iOS 15 and iPad OS 15 are Apple's latest and greatest new operating systems. They'll be out in the Fall, but the company's already released the public beta so that anyone, or at least anyone willing to risk the stability of their iPhone or iPad, can dive in and check out all the new features now. So, let's dive right in with the biggest change.
That's right, after years of waiting, you can finally change the outfit on your Memoji avatar. Seriously, iOS 15 is a weird update, even by Apple standards. There's just not a lot of big new flashy features here, and what is there is tucked away in the margins and behind the scenes, offering you more flexibility in how and when you use your phone.
And there's a pretty simple reason for why the new software's like this. The two updates were clearly born in 2020's norm-shattering pandemic, and features where last year's remote-first influences firmly on their sleeve.
FaceTime SharePlay and updates
Remember all of those watch-with-friends apps that were really popular last year when everyone was stuck at home? SharePlay is like that, but better, letting you share movies, TV shows, podcasts, music, and more with friends and family through FaceTime.
It'll work across all of Apple's devices, not just the iPhone and iPad, so you can do some neat tricks like watch a movie together in perfect sync on your respective Apple TV's while FaceTiming through an iPhone or iPad. Anyone watching can control, so you can pause or get up to get snacks or whatever, but it also means that whoever you're watching with can keep rewinding to watch the same three seconds over and over again.
It's certainly a cool feature, at least technically speaking, but it feels about a year out of date. Apple's really betting that folks will still be trying to watch things together remotely in the future, but it feels like a poor substitute for actually getting together on a couch and watching a movie with friends.
There are, of course, caveats. SharePlay only works with Apple devices, so if your friend has a Chromecast or an Android phone, well, they can't watch with you. Streaming services also need to choose to support SharePlay. And while there's some big names on the list, like Disney+ and HBOmax, there's some noticeably missing companies. Specifically, Netflix and YouTube, neither of which is supporting it, at least for now.
And lastly, everyone needs to have access to the content. So, if your buddy doesn't subscribe to Disney+, well, you can't watch Loki together. And unless everyone owns the movie you're trying to watch, you can't watch it.
Apple's also finally fixing FaceTime, or at least, most of the most annoying things about FaceTime, which have started to become glaringly obvious over the past year and a half as everyone's been forced to use it a whole lot more to make basic human contact with friends and loved-ones. So, we're finally getting a normal grid view, screen-sharing, portrait mode to blur your messy background, and most importantly, the ability to FaceTime with Windows and Android users, using web browsers, thanks to shareable links.
Of course it would have been even nicer to have these features months ago, instead of having to wait for Apple's usual regimented Fall release, but better late than never.
On the more noticeable side of things is the new Safari, which I suspect is going to be controversial. It's the biggest change in iOS 15 by far, and part of a broader change to Safari that Apple's rolling out across Mac OS, iPad OS and the iPhone. But the iOS version in particular is a bit funky.
The biggest change is immediately noticeable. The URL bar, which used to live at the top of the screen, has been moved to the bottom so that you can more easily reach it, especially on bigger screens. Unfortunately, it's just a weird place to put the URL bar after all these years of expecting it to be on the top of the device. It also changes constantly. When you tap on it, it flips back to the top of the phone so that the keyboard can be at the bottom of your screen. So, there's just a lot of disconnect here.
There's also new multitasking gestures. You can swipe back and forth to get between tabs, just like you would swipe back and forth between apps on the rest of the iPhone, which is actually quite clever. There's also a new tab view, which lets you see all your tabs in this new window pane style, which is nice. But a lot of the functionality is just harder to find. There's no refresh button on the URL bar anymore, you have to swipe down to refresh.
A lot of major functions have also been hidden away in this tiny little three dot menu, which I also don't love. And, being a beta, sometimes things are funky.
I've been using iOS 15 for weeks and it is still deeply disorienting. And while I suspect I'll eventually get used to it, right now it's still the roughest part of the update for me.
