Just as with other long-established operating systems, new versions of iOS mostly consist of polishing the core experience and adding a few new tools rather than delivering something completely new. iOS 14 was the closest we’ve seen to a revolutionary change in Apple’s mobile OS in years. Most notably, it added entirely new widgets and app icon options. iOS 15 has less lofty ambitions, bringing updates to FaceTime, Maps, Notifications, and Photos, as well as some new system-wide capabilities. Still, while version 15 may not be the biggest update, iOS remains our favorite mobile operating system.
New FaceTime Features
Apple is finally opening a little crack in its walled-garden approach: FaceTime now lets you create a group video chat with Android and Windows users via a web link. The experience is not as immediate or high-quality on non-Apple devices, however. The person who starts the video room on an Apple device has to approve non-Apple users’ admission, and participants can use only native browsers—forget Firefox. Note that non-Apple devices can’t start a call, they can only join one created by an Apple user. In testing, I even got a useless, distorted view when trying it from a Pixel 4 XL, as you can see below. In all fairness, the feature is still in beta release.
I did get FaceTime to work on a Windows PC in the Edge browser, but the image quality wasn’t as good as when I tested it using all Apple devices:
FaceTime in iOS 15 also sports some new visual and audio capabilities. Like Zoom, FaceTime video calls now have a Portrait mode that blurs the background and a grid view that shows participants in even rows and columns. For some reason, iOS 15 doesn’t get iPadOS 15’s Center Stage feature, in which the camera follows you around in the frame. I expect it’s because you’re more likely to be holding your phone than setting it down and walking around as you might with an iPad, though some phone users may beg to differ.
As for new audio capabilities, FaceTime now can take advantage of Spatial Audio and Voice Isolation mode. The first mode requires AirPods Pro ($199) or AirPods Max ($499), which include hardware that tracks your head position so that the sound sources remain in fixed apparent positions. Voice Isolation is one of three mic options in the Control Center pulldown menu, and it blocks out ambient noise. The other new choice is Wide Spectrum, which picks up all the ambient sound. The third option, Standard, behaves like the earlier iOS versions, using some isolation while still allowing some ambient noise.
SharePlay is another new FaceTime feature for iOS, but it won’t arrive until this fall, according to Apple press materials. SharePlay will let you and your pals stay in touch while watching a show or listening to music. The entertainment is synced for all participants, and they can chat in a small Messages box and see each other in thumbnail videos. It works between different Apple devices (Apple TV 4K, HomePod, Mac, and iPad).
New Focus Modes
Screen addiction is a real problem that Apple has tried to address with several iOS releases. ScreenTime is the best-known example. New for iOS 15 are Focus options, which expand the capabilities of the existing Do Not Disturb mode. Notifications only come through based on your current Focus mode. Work, personal time, sleep, fitness, mindfulness, gaming, reading, and driving all receive different levels of notifications.
Contacts not allowed through for a Focus mode will see your unavailable status in Messenger and some third-party apps, but an Urgent Message option lets them break through for emergencies. Your Focus status is synced to all your Apple devices. As you might expect, for all the features to work, your contacts must be using Apple devices, too.
Redesigned Apps: Maps, Messages, and More
The Maps app seems to get updates every year to pull it closer to the market-leading Google Maps, and I must say, it’s gotten darned close, even beating the incumbent in some areas now. You can start with a Google Earth-like globe overview, and at the other extreme, local detail is often breathtaking. Directions are enhanced with a 3D view that makes it clear which road level is above or below with overpasses and bridges—always a bugaboo for online maps. New transit features tell you when the next bus or train will arrive nearby (like the popular Transit app), while local place cards, search, and curated Guides all see improvements.
Messages now enable Shared with You content that branches out to other iOS apps. For example, if someone shares a webpage link with you in Messages, it shows up in a Shared with You section in Safari—likewise for Photos, News, and Podcasts. You can continue the conversation in the non-Messages app and pin shared items of particular interest. A new view of shared photos, links, files, and locations appears on a contact or group’s info page.
iOS 15 wouldn’t be complete without some new Memoji options. There are new clothes, eyeglasses, and headwear for your Memoji. Accessibility options let users of cochlear implants, oxygen tubes, or soft helmets represent themselves more accurately.
