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IPhone: iOS 14 hands-on preview: The biggest iPhone update in years – Tom’s Guide

IPhone:

Our Verdict

It’s early days for iOS 14, but there’s a lot of promise in this update of the iPhone software coming out later this year.

For

  • Widgets can appear on the home screen
  • Better navigation with App Library
  • Maps, Messages get welcome enhancements

Against

  • Siri’s audio recording feature can be fussy
  • Third-party apps still need to take advantage of new features

For a pretty substantial update, iOS 14 doesn’t make you think that a lot has changed after you’ve installed it on your iPhone. Some mobile OS updates can feel like walking into an unlit room in your house after someone moved around all the furniture, as you trip over a new feature here or some unwanted overall there.

iOS 14 isn’t like that. After installing the developer beta of Apple’s upcoming iOS update on my phone, I thought it looked exactly like iOS 13. And it did — right up until the minute that it didn’t. Only in this instance, it’s me moving around the furniture.

With iOS 14, Apple has made the most substantive change in years to how you navigate around your iPhone. Instead of scrolling through page after page of apps, we can now use an App Library to more quickly jump to the apps we want. Widgets have been freed from the relative obscurity of the Today screen and can now live on your Home screen. Even video is no longer walled-off, as a picture-in-picture feature lets you watch videos while you work in other apps, just as you can on an iPad. (“Or an Android phone” — yes, Android partisans, I can hear your screams.)

Instead of complete overhauls, existing apps like Messages and Maps get features that build upon what’s already there. And the few entirely new additions like the Translate app bring welcome functionality to iOS, even if some fine tuning is required between now and iOS 14’s final release later this year.

We’ve spent a little bit of time playing around with the developer version of iOS 14 and have some initial impressions of the changes Apple plans to introduce. It’s way too early to render a verdict — there’s a complete beta process still to go through — but we do think iOS 14 holds a lot of promise both for existing iPhones and the iPhone 12 models that will be coming this fall.

Here’s what to look out for once you get a chance to spend some quality time with iOS 14.

iOS 14 beta availability and caveats

iOS 14 came out as a developer beta shortly after Apple previewed the software update to kick off June’s Worldwide Developer Conference. You can download the iOS 14 beta now, provided you’re a registered Apple developer. If you’d prefer not to go through that hassle — or part with the $99 fee to register — you can just wait for the iOS 14 public beta, which is not only free but due out this month.

To install iOS 14, you’ll need an iPhone 6s or later. (The original iPhone SE and the 7th gen iPod touch are also on the list of compatible devices.) That means if you bought a flagship iPhone as far back as five years ago, you can still run the latest version of Apple’s mobile software.

For my iOS 14 beta testing, I installed the update on my original iPhone SE — in part to prove that I could run it on a four-year-old iPhone (I can, though not without some strain on battery life) and in part because I don’t like installing beta OS versions on a phone that I need to rely on for everyday use. Apple’s betas are more stable than a lot of early-release software, but you’ll still run into the occasional bug or incompatible app, especially in the early stages of the beta process. Should you decide to to take the iOS 14 plunge, I’d recommend you also find a compatible device that you don’t regularly use just in case you run into any quirks. (And you will, just based on my experience.)

Another thing to keep in mind with the iOS 14 beta — many of the features will truly shine only when app makers start releasing iOS 14-compatible versions of their products. For example, a feature like App Clips, in which you only download a small piece of an app to perform a specific task like paying for a service, can’t really be tested until there are App Clips to download from the App Store. Even widgets, which work just fine with your iPhone’s built-in apps, need third-party versions to truly shine. That’s the whole point of releasing a version of iOS 14 now so that app makers can be ready to take advantage of the final version coming this fall.

With those housekeeping caveats out of the way, let’s dive into what we’ve discovered so far using iOS 14.

Widgets may not be a fully-fledged feature just yet — try moving a widget tied to a third-party app from the Today screen in the iOS 14 beta and see how far you get — there’s still a lot of promise there. Instead of having to scroll all the way to the Today screen to get a glance at quick info like today’s temperature or upcoming calendar appointments, you can now place widgets on the Home screen making them easier to access.

iPhone: ios 14 beta hands on

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

I’ve set up my Home screen so that there’s a weather widget tucked in among my favorite apps, so I can see the temperature at my current location. I’ve also got a screen that’s nothing but widgets — one dedicated to headlines from Apple’s News app and another that’s a Smart Stack pulling info from Photos, Calendar and other built-in apps. (More on Smart Stack in just a bit.)

