was still waiting to download but by the time I awoke there was a bright ‘hello’ screen beaming at me.

Rather than start a download process as it had in the past, Apple appears to have initiated a kind of queue system so you just have to wait your turn before the download begins.

On first perusal nothing seemed any different or out of place. My screen had corrected the brightness to a lower setting – my guess, to preserve battery life on older iPhones – but nothing seemed any different.

Health

The best way to describe Health is it is a kind of repository for data that is both gathered by the smartphone and transmitted through APIs of other health and fitness apps that are iOS 8 compatible.And then I saw it. Health. Yes, Apple’s Health app – or HealthKit for developers – was sitting there, begging to be studied.

Health is divided into four core areas – Dashboard, Health Data, Sources and Medical ID.

The Dashboard presents all the information that you elect to send there from all the various apps you use as well as Health Data that you input into the device such as body measurements, fitness, nutrition, sleep and vitals such as bolood pressure, heart rate, body temperature and respiratory rate.

The fitness aspect of the Health Data component gathers data such as cycling distance, how many flights of stairs you have climbed, how many steps, walking and running distances and it also gathers data from Nike Fuel.

The Sources section simply gathers all your health and fitness apps in one place.

The interesting – and potentially very useful – Medical ID section is intended to provide medical information that might be vital in an emergency such as allergies and medical conditions.

Interestingly the Medical ID can be accessed from the emergency dialer on the iPhone without locking the phone, no doubt a critical opportunity in an emergency.

 

Camera and Photos

The thing to understand about the new iOS 8 is that all the changes are either under the surface or just lurking nearby. On the face of it nothing looks very different.

I got this instinct when I started playing with the Camera app. Nothing looked out of place but then I noticed the new Time Lapse function and I had great fun playing with that.

But what really had changed was how Camera felt. Pinching to zoom for example felt much more reactive and stable.

Apple has also added a whole new Photos app with both discovery and editing tools being the key changes.

Baked into iOS is a kind of intelligence and usefulness that is based on your phone learning your habits and what’s relevant to you. For example, in the Photo app if you hit on the search icon the phone will throw up suggested libraries of your photos based on things like location, time of year, etc, and it may take you to photos taken nearby and perhaps at the same time a year ago.

Apple has also added new smart composition tools such as the ability to easily crop a photo or straighten horizons.

A smart adjustments function allows you to easily make changes to a photo in terms of light (exposure, shadows, brightness, contrast), colour (saturation, contrast and cast) and B&W (intensity, neutrals, tone, grain).

One of the key changes with iOS, which suggest a major evolution in Apple’s attitudes to openness include the abililty for developers to create apps that access the camera. Apple has also given customers who store their photos in the iCloud with 5GB of cloud storage.

Continuity

I have to admit not being a huge user of Airdrop – Apple’s wireless sharing technology – but Continuity has embraced the concept and brought it further along.

The big game changer with iOS 8 could be its Continuity features that allow users to meld their iOS and Mac products together more seamlessly than ever before.

A new feature called Handoff means you can start writing an email on your iPhone and then pick up where you left off on your Mac.

You could be reading or browsing on  your iPad or Mac and now you can continue from the same link on your iPhone.

But it goes even further than this and right to the heart of unified communications, a family of technologies that seemed destined to stay in the corporate world.

With iOS 8 users can make and answer calls originating on their iPhone right from the desktop of their Mac or on their iPad screen. By the same virtue iMessages on your phone or iPad can be read on your Mac desktop.

QuickType

While predictive text is not something new, with QuickType Apple is forging the newfound intelligence-gathering capabilities of iOS 8 to throw context into the mix.

At first glance the keyboard on the iPhone looks the same as it always has. However, once you begin typing it starts throwing up obvious words to complete.

So what’s the big deal about that, I hear you ask?

Well, your keyboard learns from you. It learns the kind of words and conversations you have with specific contacts and adds the right words into the mix to complete sentences. Arguably this technology will get so good at its job that you’ll be able to construct entire sentences using suggested words.

