By Dan Moren
September 20, 2021 9:00 AM PT
Review: iOS 15 does a lot with a little
What is there to say about an operating system fifteen years after release? Fifteen years after the classic Mac OS was released, it was just two years away from its successor, Mac OS X, coming on the scene (a replacement effort that had already seen several aborted attempts). Fifteen years after Mac OS X was released, it was already on its third name iteration, having evolved to OS X, and then back to macOS. The point is: these are mature operating systems, not upstarts still trying to find their way.
The same is true of Apple’s mobile OS. It might seem like it’s the new kid on the block, but the truth is that iOS has reached the point where any limitations are predominantly choices that Apple has made. And splashy new features are often forays into unexplored territory rather than making up ground.
So it is with iOS 15, a release that appears with at least one of its most touted features, SharePlay, delayed until later this year, and another impressive piece of functionality—Universal Control—demoed but never even present in the betas. What’s left is a hodgepodge of interesting ideas and occasionally misguided attempts to prescribe how people should use their mobile devices. It’s an update that’s got a lot to recommend it, but that’s simultaneously tough to recommend, if only because it’s difficult to point to a single big feature that will make a huge difference in the life of the average user.
(I’ll touch on iPadOS features, but for some iPadOS 15-specific considerations, check out Jason’s companion piece.)
FaceTime to shine
Apple has mostly found itself in the odd position of benefiting from the pandemic: with quarantines, lockdowns, and social distancing, people have ended up spending more time at home, working, learning, and, well, not traveling. That’s meant a bumper crop of device sales, which has boosted the company’s bottom line to even more astronomical levels.
But it’s also put into stark relief the places where Apple’s technology has fallen short. iOS 15 attempts to cure some of these ills, and the results are…decidedly mixed. Let’s start with FaceTime.
The tech face of the pandemic has undoubtedly been Zoom. The now ubiquitous video conferencing service was already gaining in popularity before the coronavirus emerged, but its success stemmed in large part from a “right place, right time” situation of being the remote-chatting solution du jour—five years earlier, it would probably have been Skype or Google Hangouts. “Zooming” has become the lingua franca for a video conference, achieving a Google-like status.1 Despite having added multi-person support to FaceTime a few years ago, Apple’s app never really took off for video conferences.
So in iOS 15, Apple has pushed forward, adding a number of features to improve the FaceTime experience. Most important among them: a grid view of all participants and the ability to join a FaceTime call via a link, finally opening up the platform to users of other devices. (And recreating a key part of Zoom’s functionality and appeal doesn’t hurt.)
The grid view is mostly good—or, at least, an improvement over the previous overlapping squares—but it also feels, especially on the iPad, like the space is somewhat wasted. It’s one place that Apple’s design chops feel as though they are perhaps at odds with what people want: big honking pictures of their friends and loved ones (okay, perhaps not their co-workers). There’s an awkward sense that Apple somehow feels like this is gauche, that everybody should be perfectly look and sound great at all times, much like the models in their marketing photos. Hence the similar additions of various mic modes (helpful in a variety of circumstances), portrait mode (fine, but hardly a game-changer), and spatial audio (intriguing, but also kind of off-putting).
More interesting is the ability to join FaceTime calls with a link, including scheduling meetings in advance. This is clearly somewhere that Apple is playing catch up to Zoom, but it comes with a side benefit: FaceTime calls are now available for the first time on other platforms—basically, anything with a modern web browser. On the one hand, that’s great, because it means opening up the service to a huge number of additional users. On the other, it’s a somewhat un-Apple-like effort in that it avoids the big investment of having to, say, create apps for those other platforms. Apple’s not a web services company, and their investments in that space in the past have largely been underwhelming.
FaceTime on the web feels bare bones, to say the least. You can’t create a FaceTime call without an Apple device, so it’s not as though Windows or Android users are going to be using it to chat amongst themselves. You also can’t call someone on a non-Apple platform; you have to send a link. And in cases of families or friend groups that use a mix of platforms, insisting on using FaceTime is probably going to make most non-Apple users ask why they can’t just use Zoom—much less in corporate or organizational environments, where FaceTime has largely been a non-starter. It’s been noted that Apple itself uses WebEx internally. Draw your own conclusions.
In my tests, joining FaceTime calls via the web was pretty easy, but it does make you jump through a few hoops in the name of security: you have to enter a name when you’re joining a call, but it doesn’t have to be tied to anything. That’s good, since it makes the process less onerous, but certainly opens the door to misuse and…FaceTimebombing?
All of that said, any improvement to group FaceTime calls is a positive for those who already use the service, but I’m skeptical that adding these features is going to convert anybody who’s now comfortable using some other video conferencing solution.
It’s also worth noting that Apple made a big push on another feature related to FaceTime: SharePlay. This is a whole bundle of features that both Apple and third party developers can take advantage of, which lets you share experience while on a FaceTime call, including listening to music, watching a movie, playing a game, sharing your screen, and more. Although it was included in the beta releases throughout the summer, Apple has said SharePlay will not be available at launch, and will be coming later this fall.
Safari weaves a tangled web
Brace yourself—we’re going to talk about Safari. In all my years of covering Apple, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a trajectory precisely as wild as iOS 15’s Safari update. Announced with great fanfare at WWDC, Apple touted a completely redesigned browser for the iPhone, with a floating address bar on the bottom of the screen and an extremely minimal amount of chrome.
It was almost immediately panned and, over the course of several betas, Apple walked back many of changes it had made on the platform to the point where you can easily set up the iPhone version to look pretty much identical to iOS 14.
