By Dan Moren
September 18, 2023 9:00 AM PT
iOS 17 Review: We’ve got a live one
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, 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 lot 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 used iOS 17 throughout the beta period, and now that it’s out in the big wide world, it’s time to take a more thorough look at what the latest improvement to Apple’s software offers. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.
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 even now 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. 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. 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.
The biggest challenge with Live Voicemail, from my experience with it, is going to be retraining people to the idea that a voicemail can be interrupted. While I haven’t yet had occasion to put this into practice, I’ve definitely heard stories from fellow iOS 17 users who have found callers befuddled when the recipient starts talking in the middle of the message. I’ve also run into issues during the beta process where callers were not well prompted and ended up leaving empty messages as they sat and waited for a cue, but this seems to have worked out in the final release, from what I can tell.
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 to 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 Rotate feature, which will try to use machine learning to pop up the right widget at the right time.
It’s worth noting that StandBy mode really shines when paired with the always-on display of the iPhone 14 Pro (and forthcoming iPhone 15 Pro). It’s still useful without it, but requires more direct interaction, losing out on the glanceability afforded by a display that never sleeps. But though it may be cold comfort, Siri’s fullscreen interface in StandBy mode does at least make it a viable substitute.
I do wish there was a way to edit StandBy widgets while not in StandBy mode, though. I don’t always have a charger on hand, and often when I do have it charging and in landscape, I’m in the middle of doing something else, making it not necessarily an apropos time to start tweaking widgets.
One place StandBy really shines 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 or timers, can still require a tap on a small dynamic island target—not ideal if, say, you’re washing dishes.
I also struggled a bit with using a phone on standby next to the HomePod mini in my kitchen. While Siri does a fine job of avoiding audio coming out of the device from which it’s responding, it’s more of a challenge when audio is being output to another speaker. So often, I found that, while listening to a podcast via AirPlay on my HomePod mini, Siri requests on the iPhone would start to pick up the playback audio, leading to a spiral of confusion and delay.
This is one place where Apple’s strategy of enticing you to buy multiple devices would work a lot better if those devices knew more about each other. For example, Siri on my phone still seems to be clueless about timers on my HomePod, and vice versa.
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 the alarm clock in your bedroom, you can do that. However, it doesn’t seem to remember specific widget views between locations, rather just showing the last set you had. (Unless you have the Smart Stack enabled, in which case it tries to guess which widgets you want.)
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 has 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.4
In my experience, the contact posters I have made and seen look pretty good, if not quite up to the flawless examples 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.
You can, however, also use this feature to create contact posters for people in your contacts, though it’s unclear to me which will win out if they’ve also made their own.
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.
Overall, I like the idea of contact posters; they definitely look more attractive than the default calling screen, and they add a nice bit of pizzazz. It’ll be interesting to see whether they manage to make their way to wide-scale adoption, but most of the features that the company has rolled out in the past few years that let people make phones more theirs—like widgets and lock screens—have generally been a hit.
AirPlay by play
Despite much of the talk about Apple not getting AI, the company continues 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 relevance—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.
However, I still find myself frustrated by the difference between outputting audio to another device, like an AirPlay-compatible speaker, and controlling a separate device with its own audio queue, like a HomePod. Many’s the time I’ve started playing a podcast on my phone, thinking it was AirPlaying to a HomePod, and then gone back to the same episode later on my phone only to have it not remember where I left off. I don’t know what the better solution is here—aside from more robust syncing—but it needs some work.
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.
I’ve only had limited ability to try out these proximity features during the beta period, but they are very cool ideas that should hopefully simplify some exchanges. It also supports the change for AirDrop’s “Everyone” feature that limits it to ten minutes before it switches back to Contacts Only. This prevents AirDrop spam or trolling in public places and should make it a better experience overall.
Unfortunately, there were some features that 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 big question for this is whether it supports anything outside the Music app. In an ideal world, I’d like it available for Apple’s Podcasts app, too, as well as providing options for third-party apps. Sometimes I like to listen to lots of different types of audio on a long car trip!
