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The Editor's Blog

Contemplations and digressions from Filmmaker's Editor-in-Chief by Scott Macaulay

iOS 7 at the One-Month Mark: 18 Picks and Pans

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Apple’s “polarizing” mobile operating system iOS 7, an update which stripped away the skeuomorphism (i.e., the fake leather and other real-world metaphors found in apps like Calendar and Game Center) of previous versions in favor of a “flat” design style, was unveiled by the company on June 10 at its WWDC keynote and pushed to users on September 18. And for the most of this year, the Apple media universe — the parade of blogs and podcasts that have made a mini-industry of commenting upon the Cupertino company — have spoken of little else. But now that the OS is in the wilds, commentary has dimmed. That’s because, for most Apple writers, iOS 7 is no longer fresh — they’ve been using developer versions all summer. At the time when the public is grappling with its changes, they’ve largely moved on.

As readers of the blog know, I’ll occasionally play Apple commentator, and I’m not a developer. I downloaded iOS 7 on launch day with no problems and have been using it since. Here, after X weeks of constant use, are my picks and pans from among the system’s features.

Picks.

The Today View. Unexpectedly, the new Today view is perhaps my favorite new feature. Swiping down from the top of the phone gives a three-tabbed screen giving a “Today” summary, all notifications, and notifications you’ve missed. I set it up so VIP-marked emails show up alongside key app notifications. The Today view itself provides a daily summary (calendar items, weather, stock quotes) in a conversational style, i.e., “The first on your calendar today is…” It looks ahead one day “You have one event scheduled for tomorrow at 3:00 PM), and, occasionally, it seems to drop in driving times. (“Traffic is especially heavy; it will take you 16 minutes to get to the office.”). I live in Manhattan, don’t have a car, and the Filmmaker office is in DUMBO. Apple’s Today view can’t tell me if the there’s a problem on the F train, but I still like to play act that I’m a 9 – 5 commuter, so these messages don’t bother me.

The great thing about “Today” is that it’s available from the lockscreen, so I can quickly see appointments and snippets of important emails without going deeper into the phone. And, regarding the conversational interface and mild location awareness, yes, I know Google Now does a lot more. I’ve never played with Google Now on an Android phone, so I can’t speak to it in its most integrated form. I did toy around with it on the iPhone, but it was too much. I have too many contacts and live in New York City, so it was a constant stream of birthdays and restaurant recommendations. And, it seemed to drain the battery too fast.

Battery life. Speaking of the battery, for the first few days on iOS7 my battery seemed to be taking a hit. I turned off the parallax view in Settings and after a day or two it got better, and now it seems as good as if not better than it was before. (Does iOS7 heavily index your files or tune your settings in its first days on a phone? That could explain why battery life seems to improve after a few days.) By the way, regarding the parallax view, where icons on the screen seem to float above your background, I don’t quite get the idea of two-dimensional “flat” icons floating above a three-dimensional space. It seems like the spatial concepts are clashing here.

Swipe gestures. And speaking of swiping, I generally approve of all the new swipe gestures. Swipe from the top to bring down Today view. Hold and swipe from any point in the screen to bring up the unified search bar. Swipe from the bottom to bring up Control Center. And swipe from the left in many apps and in Safari to go back a screen. Yes, the first few days can be frustrating as you call up screens you didn’t want, but you quickly get used to it, and it’s a smoother way to navigate to these basic places.

Control Center. The new panel of basic controls (wi-fi, Airplane mode, audio controls, etc.) accessible from any screen, including the lock screen, is a plus, but I’m finding it a little less useful than I expected. Yes, it’s nice to be able to flick on the flashlight quickly in the dark, but most of the other controls, excepting the audio controls, I don’t use as much. It’d be great if the Control Center was more customizable, even as I understand why, given its lockscreen accessibility, that might pose security issues.

Siri. Siri gets a lot of grief, but I use it a lot. I’ve gotten the rhythm of dictating and sending relatively long emails down, which I do while walking the dog. I use it to review my calendar, see what I’m doing later in the week, and to see where movies are playing. I’ll also, again while walking the dog, check specific Twitter feeds — “What’s Ted Hope saying?” will bring up all his tweets. In its latest update, Siri seems a little better — a little faster and more accurate – than previous versions.

The De-Skeumorphism. The cheesey felt and faux-leather patterns in iOS6 and earlier had devolved into nothing more than kitsch. Happy to see them go.

The translucency. In general, I like how a key piece of art — my homescreen background, or the album cover of a song playing — will inflect the visual feel of the phone and show lightly under screens like Today view. It’s a little accent that makes the phone feel fresh throughout daily usage.

Photos. The photo app now offers hierarchical organization based on years, moments and locations. For me, this is a huge improvement over the endloss scroll of the Camera Roll (which is still in place for those who want to use it).

Multi-tasking. Last but not least, the new multi-tasking flip screen is a vast improvement over the previous version, which was just an app switcher. In the new version, a double click on the home button opens up a strip of thumbnail versions of all your apps in their last state. Touch one and it opens full-screen, and given iOS7’s new background updating, it loads up pretty quickly with the latest information. (LTE is already pretty fast, so I’m having a hard time judging how well and how often my apps are actually updating in the background. But, overall, the experience is pretty smoth.) My only complaint here is it would be nice if I didn’t have to doubleclick the home button but could instead use a swipe gesture to bring up the multi-tasking bar.

