iPhone 5s Review: The Smartphone Goes 64-bit

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User Interface (iOS 7)

iOS 7 is, by all accounts, the biggest overhaul of the iOS operating system since its birth. It's likely because famed hardware designer Jonathan Ive is now also overseeing user interface design and he's working hand-in-hand with Craig Federighi, Apple's newly-instated senior vice president of Software Engineering. With iOS 7, gone are the skeuomorphic design cues that have long since been a staple of iOS. There's no more leather in the calendar app, and Game Center has no green felt table beneath it. We were never really bothered by those design cues, but for whatever reason, Apple decided that now was the time to move on.



So, what we're left with is a flat, cleaner operating system UI, where shadows and eccentric details are eschewed for pastel, simplistic icons that just pop off of the screen. Longtime Apple users will no doubt suggest that the new interface feels a little toyish, or even plain. There will be folks who actually prefer the look and feel of iOS 6, and for good reason. That design was excellent, and iOS 7 is not so much an improvement as it is a different spin from a design team that just has very different ideas.


One thing hasn't changed, and that's the fabric of iOS. It still very much feels and acts like iOS. Gestures and swipes react the same way, and Apple's stockpile of core apps are all here (Messages, Photos, Mail, Weather, Clock, Compass, Stocks, etc.). New elements are indeed here, but they are few. For starters, there's a new notification window that's accessible via an upward swipe from the bottom of the screen. This brings long-needed shortcuts to Airplane Mode, a flashlight, a timer, music settings, screen brightness, and Bluetooth / Wi-Fi toggles. For as great as this is, it's unfortunately not customizable. If you're looking to swap that timer shortcut for any other app, you're out of luck.

  

The standard top-down pull brings Notification Center into view, but a new "Today" screen greets the eye in iOS 7. This takes a look at the weather and your upcoming appointments, and gives you a brief summary of what's ahead. Clicking the "All" button brings up a more common list of all notifications that have accumulated since you last cleared. Siri is also improved in iOS 7, now presenting Web searches right on the Siri screen instead of redirecting you over to a Safari window. The Compass app has gained a level, while app folders can now hold an unlimited amount of programs. Interestingly, Spotlight (Apple's universal search function) is no longer on its own home pane; instead, you just yank down on the screen (aim for the middle, then pull down) and Spotlight appears from within any app. It works just as well, and now it's even easier to toggle. In fact, I found myself rarely peeking into folders to find apps any longer -- I just use Spotlight.


iOS 7 now enables blocked calling, which has been a sorely needed feature for as long as the operating system has existed. If you spot a call in your Phone list that you'd never like to hear from again, just tap the options and select "Block." It's simple and effective. Apple has also enabled background downloading of apps for those who'd prefer it, and if you find the new system font to be too light / thin for your eyes, there's an option in Settings to bring back the bold.

Apple also introduced iBeacon with iOS 7, which uses Bluetooth to judge your proximity and react accordingly. Apple has been mum on what this could mean, but small businesses could definitely use it to spot an iPhone user as they enter and shoot them a coupon, for instance. Hopefully, we'll see developers take advantage of this in one way or another.


Now, let's talk about what isn't in iOS 7. There is still no option to add a third-party keyboard, and the stock keyboard still doesn't support swipe-to-type or word prediction. The lock screen is still terribly drab, and you can't do any customizing in order to bring additional glanceable information to the surface. Thankfully, you can toggle Notification Center while the screen is locked, but customizing it is out of the question. There's also no option for NFC, so you can forget about tap-to-pay solutions. Siri, while improved, in my opinion is still no match for Google Now -- neither in terms of reaction time nor in terms of overall utility. Maps was a huge black mark on the launch of iOS 6, and while the new version is better, it still is no match for Google Maps either.


On the whole, iOS 7 is refreshing to use. It'll take a bit of getting used to, but Apple didn't do anything completely insane here. It still feels and acts like iOS. Users who enjoyed prior aspects of iOS will be delighted with the subtle improvements, and we're hoping that it matures a bit as developers build programs to fully take advantage of iBeacon and the M7 CoreMotion API.

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