By Dan Moren
July 11, 2022 10:12 AM PT
First Look: iOS 16 Public Beta
If it’s July, that can mean only one thing: it’s Apple’s public beta season. As has become de rigueur for this time of year, Apple has released the preview version of its upcoming software platform updates, giving the public its first chance at seeing the latest capabilities coming to their devices this fall.
iOS 16 was first announced at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference last month showed off a release with a handful of marquee features, including the biggest redesign to the iPhone’s lock screen in years, and a ton of smaller—but in many ways no less significant—enhancements. Some of those are the kind of slow-burn features that may end up having an enormous effect on the way we use our technology, but will take a while to come into their own. (I’m looking at you, passkeys. And CarPlay.)
It’s also worth noting that, of course, most of the new features in iOS 16 also apply to iPadOS 16, and many also to macOS Ventura. Such is the benefit of a unified platform architecture.
As always, installing the public beta is a highly personal choice. Some features may be buggy, others might not be complete yet, and there can often be issues with reliability and battery life. But if you like to live on the bleeding edge and you’re comfortable with the risk, have at—there’s a reason that it’s the public beta.
Unlock your style
The lock screen is the front door of your iPhone. Since the very earliest days of the device, it’s allowed for a degree of personalization in the form of allowing you to choose your wallpaper, but throughout the last the last fifteen years that’s been pretty much it.
In iOS 16, that all changes. Apple’s built an entirely new system for customizing your lock screen to your tastes and it’s both more than I expected and less than I’d hoped (in my wildest dreams, anyways).
The template for this system is very clearly pulled from the Apple Watch. You can have multiple lock screens (much like Apple Watch faces), each configured with a particular wallpaper image, a handful of widgets (think watchface complications), and a few choices of style.
To enter the new customization mode, you press and hold on the lock screen kicks—again like the Apple Watch—where you can swipe between lock screens you’ve created and create new lock screens.
What I like about this premise is that it puts your personalization front and center: your wallpaper is the star of the show, whether it’s a photo you choose, one of the built-in options like Astronomy or Emoji, or a rotating set of photos that you or the system have chosen. Your photos have different options too: you can make them black & white or apply a color tint for a distinct look. By default, your lock screen wallpaper is also applied to your Home screens, although you can still change it to be different if you want, and there’s a great “legibility” option that blurs the image to give you a splash of color while making it way easier to read text.
To accommodate that focus1 on your wallpaper, notifications have been moved to the bottom of the screen, where they appear in a stack that can be minimized down into a single line or expanded into the traditional banners. This is a pretty substantive demotion of notifications and while I’m not sad to be less barraged by things that want my attention, it does lend the lock screen a somewhat bottom-heavy look. But that may just be something that has to be adjusted to after so long with notifications at the top. The theory behind it is good, anyway.
You’re also allowed to pick your own font for the lock screen’s clock (from eight different choices) and the color of the text and widgets (basically any color you want—you can scroll all the way over to a color picker—as well as a “transparent” option that makes it work nicely with the background, which so far has felt like the best option in most cases).
Despite the limited choices for fonts, it does mean you can indeed make your lock screen kind of ugly, if that’s what you’re going for. I’d hope that more font choices might be forthcoming some day: Apple is known for its attention to typography (Steve Jobs once credited that to a calligraphy class he took in college) and the options that exist now are…fine. They’re fine. But none really wow me and there are a few that I find somewhat off-putting (I’m looking at you, stencil).
If you were hoping to be able to strew widgets willy nilly wherever you wanted on your lock screen—what do you think this is, Dashboard?2 You get basically two places to put widgets: a small line that goes above the clock, containing the date by default, and a larger box below the clock. (It feels a lot like the Portrait face on the Apple Watch.) However, these aren’t the same full-color complex widgets that you can put on the iPhone’s Home screen—many of them even look almost identical to their Apple Watch counterparts, like the circular temperature widget or the next event calendar widget.
Like the Home screen widgets, these aren’t really interactive, so you can for example put a smart home accessory widget on your lock screen that shows you the current status of one of your security sensors—say, a smart lock—but you can’t control it from there. However, tapping one can launch the app the widget belongs to in a relevant view.
There’s a nice assortment so far from Apple’s built-in apps, but third-party developers will be able to create their own, which ought to unlock even more possibilities for customization.
