By Dan Moren
September 17, 2015 6:00 AM PT
iOS 9 in review: Search and ye shall find
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
After years and years of trying to make iOS more and more capable, iOS 9 feels like Apple has taken a step back and concentrated on brains over brawn.
That’s nowhere more apparent in one iOS’s most prominent new features, which Apple has dubbed “proactive suggestions.” As the name suggests, the goal is for your iPhone or iPad to provide you with exactly what you want, when you want it, without you having to do anything. Though it’s actually a suite of features spread throughout the OS, it mainly manifests in a new search screen that you see when you swipe right on the home screen, back where Spotlight used to be1.
(Searching is also available by swiping down on the home screen, as in iOS 8.)
See more with Spotlight and Siri
iOS 9’s search features, Spotlight and Siri, have been souped up: not only do they scan your contacts, emails, apps, messages, and other on-phone data as always, but they offer a much richer set of web-based results. There are results from Wikipedia, web videos, suggested websites, iTunes hits, and more. Note that web results are provided by Bing no matter what you’ve set your default search engine to in Settings; in order to use your search engine, scroll all the way to the bottom and tap the “Search the web” option. (The feature’s not without its bugs, though. I searched for “Barry Allen” and got plenty of good results related to The Flash, but when I tapped the ‘Show More in Bing’ link at the end of the web results, it kicked me to Bing in Safari with a pre-populated search for “Barry A.” Whoops.)
iOS search also is smarter about recognizing certain types of queries. Type in a sports team, for example, and you’ll get recent scores; enter “weather” and you’ll get a forecast (weirdly entering “weather” plus a ZIP code doesn’t get any hits; you’ll have to enter “weather san francisco”2 instead of “weather 94107”). You can also get stock quotes, and do calculations and conversions.
One feature I’m still undecided on is the “Back to Search” link that appears in the top left corner of the screen when you follow a search result into a different app. Tap it and you’ll go back to the search results screen. On the one hand, it’s a good way not to get lost when you might want to check a number of different search results; on the other, I frequently use search to launch apps that I don’t want to dig through a folder for, and then I’m stuck with a “Back to Search” link in the top corner the whole time I’m using the app. I suppose at the end of the day, the usefulness outweighs my nitpicking, but, well, nobody ever accused tech writers of lacking in idiosyncrasies.
The search field also offers, for the first time, a microphone button. Tap it to use iOS’s dictation feature to enter your query. It’s handy when you don’t want to spend the time typing a lengthy query, though you can accomplish most of the same effect using Siri.
We won’t see the full power and promise of iOS 9 search for a little bit yet: apps will soon be able to offer their own search results at last, but they have to be updated for iOS 9 to take advantage of that feature.
Right below the text-input box on the search screen is a list of Siri Suggestions. This doesn’t really have anything to do with Siri as we know it—rather, these are contacts and apps that iOS’s “intelligence,” based on Siri, has recognized as recent apps/contacts, frequent apps/contacts, or apps/contacts that you often need at this time of day or week. And since iOS can see your calendar, it can even propose contacts who you might have an upcoming meeting with.
(So what is Siri? It’s definitely not just an agent that you talk to. Apple seems to have decided with iOS 9 that Siri represents all sorts of queries, including ones it does proactively. “Siri suggestions” litter the search screen. “Spotlight,” still prominent on the Mac, seems to be fading away as a term on iOS. But Apple could be a lot clearer about the branding.)
Given the highly personal nature of search-screen suggestions, it’s hard to say exactly how successful the Siri Suggestions will be for you. But I found them to be a pretty solid guess at apps and contacts that I might want quick access to. Even better, as developers start rolling out their own apps designed for iOS 9, there is some facility for those programs to “broadcast” specific features.
The search screen also leverages the new Nearby feature of Maps, presenting you with quick categories of locations you might want to check out. For example, I pulled it up at 11:30 a.m. and its first suggestion was Lunch, followed by Coffee. (What, no tea?! Come on, Siri—I thought you knew me better than that.) Also the searches (or the data sources behind them) aren’t as smart as they should be: when I tapped Lunch, the top hit was a restaurant that was not open at lunchtime.
The search screen also pulls headlines from the new Apple News app, which it claims are tailored to you. As nifty as that is, I found the fact that it’s by default limited to four headlines—you can tap for more—mean that I just ended up seeing the top few general news stories for the day. That’s fine, but it doesn’t really encourage me to visit the screen that much more often.
In general, the search screen is a clever idea, but, well, there’s not much there there. At the moment it reminds me of nothing so much as the Today pane in Notifications Center, which it actually shares a lot in common with. And yet, I don’t think most people spend that much time in Notification Center, and I’m not sure the search screen, squirreled away as it is, will fare that much better. Perhaps that might change when third-party apps built for iOS 9 start to make their appearance, but I’m not so optimistic.
Search when you don’t know you want it
I’m more bullish on proactive search’s passive features, which show up in places like Mail, where it will suggest recipients as you address emails based on the groups of people you commonly send messages to, or Calendar, where it will vacuum up events it recognizes in Mail and suggest adding them to your agenda. For example, the latter feature recognized my flights to and from California for the September 9th Apple event, complete with the correct time zone information, notes about my confirmation code and seat number, and linked locations for the respective airports. Google Now has had similar functionality for some time now, but it’s nice to see Apple adopt it as well.
Some apps have gotten smarter, with search, too: The Photos app now lets you search for locations and times, either by typing in its search box or via Siri. When I asked Siri to show me pictures from San Francisco last month, it obliged nicely. The more of this kind of thing Apple can add to searching—in apps and across the entire device—the better.
I also like the little features like showing the Music icon in the Handoff spot when you plug in your headphones (I also noticed it when my phone connected to my car’s Bluetooth speaker), and displaying a possible caller ID for unknown phone calls based on scanning my emails for a matching number. It’s a great way to know when, for example, you’re getting a call back from a doctor’s office.
These are the kind of features I’d like to see more of from Apple: ones that actually make life easier by smoothing over those little tasks that eat away at our time.
- Apple’s terminology for search technologies is kind of a mess. Spotlight is on the Mac and still in places on iOS, but Siri is much more prominent and not just used for spoken-word queries. ↩
- There’s more work to do on this front, too. A search for “weather memphis” brought up Memphis, Texas, and “weather louisville” brought up Louisville, Colorado. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at email@example.com. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]
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