Mobile operating systems are so feature-packed at this point, so what else can their developers possibly add? Apple’s iOS 13 answers that with some new visuals—in particular a Dark mode and design updates—along with new photo features. None of the interface updates, however, will confuse longtime iPhone users. Another positive development is that the OS is now freed from having to do double-duty for iPads, which are now served by iPadOS. Perhaps most important among the changes are new privacy features that are simply unmatched by other smartphone operating systems.
iOS 13 and iPadOS
The Apple tablet’s move to iPadOS, which is built upon iOS, isn’t really new. iPads have always used a different version of OS from their iPhone counterparts, and recent updates have seen more and more unique features arriving on the iPad but not on the iPhone. This official split just formalizes the relationship.
Formally separating iOS and iPadOS comes with some downsides. For example, the three-finger copy/cut/paste/undo gestures on iPadOS might lead to some confusing moments when you try the same gestures on your iPhone, only to find that they don’t work there. It’s similar to moving between Windows 10 and macOS, which requires using different keyboard shortcuts.
Through an iPhone Darkly
Of all the trends to hit technology, the rapid and rabid move toward a dark mode on every platform imaginable is one of the most surprising. It looks cool and it may save your eyes from some strain. It’s especially encouraging to see it on iOS, which hasn’t had a significant visual overhaul since the flat color design was introduced with iOS 7 in 2013.
You turn Dark Mode on in Settings > Display & Brightness, and there’s even an Automatic option, which enables the mode at sunset and turns on Light Mode at sunrise (you can adjust the times to taste.) This is particularly helpful if you use your iPhone for navigation while driving at night; a bright phone screen is not only distracting but also requires adjusting your eyes from looking at the dark road. For quick access to the mode, you can add it to Control Center, with a button that somewhat resembles the yin-yang symbol.
The iOS Dark Mode takes its color cues from the macOS Dark Mode, which in turn always remind us of Ubuntu. The new iOS includes a light and dark wallpaper, similar to the macOS night and day islands that grace macOS Catalina. Many of the Apple apps have been rebuilt to support Dark Mode, including Calendar, Music, News, Notes, Photos, and Reminders.
Dark Mode even winds its smoky grasp around notifications, right-swipe widgets, the share sheet, and the default iPhone keyboard. This seems far more pervasive and cohesive than the Dark theme in Android, which turns some but not all of the system elements a gentle, blackish gray.
Third-party apps are still hit-or-miss when it comes to supporting Dark Mode in iOS (though some major ones like Twitter and Skype got on board early). This might lead to some jarring visual moments when your screen blazes brightly after you fire up an app that hasn’t been given the twilight treatment.
The iOS 13 Experience
Aside from Dark Mode, iOS 13 looks largely the same as its predecessors. We’ve grown bored of the endless grid of apps, and of being expected to manage them with folders. We’re not fans of the numerous hidden panels that you swipe in from various directions, and are exhausted by the faux-lock screen notification center. Despite all that, there’s no getting around that iOS is looks and feels amazing.
The new volume sliders represent one notable design improvement. In an audio playing app, when you press the physical volume buttons up or down, you get a new on-screen slider that at first has a narrow thermometer look, but if you touch it, it become an on-screen volume control. The ringer volume appears horizontally and doesn’t offer on-screen control. These look better than the old speaker with dots that offered no touch control, but Android 10 does all this better, adding a silent button and another button that takes you to the audio control panel.
Despite our jadedness with the overall iOS design, everything works responsively, smoothly, and intuitively. You grab an app, flick a tile, scroll through a list, and it’s just a perfect experience. We don’t particularly care for all the gestures that have started crowding iOS, but they all work in a pleasing, highly polished, way. One new interface feature we are fans of is the well-designed preview panel that appears when you tap-and-hold on a URL. iOS 13 feels liquid and alive, due in no small part to the incredible screen on the iPhone XR and the iPhone X used in testing, but it’s still stunning in its own right.
Whatever your smartphone OS allegiances, there’s no denying the shining perfection of iOS’s look and feel.
