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    iOS 9 review: Making the basics work even better

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    iOS 9 is deceptive. When Apple first publicly trotted out the update at WWDC a few months back, it seemed happy to hang its hat on just a few new features: Apple News, better Maps and an improved Notes app. After using the betas for months and putting in still more time with the final, ready-for-everyone build, though, it's clear that what Apple built is far more nuanced than it might have let on. (And there I was, thinking I'd have an easy review to write. Silly me.) Instead, what we've got here is in some ways a continuation of a philosophy that seemed to start in earnest in the Apple Watch. iOS 9 is less about new, whizbang features and more about getting the stuff we do everyday done just a little quicker, a little more efficiently. And you know what? That's more valuable than you might think.

    Gallery: iOS 9 on the iPhone | 30 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Lots of small, thoughtful design changes
    • Siri is more proactive;Spotlight search is deeper
    • That Back button. Seriously.
    • New multitasking features for theiPad
    Cons
    • Transit directions in Mapsdon't work everywhere
    • Apple News feels like a work in progress
    • No low-powermode for iPods,iPads

    Summary

    Apple's latest major software release isn't a revolution, but a thoughtful refinement that makes iOS faster and easier to use. Make no mistake, most of the big new features here work great, but it's the little design changes that help mold iOS' core elements into something smarter. iOS 9 isn'tperfect,but it's nonetheless a must-have download.

    Getting started

    iOS 9 Review

    Download. Install. Boot. Setting up iOS 9 follows the same streamlined approach you're probably already used to (unless you're one of those people who habitually stays a version or two behind just because). The differences here are minor: Apple really wants you to set up a six-digit passcode instead of the standard, not-terribly secure four-digit alternative, although you can still choose the latter if you're not too concerned about security. (Side note: You probably should be.) Of course, this is all moot if you can't actually complete the update thanks to a bug that could strike post-install. Some users are reporting that they can't use the "Slide to Upgrade" gesture after the iDevice restarts, prompting Apple to issue emergency suggestions while it works on a fix.

    Anyway, before you even get to your home screen, you might notice all the text looks a little different. After years of Helvetica Neue in our faces, Apple swapped in its San Francisco typeface (first used on the Watch) and it very subtly changes the feel of iOS. It's sort of like walking into your living room and seeing that your maroon walls are suddenly just a hair lighter than they used to be. I'll leave it to the font buffs to debate the relative merits of Helvetica versus San Francisco, because the rest of us won't find much to get worked up about. (I've come to really like it.)

    Gallery: iOS 9 on the iPad | 34 Photos

    San Francisco aside, your home screens have hardly changed, so anyone hoping for a radical, iOS 7-level redesign will have to wait a few more years. That's not to say Apple left its now-standard aesthetic completely unchanged: Alerts and action boxes have slightly rounder corners (I call them "jelly beans"). The Notification Center displays your missed missives and calls in reverse chronological order, making it easier for you to triage from the top down. Oh, and there's a battery widget that now lives in the Today screen, letting you know how much juice remains in your device (and Apple Watch, if you have one). This is all pretty minor stuff that does little to change the core of the iOS aesthetic, but it does reflect an understanding that people want information to be easier to find and digest.

    Turns out the biggest visual change is also the one you're going to use most often. Double-tapping the home button brings up a revamped app switcher that's much prettier than the original. Rather than the usual, flat app screenshots aligned side by side, we now have a layered, three-quarter view that stacks apps on top of each other for snazzier perusing. It's certainly a huge aesthetic improvement; peer closely enough and you can make out four apps running at a time, and just about every card has an up-to-date preview of what you were doing before you suddenly jumped somewhere else. I was no fan of the ugly, blank cards that populated iOS 8's app switcher, and Apple clearly wasn't either as they've been fixed (even if it sometimes takes a second for them to update). In fairness, the whole thing feels a little like the app-switching implementation in recent versions of Android. Whatever: It works well.

    Biggest is one thing, but the best design tweak in all of iOS 9 is the one that's easiest to miss. If you follow a link in one app into a completely separate one, the carrier/WiFi signal readout in the top-left corner of the screen disappears entirely, replaced by a handy "Back to [insert app here]" button that whisks you back one step along a trail of behavioral breadcrumbs. It's one of those little, "oh duh" things that belonged in iOS from the start, and indeed, I predict you'll be using it all the time.

    And then there's the keyboard. I can't count the number of times I've accidentally SHOUTED at friends via text because there wasn't any visual feedback worth a damn when I tapped the Shift button one time too many. Not so anymore. The letters on the keyboard visually switch between caps and lowercase depending on what you do with the Shift key, which itself changes color when you tap it. It's about time: My friends and colleagues might finally believe I'm not a jerk. I won't be the first bearer of bad news, but it's worth repeating: There are no new emoji in iOS 9. You'll have to wait for 9.1 to drop later this year before you can deploy your tacos and middle fingers mid-conversation.

