Deep-dive review: iOS 10 adds speed and smarts

The latest version of Apple’s mobile OS brings a variety of upgrades to Siri, 3D Touch, the Lock Screen, Maps and other features.

Ten versions of iOS have been released since the iPhone's debut in 2007. At the time, the groundbreaking OS, coupled with innovative touchscreen hardware, changed the mobile landscape and altered what people expect from their mobile devices.

Now, a decade later, comes a feature-rich iOS 10, delivering subtle refinements to the user interface, new capabilities and important enhancements to oft-used applications. The overall effect is a cohesive OS made more useful by tying together functions in ways that allow you to do more without having to jump between apps.

After previewing iOS 10 in June and offering it as a public beta, Apple rolled out the finished version today. This is the fourth 64-bit version of iOS, which runs on hardware starting with the iPhone 5, the fourth-generation iPad and the post-2015 iPod touch.

For this review, I tested iOS 10 on my iPhone 6S Plus, a 12.9-in. iPad Pro and an iPad mini; my main focus is on the iPhone experience.

Installation

Obligatory warning: Anyone preparing to install the update should go to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup and tap Backup Now. This will back up your device in case anything goes awry during the installation. Alternatively, plug your mobile device into a Mac running iTunes (one with enough storage to back up your files). I didn't run into any problems, but the old adage still holds: Better safe than sorry.

iOS 10 can be found in the General > Software Update section of the Settings app. For the update to begin, you need to have a Wi-Fi connection and at least 50% battery life. There is also an option to delay the installation until the middle of the night, when your use won't be affected.

If you need a fresh version of iOS 10 for some reason -- say, if you jailbreak -- plugging your device into an iTunes-enabled computer will allow for Upgrades and Restores. Upgrades leave data in place; a Restore erases device data, including yours.

Once the update completes, Apple's Setup Assistant will guide you through the process of connecting to a Wi-Fi network and enabling Location Services. If the device was upgraded using the Restore option, the Setup Assistant will let you choose whether to install your data from a backup or set the device up as though it were new.

Home again

The look and feel of the new OS should be familiar. The interface is still full of bright, colorful layers, with parts of the foreground graphics influenced by the colors beneath. The parallax effect on the wallpaper is subtler than before, and though navigating the interface still involves zooming in and out of content, the animation for opening a folder has been changed. Instead of zooming through the entire Home Screen grid into the folder like before, the folder is front and center, and pops open and outward to display its contents,.

Many Apple apps can now be removed from the Home Screen. If you don't use things like Apple Maps, Calendar, Mail or Notes, they can be deleted just like any third-party app. When removed, some of them are hidden, others are deleted outright, but can be re-downloaded from the App Store later if needed. Some apps, though, cannot be removed, including Photos, Safari, Messages, Settings, App Store, Clock and News.

Force enabled

There is one change that is not immediately obvious: iOS offers better and more widespread support for 3D Touch. The feature debuted in iOS 9 last year, but it's clear Apple has had a year to think of better uses for it.

On the Home Screen, firmly pressing an app or folder reveals a quick action pop-up menu; if it's a folder, the menu shows which apps inside have alerts and allows easy renaming of the folder itself.

Other 3D Touch results are contextually dynamic. For instance, Photos displays Search, One Year Ago, Favorites, Most Recent and a single-line grid of dynamically generated photo collections. Maps, on the other hand, displays options to Search Nearby, Send Location, Mark Location and show upcoming destinations. The Settings app gives quick shortcuts to Battery, Cellular, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth; while the Camera app lets you jump to specific shooting modes. In Notification Center, the X to clear a group of alerts changes to a Clear All when pressed firmly; and Flashlight offers three brightness level options.

There are numerous examples of the Force Touch technology implemented throughout the system, so it doesn't hurt to experiment by pressing firmly in different locations. (Third-party apps will also have quick actions via 3D Touch, but developers have to code for it.) Keep pressing; you could discover a useful shortcut.

ios 10 force touch and widget

Left: Firmly pressing an app's icon reveals a quick action pop-up menu. Right: iOS 10 features a revamped Widget section.

Widget, what?

