By Chris Roberts, Rethink Associates
I need to start off by saying that I am not an iPhone owner by choice. An iPhone 5S was thrust upon me by the company that facilitates my day job. I have been an Android user since the HTC EVO was first released. Having said that, I have obviously developed some biases over the years that lean hard in Android’s direction. Many of my favorite features such as Swype typing/third party keyboards, widgets, cross app functionality, etc. were missing on iPhone, and I missed them dearly. Apple has promised to address those concerns with iOS 8. Well iOS 8 is here. Welcome to the future, if the future was 2011. That said, let’s take a look at iOS 8 in detail, and I will be as impartial as I can be.
My first impression was the irritation I felt that iOS 8 requires a WHOPPING 5.8 GB of space available to start downloading (that’s just over 1/3 of the storage on the 16 GB model if you are keeping track at home). Multiple Apps had to be sent to the cloud, and several podcasts I hadn’t had a chance to hear had to be deleted. I have read stories online (mostly mocking in tone, but still) of people sacrificing photos of their kid's birth and having to remove many apps from their phone just to make room for this update. iOS 8 is huge, and at 5.8 GB, it is almost double the size of iOS 7’s 3 GB install file.
Thankfully, over WiFi it only took about 10 minutes for me to download; glad I have cable internet. The following 30 minutes, however, were a little unexpected; as it took me 5 attempts to agree to the terms and conditions before the update would install. However, once that finally took, it was smooth-sailing.
With iOS 8 freshly installed and ready to go, I was set to explore and experience it. So let’s get on with the review. I thought I would start with the negatives, because I just want to get them out of the way and leave you with a sweet taste in your mouth instead of bitter apples.
“Hey Siri” is the new voice assistant salutation; identical to "Okay Google" in Google Now, the well established Android command. Apple is painting iOS 8 to be a next generation operating system, and copying an old feature from a competitor is bad form. Especially since the new $99 Moto X on Android allows you to setup custom voice prompts. Giving Siri a direct salutation is definitely a nice feature, especially considering Siri has been lagging behind Google Now and Window’s Cortana. However, there is one glaring problem: IT ONLY WORKS WHEN THE iPHONE IS PLUGGED IN! It's great that Apple is upgrading Siri, however having to remain tethered to the wall feels like a step backwards, rather than forward.
Unfortunately the control center is still off limits to developers and users alike. I’d love to see some customization options in the control center. Control Center is a great idea, but I don’t need to be able to access the camera from the control center, the lock screen, and the home bar as well. Two of the three would be plenty. I’d love to replace that along with screen lock, timer, and airplane mode with other options that I might find more useful, and while I may not know what that is yet, I just want the freedom to choose. But in iOS 8, you still can’t choose. (Apple’s tight control of users continues).
I truly felt the HealthKit was going to be one of my favorite new features to iOS 8, and in time it still may be. Unfortunately, right now, that’s simply not the case. Over the last few days, Apple has been pulling apps from the App Store that were supposed to be Health Kit compatible because of a bug that they are still trying to correct. Apple claims that they will have this resolved by the end of the month, and I really hope they do, because I am looking forward to checking out the cross-app functionality.
Apple Maps was a complete mess in iOS 6, being met with harsh criticism from users, as well as being named one of the Top Technology ‘Fails’ of 2012 by CNN. Apple had to allow Google Maps back into the App Store to appease customers. Apple worked hard to get users back in iOS 7. They have made improvements, but Maps is still just not as good as the competition. I prefer both Google Maps and Waze for my navigation purposes. Also, the fact that I still can’t choose which app to use for navigation directly for an online search still chaps me a little bit. (There goes Apple’s tight control of users again). Apple, I’m sure, knows that their map app is not as strong as others on the market, but they make it as inconvenient as possible to use third party mapping applications. Disappointing...
OK, now time to cleanse the pallet, and explore the positives of iOS 8, and there are many.
