iOS 14 first look: Apple tries to do more but still keep things simple

Apple's latest software is a fascinating balancing act.

Broadly speaking, the last two years of iOS updates were focused on steadily improving stability and adding features to existing apps. Important work, certainly. This time, though, Apple took a slightly different tack: It made some of the biggest visual changes to iOS since its debut more than a decade ago. And now, developers -- or people who pay $100/year for developer accounts -- can take it for a spin.

I’ve been trying out the iOS 14 developer beta for a few days now, and as you’d expect, there’s a lot to unpack here. If you’re thinking about taking the plunge, just remember the usual caveats apply. Even though this early beta has been surprisingly stable so far, you shouldn't plan on using it on your main device unless you don't mind dealing with potentially show-stopping bugs.

In other words, unless you’re actually doing some app compatibility testing, most of you are better off waiting for the public beta release in July -- or the full launch later this year. In the meantime, we thought we’d take a closer look at some of iOS 14’s most notable design changes, and how they reflect what feels like a big priority for Apple in this update: Adding more features while managing clutter.

iOS 14 widgets
Chris Velazco/Engadget

Rewriting the old rules

With only a few exceptions, the iOS home screen's design hasn't changed much since the days of the original iPhone. Sure, we got folders in iOS 4, and a flat redesign with iOS 7, but that signature app grid? Considering how long it went unchanged, it seemed almost sacrosanct.

Not anymore, though! With iOS 14 come new widgets that, like their Android counterparts, can sit anywhere on the home screen. For those unaware, widgets have been available in iOS for years now, but they required an extra swipe or two to access. That placement always felt counter-intuitive to me; the whole point of widgets is to get information at a glance, and hiding them on some secondary screen defeated that purpose. Now, they’re right where they can be the most helpful.

Bear in mind, these aren’t the homogeneous, translucent widgets found in earlier versions of iOS (though, they still exist for now.) These are available in a handful of sizes -- the smallest occupies the same space as a 2x2 square of apps, and the largest is equivalent to a 4x4 square.

iOS 14 widgets

They can also be a little more information-dense than ones you’ve seen in earlier versions of iOS. Take the Apple Maps widget. Rather than offer a list of destinations or shortcuts to nearby hotspots like the old ones did, the new version gives you a local map view and a handy search button. The Stocks widget lists company names in addition to just their tickers.

So far, my favorite widgets are the simplest. I have a small one tucked in a corner, telling me how hot Brooklyn is right now. Next to it, a cluster of tiny icons letting me know this iPhone and Apple Watch have nearly full charges. And beneath both of those, an Activity widget confirms that I’m nowhere near closing my rings for the day.

I suspect some people will prefer the classic approach, with pages of meticulously laid out apps and nothing else. Don’t worry: You can skip out on this widget thing entirely. For everyone else, Apple’s surprisingly elegant approach means you can jam gobs of extra information onto your home screen if you really wanted to.

iOS 14 App Library

Entering the Library

Widgets succeed at making iOS more helpful at a glance, but here's the rub: Even the small ones take up considerable space on your home screen. That would normally mean your apps would spill over into even more pages, and who wants to deal with that? That’s where iOS’s new App Library comes in: It’s basically an overflow area that lives just beyond your last home screen page for all your apps.

Maybe this is my fondness for Android talking, but iOS has needed something like this for a long time. Since Apple hasn’t dramatically changed the home screen in years though, is it any surprise that the App Library takes some getting used to?

iOS 14 app categories

Thankfully, getting started is simple enough. Just scroll past your last home screen page, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of the Library, with all of your installed apps roughly sorted by their App Store categories. (I say "roughly" because iOS ignores some existing App Store categories, and creates some of its own.) For now, though, some of the buckets into which iOS sorts apps don't make much sense.

I wouldn't normally expect to see banking software in a folder labeled "Productivity," but that's where it all wound up. And the "Lifestyle" folder is... sort of a catch-all? Some of my smart home apps live there, along with Amazon, Uber, NJ Transit and the New York Times Cooking app. If you can spot the logical throughline that connects all of these things, please, let me know because I'm stumped. Apple says there’s no way to let you customize the way the App Library sorts your apps, so for now we’ll just have to make do. Thankfully, a big search bar makes it easy enough to suss out the app you were thinking of, as does a list view of all your apps in alphabetical order.