There are more obvious changes as well. For example, swiping left-to-right on the Home Screen calls up the revamped Widget section. At the top of this section is a Universal Search text input field that searches the entire device, including the content of Apple apps and supported third-party apps. It's pinned to the top of the display, even when scrolling, allowing easy access to anything you want to find. Below the Search field is the date, in a large, crisp font.

Below that are new, frosted-framed widgets. How many are there and what they display is entirely up to you; this new widget screen is customizable to reflect your priorities. Want to see the weather forecast? Flight information? Breaking News? Upcoming meetings? Whether you're close to filling your daily fitness Activity Rings? There's a widget for you. If action is required, tapping the widget launches the corresponding app.

There are already thousands of apps with widget support, and there will be thousands more once developers update their apps.

The Widget Screen is accessible with a swipe from three places in the operating system: the Home Screen, the Notification area and the Lock Screen.

The Lock Screen is dead; long live the Lock Screen

With iOS 10, Apple changes the behavior of a locked iPhone. For instance, picking it up now automatically turns on the screen. (Raise to Wake can be toggled off/on in the Display & Brightness section of Settings.)

At first glance, a locked iPhone looks like it always did. Phone status indicators such as cellular- and Wi-Fi-connection strength or battery life still live near the top of the display, though there is a new additional Lock icon in the center of the status bar -- we'll get to that in a second.

Large text depicting date and time is still front and center, and Handoff-enabled app icons still show up on the lower left as needed. Like before, swiping down from the top of the screen brings forth Notifications, and swiping up from the bottom brings up the Control Center menu.

There is one noticeable omission: The "Slide to Unlock" text -- an iPhone staple since the beginning -- is gone. (Though after a few seconds, the command "Press home to unlock" appears in small text above the Home button.) As more iPhone users started to log into their phone using Touch ID, the Slide to Unlock option became less necessary, and (as previously mentioned) in iOS 10 sliding to the right on the Lock Screen now brings up the Widgets screen.

Also new: Swiping from right to left on the Lock Screen activates the camera, making it easier to launch into picture or video mode with one hand. As before, any received Notification will appear centered on the Lock Screen.

Now it's time to revisit that Lock icon at the top center of the display. It's there because the iPhone can be unlocked without opening to the Home screen. Simply touching the Touch ID fingerprint sensor on the Home button will unlock the phone and leave you on the Lock screen; pressing down on the Home button will unlock the phone and open up the Home screen.

Why would you want to unlock the phone and stay on the Lock screen? In iOS 10, actions such as taking a picture or video and sharing it with friends and social media can be done without leaving the Lock screen. And because Notifications are even smarter this round, you may not need to unlock the phone.

Like Widgets, Notifications are encapsulated in a frosted white bubble, influenced by the colors beneath. In iOS 10, Notifications are designed to be more sophisticated than before, with an emphasis on 3D touch-enabled interactions. Pressing firmly activates previews and/or performs functions directly from a Notification without needing to open the accompanying app. (Apple apps already support the new functions; third-party apps need to be updated to use them.)

Since some of the Notifications from the Lock screen require access to important data, you may be asked to authenticate yourself; a finger touch on the Home button will confirm your identity.

It's also important to note that when accessing the Widgets screen while the phone is locked, you'll see some that don't display data or allow actions without authentication; again, touching a finger to the Home button displays any confidential data and allows actions to be performed.

With all of these improvements, it is now possible to be productive in more apps without ever having to unlock your phone.

ios 10 lock screen and siri

Left: A new Lock icon in the upper status bar means the iPhone can be unlocked without opening to the Home screen. Right: Siri's voice can now be customized for gender and accent.

Siri says more

Siri, Apple's voice-enabled assistant, has also been improved, and now offers far more functionality and scope -- especially for third-party apps.

First, Siri is faster than before. With a decent internet connection, Siri begins listening the instant the Home button is pressed and held; this is in contrast to previous iterations, which made users wait for an audible cue. (The exception seems to be when the device is connected to an external source, like a Bluetooth connection to a car; it can still take a few seconds to negotiate the connection before listening begins.)