The current iteration of iOS 14 gives you multiple ways to add widgets. You can press on one in the Today screen until the Edit Home Screen option appears, before dragging the widget to wear you want it. When a Home screen is in edit, a Plus button appears in the upper right corner; tap it and you’ll get an array of widgets in various shapes and sizes.

iPhone: ios 14 hands on widgets

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Changing a widget’s size isn’t as intuitive as it could be. From that widget menu that appears after pressing the Plus button, you’ve got to scroll down past sample widgets, and then tap on the name of the app for which you want a widget. Only then do you get to choose from widgets that fit in a simple square or span the length of your iPhone’s screen.

The widget menu is also where you’ll find the option for creating a Smart Stack, a name Apple’s given to a curated collection of widgets. Tap the Smart Stack option and you can pick the apps to be included in your Smart Slack before placing it anywhere on one of your Home screens. (Again, you’re limited to Apple’s built-in apps at this point in the iOS 14 beta.)

iPhone:

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

The Smart Stack is supposed to change dynamically, bringing up the glanceable info you need at certain points of the day (appointments when you get to work, say, or music for when you’re at the gym). I haven’t really used iOS 14 long enough for my Smart Stack to learn my behavior, but you can always manually flip through the different widget screens to get the info you want.

iOS 14 App Library: Order out of chaos

The nature of my job means I download a lot of apps, but even if you don’t visit the App Store as frequently as I do, your approach to app management is probably the same as mine. You download the app, it lands wherever there’s a free space on one of your Home screens, and you promptly forget where it is until the next time you need to launch it. Sure, we all make sure to keep our frequently used apps on the first Home screen, and maybe even the second, but after that? The app might as well be in the next county.

Apple has spotted how we’re doing things, and Apple would like us to clean up our act. That’s why another big highlight of iOS 14 is the new App Library, which gathers all of the apps on your phone into one place.

iPhone: ios 14 hands on app library

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

It’s a pretty well-organized place from what I can see. The top two folders in the App Library showcase Suggestions — again based on the apps you typically use and when you’re likely to use them — and Recently Added, which does what it says on the label. Below that, your apps are organized by category, and tapping a cluster of apps reveals the full list. If you’d rather not hunt and peck, there’s a search bar at the top.

You access App Library by swiping left from your last Home screen, and the feature wouldn’t be much use if you still had to travel across a wasteland of app pages just to get to the screen to better manage all that software. iOS 14 gives you the option of hiding extraneous screens from view. When you’re editing your home screen, just tap on the row of buttons just above the dock. All your pages will appear as thumbnails, and you can unclick the ones you want hidden. The apps remain on your phone, but the screen clutter disappears.

iPhone: ios 14 beta hands on

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

This is a much more sensible approach to app management than in previous iterations of iOS. My only complaint is that the only method provides to edit your home screen is by moving icons around on your phone itself. That can be hard to do, especially on iPhones with smaller screens, as apps on the edge of the screen have an unfortunate habit of darting over to the next page. 

Apple dropped app management features from iTunes about three years ago, and iTunes itself has been a goner since macOS Catalina. I wish Apple would re-introduce a less frustrating method than physically dragging and dropping apps, especially now that iOS 14 shows the company is serious about having us curate our Home screens more thoughtfully.

iOS 14 Messages: Going big on Groups

Messages has become one of the more popular built-in apps on the iPhone, even more so as people look for ways to stay in touch. So it’s not a surprise that sees some of the more substantive changes among Apple’s returning apps in iOS 14. In particular, Apple has focused on group chats, which have become handy ways to communicate with a lot of friends and family at once.

Some changes are cosmetic, but still helpful. You can now assign images — be it photos, emoji or animoji — to distinguish one group chat from the others. It’s not a major addition, to be sure, but it’s a handy visual cue that lets you pick out chats at a glance instead.

iPhone: ios 14 beta hands on messages

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

More important additions to group chats are inline replies and mentions. The former feature lets you reply to specific texts, removing some of the confusion when lots of people are weighing in on a conversation, while the latter can ping you when there’s a specific thread or text in a message that demands your attention. Again, both enhancements should make group texts easier to manage.

