iOS 8 packs some snappy new features

Apple's new iOS 8 mobile operating system is a snappy upgrade that includes better integration between iOS and OS X devices

It's almost fall again, and so Apple has released the next generation of software that powers its mobile lineup: iOS 8. As always, this is a free update, and it packs new features and enhancements, both obvious and subtle.

Building on last year's dramatic interface overhaul, iOS 8, which was released today, marks the second version of Apple's mobile operating system to feature 64-bit code (last year's iOS 7 being the first). This allows the iPhone to take full advantage of the 64-bit architecture built around the A7 chip in the iPhone 5S, iPad Air and the second-generation iPad mini; as well as the upcoming 64-bit A8 chip in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

(For owners of legacy equipment, iOS 8 can run on the iPhone 4S and later, and the iPad 2 and later. The only iPod Touch that can handle iOS 8 is the fifth-generation model that's been shipping since September 2012. However, not all features will be available for all devices and countries -- Apple has provided a list of which features are available in which countries.)

iOS 8 retains the look and feel introduced in iOS 7 with added refinements throughout the system. The new functionality doesn't feel bolted on, doesn't slow the OS down or add bloat -- a difficult trick to pull off.

Be warned, though: I have run into lingering bugs in the final release of iOS 8 (build 12A365). Some are obscure enough that you may never run into them, but the usual caveats and warnings apply regarding installing and running first-release software.

For this review, I tested iOS 8 on an iPhone 5S, an iPad mini (second generation with Retina display) and a cellular iPad Air. However, the main focus of this review will be based on how well iOS 8 runs on the iPhone.

Installation

Before you do anything else, go to Settings: iCloud: Storage & Backup and tap Backup Now. You will want a full backup of your data in case of an unforeseen event.

There are several ways to install iOS 8. The easiest: From an iOS device, navigate to Settings > General > Software Update and run the update. For this, you will need a Wi-Fi network and at least 50% battery life, or else the device will have to be plugged in. After the download is complete, your device will update in place, leaving all of your settings, data, media and apps intact.

The other way to upgrade your iPhone is to plug it into a PC or Mac running iTunes. You'll have the option to either Restore or Upgrade the phone, with the Upgrade option leaving your settings, data, media and apps in place; the Restore option initially deletes everything on the device before installing a fresh operating system. If you've been having issues with your device, or if you've modified (or jailbreaked) ) the OS in ways Apple hasn't sanctioned, then a Restore may be the best bet.

Once the upgrade is complete and the device rebooted, a multi-language Welcome screen will be displayed. Perform a Slide-to-Unlock swipe and Apple's Setup Assistant will guide you through the process of connecting to a Wi-Fi network and enabling Location Services. If you chose to perform a Restore, this is where you'll see options to set your device up as new or to restore from a backup via iCloud or iTunes.

A similar interface

Like iOS 7, iOS 8 is designed in layers, with views zooming you in and out of your content, interface overlays influenced by personalized backgrounds, and the parallax effect creating the illusion of graphics subtly residing on separate planes.

Last year, the Lock Screen was revamped for a far cleaner look and allowed users to swipe anywhere on the screen to call up the Home or passcode screen. In iOS 8, the Lock Screen gets additional functionality without added clutter.

One of the highlights is the new Interactive Notifications. These are notifications with optional action items, allowing you to perform specific functions without opening the app itself. An interactive notification can be activated by swiping to the right on the Lock Screen, bringing up contextually pertinent actions. For instance, an email notification, when swiped to the right, will allow you to respond to or dismiss the notification; you can also Mark as Read, Trash or dismiss the notification.

Starting in iOS 8, Apple has created APIs that allow developers to extend the functionality of some system functions, including -- but not limited to -- these interactive notifications. For example, the recent Apple keynote showed Facebook notifications with options to Like or respond to a post from within the notification. But I'll get to more of this in a bit.

I've run into one annoyance with the new interactive notification, specifically as implemented by the Messages app: Notifications do not update if you receive another email while you're responding. Nitpicky? Sure, but it would be nice to see the next message when responding to a specific thread. Otherwise, this is a useful step in the right direction.

Now is a good time to note that the Messages app has received some welcome new features, including the ability to name group messages, add and remove people from group threads, and -- best of all -- the ability to enable Do Not Disturb on a per-chat basis or leave a group chat altogether.

To the upper right of a message, there is a new Details button that, when tapped, brings you to information about the contact and the conversation. It also shows you more ways to communicate with your contact (including phone/audio/FaceTime calls), share your location, mute the conversation and review the attachments shared in the conversation in one location.

The Messages app now has some handy shortcuts for sending pictures, sound bites and videos, but the caveat is that these features are only enabled when contacting users who have the iMessage service. If your recipient has a device that only uses SMS, then the Messages interface remains the same as before, lacking the quick shortcuts for sending audio or video new in iOS 8. That doesn't mean videos and pictures can't be sent; it just means that contacts relying on SMS do not show the updated interface.