If Siri doesn't hear a request correctly, you can select corrected commands via a list of transcribed options, which display variations of what you said. You can still go back and correct Siri manually, but the transcription variations make it easier to do so faster. Even better, Siri learns from the corrections, so your device becomes more accurate over time.

Another thing: Siri understands more commands, both within iOS and in certain third-party apps. It can search photos by content, location and people; start video and voice calls; begin, pause and end workouts; send and receive payments; send messages; and book rides from services like Lyft and Uber. This is the first time it has been open to outside developers, and though it comes with initial limitations, this is the first step to enabling more voice-controlled productivity.

Finally, Siri's Settings pane allows for some customization. You can choose whether the voice is male or female, as well as the accent (there are choices for American, Australian or British). Under the Voice Feedback section, there is a setting which shuts Siri up when the mute button is toggled on.

Emotional messages

Messages is the most popular iPhone app, according to Apple, and it has hundreds of millions of regular users. But Messages isn't the only player in town -- there's competition from What's App, SnapChat, Skype, Facebook and other third parties. So, not surprisingly, in iOS 10 Messages has upped its game.

When it comes to standard text messaging, it's easy to misinterpret messages in a medium in which tone is usually implied, so the ability to share photos, videos, and emojis helps convey emotions and nuance. There are a variety of new features in iOS 10 that help reduce miscommunication. Messages now supports Mark Up, allowing for the modification of photos as well as videos; and it offers Rich Links with in-line previews of websites, videos and other content. Plus, emojis now display at three times their size, making them easier to see without resorting to squinting.

Apple has also made it easier to use emojis in place of text. Swapping to the emoji keyboard scans the message in progress, and highlights words that can be substituted with emoji counterparts. And with a press and hold, the Tap Back feature will allow for reactions to specific messages -- like a heart, thumbs up/down, laugh, bewilderment or surprise.

For even more emotion, messages can be sent with Bubble and Screen effects. Bubble effects apply animation and behavior to text, and include such behaviors as Slam, Loud, Gentle and Invisible Ink. Screen effects apply balloons, confetti, lasers, fireworks or shooting stars to the background of messages. To activate Bubble and Screen effects, you press firmly on the Send arrow in Messages; then you'll be able to choose animated text effects. Near the top of the display is a toggle for Screen effects; swipe to see the other effects, and tap the blue Up arrow to send the message with the effect you choose.

Messages also brings over some functionality found in the Apple Watch, now allowing you to use Digital Touch to send a heartbeat, fireball, sketches and doodles. Digital Touch also lets you send taps, kisses and heartbreak animations using gestures and taps. (To access Digital Touch functions, tap the arrow near Message's text input field, then tap the heart avatar.)

Adding photos and videos to texts is done through a new interface. After tapping the Camera avatar, the keyboard is replaced with a live preview from the camera, along with the option to switch from the rear iSight view to the front-facing FaceTime view. If Photo library access is needed, recent photos are shown next to the live camera preview, and a swipe lets you navigate through your photos.

Swiping the opposite way brings up two buttons: Camera and Photo Library. Selecting either option uses the entire display to capture photos/videos or browse your collection, respectively, instead of just the smaller section usually reserved for the keyboard.

The biggest change is Messages' newfound support for third-party applications, which can range in complexity from simple (like adding stickers) to more complex (like hailing a ride, booking a reservation or sending money to a friend). By opening Messages up to developers, Apple has created a mini platform within iOS that developers can build on. If the concept works half as well as it should, there will come a time when we won't have to leave the Messages app to perform most immediate functions. That's an exciting advance users will appreciate.

There are a few less dramatic, but still noteworthy additions. Messages inherits iOS 10's system-wide keyboard improvements, including switching languages on the fly (complete with word suggestions and spelling corrections). To use multiple languages, just keep typing and the iPhone figures it out. Messages also lets you jump to a user's contact information just by tapping the person's avatar near the top of the display, and you can activate read receipts on a per-person basis.

Taken all together, the changes to Messages make it much more than the simple texting app users expect. And future third-party tweaks should make it even more robust.

Maps: Are we there yet?

A few years removed from the controversy that marred its debut, Maps has evolved into a useful app close to par with its Google counterpart. Much work has been done on the back end to improve database listings and directions. In iOS 10, Maps now hosts an assortment of interface updates that make it easier to glance at data as well as workflow enhancements that help you find destinations faster.