But I think my favorite change in Messages is the ability to pin conversations — you can select up to nine and they’ll remain at the top of the Messages app for easy access. Tapbacks and unread replies circle above the pinned conversation. At first glance, it sounds like a minor organization improvement, but it’s easy to manage and it keeps your most important conversations close at hand.

iOS 14 Maps: New ways to get around

Some of the promised enhancements to Maps haven’t yet made their appearance in iOS 14. For instance, Apple plans to add Guides, which will offer curated write-ups on places to visit and things to see that can help you plan vacations or just figure out if there’s something worth seeing in your vicinity. However, Guides don’t appear to be available in the iOS 14 beta I’ve been testing.

Some Maps changes are in place, though, and at least one will be very welcome if you use a bicycle to get from point A to point B. Along with the ability to plot out routes if you drive, walk, use public transit or hail a rie sharing service, a new Cycling option lays out the directions for people who want to ride their bike. (There’s also going to be a route planner for electric vehicles, but that option isn’t appearing on my phone at present.)

iPhone: iOS 14 beta hands on maps

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

These are more than just turn-by-turn directions for bikes. Apple lets you know if you’re using a bike lane (that part of the extended route is flagged in green) or if you’re sharing the road with cars (flagged in orange). Your proposed route can flag if there are times when you’ll have to walk your bike and a handy elevation tool warns if you’ve got a steep climb ahead. You can even tell Maps to avoid routes with hills, heavy vehicle traffic or stairs.

To see just how much thought Apple has put into the Cycling directions, swipe up on a route. That normally shows potential stops along the way, such as coffee shops or places to eat. For bike routes, Maps includes any bike repair shops, too.

In fact, there are some elements of Cycling routes that I wish Apple would integrate into Maps’ other routing options. That elevation warning would also be handy for plotting out walking directions, which I say as someone who once decided to get a good walk in on my way to a meeting only to realize that Maps’ route had me climbing up one of the steepest hills in San Francisco.

The newcomer to iOS 14 is Translate, which promises to translate phrases and even conversations from 11 different languages. The main interface lets you speak or type words, phrases and sentences that it can translate into both text and audio. Star any favorites for words and phrases you use frequently, and they’ll be saved to a separate tab.

The real magic with Translate happens when you flip your iPhone into landscape mode and the screen splits into two separate languages, with the app able to tell who’s speaking what language and adding a translation on the appropriate side of the screen. (You will need to select your languages before starting a conversation, though, as if someone starts speaking Spanish when French and English are the selected languages, you’ll have one confused Translate app.)

iPhone: iOS 14 beta hands on translate

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Apple calls this landscape orientation Conversation mode because two people speaking different languages can have their words translated. You wouldn’t want to use Translate for a lengthy conversation, though, as you’ve got to tap the microphone each time one of you speak — there’s no free-flowing exchange of views here. That can make Translate a little bit awkward to use, at least initially, and there are some interface quirks I ran into that Apple will likely iron out in future updates to the beta.

One feature you’ll appreciate with Translate is that you can download languages to keep them stored on your iPhone. This is helpful for when you’re traveling and you may not have an internet connection, but more importantly, it means that all the translation is taking place on your device, keeping all your words private whatever the language.

iPhone: ios 14 beta hands on safari

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

The translation skills don’t stop with this standalone app. Safari now has a knack for languages in iOS 14, with the ability to translate web pages from seven different languages. The feature’s in beta as of this writing, but it worked very well in my experience. It’s also simple to use: just tap on the aA icon in the URL bar and select Translate from the drop-down menu.

iOS 14 interface: Compact notifications

I dread getting a phone call on my iPhone, and it’s not just because it’s likely a robocall. Rather, an incoming call takes you right out of you’re doing, whether it’s browsing the web, playing a game or reading an email, replacing that activity with an incoming call notification that fills the entire iPhone screen.

iOS 14 introduces some interface chances, highlighted by the fact that call notifications now appearing in a box at the top of the screen. Tap the green button to pick up or the red one to dismiss the call, but now your entire iPhone screen won’t be taken over the next time someone tries to give you a ring.

iPhone: ios 14 beta phone

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Siri follows the lede of incoming phone calls in iOS 14. Instead of taking you to a separate Siri screen when you want to do something like launch an app or get a quick weather, all you have to do is summon Siri. A round Siri icon appears at the bottom of the screen, and whatever reply Siri comes up with shows up at the top. It’s an elegant way to include Apple’s digital assistant without taking you out of your flow.

iPhone: ios 14 beta hands on

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

iOS 14 Siri: The assistant’s new tricks

Interface improvements aren’t the only change to Siri, as a new version of iOS revives Apple’s claim that Siri is smarter than ever before. It may be true that Siri has been filled with 20 times the facts it knew just three years ago, but I’ll need to spend some time asking Siri questions and getting a reply other than “Here’s what I found on the web” before I believe it.

