A set of iPhone SE handsets are seen on display during a media event at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California on March 21, 2016.
JOSH EDELSON—AFP/Getty Images
By Lisa Eadicicco
July 7, 2016

Every year, Apple fans around the world line up to buy the newest iPhone the minute it goes on sale. But Apple’s software updates for the iPhone, which the company usually reveals during its annual developer’s conference, are met with far less fanfare.

This is largely because Apple’s new software releases, as important as they may be for keeping your iPhone fast and secure, have recently been minor upgrades. Apple’s iOS 8 introduced iCloud Drive for accessing files across multiple devices and a new Health app to house fitness data from several fitness apps; iOS 9 brought Apple’s streaming music service and a slightly improved version of Siri.

While helpful, these additions didn’t alter the overall iPhone experience in a significant way. But Apple’s iOS 10 software, coming this fall, offers a more dramatic change. Most notably, it rethinks many of the iPhone’s core apps and services, like Siri and iMessage.

If the rumor mill is to be believed, Apple’s next iPhone will offer only incremental upgrades in terms of hardware, a change from the company’s usual pace of delivering an overhauled handset every two years. But after testing a beta version of iOS 10 for the past few days — available to the public starting Thursday — it’s become clear that Apple’s next big change is in its software.

Here’s what it’s like to use iOS 10. It’s important to keep in mind that we didn’t use the final version of iOS 10; Apple is still fine-tuning the update for its fall release. Also, since iOS 10 is such a large update, we only focused on the most significant changes.

iMessage

Apple’s new version of iMessage adds lots of new features, including integration with third party apps, handwritten messages, and replacing words with emojis, among other upgrades. (The app integrations will let you do things like send money via an iMessage and more.)

Many of these additions, like HUGE TEXTS, feel like features I would only use sparingly to add emphasis to my messages. Other features look more helpful for day-to-day communication, like the ability to replace a word with an emoji by tapping it, the new Tapback function, and rich media links. Tapback allows you to add a reaction to a particular comment in a message. If someone sends a message that says, “I just ordered tickets for us,” you could post a little thumbs up symbol or a heart on that message rather than typing a full reply. The rich media links, meanwhile, make links shared in conversations look cleaner.

Lisa Eadicicco

My biggest concern before trying the refreshed iMessage was that it would feel too cluttered with new features. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. Composing an iMessage or regular text message feels exactly the same as it did in iOS 9. The extra features, accessed by tapping an arrow next to the text field, don’t interfere with typing.

Photos

Getting a big intelligence boost, the Photos app in iOS 10 scans your photo library to determine the subject matter of each image, letting you more easily search for specific images. Instead of just searching based on location or date, you’ll be able to type in specific queries to get results. It works like Google Photos, except the iPhone handles all of the computing on the device itself rather than working in the cloud.

In the beta version of iOS 10, this worked fairly well. Typing in “cats” yielded photos of my pet, entering “sunset” pulled up images taken of the horizon as the sun was going down. But some of Apple’s sorting categories were strange. One grouping called “headgear,” for example, included selfies and photos of people wearing glasses, headphones, or VR headsets. While the latter three make sense for the category, I’m not sure how selfies got lumped into that section.

Lisa Eadicicco

The other major addition to Photos in iOS 10 is the Memories tab, which organizes photos taken in certain places and at specific times into albums. This was generally pleasant to browse through; photos from my weekend trips to Atlantic City and the Poconos were all neatly packaged together. But since Memories are primarily sorted by location and date, many of my compilations had the same name. I had about five Memories called “Manhattan,” for example, which isn’t particularly helpful.

Widgets, lock screen and other apps

As with Photos, Apple’s other apps are generally smarter in iOS 10. That has the effect of making the iPhone feel more like a true digital assistant.

Along those lines, one of the biggest changes you’ll notice in iOS 10 is that the”Siri Suggestions” feature, which surfaces app recommendations and nearby points of interest, has been merged with the “Today” tab, which shows upcoming appointments and other info via customizable widgets. The combined tab is now accessible by swiping to the right on the home screen, lock screen, or notifications panel. Each widget is the same size, resulting in a look that’s more streamlined and digestible than the old Today view. At first glance, it’s reminiscent of Google’s Android system. Indeed, the changes will be welcomed by iPhone users clamoring for more customization options, long a strong point of Android devices.

Lisa Eadicicco

Eagled-eyed iPhone users will notice another big change, this one on the lock screen. The iconic “slide to unlock” animation, which previously had Apple and rival Samsung embroiled in a patent dispute, is gone. Sliding your finger over the screen will now pull up that aforementioned list of widgets rather than unlocking the device. Swiping in the other direction will launch the camera. (Apple has axed the tiny camera icon that previously sat in the lower right corner of the screen.)

Apple has also revamped some of its stock apps. Apple Music, for instance, has a slick new appearance that allows for quicker access to your playlists and music library. The Clock app now has a bedtime feature meant to help you develop healthier sleeping habits. I told the app what time I’d like to wake up in the morning and how many hours of sleep I wanted to get, and it set a bedtime for me. The app can also send a notification to remind you to go to sleep 15 or 30 minutes before that time. (Though a bedtime reminder might be more stressful than it’s worth.)

Lisa Eadicicco

Apple Maps, long past its initial launch hiccups, is also much improved in iOS 10. Developers will be able to plug their services into Apple’s navigation app, allowing users to book restaurant reservations or call a Lyft without leaving the app. Other tweaks, like the ability to search for gas stations and restaurants while driving, help Apple Maps keep up with rival Google Maps.

The new Apple Maps also proactively suggests places you might want to visit based on the events in your calendar, the time of day, and the places you’ve visited. In practice, the app only suggested places I had recently searched for — but I imagine it will improve before the official launch.

Conclusion

For the first time since iOS 7 was released in 2013, Apple has released a software update that almost feels like I’m using a new iPhone. From the redesign of notifications and widgets to improved apps, iOS 10’s enhancements make it easier to see relevant information with a quick glance. Most importantly, Apple is giving developers more access to its mobile platform than ever before, which should spark interesting new features yet to be designed.

In some ways, Apple is playing catch up with iOS 10. Companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google have made similar enhancements to their virtual assistants, messaging platforms, and photo apps. Still, it’s enough to make the iPhone feel exciting again. The average iPhone user will want to wait until later this year, when iOS 10 is officially released, to give it a spin. But the more adventurous can try it right away.

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