Apple has also provided, as I mentioned above, a handful of built-in wallpaper options. Some of them are simply attractive looking wallpapers3, but there are also options for patterns based on emoji and the very pretty Astronomy and Weather images, which update dynamically depending on current conditions. Some of those do create their own problems, though; for example, I had trouble finding a color combination that was easily legible on the Astronomy Detail view, which shows you your current location on a photorealistic globe. The Emoji wallpaper requires careful consideration as well; if it gets too busy, there’s a similar issue. It would be nice if there were an additional option for widgets that provided a more opaque background.
Lock screens have also been closely linked to Focus modes in iOS 16, allowing you to activate a certain mode by switching to a particular lock screen, or vice versa. So if you’ve got a heads-down work Focus mode, you can eliminate all distractions from your lock screen. Or if you’ve got a travel Focus, you can have a world clock and weather information. As someone who still hasn’t fully embraced Focus modes, I’m not sure how much this feature will make a difference for me, but between it, home screens that can change with Focus modes, and iOS 16’s new Focus Filters, it does certainly feel like Apple is trying to give users more—and more far-reaching—customization and control over their devices, which is definitely a positive.
Speaking of Focus mode, the system—introduced just last year—has gotten a substantial upgrade in iOS 16. Not only can Focus modes be linked to specific lock screens, but Apple also added a new subset of capabilities: Focus Filters. This lets you filter information within an app based on your current Focus mode. So, for example, if you don’t want to see items on your work calendars while in your personal mode, or want to temporarily hide your personal email while you’re in work mode, that’s all within your grasp. Apple provides options for Mail, Messages, Calendar, and Safari, as well as the ability to toggle Dark/Light mode or Low Power Mode.
One additional nice feature of this is that it goes throughout the whole system: so if you have a lock screen widget that shows your next upcoming event and it’s on a calendar that is filtered out by your Focus mode, no event is shown.
Even better, Apple is providing an API for Focus Filters to third-party developers. Which means that if, say, Slack builds in this capability, you could hide your work Slacks while you’re at home in the evening.
It’s a clever idea, and one that could definitely help with Apple’s continuing philosophy of promoting a better relationship with our devices (not to mention a better work/life balance). I do still wonder how many people take the time to set up Focus modes, though.
One other good addition to Focus modes: the ability to choose either a list of allowed contacts and apps or specify just the apps and contacts that will be silenced in that mode. Sometimes it’s much faster to pick the handful of people and apps you don’t want to hear from then to go through and specifically pick out the ones you want to allow.
I’m not sure these are the features that will finally sell me on Focus modes, but it does seem clear that this is a system Apple is interested in counting to improve, and it’s becoming increasingly compelling.
Pass the keys
Right now there’s not much to say about passkeys other than “they can’t get here soon enough.” I’ve been able to try them out at the WebAuthn demo site but it’s notably unexciting because of just how easy the whole process is. Simple passwordless authentication is clearly the future and it’s good to see Apple at the leading edge of this change: I’m hopeful that websites and third-party apps will adopt this new system with all due haste.
There are a couple of other security improvements worth noting in iOS 15: for one, you can now tweak the passwords created by your iPhone, which helps deal with instances where the site or app in question might have specific restrictions that aren’t met by the suggested password (not the right number of letters or numbers, invalid characters, etc.). You can edit the suggested password or enter your own and iOS even provides alternative suggestions, including options with no special characters. This is a lifesaver for anybody who’s ever ended up making an extremely weak password because a site doesn’t like the stronger option.
Apple’s also now finally4 added the ability to look up your current Wi-Fi network password on iOS. I’m not sure why this feature hasn’t existed on iOS until now, but it was the source of occasional bouts of hair-tearing when I wanted to share a network password with somebody’s non-Apple device. Do not, however, look for them in the Passwords section of Settings; they are instead visible under Settings > Wi-Fi: tap the “i” button next to the network name, then tap the password field and authenticate. You can even look up the password for a network you’ve connected to in the past, though it’s a bit hidden: tap the Edit button at the top of the Wi-Fi screen and then find the network. Side note: that screen also lets you remove networks that you’ve connected to in the past, something that was previously only possible on the Mac. I’m going to throw in another “finally.”
As usual, Apple’s tweaked a bunch of its built-in apps with new features. I’m going to call out a few that I think got the most significant improvements. (Which, admittedly, is somewhat subjective, based on the apps that I use the most.)
Mail gets the ability to set reminders for messages and the ability to schedule sending messages. Both are handy features that have been around in other mail clients for a while, but it’s good to see Mail add them. There’s also a Follow-Up feature that I don’t quite grok yet—it seems to have automatically come up for me once or twice, but I’m not sure exactly what it’s intended to do.