The Apple Apps
In addition to supporting Dark Mode, many of Apple’s default apps have been rebuilt for iOS 13. Here’s a rundown of what’s new in the iOS stock apps. Most of them display a new splash screen explaining their new features when you first run the updated versions.
Notes and Reminders. The Notes app has a new gallery view that’s reflected on macOS as well. The Reminders app’s updates are even more extensive. Now, when you create a reminder, you can simply type what and when you want to be reminded, and the app parses your intent and turns it into a task. A line of machine-learning-powered suggested activities and situations sits close at hand, and the app can even prompt you if you start texting with a person you tagged in a reminder.
Finally, a swipey keyboard! Hiding in plain sight is a new feature on the Apple keyboard: QuickPath. Instead of tapping out messages letter-by-letter, you can now drag a finger between keys to spell out words. Otherwise, the keyboard looks identical to its predecessor. If you’re not impressed, that’s probably because you’ve been using this feature on Android (or even previously on Windows Phone) for the better part of the last decade, or as a third-party extension for the iPhone keyboard. Regardless, we’re glad to see that Apple finally offers this input technology at the OS level, and happy to report that it works great.
Photo via Apple
New Photos stuff. Apple’s default Photos app gets a major overhaul in iOS 13. Your collection of photos is divided up by tabs for All Photos, Days, Months, and Years. As you move from one section to the next, Photos shows you different machine-learning-powered previews that try to take context into account. The Years section is topped off with photos from exactly a year ago; tapping a year opens separate cards based on months and locations.
All Photos shows you, well, all your photos, just as it did in iOS 12 and earlier. The Days section is where you see the most dramatic changes. Photos ditches the tired grid of square photo thumbnails for a mixture of different-size rectangles. This mosaic effect is much more visually interesting than a plain old grid, and is livened up more by auto-playing videos and Live Images—which are terrible in every other context but actually work quite well here.
Notably, the app now removes pictures of receipts, whiteboards, duplicate images, screenshots, and other “junk” photos from some views to make viewing your pictures more enjoyable. Everything is still there, and fully visible from the All Photos tab, but the curated view really does make for a better experience.
We weren’t overly impressed with the changes to Photos in iOS 12. They paled in comparison with Google Photos, the default photo organizing app on some Android devices. That service can identify the same person from babyhood to adulthood, as well as offering very specific searches, such as for particular dog breeds. Back then, Apple Photos just didn’t compare, but things look better in iOS 13. The automatic pruning and contextually aware machine learning make the stuffy old camera roll engaging. We still think Google has Apple beat on photo search, but the reinvented iOS Photos app is actually a joy to look at.
Also on the photography side of the house are changes to the Portrait Lighting tool. You can now adjust the levels to make it appear as if a virtual set of lights has moved closer or further from your subject. A redesigned photo editor simplifies tweaks to your pictures, and you can make those same adjustments and apply filters to video.
Siri Shortcuts app. When we reviewed iOS 12, Siri Shortcuts completely blew us away. They work somewhat like Automator on the Mac, letting you create little programs of your own. That might be humdrum on a desktop, but it’s unheard of on iOS. It’s definitely not the kind of thing people would use day-to-day, but it’s enormously powerful, and there has never been anything like it on iOS. Back in iOS 12, Shortcuts was an optional download, but Apple is now bundling the Shortcuts app with iOS 13 and including some tools that attempt to match your activities to existing Shortcuts. Like most machine-learning experiences, this will take some time before it really delivers results. That said, the Shortcuts app is more approachable than before and impressively easy to use on the small screen.
Photo via Apple
Updated Apple Maps. Lastly, Apple Maps has been upgraded with oodles more detail, as well as Look Around, similar to the Street View found in Google Maps and Streetside in Bing Maps. To Apple’s credit, the Maps app has evolved in leaps and bounds since its initial release. Google is still the leader in this area, but Apple remains undeterred. Apple will be rolling out its improved maps of the US throughout the year, while Google has basically shot 360-degree photos of every inch of inhabited land on this planet. Apple’s Lookaround is beautifully implemented, as you expect. A binocular icon takes you to the 360-degree photo that you can move around and zoom in with your fingers. There’s no inside view of venues, however, though it does offer indoor mapping of malls and airports.