    More mindful of your space

    When Apple launched iOS 8, plenty of people had a serious decision to make: Delete apps and content to make room for that huge install file, or hold off on updating indefinitely. Thankfully, that's way less of an issue this year. If you've already downloaded iOS 9, you might've noticed the size of the update is much smaller than it used to be -- it takes up 1.3GB of space, down from the hefty 4.6GB or so that iOS 8 required. Apple insisted on keeping 16GB iPhones around for at least another year rather than sticking 32GB into the entry-level model, and leaner updates will help keep people from having to make that agonizing choice again. To that end, Apple is also pushing what it calls "App Slicing," a way for developers to tag the parts of their apps meant for devices other than yours -- install one of those apps and you'll only get the stuff meant for you.

    A smarter Siri

    Apple's virtual concierge gets a little more capable with every update, and this time around it has a new look to go with its new tricks. The new Siri manifests in the form of a friendly, multicolored waveform (lifted from the Apple Watch) that pulses and surges in response to your voice. More importantly, Siri is starting to act more like an honest-to-goodness assistant thanks to some new contextual smarts. Go ahead, ask it to remind you of "this" while reading an article in Safari -- Siri can figure out what you're looking at and create the appropriate event for whenever you ask. I've mostly been using this feature to build an impromptu reading list and sure enough, it works like a treat. Siri can now also handle more specific tasks, like showing you photos from a specific time or location. Asking Siri to show off all my photos taken in 2014, or around here, or from Vietnam is a neat -- and helpful -- party trick. Not to mention, it sure beats sifting through the wilds of my Camera Roll.

    But what about all the Proactive stuff Apple was talking up? You'll see what it meant when you dig into the new search interface by swiping down or right on your home screen. While you're going about your business, Siri quietly keeps tabs on what you're doing to get a sense of who you like to talk to, what apps you like to use and when you like to use them. Once it's done chewing on those behaviors, you'll start getting Siri Suggestions for apps and contacts when it thinks they're appropriate. Ideally, those suggestions would turn the search screen into a de facto, eight-icon quick-launch area (there's that efficiency angle again).

    The end result? Mixed. Siri's very good at giving my girlfriend and sister Most Favored Contact status while the people I've spoken to most recently take up the other two slots. The app suggestions can be hit-or-miss, though -- I don't need Automatic when I'm sitting on the couch -- but they're better in the app switcher. Sometimes you'll get a single suggestion (in the bottom-left corner) when you try to multitask, which Siri very often nails. NJTransit when I'm pulling into a train station parking garage? Spotify when I'm walking to the office? Yes, please.

    Siri also finally learned to listen for your voice; when your iPhone is connected to a power source, you can get its attention with a quick "Hey Siri." You'll have to train it to listen for your voice specifically using a quick setup procedure that involves saying the launch phrase a few times. Now that I've done that, I'm pleased with its attentiveness even in mildly loud environs. I'd love for Siri to be able to listen for my commands all the time like the Moto X's equivalents can, and it can do just that... as long as a hardware upgrade is in your future. Apple says the improved M9 co-processor wedged into the new phones' A9 chipset makes efficient, always-on listening possible on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, but anyone using a current-gen 6 or something older will have to stay tethered to a power outlet. Keep a Mophie or some such handy if you really need to bark commands at Siri on the go.

    Improved search

    While we're at it, the line between Siri and Spotlight has started to blur, so let's shift our attention to search. Just like in iOS 8, Spotlight reaches deep into the Apple-owned parts of your iDevice. Consider the word "karaoke," which I think about abnormally often. Typing it into the search bar brings up apps I don't want, sent and received messages containing the word, a Maps suggestion for a karaoke bar in Philly, a contact with whom I've often used the word "karaoke," Bing search results for "karaoke" and so on. Here's the kicker, though: Developers can now let Spotlight peer into their apps and websites thanks to a trio of new APIs, so sources beyond Apple's first-party apps will eventually appear in your search results. That's... pretty exhaustive, but also a huge improvement.

    In days past, you could ask Siri about Amazon's stock price or what the weather's going to be like in Shenzhen and get a neat little visual readout of that info. Now you can feed those same queries -- along with things like basic math problems -- right into Spotlight and you'll get a quick answer too. Talking to Siri's a little faster, but it's still a nice feature to have. And since we're talking about talking, you can finally tap a microphone icon to speak them aloud, though you can't ask Siri to universally search your device for you. Guess we'll have something to look forward to in iOS 10.