When Maps is launched, the lower two-thirds of the iPhone's display shows a search field and proactive suggestions; this makes it a little easier to get started, especially if you tend to use the iPhone with one hand.

Maps features larger text throughout, and the overall design feels less cluttered. The main Maps view has an Information button at the top right, which includes options to toggle between different views (vector maps, satellite, and transit), add traffic overlays, mark locations and report issues. Below the options button is an arrow icon; tapping it once finds and tracks your location, tapping twice enables the compass, and tapping a third time resets location tracking and compass to off.

Current temperature and weather conditions are at the bottom right of the main Maps view, and below that is a text input field for searching places and addresses. Underneath the text field is a list of potential places of interest, dynamically updated based on recent activity. This list includes a record of where your car is parked and how to get back to it, recent or upcoming destinations, and marked locations. There are also shortcuts to local destinations such as Food, Drinks, Shopping, Services, Health, Transportation and Travel options.

The main interface isn't the only area to receive an overhaul. The Guided Navigation mode has been updated too, and there are now visual indicators of traffic and congestion, as well as the ability to pan and zoom; neither was present in Guided view in earlier versions of Maps. To help you navigate to your destination, Maps dynamically adjusts the view when in Guided mode, based on the next step you're supposed to take. If the next step is some distance away, Maps displays a more distant view of the road; when a turn is forthcoming, Maps zooms in closer to provide more detail.

Maps also allows you to search for destinations along the guided route, automatically adjusting the arrival time based on added places of interest. Maps is now smart enough to be aware of upcoming appointments, updating the main list and accompanying widget as a potential option.

As with Messages, Apple has opened up portions of Maps to third-party developers, enabling the app to do more than originally designed. Maps, for instance, can help you book a ride with Lyft, Uber and other services, and make reservations in restaurants. Once developers get their hands on this, I expect much more.

ios 10 maps and photo map

Left: Maps features larger text and access to info such as traffic. Right: The new Places view shows you where your photos were taken.

Making Memories with Photos

There are two major additions to Photos that are easy to spot: new smart albums (one called People and another called Places) and a new tab called Memories. Those features alone are significant, but what you can't see in Photos is just as important: Each photo is processed for location data and run through algorithms (using what Apple officials call Advanced Computer Vision) for facial as well as object and scene recognition. Even better, Photos now supports Siri searches based on location, person and even elements of the shot.

The new Places view is located in the Albums section of the Photos app. Tapping that album calls up a map with overlays of photo clusters based on GPS information embedded in the pictures. Zooming in and out of the map displays more or less photo clusters, respectively. It's a great way to visually track where you've traveled, as well as quickly find photos taken at specific locations.

If the Maps view isn't enough, there is also a Grid toggle, which sorts photos in a list based on date and location.

There is also a smart album called People, which does exactly what you'd expect: It sorts your photos by people. But it requires an initial setup before it can be used.

First, every photo has to be scanned -- for that, Photos requires that your iPhone (or iPad) be plugged in and left alone. Essentially, if you leave your device plugged in overnight, by the time you wake up, the People photos folder should be ready to view.

But here's where things break down a bit: Photos of individuals are consolidated, but Photos itself isn't always accurate. Some photo clusters need to be manually merged, and then you have to manually name the photo cluster. Photos makes it easy to do so by providing suggestions from Contacts as you type, but this has to be done with every person Photos has identified. It's a very tedious process. And there isn't a way to tag people in photos in which faces are blurred or obscured if the photo recognition doesn't pick up the face.

Once finished, the People view is a great way to find individual photos of friends; just make sure to check every once in a while to tag new photos with faces that haven't been matched.

The last major Photos feature is the Memories tab. I mentioned that Photos scans every picture and processes them using Apple's algorithms, which sorts photos based on locations, people, and the date of events. The Memories tab is a place where all of that data is used to cluster related photos into dynamically created albums. In Memories, you'll find albums based on topics such as Last Weekend, Best of the Last Two Weeks, and many other criteria like locations and events.

