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Apple iOS 9: all the new features

One of the best things about owning an Apple product is that you get free upgrades to the latest operating system for years to come. So, with iOS 9, which is available now, you can get it for products as old as the iPhone 4S and iPad 2; of course, it’s available for the newer handsets, too. Not all features are available on all phones, although the bottom of Apple’s iOS 9 page explains everything. With that out of the way, I’m running the new operating system through its paces to find out how the new features stack up and if this OS is worth upgrading to.

What you need to know, quickly

What is it?

Apple’s latest mobile operating system for iPhones and iPads

When is it out?

It’s available right now from your iPhone or iPad: Settings->General->Software Update

What’s new?

Proactive gives you contact and app shortcuts based on usage, a split-screen multitasking mode for iPads, Transit options in Apple Maps, a new system font, and better battery life

Can I run it?

If you can run iOS 8, you can run iOS 9: it will be available for the iPhone 4S onwards, iPad 2 and iPad Mini onwards, and the iPod Touch 5th Generation

In detail – the full lowdown

Proactive

One of the best features of Android is Google Now, which gives you information in a timely fashion, such as a traffic report before you leave work for home. While Google Now is available in iOS via the Google App, it’s not deeply integrated and never will be. Instead, with iOS 9 we get Apple’s take on this: proactive. Rather than a single app, proactive is added intelligence throughout the operating system, learning from what how you use your phone or tablet, to give you more relevant information.

For example, there’s a new search screen, which you get to by swiping left from the first home screen (where Spotlight search used to be). As well as giving you a standard search bar, it also displays Siri suggestions (popular contacts and most-used apps), the option to search for places of interest nearby, plus news that’s popular in your location. 

ios_9_spotlight_search_proactive

All of the suggestions are intelligent, too. For example, iOS will monitor when you use certain apps, displaying different suggestions at different times of the day. Likewise, people suggestions will encompass both most popular and recent contacts, as well as people that you’re scheduled to meet.

Proactive is everywhere else in iOS 9 and has some particularly useful features. For example, if you get a call from an unknown number, iOS 9 can scan your email to see if that number’s included in someone’s contact details, and then displays their name. Similarly, the Calendar app will be able to automatically suggest events if you’re emailed flight reservations or restaurant confirmations.

The search screen also displays News articles: top articles before you search and related articles as you start typing. It’s potentially useful in the future, although the current list of sources means that the feature is rather limited at the moment.

Siri gets smarter

While Siri has improved over time, iOS 9 gives the voice assistant context based on what you’re doing. For example, if you’re in the middle of reading an email you can ask Siri to remind you about it later. This creates a Reminder complete with a link back to the original inbox. Similarly, you can ask Siri to remind you about things based on location, such as when you get home.

Siri also powers search and can pull in information from the web, as well as providing local app results, such as sports scores, weather and stock prices. It can also do simple maths although I thought that it was easier to bring up the calculator and use its large interface, rather than having to try and type numbers on the standard iOS keyboard, switching between layouts to get the numbers and symbols that you need to use.

More importantly, Apple is opening up the search API so that third-party apps can be searched. A good example is that you’ll be able to search through your Evernote notes directly from the home screen.

ios_9_search

New Notes

Notes has largely remained unchanged, but Apple’s revamping the app for iOS 9. In addition to entering standard text, you can use the sketch button to add drawings and there’s a direct link to add photos (or take a new photo with the camera). Bullet points can be added, so you can make a simple checklist, such as for a shopping list. Notes is also available as a share option from any app, so you can quickly share a map and have it embedded in a doc, for example. It might only be simple changes, but it changes Notes from being a rather basic app into a much more powerful one. The only downside is that new Notes can only be shared via iCloud without other iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 El Capitan devices, so you’ll want to upgrade all of your devices before you hit the Update button to move to the new system.

ios_9_notes_with_a_photo

Maps

When Apple Maps launched it was a bit of a joke and far behind Google Maps. While I still think that Google has the advantage, with its Maps having better data and better search results, Apple’s version has come a long way. It’s now at the point that when Apple Maps pops up through an integration, such as tapping a contact’s address, that I no longer fear having to use it. With iOS 9, Apple’s dishing out further improvements, including public transport (transit). While transit only includes major cities at the moment, including London, it’s a big step forward. It also works well, accurately giving us instructions on all of the journeys that I tried to plot. If Maps continues to improve at this rate it won’t be too long until many people won’t feel the need to install Google Maps as well.

ios_9_maps_transit

New task switcher

Double-tap the Home button and the new task switcher pops into life. Rather than the flat two-dimensional switcher of iOS 8, you now get a 3D carousel. Confusingly, the first app is to the right and you scroll to the left, which is the opposite of how it has been. It works well enough, although the flatter task switcher in iOS 8 was a little clearer to view and this doesn’t feel like much of an upgrade.

ios_9_task_switcher

Back to button

One of the smallest, but most useful, new features is the ‘Back to’ button. When you launch one app from inside another, such as opening Safari from a link you click in an email, you now get a small button at the top of the screen to take you back to the original app. While you could always do this in the past using the Task Switcher, the direct link is a lot more useful.

ios_9_back_to_0

Better battery life

Apple is promising up to one-hour of additional battery life thanks to extra efficiencies throughout the OS. If you’ve got an iPhone there are a few additional options to save power. First, if your phone is face down on a table, the screen is never turned on, even when you get a notification. Secondly, there’s a Low Power mode, which turns off some features and even throttles wireless and processor speeds in order to save power. You’ll be prompted to turn the mode on when your phone reaches 20% and 10% of battery, although you can switch it on manually in settings if you just want the maximum power.