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. I’m looking forward to giving these a whirl when they eventually arrive in iOS updates.
Along with wanting a HomePod with a screen, the idea of turning the Apple TV into a video conferencing device is one that has great appeal to me. I have a weekly Dungeons & Dragons game where both my wife and I are on camera, and right now, I extend my MacBook screen via AirPlay to my Apple TV. But then we’re looking at the TV, not the camera, and figuring out the right framing and mic distance is all a pain.
Apple has, of course, approached this problem in a very Apple-like fashion: rather than building a whole new device, how can we solve this with ingredients we already have on hand? Enter Continuity Camera! The feature that debuted last year, which lets you use your iPhone as your Mac’s webcam, now works on your Apple TV as well5. Right now, it works with Apple’s new FaceTime app on the Apple TV, but the company says third-party apps like Zoom and WebEx are expected for later this year.
I’ve been impressed, in my tests, with how well this works. I stole the Belkin camera mount from my iMac and popped it on top of my TV, and from that angle, the camera was able to capture a pretty big chunk of my living room. (I presume it is primarily using the Ultrawide lens on my iPhone 14 Pro.) It also supports Apple camera features like Center Stage (which, to my mind, looks much better than the default crop) and Portrait mode, as well as the new Reactions feature.
I’m holding out full judgment until the third-party conferencing apps arrive, but I do feel like this will be a big improvement for my living room Zooms. The one downside, of course, is that you lose access to whichever iPhone you use as a camera, but given the multitude of other devices I have at my fingertips, this isn’t a huge blow to me.
As always, there are a slew of new smaller enhancements and tweaks throughout iOS 17—enough that I’m still discovering them months in. There simply isn’t room to detail them all comprehensively here6, 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 middle of the bottom row instead of on its own. 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).
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.
Maps also checks a big wish list item off for me as it seems to now integrate with Find My, in that if you get directions to a contact’s location, that location updates as you go. (This is a big help if you’re trying to meet somebody at a crowded location with multiple entrances and exits, like, say, an airport.)
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 stand out 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.
CarPlay: I do appreciate that Apple has tweaked the CarPlay interface to be a little friendlier when using Siri. The buttons to send or change messages are much bigger, with better cues about what the default action will be. I rely increasingly on CarPlay when I’m driving, and I’m glad to see Apple spend some time on it—even if it’s not the big CarPlay 2 overhaul that we’re still waiting to see more details on.
To upgrade or not upgrade? (Spoiler alert: You’re upgrading.)
Once upon a time, the purpose of a review like this was more about whether it was worth it to take the plunge for an update, but that’s no longer really a question. Since big updates generally include improvements to security as well as refinements of earlier features, the simple truth is that most users update their iPhones if they support running the latest version. Apple’s own numbers bear this out: As of June, 81 percent of all iOS devices were running iOS 16, and that rose to 90 percent when just considering devices released in the last four years. It’s a given: sooner or later, you’re going to upgrade.
What I hope this can at least provide you is an idea of what to expect in such an upgrade, as well as a sense of whether the changes Apple is making are worthwhile ones.
Overall, I’ve been impressed with iOS 17’s attention to smaller details throughout the operating system. Features like Live Voicemail and StandBy might be big and splashy, but it’s the little “quality of life” improvements that I’m actually here for. I want the quality of my life to be improved! More to the point, I want technology to work for me instead of it being something I have to battle with day in and day out. In that, I think iOS 17 generally delivers: in addition to specific iOS features, the platform improvements we’ve detailed elsewhere—things like Messages improvements, upgraded autocorrect, password sharing, and interactive widgets—stand to make our devices even more powerful and useful. A big iOS update is always a bit like getting a brand new phone for free, so it’s hard to turn down, but at least it seems to be earning its keep.
- 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 orientation, 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. ↩
- I look forward to being deluged by notifications that so-and-so has updated their contact picture over the next several months. ↩
- Provided you have a second-generation Apple TV 4K or later, anyway. Yes, I did buy a new one just for this. ↩
- 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 @email@example.com or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is now available for pre-order.]
If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.