Apple touts a number of other Siri tweaks here and there — you can ask the assistant for cycling directions through Maps and you can share your estimated arrival time using Siri. But one of the new features underscores my ongoing frustration with the voice-powered assistant. In iOS 14, you can record audio messages via Siri and send them out with Messages for now and third-party messaging apps that add support for the feature later in the year.

iPhone: ios 14 beta hands on

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

So what’s the problem? At present, Siri is very fussy with how you phrase that request. Ask Siri to record an audio message for a contact, and you’ll be able to dictate a text message — a feature that’s been part of iOS for a while. To actually record your voice, you need to specifically ask Siri to create an audio recording, which doesn’t strike me as very natural. Siri has been a mainstay on the iPhone since iOS 5, and I feel like it’s still a matter of trial-and-error to make the assistant understand what I’m requesting.

iOS 14: Other notable changes

If we spend any more time running down iOS 14’s additions and enhancements, we’ll have to make way for the iOS 15 preview. But there are a few other things I ran across in my testing that deserve some mention.

Picture-in-picture video: The multitasking feature that’s been a part of the iPad makes it over to Apple’s phones in iOS 14. Now when you watch a video, you can tap a button in the playback window to turn it in to a floating window that follows you as you move on to different apps.

iPhone: ios 14 beta hands on

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

You can drag the window around the screen if it’s covering up that email you’re composing or that text message you’re trying to read, and you can resize the window to a point. (You’ve got to retain the same aspect ratio as the video that’s playing.) Picture-in-picture is limited to built-in media players like Apple’s TV app, but I imagine that third-party apps will look to adapt it as well by the time the final version of iOS 14 comes out. 

Reminders: Create a list of to-dos in the Reminders app in iOS 14, and you’ll be able to share that list with other users (provided they’re running iOS 14 as well, of course.) It works a lot like the similar share feature that’s been a part of Notes for a while now.

iPhone:

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

Website Privacy Report: This Safari feature shows all the cross-site trackers that Safari is blocking with its Intelligent Tracking Preventing capabilities. I’m glad that Safari is putting the work in on protecting privacy, but the tool doesn’t really have any actionable items for you to safeguard your browsing activity.

Voice Memo improvements: An Enhance Recording feature in the Voice Memos app promises to improve the audio of your recordings by downplaying any background noise. The feature appears as a magic wand icon on the screen where you edit your recordings, and you enable it with a simple tap. I recorded a voice memo with some loud music playing in the background, and while the drums and horns were still evident in the recording, the Enhance Recording feature did minimize them somewhat.

iOS 14: What we haven’t tested yet

There are other iOS 14 features we’re still waiting to test — some because there’s a lot to get to and iOS 14’s only been out for a little bit of time and others because they’re not available in this version of the iOS 14 beta. 

In cases like App Clips that’s because developers need time to take advantage of the feature. In other cases, Apple simply hasn’t turned everything on yet. For example, iOS 14 is going to let you choose apps other than Safari and Mail as your defaults for web browsing and sending email, but that feature’s not live yet. We’ll keep an eye peeled during the beta process as this and other capabilities become available.

iOS 14: Outlook

No sensible person would slap a grade on iOS 14 at this point. We’ve got months of beta updates ahead of us, and app makers have updates of their own to make so that their software leverages the new OS’s features. The version of iOS 14 on my test phone right now is going to wind up to being very different from the one I ultimately end up using in the fall.

For now, I’m encouraged by what I see. A lot of the changes Apple is introducing to existing apps seem well-thought-out and even at this early stage, changes to widgets and the introduction of App Library seem like big improvements over how we used to navigate around our iPhone. Apple’s got a lot of work ahead of it before the final release, but this initial step suggests that iOS 14 is on the right track.

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