By Dan Moren
September 12, 2022 10:00 AM PT
iOS 16 Review: Unlocking the details
Fifteen years after the launch of the iPhone, you might be thinking that Apple gazes upon its domain and weeps for the lack of worlds left to conquer. But then comes along a release like iOS 16 where the company proves that not only can it continue to add compelling new features but also rethink certain fundamental parts of its smartphone experience.
iOS 16 was first announced at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June, where Apple 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.)
iOS remains Apple’s flagship platform, even if it doesn’t yet have the immense longevity of macOS, and in this year’s update, there’s pretty much something for every kind of user, from shutterbugs to security fiends to those who just want to customize the look and feel of their smartphone life. None of which is to say there isn’t still room for improvement—as there always is—but simply that there are a lot of great reasons to upgrade.
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.
Of course, one thing has become de rigueur in the Apple roll-out: not all the new features that are part of iOS 16 will be available at launch. A handful are now scheduled to arrive later, whether because they require buy-in from third parties—for example, the new Live Activities API, which also powers the iPhone 14 Pro’s Dynamic Island feature, or support for the Matter smart home standard—or because they’re likely easier to launch when all of Apple’s platform updates go live, like the new iCloud Shared Library.
But even if not all of the features are ready at launch, there are still plenty of good reasons to take the leap to iOS 16.
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 a wallpaper, which at least lets you separate your iPhone from everybody else’s. But over the last fifteen years that’s been the only software option to make your phone stand apart.
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—again like the Apple Watch—and it kicks you into a screen where you can swipe between different lock screens you’ve created or create a brand new one.
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 specific photo, 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 can be tweaked 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.
I’ve created a handful of different lock screens over the past several months, but have mostly not found myself switching too much between them. I flirted with one of the Weather faces, but ultimately found it not personal enough, and ultimately settled on a rotating set of landscape pictures from my photo library that change every time I wake the phone. One thing I love about this is, like the Featured Photos that Apple previously introduced into Photos, it helps surface pictures that you may have forgotten about. Most of us have thousands upon thousands of photos in our libraries that we don’t go back to look at; this puts them front in center. I only wish there was a way to jump immediately to the featured photo in my Photo Library, because more than once I’ve found myself unable to place exactly where a picture is from.1
To accommodate all this focus2 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 with a downward or upward swipe. 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. After a few months, I’ve grown used to it, and I have to applaud the theory behind it; I appreciate notifications taking up less of my time.
The other shoe to drop with notifications is the new Live Activities API, which is just one of many features that will arrive later this fall in an iOS update. That framework lets third-party developers create a new type of notification that can update on its own (think sports scores for a game you’re following, or an ETA for your incoming ride), and we now it will also power the iPhone 14 Pro’s flashy new Dynamic Island. That stands to be a big change for the iOS experience, but we’ll have to wait to evaluate it.
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). You can’t, however, get rid of the clock or change its location on the screen—Apple, being Apple, isn’t about to let you make your lock screen not recognizably that of an iPhone. Users can, however, swap to Arabic Indic or Devanagari numerals for their clock.
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?3 You get basically two places to put widgets: a small line that goes above the clock, which by default contains the date, 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 gauge 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 can also offer their own, which unlock even more possibilities for customization. I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to try out widgets from third-party apps yet, and so far I’ve found myself duplicating a lot of the functionality of my Apple Watch face: current temperature, Fitness rings, and UV. It will be interesting to see when the iPhone 14 Pro arrives later this week, how its always-on display plays with that experience.
Apple has also provided, as I mentioned above, a handful of built-in wallpaper options. Some of them are simply attractive looking wallpapers4, 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.
Personally, the only option of this kind that I’ve really embraced is the Fitness focus, which now switches my lock screen to a simple gradient. Focus modes have never hugely clicked for me but I appreciate that between 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, or—on the other side of the equation—how many people with seriously demanding jobs already carry multiple phones?
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.
Offering all of these options are certainly both powerful and useful, but from a personal standpoint, I’ve still ended up basically not touching Focus modes, largely because I’m a person whose work and personal life bleed into each other quite a bit. I do appreciate the very specific ones like Sleep, Driving, and Fitness, but beyond those I’ve never figured out how I can best benefit from this system. I’m glad it exists for those who need it, though.
