Apple has released iOS 7, the most significant update to this operating system since it was extended to run on tablets. The look has changed dramatically, and several useful new features have been added, including an often-overlooked one that will make iPads more productive.
This is the first iOS version designed by Jony Ive. After years of giving Apple's hardware a clean aesthetic, he's been given free reign to do the same with the company's mobile operating system.
A single glance at the new version is enough to see that the whole look of the user interface has changed. It has become simpler and cleaner... some would say starker and colder. Imitation paper and felt has been swept away in favor of solid backgrounds, simple icons, and primary colors.
Ive isn't breaking new ground -- anyone who has used a Windows Phone is already familiar with this look.
The flatter look carries all through iOS 7 and the software that Apple bundles with it. The company is also strongly encouraging developers of third-party applications to conform to the new style.
While the new look has its detractors, Apple says its goal is to let users concentrate on the information being displayed by apps, rather than being distracted by the app itself. It's generally effective at this, and if future versions of the iOS give users more control over colors, they would probably make apps seem less cold.
While many of the UI changes in iOS 7 involve removing things, at least one aspect has been increased: animations. When apps and folders open they don't just appear, they zoom in. An unfortunate side effect of this is a slight hesitancy in the iPad 3 -- the animations seem to take a brief instant for this device to load.
Not every change is so "in your face". In fact, one of the major ones is happening literally behind the scenes.
There's been a limitation in the iOS for so long it's possible many people don't think about it any more: when a favorite social networking or similar software is opened, users have to wait for the latest information to download.
This bit of irritation and wasted time should be going away soon, as iOS 7 enables any application to continue to update itself in the background. Apple added limited support for apps running in the background several versions ago, but it's become much more robust in the latest one.
Apps like Facebook and Twitter will get the latest posts in the background so users don't have to wait while it downloads... if developers build support for this feature into their products. Apple has provided the tools, now its up to coders to use them.
Doing so will make these apps, and the iPad itself, much more user friendly.
It's quite possible this is a first step toward a future version of iOS that will support users running two apps side by side.
Apple tablets and smartphones have minimal buttons. Rather than forcing the Home button to do too much, iOS has added a number of gestures to bring up new and old features.
Sweeping down from the top of the screen opens the Notification Center (just like in iOS 6), and sweeping up from the bottom on the screen brings up a new Control Center. These gestures can be turned off when you're running an app in case you keep accidentally using them when scrolling through web pages or playing Fruit Ninja.
Closing applications is also much easier now, thanks to iOS 7. Double tapping the Home Button brings up a window showing icons and live thumbnail views of all running apps. Tapping on one of these switches to the corresponding app, while flicking the thumbnail image upward "throws" it off the display, closing the app. Anyone who used a device running Palm's webOS is already familiar with this.
In some apps like Safari, sweeping a finger in from the left edge of the display takes you back, while sweeping in from the right side jumps you forward.
An idea Apple borrowed from Android is a pull-up window that can be accessed from anywhere to turn Wi-Fi or Bluetooth on or off, mute the device, control background, music playback, open the camera, and more.
This is a very useful feature, and one that's long overdue.
iOS 6 saw the debut of the Notification Center, and this feature has been significantly extended in iOS 7, going from one page to three. Despite the improvements, this feels like a work in progress, with some obvious features still lacking.
Like the previous version, it can display unread emails and upcoming events, as well as a bit of weather info. Users also have the option to display all of today's calendar.
A summary of scheduled items for tomorrow can also be displayed, but tapping on this does not jump to the calendar. For some reason, iPads still can't don't show stock listings.
The ability to post directly to Facebook and Twitter from the Notification Center has been stripped out.
Change for the Better
Apple iOS 7 is generally full of welcome improvements. The new look keeps it from looking dated -- iPads running it now look quite unlike one that debuted in 2010.
The additional gestures and the Control Center make users more productive, and if developers embrace the new APIs for background updating, then Apple tablets will be even more productive.
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