    Now dragging down from the home screen still reveals the Spotlight search bar (plus suggested apps), and it also lives in the dedicated search space to the left of your home screen. Siri's app and contact suggestions live there too, where they're joined by Maps buttons for local points of interest. Some of them are pretty pointless -- here's looking at you, Shopping -- but I've had to frantically use the Gas locator more times than I care to admit. Below all that is where you'll find articles culled straight from Apple's new News app. Well, most of the time, anyway. Sometimes they just don't appear and I can't make out the rationale here; it would've made sense if they didn't appear after just leaving Apple News, but that doesn't seem to be it either. Go figure.

    Apple News

    If any one part of iOS 9 still feels like a work in progress, it's Apple's newfangled News app. This update heralds the demise of Newsstand as we knew it, not that most people would notice; it was always one of those apps that seemed to wind up forgotten in some untouched folder. What we have instead is effectively a slick-looking RSS reader with some nifty bolt-on features and a bit of potential that isn't lived up to yet. The first few moments in the app will be spent picking out your preferred news sources and subjects, and then you're plopped into a list- (iPhone) or image-heavy grid (iPad) of stories to dig into. Pretty soon you'll notice a discrepancy in how some articles are handled -- most are just formatted text on a white background with the outlet's logo up top, but the few publishers that have already jumped on Apple's News format bandwagon are more visually sumptuous and smartly laid out. While you have the option of poking around different "news" channels and searching for new publications to follow, I'd wager most of your time will be in the For You section... for better or worse.

    Let's take a step back for a second. Apple's been working to reconfigure its existing services into things that better cater to us, the users; a bunch of design changes in iOS 9 make the whole thing more intuitive, and the rise of the customized "For You" section in Apple Music is mirrored here in the News app. Unlike in Apple Music -- which has done a pretty great job of figuring out things I want to listen to based on my likes -- News hardly ever has a clue what I want to read. I've been dutifully "hearting" articles to give the app a sense of my tastes (which are pretty eclectic, in fairness), but the "For You" section continues to play home to things I just don't care about. Maybe it needs way more time to suss out my preferences. Maybe Apple needs to take things a step further with a "Hate" button to help fight the noise with negative feedback.

    I don't mean to make Apple News sound like junk, because it's not. It's a fluid, perfectly usable RSS news tool and the promise of fancily formatted stories has the news nerd in me quivering in anticipation. Still, I'm curious how everyone else takes to it; news gets disseminated through so many other channels that a separate one-stop shop seems a bit redundant.

    Notes gets noteworthy, Maps figure out the subway

    Sometimes Notes feels like one of iOS' unsung workhorses, so it's nice to see it finally getting some extra attention. Sure, you can still peck out your random thoughts (or in my case, ongoing karaoke list) and iOS 9 comes with formatting tools to add headers and full-blown checklists right into your notes. The added richness here isn't just textual, either. Adding photos or links to websites is dead-simple and brings some much-needed depth to what once was a bare-bones experience. And the really fun bit? A tap on a new squiggly icon brings up a proper doodling interface with three pen choices and eight colors. When the situation calls for more precision, there's an on-screen ruler to invoke that really helps nail those straight lines. Think of it as a software version of what Adobe did with its curious Slide ruler.

    Meanwhile, Apple Maps is closing the gap between itself and Google Maps with the addition of mass transit directions. I spent most of my time sussing out the quickest routes across Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the feature works just as well as you'd expect (although it means HopStop is now about to shut down). The only times I got lost were when my own sense of direction got screwy and led me astray. The caveat: As of this writing, it only works in Baltimore, Beijing, Berlin, Chicago, Guangzhou, London, Mexico City, New York, Philadelphia, the SF Bay Area, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Toronto and the District of Columbia. Tap the search bar and you'll get a batch of eight location categories -- food, shopping, drinks, travel, services, fun, health and transport -- similar to the ones in Spotlight. One more tap on any of those icons reveals a list of Yelp listings nearby; think of it as a quick, at-a-glance way to sift through all the stuff around you.

    Safari

    Safari doesn't have a huge changelog, but the few tweaks are definitely noteworthy. You know those web views that apps like Twitter fire up whenever you click on a link? They're now powered by Safari, so there's an added layer of continuity, meaning your saved passwords and the like will carry over into those app experiences. There's also a new formatting menu for Safari's reader that gives you seven additional font choices as well as new background colors if white tends to sear your eyes.

    All told, though, Safari's most notable change lies under the hood. You can now banish ads from your web experience completely thanks to a cottage industry of content blockers that now live in the App Store, which may or may not completely change how publishers and content providers like us approach the mobile web depending on how big a deal they become. We can save the ethical discussion for another time; content blockers like Purity do a fine job stripping the web of additional cruft, which more than a few people will love.

    Multitasking

    In years past, iOS has tended to cater to the needs of the iPhone -- hardly a surprise considering the huge gulf between the numbers of phones and iPads floating around out there. This time, though, iOS 9 is arguably more impressive on Apple's tablets, although your mileage will vary depending on the model you have.