When you are using the iMessage service, there is a camera and a microphone icon to the left and right respectively of the Messages text input area. Holding down the microphone automatically initiates a recording session, enabling you to give a quick spoken reply. When finished, without lifting your thumb, you can swipe left with your thumb to delete, or swipe up with your thumb to send.

The recipient will receive an audio file inline in the text conversation. This file displays as an audio waveform that can be played by tapping a play button. The message can also be played from the Lock Screen by simply raising the phone; the iPhone will sense the gesture and automatically play the message once you place the phone to your ear. From here, you can respond, and when you lower your iPhone, your voice response is automatically sent.

After using it over the summer, I found this to be a truly neat and welcome way to communicate, with all of the benefits of texting (such as the ability to pause and think before replying) without the pesky texting part.

Videos and pictures can be quickly recorded and sent, too. To send a picture, press and hold the camera icon to the left of the entry field, point at your subject, and then swipe up with your thumb. With this motion, the iPhone will take a picture and then automatically send it to your recipient.

To send a video, tap and hold the camera icon and slide your thumb to the right; the video will automatically start recording. To send the video, lift your thumb and tap to stop recording. Tap the up icon to send or the X button to cancel. As with the audio messages, recipients will receive the pictures and movies in the conversation text, and they'll have the option to keep or delete the media.

By default, incoming audio and video messages are set to self-destruct within two minutes unless the settings have been changed under Settings: Messages.

One last update to Messages (and this actually applies to all updated apps): There's a new photo picker featuring a much larger photo preview. When the photo picker is active, you can scroll through some recent photos from left to right, allowing you to select and send multiple photos and videos.

Photos

Speaking of photos, the Photos app also gets welcome updates.

Located at the top right of the Photo app, just to the left of the Select button, there is now a Spotlight icon (Spotlight is the iOS search engine). This allows you to search for photos using location and dates, which should help you find that specific picture you're looking for. The Photo search field automatically includes recent results as well as some smart searches of recent photos. Interestingly, photo results are not available when a Spotlight search is conducted from the Home screen.

The Photos app has gained some new editing features, too. When you select the Edit button on the upper right, the button is replaced by a magic wand icon, which automatically adjusts your photo to what it interprets as optimal levels. Generally, this auto-enhance feature does a good job bringing out colors and compensating for common lighting errors.

Near the bottom of the screen, there are buttons to Cancel the editing mode, Crop, Filters, Manual Adjustments and an option to Revert back to the original photo. Each button does what you would think; the Manual Adjustments button lets you tweak light, color and other settings using a simple drag-to-adjust mechanism that automatically adjusts specific parameters such as Exposure, Brightness, Shadows, Contrast and more. These settings can also be manually fine-tuned, if you're inclined to tweak by hand. During editing, if you wish to see a before and after comparison of the photo, just press and hold your finger on the picture; the software will display the original file.

Within the Photos app, just above the Home button, there is an icon in the shape of a heart. Tapping this heart will automatically make that photo a Favorite and store that photo in a Favorites album on this device -- and the Favorites album of every device that your Apple ID is linked to.

Given that the iPhone -- and smartphones like it -- went a long way to killing the consumer digital camera market, it only makes sense that Apple engineers would figure out ways to make photo-taking better.

One of the enhancements built into the Camera app is the option for a self-timer. Previously, this was available in third-party applications like Gorilla Cam, but it's a welcome feature to have built in. The icon is located at the top menu to the left of the Camera Flip button. When tapped, the icon slides out of the way to reveal a 3- or 10-second countdown option. When either option is selected, the Self-Timer changes to reflect the change, which is helpful in determining at a glance if the Timer feature is on or off. Press the shutter to begin the countdown, with the remaining time in the countdown displaying on screen. Pressing the shutter button while the timer counts down cancels picture-taking process.

The Camera app now has five modes: Panorama, Square, Photo, Video and Time-Lapse. If you're on an iPhone 5S or later, you also have a Slo-Mo option as well.

Personally, the time-lapse option is the one I'm most interested in. Anyone who follows me on Twitter and/or Vimeo, knows I love time-lapse shots. Before this feature was added to the iPhone, I used a cumbersome multistep routine with a GoPro camera to capture the footage, and a third-party application on the Mac called Zeitraffer to process it into a movie. By adding the Time-Lapse mode, Apple has turned this cumbersome multistep process into one that can be accomplished with ease: Press the Record button in the Time-Lapse section to start and press it again to stop. You can trim the resulting video by dragging a pair of sliders on either end of the video previews.

Another new feature: The Photo and Square shooting modes now offer built-in filters to the right of the on-screen shutter. Tapping the Filters button, represented by a three circle graphic, gives access to nine real-time previews of the filters. If you like a filter, tapping on it results in a full-screen preview.