A challenge for Apple is making Maps usable without making it look just like the dominant map application. To its credit, Apple Maps looks unique. The map fills the top of the screen while a tab at the bottom gives you information about what’s nearby. We found its search function and directions to be at least as useful as Google Maps.
A few other features add to the case for using Apple Maps: For one, you can share your ETA when using directions. The app uses real-time transit data for trains and buses in all 50 states and 26 offshore localities. Flyover is another 3D photo feature, showing birds-eye views of over 350 cities. New for iOS 13 are Collections and Favorites. Collections let you create sets of locations (all the best public toilets in NYC, for example), and Favorites offer one-tap directions to your most important venues. Siri-spoken directions have been updated with more understandable instructions, like “turn left at the next traffic light” instead of “turn left in 1,000 feet.”
Privacy is an aspect of Maps in which Apple really seeks to differentiate the app from Google Maps. While Google has built a business around learning about you and delivering content you want, as well as ads you might not, Apple says it doesn’t play that game. At WWDC, Apple’s presenters made more than a few jabs at Google’s expense, saying you won’t need to toggle a switch to protect your privacy with Apple Maps and that the company treats privacy as a human right.
A Private Party
The stance that Apple takes on privacy is one of the biggest highlights of iOS 13, and certainly some of its most interesting features center on privacy. Apple has, for a while, been positioning itself as the secure, private alternative to Google. It’s true that Apple’s business model focuses on sales rather than the ad data that fuels Google, and Apple has tried to make this an advantage by highlighting that it doesn’t need to harvest your data. Of course, this risks turning privacy into just another bullet point to bolster the sale of high-end products, making it less of a human right and more of a commodity.
In iOS 13, Apple is changing how apps can access your location. You can still grant an app permission to use your location or have the app prompt you for permission every time it wants your location data. It’s easy to see how this fine-grained control could easily become annoying, but Apple is walking a line between keeping apps useful and protecting individuals’ privacy, and we found that after a while, the interruptions subsided. So many apps want to know your location, and now the OS pops up notifications with maps telling you that so-and-so app has been accessing your location in the background, giving you the option to stop that. Apple also says that new APIs prevent apps from abusing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth scanning to infer your location.
Apple is also changing how you can log in to apps and services in iOS 13. You might be familiar with site or app buttons that let you sign up or log in with Facebook, Google, or Twitter. These options offer convenience, but sometimes reveal personal information and can be used to track you across the web. That’s still arguably better than passwords, but Apple has its own solution: Sign in with Apple.
Like the established options, Apple takes care of the credentials for you, but unlike those, the company says it won’t track your location or reveal personal information. This feature is rolling out across all Apple’s platforms and is available on the web, potentially making it a strong option for protecting user privacy. That said, developers will have to add the Sign in with Apple button, and it’s not clear what would incentivize them to do so. So far, we’ve only seen Sign in with Apple on a couple sites and apps, notably on Adobe’s new Photoshop app and on the company’s website.
Another neat trick of this feature is that Apple will give you the option to use a dummy email address with Sign in with Apple. Just tap Hide My Email, and Apple creates a unique email address that forwards to the email associated with your Apple ID. Each dummy address is unique, so you can delete them if you start receiving too much spam.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a key feature of Abine Blur. Granted, Blur can do a lot more, like create prepaid credit card numbers on the fly to keep your banking information secure, store your passwords, create dummy phone numbers, and so on. The Blur version that does those things also costs $39 to $99 per year, while Apple is offering its email obfuscation for free. Blur, however, works on all platforms—not just Apple. We’re nevertheless excited for a big name like Apple to endorse this technique.