THIRD PARTY KEYBOARD
Say it with me now, SWIFTKEY! SWIFTKEY! SWIFTKEY! To me, the allowance of third party keyboards is easily the best feature of iOS 8. I have been jonesing for Swype text input since the day I got my iPhone. The hunting and pecking on the small keyboard of the iPhone, especially if your fingers are bigger than a teenagers, is maddening. Add a protective case into that mixture and say bye-bye to the Q and P keys. I love that Apple finally acknowledged that it’s first party tools are not always the best, and customers want options, not control.
Apple’s new predictive text system, called QuickType, is actually very good, and is a much needed improvement over the previous stock keyboard. QuickType, like SwiftKey, adapts to how you write. By using an algorithm to analyze your speech patterns and habits, it realizes that you write differently in a text than you do in a corporate email and adjusts its predictions for each situation. It can also tell the difference in how you type to your spouse vs. your boss, which is definitely a nice feature, since no one wants text predictions that are sexually suggestive when messaging your boss. QuickType’s biggest downfall is that it only works in native apps.
One treat that Android users have enjoyed for years is Widgets. Widgets are handy little tools that allow apps to display information in a small, customizable window. They give you the ability to access some key features of apps without having to actually open them, which comes in especially handy for weather apps. While Apple is testing the water with widgets, they haven’t yet fully taken the plunge, with widgets only being visible in the notification screen. It’s nice to see Apple incorporating one of Android's most beloved features, but this isn't much more convenient than just opening the app. Widgets, when not on the actual desktop or home screen, really lose a lot of their functionality and usefulness.
PULL DOWN TEXT REPLY
This is a fun little addition that is surprisingly helpful and an efficient time saver. When a text message pops up at the top of the screen, just pull down and a box pops up (or I guess down) and you can reply right from your home screen. It may not save a ton of time, but it is a nice feature that so far, I have enjoyed quite a bit in the short time I have been using it. A great new addition to iOS, but again, a feature that has been available on Android for years.
EASIER ACCESS TO RECENT APPS AND FAVORITES
This one is simple, when you double tap home to see your recent apps, you also get a set of bubbles running across the top. Swiping to the right will present you with your most recent interactions, while swiping to the left will get you to your favorites. Not a necessary feature, but a handy little time saver none the less. (And yes that is Batman on my wallpaper, thanks for noticing)
MANUAL CAMERA CONTROLS
This is a huge win for third party app developers and shutterbugs alike. Apps like Aviary, Camera+, and Spark Camera are going to allow the amateur photographer in all of us, the ability to customize the settings for Apple’s camera. This may not be a huge feature for everyone, as many iPhone customers will be content with Apple’s stock camera app. For those that want to be more precise with your selfies, and tweets of what you’re having for dinner, you will love this feature.
This feature allows up to 6 people in the same household access to each other’s apps, music, videos, and purchases, etc. without having to use the same account. Definitely a time and money saver.
If you are using Apple for all of your hardware needs you are going to love this feature. This feature allows the user to quickly transition from their phone to their Mac, or from the Mac to the phone. Now you can start writing an email on your iPhone and pick up where you left off when you sit down at your Mac. Or browse the web on your map and continue from the same link on your iPad. It all happens automatically when your devices are signed into the same iCloud account. You can now “Handoff” a task by using the new icon in the bottom left corner of Safari (or Mail, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Maps, Messages, Reminders, Calendar, and Contacts) and pick it back up on another Apple device. The downside, Continuity is currently only available on native apps (though developers can add it,but it will take some time), and both devices must be powered on to complete a Handoff.
All in all, I am quite impressed with many of the new features on iOS 8, just as I was when they were on the Nexus 4 in 2011 and many Android phones since. If you are an Apple fan you will LOVE all the new functionality being brought to the table. If you are an Android fan this is about as close as Apple has come to replicating the experience, and Cupertino is banking on it being enough to get users to make the switch. That being said, Apple knows how to market. Apple’s team are experts as giving their users just small incremental improvements, and making them seem like monumental leaps to their customers. As one of our Facebook fans commented last night “Apple will make everyone believe they invented Swype input within a year”. Now that is the power of excellent marketing.