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 largely unexciting, because when the process works, it’s dead simple.
Challenges are going to come more in the form of implementation, and how third-party services allow—or encourage—users to switch to passkeys. For example, I was able to add a passkey to my Dropbox account, but only by following the instructions for hardware security keys, which most people probably aren’t going to think of. Even then, when I tried to log in on a different device, it still defaulted to a password login screen.
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 16: for one, you can now edit the passwords generated 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 tweak 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 finally5 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 network passwords 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.”
While iOS 16 has its share of system-level features, Apple’s also updated most of its built-in apps with new features. There are too many to go deep on all of them, so I’m going to draw attention to a few that I think got the most significant improvements.
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.
You can also now unsend messages within 10, 20, or 30 seconds (adjustable under Settings > Mail > Undo Send Delay), 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. Keep in mind this feature works, as the name suggests, by waiting to actually send a message, rather than letting you remove it from someone else’s inbox.
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 inbox6 took a bit longer, but did turn up some 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.
Apple’s also trying to leverage more machine learning for email features and the results, in my opinion, are mixed. For example, Mail is supposed to detect when you forget to add an attachment or recipient based on information in the message, but I couldn’t get it to pop up. Similarly, there’s a new Follow-Up feature that surfaces messages in your inbox where Mail detects language looking for a reply—for example, if you ask for an update for something by such and such a day and don’t get a reply by that time. But in my time using iOS 16 to date, I’ve only seen it show up once, and it was to a message that was replied to.
This idea of applying more intelligence to email is an interesting one, but it’s also a bit of a black box: even when the features work as intended, they’re sometimes a bit of a surprise. I wonder about the choice to spend time on this kind of functionality when other parts of Mail still feel antiquated. (For example, I’d still like to be able to change the color on a flag in Mail without having to dive into a message and use one specific menu.) Improving email is a worthy cause, but the priorities sometimes feel misplaced.
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 got some refinement during the beta period and actually work pretty well. With editing messages in particular, Apple has added the ability for the recipient to view a history of edits by tapping the Edited label that appears below the changed message. That transparency makes a lot of sense for a feature that’s really about correcting typos. Un-sending a message is still a source for some concern as it wholly removes the message from the recipient’s device, but a two-minute window feels like a reasonable balance there.7
Messages also adds some collaboration features about which I have a fair amount of skepticism. For example, you can send a document from some apps—including Notes, Safari, or iWork—via Messages, and changes to those documents will then show up as a pop-up notification in that thread.
The feature works just fine, but I wonder how big the audience is for it. This feels like an attempt to inject Apple’s ecosystem into the business realm and frankly, I don’t see it. Software like Slack and Teams are well entrenched in this market, and I’m not sure how many shops are using Messages for collaboration. Apple is at least providing an API for third party apps, and it’ll be interesting to see whether prominent developers (Microsoft, for example) take advantage of it.
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 lives in 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.
The team has also revamped its smart list feature; an option to select based on any or all criteria provided makes it far more powerful when you’re looking to pull reminders from various lists into one meta-list.
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 the next time you need it, already pre-populated with the same items. 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. There’s also a handy feature in the systemwide screenshot tool that lets you add one directly to the Quick Note.
More impressive, however, are the improvements to note organization. Notes are more clearly organized by date, though you can change that to sort in other ways. 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 filtering.
Apple’s also implemented a subtle handwriting smoothing feature in Notes if you, like me, have handwriting that, let’s say, resists legibility. It doesn’t automatically change your script into beautiful, flowing letters, but it does make it just that little bit easier to read.
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.8 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.
The one other major feature still lacking in Notes is the ability to link to a specific note from within a note, a capability increasingly offered in powerful note tools like Obsidian. I’d love to see a take on this feature with Apple’s trademark simplicity, recognizing when I type something that’s a title of a different note, say, and automatically make it a link to that note, but I suppose there’s always next year.