Here’s the thing, though: that bottom address bar idea? Not a bad one. Even as someone with larger hands, the iPhone 12 Pro’s size (much less the Pro Max’s) doesn’t make it easy to reach the top of the screen with one hand. Putting extremely important UI elements at the top means that you’re forced into using two hands with the phone at all times, or precariously shifting your grip so that you can get you thumb up there.
The biggest argument against the bottom address bar, to my mind, is convention. Web addresses have been at the top of browser since time immemorial2 because it was natural: most languages read top-down.
But we’ve mostly come to grips3 with the web these days, so there’s a strong argument that it doesn’t matter if the address is at the top or the bottom of the screen, and given that having it at the bottom makes it so much easier to reach, I strongly advise users to not immediately switch back to the address bar on the top—give it a try for a week. Yes, it’s frustrating to overcome that muscle memory, but you might just find it convenient.
On the iPad, the situation is perhaps not quite as good, though it has improved substantially throughout the beta process. As on iOS, there are two options for viewing the browser: the compact mode that was first demoed at WWDC, where the address bar lives in the active tab, and a “separate tab bar” version that looks more like the traditional browser. You can toggle between them in Settings > Safari. (You can also toggle off the Show Color in Tab Bar option which made the header color bleed into the window chrome, for which my eyes are thankful.)
While there is some appeal to the compact mode, especially on a smaller iPad, the usability tradeoffs are too much for me: tabs are smushed, making them harder to read and requiring you to scroll back and forth more. Closing a tab takes more work here as well, and many common controls are buried underneath an anonymous “three dots” menu, including basic functionality like reload and share. (You can access some of these by long pressing the active tab, but it’s not immediately discoverable.)
Overall, the idea of reducing window chrome has some merit, but when it becomes a drive that surpasses the usability of the software, it has verged into obsession.
Keeping tabs on
Safari, like most modern web browsers, has featured tabbed browsing for years, but this year, Apple gave tabs a serious usability overhaul.
There are a few improved interactions here. For one thing, the tab overview screen on the iPhone has been changed from the “hanging file” style of earlier releases to a grid view that’s more like what you can get on the iPad and the Mac. I prefer this implementation, even though it takes a little more time to scroll through a larger set of open tabs. But it’s easier to interact with any given page, and the thumbnails are much more useful.
If you go with iOS 15’s bottom address bar, as discussed above, there’s also a new way to quickly switch back and forth between tabs: swiping left or right on the address bar. I like this interaction a lot, especially if you’re trying to, say, compare the contents of two tabs. But it’s not without its issues. For one thing, I often have so many tabs open that I don’t remember what the previous or next tabs are and I end up swiping for a while. For another, it collides a little bit with the gesture for switching apps on modern, no-Home-button iPhones, which occasionally gets confusing. But overall, it’s still a win.
And then there are Tab Groups.
I’ve been using Tab Groups since I first installed the iOS, iPadOS, and macOS betas and after a few months, I still am undecided about whether or not I like them. I use them and I understand their utility, but there are still some rough edges in their implementation.
Let’s start with the good: Tab Groups are a way to organize all those endless tabs that you probably have opened in your browser. Once you add them to a tab group, that group syncs via iCloud to all your disparate devices, meaning you can easily access the same sites no matter if you’re on your iPad, iPhone, or Mac. In that way, it’s a bit like a souped up version of the iCloud Tabs feature… which also still exists, though it’s been exiled to the Start Page. You give names to each of your Tab Groups as well—Book Research or House Stuff, to name a couple of my own—and when you select one, those tabs—and only those tabs—take over the current window.
Now, while you could previously create folders of bookmarks in Safari (don’t worry, that feature’s not going anywhere), that feature would then load those tabs. Tab Groups are more like separate windows on macOS, as their tabs are already loaded. Moving stuff back and forth between Tab Groups is pretty easy: tapping and holding on the address bar on the iPhone or the tab name on the iPad brings up a menu that lets you move the current tab to any tab group. That said, I do wish it were easier to move several tabs into a new tab group. As it is, you can move one tab easily, or all tabs from a group easily, but if you have six or seven, it’s a bit more painstaking. There’s also no way to merge two Tab Groups, which could come in handy.
Tab Groups are mutable, so if you close a tab in a tab group, or open a new tab while you’re in a group, those changes are immediately synced. This definitely leads to confusion at times, because you may very well end up with sites that you really don’t want to be part of that tab group. (At least if you tap a link from another source, like an email or a text message, it opens in the default tab group.) But there is certainly convenience in having these groups automatically synced between your devices, and never having to think “oh, wait, did I have that site open on my phone or my iPad?”
There’s also a default tab group or…I don’t what to call them. Unnamed tabs? Loose tabs? Each device has its own unique set of tabs that don’t sync between devices. This isn’t really bad, since not everybody wants every single tab they have synced between devices. (Don’t worry about Private tabs, by the way. They’re kind of their own special group and don’t sync.) In order to open a tab from another device’s default tab group, you have to revert to iCloud Tabs, accessible via Safari’s Start Page—or start typing a URL and it’ll probably pop up in your history. I kind of like this implementation, especially since it removes some duplication: if you have a tab group open on your Mac, and go to iCloud Tabs on your iPhone, the tab group won’t show up there.
In the end, I think the biggest challenge to using Tab Groups is adapting your brain. Overall, they’re pretty well implemented. The iPhone’s execution is definitely the weakest, just by virtue of the limited screen space: you can’t see what tab group you’re in without tapping on the “show tabs” button, so there’s an out-of-sight-out-of-mind quality there. But Apple’s realized that we all use tabs a whole lot, and they’ve put out a solid first stab at a tool to help managing them.