Siri

Apple's voice assistant, Siri, picks up a couple of tricks in iOS 8. It shows you exactly what you're saying as you're saying it and now lets you purchase iTunes content without launching the iTunes app.

But by far the most important feature update is the new Hey, Siri command. Now, when your iOS device is plugged into power, Siri listens for the command Hey, Siri. This is a feature I longed for years ago, and I'm glad it's here. I found the Hey, Siri command especially useful in two specific situations: If you work from home (or in an area where talking out loud to the phone isn't a big deal) or in the car. In fact, the Hey, Siri hand's free functionality may tide over some Apple fans who are waiting for their cars to support Apple's CarPlay technology.

A feature new to iOS 8 is Family Sharing, which allows you to consolidate up to six iCloud accounts under one credit card. All members under Family Sharing have access to each other's purchases, including music, movies, TV shows, books and other content bought from the iTunes store.

One of the benefits of Family Sharing is that each member can have his or her own AppleID and password. Apple also allows the creation of Apple IDs for children under 13 years old; but Restrictions and the Ask to Buy feature is turned on automatically for those accounts, and they need to be added to the family group by a legal guardian or parent.

Another benefit: Family Sharing automatically creates a shared family photo album and family calendar across your devices and automatically links family members with the Find My Friends app and service.

Perhaps the most useful feature for parents is this: When someone under the Family Sharing plan tries to buy something, parents get a notification that must be approved before the purchase and download can begin. This means no more accidental runs on your credit card due to purchases from children.

Support for iCloud -- Apple's umbrella term for a set of Internet services used to silently sync data across your Apple devices -- has been beefed up in a very visible way. iCloud now has a modifiable file system in which you can create and store documents and other data. This new feature, called iCloud Drive, is essentially like a built-in DropBox for iOS and Mac users.

Like before, documents can be started on one device and finished on another, with all changes and edits applied across your other devices; the main difference is that you can create folders and arrange the data as you would any other directory on your Mac or on your iOS device via the in-app document picker. Even better: iCloud Drive is accessible not just on your Apple devices, but on your Windows PC, as well.

Search and Mail improvements

Spotlight's search functionality has been expanded to display a new range of search results. Right from the Home screen, Spotlight can search for applications in the App Store, Wiki entries and map data for nearby places, as well as news stories. You can still search for content -- like songs, TV shows, and books -- but now the search shows results for matches on the iTunes Stores, too, and data like movie show times.

Mail gains some useful new features as well. For instance, you can delete, flag or mark an email as read using gestures. Swiping a finger all the way to the left on an email in the mail list deletes it, while a slow swipe to the left brings up options to Flag, Trash or access more functions, including reply, forward, move to junk, and the option to be notified if anyone replies to that email thread.

Swiping across an email to the right brings up the option to Mark as Read (or Unread, depending on the message status). This is a customizable option under Settings>Mail, Contacts, Calendars>Swipe Options, but there aren't many options to choose from. You can either Mark as Read/Unread or flag the email using the swipes; I would have really loved to see an option to Move to Junk. I think I would have used that feature more than anything else on the iPhone, actually.

Email subscribers to a Microsoft Exchange server can be happy knowing that Mail now supports automatic replies for out of office notifications and that Mail is aware of free/busy status in Exchange calendars.

Mail also recognizes reservations, flight confirmations and other data. When this occurs, Mail sends a notification prompting you to add that data to a calendar event or its appropriate location.

Stay healthy

Before iOS 8, I was using TactioHealth to consolidate all of my health and fitness data from my assortment of devices and apps. Now, with the built-in HealthKit, Apple is offering a single repository for this data, which is then displayed in the app called Health using a customizable dashboard. Third party apps can tap into the data that resides there and also have the ability to add their own data.

HealthKit tracks all sorts of data, including active calories, blood glucose, body fat percentage, caffeine intake, cycling distance, flights climbed, heart rate, lean body mass, respiratory rate, steps taken throughout the day, walking and running distance, and even vitamin intake.

There is even a medical ID card that contains your information, including medical conditions, medical notes, allergies and reactions, medications and emergency contact information. All of this is opt in; the app doesn't go poking around for your data without your permission.

Apple is working with several hospitals on patient trials using the HealthKit services, according to Reuters. If this catches on, this could be huge for everyone.

Like HealthKit, HomeKit is a repository for specific data. Unlike HealthKit, HomeKit is focused on device data associated with home automation products. Devices with HomeKit support can even be operated with your voice, via Siri.

Continuity

One of the major features of iOS 8 won't be available to the general public until the arrival of OS X 10.10 (aka Yosemite), due in October. That's because the next set of features links iPhones and iPads with Apple's traditional Mac lineup in a set of features called Continuity. Continuity is made up of: Handoff, AirDrop, Automatic Hotspot, and, eventually, SMS relay.

