Apple iOS 12 preview: It's all about the polish

iOS 12 feels smoother and more stable.

It's been three weeks since Apple officially revealed iOS 12, and since then developers have been putting that new software update through the wringer. Now it's your turn: The company just dropped its first public iOS 12 beta build, and if you're feeling particularly brave, you can enroll in the beta program here. I've been playing with the public beta for a few days now, and needless to say, I've spent more time than I care to admit making sure our Memojis look just right. (I'll leave whether I was actually successful up to you.)

To be clear, though, there's a lot going on in iOS 12 -- it took up about half of Apple's WWDC keynote this year for a reason. We'll have a full, more nuanced review when the software actually ships this fall, but here are a few things you can expect once you take the plunge and start getting a feel for Apple's new software today.

One of Apple's biggest promises for iOS 12 is that it'll help the company's devices -- even really old ones -- run smoother than before. Remember, iOS 12 is compatible with devices as old as the iPhone 5s and the iPad mini 2. Both of those devices debuted in 2013, and as anyone still using one would probably attest, they don't run the way they used to. iOS 12 is supposed to change that. Unfortunately, my experience with the public beta build has been limited to an iPhone X, but if conversations between developer beta users on Twitter are any indication, those older devices are seeing a noticeable performance lift. (Now that the beta is available to everyone, I'll install it on some older iOS devices and update this story after some more testing.)

Given that the X is the newest, fastest phone in Apple's arsenal, you might not expect to see much of a difference between a unit running iOS 11.4 and one with 12. You'd be mostly right. My iPhone X running the public beta was marginally faster than an iPhone X on iOS 11.4, but don't expect this to be the case all the time. Apple has said that launching apps, loading the keyboard and accessing the share sheet inside apps generally happen faster in iOS 12, and my experience testing these two iPhone Xs side by side bore that out. While it does make the process of interacting with the iPhone X feel slightly smoother, it's not the kind of thing you'd necessarily notice in day-to-day use.

It's also worth noting that although you probably shouldn't use this public beta build as your daily driver, I haven't run into any deal-breaking issues just yet. That doesn't mean you won't, or that there aren't any to be found -- this software is still a ways off from completion, so I'd still only recommend throwing the beta onto a device you don't rely on every day.

You won't find any new message effects or keyboard options in iOS 12's Messages app, but there are still plenty of changes worth noting. For one, the camera experience is totally different: Rather than getting a live (if small) look at the viewfinder, tapping the camera button takes you straight into the camera interface. It's arguably more helpful than trying to line up a shot you want to send in a tiny window, but getting used to the change will take some time.

See, with iOS 12, you now have to open a separate Photos iMessage app if you want to send photos that are already stored in your Camera Roll. The benefit to having the camera interface take over inside Messages is that you're able to use that extra space to gussy up photos you've taken with new effects -- you can add animated text, filters and even stickers from packs to liven up your shots.

Meanwhile, Apple's Animoji selection now includes a tiger, ghost, T. rex and koala. Great? More important for me, all of those Animoji now more accurately identify and render one's winks and tongue waggles.

You probably didn't come here to read about that, though -- iOS 12's real draw is its Memoji. Unlike the AR Emoji you'll find on recent Samsung smartphones, Apple's approach never attempts to create Memoji based on what you look like -- the process is completely manual, and honestly feels a lot like crafting Miis for Nintendo consoles. You're given no fewer than 17 skin tones (including out-there hues like green and violet), 90 hairstyle choices, 15 head shapes, nine eye options, 24 sets of eyebrows and 24 kinds of headgear, and don't forget that each of those categories offers still more tweaking options (freckles, anyone?).

The ultimate results are Pixar-like cartoon caricatures that have more personality than you might have expected. If you're looking for pixel-perfect re-creations of your face, though, you'll probably walk away disappointed. My Memoji looks as much like me as possible, but it still doesn't seem quite right; there's no way to make my mouth wider or to rearrange eyes or noses on a face, all of which would help make a Memoji look more distinctly like me. That's a pretty minor disappointment, honestly, but even more control over the way these look would be nice, since you can apply Animoji and Memoji "masks" to your face while on FaceTime video calls.

Speaking of FaceTime, you can now also squeeze up to 32 people into a single FaceTime conversation. We didn't have enough iOS beta users on staff to try and max out a call -- instead we had to settle for a three-way convo between me, Aaron on a developer beta build and Dana dialing in from a MacBook Pro. Starting a multi-person call on iOS is really simple: Select the contacts you'd like to include and, assuming they're all running the requisite software, FaceTime will ring all of them and fold them into a live chat.

Few things about iOS are as uniquely anxiety-inducing as having to wade through a time-sorted feed of notifications. No more. Apple has finally decided that grouping notifications together by app is the right way to go, and even after just a few days, it made the process of sifting through my notifications feed that much less daunting. iOS doesn't just lump notifications together by app, either; that would be a great way to miss some important messages. iOS 12 is smart enough to give special care to notifications from select apps like Messages and Mail. If you use those apps heavily, you might notice different bundles of notifications for different conversation threads.

Beyond that, it's much easier now to prioritize specific kinds of notifications. A left swipe on a notification brings up the option to manage how that app's notifications are handled in the future, including the option to immediately relegate them to the Notification Center when they arrive. In a lot of ways, Apple is playing catch-up with Android and its generally superior approach to notification management. Better late than never, I guess.