While it’s not purely a Safari feature, I wanted to take a moment to call out one of my favorite updates in Apple’s latest operating system updates, including iOS 15: the updates to the password manager. Specifically, the ability to handle time-based one-time passwords (TOTPs).
A few years back, Apple added the ability to autofill two-factor codes sent via SMS. This was an incredible convenience, saving the time it took to switch to Messages, copy the code, return to the app, and paste the code in; instead, you could simply tap and you were done.
But SMS has long been considered the least secure way to get two-factor codes, and—like many—I’ve come to rely on an app for those codes; in my case, Authy, though Google and Microsoft both offer their own apps with compatibility for the standard. For me, Authy simplified matters, especially when it comes to migrating phones: rather than having to laboriously set up all your two-factor authentication codes every time you change devices, Authy simply let you sync them over to your new device.4
Given the proliferating nature of two-factor authentication, it was only a matter of time before Apple added support for TOTPs to its OS and, unsurprisingly, it’s brought pretty much the same experience that it uses for autofilling SMS codes and passwords: when you’re prompted by a website or app for a verification code that you’ve stored in iOS, you can tap to have it autofilled. But, unlike SMS codes, TOTP codes require you to authenticate with Touch ID or Face ID, making them more secure.5
This has mostly worked pretty well for me, though not all sites or apps I use have been set up to correctly support the autofill feature. I’ve also run into one case where I have multiple logins for different accounts on the same domain, and I’ve run into problems with it correctly storing my two-factor code; I’ll set it up and it will immediately disappear. While annoying, this seems to be an edge case bug, which I’m hopeful will be resolved in a future update.
I’m pleased with the improvements to Apple’s password management system in iOS 15, though I do wish it had the ability to store secure notes, as well as being friendlier for credentials not associated with a website. It’s one of the few reasons I still use 1Password in addition to Apple’s own password system.
Driving away from distraction
As our devices have gotten ever more complex and interconnected, we’ve become increasingly inundated with a slew of distractions. Emails, text messages, reminders, all those notifications that pop up and want our attention RIGHT NOW. Apple’s made some stabs at curbing these in past years, with features like Screen Time and Do Not Disturb, but iOS 15 features the biggest overhaul yet, promising unbridled customization and organization—if you invest the time.
The vanguard of this latest distraction-freeing effort are Focuses. Focuses6 are contexts—some of them created by Apple, others by you—that dictate things like who can contact you and what apps are allowed to send you notifications. By default, Apple provides a handful, mostly based on specific conditions: Sleep, Driving, Fitness, as well as Personal and Work contexts that you can configure. But you can also create your own custom focus, which you either activate manually or have triggered by some conditions.
In general, I like the idea of Focus, but in practicality, I haven’t found myself using it very much. But I also realize that I may be an outlier: as someone who works from home7 and more or less by themselves, I don’t have a sharp delineation between Personal and Work contexts. (A lot of the people I “work” with are also people I count as friends.) So trying to decide who can contact me in a Personal focus versus who’s allowed to text me in a Work focus is a bit of a non-starter.
I do really appreciate the Fitness and Driving contexts, however. In particular, I try to go for a walk in the afternoons on many days, and that often seems to be when some of my group texts threads are the most…lively. When you’re trying to clear your mind, and Siri insists on piping several text messages into your AirPods, it does break the mood a bit. Setting up my Fitness focus to only allow texts from a couple people has been incredibly beneficial, especially since you can set the focus to automatically activate whenever you start a workout on your Apple Watch.
Some of the other triggers I have personally found less useful. For example, you can trigger a focus to activate whenever you open a specific app. But that option also means that the focus turns off whenever you leave that app. I can see the advantage to that if you, say, you really want to buckle down while you’re working on a particular thing. For example, I could set up a Writing focus whenever I launch Scrivener or 1Writer on my iPad, that ensures that I’m not bothered by Slack notifications or the like. But at the same time, I often end up switching to other apps, such as Safari, to look up details and do research. Which means that every time I switch to another app, my Writing focus gets deactivated—unless I set up Safari in the same focus, which is weird, because there are a lot of contexts in which I use Safari for non-writing purposes. Honestly, that feature makes more sense for me on the Mac, where you might have a slew of different apps open at any one time, than in iOS’s single-app model. I look forward, for example, to having a Podcasting focus on my iMac that minimizes distractions when Audio Hijack is open.
There is a Smart Activation feature for many of the Focuses, which lets Apple’s machine learning suss out when you want to turn a particular focus on and off. Given my somewhat lukewarm opinion on the Focus feature, I haven’t delved deeply into this particular functionality, other than to say that I’m personally trepidatious about it. But again, my experience is perhaps not the norm: for people who have to go into an office, for example, the OS might be able to easily figure out when to toggle between Personal and Work.
Apple’s also reinforced its commitments to Shortcuts by adding an action to turn a specific Focus on or off, opening up other possibilities for triggering a specific context. And Focus can optionally notify people who text you that you’re currently not seeing notifications, which can either comes across as helpful or passive-aggressive, depending on the circumstances.
I’ve also found myself intrigued by the ability to only show certain home pages while you’re in a specific focus, though I’ve struggled a bit to find the best way to use this. In truth, I find the idea a bit fiddly, in the same way that I don’t particularly like choosing who can text me in given contexts. I appreciate that Apple offers suggestions for the former, but when it comes to the latter, I’m simply overwhelmed by all the customization options. I would appreciate a feature that lets me mark some people as able to break through in any focus, so that I can be sure that I don’t, say, miss a message from my wife, rather having to specify her in each individual focus.
