By Dan Moren
July 12, 2023 10:19 AM PT
First Look: iOS 17 Public Beta
Sometimes I see that number following the latest release of iOS and do a double take: really? It’s been around that long? Seventeen iterations into the iPhone’s software and you wouldn’t think there’d be much left to do, but with this latest annual update to its flagship platform, now available as a public beta ahead of its fall release, Apple’s packed in a surprising amount of features—and cleaned up some shortcomings of prior versions.
Perhaps the most significant indication of the iPhone’s maturity is that it’s now largely in sync with releases from its siblings: many features this time around are coming to all of Apple’s devices, so we’ve broken out some of the common features in another piece.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of iPhone-specific innovations in iOS 17. On the contrary, not only has Apple spent a surprising amount of time with a core piece of functionality that most people don’t think about—yes, we’re looking at you, Phone app—but it’s also introduced a brand new way to use your smartphone.1
I’ve been using iOS 17 for several weeks, and while I’ve encountered the usual assortment of rough edges typical of a beta, none have been significant enough to make me wish to go backward. So, without further ado, let’s dive into what this newest update offers and why you may want to take the public beta plunge before the fall rolls around.
Live, in front of a studio audience (of one)
I don’t know who had “updates to the Phone app” on their
Despite it being a core feature of the original iPhone, the device’s phone functionality has increasingly been seen as a necessary evil. Like email (and, increasingly, texts), it’s a medium rife with spam, and Apple has been trying to do its part to combat that problem for some time. Back in iOS 13, it introduced the Silence Unknown Callers feature as one weapon in the arsenal, but I—and many people like me—never turned it on, because there was too much risk of missing an important call that wasn’t from a number in my contacts.
iOS 17’s Live Voicemail feature takes an old idea—call screening—and makes it new again. Because rather than listening to someone leave a message, you can instead read it in real time as it scrolls across your lock screen, letting you decide right then and there whether you want to pick up. The transcription, while not perfect, is on par with the rest of Apple’s speech-to-text features, and though it might not get everything just right, it’s generally close enough to help you get the gist of the message.
Live Voicemail has prompted me to turn on Silence Unknown Callers at last, and I have frankly never been happier with my phone experience. Most of the time Live Voicemail doesn’t even come up for me, because most spam calls give up when they don’t get a live person—plus Apple’s already filtering for known spam or telemarketer numbers identified by your carrier; they don’t even ring through. As a result, my phone almost never rings unless it’s a call I’m expecting, and honestly, that’s kind of an ideal situation.
Standby to StandBy
I was an early adopter of smart speakers, and in recent years I’ve transitioned our house to an all HomePod setup. But one thing lacking from that experience has been a screen, which has been one reason we’ve heard multiple rumors that Apple is working on a HomePod with an integrated display.
While we didn’t see a device of that ilk announced at this year’s WWDC, Apple raised more than a few eyebrows by adding a new interface to the iPhone that provides many of the same features: StandBy. StandBy requires your iPhone be connected to power and in landscape orientation, at which point you can swipe between three fullscreen views: a clock (in variable styles), your photos, or a widget view.
I’m not going to lie: I rarely moved off the widget view, because it’s so darn useful. You get two side-by-side stacks of widgets that you can cycle through by swiping up and down. Both let you choose from a wide selection of widgets—since this uses Apple’s WidgetKit framework, developers can easily make their existing widgets work with StandBy, though they might require some optimization to look their best. You can also opt to enable the Smart Stack feature, which will try to use machine learning to pop up the right widget at the right time.
Where StandBy really shines, though, is in its other interactions. For one thing, when you play audio, you get a big full screen interface reminiscent of CarPlay. No more fumbling around trying to hit a tiny pause button, or having to wake up your phone to see what’s playing. For another, Apple has finally improved the timer interface, not only letting you set multiple named timers (hallelujah!) but also providing a nice visualization of the countdown with a big, easy-to-read full-screen progress bar. In fact, the whole experience is tuned to be visible from a distance, from the widgets down to Siri’s onscreen responses, and it’s a big help.