Losing your phone or computer is a major threat to your privacy, since it’s got all your stuff. Apple already has the excellent Find My iPhone service, but is bundling this together with Find My Friends and extending that same protection to its Mac line. Interestingly, Apple says it will be able to detect stolen devices that are shut down or closed. This matters to iPhone owners, because anyone’s iPhones and iPads nearby the stolen device will pick up a Bluetooth signal from the absconded laptop and relay the information back to the owner. It’s a really cool idea, and Apple says it can do it all without invading anyone’s privacy, but it did just effectively turn iPhone users into a crowd-sourced Lojack for Apple devices. We like this idea and have no reason to assume that Apple isn’t protecting the privacy of everyone involved.
On the other hand, it is ostensibly doing this without asking the permission of users. Considering the way people reacted when the company gave all its customers a U2 album; the difference—and it’s not a good difference—is that users could see the unwished for U2 album on their phone, where the Find My activity is hidden. Windows 10 does a similar thing with installation files, letting you grab new code from any computer on your network anonymously, but you can turn off that activity if you prefer. In iOS 13, turning off the offline finding in Settings > Apple ID > Find My > Find My iPhone also means that phone won’t be used for locating other people’s devices.
Animoji Accessories and Memoji Stickers
It wouldn’t be an iOS update without an expansion of Animoji. This feature uses face-tracking to mimic your movements on-screen with a customizable cartoon creation called a Memoji, or premade digital mask, such as an alien or a tiger. It sounds frivolous, and it is, but it’s also pure fun. Watching your fake face respond in such a lifelike way is still amazing; it even reproduces your blinking.
These cute faces mimic your every movement and interpret your facial expressions. When you make a surprised face, the rainbow unicorn on the screen puts its ears up and cartoonishly widens its eyes. You might think you’re immune to how fun these things are, but dear reader, you are wrong.
iOS 13 adds makeup and accessories to the customizable Memojis. You can add various shades of lipstick and eyeshadow, as well as a surprising number of piercings and dental enhancements. Hair options include more styles, textures, and colors in iOS 13, and you can adorn your Memoji with hats, glasses, and AirPods, because, you know, branding.
You can also now take your Memoji 2D with Memoji Stickers. These are just like the sticker packs that you can add to the Messages app, and they cover a range of emotional experiences. The difference is that they’re automagically created using your custom Memoji, making it a bit like those Bitmoji everyone seems to love. You can use your Memoji stickers directly from the keyboard, so they’re available in every app.
Memoji and Animoji have been exclusive to Apple’s high-end iPhones equipped with front-facing depth-sensing cameras, such as the iPhone X, XS, and XR. Memoji stickers, however, don’t use AR, so Apple is rolling them out—along with the Memoji editor—to many more devices. If your iOS device has at least an A9 chip in it (as the iPhone 6s and SE do), you can get in on the action. We’re really happy to see this, since the rising cost of flagship phones is getting outrageous, and Memoji are just a lot of fun. Expect to see a lot of these popping up all over the place soon.
Under the Hood
While you probably won’t notice apps taking advantage of new APIs or appreciate the improvements in AR that are now available (unless you get that nifty Minecraft app), Apple does seem to think you’ll notice tweaks that improve how your iPhone performs. The company says that Face ID should unlock 30 percent faster, and apps should launch twice as fast. Both of those things are already very, very fast, so how anyone would notice is a mystery to us. Apple also says that apps and updates are now smaller, by 50 and 60 percent, respectively, leading to faster downloads. Despite that, iOS now allows app downloads of unlimited size, ditching the 200MB limit for cellular downloads.
Some of the iOS 13 upgrades will depend on the other pieces of Apple hardware you own. For instance, you can also now “hand off” a podcast, call, or song to your HomePod by bringing your iPhone close to it. You’ll also be able to share audio with two sets of AirPods simultaneously, for a group-listening experience, and have Siri read your incoming messages aloud so that you can respond without reaching for your phone.
Most giant tech firms have been beating the AI and machine-learning drum for a few years now, and Apple is following suit. At WWDC, Apple was quick to point out all the places machine learning was being put to work, from Siri Shortcuts to Photos. Apple’s flagship AI remains the Siri voice assistant, which gets a makeover in iOS 13. Using neural text-to-speech technology similar to that already demonstrated by Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, Siri should sound more natural and have a more human-sounding cadence.