Pans.

The icons. Well, some of them. To be honest, I’m shocked that after four weeks I actually care about this, but, strangely, I do. When Apple first showed Jony Ive’s redesigned icons, the Apple press erupted with, mostly condemnation. I shrugged. You get used to stuff, I figured, and they didn’t look that much worse. But some of them really do. Two that particularly stick out for me are Contacts and Newsstand, the latter of which gets my vote for Apple’s worst icon design ever. They look like cheesey clip art and they junk up the screen.

Text replacing buttons. Throughout the iOS 7 colored text on plain white backgrounds is used to replace buttons you used to tap. It’s true, this is a very clear approach. It’s hard to be confused when text is specifically telling you to “reply” or “delete.” But there’s something unfinished and inelegant about the way it’s been implemented. I don’t know whether it’s the neon hues of the colors used, or the design restrictions of the flat approach, but they often just don’t look good. Furthermore, in some apps, tappable text seems awkwardly positioned or clashes visually with the text designs used by the app itself. When I hear critics say iOS7 looks unfinished, this is the first thing I think of.

Siri. Yes, it was a pick above but here it’s a pan. Like I wrote, I use Siri a lot, and I’d miss it if it wasn’t there. That said, it still has its frustrations. I wish that, like Google translation, some of Siri’s voice processing could be handled by the phone’s hardware and not on Apple’s servers. That would help cut down on the long pauses where the window spins but nothing seems to be happening. Too often Siri will apologize for not being able to do anything at the moment, but this apology is frustratingly unspecific. You’ll get it when you’re in a bad coverage area as well as when the servers are overloaded. Finally, Siri’s conversational skills are still lacking. I met with a friend named “Jenn” yesterday, and when I asked Siri what time the appointment was, using her first and last names, it said it couldn’t find anyone named “Jen.” It should have been able to use the last name, which was included in the calendar entry, to figure this out. And sometimes Siri calendar results are just plain inaccurate. It almost always tells me I don’t have meetings in the morning when I’ll have something scheduled at 10:00 or 11:00, and these meetings are showing up in Today view. (I guess morning is defined as a lot earlier for Apple’s engineers.) Siri needs to improve and speed up, and I’m sure it will, but it’d be nice to get a sense from Apple that it’s a priority.

The motion. Again, this is one I’m surprised I’m bringing up. Upon first downloading iOS 7, I found the icons whizzing in from the sides of the screen kind of fun. It didn’t bother me, and it gave the phone a fresh feel. And, all the criticism that the motion was “too slow,” well, I wondered how fast it could get without making the OS feel a bit vertiginous. What I now realize is that all those people who wrote that the animations are too slow are those developers who had been using the OS for weeks. Now that I’ve been using the OS for weeks, I think the motions are… too slow. Sometimes you want to just open the phone and get to work, and that little lag begins to feel gratuitous after too many fly-ins.

Tap areas are too small. In several places, tap areas are too small, badly positioned or simply badly designed. An example is in Voice Memo, where a tiny hairline progress bar is what’s used to scrub audio back and forth. Also, despite my like of swipe gestures, I’ve still accidentally turned bluetooth off and on many times while trying to close Control Center.

Illegible text/color combinations. As someone whose eyesight is aging and who prefers not to wear glasses, font readability is important. I’m mostly okay with all the Helvetic Neue, but in some cases, particularly in the Stock app, where white text is embedded in neon green and red backgrounds, I find it near unreadable.

Notes. The iPhone’s most minimal app — just text on screen — and it looks… too minimal. Text seems to swim in a void. More design structure would be nice.

The spindly share and trash icons. The little icons used in many apps to indicate trash, sharing, etc. are, in the iOS 7 style, cool and stylish but also, to me, a little illegible. Once again, the culprit is a combination of the ultra-thin font but also the design changes. For example, the little curved arrow coming out of the share button is now a straight line up, which makes it less able to be differentiated from similar-looking icons. See third-party app Instapaper for an example here. You get used to them and their position on the screen, so the problem ceases to become a problem over time. But, again, I think of font choice and size and design ideas have trumped usability.

Sharing. One of the big hopes of users and developers before the iOS 7 release was greater OS-level sharing functions, like what Android offers. And while a feature like Airdrop, which allows one to share to photos and other files with other iOS users, seems cool (I wouldn’t know — I haven’t used it yet), I’m still frustrated that more commonly-used services aren’t accessible through their APIs at the OS level. I’d love to easily be able to send to Evernote, Dropbox and Instagram from Safari, Photos and other apps.

So, nine picks and nine pans. On balance, iOS 7 is a positive for me, and if you have an iPhone and haven’t upgraded, I don’t think anything on this negative list should dissuade you from doing so. I’d just love to see Apple break from their yearly refresh cycle to do an update that addresses some of these issues before their next most iterative version of OS next summer.

Are you using iOS 7? How is it holding up for you a month in?

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