Also new to iOS 12 are a handful of improvements to Do Not Disturb. For one, there are additional options available when you 3D Touch the DND icon in Control Center. In addition to choices like muting everything for a hour or until the end of the day, you can tell your phone to keep quiet as long as you remain in the same location. I've already used this a couple times in bars and movie theaters, and as far as I'm concerned there's no going back. Meanwhile, Do Not Disturb during Bedtime does exactly what the name describes: It hides notifications that roll in until the morning. It also features a neat little Good Morning screen (complete with a weather forecast) to help you start your day.

My experience with the updated Do Not Disturb hasn't been perfect, though. For reasons I haven't been able to figure out, iOS 12 was set to keep Do Not Disturb on from 9 AM to 6 PM on my iPhone X review unit. While that made for a surprisingly stress-free day, it did also mean that some anxiety kicked in later when I realized I missed a few important emails.

And then there's Screen Time. Tech titans have realized they bear some responsibility for giving us devices that are almost as good at isolating us as they are at bringing us together. In Apple's case, it's trying to curb our phone addictions by shining a light on behaviors that might need fixing and allowing us to limit how often we use certain apps. (Note: This isn't particularly novel; Google got a jump on Apple by announcing similar features for Android P at its I/O conference back in May.)

Screen Time tells me that most of my time on-device is spent dicking around with entertainment and social networking apps. No surprise there, and I'm certainly not the only one for whom this is true. As a result, though, I quickly bumped up against a one-hour time limit for social network apps while leaving other categories like education, productivity, and health and fitness untouched. You can drill down even further and place limits on specific apps, like I did with YouTube (because wow that place is an incredible time suck). These limits haven't been in place long enough for me to see if I can actually break deep-seated habits, and there's still a chance I'll fall short (I'm only human, after all).

We've gone through most of the big changes in iOS 12, but there are plenty of others that aren't as impactful or readily apparent (or, for that matter, completely ready yet). Let's take a look at what else you might notice in your first few days with this new iOS.

New apps and new looks: The Voice Memos app now looks cooler than it used to, and it saves recordings to iCloud. Fair enough. Meanwhile, Apple Books (formerly iBooks) has been redesigned to more closely resemble the App Store, complete with distinct sections for shopping and audiobooks. Apple News also has a slightly cleaner interface, and the new Stocks app ... well, I don't own any stock, so I've spent precisely zero time in there so far. That said, it now features more live price charts and financial stories culled from Apple News, making it a more immediately helpful way for day traders to keep up to date.

Where are my Shortcuts? This is obviously unfinished software, so some of the updates I've been looking forward to most aren't ready for public consumption yet. The biggest omission so far: Apple's new Shortcuts app, which builds off the work the company did with its earlier Workflow app. Long story short, you'll be able to link multiple actions that normally exist inside different apps into a single Shortcut that you can invoke by asking Siri. While the app itself isn't ready yet, you can jump into Settings and create voice-activated shortcuts for individual actions, like starting a voice recording. Telling Siri to "news me," for instance, causes the phone to bring up featured stories in Apple News.

More helpful Siri suggestions: In the past, Siri could be set to suggest apps you might want to use again soon. I've never found those particularly helpful. With iOS 12, Siri can also suggest actions, like, say, sending a message to a person you were recently having a conversation with. They appear when you pull down on the screen to initiate a Spotlight search, but I don't think I've been using it long enough to get any really valuable suggestions. (That said, I did just text my sister at Siri's behest.)

AR in focus: The latest manifestation of Apple's focus on augmented reality is a Measure app that gives you accurate estimates on the dimensions of objects in front of you. It's similar to an app Google built years ago for its Project Tango phones, not to mention a more broadly accessible sequel that just became available for all ARCore-compatible devices.

Better iPhone X gestures: If you're using an iPhone X with iOS 11.4 right now, closing an app from the multitasking view involves grabbing an app card and pushing it up slightly until it wiggles. I hated this, and with iOS 12, it's gone; now you can just swipe up on an app card to dismiss it.

New security flourishes: I didn't dig into iOS 12's focus on security and privacy because few of the features Apple has been touting -- like share button blocking and strong password generation in Safari -- have appeared for me yet. That said, you can now set an alternate Face ID just in case your appearance varies wildly (or if you want someone else to be able to access your phone with their mug). Beyond that, there's also an option in settings to disable all USB connectivity once the iPhone has been locked for more than an hour. That sounds like a great way to foil potential invasions of privacy by law enforcement -- these are uncertain times we're living in -- and those of you dealing with sensitive situations should definitely have it on.

Before iOS 12 was officially unveiled, rumors suggested that Apple was focusing on making this year's big software release more stable and capable than before. The rumors were correct to an extent, but now that I've spent a little time with Apple's updated software, the value of Apple's vision is starting to come into focus. Good software doesn't just draw you in and make your life easier -- it should also work to ensure that it doesn't completely define your life. Striking that kind of balance is harder than ever, and while Apple is off to a solid start, it -- and the rest of the industry -- still have a lot of work to do.

Better performance

More ways to express yourself

A focus on your well-being

Odds and ends