There are still some tricky aspects to StandBy. For one, since this is basically a different view of the lock screen, interacting with widgets requires you to authenticate with Face ID. While it’s admirable from a security point of view, that can be awkward if, for example, you have a MagSafe stand that’s not at the right level or angle. I frequently found myself crouching down by the Belkin kickstand in my kitchen, or having to quickly pull my phone off the MagSafe stand on my nightstand in the hopes that I could authenticate before the StandBy interface went away.2 And viewing some features that work as Live Activities, such as audio playback, can still require a tap on a small dynamic island target—not ideal if, say, you’re washing dishes.
Though StandBy doesn’t require you to charge via MagSafe, it’s pretty clear that Apple thinks that’s the best experience—if you use MagSafe chargers3, your phone will remember your interface choices for each place you put it. So if you want the weather and a shopping list in the kitchen and a clock and smart home controls in your bedroom, you can do that.
Despite the ups and downs, after a few weeks of using StandBy I still want a HomePod with a screen—possibly even more than before. StandBy is definitely good, but I have the distinct feeling that the company’s going to learn a lot from how people actually end up using the feature, and I fully hope (and expect) to see it get even better.
If choosing the picture that shows up when a friend calls you is tired, then wired is having a custom screen that you can make for yourself that shows up on your friends’ phones when you call them.
In iOS 17, Apple’s taken the lock screen customization features of iOS 16 and married them to Messages’s contact photo feature from iOS 13 to create contact posters. Much like the lock screen, you can choose your photo—or a simple monogram or a memoji—apply a handful of effects, and tweak the font face, weight, and color. You can even have multiple different contact posters to switch between, though whichever one is active will show up for everybody. Like Messages’s contact photos, you can choose to have this screen automatically displayed when you call someone in your contacts, or to ask you if you want to allow it each time.
In my experience, the contact posters I have made and seen look pretty good, if not quite up to the flawless example that Apple has shown off (we can’t all have a multimillion dollar marketing budget and be extremely photogenic models, after all). It’s a nice way to add a little pizzazz to a screen that’s otherwise focused on function, and I particularly appreciate this as a way to distribute the work of adding pictures to all of my contacts.
If there’s one somewhat odd choice, it’s that the control for creating your contacts is a bit buried, as it’s accessible via the Edit button in the Phone app’s Recents tab. I’m not sure a lot of people will find it there, but fortunately you can also get to the interface via the much more logical location on your card in the Contacts tab.
AirPlay by play
Despite much of the talk about Apple not getting AI, the company’s continued to leverage its machine learning skills in a number of places across the OS, including—surprisingly—AirPlay. In addition to slightly tweaking the default interface for the wireless media playback system—the menu should now arrange your list of speakers in order of the ones you most frequently use—it has also added an extra layer on top to hopefully mean you won’t need to use that interface as much.
AirPlay now learns what, when, and where you tend to play on certain speakers. So, for example, if you listen to a podcast in the evening while cooking dinner, starting to play from the Podcasts app will put a notification in the dynamic island prompting you to use the kitchen speaker; just give it a tap, and it’ll move the audio there. After it detects such a routine enough times, it’ll just route the audio to that speaker by default.
In my admittedly brief experience, this system actually works pretty well. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see the suggested speakers pop up at the right times and contexts, and being able to just tap the control once to have audio sent to the correct place is a big improvement over wrestling with the AirPlay menu. (Sadly, that user interface hasn’t been more thoroughly redesigned or banished to the appropriate circle of hell.) It demonstrates Apple’s machine learning capabilities at its best: making things easier for users.
It takes two
There are a handful of other big new features in iOS 17 that all involve sharing with other people around you. NameDrop lets you quickly share your contact details with someone else by holding your phone near theirs. (There’s also a new Share Contact interface that lets you decide precisely which information you want to share with someone, which is great, though I wish you could set up a default to start from instead of having to select the data each time.)