You can now unsend messages within 10 seconds, another feature that other services have offered, though the short window seems more suited for the occasion where you accidentally hit send too soon rather than rue sending an email entirely.
The biggest potential improvement, however, is search. We’ve heard this tune before: Apple promises not only that search will be faster but that it will catch typos and suggest synonyms to help you find what you’re looking for.
It does seem to be speedier, though mainly for recent messages—plumbing the depths of my 100,000-plus inbox5 took a bit longer, but did turn up relevant results in relatively short order. I had less success with the promised typo detection, though suggested synonyms did come up when I searched for things like “invitation.” That’s promising and, again, as someone with a voluminous amount of email, any boost to search is a big help.
Message for you, sir
The ability to mark incoming messages as unread will prove popular among certain users—it’s not something I think I’ll use a lot, but I’m glad it’s there; its absence has seemed like a glaring oversight.
Unsending and editing messages are somewhat more contentious given the possibility of abuse, but the features work as described. There’s no edit history; if you change the text a message, it will say Edited below it on the recipient’s device, but that’s the most they can see.
Messages is also adding a bunch of collaboration features that I haven’t really had a chance to dive into quite yet, but I maintain a bit of skepticism over how much use they’ll get, even for people steeped in the Apple ecosystem. It’ll be interesting to see how many apps actually take advantage of the API Apple is providing for collaboration.
Remind me again
For the second year in a row, Reminders gets a big overhaul and it’s full of welcome additions. You can pin frequently used lists to the top of the Reminders interface—as someone who relies on my Personal and Work lists, this is great—and there are better smart lists for the Scheduled and Today views as well as a new one for Completed tasks.
There’s also a better view for grouped lists, letting you view all the tasks on them simultaneously, which is a real timesaver. I do, however, wish that I could add a list shared with me to a group—currently it seems limited to those you share with others.
But the winning feature has to be Templates. I frequently create a packing list whenever I travel and making the same list over and over again for each trip is a little ridiculous, as is keeping the inert and empty packing list sitting in Reminders between trips. But now you can turn that list into a template, which means you can freely delete it when you’re done and easily create the same list when you next time you need, already pre-populated with the items you’ll need. It’s a huge timesaver—and you can even share your templates with others.
The notes you don’t play
Like Reminders, Notes got some solid additions this year. macOS and iPadOS’s Quick Notes are available for the first time on the iPhone, though instead of being accessible by a gesture or in the bottom corner of the screen, they can be added via the Share menu in any app.
More impressive, however, are the improvements to note organization. Notes are more clearly organized by date, though you can change that to other sorting orders. Smart Folders have gotten seriously souped up, with a huge number of criteria available for filtering: everything from certain dates to whether something has checked-off checkboxes in it. You can even filter by multiple restrictions, enabling some truly powerful options.
And in a nice security improvement, you can now opt to have your notes secured by your phone’s passcode/Touch ID/Face ID instead of by a Notes-specific password.6 Though to change all of your currently secured notes to the new method at once, you’ll want to delve in Settings > Notes > Password. I do still wish there were a way to share a secured note with someone else, though; it’s one feature I still keep something like 1Password around for.
Home sweet home app
The Home app has become increasingly frustrating to those users with large numbers of smart home devices and Apple, to its credit, has paid attention in iOS 16, revamping the Home app’s interface to make it a little bit easier to view and manage your myriad smart home tech.
This means somewhat of a deemphasis on the concept of “rooms”—they’re still available both from the main Home page as well from the drop-down More menu in the top right corner, but they no longer get their own tab in the toolbar and you can’t swipe between them. All in all, this option makes it easier to see at a glance what devices are active, as well as to see all the devices in any category—climate, lighting, security.
Puzzlingly, Scenes are still laid out in a more horizontal than vertical fashion, requiring you to scroll through them. And there are some legibility issues with small text on the individual rooms’ status line: for example, seeing the temperature from a sensor against a busy background.
The bigger question is whether Apple’s promise that the revamped underpinnings of Home are as improved as they say. Reliability has been the biggest HomeKit issue for users and Apple’s claiming it’s improved that in iOS 16—the proof will be in the long term usage.
The big marquee feature in Photos this year is iCloud Shared Photo Library. I have yet to really put it through its paces, but I appreciate the customization that Apple is offering here.
