By David Pierce
Apple’s most important upgrade this year doesn’t cost $AUD1200, and you don’t have to go to the Apple Store to get it. In fact, after testing iOS 12 — the latest version of the software that powers iPhones and iPads — I suspect a lot of people can skip buying a new phone altogether this year.
iOS 12 brings plenty of new features, but its primary purpose is, to borrow an Apple phrase, to just work. Recently, iOS hasn’t just worked. Confusing interfaces and odd bugs have crept their way into the software, and if you had an older device, you practically had to pray to the processor gods that the latest software update wouldn’t slow your phone to a crawl. And often the gods didn’t answer.
Starting Monday, iOS 12 is rolling out to all the same devices that could run iOS 11. That means every iPhone since the 5s and every iPad since the Mini 2. (If you’re using a device older than those, it’s truly time for a new one.) I’ve been testing it on four devices that span Apple’s past five years: an iPhone X, an iPad Pro, an iPhone 6s and an iPad Mini 2. The best thing about iOS 12 is how well it runs on older gadgets. Though not quite as fast as my newer devices, they are close. And some of iOS 12’s features improve my relationship with the latest iPhones and iPads, too — in part by helping me use them less.
Want to know how often you look at your phone or set some boundaries for your Instagram usage? That’s what the new Screen Time page is for.
Apple has made a big deal about Screen Time, its new feature for tracking how much time you spend in apps and on your phone. So far, I have gotten little benefit from the feature. As my colleague Joanna Stern noted, it is too easy to ignore the warnings about exceeding my limit in an app — and besides, I already knew I used my phone too much.
Two other features in iOS 12 have been far more useful in that regard. Anytime I get a notification, I can swipe left and quickly change settings for that app’s notifications. They can appear quietly, showing up in my notification list but not buzzing or lighting up my phone, or they can stop completely.
You can set Do Not Disturb to automatically turn off after an hour, or whenever you leave your current location (for instance, a cinema)
Apple has vastly improved its Do Not Disturb feature, which quiets all my phone’s notifications and buzzes. I can turn on DND for an hour or until I leave my current location, both of which I’ve found hugely helpful. A DND feature called Bedtime will hide all your overnight notifications until morning. I recommend setting it to end after you’ve had your coffee and are ready to face the day.
Siri is at the centre of most of iOS 12’s most ambitious features. Surprisingly, that is good news.
Take Siri Shortcuts. The new app allows you to set up custom routines on your phone, with surprising power and granularity. Since iOS 12 wasn’t publicly available during my testing, most apps didn’t yet support it, but I still set up a few I use frequently. When I say “Hey Siri, I need coffee” or tap the corresponding icon in the Shortcuts app, Siri searches for coffee shops nearby, shows me the closest few, then provides Google Maps navigation to whichever one I tap. If I say “Send this to Anna,” it grabs the URL of whatever webpage I am looking at and texts it to my wife.
These are the sorts of small things that can make your phone feel a lot more intuitive — and that will open totally new possibilities on an Apple Watch or HomePod. Unfortunately, Siri Shortcuts are maddeningly complicated to set up. Each one is essentially a deep and specific logic puzzle. The app does have a showcase of pre-made shortcuts, some of which are quite useful.
Siri inserts itself into various moments throughout your day, without being asked. A few minutes before a meeting, a Siri notification appeared on my phone with a one-tap way to dial in to the call. It might also remind you to turn on Do Not Disturb before the meeting, or order your regular at Starbucks afterward. I worry about this becoming irritating as more apps enable the feature, but so far Siri has almost always popped up at the right moments.
Siri still lags far behind Alexa and Google Assistant in terms of overall functionality. But on the plus side, it has new voices, and I’m a big fan of my new Irish Guy Siri.
Nips and tucks
You can still turn yourself into a unicorn with Apple’s Animoji, but the new Memoji feature lets you create a cartoon mask in your own likeness.
Many of iOS 12’s new features involve the camera: You can do more with the digital mask Animoji feature, including creating a “Memoji” that looks sort of like you. Apple added lots of Instagram and Snapchat-style camera effects, and is rolling out group FaceTime video chat later this fall. And, of course, there are new augmented-reality features, which make for cool demos but don’t yet have much use in your everyday life.
Here are a few of my favourite smaller features:
— If you use a phone with CarPlay, you will soon be able to use Waze or Google Maps to navigate while driving (though they will need an update before they work).
— Apple allows third-party password managers to work more natively across your phone, so no more annoying copy and paste every time you log in.
— You can add one additional face to the Face ID system, allowing a spouse or child, or just you in a hat, into your phone.
— The Photos app supports more detailed and auto-completing search, allowing you to find pictures by searching for “Stadiums Barcelona 2014” or “Dogs Beach San Francisco.” That’s all in addition to the added security features, patches and bug fixes that always make it worthwhile to upgrade to the latest version of iOS. The new version isn’t entirely bug-free, but it is much closer.
I recommend installing iOS 12 as soon as you can, and then spending a few minutes getting familiar with the new features. You might also want to get a new battery if you are on an old device, since Apple’s replacement program runs through the end of this year. Once things are set up the way you like, you might find your Screen Time numbers going down. You just don’t need to be on your phone as much, because everything moves a little faster. Or, if you are on an older phone, a whole lot faster.
First published The Wall Street Journal.