Apple’s new openness is apparent insofar as the company is opening up the keyboard for developers and soon new layouts and input methods will emerge.

Double tapping the home button

One of the most obvious changes to the new OS is a new function whereby tapping the home button on your phone or tablet twice brings up a menu of all the recent people you’ve communicated with, recent applications and screens.

For example, it shows you pictures of people you’ve been communicating with and once you tap on one of them you are given a variety of ways to communicate with them such as a mobile call, Facetime or iMessage.

iMessage – send audio messages

As revealed at WWDC, iMessage is being beefed up to include the ability to take part in group conversations but also turn those conversations to mute if you want to drop out.

A nice new addition to iMessage is the ability to send audio messages to your friends. You just tap on the microphone icon and press and hold the button down and once you release and press an arrow it audio message appears in your friends’ inbox.

It is also worth noting that iOS 8 comes with a new Notifications feature that allows you to respond to messages without unlocking your lock screen.

Family Sharing

Family Sharing is a new feature that should put parents at ease. It allows members of a family on multiple devices to purchase apps, music, books and films from the one account.

While that might sound scary at first, the power to accept or decline the transaction goes back to the main cardholder (dad or mom), no doubt reducing the fear of bill shock and thus restoring peace to the universe.

Another new feature – if you have the iPhone 5s – you can set the phone up use the touch ID function to allow access to apps.

iCloud Drive

With iCloud Drive Apple is entering a crowded battlefield that it is partly responsible for creating.

People at this stage are seasoned users of services like Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft’s OneDrive, not to mention Evernote, OneNote and many other cloud productivity tools.

Without the app revolution Apple ignited none of these tools would have enjoyed the success they have enjoyed. But now Apple itself wants a slice of the action, and it makes perfect sense.

Like the others the idea is that users can safely store presentations, spreadsheets, PDFs, images and more in the cloud and access them on an iOS, PC or Mac device.

While this feature is currently available for PC users of Windows 7 or higher or public beta users of OS X Yosemite, we’ll have to wait until OS X Yosemite is publicly available in the coming weeks (rumoured to be 21 October) to put it through its paces on Mac.

Where it gets really interesting is that edits you make on one device will appear on all the devices you use.

What this means is you can start work on one document on a Mac, for argument’s sake and just pick it up and continue on your iPad or iPhone.

The Spotlight on search

Apple has also jazzed up its internal search engine Spotlight, which now searches not only the iPhone or iPad but sifts through iTunes, Wikipedia, iBooks, the App Store, Bing and more.

Consider Spotlight Apple’s answer in some respects to Google Now. The search function – activated by dragging down on the centre of the screen – takes into account your location and the context of what you are doing and provides – or suggests – what you may be looking for, such as nearby restaurants or breaking news stories.

Another quirky feature of Spotlight is the ability to throw out cinema times for movies nearby. I suspect this feature is currently only available in the US as a search for Guardians of the Galaxy yielded results from Wikipedia and IMDB but no nearby showings.

Verdict

I’ve only had the new iOS 8 for the best part of a working day but I have to admit the features that stand out the most – and which I will find most useful – will be the new double-tap function, Spotlight for finding stuff easily and the editing tools in Photos are begging to be explored.

So should you download the new iOS 8?

If you have the right devices, certainly. The changes are subtle in the short term but powerful in the long run.

I’ve read elsewhere that while the new OS will work on devices that extend back to the iPhone 4S and the iPad 2 the transition has not gone easily.

I have to say that iOS 8 functions solidly on my (ageing) iPhone 5. What ever you do, don’t attempt to download iOS 8 unless you’ve backed up all your data to iCloud.

The thing we’ve come to expect with new OS releases, and this was especially true for iOS 7, is for things to look completely different.

iOS 8 is quite subtle in that there is no massive design change. It is ultimately about function, context and intelligence.

The heart of iOS is its ability to match the data you are looking for with the context of your location, time of year and the kind of conversations you are having with whom.

In effect this is a glimpse into the future. A future that could become quite normal quite quickly thanks to iOS 8.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com