Turning the mode on does reduce performance and made my iPhone 6 Plus feel a little slower. This is borne out by the scores in GeekBench 3, which scored 2456 in normal mode and 1397 in Low Power Mode. The upside is that turning the mode on from a full charge should give you around an extra four or five hours of battery use; when you hit 20% power, Low Power Mode should give you an additional hour of power.

What will be useful to most people is the new Battery app, which shows you which apps have been using the most power. As well as viewing by percentage of use, you can also find out how many minutes an application has used. It should make it easy to see which apps are power hogs, draining more of the battery in less time.

ios_9_battery

Better security

Security is a big issue and Apple seems serious about improving it. For starters, passcode are now set to six-digits as the default, although your old four-digit code will stay if you just perform an upgrade. With Touch ID, this change doesn’t make a big difference in terms of everyday use, but it’ll be a minor inconvenience for people without. If you’re wondering how much more secure this makes your phone, your passcode goes from being one in 10,000 to one in 1,000,000. Two factor authentication is coming, so new devices have to be authenticated via existing devices or through a text sent to your phone. I’m a big fan of two-factor, as it dramatically increases security.

Apple Music

It only just arrived on existing devices through the iOS 8.4 update, but iOS 9 has Apple Music pre-installed. This replaces the existing Music app and icon with a simpler UI, more intuitive favourite tagging and of course, integration with Apple’s newly launched radio service, including Zane Lowe-hosted Beats 1. Apple Music is a subscription service that duplicates many of the features found in iTunes Match, including uploading your existing music library to the cloud, but also includes music streaming from the extensive iTunes music library.

A new system font

Apple is going to change the system font used by iOS 9 to San Francisco, the same font as used by the Apple Watch. While fonts may not sound like the most exciting thing to most people, the right choice has a huge impact on how an operating system looks and feels. In this case, in particular, the changes could be quite immense.

With iOS 7, Apple introduced the Helvetica Nue font, which was very stylish, although it’s quite a thin font that has been accused of putting style ahead of readability. This font clearly didn’t work very well on the Apple Watch, as Apple decided to design its own font, San Francisco. Part of the design brief was to make a font that was easily readable on a small screen, with extra spacing between letters helping.

Now it seems as though Apple is happy enough with the results, that it’s prepared to make the switch and make San Francisco its default font on all operating systems, with iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 joining in. I have to say after using iOS 9 for a while that the new font is a subtle but important change, with text generally easier to read.

While the iPad largely had the same version of iOS as the handsets, iOS 9 gives the tablet a range of its own features. It makes sense, as the tablet is used in a completely different way to a smartphone. First up, are the new multitasking features.

Slide Over

An any iPad, Slide Over lets you slide a window in from the right-hand side of the screen to display a second app. This pauses the first, full-screen app, but lets you work in a second place quickly, such as for taking notes, before sliding the second app away. The first time you do it, it gives you a list of thumbnails to choose from, of other open apps. Just pull down on the tab at the top to go back to this list and change views.

ios_9_slide_over_task_switcher

It’s similar to Windows 8’s multi-tasking, but I have to say that it is a useful addition and means that you no longer have to use the task switcher to flick between two apps. Our only complaint is that apps don’t and can’t interact with each other. For example, if you’re editing a Note, you can’t drag a photo into it from the Photos app. This means that you have to use the standard sharing option, which seems a little crazy. In portrait mode, slide over doesn’t work particularly well, in our opinion, and makes the screen feel a little cluttered.

ios_9_slide_over_portrait

Split View

If you’ve got an iPad Air 2, iPad Pro or iPad Mini 4 you can also use Split View, which lets you share the screen 50:50. It’s a neat trick and certainly makes using the iPad more productive, although the same restrictions apply here as for Slide Over. With both modes there’s no neat way to switch the application on the left; you have to use the standard Task Switcher, which results in the right-hand app disappearing off screen. We’d like Apple to make switching between apps on both sides of the screen the same.

ios_9_split_view

New keyboard

Hoorah! Apple has finally used lower-case characters, so you can more easily see which mode the keyboard’s in. On top of that, there’s a new shortcut bar for Cut, Copy and Paste, and for bold, italicise and underline. This makes is so much quicker to type and style text. Text selection is even better. You can now run two fingers over the keyboard to move the cursor around the screen. It’s infinitely better than the old method of waiting for the magnifying glass to appear and then trying to manoeuvre the cursor to the right position.

ios_9_new_keyboard

Picture in Picture mode

If you’re watching a video on your iPad or using FaceTime, there’s no longer a reason to interrupt the stream if you want to use your tablet for anything else. With the Picture in Picture mode, videos keep on playing, overlaid on the screen. At the moment I could only get the mode to work with content stored in my Video Library and with FaceTime; I’d like to see the feature extended out to all video apps, such as Netflix.

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