    Anyway, Apple's push for efficiency is back in full-force on these big screens. A swipe over from the right side of the screen opens a drawer of apps you can run in tiny applet form when you need to do something quick without leaving the app you're already in. This feature is called Slide Over, and it's frankly how I spent most of my time while multitasking -- it's nice to be able to sift through an iMessage thread or refer to an email while I'm poking around in Safari and the experience is bound to get better once developers start cooking up apps to take advantage of this. This quick way to split focus between two apps will be good enough for most, so it's no wonder it's supported by the most iPads; Slide Over works on both generations of the iPad Air and the last three iPad Minis.

    If you need even more multitasking power, and you've got an iPad Air 2 or iPad Mini 4, say hello to Split View. As the name implies, you can drag the dividing line of one of those "applets" from Slide Over until it takes up a full 50 percent of your iPad's screen (see the handy GIF above). At this point you're running two apps side by side. You can interact with both halves simultaneously, too, as long as you don't require use of the keyboard. It's not always a perfect system, though. You might notice hints of jerkiness if you're fiddling with both apps at once (at least I did, on the iPad Mini 4). Also, this might just be me, but I wish I could run multiple instances of the same app; I really just want to have two Safari windows open at once so I can read while I read. Don't get me wrong: Split View is a lovely little feature and it's going to shine on the new iPad Pro, but it won't make sense all the time.

    Picture-in-picture is exactly what it sounds like, and surprise: It's more helpful than it seems at first. When you're watching something using the stock Videos app, you can tap a new button in the bottom-right corner to shrink it to about a quarter of its original size. It's not going anywhere unless you want it to, meaning it hovers in the same spot on top of apps and the home screen until you flick it around to other corners. Need to give J.K. Simmons more room to breathe in Whiplash? Pinching to zoom out on that small window will bring it up to about half of the screen's width (and you can shrink his bloviating Fletcher character again with a double-tap). I love this feature already, but here's the thing: I have all of two movies in my Videos app so getting players like Netflix and YouTube on board with picture-in-picture would be a huge win for people with compatible iPads.

    The keyboard got some major upgrades too, if not the ones you might expect. Beyond the visual feedback that comes with the improved Shift key, Apple threw in some context-sensitive shortcut buttons on top of the keyboard that (among other things) let you paste content with a single touch or format text when in appropriate apps. Of course, that's not to say iPads clearly got the better deal here. iPhones running iOS 9 get a low-power mode (as on newer Android builds) that disables background tasks and throttles down performance to keep the gadget going. It is, for lack of a better word, indispensable, and battery sizes aside, there's no reason why the iPads shouldn't have gotten this feature too. And the keyboard's pièce de résistance is a feature that's actually coming to the iPhone 6s, too: Plopping two fingers onto the keyboard causes the letters to fall away and turn into a trackpad for smoother cursor action. Where... where has this been all my life?

    The little things

    Beyond everything I've already discussed, Apple's made plenty of teensy tweaks that don't fall neatly into any one category, so I'm just going to stick them all here. The Podcasts app has gotten an overhaul with an Unplayed tab. Unlike other tech pontificators out there, I never had an issue with Apple's earlier implementations, but since we're in something of a podcasting renaissance, it's nice to see the company try to keep up with awesome third-party apps. I'm still not giving up Pocket Casts, though. You can now search for specific items inside the Settings app, making all the web's tutorials that much easier to follow.

    While you're in the settings, you can change that vibrate toggle on your iPhone to lock screen rotation instead (à la the iPad) and dig into the battery section for a full breakdown showing how badly some apps eat into your power reserves. You'll also get a better sense of who's behind random calls thanks to a location display in the Phone app; it'll match the area code to a known region in the US. If you don't feel like shelling out $99 for an Apple Developer account, no worries: You can sideload applications without one. You're also be given the option to install a separate iCloud Drive app so you can manage your selfies more easily. Speaking of selfies, Camera.app now saves photos taken with the front-facing camera in a separate "Selfies" folder (the same goes for screenshots, finally).

    Wrap-up

    iOS 9 is a must-have update. That perhaps didn't need to be said considering it's the fastest-adopted iOS update ever, but the level of thoughtfulness and refinement here more than makes up for the lack of groundbreaking features. The tentpole features Apple we did get mostly work well, although it's not hard to see iOS 9 as Apple's attempt to keep up with Android. That's why the smaller, lower-level changes to iOS are so much more important this year: Apple has had its core features in place for ages now and iOS 9 works to connect them in subtler, more intuitive ways. Think of the new software as a layer of polish you may not have even realized iOS needed. More importantly, that polish strengthens iOS' foundation in preparation for the bigger, broader changes to come in future software updates.

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