Focus modes and notifications
Now, as is traditional for an iOS update, Apple has done some tinkering with notifications on iOS 15. Smaller notifications are bigger now and some of them feature contact images, which might be a helpful push to get people to actually add photos to their contact. But the biggest, and at least to me, best new feature here is Focus modes.
At first, these just kind of look like an expansion of Apple's old Do Not Disturb feature, but they're much more powerful. Letting you select specific apps and contacts to be able to notify you at specific times and places. Apple offers a few suggestions for Focus modes to get you started. A work focus, for example, can be set to activate when you're working. Either, say, at a specific time in the morning or when you physically pull up to the office. And then it can mute all your notifications, except for those from work: your email, your Slack, and your calendar apps.
Focus modes can be triggered by times, locations, or even when opening a specific app. So, if you just want to shut down Instagram notifications when your Kindle app's open to focus on reading, you can do that too.
One of the things I like most about Focus is it doesn't completely hide those notifications. It just filters them away and they're still accessible in their own little fields in the notification window. So, you can quickly flip through and see if anyone really needs you, but your phone won't be buzzing the whole night with every single email and Slack ping that comes in.
I've mostly been focusing on iOS 15 here because the new features coming to the iPad and iPad OS 15 are largely the same. That said, there are a couple big changes that are coming to the iPad that we should mention.
First off, our two features from iOS 14 that Apple didn't include on the iPad: widgets and the App Library. Both of which are great here, and widgets in particular look really good on the big iPad screen. There's also some changes to how multitasking works on the iPad and I've got good news and bad news here.
The good news is that it is definitely better than it was before, but the bad news is that iPad OS is still iPad OS. So, if you were hoping that the announcement of the iPad Pro earlier this year, with its M1 chip the same as the Macbooks, was going to be the predecessor to some big change in how Apple thought about iPad software, well, not in this update.
iPad multitasking still works largely the same as it did when Apple first introduced it in iPad OS. It's still heavily based on split view and slide over windows, and while there are some quality of life changes here, Apple really hasn't radically rethought how it's going to handle this.
There is one more big update coming to the iPad, and also the Mac, called Universal Control, which is Apple's new drag and drop system that lets you use your iPad and your Mac together. We haven't actually been able to test it yet, but for a whole bunch more on that.
And now, for the smaller stuff. Let's start with Live Text, which is probably the most technically impressive thing added in iOS 15. You've probably seen something similar to it in Google Lens. It lets you point your camera at any text, whether it's handwritten or typed up, and it can pull that text into virtually any text field on your phone.
Apple's also updated the Weather App. There's a new vertical Dark Sky style 10-day forecast, and new Dark Sky style maps for precipitation and temperature. All of which is probably because Apple bought Dark Sky a year ago and, well, now they're in iOS 15.
Apple Maps is also getting a bunch of interesting new features, including: 3D maps, AR walking directions, and better transit features. Unfortunately, these features are going to be rolling out over the betas in the summer and we haven't been able to test them just yet.
Lastly, there's the usual slate of privacy features, which most notably include local on-device processing for Siri, so that data doesn't get sent to the Cloud anymore, and a new iCloud Plus service, which adds several interesting features, including a VPN-style internet relay to master traffic and burner email addresses.
The new updates are in the same vein as a lot of Apple's other privacy updates from the last few years, which focus on limiting tracking and moving as much stuff out of the Cloud as possible and onto the user's device. But the most interesting thing about iOS 15 is how easy it is to miss a lot of these features.
Sure, you'll notice the new Safari design, but big features like Focus modes or even SharePlay are mostly hidden behind menus and buttons. Apple's not shoving these into your face and if you don't already know that they're there, they're pretty easy to miss. And that speaks to me of a little more of a mature design that Apple is taking here. Not always focusing on big flashy things that it's forcing everyone to use, but more customization, more control. Something which Apple has historically been loathe to give to users. It's a good trend to see with iOS 15, and while there's still a long way to go when it comes to letting users completely customize their devices, it's good to see that Apple is starting to take some steps in that direction.