This year’s update to Apple’s mobile operating system isn’t a blockbuster release full of controversial design; in fact, the biggest iOS update of the year, Apple Music, is already out. But that doesn’t mean you should write iOS 9 off just yet.
The developer preview of iOS 9 has been out for a month now, long enough to get acquainted with the new features Apple has in store for the general public come fall. I’ve been running the first two beta versions on an iPhone 6; as always with pre-release versions, there’s a fair few crashes and bugs, but by and large, everything is working. If you’re keen on getting ahead of the curve yourself, Apple has promised a public beta release sometime this month. If you’d rather sit in safety with your working phone whilst I brick my device for your sake, read on.
Siri has a new home on your phone: swipe left from the main screen, and you get a search bar at the top, with Siri-recommended contacts and apps, nearby attractions, and a news feed down the bottom.
It all sounds great in theory, but at the moment, it’s mostly useless. The contact suggestions seem to only be drawn from iMessages and your phone calls, meaning that anyone you email or Whatsapp or Snapchat (ugh) won’t show up. The suggested apps also seem to be drawn more or less at random—HowAboutWe, a dating alternative to Tinder, keeps on showing up, even though I’ve never opened it. (Maybe Siri is trying to tell me something?)
The news suggestions are even worse: There’s no way to change sources or interested topics, which means you’re spammed with a bizarre mix of celebrity gossip and news about Greece’s Saskatchewan’s impending doom.
Nü Siri was meant to be a ‘proactive’ assistant to rival Google Now—a digital butler that would serve up information or complete tasks without having to ask. But at the moment, it doesn’t even come close.
Google Now provides cards on your phone that often save you from having to search for stuff, like directions to a restaurant it knows you’re going to, or the exchange rate when you land in a foreign country. Siri in iOS 9 has some of those clever abilities—she’ll nudge you to leave sooner for a meeting if traffic is bad—but by and large, proactive recommendations are either irrelevant or nonexistent.
All that said, when it comes to Siri’s voice-assistant day job, things are looking a little better. Apple has given its famously sassy digital assistant more contextual awareness, and the ability to mess with more stuff inside apps. So, “remind me to take the coffee off the car roof when I get in” now works, since Siri knows when you’re in your car; and Siri can search within native and third-party apps: “show me photos from May” will now bring up every misguided selfie you took that month.
Although the new Siri features are neat, they’re still a little hit-and-miss. Something more consistently useful is the overhauled search, which plumbs the depths of the internet, your apps, contacts, iMessages and emails to find stuff. There are also a few more actions built-in: for example, next to a contact’s name in the search results is the option to call, text or FaceTime, without having to dive into the contacts app.
There’s a handful of changes in the app department, some great, some less so. The most noticeable is the overhauled Maps app, which has finally gained public transit directions, a long-overdue upgrade that makes it a viable (but still worse!) contender to Google Maps.
Transit directions are limited to San Francisco, New York, Toronto, and London at the moment, but they’re pretty well executed: The route preview, which lets you swipe through the steps and tells you how often the subway goes is neat, and the walking directions inside train stations are pretty damn magical.
Otherwise, Maps is still Maps—perfectly useable, but still not quite as accurate as Google’s version, and sorely lacking the incredible traffic information Google can supply.
iCloud Drive is a genuinely new app: You have to fiddle around in Settings to enable the app to show on the home screen, but once you do, you’ve got direct access to your iCloud account. It feels like a half-baked attempt to match Dropbox’s one-stop file manager that lets you see everything you’ve got stored in the cloud.
The default folders will show you any Numbers or Pages files you have synced, but there’s zero mention of any iDevice backups, or your iCloud Photo Stream for that matter. Since you still have to manage your iCloud storage and functions from within the Settings app, it ends up feeling like some kind of confused extra feature thrown in at the last minute.
Notes has also seen an overhaul, turning it from a space you can use to jot down wifi passwords into a slightly more functional note-taking app. Within iCloud-synced notes (but not those for Google accounts, frustratingly), you’ve got a far richer list of features, like drawing, attaching pictures, and using different fonts and styles. It’s not exactly going to make Evernote quiver in its boots, but it’s a welcome improvement to a long-overlooked app.
Passbook is now Wallet, but really just the same under the hood. The only excitement comes in how you access it: double-tap the Home button from the lock screen, and it’ll pull up your cards.
iOS 9 does a few things for your battery life, all of them fantastic. There’s a low-battery power-saving mode. These have been standard issue on Android handsets for years; the iOS version is much the same, but well executed.
Flick the low battery toggle (annoyingly buried within Settings) and most background features (Mail fetch, background app refresh and some animations) are disabled. That means you have to actively check your phone to view emails and Twitter trolls, but it also does wondrous things for your battery life. I’ve survived a full day of use starting from 40%, and eked out a few nerve-wracking evenings from 20%.
Even without using the low power mode, iOS 9 is a little more battery-friendly than previous versions. It’s difficult to put a number on exactly how much better it is—Apple says an extra hour of life, which sounds about right—but my phone definitely eats less battery when the screen’s turned off.
My iPhone 6 has been unplugged for 24 hours and counting, and it’s currently claiming 66% battery life, after a day of completely normal use. (And, since I’ve been running pre-release beta software, things will only get better by launch time.)
Finally, iOS 9 also brings some small improvements to the battery menu. You can now get a breakdown of how much battery different apps are using, and the split between background use and on-screen time. That helps work out which apps have been gobbling power in the background for no good reason (hi, Tinder!), and send them to app purgatory.
iOS 9 doesn’t have any major design changes for users to flip their collective shit over, but there are still some incremental tweaks to the way you navigate the operating system. The most noticeable is probably the fast-app switcher: Instead of the 2D card view you used to get on double-tapping the home button, you now get a 3D carousel of cards, going backwards in time. It’s exactly the sort of minor change that’s littered around iOS: kinda neat, but certainly not life-changing.
A few other long-overdue changes: The keyboard morphs between upper-and-lowercase characters when you press the Shift key; Settings has a search (finally!); and if you follow a link or drop-down notification out of one app (say, you’re using Twitter when you get an email notification, and you follow it), there’s a new button that appears in the top-left to take you back to that last app.
This version of iOS isn’t a milestone upgrade for the iPhone. If you hated iOS before, you’re probably still going to hate it now. But thanks to a few small UI tweaks, and the overhaul of the system-wide search, navigating from place to place, and finding the right thing in the first instance, is made a heck of a lot easier.
There’s also unmistakeable improvements to Apple services that compete with major rivals—transit directions on Apple Maps make it a viable competitor to Google Maps for just about the first time, whilst iCloud Drive rounds out the company’s cloud storage in an unmistakeable Dropbox-esque way. And then, of course, there’s Apple Music.
iOS 9 isn’t going to change your life; but it might just get you navigating from one Apple service to the next faster than ever. Whether you think that’s a good thing is a trickier decision; but with a new Siri, better search and navigation, and that improved battery life, it’s clear that the 2015 edition of Apple’s mobile operating system can still play with the best of them.