Focus also subsumes a couple of other existing features: Do Not Disturb and its subordinate “while driving” features. I appreciate that all of these have a unified interface and functionality now—it all makes sense.
In that, it’s somewhat of an atypical Apple experience, which tends to eschew user customization in favor of a “we know best” attitude. In the past, this kind of very nitpicky tweaking has been the hallmark of Android, and it will be interesting to see whether users take to it. I’ve already seen ideas about customizing home screens with widgets that only appear in specific contexts. I’m glad these options exist, and I see what Apple’s going for here, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark, at least for me.
Whether Focus will actually help curb the incessant annoyances that we all deal with, I’ll be intrigued to see. The biggest downside is that it requires proactive work on the part of users, many of whom probably aren’t going to invest the time in making Focus work for them (myself included). But it’s not the only distraction-reducing effort Apple has made in iOS 15.
Trust, don’t notify
At the risk of dating myself: there was a time when the addition of push notifications on the iPhone was an amazing innovation. Fast forward a decade and notifications are everywhere. Phone calls, texts, emails, Slack notifications, breaking news, reminders, even ads deluge us every single day. Apple’s previous attempts to tame this onslaught have been somewhat marginal, at best: in earlier versions of iOS, you could tap on an a notification in your lock screen or Notification Center and tell the system to deliver those alerts quietly or turn them off altogether.
In iOS 15, Apple has taken a more structured approach by adding different classes of notifications—in particular, one called Time Sensitive alerts.8 These are intended to be things that you really want delivered right away: text messages, phone calls, authentication messages, and so on. Classifying a notification as Time Sensitive isn’t something that’s up to the user, but rather to the developer of independent apps. Which is good in that it takes the onus off the average consumer, but potentially bad as it requires trusting developers to make the right decisions. Apple has appealed to developers to be responsible and not simply deem everything Time Sensitive, but whether that holds up, we’ll have to see.
The reason that Time Sensitive notifications are significant is twofold. Firstly, they’re a class of notification that you can allow to break through your Focus, even if you haven’t specifically allowed notifications from that app. Secondly, they work with the second new major notification feature, Scheduled Summary.
Scheduled Summary basically gathers all those non Time Sensitive notifications and collects them into one place: a big summary notification that gets delivered at specified times of day. The idea being when you get up in the morning or finish work for the day, you can browse all those notifications that you might have missed throughout the day.
In theory, it’s a solid idea. In practice? I would call my results mixed. It’s not because I don’t appreciate reducing the number of notifications I get throughout the day. (And one of the best aspects of this feature is the “Apps in Summary” section of the Scheduled Summary settings, which shows you which apps notify you the most, helping you decide whether to put them in a summary or not.) But more often than not, I would find myself ignoring the summary altogether, which made me wonder just how important the items therein actually were: if a notification isn’t significant enough for you to actually be notified, should it really be a notification?
Not unlike the Focus system, it’s possible that Scheduled Summary just isn’t for me. I appreciate the configuration available—such as the ability to create multiple summaries that appear at differne times throughout the day—and it’s always good to give users more control over something as annoying and disruptive as notifications. But once again, much of the burden is put upon users to set things up just the way they like them. The only thing more eye-rolling to me than being bothered with a slew of notifications is sitting around triaging my notifications.
There are a few other smaller notification related features in iOS 15: I like the expansion of Announce Notifications to apps beyond Messages, and the fact that it’s off by default for pretty much everything, which is correct (though Apple does need to revisit its screens that are just long lists of apps with “On” or “Off listed”—it’s hard to read at a glance). The redesigned notification look is fine, and I appreciate the more prominent contact images. There are more options for muting threads, including a suggestion to mute when you’re not engaging with a conversation, which I appreciate, though I haven’t found myself using these features.
Sharing With You is caring with you
Last year was a big year for Messages; by comparison, iOS 15 is a bit lighter. There are new additions to Memoji, including clothing and more appearance options; a prominent save button next to texted pictures; and a much improved UI when receiving multiple images (rather than appearing as a series of pictures that take up most of the conversation, they’re collected into a more compact “fanned” stack).
But Apple has put most of its effort into a new system called Shared with You. The idea behind Shared with You is a way to keep track of content people send you that you might otherwise lose track of: links that have been sent to us by friends and family that we tell ourselves we’ll check out later.9 Now those links will be surfaced within other apps, reminding you when you might be in a context to actually look at them. So if your friend just sent you a great chocolate cake recipe in the middle of a lengthy conversation, you’ll see it in Safari’s Start Page when you open a new tab.
Shared with You content can also show up in Apple Music, Podcasts, Apple News, the Apple TV app, and Photos when those particular types of content are recognized.
Photos is a peculiar case here. Pictures that are sent to you in Messages will show up in the For You section of the Photos app with tags denoting who sent them, but Apple will also insert certain pictures that are shared with you directly into your Photo library—specifically, pictures messaged to you if you were also in proximity when they were taken. For example, while visiting a winery over the summer, my wife went off to snap a picture of a goat on the premises while I went back to the car; she texted the picture to me, and subsequently it automatically appeared in my library with an icon indicating it had been sent via Messages. When I viewed the image, it told me it was shared by her, and gave me options to send a reply directly from Photos, or save the shared photo.