In the area of accessibility, enhanced voice-control options come to the new versions of iOS and macOS. Using just your voice, you can open apps, virtually tap or interact with screen elements, and move between your Mac and iPhone. Apple’s demo of these improvements was quite compelling, featuring a wheelchair user easily planning a trip with a friend. A very surprising feature is accessibility-focused mouse support in both iOS 13 and iPadOS.
Other changes in the Apple ecosystem will be rippling through iOS. Apple has killed iTunes on macOS, splitting its media responsibilities between dedicated Music, Podcasts, and Apple TV apps. The Music app on iOS has been doing the heavy music lifting for a while, but enhancements to the other apps could end up on your iPhone, too. For instance, Apple is using machine learning to index the spoken content of podcasts, making it available for search in the macOS app. It worked great in the Catalina as well as in the iOS version of the Podcast app.
Apple’s two new content subscription services debut in this version of iOS, too: Apple Arcade and Apple TV+. Apple Arcade offers a decent selection of casual games for $4.99 per month and gets its own navigation button in bottom of the Store app. Apple TV+ costs the same and offers several high-budget series and a few exclusive movies, but the selection is too safe for our taste—it’s hard to see the service unseating Netflix or Hulu any time soon. Surprisingly for Apple, too, is that the interface is somewhat clunky, even making it unnecessarily hard to start watching the next episode of a show you’re on. Purchasers of new Apple devices get a free year of Apple TV+, which may give it a sizable audience, but we wish that the company offered a month or two of free trial time as it did with Apple Music, giving us time to become ensnared by its productions.
Have you ever noticed how a movie will be coming out and there will be another weirdly similar title from a competing studio arriving at around the same time? Like how A Bugs Life and Antz dropped within a month of each other. Apple and Google have entered into a very similar kind of rivalry.
Google’s Android 10 dropped in early September 2019, and some of the same themes we’ve seen in iOS 13 show up in it. Like iOS 13, the new version of Android puts a big emphasis on privacy and security, with stricter limits on what information developers can access—especially when it comes to location information. At its I/O developer conference this past spring, several of Google’s top people emphasized the importance of privacy, in addition to cool new stuff like AR sharks.
Will Apple do a better job protecting your privacy than Google? It’s true that Apple has a business model that doesn’t depend on syphoning off your personal information (though it has a store full of apps that do have that business model). Since Android is used by more people and more devices—devices often sold cheaper than iPhones—any steps Google makes toward improving customer privacy arguably has a bigger global impact. That is, once those Android users have the latest OS version, which can take years. At present, less than 2 percent of Android users are on the latest version, Android 10, according to StatCounter.
If both of these massively powerful companies that have so much of our data are now trying to outdo each other in privacy is a good thing for consumers. Both companies have taken actions in the past year that we could never imagine just five years ago.
Dark Mode, which appeared in both platforms in this update cycle, is a welcome visual refresh, but iOS is past due for a more dramatic refresh both in form and function. Inflexible pages of apps and the excess of hidden panels (from the left, up, and down) are bogging down the simplicity that is supposed to be at the heart of the Apple experience. iOS looks and feels amazing, but in order to move the interface forward significantly may require taking some risks with fundamentals of the iOS design. Otherwise, iOS will start to feel archaic, and no amount of Spielberg and Oprah will fix that.
A Lucky Number?
The iOS 13 release offers a lot of exciting potential. Apple hasn’t always put out a head-turning upgrade every year—some years’ updates have focused more on behind-the-scenes impact. iOS 13 balances eyeball-grabbing new features, like Dark Mode, with smart but largely invisible engineering, like reduced app and update sizes. The privacy improvements in iOS 13 could be very powerful, provided they see wide-enough adoption, and the extension of popular features like the Memoji editor to lower-end devices is especially welcome, as companies grapple with a stagnant market for expensive flagship phones. On top of all that, iOS 13 is fast, smooth, and stunning to use. It remains a PCMag mobile OS Editors’ Choice.