Editors' note: This review was updated September 20, 2013, with new information regarding the Calendar app in iOS 7.
With an interface that's remained more or less static since 2007, Apple needed to go big. With iOS 7, it did. Apple's latest update gives the mobile operating system a radical new look and some first-for-Apple features for iPhone and iPad fans, like quick-access system controls and notifications, automatic app updates, Apple's AirDrop file-sharing system, and the excellent iTunes Radio streaming music app.
The visual overhaul is a clean sweep that changes absolutely everything, from the typography and color schemes to multitasking and the typical icon and button shape across the entire platform. And we mean the whole thing -- from the Safari browser to the photo app, and even the design of the system settings screens.
While there are a few notable new features in iOS 7, the new interface is by far the most deeply felt and most profoundly changed of the batch. Apple's other new features do little to innovate beyond what competitors already have done, but make many everyday smartphone actions easier, and -- once people get used to the new look -- should breathe new life into a once-"stale" OS.
Gone are the skeuomorphic interface elements that make icons and apps look like leather or paper or felt. Gone, too, are the 3D bubble-shaped icon effects. Flat graphics and a dappled, pastel color scheme bring an elegant look. New zooming animations feel sleek as you open and close apps. When you move your phone or tablet, 3D parallax effects make your wallpaper appear some distance behind the icons. The design takes some getting used to and not everyone will agree, but I like it. It makes my iPhone feel new and -- like a new wristwatch -- makes me want to keep looking at it.
Circles enter the design language, along with visuals that look nearly transparent, like a pane of glass. There's not much in the way of customization or themes, but your passcode and phone dialing screens take on the color of your background, which successfully ties the look together. The most important part of any deep design work is that it feel smooth and connected from screen to screen, and after some time spent with iOS 7, I do think it delivers an elegant overall experience.
One word of warning is that the overall look is completely different across the board, from the core Apple apps to more minor interface elements, and some will probably find the changes jarring at first. The important thing to note is that even though it looks completely different, it's still easy to pick up and use right away because the core functionality is largely the same. In other words, browsing in Safari is as easy as ever, but it looks a little different, and there are now extra tools on hand for sharing via AirDrop, and a smooth tablike browsing interface.
Control Center and Notifications
One of the few actually new features to come to iOS is the Control Center, which finally (finally!) puts your most-used settings front and center, and is available from any screen. In iOS 7, you can swipe up from the bottom of the display to bring up quick-access tools, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth access, brightness, Airplane mode, and music controls.
Control Center also integrates a small flashlight tool, signaling the death of so many third-party flashlight apps, but you also have quick access to setting an alarm or opening the calculator or camera.
In the Notifications pull-down menu, three tabs show you all your alerts, the calls and messages you've missed, and a new "today" pane that tracks what you have scheduled for the day. It's a small but useful expansion of the current notifications pull-down. One thing I noticed that is a little annoying is that notifications take up more space, so you'll need to scroll to see everything, whereas before you might have been able to read all your notifications at a glance. It's not a big deal, but it's a casualty of the design scheme that favors open space over jamming as much as possible onto one screen.
In addition to iOS 7's Safari overhaul, the biggest change to the browser is a unified search and URL field. The fact that past versions kept the two separate for some time was a usability thorn in our side. The long overdue update that combines them into one is therefore both gratifying and enraging, since it was such a small tweak that every other mobile OS (and desktop Web browser) has been taking advantage of for years.
There's more flexibility with open browser windows as well. Instead of swiping left and right to view open windows, they now preview as vertically scrolling rectangular cards (think Cover Flow from Mac OS X) and look similar to what we've seen on some Android phones. You're no longer limited to just eight, and you can swipe them away to the side to close them, just as with Android.
Scroll bars also disappear until you need them, a feature we've seen in many browsers before, and swiping left or right takes you back or forward a page, which is really useful -- until that moment you accidentally swipe away from the window you wanted to be on.
To note a few other useful additions: a new filter sorts out links from people you follow on Twitter, and makes it easy to retweet them. You can now bring up the bookmark screen to see three tabs across the top for your bookmarks, Reading List, and Twitter followers. iOS automatically grabs the most recent tweets with associated links and I think of it as a unique way to browse through who I follow on Twitter.
In the Reading List, you can now scroll from one story to the next simply by scrolling to the bottom of a story, then making one extra swipe to seamlessly move to the next one. These relatively small additions to Safari make the browser useful in more ways than before.
iPhone users will cheer the iOS 7 addition of AirDrop, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service that will support all versions of the iPhone 5, fourth-generation iPad, and iPad Mini. This is a feature that was already part of Mac OS X.
AirDrop works by creating local ad hoc networks among nearby users. So if you want to share a photo, you'll hit the share button, and automatically see others around you who are also on iOS 7 (and who have the feature turned on). From there you just tap a friend's picture and iOS 7 uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to send your photo (and the recipient can accept or decline). It also offers the option to make yourself invisible to nearby iOS 7 users from the Control Center.
Sharing files with people nearby is nothing new and is even a feature Samsung has pointed out in television commercials as a reason to get a Galaxy phone. iOS users will be happy to finally get a similar feature, and they won't even have to bump phones to make it work.
Camera and Photos apps
Apple did a lot of work reorganizing both the camera app and how images live in the photo app. The camera app surfaces all your shooting modes so you can swipe and then tap them to frame your shot, such as still, panorama, video, and a square, Instagram-like configuration. The app also offers a basic burst mode in which you touch and hold the main button to take continuous shots from which to pick the best one later.
A colorful button in the lower right will let you apply filters to the still or square shots. There are only nine filters to choose from and you're not going to find any that are as drastic as what you see from third-party photo apps, but it's a nice way to quickly apply a filter.
In the Photos app, Apple drops the endless wall of photos from iOS 6 that you could only break out into albums. With iOS 7, Apple treats photos as moments in time organized around geotagged locations, not just chronology. This takes a cue from Apple's desktop iPhoto counterpart. What it means is that your photos are categorized by year in a dense mosaic. You can touch and hold the screen to zoom into a picture from the group, then drag your finger to preview other photos. It's a neat trick, but it's probably more practical to tap the year, then drill down to dates and locations if you're looking for something specific.