I don’t entirely know how I feel about this feature, though I will admit that it has come up surprisingly infrequently so far. (Perhaps in part because the pandemic means I’m not often in proximity with people and then getting pictures from them.) This feels like an extension of a feature that Apple’s had in the past, where it prompts you to share pictures at an event with people that your phone recognizes in said photos. Having stuff dropped into my library feels slightly unsettling10; the feature can be disabled under Settings > Messages > Shared with You, but only by turning off all Photos integration, which is a bit disappointing.
Overall, I think I like the idea of surfacing these links in other apps, but the implementation could use some work. Of all these types of contents, I get sent web links in Messages the most, and the volume of those has quickly outpaced the display, which only appears on Safari’s Start Page in which the Shared with You section might be below Favorites, Frequently Visited Sites, tabs on other devices, and more. Chances are it’s buried way below the scroll, and I fully admit that I rarely remember to check there.
It’s also disappointing that third-party developers don’t—as of this release—have the ability to integrate Shared with You into their own apps. For the moment, this seems to be a system that Apple’s keeping to itself, which is less than useful if somebody sends you a link to a song on Amazon Music, or even a tweet.
Intelligence in the machine
The conventional wisdom about artificial intelligence and machine learning over the last few years is that there’s no way Apple, with its stance on privacy (more on which later), can’t possibly beat Google, which has made this slice of technology its bread and butter. But Apple has been building its hardware to prioritize machine learning for the last several years, and on the software side, iOS 15 is the clearest indication yet that Apple isn’t kidding around.
Text is going live
Live Text is a strong entry for the title of “marquee feature of iOS 15,” especially with major features like SharePlay and Universal Control delayed until later releases.
As anyone who grew up in the era where the desktop PC was the height of technological advancement can tell you, there’s images and there’s text. In the past, that gap has been bridged with technology like Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which was originally unreliable, expensive, and time-intensive.
Then again, once upon a time, you could have said the same thing about speech recognition. That’s a whole category of app that Apple (and yes, Google) have reduced to a bullet point feature. And now the same thing has happend with OCR. It still blows my mind that I can point my iPhone’s camera at, say, a printed piece of paper, tap a button, and have the text immediately available for copying and pasting, searching, or even translation. Like so much of Apple’s best technology, its simplicity is most impressive to those who know all the hard work and cleverness that goes into it—to everybody else, it just works. As it should.
If Apple had just made a feature that let you point your camera at anything and grab mutable text, that would be impressive enough, but the fact that Live Text is available anywhere in iOS (and, naturally, iPadOS and macOS) is what takes it up a notch. The line between image and text is obliterated: pretty much anywhere you see an image with text—including PDFs—you can select text and treat it just like text you’d see anywhere else. I’ve already detailed a few of my most unanticipated uses of Live Text, but rest assured there are plenty more. Recently I’ve been registering appliances from my new house and not having to type out a lengthy serial number is worth the price of admission.
Live Text’s accuracy isn’t perfect by any means. Handwriting can often foil it, and certain angles or fonts presents challenges as well. But, to be fair, I have trouble deciphering some handwriting. All in all, Live Text is a really impressive feature that has already had a measurable impact on my life. There’s not much more to say about it: like the best Apple features, it doesn’t have any particular configuration or settings you need to tweak. The only restriction is that you need iOS devices need an A12 Bionic chip or later, as the feature relies on the Neural Engine.
Things are Looking Up. Visually.
Apple’s machine learning ambitions don’t stop at text. In recent years, it’s souped up Photos by letting you search for specific types of items: dogs, for example, or types of clothing or geographical features. In iOS 15, Apple takes that a step further by adding Visual Look Up, which lets it identify certain things more details: breeds of dogs, works of art, plants and flowers, or landmarks.
In practice, some of these work better than others. I’ve found the landmark feature to be the most reliable, in part because I assume that Apple is at least slightly cheating by using the geotagging on photos. Dog breed identification has seemed so-so in my experience: very distinctive breeds like a corgi or a goldendoodle it did pretty well with11; less so with mixed breeds. Cats fared a little worse: a Siamese or Tabby were identified pretty reliably, but most others were less clear.12
Works of art were also hit or miss. In my several pictures of “The Last Supper,” it correctly identified a few, while others were just denoted as a landmark. Several pictures of well known murals by Diego Rivera in Mexico City’s National Palace weren’t flagged at all. And in at least one case, it correctly identified a Rivera mural as artwork, but couldn’t identify it or provide any information about it. (It does feel a bit like this particular aspect of the feature displays a bias towards classical Western artwork.)
Plants didn’t fare too badly, though I felt like flowers were generally better (perhaps easier to identify) than trees. And why oh why doesn’t it recognize different types of birds? Seems like a missed opportunity.
Overall, it’s an interesting addition, and one that I can see adding some useful functionality at times, but right now, with the exception of the landmark ability, it strikes me as something that’s more of a novelty than being truly useful.
In the spotlight
Most people probably don’t think of Apple as a search company, especially when compared to Google. But given the sheer volume of information on our devices, search is a necessity. Apple has certainly struggled with it at times in the past—search in Mail, for example, has often been hit or miss—but in iOS 15, it’s taking another crack at its meta-search tool, Spotlight.
Spotlight has always been ambitious; at its introduction in Mac OS X Tiger in 2005, one of its big selling points was the ability to search the contents of files, which seemed magical at the time. Over the years it’s gained a number of other abilities, and jumped to iOS. In iOS 15, Apple is adding even more rich search results, retrieving information from the web and mixing it in with results from your phone.
The results aren’t bad, per se, but the dichotomy between remote information and local information remains. I rarely use Spotlight to search for something on the web; for that I’m turning to Google. What I prioritize, thus, in my Spotlight searches, is information from my device that’s relevant to me. The good news is that if you find all those extra distracting, you can turn them off under Settings > Siri & Search > Show in Spotlight.