Most of what’s new in the stock Photos app involves Memories, those automatically created, shareable slideshows. You can finally choose what pictures you want to include, and there are new Apple Music options for background soundtracks. The Memories themselves are more interactive (you can swipe back and forward), they represent more international holidays, and they can identify individual cats and dogs. Some photos get extra information (indicated with a star splash next to the i) in the info panel—when the system recognizes a particular landmark, for example.
Another cool new photo feature in iOS 15 is Live Text—Apple’s name for OCR, or optical character recognition. This identifies any text in photos and lets you copy-and-paste it or look it up. The lookup presents a panel along the bottom with relevant info on the text found. Brackets appear around what the phone determines is text. You tap and hold a finger to select and act on the text. It works not only in the Photos app but also in the camera and other Apple apps that show photos.
Caption: Note the yellow outlines in the photo on the left showing text. In the middle shot, you can see where I’ve selected text. On the right, you can see Look Up results.
Apple’s default web browser, Safari, finally sheds the annoying 3D tab view for the standard grid layout for when you’re switching tabs. It also moves the search-and-address bar to the bottom of the screen, which is far more convenient and allows for one-hand operation. You can also swipe the search bar left or right to switch between tabs—a nice browsing innovation. New custom start page setups are available for your Safari browsing. You get a choice of slick backgrounds or can add any from your photos, and, though there’s a Siri suggestions option, I didn’t see any for me when I was testing. Microsoft’s Edge browser (also available for iPhone) more usefully lets you populate the start screen with interests like news, sports, stocks, and weather information.
Caption: (Left) Safari now shows tabs as tiles—much better than the 3D shuffle of yore. (Center) Note that the Address bar is now at the bottom, and you can switch between tabs by swiping that left or right. (Right) You can customize your browser start page with wallpaper and other options.
Speaking of Weather, Apple has upped its game in that department since its acquisition of the Dark Sky app. New maps in the Apple Weather app show precipitation, air quality, and temperature. You can also have it notify you when rain or other weather events are stopping or starting. One thing I miss that’s available on Android is the ability to see weather information on the lock screen with a glance. The detailed information Apple gives, however, is excellent, though it’s still hard to beat the Weather.com app for accuracy.
Though iOS 15 doesn’t get the new Quick Notes feature that just arrived on iPadOS 15 (you can read them but not create them), the iPhone version of Notes sees some worthwhile updates. Foremost among these is a new keyword tagging feature. You can enter a tag by prefixing a word in the note with a pound sign (#). You can then browse notes by keywords or by scanning automatic folders based on tags. The same tag options come to the Reminders app. As you do in social networks, you can now add an @ sign to a note to notify a collaborator.
Even More Privacy and Security
Though security and privacy issues have gotten Apple some bad press recently, one tidbit of interest that Apple didn’t make much of at its iOS launch event: the operating system now includes built-in authenticator app functionality. This produces those six-digit time-based codes use for multifactor authentication (aka two-factor authentication, or 2FA).
Another new privacy option in iOS 15 is the App Privacy Report, which shows you which apps have been accessing your location, photos, mic, and so on recently. App developers can now offer secure copy and pasting as well as photo and location sharing in their apps. Finally, the Mail app can now hide your IP address from senders, something for which you’d normally need a VPN.
Small Changes to an Excellent OS
iOS 15 delivers a smooth and stylish smartphone operating system that’s more consistent than what Android offers. Apple does this by limiting the access and customizability—for example, you can’t access all of the files on your phone as you can on Android, and Google’s mobile OS allows far more customizability in the home screen, lock screen, and default apps. Both OSes offer huge stores of third-party apps, but those on iOS tend to work more smoothly, and they tend to integrate better with native features.
As mentioned earlier, bigger developments for iOS arrived in version 14, but iOS 15 adds some definite conveniences, such as Focus, Shared With Me, Live Text, and improvements to stock apps like FaceTime, Notes, Photos, and Weather. Add those to the last update’s widget and app library capabilities, and it’s an operating system to be reckoned with.
Apple’s otherwise rock-solid smartphone OS had been starting to show some cracks, with so many required updates (there’s already an iOS 15.1 update in the works to fix an AirPod problem) and occasional snags. But in testing the new OS on an iPhone 12, I didn’t run into any app crashes or the sort of non-responsiveness I’ve occasionally experienced on older iPhones. As always with Apple, you’ll have the best results if you continually buy the latest hardware. If you do, you’ll enjoy the very best experience with the smoothest smartphone OS around, but even older handsets should benefit from upgrading to iOS 15. For all these reasons, iOS 15 is our Editors’ Choice winner for mobile operating systems.
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