At the very least, having one place for all your apps means you’re free to clean house — err, home screens. Long-pressing an app’s icon now brings up the option of moving that software to the Library instead of just deleting it outright, and that same action works for your carefully cultivated app folders, too. You should really think about whether that’s the right move, though. Moving the contents of a folder to the App Library basically just means the folder itself gets deleted, since the apps were already listed in the Library anyway. If you ever decide you want that folder back just the way it was, you’re going to have to create it from scratch again, which involves selecting each desired app in the Library and moving it back to the home screen first.

iOS 14 app library

The fastest — and least destructive — way to clean up your home screen is by disabling entire pages at a time. Long-press an app icon, hit the “edit home screen button,” and tap the series of dots at the bottom of the screen. That’ll bring up your full list of home screen pages, and if you already know you don’t really use some of them, unticking a box hides the page entirely and displays all of its apps in the Library. This might sound like the nuclear option, but it offers one huge advantage: Ticking the box again revives the page as it was, with everything (including those folders) in the right place. And once you’ve got your apps laid out just the way you like them, you can preserve that order by telling iOS to display new apps solely in the Library.

I imagine people will take wildly different approaches with iOS 14’s more flexible design. Some, who either a) don’t care or b) prefer the old way of doing things, don’t have to change their behavior at all. Others will certainly run in the opposite direction, excising their home screens of app icons entirely and going whole-hog on widgets since the Library aptly stores all the software they need. I haven’t really figured out where I sit along that spectrum yet, but if there was ever a time to experiment, it’s now.

Clearing the clutter

The way widgets and the App Library work in tandem is a great example of what seems like a big underlying theme for iOS 14: giving you just what you need, when you need it. They aren’t the only ones, though. Consider the way this update handles phone calls and Siri. Both used to take over the entire screen, interrupting whatever you were doing. Now, they've been rightfully relegated to small notifications that appear around the edges of your screen. They’re sufficient for giving you the proper context without pulling you away from the task at hand.

The same even applies to video, of all things. Once an iPad-exclusive feature, iOS 14 brings picture-in-picture to the iPhone, ensuring that you can watch Divorce Italian Style in HBO Max while firing off some work emails. Many major streaming services already play nice with the feature, but since we’re a long way off from iOS 14’s official release, there are still a few notable holdouts. (Here’s looking at you, VRV and YouTube.)

iOS 14 first look

If there’s one feature that really speaks to the “just enough” philosophy Apple seems to be embracing, it’s App Clips. They may well be the most mysterious part of iOS 14 right now, since there aren’t any to examine or draw insight from. (That is, unless you count some of the demo code Apple has made available to developers.)

These are super-small (think: 10MB) snippets of existing apps that replicate some of their most notable features when immediacy is the priority. Let’s say you wandered into a Jersey Mike’s for lunch. Rather than wait in a socially distanced line and talk to other humans, you could theoretically scan an QR code or tap an NFC tag to load an App Clip and order from there. Or, if you went on a road trip, you could use an App Clip for a smart parking meter to top up before you wander.

Not all App Clips are tied to specific, physical locations, either; you’ll eventually find them in Apple Maps listings, iMessages threads and links in webpages. If things go Apple’s way, they’ll be everywhere.

By design, they’re built to give you just enough app to complete a task and get on with your day. That very quick, almost transactional approach sounds refreshing compared to what we -- or at least I -- have been doing this whole time. If I need an app, even for a one-off interaction, I’ll download it, use it and let it linger on my phone indefinitely. You know, just in case. I’m sure I’m not the only one, either. But App Clips just might remedy that behavior completely. And fortunately, the way iOS handles these things is a little more clever than this summary might suggest.

App Clips

After you use them the first time, those Clips will continue to live on your iOS device for "several days" in case you need them again. (On iPhones, they stay in an App Clips folder in the App library, but they're only visible in the dock and app switcher on iPads.) After that, iOS deletes the Clip and all associated data, at which point you have to reinstall the thing or just move on with your life.

But let’s go back to that parking meter example. Unless you’re out for a quick jaunt, there’s a decent chance you’ll have to “fill up” the meter again. If the App Clip is still on your phone somewhere -- and it should be, since it hasn’t been that long -- it can offer different mechanics and experiences than the last time you used it. In this case, that could mean you’d see an option to digitally refill that parking meter, rather than walk back and start the process all over again.

In other words, App Clips aren’t just static, disposable versions of apps -- they’re potentially valuable companions that developers will have to start taking seriously. And beyond that, they just might force us to rethink the way we currently horde apps.


We’ve only just scratched the surface of the iOS 14 update, and we’ll revisit this software when it becomes available as a public beta next month. Even now, though, it seems clear that Apple had a tricky job to do here; it had to make iOS do more, without making it feel too complicated or cumbersome. We’ll have to hold off on any kind of definitive judgment until iOS 14 gets its full release in the fall, but if nothing else, Apple already seems to have a lot of the right tools in place.