Handoff is a great new feature in which your Apple devices are aware of what each is doing. If you need to switch to a different device, you can continue your work on that device automatically. For example, if you're browsing the Web on your Mac and decide to go outside, you can continue reading that webpage on the iPhone by swiping up the icon located on the lower left of the Lock Screen. That icon changes depending on what app you are using; swiping up on the icon will open whatever you were doing on the Mac on the iPhone, continuing your work on one device exactly where you left off on the other.

It works in the other direction, too. If you start an email on the iPhone and return to your Mac, an email app icon will display on the left hand side of the Dock. Clicking on that icon will open up the email you were composing on the iPhone right where you left off. And that's just one example; Handoff works with many of Yosemite's built-in apps, and the technology is open to developers so they can incorporate these features into their apps.

AirDrop lets iOS and Mac users share documents, photos, videos and other data wirelessly and securely. The difference with AirDrop in Yosemite and iOS 8 is that (finally) Macs can wirelessly transfer files to iOS devices and vice versa.

Automatic Hotspot is a feature I initially underestimated. This is a zero-configuration personal hotspot, allowing your Mac to access the Internet using a cellular-connected iPhone or iPad. With this feature, any cell-enabled iOS 8 device logged in with your iCloud information can be easily set up to be used as a hotspot. iOS 8 devices just show up under the Mac's Wi-Fi list -- a single click grants you access to the internet.

This feature can really come in handy. My neighborhood suffered a power outage over the summer. On a whim, I clicked on the Wi-Fi icon in the Mac's menu and noticed that my iPad and iPhone were listed. One click later, my MacBook Pro was back online, no muss, no fuss. That's impressive.

Another great feature is the ability to make and receive phone calls from the Mac or another iOS device. For example, if your iPhone is being charged on the other side of the house and you receive a phone call, your Mac and other iOS devices now display the Caller ID information, and you can pick up the call on any device. It works the other way, too -- if you dial a number from your Mac or iPad, the devices will use the FaceTime app to route the call through the iPhone, including numbers from contacts or webpages.

Finally, SMS support lets your Mac or iPad send SMS and MMS messages right from their respective apps. (Previously, only iMessages between Apple devices were possible in the existing app.) This feature is due in October.

As you can see, the features in Continuity extend the usefulness of Apple products by allowing new kinds of interaction between devices. Unfortunately, unless you signed up for the public beta program, you'll have to wait until Yosemite is released in October. Trust me: These features are worth the wait.

Encouraging development

Speaking of waiting: Many iPhone fans have wondered whether Apple engineers would ever allow the use of third-party software to extend functionality and, with iOS 8, that wait is (mostly, kind of) over. iOS 8 has some features that will give developers the ability to extend the operating system without compromising security through Extensions.

As I mentioned earlier, Notification Center will now support third-party widgets and actionable alerts; additionally, the Sharing button can be customized with third-party actions and additional sharing options. For instance, developers can add actions like Translations or their own photo filters to Apple's Photos app. Documents and specific app data are available to other apps via secure APIs, so that data is no longer living in its own silo.

While the built-in keypad now provides contextually sensitive suggestions on a per-thread level, that's not the only news for virtual keyboard fans. Extensions offer support for additional third party keyboards as well, so expect a flood to hit the market shortly after iOS 8's release.

iOS 8 also opens up other possibilities for developers by allowing access to Touch ID results, as well as new directions for their apps with Camera, HealthKit, HomeKit, PhotoKit and CloudKit APIs. These new APIs grant developers access to specific aspects of the operating system without compromising user security.

Developers also have access to other underlying technologies called SpriteKit, SceneKit and Metal that should help create some amazing games. Finally, Apple has introduced Swift, a new programming language for building iOS apps.

Following up last year's successful iOS 7 launch couldn't have been easy. But overall, the new features in iOS 8 are really handy, and are implemented in ways that don't slow down the system or bog down the interface with clutter.

There are some features that Apple has taken longer to implement compared to its competition -- such as the ability for apps to access each other's data or support for third-party keyboards -- but Apple added these features without compromising on security by creating APIs specifically to address those shortcomings.

Bottom line

Do I recommend iOS 8? Like any first-release software, there are a few rough spots and lingering bugs -- but for the most part, iOS 8 is as responsive and snappy as iOS 7 before it.

iOS 8 introduces some new features that you will be using on daily basis, including the handy actionable notifications and -- when Yosemite is released in October -- all of the features under Continuity. Many people will love the fact that applications are now allowed to extend the operating system beyond Apple's original specs, and still others will like Apple's new health-tracking initiatives.

There is no doubt iOS 8 is packed full of really handy features, and other than the obligatory warning regarding first-release software, I can sincerely recommend upgrading to iOS 8.

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