There are a couple of small Spotlight features that might fly beneath the radar at first. For one, you can now swipe down from the Lock Screen or Notification Center to access search—previously, you had to be on the home screen. This is so useful that I quickly forgot it’s something that I couldn’t do before. Likewise the ability to delete an app from Spotlight’s results, rather than hunting through your home screens or App Library—or, for that matter, installing an app from the App Store directly from Spotlight results.
One new Spotlight feature, however, puzzles me somewhat: it will turn up results of text in pictures in your Photos app, using the same sort of technology that powers Live Text. This feature is actually incredibly handy, especially if you take pictures of, say, receipts or important documents, or even just want to find that restaurant you vaguely remember. But, bizarrely, this feature does not exist in the search function of the Photos app itself. It seems like a pretty big oversight, and one that will hopefully be corrected in the not too distant future.
Apple has been banging on the privacy drum for the last several years, and aside from the occasional misstep, has largely seemed to follow through on its promises. iOS 15 brings a few new enhancements to privacy, most of which ought to be invisible to the naked eye, but might give you a little peace of mind nonetheless.
Some of these are minor: Siri can handle certain types of requests offline now, for example, though it’s fairly limited: timers, alarms, music playback controls like pause and resume (not including “play this specific song”), opening apps and settings, and so on; the clipboard is now more secure from snooping apps; and there are easier ways to choose which photos third-party apps can access from your library.
The check is in the email
Two of Apple’s biggest privacy forays in iOS 15 concern email: Mail Privacy Protection and Hide My Email.
Mail Privacy Protection works mostly transparently; it’s designed to prevent senders of emails from collecting information about you by blocking what are called “tracking pixels.” Email has no built in way to track it, but some clever (or dastardly, depending on your point of view) souls realized that if said email is in HTML, you can embed images that are loaded off a remote sever and then collect information about the user—such as their IP address—when their computer loads that file. These days, they tend to be single pixel by pixel emails that are transparent, so you never even see them.
In iOS 15, Mail Privacy Protection lets you obfuscate that information: Apple essentially downloads those files for you, routed through several proxy servers, so that your IP address is hidden—even ostensibly from Apple. For the most part, it does its work without you noticing—though I have come across incidents where none of my emails load images, requiring me to tap a Load Remote Images button. It’s possible this just means that all of the images in these emails are being used to track me, but these picture-less messages do make it look like my email has just jumped back twenty years. If you desire, you can always disable the protection in Settings > Mail > Privacy Protection.
This feature isn’t likely to be popular with the burgeoning newsletter industry, since it prevents them from collecting the kind of detailed profile information that can help provide valuable analytics (not to mention selling mailing lists and ads), but it’s a net win for most consumers.
The other major Mail privacy feature is Hide My Email, which comes as part of Apple’s new iCloud+ service. (We’ll delve into what is probably its headline feature, Private Relay, in a little bit, but for now, it’s enough to know that iCloud+ features are available to anybody who pays for iCloud storage space, including, naturally, Apple One subscribers.)
Hide My Email generalizes out from the Sign In with Apple feature that came out back in 2019. That feature allowed you to use your Apple ID to sign in to apps and services, with the option to use a randomly generated email address that would forward to your Apple ID email address. Hide My Email is now built into the OS, and offers you the option to generate a random email anytime you need to sign up for something, much in the same way that iOS offers to create a strong password for you. Those private email addresses can then be managed (along with those generated by Sign in with Apple) in Settings > Apple ID > iCloud > Hide My Email, allowing you to delete, temporarily deactivate, or even create new anonymous emails.
I love the idea behind Hide My Email, but I haven’t ended up using it as much as I thought I might, a fact I chalk up mostly to muscle memory. Entering my email is second nature to me when creating these accounts, and I can’t quite wrap my brain around using a email that I don’t know. That said, I can’t discount its utility, and I do like the idea of being able to hide my email—but part of me worries I’m too far gone, that the cat is out of the bag. There’s also the possibility that these anonymous emails could be used for abuse, but there’s nothing really new there: you’ve never needed to prove your identity to create an email.
Your email isn’t the only place that needs better privacy: there’s always the web. In previous years, Apple has made strides by offering Privacy Report in Safari, which tells you about trackers it’s blocked, but this year it adds two significant enhancements which, as with Mail, work mostly transparently. The first is relatively simple: Safari uses HTTPS, the secure version of the web’s backbone protocol, whenever it can. That ensures better security wherever it’s available.
The second, and more intriguing, is iCloud Private Relay. Like Hide My Email, this is part of iCloud+, requiring you to have a paid iCloud plan. Like Mail Privacy Protection, iCloud Private Relay attempts to hide both your personal information—your IP address, which can be linked to your location—and your browsing activity. It does so by routing your connection through a pair of proxy servers13, ensuring that nobody, including Apple, can see the whole picture.
It’s worth noting that Private Relay is a feature that Apple classifies as being in beta, as its underlying mechanism may require many websites to alter their code to adapt. In my experience, it’s mostly performed well in that regard, but I have run into connection issues from time to time that have required me to disable the feature. This is Private Relay’s biggest shortcoming: when all of your web traffic runs through a handful of servers, one of those servers going offline is a big deal. Reliability is going to be key here, because if Apple can’t handle the onslaught of traffic (which is perhaps one reason it’s currently restricted to paying customers), people are going to get frustrated.