For one thing, it’s not limited to members of your Family Sharing group. (Which makes sense, as your photos are yours, unlike content you purchase or subscribe to.) You can choose to share only certain photos manually or all photos from past a certain date or featuring certain people. Once you’ve set it up (and you can do so without explicitly adding anybody else, if you just want to see what the results would be), your library is essentially bifurcated into Personal and Shared sections that you can toggle between—though you can also view both at once if you want to. I’m not sure exactly how I’ll end up using it, but I know it’s a feature a lot of people have wanted.
There are also a few smaller Photos improvements worth mentioning.
One is duplicate detection. Buried at the bottom of the Albums tab, under the new Utilities section, Duplicates shows you lists of duplicate photos in your library and gives you the option to Merge or otherwise manage them.7 I have heard some anecdotal reports that this feature can mistakenly identify close pictures taken in proximity as duplicates, but so far I haven’t seen this happen. Although I did notice it identified a Live Photo and still frame taken at the same time as duplicates. (A note at the bottom of the Duplicates section says that merging should keep the highest quality image, though.)
The Utilities section is also home to the Hidden and Recently Deleted albums which, à la Notes, are now both secured by default with your phone passcode or biometrics. (You can disable that in Settings > Photos if you prefer.) That doesn’t necessarily add any additional encryption to those photos, but it does at least keep them from prying eyes. (If you do set up a Shared Photo Library, those albums are kept personal.)
My favorite improvement, however, in iOS 16’s Photos is the addition of a feature missing from last year’s Live Text capabilities: the ability to search for text in images within Photos itself. Previously you could only do this from the Spotlight search on the Home screen. Fortunately, Apple has remedied this in iOS 16, so if you want to find that image you took of a great road sign, you can just search for the text on the sign itself. It’s honestly kind of magical.
When I first got an iPhone, I used to keep the keyboard click sounds on for typing feedback, but over the years, I found the noise increasingly annoying. Good news, now you can get the feedback without the sound by turning on the Haptic option in Settings > Sound & Haptics > Keyboard.
I mentioned searching or text in the Photos app, but Live Text gets a few other improvements in iOS 16. For one thing you can select text in videos, which is wild. Apple’s also trying to more easily surface actions you can take with selected text, meaning you can now directly tap on links that it detects in text8 or translate text that it detects is in a foreign language. (It did at one point detect my name as being in a foreign language, however, so maybe some tweaks are still needed.)
If you liked last year’s Tab Groups, but miss pinned tabs, good news: you can now have Pinned Tabs in Tab Groups.
Dictation gets a slew of improvements in iOS 16, including a whole new mode where you can go back and forth between typing and dictating at will. But Dictation also now automatically adds certain punctuation—commas, periods, and question marks—which is kind of incredible. It’s going to take some time to break myself of the habit of saying “comma” and “period” and trust the system, but so far as I can see, it really does work. You can also add emoji via dictation, which is very cool but is definitely going to make me look up what certain emoji are called.
Maps gets the ability to add multiple stops, which is great for route planning, but it’s only available in Driving directions—not in Cycling, Walking, or Transit.
And so much more
There’s way, way more in iOS 16—too much to cover all of in a mere first look, including all those collaboration features, medication reminders in Health, and additional security and privacy features. Apple’s filled in a lot of lingering gaps in this year’s update, so chances are everywhere you look you’ll see something you haven’t been able to do before.
As always, this is a caveat emptor9 sort of situation: this is pre-release software, and pre-release software has bugs. (Heck, release software has bugs too.) I’ve definitely come across some unexpected behaviors and glitches in my time using the iOS 16 beta. Those taking the plunge should use the Feedback app to submit the problems they encounter—not only to help themselves, but also for the millions of people who are going to use this software come fall.
But I can’t blame anybody for wanting to dive in: iOS 16 has a lot of great improvements, and it promises to greatly improve the experience of using your devices.
- Not that Focus. More on which in a bit. ↩
- RIP. ↩
- Including, yes, the famous missing-in-action clownfish image from the original iPhone. ↩
- And yes, I think this deserves the qualification ↩
- Hey, no judgments. ↩
- As someone who could not regularly remember his Notes password, this means I’ll probably actually use this feature now. ↩
- I found a number of pictures that were just black squares, although hilariously, all different file sizes? May have just been different iPhone cameras over the years. Anyway, I deleted them right from this screen, so that was kind of handy. ↩
- A feature that almost obviates the need for QR codes? ↩
- Or, if you prefer, a caveat usufructuarius sort of situation—am I right, my Latin peeps? ↩
[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 firstname.lastname@example.org. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]
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