AirDrop and SharePlay likewise allow you to initiate the respective features via proximity. This is very clever, though when my pals Jason and Phil tried it, they saw different behaviors based on whether both phones were unlocked, or just one. There’s a little bit of a learning curve here, but using the physical act of bringing phones together in order to transfer data is clever and satisfying—and it’s all amplified by the animation of a big bubble percolating to the top of the phone as the transfer initiates! This is especially going to be useful in exchanging data with someone who isn’t currently in your Contacts list, since they won’t (by default) show up in a list of available AirDrop devices.
Unfortunately, there were also some features I haven’t yet had the opportunity to test. There’s a new SharePlay experience in CarPlay that allows someone else in your vehicle to control music playback remotely from their phone via a prompt or by scanning a QR code onscreen—even if they’re not an Apple Music subscriber. (As long as the device connected via CarPlay is.)
My current Apple TV is also, alas, not new enough to support the Continuity Camera feature that lets you use your iPhone as a camera for videoconferencing, though that capability is something that I’d actually use enough that I’ll probably buy a new set-top box by the time iOS 17 launches.
There are also more than a few features that aren’t available until a subsequent update: iOS’s new Journal app for one, but also Collaborative Playlists, AirDrop transfers continuing over the internet, and stickers and emoji as tapbacks.
As always, there are a slew of new smaller enhancements and tweaks throughout iOS 17—enough that I’m still discovering them weeks in. There simply isn’t room to detail them all comprehensively here4, but there are a few I wanted to call out.
Phone: Apple has tweaked the interface for the active call screen in iOS 17, in part to accommodate the new contact posters, but also supposedly to make it friendlier. Controls have now been shifted towards the bottom of the screen and slightly rearranged, with the End Call button in the bottom right. The Contacts button has also been removed which, frankly, is just as well, since I don’t think I ever used that button on purpose. And if you get a call while you’re already on one, the notification for that no longer takes over the whole screen, but shows up in the Dynamic Island (on compatible phones, naturally).
Check In: I love the idea behind Apple’s new safety feature, though I’m not sure how much I’ll end up using it. It’s very easy to use: just access it via the apps menu in Messages and you’re off and running. I do appreciate that it lets you choose whether to only share a limited amount of information with the person or an extensive list of details.
Offline Maps: If you’ve ever ventured off the beaten path (or really, anywhere without cell service), you’ve probably gotten frustrated that your handy smartphone’s mapping software is now nothing more than a pretty picture. That all changes now that iOS 17 has added offline maps to the mix. Even better, when you set a region to work offline, Maps will automatically keep it updated with the latest changes, so you don’t have to worry about when you last remembered to. As someone whose in-laws live out in the sticks, that’s a huge weight off my mind.
Spotlight: Apple’s spent a lot of time tweaking its search feature in iOS 17, and I’ve found it mostly to the better. Not only does Spotlight seem to surface more relevant results, but it also proactively pops up more items that are often surprisingly useful. There’s also been a redesign of the “top hit” item, with a colorful background that makes it standout more, and there’s even an interactive element that lets you quickly carry out a specific action: for example, type “set timer” and you’ll get a Shortcuts-like interface that will let you start it right there, without opening the Clock app. Notes, lets you create a new note directly from Spotlight, while Photos lets you quickly jump to a specific album.
One-time code improvements: Apple made a couple of improvements targeting that slew of one-time security codes we’re all deluged with. Automatically deleting them after use from Messages and Mail is great: another simple feature that saves me time and mental energy. iOS 17 will also supposedly autofill codes from Mail messages, as it’s done from Messages for some time, but that’s been less useful for me at present, mainly because I long ago switched my Mail from Push to checking every five minutes, so I end up manually checking my mail instead. Oh well.
Just scratching the surface: There is way, way more packed into iOS 17, and some of this will—as is par for the course for betas—change and evolve throughout the summer. But hopefully this gives you a taste of what’s to come for everybody this fall.
- Which, dare we hope, may even presage the existence of a new device for Apple. ↩
- In one annoying piece of design, the dynamic island icon for Face ID covers the leftmost keys on the keyboard while in landscape, preventing me from entering my passcode. ↩
- And from what I can tell you need a real, Apple-approved MagSafe charger, not just a Qi charger with a magnet. ↩
- A task I will gladly cede to my pal Federico Viticci. ↩
[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 now available for pre-order.]
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