Private Relay doesn’t cover all traffic from your device: it applies only to Safari traffic (including web pages opened within apps), DNS name resolution, and insecure traffic from apps. This helps ensure the privacy of a huge chunk of most people’s device activity, but it does mean that in many cases, you still have to trust app developers to ensure your privacy.
I do appreciate that Apple has made it so that you can not only disable iCloud Private Relay altogether (in Settings > Apple ID > iCloud > Private Relay), but also on a per-network basis via Settings > Wi-Fi and tapping the “i” icon next to the network in question. Some networks may have trouble with Private Relay, or you may choose to disable it on networks you trust without wanting to have to manually re-enable it every time you use a public network.
Performance-wise, Apple says any impact of Private Relay is minor, and indeed, I haven’t seen a measurable speed difference with it enabled or disabled. That’s pretty good, and while it won’t necessarily replace VPN software for those who use it (especially for geolocation reasons), it’s a nice added bonus for those already subscribing to extra iCloud Storage.
There’s far too much in iOS 15 to go into the details of everything the update includes, but it’s worth calling out a few honorable mentions to Apple’s built-in apps.
Memories in Photos gets a substantial overhaul, including the ability to use any track from Apple Music, which is pretty cool. (Not all of those memories are then shareable with that music, thanks to licensing issues.) In general, they look better and seem smarter, plus it’s easier to browse through all the photos therein. I could do without the constant autoplay to the next memory, though; it feels a bit This Is Your Life.
The Weather app has gotten a significant upgrade in iOS 15, clearly integrating many of the features from Dark Sky, which Apple acquired back in 2020. It now shows more detailed information about current precipitation (including notifications when it’s starting and stopping), handy cards to tell you about current conditions like humidity and wind, and—finally!—radar maps, including overlays for precipitation, temperature, and air quality. It also wouldn’t be Apple without some sort of graphical flourish, so enjoy the animated backgrounds, including precipitation that bounces off parts of the UI.
All of these are welcome changes, and make Apple’s built-in option a real contender for my go-to weather app for the first time in what feels like years. That said, the card interface is a little cluttered at times, its notification options lack the granularity of Dark Sky’s, and I am disappointed that there’s no option to bring the radar views into a home screen widget. That said, when Dark Sky eventually does go away, it’ll likely be a close race between Weather and CARROT Weather for the honors of my home screen weather app.
Notes gets a pretty big update, including the Quick Note feature on iPad, which Jason will delve into more in his addendum. The addition of ad hoc tags is nice, and I’m extremely glad that Apple made the UI as lightweight as it has: basically, all you need to do is type a pound sign and a string to have Notes automatically recognize it as a tag. Those tags are then surfaced at the top level of Notes, alongside your folders. For those who will use this feature, it’s easy and powerful; for those that won’t, it’s unobtrusive.
I hope, as Jason has suggested elsewhere, that linking between Notes is on the radar of Apple’s developers. While I don’t need the extremely extensive features of an app like Obsidian, being able to connect notes with each other would be an extremely handy feature that might even replace the more complex wiki I use to manage my Galactic Cold War novels.
Notes also features better collaboration features—you can swipe right for highlights and see who changed what when as well as view an activity summary of updates, though sadly you can’t choose which colors represent each contributor. For the most part, I found these to be perfectly fine, but I honestly don’t use note sharing very often. Likewise, using the @ sign for mentions to notify collaborators: handy if you’re into note sharing, but like tags, not something that’s in your face if you don’t.
Reminders garners the same tagging features as Notes, just as much of a plus here. But even better, it’s easy to delete all your completed reminders, something that I’ve wanted for a long time. (Just tap the three dots icon at the top of a reminder list, then tap Show Completed—a clear button will appear right below the name of the list.) Creating reminders with locations, dates, and other metadata is a lot easier, thanks to an icon toolbar that appears over the keyboard when you’re entering a name, and better recognition of natural language. I’ve been a long time Reminders user and honestly, the app gets better and better.
Speaking of which, neither Mail nor Calendar get a lot of love in iOS 15, which is seriously disappointing for apps that I use and rely on every single day. Calendar’s ability to more easily recognize virtual meeting links is nice, but it feels like table stakes from 2018 at this point, and aside from Mail’s privacy enhancements, there’s basically nothing new there. If the team for Reminders and Notes aren’t too busy, it feels like they should get a crack at overhauling these other two essential apps.
Making the cut
As Apple’s software releases get more complex, I’m confronted with two additional categories of features: those that I can’t test, and those that don’t make the initial releases. iOS 15 has plenty of both of these.
Batteries not included
“You gotta play near me” is what my cousin who reviews a hundred some movies a year remarks about those indie films that never quite make it to his neighborhood, and I feel the same way about some of Apple’s software features, which either require a certain geographic location or equipment I don’t have.
Being able to put your home keys, hotel keys, car keys, office keys, and piano keys in your Apple Wallet sounds great. I’ve yet to be in a situation where I could take advantage of any of these, but I look forward to it.
Maps has detailed new looks in certain cities. Great if you live in San Francisco: it’s quite charming, with its little Golden Gate Bridge and Ferry Building. Same with the augmented reality walking directions, which are only available in a few places—but if there ever was a feature that cried out for Apple’s rumored AR glasses, it’s probaly this one. (The ability to now pick a departure or arrival time for my trip, however, is greatly appreciated.)
Apple has finally brought web extensions to Safari on iOS, but as of yet, I haven’t been able to try any; the jury remains firmly out.
Sharing has come to the Health app. I get the appeal, but I’m not sure whether or not this is something I want. Regardless, most of it doesn’t have a direct application for me at the moment.