Tapping these memory clusters displays appropriate photos and videos, but also creates a movie consisting of photos and videos of an event, including footage gathered from Live Photos. The movies can be edited in simple ways: you can change themes and music; alter the duration; swap out media selections; and edit video clips to show the specific few seconds you really want. The new Photos movie-making feature isn't exactly iMovie lite, but it does allow non-videophiles to get in on the video-making action.

One missing feature: Apple currently doesn't allow users to export these Photos-built movies to iMovie for fine-grained editing. This would be a good feature to add: It would provide a great starting point for people who want to edit videos, but don't really know where to start.

That said, the movies generated by Memories are pretty good, and do the job of taking photos and movies that might otherwise be forgotten and packaging them in an entertaining and share-worthy way. There were many times during testing that I used Memories and realized I had forgotten about a particular picture or a specific moment and found myself grinning, caught up in the movie Photos generated. So, for that, Memories is a great addition.

Photos in macOS Sierra, due out next week, and the new AppleTV system software have also been revamped to reflect these new additions.

Music for most of us

The Music app has been reengineered in iOS 10 with an emphasis, not surprisingly, on Apple's music service. If you're not subscribed to Apple Music, you'll be mostly limited to the Library tab, which has been redesigned to separate music found online (such as via iTunes Match) and songs actually on your device, under the Downloaded Music heading.

I wish there were a way to jump to the Downloaded Music view each time the Music app opens, but that's not possible. So accessing my downloaded songs always requires a few taps.

For Apple Music users, the submenus "For You," "Radio," "Search" and "Browse" make it easier to explore music you may not have heard before. Browse, for instance, gives you curated lists of the latest and greatest songs in a variety of genres, as well as collections of playlists to explore. The For You section includes playlists and albums based on songs you've marked as Love (via tapping a Heart icon).

Overall, the Music app is a little less cluttered than before, and a little easier to navigate. The only major problem is that without an Apple Music subscription, most features aren't accessible. For instance, under the For You section, songs are viewable, but any attempt to play them without an Apple Music plan simply calls up the option to sign up or cancel. That's both a wasted opportunity to sell a song via the iTunes Store as well as a waste of screen space for people not in the Apple Music Service fold.

Apple has attempted to make the Music app a little more intuitive. Did it work? I can't say -- I don't subscribe to Apple's Music Service so I don't have access to all the features.

A few final tidbits and tricks

There are many more improvements to iOS 10. They include small tweaks like the new pop-up option to share highlighted text, which makes it easy to post that text in social media; changes to HomeKit, which should help consolidate different home automation devices under a single interface featuring Siri support; a new voicemail transcription feature which shows text so you know what you're getting into before listening to a voicemail; and an improved system keyboard with smarter in-context suggestions such as current location, contact information, recent addresses and multilingual typing.

There's improved device integration with other Apple products using Continuity technologies such as Handoff, AirDrop, AirPlay and text message forwarding. iOS 10 offers a couple of tricks along these lines: It's possible to view your documents and desktop items from other Macs in iCloud Drive; and -- even handier -- Cut/Copy/Paste works amongst all your Apple devices. This means you can copy a link or photo from the iPhone and paste that snippet into a document on the Mac.

Control Center is improved, with three distinct sections to swipe through: System controls, Media controls, and HomeKit controls. And for iPad users who take their web browsing seriously, time to rejoice: You can now have two Safari windows open at once in Split Screen view. Just drag a link to the right side of the screen and the site will open in a new window.

ios 10 split screen

You can now have two Safari windows open at once in Split Screen view.

Bottom line

Overall, iOS 10 is a fast operating system that continues to build on a foundation that it set with the first iPhone OS nine-plus years ago -- and it offers stability that wasn't present in the initial versions of iOS 7 and 8.

The many new features in iOS 10, both big and small, add up to not just a better user experience, but to a smarter one as well. Rather than a collection of software pieces, iOS 10 feels polished and coherent in helping mobile users do more and do it quickly. And by opening up parts of the OS and Apple's own apps to third-party developers, Apple has ensured that iOS 10's usefulness will only grow.

Simply put: iOS 10 is a highly recommended upgrade. Get it and start enjoying.

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