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 which 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 I do still wish Apple could surface some other smart home features more prominently. For example, I’m glad that I can now tap in to my HomePod to see timers running on it, but shouldn’t those show up somewhere more obvious, rather than buried a level deep? The integration with HomePods in particular feels like a missed opportunity, perhaps one that will have to wait until Apple updates that product line again.
The biggest question hanging over the entire app is whether Apple’s promise that the revamped underpinnings of Home are as improved as they say, given that reliability has been the number one HomeKit issue for many. Unfortunately, those new improvements are not shipping as part of iOS 16 but will arrive later in the fall, perhaps alongside the incorporation of the new Matter smart home system. So the jury remains out.
The big marquee feature in Photos this year is iCloud Shared Photo Library, but like several other features it won’t be arriving until later this fall. I’ve liked what I’ve seen in the beta, but until I can actually share it with others and put it through its paces, I’ll reserve final judgment.
That aside, 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.9 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, it’s worth nothing that those albums are kept personal.)
For those who do a lot of editing in Photos (I am not one), you can copy and paste edits between pictures and undo/redo multiple steps in your edits. And I know some people who will be glad to be able to disable the Memories and Featured Photos sections in For. You, though I personally love the for popping up photos I may have forgotten.
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 text10 or translate text that it detects is in a foreign language. This feature isn’t perfect—it can’t really handle multiple foreign languages in the same image, sometimes it fails to detect actionable information, and it did at one point detect my name as being in a foreign language—but it’s still pretty cool.
Demonstrated to great aplomb during June’s keynote, you can now lift the subject of photos out of the images. I have no idea what this feature is for other than a cool tech demo, and since it’s clearly based on the same tech as in Portrait mode, you fairly frequently end up with some weird issues around the edges. But it’s a great way to get somebody to ooh and ahh over a feature, as long as you’re not really thinking about the application of it.
If you liked last year’s Tab Groups, but miss pinned tabs, good news: you can now have Pinned Tabs in Tab Groups. There are also Shared Tab Groups as part of the collaboration features, but given that I still occasionally have issues with reappearing/disappearing tabs in Tab Groups, I’m not sure that sharing them with others is going to be a significant improvement. Like the rest of the collaboration features, it seems like a solution in search of an audience.
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, as I recently discovered, this feature is easily accessible in CarPlay, which is a big win.
And once again Apple has changed up the Spotlight interface. There’s now a search button at the bottom of the home screen, which will probably help people find it more easily (though you can still swipe down on the home screen to bring it up as well). Apple’s tweaked the results, adding in recent searches as well as direct links to actions like starting timers. All of which is great, but I still wish I could make adjustments to determine what items show up. More often than not, I find myself typing the first couple letters of an item, like an app, only to have it not pop up at all. Then again, perhaps I just need to reset my search history…
And so much more
There is, of course, way way more in iOS 16, 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.
In a typical review, the writer would tell you whether the product was worth your time, but that feels less and less relevant with these major platform upgrades. For one thing, the updates are free, so it’s not a question of whether you have to part with your hard-earned money. For another, to put it frankly, you are going to upgrade one way or the other—staying on an older version of iOS isn’t really an option anymore. So consider the preceding as more of a tourist guide of what to expect when you do make the jump.
That aside, while Apple’s updates to occasionally frustrate or befuddle, I remain convinced that the net balance is towards the good. This year, features like the lock screen updates, passkeys, and Shared Photo Library (when it arrives) are well worth the update. But personally, for most users, I think it’s the little improvements sprinkled throughout that I most look forward to, since they often end up being the things that patch previous frustrations or enable some new capability. Apple aims for surprise and delight and while big iOS updates might feel like a deluge of the new, it’s the constant drizzle of discovery over the ensuing weeks and months—Oh, you can do that now?—that truly deliver Apple’s core mission of surprise and delight.
- Or perhaps an option like Apple’s Aerial screensaver on the Apple TV to quickly see where a picture was taken. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Keep in mind that these features require iOS 16/iPadOS 16/macOS Ventura, so if you try to unsend a message delivered to someone running an older OS, it’s not going to work. Likewise, the edited messages will show up as separate messages. ↩
- 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? ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @firstname.lastname@example.org or reach him by email at email@example.com. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is out now.]
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