The rest is yet to come
If iOS 15 had a marquee feature when it was announced, it was probably SharePlay, the in-depth framework that lets you conduct a FaceTime call and do some other activity at the same time. Like the other FaceTime enhancements in this release, it seems a feature born of the pandemic era, perhaps explaining why it’s not quite ready yet.
In early releases SharePlay was definitely rough, but the bigger question is whether or not it will catch on: the integrations range from the mundane (being able to share your screen, something that FaceTime should have had years ago), to the increasingly common (watching a video together, a feature that many streaming services have begun to add on their own), to the questionable (do I really want to work out with my friends on FaceTime via Fitness+?). If SharePlay can deliver on a difficult problem—syncing content playback to multiple people on a variety of devices who may have differing connection levels—well, more power to Apple. Even better, it’s supposedly shipping with third-party developer support, which could be quite promising. We’ll have to circle back.
Power users were probably those most anticipating Universal Control, a touted feature to let you use one keyboard and input device and seamlessly move back and forth between controlling your Mac or iPad. Alas, it never surfaced in any of the betas and Apple says it will arrive later this fall, which seems…if not quite optimistic, then at least suitably vague.
App Privacy Report is, as the name suggests, another attempt by Apple to provide transparency into what apps know about you. Much like the Privacy Report feature in Safari, this would tell you which permissions apps have and what servers they talk to. Given the App Tracking Transparency feature Apple rolled out earlier this year, this is bound to be a big hit with certain app makers that rhyme with Schmacebook.14
Realizing that technology is an increasingly important part of our lives, Apple is rolling out a Digital Legacy program that lets you designate people who can access your account in the event of your death. This goes hand in hand with another iOS feature, account recovery, which lets you designate trusted contacts who can help you get access to your account in the event you get locked out (more on which below). Apple’s been more vague about the timeline for this, only promising it in a future iOS 15 update.
Fifteen, going on sixteen
All in all, iOS 15 is what is often somewhat euphemistically termed a “quality of life” update. Which is to say that it largely doesn’t break a lot of new ground, but rather spends much of its time fixing and tweaking features that came before. That’s not a bad thing: perhaps the most revered software update in the Mac’s history was 2009’s Snow Leopard, which aimed to fix a lot of bugs and not add new features and was considered extremely stable.
Alas, I’m not sure that iOS 15 rivals it when it comes to stability. There are still plenty of bugs in the release candidate that I’m reviewing, especially in Shortcuts, which has been particularly problematic throughout the beta process; here’s hoping it gets some love and attention in 15.1 or sooner.
The big question, as always, is whether or not you should update to iOS 15. In the past, that’s always been a no brainer: not only does it ensure you keep your device patched against security vulnerabilities, but you get the latest and greatest features. This year, however, there’s a wrinkle. For the first time, Apple isn’t pushing users to update, but allowing them to remain on iOS 14 and get security updates. Suddenly, staying on last year’s OS is a viable option.
Why would you not want to update? I think the biggest issue is for those owners of older phones. Apple has worked hard to maintain compatibility with earlier models, in this case going all the way back to the iPhone 6s. But that’s not to say that it will work well on those devices—after all, the iPhone 6s is from 2015, and lacks many hardware features present on newer phones. Some of the features in iOS 15 require specific hardware, such an iPhone 7 or 8, or—in the case of Live Text—a device with the A12 Bionic chip that includes Apple’s Neural Engine. If you’re not going to get all those new features, maybe it’s not so bad to stay on last year’s OS and not worry about performance issues or bugs that need to get ironed out.
But for most users with a more modern iPhone—say an iPhone X or newer—there’s very little reason not to upgrade. There are some rough edges, as there always are, but the convenience of features like Live Text and two-factor authentication code integration mean this is a release that feels very much like it tips the balance onto solving problems people actually have, rather than providing solutions for issues they don’t.
- Interestingly, I do hear “FaceTime” in the vernacular as a verb, but it predominantly seems to be used when referring to one-on-one calls. Ain’t language weird? ↩
Though my first web browsing experience, using
lynxon a VAX system, required you to hit a key to enter an address. Those were the days. ↩
- Pun not intended, but I’ll take it. ↩
- Additionally, it let you sync those codes between devices, which was extremely useful—although I’d lately started to run into problems with some codes not getting synced to my Intel iMac. On my M1 MacBook I can just use the iOS app, which works better, although it doesn’t feel particularly Mac-like. ↩
- Some security experts will advise against storing your passwords and 2FA codes in the same app, but there’s always a balance to be struck of security and convenience. ↩
- Foci? ↩
- This used to be more of an edge case than it is these days. ↩
- Apple’s developer documentation has four types of notifications defined: Passive, Active, Time Sensitive, and Critical. Passive notifications don’t even provide an alert or light up your phone’s screen, just show up in Notification Center. Active notifications are the standard type you see today. Time Sensitive are similar to Active, but are allowed to break through user controls. And Critical notifications break through anything—think those startling severe weather alerts. (Those last require Apple’s approval.) ↩
- The greatest lie of the internet. ↩
- Kind of like the Photos notifications informing me that I have a new memory, which is straight out of a techno-dystopic sci-fi novel. ↩
- Although it also identified a stuffed llama outside a Peruvian restaurant as a goldendoodle so, you know, your mileage may vary. ↩
- A stuffed corgi identified as a bicolor cat? These things happen! ↩
- One run by Apple, one run by one of several “trusted partners,” which largely seem to include big content delivery companies, such as Akamai. ↩
- </sarcasm> ↩
[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. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]
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